Identity and Desire

I wrote ‘And Salome Danced’ as a specific submission to the anthology in which it appeared, Little Deaths. Ellen Datlow, the editor, wanted stories of erotic horror. I’d never written something I considered erotic, nor had I written an overt horror story. I’ve always been cautious about the mix: it’s too easy to write poorly at this particular intersection. Good craftwork won’t redeem a story in which sex is punished by uninvited violence (the fuck-and-die plotline familiar from so many American teenage horror flicks), or a story in which the frisson comes from reading about the graphic endurance of sexual horror, often coupled with mutilation, pain, or death (what I like to call the zombie-fuck story, a particularly unsavory back alley of the splatterpunk neighborhood). The original challenge for me was to write about horror in a way that was (for me) erotic without being (for me) prurient or gratuitous or misogynist. The qualifiers are important-these are shadowy and deeply personal places, and for some readers the idea of sexually submitting to someone who can change their body from male to female is much more repellent than the idea of a woman being raped by a dead ghoul with a rotting penis who is simultaneously trying to eat her face off. Everyone has their own boundaries.

Boundaries are important. American culture, the only one I’m at all qualified to discuss, is in many ways a culture of ownership. We define ownership in part by our ability to put a fence or a collar or a diamond ring around something and limit its behavior and the behavior of other people who interact with it. Boundaries are social as well as physical constructs, and we impose them on ourselves as well as on others. We define ourselves in literal terms by ‘the lines we won’t cross’, the ‘places we won’t go’. ‘Don’t take me there’, we say. I could never, you shouldn’t, if she hadn’t, are all clear examples of social boundaries in action.

As readers, we look for the boundaries of the narrator and the values that those boundaries imply, based on our complicated social code for these things. A certain kind of behavior exhibited by someone we perceive to be acting as a male means something different to us than precisely the same behavior performed by someone acting as female. Substitute ‘heterosexual/homosexual’, ‘sadist/masochist’, or any other pair of words that you believe to be diametrically opposed: the essential sense of the premise is unaltered. We’ve been trained as readers to believe that these lines exist, and it’s important to us to know which side of them the characters are on, so we know how to feel about their behavior. We’ve been trained as writers that these lines are essential to delineating realistic characters.

Gender is one of the big lines, like the wide yellow stripes that divide the lanes of dangerous American roads-the line that you are not allowed to cross, at least not without a great deal of flashing headlights and beeping horns to give fair warning to anyone who might be around. Anyone who remembers the death of Brandon Teena knows that there is little sympathy for those who get hurt whilst creeping across gender lanes. And Brandon didn’t do anything wrong — for a boy. It was only upon discovery that Brandon was a biological woman that his actions became socially and legally criminal. He was punished for her social transgressions with rape and death.

Yow. Although I try hard to be flexible around issues of gender, I have a hard time reading that last sentence. Let’s examine that. Brandon was functioning as a social man — a gendered male — when it was discovered that biologically Brandon Teena was a woman. The gendered persona was the ‘criminal’, but it was the woman, birth name Teena Brandon, who broke the rules. Her punishment was brutal and specific — sexual violence that simultaneously hurt her as a woman and invalidated him as a man.

I can’t talk about Brandon exclusively as a woman or a man, because biology is not gender. Brian Attebery is, in my opinion, absolutely on target that men and women are not behavioral categories. If they were, Brandon couldn’t exist. Neither could Mars.

‘Salome’ didn’t start out as a story about gender (and I hope it doesn’t stop there, either). I wrote it because I wanted to roll around for a while in the erotic mud that comes from mixing danger and desire. This is, for me, a very specific and potent place that requires careful definition, and I wanted to see if I could create it in a story. I don’t find terror erotic, nor most kinds of fear, although the physiology of fear and arousal are remarkably similar. I know the difference. I’ve never read anything that could make phobia, anticipation of physical pain, or dehumanization sexy to me. Yet there is an element of something-like-fear that can be a factor in the way we eroticize things and people. I think it has to do with knowing that something or someone is dangerous to our current identity — if we do this thing (or this person), we will have to acknowledge ourselves changed by the encounter. In some cases, we’ll have to cross one of those big yellow lines-let someone handcuff us to the bedpost, or have sex with someone to whom we are not socially contracted, or respond to someone who is so different from what we’ve been taught to desire that we don’t even know where Tab A is, let alone how to insert it into Slot B. It’s not (or not only) the act that we fear: we also fear how much we want to do it. We are not who we thought we were.

And erotic isn’t just about the wanting — it’s about letting someone make it happen, giving someone else the power to reshape our identity by teaching us to like what we want, to need what we fear. It is a deep and fundamental submission to another. If you are the other, then erotic is about wanting to be the one who effects that change, who wields that power as carefully as a scalpel or a caress. The conjunctions between us and the thing we desire create the tension that is such an integral part of our erotic process. Crossing boundaries by yourself isn’t as intoxicating as sharing the journey — if it were, many more of us would be primarily, preferredly auto-erotic.

I didn’t want to write an auto-erotic story. I wanted to write about a person whose calling is to bring fantasies to life in the theatre, and what happens when that person encounters someone who can give them the pinnacle of that experience — for a price that walks the borderline between payment in sex and payment in identity. What does it take to make any of us willing to cross one of our boundaries? If it’s an erotic boundary, it takes a particular type of hailing that Timmi Duchamp touches on in the preceding discussion — the sort of hailing and response ‘not necessarily based on gender identifications [that] demands that we unhinge gender identity from sexuality.’ This type of hailing is transgressive: it forces the object of the hailing to an erotic confrontation that discounts any personal preferences or standards of gender and sexuality. Jo/e is a creature who will make Mars like whatever it has to offer, whether Mars wants to or not. The only option Mars has is to choose; and Jo/e’s ultimate power lies in making the choice as irresistible as it is horrifying. The choice is so compelling because it is not a choice for or against sex, but for or against identity. Jo/e offers the complete realization of everything that matters most to Mars, that lies at the core of Mars’ self-image. Jo/e can make Mars the person that Mars most wishes to be, at least for a moment: the price is the slow sucking away (pun intended) of everything that Mars becomes at the pinnacle.

Most of us learn by the time we are adults how to deal with sexual hailing along traditional gender lines. We have strategies to deal with sexual attention, often compartmentalized along social lines (unwanted versus wanted attention, social versus business situations, safe versus risky environments). Our tactics vary depending on the kind of man or woman we are responding to, and what gender characteristics that person has adopted. For example, I find unwanted sexual signals from aggressive men far more intimidating and confusing than from aggressive women. I’m not as confident that my preferred strategies, which are based on communication, will work with these men, whose gender-typing encourages them to discount messages about emotions and feelings. But what happens when we encounter someone for whom we have no strategies? What happens when we meet something and suddenly, unprepared, recognize it as a dangerous desire? How do we resist the temptation to explore the undiscovered trail just a little way, particularly when it becomes clear that just a few steps farther on we will meet ourselves? And do we really want to resist?

As I worked on the story, it became clear to me that the danger to Mars lay not in being seduced, but in being seduced outside of Mars’ own fundamental assumptions about what is and is not desirable. It seemed to me that one clear way to delineate this tension would be through the manipulation of gender, since readers might, like Mars, automatically respond differently to Jo/e’s behavior depending on their perceptions of Jo/e’s gender. Mars says that ‘gender’s not important’, and it is Lucky who reminds Mars that it can make all the difference to us when it is expressed in a sexual context. Again, we have to keep in mind that gender is not biology, although Lucky and Mars have confused them, to their cost. After all, Jo isn’t really a woman: it’s a creature of great malice and hunger that adopts the gender characteristics it believes will appeal to Mars, that will let it breach Mars’ unguarded space. And it enjoys playing games and making the opponent choose to lose. Choosing to submit is a basic component of erotic games between consenting and trusting lovers, and it’s horrifying (to me) to see it subverted into a choice for self-immolation.

Later in the writing process, I made the decision and the discovery that, for me, are the heart of the matter. I decided to try to create Mars as a genderless character. There has been some speculation on Mars’ sex, but that issue became less important to me than the issue of gender, because it is gender-behavior — and the value assumptions underlying it — that marks us in the world. It is this behavior that causes us to be hailed as masculine or feminine, straight or gay, incisive or castrating, weak or delicate.

And yet, gender is not my primary experience of myself — I’m not even sure it’s on my Top Five list. Biology is certainly a key experience for me, but not biological-based social behavior (assuming, as gender concepts do, that this basis for behavior actually exists). When I move in the world, I experience feelings and sensations and other people, and I respond to them as they affect me. I don’t filter them through a conscious ‘Golly, I’m a western woman and therefore I should say X, because Y isn’t appropriate for me’. The only things that aren’t appropriate for me are those things that contradict some fundamental sense of myself. My behavior is determined by my values and awareness, not my ovaries and breasts.

And so it is with Mars. By refusing to create a gender context for Mars, and by doing my best to remove any cues in the story that support assumptions about Mars’ gender, I was trying to create a character whose experience any reader might be willing to access. It’s too easy for people who subscribe to expected gender norms to then use gender as a way of denying that a certain experience is possible to them. This is equally true for women and men. We have more overt examples of male gender dominance, and its dismissal of experience, in action. But anyone who has ever heard a crowd of well-socialized women talk about an outsider who has been raped will quickly understand that in this sphere, behaving like a properly-gendered woman is regarded as a shield against punishment: these folks can always find some way to blame the victim. That is, to my mind, a gender-based dismissal of experience.

I think that most readers will simply make assumptions about Mars’ gender: I think it’s what we do. But when I wrote the story, Mars became genderless for me in a way that was exhilarating: I wore Mars like a mask and did not stop to look at my own reflection. Mars was free to behave in one of the ways that a human being might respond in such a situation, without considerations of biology or social behavior. Mars’ identity, and all our identities, are much more about what we desire to become, and what we fear ourselves to be, than about whether we behave like a Tab A or a Slot B. When I read, I’m no longer interested in apportioning the parts of the protagonist’s experience that I can or can’t relate to because ‘the hero is a man’ or ‘she’s too aggressive’. If the feelings are human feelings, they are possible to me: if they are well expressed, they become accessible to me. I can choose to make them part of my experience or not. I choose yes more often than I used to: it is yes that is exciting, yes that challenges our assumptions about ourselves, and about what might or might not be a boundary, be erotic, be accessible, be true.

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