As I’ve mentioned before, I love dystopian fiction, especially the young adult novels that have swept the scene in the last few years. But I have one pet peeve that really, really irks me—the ignorance and stupidity in portraying romance within a purity culture.
I love falling in love with a character.
I love those butterflies I get when a romantic scene arises.
I want to hate but begrudgingly love the heart-wrenching suspense of whether the protagonist will end up with her love interest.
But all of that is ruined so easily when the purity construct is thoughtlessly abandoned as soon as the first kiss happens.
As the protagonist of a dystopian plot, the main character is presumably smarter than the other people around her—or at least she’s more aware. She has to be in order to carry the plot of rebellion forward. So why is it that when a boy comes on the scene, she suddenly loses any and all sense of discretion, caution, or intelligence?
If part of the dystopian atmosphere involves a purity culture that punishes physical contact between the sexes, then it’s basic common sense that out in public is NOT the place for two people to explore their feelings for each other. When you live in an environment where violating purity standards could lead to the ruination of your reputation (at the very least) or expulsion, physical punishment, or execution, you don’t really forget about that threat. Whenever I read about a character who just throws herself at a pair of deep blue eyes right out where others can see her, my suspension of disbelief is shattered immediately, especially if she’s already actively fighting against the authorities as it is. No matter how strong the urge to kiss someone is, it’s rarely strong enough to override the need for self-preservation.
The Scarlet Letter–a mild example of what purity culture does to women who violate standards.
Having lived in a dystopian environment, I feel I actually have reasonable experience to speak on this subject. Whether you are writing a dystopian novel yourself or living a dystopian life, there are some basic things you need to know about romantic contact.
I’m not foreign to the hormonal drives of youth, and I’m well aware of the titillating allure of forbidden touch. It’s intoxicating and wonderful. In fact, I indulged in it quite a bit when I was at Bob Jones University. With chaperones patrolling every public area to ensure that at least six inches were between male and female students and brainwashed bojes (spies) ready to tattle on you at every turn, it wasn’t easy. But I never got caught. Why?
I used my brain.
Granted, as far as plot development goes, it may be important for a character to get caught, but it doesn’t have to happen in an irritatingly stupid way. There are some brilliant ways to arrange for clandestine meetings. By following a few tips, you can provide the utmost protection possible and, if discovery has to happen, at least comfort yourself that the discovery was inevitable rather than due to oversight. That little difference may not seem so important in the grand scheme of having actually gotten caught, it makes a big difference in the odds of survival.
First, be aware of your surroundings. Don’t think about locking even a pinky with someone without first ascertaining where danger lies. If people are present, determine what they can see. This requires stepping outside of your own perspective, which is harder than you might think. I often saw couples sitting together at the university library tables, their legs tangled underneath the tabletop. Perhaps they thought they were being discreet since they themselves couldn’t see their legs, but for anyone entering the library, it was laughably obvious. If need be, actually do a test yourself if you can do so without arousing suspicion. Take a stroll around the area in question and note which spots are sheltered and which ones aren’t.
If people aren’t present, figure out how likely someone is to enter and, again, what they would be able to see. This is where dystopian novels make their biggest mistake. Just because no one happens to be with the couple doesn’t mean that it’s a safe place. If there are wide open spaces, windows, doorways without doors, or any other type of quirk about the location that would put you in a compromising position if a passerby happened to pass by—you can’t let your guard down.
Remember, you can never know where someone else might be innocently headed. Don’t assume the world stops because you are overcome with passion . . . unless you’re Adelice from Crewel and can pause time.
If, after analyzing the environment, you find it suitable enough to risk some sort of affectionate exchange, you still need to identify which kinds of affection are feasible. A deserted stairwell might be appropriate for a stolen kiss, but it doesn’t make a great place to have a picnic. A draped coat might allow for two people to hold hands, but it’s not going to protect them from scrutiny if they lock lips.
A good rule of thumb for intimate exchanges is that the more intimate the exchange, the greater the risk; the greater the risk, the greater the need for protection. If you’re just interested in some light flirting or mildly serious kissing (and don’t underestimate the power of such touches in a purity culture), look for places where you will hear people coming before they can see you as well as places where you can assume less incriminating stances if need be. One of my and my partner’s favorite places was a particular hallway where we could pretend to be heading to or from a class if someone came clomping down the stairs.
However, if you want to do more intimate things, you need to find places where you are less likely to be stumbled upon. These would be places where passersby are completely unlikely and the only people who would catch you are the ones deliberately looking for you. Of course, in this instance, you can’t exactly finagle your way out of anything if you do happen to get caught, but at least you need to be under suspicion in the first place. This would be the equivalent to sneaking off campus if you happen to attend a dystopian-esque university like the one I attended (we had some lovely Sunday afternoons hiding in deserted parking lots) . . . or sneaking to a rented room, as the characters in 1984 did.
The lovers indulging in behaviors illegal for Anti-Sex League members, from 1984, the film.
I will caution you though—this isn’t something you would want to do with just any attractive person who walks by (another pet peeve of the dystopian young adult novel, the character who falls into the arms of every boy in the book). These rendezvous are the ones that should be reserved for some serious lovers because . . . well, if you’re going to risk everything for the chance of lying entwined in someone’s arms, wouldn’t you want to know that the risk was worth something greater than what you can get by just masturbating?
Lastly, just remember that no matter how smart you are, when you’re rebelling against a system, sooner or later that rebellion will be unearthed. In a purity culture, romance is never just romance, it’s always rebellion. So whether you rebel over a lover or over a principle, you better be willing to pay the price. In a true dystopian environment, your bridges burn as you cross them.
From the Handmaid’s Tale film . . . the arrest.