I recently did an interview with Dead Darlings, conducted by Marc Foster, about my novel, "Gina in the Floating World."Among the thought-provoking questions Marc asked me was one related to themes of sexual harassment that appear regularly in different forms throughout the book. The notion of consent around sexual matters was always present from my story’s first incarnation as a screenplay, interestingly titled “Informed Consent.” I ditched that title because it sounded too much like a crime story, but I delved even deeper into the theme of consent as I revised.
My novel has been given several genre labels, including psychological thriller, suspense, erotic thriller, erotica, and coming-of age—it is any or all of these, but my hope was that many readers would consider the complexity of my protagonist’s unorthodox journey and the emotions and thoughts it raised for them, especially around sexual consent. Given today’s climate and recent events, I am reprinting Marc’s question and my response. Please note that in an attempt not to provide any spoilers, I don't go into much detail about the novel itself.
The Hussy, by Kitagawa Utamaro
Marc: Gina in the Floating World is set in the 1980’s, but themes of sexual harassment resonate in the #MeToo era we are living through now. What can we learn about today’s tangled sexual politics from life in Tokyo during the 1980’s?
Belle: Prior to my trip to Asia, I’d been deeply involved with what is referred to as the second wave of feminism. Our focus had been more on equal opportunity in careers and work, gender equity in pay, and role-sharing at home than on sexual harassment per se, although we certainly talked about the objectification of women. With these foci, coupled with the much greater sexual freedom we enjoyed compared to that of our older sisters, I think many women of my generation tolerated what we now see as sexual harassment and the misuse of sexual power by men. It was a double-edged sword. We were trying to have it all, and perhaps we saw putting up with that behavior as part of the price for the gains we were making. Or perhaps it was a matter of priorities at that time. There were so many battles to fight.
As I think about Dorothy/Gina’s story (and the ways it was informed by my own experiences), I see several different levels, each of which has parallels in our own society. First, there is the layer of sanctioned behavior that while offensive may not be physically threatening. Initially, I was shocked by the crude behavior of the drunken male customers at the bar where I worked in Japan —the coarse language, the attention to women’s body parts, the attempts at touching. It was so opposite of the generally polite demeanor I experienced outside of the bar and what we tend to associate with Japanese culture. Like Gina, I got used to this behavior within the circumscribed context of the bar where such behavior was permissible and tried not to take it personally. Gina’s friend Suki tells her to pretend she’s acting, and I think I did that. As unpleasant as it was, the behavior wasn’t particularly threatening as it might have seemed on the street at night at home in the States. And Tokyo was extraordinarily safe, day and night, even with some inappropriate touching on a crowded train. But is such behavior and objectification of women harmless even when there is no follow-up? In Gina’s case, did she internalize this constant barrage of commentary so that she began to see herself and her body as a commodity?
The second level is exemplified by Gina’s relationship with Mr. Tambuki, and Suki’s with her “patron.” Though consensual in both cases, these were not relationships of equality, and each man had expectations of their female partners that were demeaning at the same time they showed evidence of caring. Thus, the signals were mixed. Was each woman truly free to leave the relationship at any time? What would be the consequences?
The third level comes when Gina broadens her clientele. She has made this choice and reaps some of the financial benefits of that choice, but now she is operating outside of the established rules and the safety net of the odd range of sexual venues that make up what are referred to as the “water trades.” Does that mean she is asking for whatever will be dished out?
In American society, we have norms rather than rules (although we have laws). But norms, especially those related to these issues of sexual transgressions, often operate without safety nets and consequences as they would in the Japanese society of the time in which the book is set. The kind of behavior permissible in the bar was not permissible on the street. “No” means “no” during an unasked-for attempt at sex. (Of course, one can question whether these behaviors should be permissible in the first place, even if the consequences are clear.) In the past, in exchange for greater opportunity and freedom, American women put up with the unspoken norms and abuses of male power. Now, in the #MeToo movement, women are standing up and saying that we should not need to compromise ourselves. We want new rules, with consequences for men who transgress at all levels, whether at the level of a Harvey Weinstein or at the level of the person whose crude joking makes a woman feel uncomfortable. And we want to feel safe.
I don’t have all the answers, but I hope that my novel will spark conversation on this all-important and very current topic.
(To read the whole interview, published on September 13, click here.)