Telling Stories: Sexuality without the skeevies

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.I’ve said before that sexuality is part of roleplaying, because it is.  It’s part of the human condition, it’s a valid thing to explore in roleplaying, and it’s going to happen anyway.  But there’s a line between involving sexuality in your roleplaying and making it the sort of involvement that makes everyone around you look at you with narrowed eyes and intense discomfort.

This has come up a fair bit in the Final Fantasy XIV community of late, for kind of disturbing reasons that serve as an excellent highlight of the issue.  Because there’s a race of adults that are clearly meant to look like human toddlers… who are also very definitely sexually mature.  Which raises a lot of uncomfortable questions about the characters being played in the real world by adult humans.

Fantasy is, of course, fantasy.  But it’s useful to understand how fantasy lines up with and can be influenced by reality, and to understand why one might make the other far more uncomfortable.  It’s important to have sexuality as a component in roleplaying, but it’s also important to do so in such a way that no one gets disturbed by it.

Yeah, I hate.

“She’s not actually a child, she just looks exactly like a human child with animal ears wearing highly sexualized dresses. Totally innocent!”
Does that defense actually sound solid to you? Does that sound right to you?

This isn’t quite a problem unique to Final Fantasy XIV; TERA has the Elin, which look for all the world like preteen girls while technically being ageless spirits.  It raises uncomfortable questions and implications.  Yes, sex should be a part of these characters’ lives, as they are in every way, shape, and for consenting adults.  But at the same time, having a character who focuses on precisely those issues makes it look like children being involved with sex.  And if you made a character who looks like that with the explicit purpose of getting involved in sexual roleplaying…

It’s hard to believe that’s by accident.  And even if it is, somehow, totally accidental and coincidental?  It’s going to disturb people.  It should deserve people, because intentional or not, that is disturbing.

No, that doesn’t mean you need to avoid having such a character be involved in any sort of mature adult relationship; it just means that there’s a difference between tacitly acknowledging that sexuality is a component of said relationship and making it a visible, constantly discussed, unavoidable portion of that relationship.  You know that it’s happening, but that doesn’t mean that you need to go screaming it from the rooftops at every opportunity.

But then, that’s part of bringing sexuality into roleplaying anyway.

Sexuality becomes skeevy in roleplaying not when it’s simply a component of what’s happening, but the only component.  When all other concerns and logical factors are thrown out the window to support increasingly ornate sexual politics and configurations.  Make that your watchword, your constant reason for being there, and people will be grossed out, because everyone has a different level of comfort with sexuality and shouldn’t need to defend themselves against it just to be involve in roleplaying.

Like always, the key is communication.  In this case, calm, low-key, and discreet communication.  Nothing you wouldn’t be comfortable showing, well, a stranger whose personal history you likely have only the vaguest concept of.

One of the thing that gets missed far too often when discussing sex positivity is the idea that being positive includes giving people the option to say that they don’t want to be involved, which is entirely valid.  Not everyone is comfortable having sexual themes as a running part of their character’s personal history, or would prefer to address it only through tacit acknowledgement that said character is in a relationship and is thus presumably active.  Similarly, some people would rather not explore sexuality at all in roleplaying, or at the very lease would prefer to do so without your character for whatever reason.

Possibly because your character looks like a human toddler, but possibly just because that’s not something they want to explore.

This really isn't that sort of game anyhow.

Yes, I had roleplaying ideas about this guy. No, none of them involved what he did in the bedroom.

Ideally, sexuality should be a part of roleplaying stories for the same reason that anything is a part of a roleplaying story – because you have something to say.  It’s not just something to add for the sake of racy content, or heaven forbid because it’s stuff that turns your crank in real life.  The only people who should be concerned with that are the people who are actually sharing your bed.  If it says something interesting, if there’s a point to the story, there’s every reason in the world to include it… but 90% of the time, it definitely doesn’t need to take center stage.

And it should not ever take the stage at all without making sure that everyone involved is comfortable.  Assume, always, that no one is.  Share nothing in public that you wouldn’t expect to see on prime time television, and perhaps a little bit less than that.  Always allow for the possibility of just fading to black at any point.  Tacit acknowledgement rather than lurid details should always be on the table, no matter what.

The kicker is that this isn’t a conversation that happens once.  It’s ongoing.  Your fellow players always have veto power, and so do you.  If something is making you uncomfortable, if a scene is verging into uncomfortable territory, if you just feel like roleplaying of late has been focusing to much upon the sexual side of your character’s relationship?  You always have the power to say that it stops, that you want a pause, and that you want to not focus on any of that for a while.

Anyone unwilling to respect that is someone you should not be getting involved with for in-character intimacy anyhow, because they’re either unable or unwilling to respect the boundaries you laid out for yourself and for them.  You should not be roleplaying with someone who transparently does not respect you or your needs.

Put some thought into what your character’s bedroom antics would look like to an outside observer and edit appropriately.  Make a point and a goal of keeping your actions from being overly disturbing and unpleasant to others, or you’re going to be the roleplaying equivalent of the creepy old man in the back of the room.

Next time around, I want to look at making sure your character has tastes which are distinct from your own.  The week after that, let’s talk about major ongoing storylines and how they intersect with your character, usually not as a direct participant.

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About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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