On Being a Bad Girl  
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  What's a nice girl like you doing writing a book like this?" asked the mild-mannered gent from the Boston Globe, "this" being Sex Crimes. Despite a dropped jaw, I managed to ask him where on earth he'd got that idea--that I was a nice girl--and devoted the rest of the lunch to disabusing him of it.

This, my very first interview after pub date, should have tipped me off. And, sure enough, as I toured around with Sex Crimes, hitting a different city every night like a traveling salesman, it became increasingly clear to me that nice girls still don't. Write about sex, I mean, or, heavens forbid, violence. Nor, worse still, about the realms of passion and obsession where the two converge.

As a novelist, I've visited dark, violent territory before: My first novel, Life-Size, narrated by a woman intent on starving herself to death, is, I believe, much bleaker and more brutal than Sex Crimes. But it never encountered half the resistance that Sex Crimes did. With that book, people responded as if to a plague-bearing rat: radio stations would schedule interviews and then cancel at the last moment, once the host had, presumably, cracked the spine. A bookstore in DC declined to schedule a reading at all, on the grounds that the novel was "too violent"--never mind that it contains far less graphic violence than the average potboiler. And, at a bookstore in Philadelphia, as I read from an edgy erotic scene, women began, hesitantly at first, to stand up and leave. The ones who remained looked reproachful, betrayed--except, of course, the ones who were enjoying the hell out of it. And, luckily, there are always a few of those--the ones who get it, who aren't immune to irony, who know an unreliable narrator when they meet one, who like the bite of black humor.

So what, exactly, is making people so nervous? I didn't actually commit any sex crimes, remember. I just wrote a small, dark novel that describes, from a woman's point of view, a sexual obsession with a younger man--an obsession that veers closer and closer to the edge of craziness, until, in single violent act, it plunges right over that edge. Granted, the sex in Sex Crimes isn't always cuddly and nice, wholesome or cute. But I have news for the sex police: neither is lust. Granted, the female character is twelve years older than her lover, so the balance of power between them is uneven, ambiguous, fluctuating. Oh, and granted, it's the woman, not the man, who commits the decisive act of violence.

Not PC, I know. Not PC at all.

Of course I knew, going in, that the novel would make people uncomfortable. It's supposed to: I had no intention of writing a lace-edged love story. I wanted to write about passion that is like a disease; I wanted to explore those moments where, like a spectator at the train wreck of your own life, you watch yourself losing control, turning into a deranged stranger, acting in ways you would never have believed possible. We've all had such experiences, I believe (and, if you haven't, you will). I also wanted to cut the crap about sex and desire, to write about men with the humor, the despair, the down-and-dirtiness that women revel in when they talk among themselves. What I didn't realize was that doing so would make me, even now, a bad girl.

For centuries, men have had carte blanche to depict acts of violence on the bodies of women, acts often committed in the name of passion. Why, I wonder, should it be such a very big deal for a woman to depict an act of violence committed on the body of a man? Don't get me wrong: I'm not suggesting that women writers or artists should be doing this, as some kind of historical tit-for-tat -- merely that, if we so choose, we're entitled to commit the same imaginative crimes as the guys. And worse ones, if we wish. Nor should we have to spend our time and energy -- still, now, at the cusp of the new century -- reiterating our right to do so.

You don't have to like Sex Crimes -- though, naturally, I'd rather you did. You don't even have to read it -- though, naturally, I'd rather you did. And, if you do, you may go right ahead and tell me that it's bad or dull or distasteful, that it fails miserably as a work of art -- though naturally, of course, I'd rather you didn't. But just don't tell me, Mr. Boston Globe, that I shouldn't have written it in the first place. Because, frankly -- as we not-so-nice girls are wont to say -- screw that.

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Copyright © 1997 Jenefer Shute.