(This post is written in the context of recent revelations about Marion Zimmer Bradley and other related issues about sexual misconduct in SFF circles. Various trigger warnings apply)
When I was a teenager, I adopted parental figures from my favorite books. My father worked long hours, and my mother was bedridden most of my teens, so for me, it felt like a necessity. As a bright, relatively pretty girl, I was attracted to stories where girls could be smart and pretty. As a teenager with a relatively high sex drive, I was drawn to books and stories where girls controlled their own bodies.
I had no context with regard to sexual behavior, and I completely missed the boat with regard to the points of view of many of my favorite authors. My father never talked about sex with me, and my mother, who had bipolar disorder, was unsurprisingly bipolar about the issue, sometimes encouraging me to have a healthy sexuality with boys my age, and then screaming at me because (be prepared!) she had found my birth control pills.
I read all of Heinlein’s later works, the ones critics point to as “awful”, uncritically, loving the polyamorous aspects of them without examining closely the issues of incest and child molestation that cropped up again and again. I read Piers Anthony’s works, where sexualized little girls are everywhere. I read Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon (I never read the Darkover books) and identfied with Morgaine. I read Ayn Rand’s books, and above and beyond the poisonous philosophy, I absorbed the sexual messages that women were to be submissive to men. I read the Gor books, and began fantasizing about sexual slavery.
What I didn’t find – what I didn’t read – were books where healthy adults with healthy sexual appetites loved each other (in pairs or groups) and dealt with issues of consent and power differential in thoughtful ways. In a very real way, my exploration into fiction with themes of incest and adult/adolescent relationships presented in a positive light groomed me for sexual exploitation.
I wasn’t sexually abused as a child. I had a healthy sexuality from puberty on, experimented with sexuality with boys and girls my own age, and had several relationships that ranged from “not very healthy” to “run away!” throughout high school. When I graduated from high school and moved back to the town where I’d lived during junior high, I sought out my first crush and married him.
And boy had I been groomed. My mother’s most salient relationship advice was “no man would ever love me if he knew how smart I was”. My father showed a complete lack of interest in my social or intellectual development. My favorite authors extolled the advantages of open sexuality and free love. And I flew straight into the arms of a handsome, charming sociopath and sexual sadist.
I will not go into details here. By the time the relationship was over six years later, I was not recognizable as the same person. I had done things that I was still deeply ashamed of, and had things done to me that were deeply traumatizing. I had been raped repeatedly over the years. Consent was not a part of marital sex in that first relationship. I owed it to him, as often as he wanted it, however he wanted it, as much as several times a day.
I walked around for years with one yeast infection after another, never fully recovering because he wouldn’t leave me alone. And through that whole time, those parental figures I trusted, my favorites authors, assured me that there must be something wrong with me if I sometimes didn’t want sex or didn’t feel sexy or didn’t want to share myself with certain people or in certain ways.
And I had guilt not for doing the things I was manipulated into doing, but for being hesitant to do them. I wasn’t open minded enough. I wasn’t free spirited enough.
I don’t think I need to tell you how many years it took to recover from this. To this day I feel guilty for being angry with my mother, my father, and my favorite authors about this. I feel I should have known. After all, by the time this stuff happened, I was an adult (barely). Theoretically, I had the ability to understand what was going on.
It took years of marriage to a patient man for me to not constantly be looking for ways to please, to subvert my own desires in his, to be able to express sexuality without referring back to the literature of my youth.
The “if-onlies” are legion. If only my parents had taught me about healthy relationships instead of about traditional relationships. If only any one of my favorite authors had felt the need to present consent and healthy relationships in such a way that a young girl could learn how to build rather than break down boundaries. If only I had had the wisdom to reject the messages I was hearing and reading and build a stronger, more stable base for my sexuality.
If someone had only said “yes, polyamory – and healthy relationships and consent”. Or “yes, bisexuality – and healthy relationships and consent.” But we were so busy rejecting the bonds of conventionality in those days, trying so hard to honor who we were, that we rejected (as our literature rejected) any bounds on our sexual relationships.
I remain grateful to those authors for allowing me to explore polyamory and bisexuality, two important parts of who I am, even after nearly twenty years in an exclusively monogamous and heterosexual relationship. And I remain furious that they never thought to create worlds where emotional safety and maturity were key to the relationships involved.
Many, many years later I read Among Others, Jo Walton’s fabulous Hugo Award winning novel, and realized that I was not the only one that felt the influence of Heinlein’s work steering me into poor decisions. It reawakened something in me, an anger, a fire, and a desire to return to science fiction and fantasy with something new, something applicable to these experiences that drove me from it as a girl.
I made some poor choices for which I am wholly responsible. And I became victim to a man whose sole satisfaction in a relationship was to “break” the other party. He nearly succeeded. And a part of what lead up to those poor choices and vulnerability to a predator were poorly thought out or downright vile moral messages buried inside my favorite literature. I will never look at the story of Dora in Time Enough for Love in the same way again.