From Magonia 72, January 2001
The following essay is an attempt to establish the parallel role and content of the abduction narrative and pornography. By this I do not mean that the numerous books, articles and documentaries allegedly reporting the true abduction and sexual abuse of humans by extraterrestrial beings are deliberately written to provoke sexual arousal. Indeed, I sincerely I hope this is not the case. Nevertheless, like pornography it is a literature with a strong sexual content, using many of its themes and motifs, originating squarely to address human psychological needs and fulfilling some of its social functions. The explicitly sexual elements of the abduction phenomenon also have more than a whiff of obscenity. Not only are they repellent, but, by encouraging the more impressionable of their readers to believe that they could be the victims of similar assault by aliens, it could be argued that it depraves or corrupts. Perhaps this is too strong. There are, mercifully, no examples yet of someone citing it in court as encouraging the perpetration of sex offences. Nevertheless, the number of abductees who read this type of material before experiencing abductions of their own, including, inter alia, Whitley Strieber, strongly suggests that it is potentially highly dangerous for a certain type of vulnerable mind. Even if not technically obscene within the accepted legal definition of the term, its detrimental effects on certain individuals’ mental health may strike some as an indication of obscenity within the broader sense of the term, as literary material “intended to shock or disgust.” (1)
The essay also tends to consider the abduction narrative largely in terms of female sexuality and pornography. This is not an attempt to be sexist or exploitative. Although the most notorious abduction case after the Hills’ was that of Antonio Villas-Boas, which undoubtedly informed and influenced the course of later abduction fantasies, most abductees are women. There are male abductees, of course, and there is much male pornography which describes scenes of passive rape, or masochistic abuse by a strong, sexually aggressive woman. The sheer preponderance of women in the abductee underground, however, suggests something profound and deeply disturbing about female sexuality and gender relations and roles in modern society.
Finally, if investigating pornography in the context of alien abductions appears morally dubious, or inappropriate, consider Gershon Legman’s comments on sexual folklore: “Sexual folklore . . . concerns some of the most pressing fears and most destructive life problems of the people who tell the jokes and sing the songs . . . They are projecting the endemic sexual fears, and problems and defeats of their culture . . . And they are almost always expressing their resistance to authority figures, such as parents, priests and policemen, in stereotyped forms of sexual satisfaction and scatological pranks and vocabulary.” (2) Legman is describing the intentionally humorous quality of most bawdy traditional material, but this description does fit the abduction narrative, with, of course, the exception that there is precious little intentionally funny about alien abductions.
To the sceptic, the most repellent feature of the classic abduction narrative is its strong similarity to certain forms of sado-masochistic pornography, especially in the accounts of the alleged abduction and sexual abuse of children. Indeed, “(s)ome of these accounts, if separated from the context of a purported real event, could be mistaken for paedophile fantasies of sexual torture, and regardless of whether or not these accounts have any basis in reality, it is clear that a number of publishers and magazine editors think there is nothing wrong in publishing detailed accounts of violent sexual assaults on children.” (3) To this the standard reply of many abductionists is that the scenario is too fantastic, too horrific, to be the product of human imagination or fantasy. It’s an assertion which is easily countered. Not only can the technological and exobiological imagery of the abduction narrative be linked to that of science fiction, but the central motif of gynaecological or andrological examination and sexual abuse can also be clearly proven to have its own connections to the murky world of contemporary pornography.
The most repellent feature of the classic abduction narrative is its strong similarity to certain forms of sado-masochistic pornography, especially in the accounts of the alleged abduction and sexual abuse of children
“Abduction scenarios closely resemble women’s pornography, from the soft-core rape fantasies of bodice busters to the masturbation fantasies recounted by writers like Shere Hite or Nancy Friday. Many of Nancy Friday’s stories from the 1970s even have similar imagery of gynecological examinations with faintly masochistic overtones, often with occult or medical details.” (4) Apart from the better known accounts of abuse by the aliens themselves, many of the abduction narratives also contain episodes in which the percipient is is raped, or forced to have sex with, another apparently “switched-off” human being. (5) Regardless of David Jacobs’s comments that “This is not a sexual fantasy situation, most men and women feel that it is an uncontrollable and traumatic event”, (6) it does have strong parallels in some people’s sexual fantasies. As an illustration of the pseudo-medical, masochistic nature of many of the fantasies recounted by Friday, in her encyclopaedic collection of such material, My Secret Garden, she includes one woman’s fantasy of being displayed for the erotic satisfaction of a football crowd while strapped to a dentist’s couch. She is then wheeled into another room where her ex-husband does have sex with her, but shows no emotion whilst doing so. The parallels to the abduction narrative are immediate and striking.
First of all there is the pseudo-medical nature of the encounter itself – a surgical table in the abduction narrative, and the dentist’s chair in the fantasy, the passive, physically restrained role of the female percipient, and the unemotional, impassive demeanour of the man, or alien, who finally copulates with her. Of course, there are also important differences. The most important is that the fantasy recounted by Friday is presumably that of a healthy woman who felt largely in control of her life and imagination, whilst the abduction scenario is perceived and recounted by individuals who feel themselves totally humiliated and helpless before their alien or human tormentors. Outside the abduction milieu, much of the pornography now written for women consists of stories of sexual abuse or degradation. The Captive, one of the overheated works published by Silver Mink, a publisher of “erotica” for women, is explicit in the particular form of the sexuality within its pages, both in its title and cover illustration of a naked woman bent over in some kind of stocks.
A disturbing amount of female pornography allegedly contains incest motifs, to the point where it has been somewhat cynically said, “(I)ncest has also become the standard plot twist in women’s pulp fiction. Reviewing the latest batch of Black Lace offerings – pornography for women – Maureen Feely notes that “the deep, dark secret that you have to plow through hundreds of pages to discover is always – but always – what the blurb writers like to call “society’s last taboo”.” So it’s not much of a surprise any more.” (7) A few years ago, the Femail section of the Daily Mail ran an article on how women betrayed themselves through such pornography took the publishers to task for encouraging, at least psychologically, their sexual abuse. At first glance, this is strange, even perverse.
Over the past thirty years society has made a determined effort to stamp out sexual abuse and give women greater control, not less, in their personal, professional and sexual relationships, a situation which has found its counterpart in much male pornography. A sizable chunk of the male sexual underground revolves around their abuse and subjugation before whip-wielding dominatrices, to the point where that image has arguably become the standard, uncontested symbol of forbidden pleasures – at least those pleasures which society chooses not to ban, but place on the top shelves of bookstores and the seedier type of newsagent. It’s therefore extremely problematic why contemporary women, enjoying more freedom than previous generations, should generate and consume fantasies of their abuse and domination. The link between such pornography and the abduction experience clearly points to a deeper psychological phenomenon, one that requires greater investigation than it has hitherto received.
The group of male Venusians who walked stark naked out of Buck Nelson’s barn told him they did so to reassure him they were just like him. They then departed in their flying saucer, but did not attempt to persuade Nelson to go with them, or otherwise do anything which would elicit the interest of Budd Hopkins
Although pseudo-medical examinations appear to have been an element of the UFO phenomenon almost from the very beginning, like that experienced by Harold Chibbett’s female hypnotic subject in her 1947 psychic voyage to Mars, (8) by comparison with today’s fraught abductee panic the contactee era is remarkably lacking, or benign, in its sexual content. Samuel Estes Thompson may have been lectured on reincarnation, vegetarianism and other mystical topics by a UFO crewed by naked male Venusians, but apart from favouring him with their religious opinions they made no attempt to assault him. Similarly, the group of male Venusians who walked stark naked out of Buck Nelson’s barn told him they did so to reassure him they were just like him. They then departed in their flying saucer, but did not attempt to persuade Nelson to go with them, or otherwise do anything which would elicit the interest of Budd Hopkins. Mr G.B. may similarly have been abducted while walking along the North Canal in Marseille by tall, slender beings dressed in diving suits, but apart from sitting, weeping in their spacecraft before being allowed to leave, nothing happened to him. No medical examination, extraction of sperm or any of the other fetishistic favourites of the contemporary abduction narrative. Clearly something changed between the heyday of the contactee – the late forties and early fifties – and the onset of the modern abduction hysteria in the late seventies. The question is just what?
Possibly the lack of explicitly sexual elements within the close encounter experiences of the later forties and fifties stems from the repressed nature of contemporary society. The Lord Chamberlain’s office continued to censor stage material of an explicitly sexual nature until the late sixties, and literature was subject to much the same extensive strictures. As a result, much of the material from that period which caused a furore because of its supposedly dangerous sexual nature now seems remarkably tame, even inoffensive. The early attempts at cinematic pornography, at least in Britain, tended to be salacious exposes of life in nudist camps, featuring nothing more shocking than naked people, usually women, running around playing volleyball or tennis. Rape, homosexuality and paedophilia were taboo subjects, and simply not discussed. Many members of the older generation can remember how they were in their late teens or even early twenties before learning incredulously that homosexuals existed. One female journalist for the Observer wrote at the tail end of the 80s that women and children were probably no more at risk today from sexual assault than they were during her childhood in the fifties. The difference was that people were now far more aware of the possibility of sexual assault, and responded by curtailing their children’s freedom, restricting them to places where they could be safely watched instead of allowing them to wander abroad as in previous decades.
Within ufology, the key episodes introducing the motifs of medical examination and sexual contact were the abductions of Betty and Barney Hill and Villas-Boas, while the turning points for the milieu as a whole were the assassination of JFK and Watergate. Under the impact of these traumatic events, the ufological narrative turned from one of benign contact with omniscient, compassionate Space Brothers, albeit with rumours of government cover-ups, to the Darkside scenario of rape and abuse by callous, indifferent monsters with the express collusion of the civil and military administration. This occurred, however, at a time of rapid change in western sexual mores which sought to establish a more tolerant, liberal attitude towards sex. The result was the gradual establishment of pre-marital sex as the norm, rather than a dangerously aberrant form of delinquency, the legalisation of homosexuality, gradual relaxation of censorship permitting a more explicit depiction and discussion of sexual issues, and the appearance of an increasingly tedious variety of pornographic magazines, beginning with Playboy.
Of course, most of this pornography was aimed squarely at a male readership, but women weren’t far behind. Hugh Hefner launched a companion magazine for women, Playgirl, while Cosmopolitan in the 1970s carried a series of nude male centrefolds for their female readers. Unlike its male counterpart, female pornography has met with mixed success. Playgirl eventually folded through lack of interest, and the author is reliably informed by his female friends that Cosmopolitan no longer carries its centrefolds. The attempts of tabloid newspapers like the Sun and Star to introduce a “page seven fella” for their female readers have similarly vanished without a trace. These attempts have had an effect though. There have been more recent attempts to launch further pornographic magazines for women, and glossy magazines like Cosmopolitan, and their counterparts in the “lad mags” usually have at least one article per issue on sensational sex tips along with photographs of scantily clad members of the opposite sex.
This drive towards a more sexually tolerant, even indulgent, society has not gone unchallenged, however. Despite its legalisation in 1969, many people are still deeply uneasy about the acceptance of homosexuality to the point where its legalisation in the armed forces and Clause 28 are heavily contested, emotive issues. Mary Whitehouse’s Viewers and Listeners’ Association was instrumental in challenging much sexually explicit material in broadcasting, and the religious Right, particularly in America but also elsewhere in the world, regularly condemns such liberal sexual attitudes as an assault on decency and pure family values. Nor are they alone. Elements of the feminist left have also attacked sexual permissiveness and liberalism, after initially supporting it, because of the way in which it is felt it has been used to exploit and violate women, rather than benefit them. These ideas carried a greater urgency after the feminist campaigns in the 70s against rape and domestic violence in which some of the most vociferous protagonists in the debate claimed vastly inflated statistics for instances of child abuse and saw dangerous subtexts of domination and abuse in nearly all forms of heterosexual contact. Furthermore, the advent of AIDS in the early 80s provided a strong link between sex and disease paralleling the social panic surrounding syphilis at the end of the 19th century.
This darkening of social attitudes to sex is reflected in the content of the contemporary media. The early British attempts at pornography were either the inane and prurient documentaries about nudist camps, or else comedies in which the hapless hero found himself the object of uncontrolled female desire. More recent films and literature have stressed the darker elements of human sexuality, usually with a subtext of domination, subordination, control or death. For example, 9½ Weeks contained strong sado-masochistic imagery while The Silence of the Lambs contained particularly shocking and disgusting images of sexual aberration. At the level of popular literature, the Batman comic strip, particularly in the Dark Knight and Arkham Asylum graphic novels, stressed the aberrant, dysfunctional, even schizophrenic nature of Batman himself, and hinted strongly at a sado-masochistic and even homosexual undercurrent to the character. The result has been the transformation of society’s view of sex, from something fundamentally healthy and natural, to a dark, obsessive force driving people towards increasingly bizarre forbidden pleasures. The uncomplicated hedonism of the Playboy clubs has been replaced by the bizarre, violent and transgressive sexuality of the fetish milieu.
This increasingly dark view of human sexual relations has its reflection in the tortured imagery of alien abductions. All fantasy, whether pornography or innocent day-dreaming, is an attempt by the human psyche to obtain experiences which would be otherwise impossible in reality. This naturally includes scenarios which the reader or dreamer would find repulsive or otherwise unpleasant in real life. War films are, for example, perennially popular at the cinema, but few people would willingly choose to experience the full horror of armed conflict, and those that do may well have compensatory fantasies of a quiet life of office work. The abduction fantasy has arisen to address deep, if obscure, human social, psychological and spiritual needs, just as pornography addresses the deepest, most basic drive of the human psyche. It should not be surprising that the imagery of one carries over into the other.
The content of much abduction material – the dehumanising medical examination and rape – shows a deeply ambivalent, even hostile attitude to sex
The content of much abduction material – the dehumanising medical examination and rape – shows a deeply ambivalent, even hostile attitude to sex, an attitude which is shared by the incest survivors’ milieu. “Although some women who tell Jacobs and Bryan their stories belong to puritanical religious groups or are celibate, this imagery is a normal part of women’s sexual fantasies. The abductees, however, seem particularly uneasy about sex . . . these desires for touch, gazing, penetration have to come from very far away, even outer space.” (9) Ellen Bass and Laura Davis’s influential book, The Courage to Heal, a popular guidebook aimed at the female survivors of incest, contains a checklist of 78 effects of sexual abuse, and explicitly asks its readers whether they are aroused by fantasies of violence, sadism or incest. “The assumption that sexual fantasies are improper, incorrect, sick, is at the heart of the recovered memory phenomenon. Many women feel they must disown these fantasies, and blame them on something or someone else.” (10) In the science fictional post-space age, this something or someone else naturally includes aliens or creatures from parallel worlds.
This extreme discomfort about sex may also explain the masochistic elements within the abduction experience. Most human cultures, even those which have struck westerners as being remarkably open and tolerant about sexuality, have strong taboos and prohibitions regarding sex. Strong feelings of guilt and shame, including, naturally, those surrounding sex may, in turn, take on a particular sexual form. “Moral masochism is regarded as an important form, being linked with an unconscious sense of guilt, with a paramount need for suffering.” (11) At least one contemporary sex manual suggests that some women’s desire to be spanked during sex possibly comes from subconscious guilt about the act and childish feelings that they are somehow being naughty and need to be punished. Needless to say, such feelings are by no means confined to women, as the scandals which continue to erupt over those prominent literary and political figures who choose to indulge themselves in le vice anglais demonstrate. From this point of view, however, the abduction experience appears to be an extremely unpleasant fantasy experienced by those who are brutally alienated from their own sexuality and feel that they must suffer for, and within their pleasures.
The pseudo-medical content of the abduction narrative is also easily explained within the context of pornography or romantic fantasy. Members of both sexes may fantasise about erotic liaisons with their doctors or nurses as an extension of much romantic material. Mills and Boon, who for decades have been synonymous with harmless romantic escapism, have had as their stock in trade an almost unceasing catalogue of hospital dramas. Such material has also provided the plots of much television medical drama, and girls’ comics. Every now and then, one of the more popular tabloids announces that doctors are the favourite subjects of women’s sexual fantasies, while some men on the other hand fantasise about nurses. There is a even a technical term, iatronudia, for a woman’s desire to expose herself to her doctor. Since the seventeenth century, an awful amount of pornography has been published masquerading as medical texts.
The reasons for this aren’t hard to find. Members of the medical profession enjoy a uniquely privileged access to their patients’ bodies and minds in their professional role and it is only natural that some individuals should thus respond by making such intimately caring figures the object of fantasy. Adolescents are, at least in the mythology surrounding childhood, which, amongst other things, stipulates that “schooldays are the happiest days of your life”, supposed to acquire sexual knowledge and awareness through games of doctors and nurses with members of the opposite sex. In psychiatry, both Freud and his predecessor Breuer noted the strong tendency of their women patients to fall in love with them. Freud eventually concluded that this was a result of their displaced incestuous feelings for their fathers, although possibly a better explanation was that Freud and Breuer, to particularly neurotic members of the stiflingly bourgeois Viennese upper-middle class, represented caring, omniscient male authority figures to whom their patients could confide their deepest problems and desires, and therefore suitable subjects for their affections. Sadly, as recent scandals have also shown, many doctors are all too willing to exploit this intimacy with their patients and abuse them sexually. This new element of fear and sexual suspicion in an essential relationship of trust is undoubtedly responsible for the humiliating nature of the medical examinations recounted in the abduction narratives, and the overt motifs of rape and abuse which permeate the abduction experience as a whole.
Central to much female pornography, and certain abduction narratives, is the heroine’s sexual subjugation by a dominating, charismatic male authority figure. One of the directors or leading writers for Mills and Boon stated on the chat show Wogan over a decade ago now that the most important element in any romance was the hero, who should be an “alpha male” – strong, ambitious and competitive. This may explain the appearance of the Tall Grey Being in the abduction narratives collected, or suggested, by Jacobs. The featureless Greys, almost devoid of individual identity, may represent fears of the loss of individuality before the collective, but as a narrative device they are psychologically unsatisfying. Star Trek found this out when they were forced to introduce the character of the Borg Queen despite the undifferentiated, collective nature of the fictional Borg society. For the characters to interact satisfyingly with their enemies, the Borg had to have a personal, individual representative. In the abduction narrative, the equally characterless, undifferentiated Greys are joined by the Tall Grey Being whom “many female abductees intuitively feel is male, a doctor, and an authority figure . . . gazing deep into her (the victim’s) eyes like an extraterrestrial Heathcliff or Fabio, filling her with love and eagerness to give herself completely”. (12) This strongly suggest that at the root of the abduction phenomenon is a distorted, perverted medicalised sexual fantasy, which as a matter of course must include submission before an authoritative and caring medical alpha male.
1. Thompson, R., Unfit For Modest Ears: A Study of Pornographic, Obscene and Bawdy Works Written or Published in England in the Second Half of the Seventeenth Century, Macmillan, 1979, preface.
2. Legman, G., The Horn Book, New Hyde Park, 1964, pp. 245-6, quoted in Thompson, R., op. cit., p. 13.
3. McClure, K., “Bogeymen”, Magonia 55, p. 4.
4. Showalter, E., Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture, Picador, 1997, p. 196.
5. See J. and A. Spencer, True Life Encounters: Alien Contact, Millennium, 1997, p. 148.
6. Ibid, p. 148.
7. Freely, M., “Blowing Hot and Hotter”, The Observer Review, 16 July, 1995, p. 12, quoted in Showalter, E., op. cit., p. 91.
8. Rogerson, P., “Fairyland’s Hunters: Notes towards a Revisionist History of Abductions”, Magonia 56, p. 4.
9. Showalter, op. cit., p. 196.
10. Showalter, op. cit. p. 150.
11. “Masochism”, in Paxton, J., ed., The New Illustrated Everyman’s Encyclopedia, Octopus Books, 1985, volume 2, p. 1040.
12. Showalter, E., op. cit., p. 192.