They may be inescapable Jungian archetypes or merely the consequences of living in a society that’s irrational and conflicted where sex is concerned. But wherever they come from, my hunch is that when puberty hits, most straight American males incorporate versions of the Good Girl, the Bad Girl, and the Sexual Destroyer into their personal mythologies. I say “versions” because the roles by themselves are mere shells without the power to move us. A teenage boy has to find specific images and personalities, real or imagined, to inhabit and exemplify them.
As her title suggests, the Good Girl, while alluring, embodies everything males find virtuous and admirable in the opposite sex. (In fact, her virtue is in large measure the source of her desirability.) She inspires us to strive to be worthy of her.
Whereas the Bad Girl represents rebellion and the thrill of the forbidden. Brazen and wanton, she makes us want to abandon respectability, sample every pleasure, and indulge every impulse. And get away with it.
Which leaves the Sexual Destroyer to symbolize punishment or at least our fears of taboo, mysterious sex. She’s the Terrible Mother with her vagina dentata, and if we push in where we’re oh-so-tempted to, she bites.
To a degree, growing up to be a decent, sensible adult male requires recognizing these stereotypes for the absurdities they are. Men need to learn to relate to women as human beings as individual and complex as themselves. Guys who don’t are likely condemned to bad relationships.
Still, it may be that this erotic trinity has some developmental utility for teenage males. It might even be that, so long as we recognize its three sisters as creatures of the imagination, it has some value to adult men and women, too. Perhaps it adds pizzazz to our love lives and provides a set of symbols useful for communicating about sexuality both in the real world and in fiction. I believe it does, and I’m accordingly grateful to the genre of the fantastic for providing the marvelous trio of goddesses who came to inhabit the roles for adolescent me.
Way back in the sixties, when I was in junior high, publishers reprinted a steady stream of the best SF, fantasy, and horror from the pulps, thus introducing me to the authors who are still my primary influences. For a time, my favorite of them all was Edgar Rice Burroughs, and it was he who supplied my ideal of the Good Girl in the ravishing (and naked!) form of Dejah Thoris, princess of Helium, in the novels A Princess of Mars, The Gods of Mars, and The Warlord of Mars.
ERB’s plots largely required Dejah to be a damsel in distress for the heroic Earthman John Carter to rescue. Still, she doesn’t come across as a passive creature defined only by her beauty. She’s loving, unselfish, and brave, scornful and defiant in the face of terrible enemies, and if I was unconsciously casting around for a vision of Woman at her noblest, I could have done a whole lot worse.
Fortunately, though, my admiration for John Carter’s main squeeze wasn’t quite fervent enough to send me on what probably would have proved a futile search for women who lay eggs. Maybe that was because Robert E. Howard, another great pulp writer, provided a Bad Girl to counterbalance the Barsoomian princess’s virtuous appeal. She was Belit, the pirate captain, a creature of pure passion and sensuality who, after watching Conan cut down a goodly portion of her crew, strips naked (!) and performs a dance of seduction for him in the story “Queen of the Black Coast.”
Howard tells us the surviving rank-and-file corsairs, who presumably have buddies among the slain, are fine with the boss’s abrupt change of attitude and resulting slutty behavior. It was only later that I questioned the likeliness of this. Given that Belit is white and her crew is black, we can perhaps be forgiven for thinking that the latter’s happy and unconditional subservience to the former doesn’t show the author at his most racially enlightened. But since I’m supposed to be talking about sex and not race (the Night Bazaar discussion of race was earlier this month if you’re interested), we needn’t dwell on that.
The point for me when I was a teenager, and for purposes of this discussion, is that Belit is as much of an outlaw and as smoking hot as any Bad Girl could ever be. Her trade, after all, is raiding and killing on the high seas. You can’t get more gangsta than that, and on top of it, she has a boundless, shameless appetite for sex, and a spirit so ferocious and indomitable that not even death prevents her from coming to Conan’s aid when he needs her most.
My favorite Sexual Destroyer eventually reveals a supernatural or at least preternatural aspect to her nature, too, but with less fortunate results for the man involved. In “Shambleau” by C. L. Moore, a great female pulp writer, Northwest Smith, interplanetary wanderer and criminal (he and Conan are kindred spirits) rescues a strange (as in not entirely human) woman in a turban from a Martian lynch mob. Northwest subsequently finds out he may have been an eentsy bit hasty when she hypnotizes him into helplessness and then takes off the turban to reveal the wormlike tentacles she has instead of hair. The tendrils slither over his body, simultaneously draining his life force and inducing an irresistible and degrading ecstasy that Sacher-Masoch would have envied.
Yuck! And at the same time, wow! Psychoanalyze me as you will, but this scenario spoke powerfully to the anxiety festering in the shy teenage virgin that was me. It told me sex was weird, dangerous, and a force so overwhelming that not even a tough guy like Northwest Smith could withstand it.
I don’t know that you can look at what I write currently and see how strongly these stories affected me way back when. Or maybe you can. Despite their erotic elements, none of them contains an actual explicit sex scene (All-Story and Weird Tales wouldn’t have printed one even if an author wanted to include it), and, thinking about my stuff, I notice that I too generally cut away. Blind God’s Bluff has its share of sexy characters and situations, but no actual onstage humping.
So perhaps I do unconsciously imitate my pulp idols Burroughs, Howard, and Smith. Or it could be that years of writing gaming tie-in novels have trained me to handle the subject as I have. (You can’t serve up explicit erotica in a Forgotten Realms yarn, either.) Either way, I like to think I’ll prove equal to the challenge of writing an effective sex scene if I need one to advance the plot or reveal character. Because I certainly don’t think writers should flinch from depicting sex anymore than they should hesitate to portray any other aspect of human experience.
And when I do tackle such a scene, I suspect Dejah Thoris, Belit, and the shambleau will be there with me. Not, if I’m lucky, turning it into something sexist, stupid, or dishonest, but lending it some energy and flair.