Saturday, October 20, 2007

1958

[NB: I originally wrote this to let of steam, but both this post and the FMT are now very slightly Internets Famous, and have thus been Criticised by Smart People. I'd therefore like to add C A Monteath-Carr's suggestion for an alternate FMT equation:

If (# of Female Prostitutes) > (# of All Other Women), then [WTF?]



I would like to propose a measure called The Frank Miller Test. It will test how much male sci-fi writers are obsessed with whores; if the proportion of female sex workers to neutrally presented female people in his story is above 1:1, he fails.

I said, alonglongtimeago, that I'd get back to the whole general mess of how sex work gets portrayed in sci-fi & fantasy. It's a happy coincidence for me that Yonmei recently wrote about this vile story CS Lewis penned in 1958 because if she hadn't, I would've had to search it out and reread it, ewwww. It's a short exploration concerning sex on an exploratory mission to Mars. 'Sex' meaning to Lewis exactly what it often means in sci-fi and in videogames - sex between the male adventurer and the female prostitute. Go read Yonmei's post, because I can't bear to rehash this vile example. Gist is, women can only come to Mars if they're going to be prostitutes. (The really cringlingly awful part is that when I first read it - I think I was 14 or 13 - I swallowed this shit whole.)

There's a lot of supposedly 'speculative' fictions where it's still 1958.


I am going to start with the ones I love the most, because they're the ones that hurt; China Mieville remains my writer of ultimate worship (and not just because of what he called Charles Clarke that one time on Lenin's Tomb), but there's this moment in The Scar where one of the minor characters, Carrianne, tells a story near-identical to that of Lewis's 'ministering angels'. Even on a first, frantic readthrough of a book I was badly in love with, this stood out as the weakest thing he'd ever put on paper.

We were sailing our whim-trawler for Kohnid in Gnurr Kett. That's a long, hard journey. I was seventeen. I won the lottery to be figurehead and concubine. I spent the daylight strapped to the bowsprit, scattering orchid petals in front of the ship, spent the night reading the men's cards and in their beds. That was dull, but I enjoyed the days. Dangling there, singing, sleeping, watching the sea.


Yeah. Great journeys are for penises, but vaginas can tag along and put out for us and that makes them winners! This isn't normative, I know, it's descriptive, he has an anthropology background, I shouldn't be so quick to smell a rat. And yet.

Carrianne is only one woman, but in male-authored sci-fi, the whole stupid prostitutes-only thing more often follows that 1958 pattern of the organised group. Iron Council is such a self-aware commentary on socialism, on industrial organisation, on the politics of objects (both technologies and bodies), on revolution, that I'm hesitant to rip at any one moment. It's a journey, a circle. The bit that involves prostitution is that wild present-tense 150-page book-within-book that some people hate and I hopelessly adore: Anamnesis ~ The Perpetual Train.

Mostly, it's about technological determinism with sociological determinisms piled atop that. (Beautifully. It's probably the best book in the entire world). A company sponsored by a wealthy coastal city-state is building a railway line across a continent, out from their city toward places they have never been. The Perpetual Train follows Judah, one of the Transcontinental Railway Trust's surveyors: he watches as the construction of the railway changes the land and the communities that it passes through.

The villages they pass become rich and murderously violent - decadent, liquor-swilling, whore-filled and lawless - for the few days or weeks of the railroad, and then die. The towns live mayfly lives. Sex is as much part of the iron-road industry as spiking, grading, herding and paperwork. A tent city of prostitute refugees from New Crobuzon's red-light districts follows the rails and the men that set them down. The men call it Fucktown.


It's 1958 again. The men have a quest, and the women are the questers' prostitutes. (Anonymous homosexual intercourse is suggested as the cash-free alternative). There's also, of course, this narrative about how 'vices' of all kinds are brought by the evil capitalist enterprise to the virgin wilderness -

- but not quite, I fucking adore this one:

There are several like her, some boys but mostly young women, utterly charged by the arrival of these tough roustabouts and the breathing pistons of the trains. Their families lament while they let their flocks run, or sell them for meat to railroaders for scrimshawed trinkets from the tool-rooms. The goatkeep young men join the grading teams and fill the rivers. The young women find other outlets. [...] There is bad blood among the camp followers. The whores who have dutifully followed these men, splitting from the perpetual train to work with these mountain diggers, are affronted by their new rural rivals, these farmgirls who expect no pay. Some of the workers themselves are threatened by these newly voracious young women who do not sell sex or even give sex but take it. They know no rules. They have yet to learn taboos...


Part of me adores that bolded line, and the energy of the passage in general. The other part is saying waitacottonpickingminute, you're appropriating vaginas to demonstrate your philosophy of technology? You're using the gender-neutral word 'worker' to mean 'man who pays for sex'? You're drawing lines between 'untamed' rural amazons and prostitutes who are Slaves Of The Patriarchal-Capital-Whatsit? Prostitutes who (as the story goes) 'corrupt' those women through violence, enforce their taboos and turn them, vampire-like, into prostitutes themselves? The shit?

There are only four sorts of women in The Perpetual Train: these village sluts, these whores, monsters and a few passing gamblers. The only ones that organise are, naturally, the whores.

Mieville is a materialist revolutionary - the (male) workers unionise, and the (female) sex workers unionise, not for ideology but because the TRT's wage money dries up; the two unions then unite and eventually do things their own way, a way in which no one is being paid for anything. So women get to stop being prostitutes AFTER THE REVOLUTION! and not before. That's all the women he's writing about, by the end of The Perpetual Train, excepting a few nameless Remade (class-critical monsters). It's not like this in The Scar: there, where a small group of women gather together, they're usually librarians.

[Addendum: I spoke to him about this after the Weird symposium - see here for his response to some of the points raised.]


I've done Firefly. The circumstances are murky, but the only reason Inara was able to be part of the quest while retaining her class privilege was because she was a sex worker.


I said I wouldn't do Frank Miller himself. It's the writers I love that I want to unpick. We're going to Discworld. We're going to the fandom-splitting nadir/zenith of Discworld, Night Watch. It has two things in common with The Perpetual Train; firstly it is a fold in time, set about thirty years before the rest of the series around it; secondly, all the women in that time-fold are prostitutes, excepting only two, who are both addressed as potential prostitutes. In the past, all women were bought and sold, geddit?

There are the prostitutes. There's the cat-owning figure at the back, Madame, and at one point a man asks if that's her title or her profession. There's the real seamstress, for Discworld regulars. I can't recall another woman in the entire thick of the book: Sybil and Angua creep in only at the temporally flat edges. I can't excerpt *listens to collective sighs of relief* because I can't find a copy anywhere (fact: he once posted my copy of Night Watch to Australia, but then gave me one of the other zillion we had sat about just-in-case), but I swear to god it's true. And again, as in The Perpetual Train, the unionising of the prostitutes is their key issue. It's an entirely realistic concern. And yet.

It's not like this is how he usually 'does' gender; Pratchett adores toying with female stereotypes, and has made us see eye to eye with the bitter one; fall in love with the fat, forty-year-old virgin; awaken the inner babysitter. He's franchised the Tooth Fairy. He's done an entire book about the orphaned servant-girl not getting married to the handsome prince. He's followed the queen from beehive to chessboard to mountaintop kingdom. Do not ask us about Mrs Cake.

Thing is, outside of the agency-worker Tooth Fairies, the only organised group of women...is that union, a guild no less, of prostitutes. There is this whole thing about how the witches do not have a hierarchy, or a leader, because Esme Weatherwax would never allow it; there is this other whole thing about how only three city guilds will even accept female members; the whores, the beggars, and the detested Night Watch (but only long after the revolution, even then). In other words, women do not form organised groups, but prostitutes do. And in Night Watch, the revolution demands 'reasonably priced love', because the only women the author has welcomed on board are whores.


[Here there could've been a word or two about how prostitution is brought into videogames, but it's just more of that cock-coddling I mentioned here, with the occasional added touch of slut-shaming or poor-little-victiming. I do think it makes me feel less comfortable presenting as a female PC in a gameworld, just because it makes it overtly clear that this invented society, otherwise little resembling our own, is programmed to cater specifically to the cock. Bioware has been known to proffer an occasional rentboy. It doesn't work, because I am not really a potential consumer of sex. It just looks like mapping male sexuality on to that afterthought that is the female PC, which is what it is.]


I'll say it again; when male sci-fi authors write about trade unions for sex workers, they do not do so out of the goodness of their bleeding liberal hearts. One fascinating thing about sex work that I would never have known without reading the words of sex workers themselves: the johns are sometimes organised. (The immensely readable PeridotAsh has written about this here and here). The sex industry impinges more on the average man's life than the average woman's - few women are potential customers or potential employees, while a sizeable minority of men are consumers of sex and all will find it marketed to them at some point. Is this why male sci-fi writers circle the topic like vultures, appropriate it and sometimes use it as their only discourse on women at all? By fantasising about organised sex workers, are they becoming an organised community of sex consumers? Are they already that, and just acting it out on paper?

Um, I think Mieville doesn't even like vagina, and I know Frank Miller has never spoken to a woman in his entire life. But hey.

[addendum: the angry black woman assures me that Mieville does like vagina. I am more than cool with that, because oh god would I ever hit it.]


Does this matter out in the real world? Only in that it makes it harder to hear real sex workers because of all the male-invented versions getting in the way, and putting fanrats like me off the topic entirely because I've seen how these guys use it.

31 comments:

tom allen said...

About Pratchett and the Seamstresses - I don't think I'd put it in the same class; to me he is obviously spoofing the cultural mores of the 1800s (although the early DW books seem more like spoofs of the entire Sword & Sourcery genre). When women are placed front and center, they are treated non-stereotypically, except for when he's deliberately poking fun at particular stereotypes (dwarf women with beards and makeup, for instance).

I have to agree with some of your other points, though. I hadn't really noticed it before, but now I'm going to read old sci-fi with a jaundiced eye.

V said...

My copy of Nightwatch was really in fact your copy?! Hmm! I can see it from here, in the black section of the Colour Coordinated Bookcase.

Were you happier with the Mieville's presentation of Bellis, then, because she was included on important missions for her intellect and not her body?

Good point about the four types of women in IC. As for the women stopping being prostitutes "AFTER THE REVOLUTION! and not before", I thought that was Mieville's way of suggesting there must be societal change for the equality (haha) of the sexes to come about. P'raps I misunderstood. ^^

thene said...

Tom: I agree about the spoofing - prostitution is a stable of the whole S&S genre. It's just queasy that when he wrote about revolution specifically, those were the only women there. I don't think Pratchett treats women non-stereotypically so much as starts with the stereotype and breaks it - he uses them as a way of communicating with the audience, and then once he's got you, he sticks needles in your head. <3 him.

V: - I thought you knew! He denies everything but I know it's true.

Ren Ev has done a splendid job of dissing that whole mind/body divide wrt employment. I'd hesitate to simply stick a mind/body paradigm over my own thoughts - I'm just getting specifically suspicious whenever I see men pull out sex work again. Librarians have never been appropriated so, except by Michael Moore, so that doesn't raise my hackles.

There are many and varied women in IC in general, and I love them; it's The Perpetual Train specifically where the (few, nameless) gamblers and the (few, nameless) farmgirls vanish rapidly and leave us with the prostitutes and the Remade. I love Ann-Hari, too, but the way sex work was an essential part of her journey smells funny. It's so atypical for real women and so utterly typical for sci-fi women (I could, and probably should, have dragged Neuromancer into this too - even Molly, the uber-butch cybernetically enhanced mercenary, has a history of sex work.) I agree with you about Mieville's societal change->equality message, but it's kinda funny that he chose to use only sex workers for his subjects, when, you know, that's exactly what Frank Miller and CS Lewis have been doing and we all know why they do it. (Meanwhile, the men were being railwaymen, surveyors, capitalists, gendarmes, farmers, bureaucrats...)

Don't think you misunderstood, think I'm being fussy and up my ass about it. :)

Irving Washington said...

Great post. I bow to your razor-sharp mind. Be interesting to read some of your sci-fi...

Anyhoo, that is quite unsettling. I always wonder when sex comes up in sci-fi whether it's a necessary part of the story or just pandering to a nerdy readership as much as it's drawing on the mores of the authors. And of course these ones do seem seriously 'of their time'.

Apart from Terry Pratchett I've not read any of these people (and I know it's wrong, but I really, really hate TP's stuff) but that is quite a depressing trend. Lol, you've really opened my eyes up to a few gender related things in the last few days: thank you.

Personally, I'm a bit of a PKD fan (obsessive is probably more accurate) and he didn't seem to go in for the prostitution thing; although he did make all his women characters dark-haired and slightly nutty with a desire to kill/harm the male protaganist. I tend to shrug that off though as the bloke clearly had some issues and it seems he's writing from his experiences rather than a deepseated mysognist fantasy (and, haha, it fits in with my experiences too;-). But I'd be glad to hear your opinion.

I recently read Forever War and was surprised about the way female soldiers had to put out for the male soldiers, but that wasn't really explored as all the characters seemed intent to put out for anyone anyway. I did enjoy the way everyone turned gay while matey was off fighting the Taurans.

Forever Peace was different (very different) and seemed to be much more balanced (I say because the female character was getting it on the side without being 'blamed' for it or suffering any plot consequences. Twas very good I thought. (Again, I assume you've read it and thus your opinion would count for more than mine on that.)

Whew, I did go on a bit there, sorry... but again, great post.

Ide Cyan said...

As for the women stopping being prostitutes "AFTER THE REVOLUTION! and not before", I thought that was Mieville's way of suggesting there must be societal change for the equality (haha) of the sexes to come about.

This is the kind of bullshit coming from leftist men that feminist women have been debunking since the invention of socialism. It presupposes that women's oppression is the result of industrial capitalism, rather a specific form of oppression with its own relations of production, and conveniently obscures proletarian men's role in the oppression of women.

Obviously, leftist men still haven't paid attention, or do not care to integrate that particular analysis into their revolutionary approaches.

Yonmei said...

Wow, this is brilliant - and I hadn't thought at all of extending my thoughts about C. S. Lewis's story and James Tiptree Jr's story to look at the wider aspect of sex workers in fiction.

Thanks. I'm going to link to this post from my post on feministsf.

the angry black woman said...

1 - Mieville does like the vagina, though this fact doesn't make any of that better.

2 - The Perpetual Train is the only part of Iron Council that I liked. the rest made me want to go beat China with his own book. Of course, I didn't because he is handsome.

3 - Thank god you said everything you just said.

LAS said...

I think I am going to say here, that as someone who *knows* sex workers who have organized themselves in various particular ways, something about this post seems off.

It seems to me (though this is clearly an arguable point) that you are condemning Mieville for critically engaging exactly the tropes that CS Lewis blindly constructed. And I see those as two different enterprises with superficial resemblances.

Also, I think there is lots of value to be written about women, labor, sex, and bodies, in SF. Sometimes taht writing will touch upon sex work. It may be *inevitable* that it touches on sex work. I think any thinking about capitalism and women will eventually touch on sex work, because, whether or not it's a common experience for women in capitalism to *be a sex worker*, it is abominably common to ask her to exchange her sex appeal for money in some fashion.

Anyway.

V said...

Thene: He conveniently omitted the fact that it was yours when he mailed that along with several other books!

I love Ann-Hari, too, but the way sex work was an essential part of her journey smells funny.

I rankle at that as well- as if it was a spiritual (for lack of a better word) experience that was responsible for her transformation from curious but scared young woman to fearless spokesperson for the perpetual train. I don't quite know how to put words to it, but I find it weird that the act of 'taking sex' (as Mieville put it) alone somehow equals warmth (for Ann Hari is the warmest character), spiritedness, independence, liberation etc, as if it's the defining thing that causes these states. I...just don't see it as a necessary condition, is all.


ide cyan: I understand what you are saying and I agree; this is where I get all sheepish and say that I used "societal change" very loosely without the socialist connotations. What I had in mind was patriarchal society in general and that this social order has to change. Given the political tone of the book, Mieville probably means it in the sense you outlined.

Liz said...

Oh, brilliant, you just totally made my day. I'm going to go read through your archives now...

- Liz
http://liz-henry.blogspot.com

thene said...

LAS: I take your general point - it's hard to challenge the appropriation of anything without crossing a line into silencing, and I'm probably failing here. What I'm condemning Mieville for is for using prostitution as the only form of women's organisation - it's the only way he's engaging with gender at all. That he seems to be using that to score gender points - the idea that women can stop being sold after the revolution, etc - makes it smell of appropriation and of thoughtlessness about gender. (There's a bit of 'rescuing' going on there too - he says no prostitution after the revolution, but do any real-life sex worker unions think that? What if they don't see their jobs as the result of an oppressive capitalist patriarchy? What then?)

Also, I think there is lots of value to be written about women, labor, sex, and bodies, in SF. Sometimes taht writing will touch upon sex work. It may be *inevitable* that it touches on sex work.

Iron Council provides a good example of why I don't think this is simply 'touching on sex work'. Take Madeleina. She's a knit-machinist. She's also a socialist activist. We don't hear much about her job, but we hear a lot about her activism and her beliefs. Ann-Hari, the leader of the sex workers, by contrast, 'is' her job, and none of her beliefs are explored beyond the practical. (Couple that with the abovementioned 'worker' comment from Mieville and, yeah, we're back to the idea that prostitution is not work, prostitution is destiny, and prostitutes can never clock off and go home.) Is Mieville critically engaging, or is he restating Lewis's point? He is still saying (descriptively or normatively?) women can only come along on his great journey if they're prostitutes. How is it a different enterprise? The only difference I can see is that the prostitutes contribute far more in Mieville's revolution.

[an aside: I love how Tricia Sullivan explores women, sex, consumerism and bodies, and she never once touches on female sex workers.]

I think any thinking about capitalism and women will eventually touch on sex work, because, whether or not it's a common experience for women in capitalism to *be a sex worker*, it is abominably common to ask her to exchange her sex appeal for money in some fashion.

I think I've already mentioned why I'd disagree with that - the sex industry is far more visible to men than to women and is more likely to be part of their lives - consumers are more numerous than producers in any industry. It's also - as I hope I've demonstrated - far more common for men to write directly about sex work than to explore those other, more common, ways women are expected to trade sex for cash. Maybe it's glamorising [a la Frank Miller], maybe it's playing with tropes, maybe it's just easier than exploring the myriad pressures the world has/does put on the female body.

thene said...

ide cyan - WORD WORD WORD.

Liz - thanks. (but don't bother, they're not that interesting).

Yonmei - also thanks.

the angry black woman - he does? I wondered if he didn't, partly because he writes some good gay and partly because the het relationships he write seem fairly cold (excepting Isaac and Lin, and I always wondered if Lin was a queer cipher). Thanks for setting me, erm, straight. I do love Iron Council as a whole *hangs head* but it has its failings.

Irving - thanks, and I dunno about anyone else, but I spent most of my first 20 years sleepwalking past gender, only seeing its intrusions as isolated annoyances. Waking up was weird. And yes, h8ing on Pterry is all kinds of wrong - it's also mostly caused by trying to start with Rincewind, when everyone knows Mort is the only decent bit of the early series. I've not read PKD but I know I should; geek is like London, in that you can be a true native and know every nook and cranny of your own beat, but still find there's great swathes of it where you've never so much as stopped for a coffee.

Is sex in sci-fi pandering? Sometimes. There is the problem (first raised by socialist feminists) that regarding sex/relationships as 'private' and not worthy of investigation or analysis on a social level leaves real issues in women's lives - consent, birth control, domestic violence and inequality, and yes, sex work - untold. If you're determined to veer a story away from sex, it can't get at any of those other issues either.

V - I'm similarly wary of following sex-as-a-personality-metaphor too far. I'm reminded of this guy - otherwise not a bad guy at all - who blurted out to verte, in the middle of a Backlash meeting, 'Oh, I thought you were a dom - you don't act like a sub...' *cringe* The idea that Ann-Hari's politics stems entirely from the way she fucks is not really pro-sex worker, or pro-woman, or even pro-sanity.

Foxessa said...

[ I think any thinking about capitalism and women will eventually touch on sex work, because, whether or not it's a common experience for women in capitalism to *be a sex worker*, it is abominably common to ask her to exchange her sex appeal for money in some fashion. ]

In days prior to our sfnal times, the other option was that a woman exchanged her reproductive value for support -- the provider of heirs and all that. These days, with reproductive technology for anyone who can afford it and enormous "surplus population" provided by those who can't afford it, that value no longer exists -- if it ever did, outside, of course, sexual fidelity and virginity.

Love, C.

Ide Cyan said...

Foxessa, exchanging a given "value for support" hasn't vanished with "our sfnal times" (I have no idea however you define those) -- because it hasn't vanished at all. Although women have won the option to receive wages for our work, against patriarchal interdictions that have come and gone in waves, the presence of women on a capitalist market has never precluded the contemporary continuation of other relations of production for these women. And, for the record, it is *much* too convenient to exploit women for *more* than simple "reproductive value" for it to ever have been the only form of exploitation of women. (You don't just want women to give birth to babies. You want 'em to stay home and raise them too, cooking and cleaning for you, while *you* go out and earn money... Or pay for sex with prostitutes.)

mythago said...

I suppose it's possible to beat Mieville in a way that wouldn't leave visible marks, other than a few papercuts.

Re Pratchett--the fact that the only organized female power in Ankh-Morpork is the Seamstresses strikes me more as a point Pratchett is trying to make than one he's overlooked.

thene said...

Mythago, could I ask you to explain that point Pratchett is trying to make further?

Anonymous said...

As for Pratchett, I count 4 guilds with female members - seamstresses, beggars, night watch and the assassains. It's a point that's brought up in multiple books.

Doug S. said...

(Did my other attempt to post something disappear into the aether?)

Does the Frank Miller test apply to female writers, such as Jacqueline Carey?

thene said...

Anon - In Men at Arms, Angua specifically makes that she saw the Seamstresses as her only other choice. (The same book mentions that Molly - the Beggar Queen - and Mrs Palm are the only female guild leaders). There being only one all-female guild while there are so many all-male ones is worth a poke at in any case. I spoke of Night Watch in particular, and whichever way you swing it, the only women who get close enough to smell the lilac are the whores.

Doug S - I happen to have never read any books by female writers which fail the test, or in any other way indicate that the only women who can come along on the journey are prostitutes, or that the only women who organise are prostitutes. Who is Jacqueline Carey, and how has she wronged you?

Ragnell said...

Thene -- I think you're on to something. At first the Seamstress Guild seemed like a comment on social injustice, the only organization of women who were recognized by the city were prostitutes, and would be forgivable in Night Watch as a contrast in the past to how much AM is progressing... if AM were progressing in this aspect. Thing is, the overall plot of the Watch and City books is that the culture is progressing past the old-fashioned crap, there's a going theme about knocking down race and class boundaries. And we've seen individual women strike out on their own but we haven't seen an organization of women outside of Monstrous Regiment.

And, while that was interesting and fun, its not the same as getting an all-female guild in the city that isn't full of prostitutes.

thene said...

TBH I'm not that keen on all-women anythings, especially not here in the real world, but it's notable that there's so much all-male space. Then, Pratchett does like his gender roles - witches and wizards and so on - he's just usually more engaging with them than this. I'm thinking of that barbarian lady - Vera, wasn't it?, and Bethan, the nice temple girl who was far too smart for Cohen. And Esk.

He never gives POV to any of his prostitutes, either. I don't know whether that's just something that's happened, whether it's a deliberate thing (since Guards! Guards! he's almost never given POV to Carrot and that's fucking perfect), or what, but it makes the whole issue look like he's taking an outside perspective - like he's writing as a potential consumer, basically.

I'd forgotten the Monstrous Regiment, but it's interesting how all other female associations he writes are so accidental, so social (as opposed to organisational), compared to the Seamstresses - Sybil & the 'Interchangeable Emmas' (that's another rant right there) at the Sunshine Sanctuary; the Witches; the Monstrous Regiment. I don't think he writes any societies of men that form in that fashion, except perhaps the Barbarians who are, at least in The Last Hero and The Light Fantastic, mixed-gender. Maybe that in itself is a comment on how he thinks single-sex spaces work? It's not unintelligent, but I'm troubled by how he wrote it wrt to revolution specifically.

Anonymous said...

What bothers me about these examples is that they are male fantasy -- the female reality is quite different. We know that half or more of all sex workers are slaves. In real life, at least some of the women would be trying to escape Fucktown to become goatherds or anything else, and they would be dragged back and beaten into submission by their owners, who would be men. In real life, many prostitution customers are really paying for the chance to rape, since the women are not doing it for money or fun but because they would be killed by their owners if they don't. Only in male fantasyland is prostitution anything other than misery for a significant portion of the people in it, and not some middle-class "oh I hate my job" misery, but fear and suffering and horror. But these are the women men don't see. Why?

Doug S. said...

I mentioned Jacqueline Carey because she is a female writer best known for a certain fantasy series in which the heroine is a prostitute who lives in a society in which being a prostitute is a highly respected profession with a connection to the society's religion. It's explicitly a utopian version of prostitution in an idealized society complete with idealized people (who are literally descended from divine ancestors), and the series probably comes close to failing the Frank Miller test. I enjoyed reading the first trilogy very much (I haven't read the second yet), although I will make no claims as to its standing with respect to feminism.

thene said...

Anon @ 21.01: you have a good point about men writing out the dark side of the sex trade (though as with all statistics, that 'half or more' is not universally accepted), and Mieville does address it a little later, after the money runs out; the prostitutes refuse to work without pay ('a picket of rags and petticoats'), and are beaten. But that's shown as a distinct deviation from his norm of prostitution, rather than as part of that female reality.

Iron Council isn't the only sci-fi that touches on the abuse of prostitutes: in William Gibson's Mona Lisa Overdrive, Mona is forced to have sex with her pimp, and then forced to have plastic surgery. Gibson frequently reduces women to their bodies in a number of ways, but he does not say all women are 'happy hookers', and neither does Mieville - but they do not explore the fear, suffering and horror to any great extent. Perhaps you should write a story of that yourself?


Doug: You'd be on firmer ground there if it weren't for the fact that temple prostitution is real, and even continues to the present-day in parts of India (sometimes as a form of legalised child abuse). Utopian portrayals aren't something I'd dismiss simply because they are utopian - real-life sex work writers often describe themselves as content with their line of work, from the airheaded http://www.jetsetblog.com/ to the far more nuanced (and smart, and entertaining) http://renegadeevolution.blogspot.com , while others, like http://compartments.wordpress.com/ , would rather be without it but have perfectly rational reasons to be doing it. So I'd dismiss it if and only if the writer was implying that all women could be discussed that way. Is it inherently bad to write about a single positive experience of temple prostitution? I guess you'd have to ask a temple prostitute about that.

s9 said...

"...and all will find it marketed to them at some point."

Sadly, we pretty much learn that our wallets make us a target market right about the same time that they figure out they have a service to sell us. Seriously, more people need to read Louise Kaplan's books if this is still a surprising fact of life.

Do not underplay the importance of the fact that the market is a system for efficiently computing the prices at which transactions will clear.

S.M. Stirling said...

Damn, accidentally deleted the post. Reconstruction:

When I'm writing a scene involving sex from a female character's p.o.v., I always run it past a couple of women first readers, to make sure I'm at least not being -obviously- off, or too manifestly projecting a male sexual fantasy on 'her'.

I'm proud to say that I haven't gotten the "that's a man with tits" response for quite some time...8-).

(As an aside, I do the same thing with other types of p.o.v. characters too, where possible; gay people, religious believers, people who speak dialects I'm not familiar with, and so forth. I've even got a Morris-dancing bird-watcher in rural England. Even if you don't take the advice, you at least get some valuable insights on how it strikes 'em.)

There's a very good reason that the thing writers are most likely to get wrong when writing about the opposite sex is, well, sex.

To illustrate, there's a social-science experiment that was done some time ago; I read the write-up.

Student volunteers of both sexes were sent out to solict random members of the other gender for no-strings sex, making it clear that it was just immediate physical attraction.

And, when necessary, that no money would be involved.

The overwhelming majority of the men approached by the female volunteers said "yes".

(And were then told it was just an experiment, thank you for your cooperation and goodbye, which must have been annoying.)

Those men who said "no" were usually very polite about it, often apologizing or explaining why they were refusing -- that they had a committed relationship, were gay, had religious scruples, etc.

Often they added "it's nothing personal, you're very attractive", or other words intended to let the young woman down easily.

Very few of the women approached by the male volunteers said yes; none apologized for saying no, and many said 'no' very emphatically indeed.

It was obvious that for the men approached it was all a cherished fantasy come true; for the women, it was just another annoying male hitting on them, so sod off.

The above difference explains most heterosexual pornography and most prostitution, apart from the odd minority tastes.

Most heterosexual pornography is an elaborate male fantasy of people who are physically female, and have some of what are generally thought of as female attributes, but whose approach to sex is fundamentally male.

Most prostitution is a system in which women are paid and/or forced to act out this fantasy, and (usually) pretend to like it.

Conversely, much genre-Romance literature is pornography in a funhouse mirror, with people who appear and in some senses act male, but have attitudes and behaviors we generally consider female.

The "Twilight" series of vampire-lover books just now burning up the best-seller lists is a glaring example.

You could take that thing to Patagonia or New Guinea, translate it, and with a minimal explanation of the other tropes every male reader would tell you it had been written by a woman.

The best romance isn't that bad, of course -- Georgette Heyer could do a very convincing male character.

I was once stuck in a very unpleasant hotel in Accra, Ghana, with nothing but a box full of old Heyer paperbacks and a case of dysentry to pass the time. She really was quite good from a technical standpoint, and had a wonderful sense of humor.

And even at their worst, female romance writers are better at depicting men than male pornographers are at women.

Nora said...

here is a query: is inara's respectability connected to the item of her trade, or the money, respectability, etc., of the organization she belongs to? would she be equally independent and respected if she were, say, a high-end private trader associated with an important guild?

I also would be interested to know what you think of Lois Bujold's LPSTs (Licensed Practical Sexuality Therapists).

Lyn said...

I would just like to point out that in the case of Terry Pratchett, Night Watch, more than any other book is about stereotypes of the past. As to the fact that the only women in the revolution were the prostitutes why are you so surprised? The Seamstresses are already outside the law, and organized besides; they are by dint of their lifestyle already accustomed to breaking the rules; already accustomed to rebellion in a way.

Modern Ankh-Morpork is the center of an ongoing cultural/gender revolution; Night Watch sets the stage: without the acceptance of the Seamstresses as a guild, without the acceptance of the head of the Seamstresses as being the equal of the head of the Assassins and the Thieves' Guild (Feet of Clay) there would be no place for Modern Ankh-Morpork's exponentially increasing gender equality. And considering the list of guild heads who voted not to depose Vetinari (all female) I'd say the women of Ankh-Morpork have quite a bit of power; the kind just differs. Queen Molly and Mrs.Palm really have a direct voice in the running of the city as guild heads; especially Mrs. Palm. The behind the scenes power in Ankh-Morpork is Vetinari's Aunt; and the only figure of comparable power to Vetinari is Sam and he damn well listens to Sibyl; Carrot, the next tier in the power struggle, well just look at Fifth Elephant.

Finally, sex really was a major part of early politics. And Discworld, especially Night Watch, is in part a historical spoof. I mean seriously, the Church of England split from Rome because Henry VIII wanted a divorce; As David and Leigh Eddings say in Polgara the Sorceress: when Belgarath says Politics he means what we think of when we hear the word, when Polgara says Politics she means all the subtle ways a woman gets a man to do what she wants. Sex is one of those ways.

Phio Gistic said...

What bothered me most about the emphasis on prostitution in Night Watch was the elision of the john, and of the danger, misery, and violence of prostitution. It was treated as if it were all jokey fun with no acknowledgment of the negatives the women experience. That seemed odd for Pratchett to do, usually he is keenly aware of the negative side of things he is writing about and goes out of his way to point them out.
Now I am reading "Thud" in which Nobby is dating a stripper/pole dancer. Again it's all "hur, hur, nudge, wink" with no acknowledgment of any negatives.

CharityJune said...

Ok this post is a bit old but being halfway through The Wind Up Girl (after just reading Saturn's Children) made me go questing for some kind of feminist response to the sexbots.

Is it still 1958? The only female character to get a significant amount of word space in the windup girl is a sexbot, a woman genetically modified to be beautiful AND to have "dog like" loyalty to her male patrons. A woman designed so that she is UNABLE to resist responding sexually to her male patrons. Have I stumbled into a sci fi porno? I thought I was reading the major award winning sci fi book of the year.

When the major male character meets this major female character, she's on the point of death and quickly passes out unconscious because she's designed in such a way that she cannot fight off assaults and doing so can kill her.

Her clothes are conveniently shredded while he rescues her - never mind the fact that she's unconscious and near death, the fact that she's near naked is far more important.

In that scene -- about 30 seconds after she regains conscious, the male character is feeling her up and the scene is suddenly exploding with sexual potential. As if someone who'd nearly been murdered and on the brink of death should jump into a sex scene the second she regains consciousness? How on earth could EITHER character be thinking about sex at a time like this? What the hell is wrong with this writer?

Technically, this book MIGHT pass the frank miller test. there are three other female characters who are not sex workers - though actually one of them had an abused life in the past, so now that I think about it, in this world that undoubtedly included sexual abuse, which would make this book fail the frank miller test.

but in any case, whether it fails in fact, in spirit it definitely fails the test. There are dozens of characters in this book, yet the only female of the lot of them who gets much word space at all is this sexbot. The other three named female characters all have little or no wordspace or dialogue (and actually the sexbot has very little dialogue, as well) and well I won't get into it but clearly are assigned to very sexist roles. (It also fails the Bechdel test of course)

WHY the hell do I still have to read about sexbots in 2010? Why can't we simply have major female characters who are, you know, HUMAN? That's all we ranting feminists want: human women in our stories. Are we really asking for so damn much?

I have one male writer friend who complains that he's scared to write women because he doesn't know how. But it's pretty simple. Don't try to imagine some foreign species that you think of as "women" – And don’t write them as if they stepped out of your favorite sexual fantasies. Write them as if they are just people. Human beings. (cuz guess what, boys, that's what we are.)

It's a good starting point, one that too many modern sci fi writers still fail to find.

CharityJune said...

Ok this post is a bit old but being halfway through The Wind Up Girl (after just reading Saturn's Children) made me go questing for some kind of feminist response to the sexbots.

Is it still 1958? The only female character to get a significant amount of word space in the windup girl is a sexbot, a woman genetically modified to be beautiful AND to have "dog like" loyalty to her male patrons. A woman designed so that she is UNABLE to resist responding sexually to her male patrons. Have I stumbled into a sci fi porno? I thought I was reading the major award winning sci fi book of the year.

When the major male character meets this major female character, she's on the point of death and quickly passes out unconscious because she's designed in such a way that she cannot fight off assaults and doing so can kill her.

Her clothes are conveniently shredded while he rescues her - never mind the fact that she's unconscious and near death, the fact that she's near naked is far more important.

In that scene -- about 30 seconds after she regains conscious, the male character is feeling her up and the scene is suddenly exploding with sexual potential. As if someone who'd nearly been murdered and on the brink of death should jump into a sex scene the second she regains consciousness? How on earth could EITHER character be thinking about sex at a time like this? What the hell is wrong with this writer?

Technically, this book MIGHT pass the frank miller test. there are three other female characters who are not sex workers - though actually one of them had an abused life in the past, so now that I think about it, in this world that undoubtedly included sexual abuse, which would make this book fail the frank miller test.

but in any case, whether it fails in fact, in spirit it definitely fails the test. There are dozens of characters in this book, yet the only female of the lot of them who gets much word space at all is this sexbot. The other three named female characters all have little or no wordspace or dialogue (and actually the sexbot has very little dialogue, as well) and well I won't get into it but clearly are assigned to very sexist roles. (It also fails the Bechdel test of course)

WHY the hell do I still have to read about sexbots in 2010? Why can't we simply have major female characters who are, you know, HUMAN? That's all we ranting feminists want: human women in our stories. Are we really asking for so damn much?

I have one male writer friend who complains that he's scared to write women because he doesn't know how. But it's pretty simple. Don't try to imagine some foreign species that you think of as "women" – And don’t write them as if they stepped out of your favorite sexual fantasies. Write them as if they are just people. Human beings. (cuz guess what, boys, that's what we are.)

It's a good starting point, one that too many modern sci fi writers still fail to find.