Why Do Stories of Female Sexual Predators Shock Us?
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It may be the summer’s best beach read — that is, if you ditch the disconcertingly woolly black velour dust jacket, and make sure your kids aren’t peeking over your shoulder.
“Tampa,” by Alissa Nutting, is a tale of lust that draws out the dynamic between a predatory teacher and her lascivious students. The twist — if indeed it is a twist — is that the predator here is a woman, and that her crime is hardly one of opportunity. Celeste Price, the novel’s protagonist, takes a job as a teacher specifically to seduce young boys, those untouched by incipient manhood. She’s calculating in a manner that’s utterly compelling, because she explains every step of her reasoning — and every pulse of her body — to the transfixed reader. Nutting has described the book, in other interviews, as inspired in part by studying in high school with a woman who went on to teach and to have sex with her students.
And so she shows us every detail of a richly imagined routine built around transgressive, morally appalling sex. Celeste, throughout the novel, slathers herself with lotions so that she appears closer in age to her students; she drugs herself to mute the pain of sex with her unsuspecting husband and drugs her husband so that she can escape his advances when they’re unbearable; she evades her colleagues and the parents of her students with a perceptive criminal mind. The reader hardly roots for Celeste to escape punishment, but watching the machinations of her mind, the degree to which she can defend any of her actions and ensure that she’s always one step away from society, is completely entertaining.
Beyond mere titillation, “Tampa” gets at fundamental questions: What are the limits of reader empathy? If an individual we’d view as an unrepentant criminal explains her twisted thought process, are we complicit if we keep reading? And is an adult woman seducing a young male student — with its air of “hot for teacher” fantasy — meaningfully different from male pedophilia? We spoke to Nutting, a teacher of creative writing at Ohio’s John Carroll University, about her explosive book, whether she expects to join the “serious novelist” crowd, why “Lolita” conforms to sexual stereotypes, and what she learned from her own anxiety.
I’ve seen this book compared to “Fifty Shades of Grey” on its GoodReads page. Given that E.L. James’ novel is about two adults, does that bother you?
[laughs at some length] Yeah … I understand the comparison based on extremity. I think that “Fifty Shades of Grey” is probably one of the first contemporary mainstream infusions of literature with a great deal of sexuality included in it. And I understand the fact that that’s a female author writing a sexually explicit book, which also isn’t awfully common — that’s kind of where my understanding of the comparison leaves off. In this book Celeste is a predator. The relationship by law cannot be consensual.
But it also suggests that “Tampa” is being kind of marginalized into the pile of books for women exclusively, rather than “important” novels — which are usually by men.
Absolutely. I think that that does happen. Realistically, unfortunately, I think that really blatant sexuality and works that feature humor or comedy, all of these things are traditionally written off as being lowbrow. There’s a notion that really grand novels, the novels that are going to win the big awards, need to be dark, dramatic, serious, sweeping and tasteful. There are these rigid boundaries, and when you cross over them — if you get too sexually explicit, if it’s too humorous or satirical — you fall out of the mainstream literary sweet spot. There are some people who dismiss every work that does fall out of it, who don’t take that work as seriously.