Minor caveat: this post is a bit wandering, and for that I apologize; but I had some thoughts that I really wanted to share and discuss, because this is a hairy subject. I look forward to thoughtful input. – C
Is it just me, or do some fantasy authors just take any opportunity to remind their readers that prostitution is A Thing?
You know what I’m talking about. The main characters are riding into a grimy section of town to take care of secret main character business. The narrative is describing the ramshackle buildings, the big dirty men glowering on street corners, the smells (fish, sweat, urine), and especially, the women of the night/women plying their trade/painted women leering as the main characters pass. After all, the common refrain goes, wherever men with money congregate, a certain trade/the oldest trade/a woman’s trade necessarily grows up around them.
Historically speaking, this is not inaccurate. And for all the examples of people, especially women and girls, being forced into prostitution and exploited, there are as many examples of people choosing sex work and it being liberating for them in myriad ways. Here is where I state explicitly that in our modern times, I’m both against exploitation and for rights and protections for sex workers.
But when the mention of prostitution crops up in fiction–speaking specifically of fantasy, because that’s my wheelhouse–to me it feels…squicky. Two main reasons for this.
The first is simply that it feels creepily voyeuristic, especially when the author is male, doubly if the point-of-view character is also male. One mention in a manuscript, I can get over. But repeated mentions, and it starts to stink of weird romanticization of a more open sex trade. This may just be a personal reaction that I have, though.
The second line of reasoning is more serious. The sex workers described are literally set dressing. “So are the big dirty men!” you might say, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But there’s a pattern issue here; that the sex workers are always women, never men, and that these mentions of prostitution to set a tone tend to happen in books with a dearth of female characters at all population levels, from primary characters on down to background folk.
So reminding us over and over that dingy fantasy neighborhoods are populated by laboring men and the women who service them sets a tone alright–at the expense of all the female characters. This may be a personal pet peeve of mine, but I’m tired of stories where there are one or two well-developed, competent and compelling female characters, but aside from them, the stereotypes remain. Women as objects, and women as victims.
The mention of prostitution every time characters wander into disreputable areas is just one way in which top-down feminist fiction writing (focusing on creating one or two kickass feminist protagonists) fails. Another common way this manifests is when the author needs to convey the cruelty in an antagonist or world. Which unnamed servant to show being beaten? A female one, obviously. Because it’s so ingrained in us to think of women as victims that that’s the scene that pops up in our minds, and it doesn’t occur to us to realize that it would be just as cruel no matter the gender of the person being beaten.
Even a not explicitly violent narrative in which the background female characters are described by their attractiveness (“the pretty serving girl” who is taunted by the other tavern patrons, for example, or “the flab-faced fishwife”) sets them up as either an acceptable or unacceptable romantic or sexual object, and by doing so, assumes their availability as such. This creates an atmosphere where that availability is an expectation, rather than one that emphasizes relationships that grow out of genuine mutual interest.
That may seem like a fine distinction, but it’s a meaningful one in a society where a female protagonist is expected to end up with someone. Rey expresses no romantic interest in anyone in The Force Awakens, but there are fandom ships cropped up for her with Finn (the most sensical of them), Kylo Ren (who she loathes) and Poe, with whom she literally never interacts. On a more personal note, I remember the way, in high school and college, our mixed-gender groups of friends tended to treat everyone as potential–or even eventual–boyfriends or girlfriends. This expectation of romantic pairing off contributes to the kind of sexual entitlement, especially of men towards women, that does lead to violence.
Allowing the women who do show up in the background of a narrative to be classed as only objects or victims throws a “not that kind of girl” understanding over any female protagonists. The Female MC overcame hardship and is no longer treated like trash! The Female MC is a deadly fighter and woe betide any man who tries to grope her! The Female MC is privileged and wealthy and is therefore deferred to! The Female MC is intelligent and respectable and knows how to avoid bad situations! I know you know what I’m talking about.
When women in the background are put down, any women who are lifted up by the narrative are necessarily disconnected from their NPC sisters. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have exceptional female characters, without implying that their exceptionalism is what saves them from being treated as an object or a victim like all the rest of their gender. In fiction especially, we can counter the expectation that this is how women are treated. This doesn’t mean ignoring things like prostitution, or sexual assault. There is a place in stories for these things. We counter the expectation by writing with an awareness of how our perceptions of these things play with the text, and by questioning their utility in the narrative.
The importance of applying intersectional feminism to a whole manuscript goes beyond the representation of women; this matters to representations of all marginalized characters.
Never, never forget that everything in your manuscript is chosen by you to accomplish something. Make sure you know what that something is, especially if it’s built on the back of a certain kind of character.
[Adjacent note, since I finished THE SHADOW THRONE the day before posting this but after it had been drafted. Slight spoiler for TST: There’s a scene where Marcus is trying to convince his commander Janus that a regiment of female volunteer soldiers shouldn’t be allowed to join a battle where soldiers are sorely needed, because of the danger of rape in the camp and should any of them be captured. Janus compares that threat to the threat faced by the soldiers in the last campaign, of being flayed and eaten alive by their adversaries, and asks Marcus why sending women out with a possibility of rape is worse than sending men out with a possibility of torture.
There’s a worthwhile discussion in that, I think, but it raises an important point related to this blog post. Rape is not a sexual act, it’s a violent one (violent here meaning with the intent of exerting power over and/or harming another person); just because to our world, it seems to be the first act of violence that comes to mind with a female victim doesn’t mean it’s the only, or even worst, way to inflict violence. If for some reason your narrative requires violence and you jump immediately to rape–as I say above, ask yourself why. What are you accomplishing? If you’re only seeking to inflict trauma on your character, there are myriad other ways to do so that don’t reinforce the use of rape as a way of silencing and dominating women, something that is deadly persistent today.]