The subject of John Norman’s Gor came up recently in a letter from a long-lost cousin. He wrote me about SF and different tastes and he mentioned this peculiar series and I thought, Damn, I haven’t thought about that since 1997.
I can name the year and even the week fairly precisely because I was in San Antonio Texas for the worldcon that year and ended up sharing an autographing session with John Norman. I’d arrived at the table first, saw the name tags, and thought It couldn’t be…
But it was.
For those who may not know of Gor, this was a series of novels published through the Seventies which I can only describe as a combination of Conan and The Arabian Nights as if written by Edgar Rice Burroughs in collaboration with the Marquis de Sade. Chains, leather, large bosoms, and a lot of improbable adventuring figure in them, although I was told by a friend that some of the Jungian psychology and mirror-world construction throughout the series was quite sophisticated. I wouldn’t know. I tried to read perhaps three of them—never finished any one of them. I hasten to add, it wasn’t the bondage that turned me off—hell, I was 14 when I picked the first one up and any kind of gratuitous sex was appealing at the time—but it was the illogic of the plots and the sword-and-sorcery setting, even though it was written as if it were science fiction. By my third or fourth attempt, the sex was beginning to bother me, but let me not pretend to a sophistry I did not possess at the time. I didn’t know what bothered me about it, not till much later, only that it did.
The sex in these books shares something with a certain strain of Romance. Women are forced to have the sex they apparently “really want” through the mechanism of a slave culture. They’re tied up, they have no choice, and then discover that they like it. What this shares with certain romances is the underlying liberation from personal responsibility. No doubt this is true for certain people—I’ve been with a few—who really want to get down and dirty, but they don’t want to accept the responsibility of it being their idea. The conceit of “being taken” appeals because it frees them from blame.
As if blame ought ever to be part of sex…
For the males in these books, there is a similar loss of responsibility, since if things don’t work out they can sell the females—or get rid of them in some less pleasant fashion (they are property, after all).
I use the terms “males” and “females” quite intentionally. These are not men and women—they don’t have the stuff to merit such descriptors.
All in all, these are wish-fulfillment fantasies of the first order, and after having spent an awkward half-hour with Mr. Norman I think I can say that with some degree of certainty. Whether the wish-fulfillment is a device deployed in the novels to appeal to a target audience or an element of his own personality would be difficult to say, but I’m not sure such a distinction matters.
Norman fell out of favor and of course he was soundly attacked by feminists, and he made the mistake of defending the sexual ethics of his series. I remember that it was an embarrassing screed. It underscored the old rule of comedy—never explain the jokes.
The Gor novels are available, I discovered, from e-reads.com.
There are 26 of them now.
I remember that they had originally come out from, I think, Ballantine. Then DAW picked them up. The series was dropped due to flagging sales. People had grown weary of them, which happens to many series, for many reasons. Norman had decided that he was the victim of political correctness. That is such a convenient excuse! In this case, though, the numbers backed up DAW.
The thing that bothered me about the sex in these books I later came face to face with in my own life in a very unpleasant way. I believe sex must be mutual. Absolutely. Power games have no place in it. Both parties—or all three, four, five, or whatever the arrangement may be—must be there of their own accord, willingly, and with the clear knowledge of what they are there for. Seduction for me is only valid if it is part of an already understood dance—in other words, seduction is foreplay. The idea that it is to convince a somewhat unwilling party to do something they aren’t sure they want to do I find somewhat distasteful.
Long ago I was involved with a woman with whom I was, to use the cliche, Madly In Love. I mean, I had it for her as deeply as it is possible to have it for someone.
Turned out that we were fundamentally incompatible. It happens. It’s sad and occasionally tragic. But one of the things that ultimately turned me off was her seeming desire to be dominated sexually. She wanted me to “take her.” I didn’t figure this out for a long while, not till other problems manifested, and then she threw it in my face as an insult, that I was somehow deficient.
It took some time before I understood that this was a pathology. By “taking her” the burden of the relationship would have all been on me. If it went bad, well, it would have been my fault, not hers. My insisting that she be an equal participant ran afoul of that.
Twisty? You bet. How much simpler, one could think, to be in Mr. Norman’s universe where that was a given—woman are to be taken, and it still ain’t your fault.
I would like to assume the mantle of mature self-awareness here and say that I saw this as morally suspect and ethically bankrupt. But the truth is, it was a major turn-off. I can’t abide the idea of sleeping with someone who may want to be somewhere else. Yielding shouldn’t be a valid concept in sexual relations. How good can anyone feel about him or herself when they person they are having sex with probably doesn’t actually want them? That the only reason they’re there in the first place is for reasons having nothing to do with mutual desire?
On the other hand, it’s not too hard to see why such pathologies emerge. Sex is potent stuff. It’s dangerous. The pleasure derived is in direct relation to the risk involved. Putting up boundaries, hiding behind games, negotiating terms all make sense when one is not sure about what one wants. Sex is as good as the risk taken, though, so for it to be worthwhile at all, one must be vulnerable, and that is not easy to do.
The problem with fantasies like Gor is the pretense of no-risk sex. The women are tied up, they’re not allowed to complain, the men get to walk away after a good spend, and there are no down-sides. What was Erica Jong’s term? The zipless fuck.
I’m not condemning here what used to be called casual sex. Strangers meeting, screwing, parting, never to meet again…in and of itself, I can’t see a problem with it as long as everyone involved knows what they’re there for and why. It’s just another variation of mutuality. And no less risky than the committed sex of long-term lovers.
What I’m condemning, I think—if I’m condemning anything—is the attempt to “clean up” sex. Clean up in the same sense as attempts to create a “clean” atomic bomb. So there is just the initial explosion and no fall out. Remove the risk, make it a computer game, render the consequences null. Make it “safe.” And remove responsibility from it.
As if that would somehow make it better…?