DHP: What is your definition of transgressive?
RG: I think examining etymology is always very useful when considering definitions. From the verb 'to transgress:' trans + gradi. To step across, to trespass over a border, to break past a boundary. (OED)
I'd like to focus specifically on 'transgressive' as it applies to me as a writer of erotic fiction. There are a lot of issues that might be considered in the area of transgression, but they don't really concern me in my work.
The adjective 'transgressive' is usually applied in the sense of externally established norms, which have changed radically over the years. Even fifty years ago, there were many erotic experiences and behaviours that were considered socially and morally transgressive: homosexuality, anal sex, sadism, masochism, fetishism, multiple partners, and masturbation even. Now there are really very few; no matter how much we protest that we are still terribly repressed in our sexuality, once 50 million people have bought copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and indulged in sexualized descriptions of spanking and strapping and bondage (no matter how poorly represented), I find it laughable that people still believe this kind of sex is transgressive. If it were actually transgressive, the book would have been banned in the same way that the UK has recently brought in laws against rape porn and seems obsessed to censor anything that describes even fictional accounts of sexuality involving minors.
These days, I've seen a lot of people use the word 'transgressive' to describe things that are simply socially distasteful. A good guide, in my view, is that transgressive is what erotica publishers refuse to publish. So, underage sex, bestiality, rape, incest, extreme violence, erotic activities involving shit and piss, necrophilia, and certain forms of what have been termed non-sex-positive sex.
As a writer, I think there is another form of individualized transgression that can be written about if the character development is good enough. Individuals' understandings of what is socially or morally permissible can differ radically from those of their cultures. Lesbian sex may be considered untransgressive to Western culture at large now, but may still cross personally held rules of behaviour for a specific individual. For that individual, having a lesbian relationship would be a transgression of her own internal rules.
An important part of my doctoral thesis involves considering new transgressions by looking at what society values highly at present, and then eroticizing its opposite. So, for instance, wealth, youth, beauty, sexiness, self-promotion and self-realization, personal safety: all these things are of enormous cultural, social and economic value to us at the moment. Is it possible to take these pillars of acknowledged social values and use their binary opposites as sites of erotic transgression? Similarly, political correctness is a huge force within our culture: equality, feminism, caring, nurturing men, sexually innocent children, liberal political values, a rejection of solving disagreements through violence. Although these are often unrealized, aspirational concepts, they are concepts we seem to want to promote and perpetuate. So anything that opposes these ideas could, potentially, be sites of transgressive possibility.
One of the things I believe Michel Foucault described very well in his essay "A Preface to Transgression" involves the paradox inherent in transgression. If 'transgression' involves the stepping across a line, then the line must be recognized, must have inherent validity and authority. If you have no respect for the authority of the rule your breaking, then no transgression has taken place. This makes being transgressive a personally transcendent experience.
Let me take the issue of polyamory as a case in point. If you believe that polyamory is morally acceptable, then there is nothing transgressive about living a polyamorous life. Socially, other members of your society might be upset, disgusted, or accepting of your lifestyle, but it is not illegal to participate in a polyamorous relationship in any of the Western liberal democracies. So it is neither internally nor externally transgressive. If you live in Malaysia, it is externally transgressive to live in a polyamorous relationship. It's illegal, widely socially condemned and punishable under the law. So it's transgressive there.
A Western woman who takes her vows of sexual exclusivity in marriage seriously and has an extramarital affair may not be committing an externally transgressive act (although it might be upsetting to some people, it's not illegal or punishable or even uncommon) but it might be very personally transgressive for her.
For this reason, I'm always amused when people talk about transgressive sexuality and sex-positivism in the same breath. In my view, that's simply not possible. Similarly transgressive acts are inherently dangerous and destabilizing. They carry very real personal and /or social risk. There is no 'safe, sane and consensual' transgression. Consensual, perhaps, but there is nothing safe or sane about consciously stepping past the moral/ethical rules you truly feel are important and valuable.
DHP: What was the first text you read that made you question accepted societal tenets or values or the way in which the world works?
RG: I think the very first text I read that did this to me was, Pride and Prejudice. I always felt very sorry for Lydia. I thought she was the most transgressive of all the characters in the novel, and the most condemned by the writer. I always suspected that poor Lydia just wanted to be a fuck bunny and, that being wholly unacceptable within the world of the novel, was forced into a rotten marriage and had to satisfy herself with economic stability instead.
DHP: Give an example of a transgressive work & explain why you felt it was transgressive? The work could be literature, film, visual art, theatre, graphic novels or something else.
RG: I could give you lots of examples of work I found generally transgressive, but I'd like to offer one that I found erotically transgressive. I could also find a lot of historically set works that presented transgression contextually, but I think that's a bit of a cop-out. So I'd say that the opening sequence of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist rates up there for me as significantly transgressive. His juxtaposition of the shower fuck and the child crawling to its death out a window fits the bill very well. These days, we are obsessed with the primacy of the health and safety of our children. The only leeway on this seems to be employment. It's marginally okay to be a little careless with your children if you're bringing home the bacon. So, on a values continuum, only money can come before children. That seems to be presented as something excusable, if not a virtue. The scene where they are fucking away, completely involved in their own pleasure and unconcerned about the child was breathtakingly transgressive. Of course, it all ended in tears, but real transgression usually does.
DHP: Name a historical transgressive role model & tell us a bit about this person.
RG: I've recently stumbled across a really monumentally transgressive figure in a turn of the century woman called Madeleine Le Bouc. Her real name is not known, but she was the patient of one of the early French psychologists, Dr. Pierre Janet. He spent over 20 years treating her and wrote "De l'angoisse à l'extase" or "From Agony to Ecstasy," a clinical study of her in three volumes. Born into a middle-class, not very religious family, she ended up in the Salpetriere Hospital as a religious hysteric. At a relatively early age, she rejected economic comfort so completely that she ran away from home, and intentionally lived in abject poverty for about 20 years. She was picked up and charged with vagrancy and prostitution. When questioned, she emphatically insisted that she rejected all forms of sexual pleasure. The male doctors at the Salpetriere could not conceive of how someone could be both a prostitute and consider themselves a celibate. Their understanding of sexuality was so completely based on their own male pleasure, they couldn't conceive of how anyone could service men sexually and not experience any sexual pleasure themselves. Of course, she got her pleasure elsewhere, in her moments of religious ecstasy. But I think that because she could derive that alternate form of pleasure, she was able to escape the gravity well of phallocentric understandings of pleasure and sexuality without ever setting out intentionally to do it.
DHP: List a few transgressive fictional works from your personal library.
RG: Again, I could list a lot of generally transgressive fictional works in my library, but I'm going to confine myself to some I consider erotically transgressive. And, sadly, most are not even in print.
Nadica, by Mike Kimera is the short story that became the high-water mark for me when I set out to write erotic fiction myself. It involves a man who realizes the woman he and his friend are fucking is sexually damaged by earlier experiences of incest. He has been getting off on they way she behaves and when he discovers the explanation for her behaviour, he is left with the moral dilemma of whether to walk away or not.
Early Winter Train, by Chris Sanchez-Garcia is a short story about a man caring for a wife with Alzheimer's and is torn by his feelings of lust for her, not just because of the memory of what they had in the past, but he is also aroused by her encroaching dependency and passivity.
Spar by Kij Johnson is a short sci-fi story about a woman, space-wrecked and stuck in an escape pod with an alien who cannot communicate with her in any way. They spend the whole time fucking, waiting to be rescued. She cannot decide whether it is rape or not, or who the violator is.
DHP: In what ways are you trying to create or publish work that is transgressive according to your definition?
RG: I'm very concerned with creation, but not really as concerned with publication. I am associated with Burning Book Press and I hoped to play a part in helping to get really transgressive work published, but it hasn't been as easy to find strong pieces of transgressive erotic writing as I'd hoped. And, since starting my doctorate, I have not had enough time to put into the endeavor.
In terms of ways of creating transgressive work myself, I'm trying to look for eroticism in areas that my culture finds erotically problematic, while still satisfying my own peculiar definition of erotic. As I said earlier, I'm attempting to forge eroticism in places where either we don't normally look, or where it disgusts us to recognize it. For instance, in state-sanctioned torture, in the realm of state surveillance, in the intersection between childhood and the medical profession, in self-harm, or in places where there is the potential for power abuse in a duty of care paradigm.
I'm looking in dark places, but that is because I think real transgression is a dark and very dangerous thing if it is to have any real meaning for us.
Remittance Girl, January 18, 2014.