Sex and Violence in Tamora Pierce's Books

(7-10-04)

Why do you have so much sex and/or violence in your books?  
Why do you have teenagers engage in unprotected sex and have babies at such a young age?
Why do you have arranged marriages?

Whenever I'm asked these things, I have to ask in return how familiar people are with the Middle Ages.  Because I like to start from our real world with pretty much everything I write, my treatment of these topics is, for the most part, drawn from the historical world. (There are two exceptions, which I'll get to in a moment.)

Up until fairly recently (as in, the 1800s), people in their teens were adults. From the beginning of time people 14 and older, depending on their physical development, married, had children, and supported them as best as they could.  People in my books actually start engaging in sexual behavior and child-bearing several years later than they would have done in years past.  Alanna put off having children for some years: she's a rare case. Thayet and Kalasin know their duty is to produce heirs for their husbands as soon as they can, and queens have risen and fallen on not just their fertility, but their ability to have boys. (Look at Eleanor of Aquitaine's first marriage and the wives of Henry VIII.)  Sometimes marriages were contracted when at least one of the two people involved was still an infant.  Such marriages were considered binding.

People, especially commoners, were far more casual about sex in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Sexual humor and shenanigans were popular in entertainment (time to re-read Shakespeare, Boccaccio, and Chaucer). Until Christianity had a lock on the European world, people had sex as part of religious ceremonies as well as for the sake of just plain fooling around. It got sticky if someone got pregnant, but they had crude ways to avoid pregnancy, families would pressure a man to marry a girl if he got her pregnant, or if they didn't want him to marry the girl, he had to help pay for the child's rearing.  Of course there were rotters who didn't meet their social obligations, just as there were women who resorted to abortionists, but overall sex outside marriage was not considered a big deal. Marriage, as I've mentioned elsewhere, was about business, not about love, and a wife's chastity was necessary only when it was necessary to establish the husband's bloodline. (Me, I far prefer the system in which inheritance is passed through the mother, because she's the only one who can obviously be pointed out as the parent. There are still cultures nowadays in which inheritance comes from the mother's family. In Judaism you are still reckoned a Jew if your mother was Jewish.)

Why unprotected sex? My characters, being practical girls, choose to avoid pregnancy and family responsibilities for a time. In a fantasy realm, at least, I can produce methods of contraception that work a lot better than the old ones. Lambskin condoms, douches for after sex, interruption, and a sponge all have been known to fail. There is one big difference between my fantasy worlds and our real one: fewer STDs. In fact, STDs don't really start showing up in literature until after the discovery of America, when syphilis arrived in the old world. In the Tortall universe, there is no equivalent to the Americas. In my Emelan universe, they have just begun to explore the lands to the far west, and even if syphilis does arrive, the medicine of that universe is so much more sophisticated that I can't imagine it would take them long to eradicate it.

Obviously magic with practical applications helps characters in my worlds to deal safely with issues that have meant prolonged illness, birth defects, and death in a way that our world does not. The areas in which they are still at risk for the dangers of our world are those of warfare and violence. Those of us who are in the middle class or higher in the western world live in a protected bubble, one in which many of the hazards of impoverished life and historical life are kept outside. As a result of living in this bubble, we view violence as exceptional and abnormal.

Sadly, violence is far more normal than our protected society wants to believe, though it is presented to us as abnormal. Look at the attention given to street violence and gang warfare in poor neighborhoods. Our culture leads us to view the poor as brutish and twisted, when they are simply frustrated with having little while others who have much live all around them. As for the rest of the world, the unprotected part, violence is part of everyday life, just as it has been throughout history. The slave trade still flourishes in our world, whether it's called slavery, child labor or sweatshop labor. Bandits and gangs battle for money, prestige and power all over the globe; in some parts of the world pirates still prey on ships at sea. Governments are violently overthrown; warlords make it impossible for everyday people to receive badly needed food and medicine; rebels blow up trains and put their opponents in hellish prison camps. People are tortured; murderers of millions are allowed to thrive; women and children are beaten and killed every day by men who feel they have the right to commit that violence.

And that's just the modern world. In the era of history from which I draw most of my ideas and cultures, we had situations like the Hundred Years' War in which, during peacetime, armies did not go home, but remained to pillage, rape and murder at will, supporting themselves by robbing the peasants of things they slaved to earn. Hangings were festive occasions (people brought picnic lunches), while the corpses of the executed were left on public display for the education of the people. People were tortured into confessions as a common part of police procedure - not that there were any police, not until the late 1700s in some places. Instead neighborhoods were patrolled by people who could be every bit as violent and cruel as the criminals they were supposed to be looking for. For centuries people thought that the only way children and the lower classes would learn a lesson would be if they were hit or kicked to make it stick. Fathers in ancient Rome had the legal right to kill disobedient children. Lady Jane Grey, 16, was beaten for two days by her parents until she agreed to marry Guildford Dudley. The Crusaders instigated mass slaughters of Jewish populations in the Catholic cities they passed through, and of non-Catholic Christians and Jews in the Middle Eastern cities they visited. Tamerlane, in his conquests, left pyramids of human skulls in his wake. That is how the world was.

I believe that sanitizing this aspect of the modern and ancient world is at the root of our troubles as a culture now. We're bred to be smug about how peaceful we are, so we can watch television and feel safely distant from violence, when it is part of our makeup. That smugness means we don't feel we have to do anything about the violence we see, because it's obviously committed by people who aren't as educated or civilized as we are. By holding ourselves aloof from global and historical violence, we allow it to continue. If we are ever to survive as a species, we need to admit we are violent and find ways to ease the plight of the victims of violence worldwide. (No, invading a violent country and bombing it will not inspire its people to give violence up. Go figure.) We must face who we are and what creates violence: helplessness, envy, rage, even the drive to grab the good things of the world that are flaunted in the faces of the poor. We must take responsibility and protect each other from violence.

That is why there is violence in my books, although even I sanitize my violence. If I were to write the true, constant, vicious, grotesque violence of history or of the contemporary world (say, on the level it's been practiced in Rwanda and Cambodia in my lifetime), I would not be allowed to publish books for kids at all. I pull my punches. I try to walk the balance between showing that we are a violent species and that we must recognize it and deal with it, and wallowing in just how very badly human beings treat each other, within their homes, hidden in woods and fields, on our roads and in our skies. I want to emphasize heroes, not mindless brutality, and the courage of the kind of people who will say "Enough. It stops here." That is why I will continue to include violence in my writing. I have been the victim of violence. The only way I know to put a stop to it is to stand against it, gain for myself a safe zone where there is no violence, then bring others into it. If you want to ignore the violent world around us, if you want to tell yourself that we are better and more civilized than other people, then perhaps you shouldn't read my books. I tend to be very cynical about those ideas. For us to change, we have to look at the thing that needs to be changed and make it stop, not watch it on television and say to each other, "It's the only thing they'll respond to." We need to respond to it. We need to face it, even in books. Even in fantasy.

 

 

 

 

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