Sunday, October 26, 2014

Are Alien Worlds in SFR Code For Taboo Erotica?

I'm going to open this post with a true story courtesy of my husband:

INNERSPACE: the world's most boring porno
One time in college, my husband and some friends were watching INNERSPACE (1987) starring Meg Ryan, Martin Short, and Dennis Quaid (take a moment to familiarize yourself with the premise if you haven't seen it because that detail is relevant to this story). At one point, a fellow student joined them. Let's call him "Ted." So Ted walks in the room and sees a bunch of guys watching a movie.

Ted greets them with a jovial, "Hey, how's it going?". Then he starts watching the movie along with them. Meg Ryan, fully clothed in a tasteful blouse and leather skirt, is onscreen. Per the scene requirements, she falls backwards onto the floor. Because this is a comedic SF film, hijinks ensue.

After about thirty seconds, Ted says, "Man, this is like, the most boring porno I've ever seen!" Everyone else chorused, "That's because it's not a porno!"

I shared the story of Ted because it relates to the topic of reader expectations--in this case, SFR. I, for one, have been approaching SFR as a hybrid of SF and romance. Heat levels vary, of course, but ultimately I've been defining SFR as a romance in a technology-based setting that focuses on the emotional journey of the main couple (or threesome, as the case may be). Intimate relations can be a part of that, but the couple's sexual journey doesn't define the whole plot.

However, I might have been naïve because I recently became aware that for some readers, stories in an SF setting--particularly alien ones--may actually be code for SF taboo erotica. Meaning, stories that include taboo elements but aren't tagged as such (or the tags are incomplete).

I'm guessing the fantastical nature of many SF settings and characters gives some readers permission to enjoy taboo elements that in a contemporary setting might make them uncomfortable (perhaps by introducing a "distancing" effect? "It's not real and never could be real, so therefore is unconnected with real life situations."). For example, dubious consent would be permissible to a reader in a futuristic setting, but not a contemporary one.

I've never defined a fantastical setting as code for anything, which was why I was surprised SFR might be used or viewed that way. To me, elements like dubious consent is dubious consent whether it happens in a futuristic, fantasy, historical, paranormal, or contemporary setting. I also view it as the same regardless of who's involved. However, it appears other readers feel differently.

Okay, sure, but the thing with codes is that not everyone knows how to decode them. Obviously I didn't, because I didn't even know this was a thing! And now I'm wondering if this code aspect of SFR has been impacting reader perception of the genre overall. How many readers view the "sci-fi romance" tag as code for the taboo, only to be disappointed when many of them don't deliver? That raises another question: how are consent culture/consent elements viewed in sci-fi romance? I usually expect consent to be the default unless a story is otherwise tagged.

The erotic sci-fi romances I've read tend to fall into two categories:

Books with "sci-fi romance" or "erotic sci-fi romance" in the tags or implied in the blurb, but are more accurately described as SF erotica/taboo erotica with romantic elements (e.g., couple stays together at end, but their sexual journey is the plot's focus)

Sci-fi romance with erotic heat levels, but the stories also have a relationship plot (and in some cases an external plot as well)

Occasionally, the line is blurred. One story might feature a human couple engaged in non-consensual sex, while another may feature a heroine having consensual sex with an alien. Some may find the interspecies sex taboo even if it's consensual, while others consider non-con to be the taboo element. On top of that, some human characters are considered taboo when they really aren't.

How SFR is marketed impacts a reader's expectations. If elements like alien characters are indeed code for taboo/SF erotica elements, wouldn't stories with a romance plot frustrate readers who only want an exploration of a couple's sexual journey?

Think of poor Ted. He was expecting porn, but got a non-porn SF movie instead. From his perspective, the scene indicators or "tags"--group of guys watching a movie, pretty lady onscreen, his probable past experience--indicated porn. However, the content of INNERSPACE is decidedly non-erotic science fiction. (Why Ted didn't recognize Hollywood celebrity Meg Ryan is a mystery that shall remain unsolved.) 

Similarly, it seems some readers expect SF taboo erotica from labels like "erotic sci-fi romance" or even "sci-fi romance," but get non-erotic sci-fi romance instead, or SFR with erotic heat levels rather than a specific focus on the characters' sexual journey.

Then there are readers who encounter a "sci-fi romance" label and/or a blurb that promises a romance, and their expectations are thwarted because the story turns out to be SF erotica/taboo erotica.

Accurate labeling is especially important for readers who want SFRs featuring consent cultures.
All of the above is why it'd be really helpful if more authors and publishers could be as transparent as possible in the marketing so readers would know if a futuristic setting means taboo elements, especially ones like dub-con/non-con, or if the futuristic setting means things like alien characters negotiate different sexual customs/biology in a consensual fashion.

Sometimes readers want both kinds of stories, but at different times. Other readers will be served by knowing which books to avoid or which ones to seek out.

These days, the ebook system creates significant privacy for readers, so I'm perplexed as to why there's still a need to cloak taboo SF erotica with anything "sci-fi romance." If I'm in the mood for taboo, I'd like to know exactly where to find it. Conversely, if I want to read SFR with consent culture and a focus on the emotional part of romance, I'd like to have a reasonable assurance via tags, descriptions etc. that I won't be blindsided with something markedly different and potentially disturbing.

Tagging is also a way to acknowledge problematic elements in our reading. Even as some of us may enjoy taboo content, it's important to examine and question why in light of real life situations. These stories, no matter how fantastical, aren't created in a vacuum. Being a fan of the taboo and being responsible about it are not mutually exclusive.

What are your thoughts about how authors and publishers can best accurately label sci-fi romances that include taboo elements? What about consent elements and consent cultures--would you find it helpful if those were highlighted as well?

Joyfully yours,