What’s in a Name…and How Do You Pronounce It?

Image: Etienne Girardet

Names have power, especially in the City. Names are intimate, names are personal, names are expressions of the self.

The people of the City have a much more intimate connection with their names than most people in the real world (usually) do. Adult names in the Passionate Pantheon novels are always self-chosen; when a person chooses to become an adult, the transition from childhood to adulthood is marked by a naming ceremony where that person takes their first adult name and announces it to the community. A person who has undergone some major life event or grown in a significant way might also sometimes mark the occasion, and the transition from old to new, with a public ceremony where they take a new name. As you have probably guessed, this means that people will often gather more names over time, each one a representation of important moments in their history.

We’ve talked before about how names in the Passionate Pantheon work, and where they come from, with a detour into the language of the Passionate Pantheon (tl;dr: we come up with names by either taking modern-day names from the real world and applying linguistic drift to them, so for example Donovan becomes Donvin or Ashley becomes Ashi, or we invent them using what we know about the way the language sounds, such as Janaié or Calaïas).

However, we haven’t talked much about how the names you’ll see in the novels are pronounced. With the first two novels now out, the third coming out soon, and plans in the works for an audiobook (very early days, all hush-hush, don’t tell anyone yet, it’s a secret!), we figured…maybe it might be time to do something about that. Time to produce a pronunciation guide, before the confusion sets in.

Pronunciation in the Passionate Pantheon

The language spoken in the City is quite unlike Romance or Germanic languages. The world of the Passionate Pantheon is a second-generation colony, settled by a slower-than-light generation ship launched from an earlier colony that was itself settled by a slower-than-light generation ship launched from Earth.

A lot was lost during those two journeys through the vast cold dark. The first-generation colonists, the ones who left Earth and whose descendents would later go on to find the planet of the Passionate Pantheon, left in a hurry (that’s a long story, and we’ve talked about writing it one day, though it would not be a Passionate Pantheon story). They spoke a wide range of pan-Asian languages, most of them mutually unintelligible. The language of that colony ship started out first as a pidgin and then acquired its own grammar and syntax, becoming a creole at the intersection of all those languages. It developed further, as languages do, on the first colony, then gained yet more complexity when a group of colonists left that world to make a new home for themselves. Along the way, they created the first AIs, the kernels that eventually would grow into the gods of the Passionate Pantheon.

What does that have to do with names?

Names in the Passionate Pantheon that aren’t derived from real-world names with blurring applied to them—names like Janaié and Calaïas—frequently contain long vowel chains, which you don’t normally see in Western European or North American names.

In Romance or Germanic languages, the presence of multiple vowels usually indicates modification to a sound: if you see a name like Keith, the -ei vowel chain simply reminds you that the e is long. The name “Keth” would be pronounced with a short e.

In Passionate Pantheon names, this isn’t the case. Each individual vowel is often pronounced independently, which is quite different from the way Western names work.

Let’s look at Calaïas, for example. Confronted with a name that looks like “Calaias,” a Western reader might scratch her head and end up saying “kal-ACE” or “kal-ICE,” or perhaps “KAL-iss” or “KAL-yiss.”

We tried to offer a bit of a hint with the diaeresis; as with, say, Brontë, it suggests there’s something special about that vowel; “Brontë” is pronounced with two syllables, BRON-tee, not a single syllable with a long O, BRōNT.

All the vowels in Calaïas are voiced: kal-ay-EYE-ass. The same applies to Janaié: it might look to Western eyes like jan-EYE or perhaps JAN-ee, but it’s a three-syllable name: jan-eye-AY. (Yes, we’ve considered going all JRR Tolkien and including an appendix with a pronunciation guide, but really, who publishes porn with pronunciation guides? Who would read porn with a pronunciation guide? [Ed note: Eunice puts up her hand.])

This holds true even for people who live outside the City, in the ‘Wastelands’ beyond the shield dome. A character who appears briefly in Divine Burdens, Taín, pronounces his name with two syllables, TAY-inn, not one, TANE.

To be fair, the names in the Passionate Pantheon novels are more approachable than some real-life (if rare) British names, like Cholmondeley or Featherstonehaugh (pronounced CHUM-lee and FAN-shaw, respectively, though the latter can also be pronounced FEE-sən-hay, FEER-stən-haw, or FES-tən-haw, according to Wikipedia. Notice how none of those versions are possible to arrive at by spelling out the name letter by letter, and none of them are similar to each other. That’s English for you…). Welsh is even more brutal if you’re not familiar with the rules of written Welsh: Dafydd is pronounced something like Dav-i-th, or /ˈdævɪð/ in IPA. So it certainly could’ve been much worse.

Once you pick up the rules for pronouncing names in the City, they’re fairly consistent and easy to say. They’re unfamiliar-looking to English readers, but there is an underlying logic. More logic than in many current English names, let’s be honest. The same logic applies to consonants, too: Tsimbar, a protagonist in Unyielding Devotion, pronounces his name TSIM-bar, not SIM-bar. The consonants are all voiced.

Western Names in the City

So that’s the way names that don’t have roots in real-world words work. But what about other names, like Donvin or Ashi? How did we end up with names derived from contemporary Western European and North American names? That goes back to the history of those first generation ships. The one which became the ancestor of the ship that landed on the planet that we now find ourselves exploring was the very last ship to leave the Earth-That-Was—the last, remaining, final, desperate attempt to get as much of the population out as possible. 

Thing is, the majority of people on that ship (crew included) didn’t even speak English. 

So what happened? How did these names stick around when English, and all the other Germanic and Romance languages, burned themselves out in the vast pool of the pan-Asian languages spoken around them? 

Names stick around when languages die. There were some Anglos in the crew. Not many, but enough. People cling to the names of their ancestors, their grandparents and great-grandparents, in memory of the people they admired—even as they lose the language they spoke. 

Most immigrant families with children have personal experience of that. Eunice may, haltingly, speak a little Cantonese still, but the next generation is unlikely to speak any. It takes active work and effort to maintain that knowledge—it takes energy that most immigrants would rather use to build a new home for themselves and learn the vagaries of a different culture. By the time that first generation ship landed on that first planet, English was gone. But the remnants of those names stuck around, and sometimes other people heard those names and replicated it, or at least evolved it. And over time, some spread through the population. When the majority of people have multiple names, you end up with plenty of opportunity to try on an unusual name. And make no mistake, those Western names were exotic and unusual—that’s why they didn’t drift quite as much as the more common Asian names, and so remained just about recognisable, if you squint. There’s plenty of Asian names that drifted too, they’re just harder to spot because a living language drifts much further than a dead one.

(Of course, this is the Watsonian, in-universe interpretation. The Doylist view is that we used those names because we, as native English speaking authors, were more familiar with the linguistic drift that would be likely to happen to names in English, so that’s what we used. But that’s boring, isn’t it? Wouldn’t you much rather have the more complex, thought-through explanation?)

So if some of the names look a little familiar, you’re not imagining it. There are names in the Passionate Pantheon that carry a little bit of the history of a desperate population’s journey to a new homeworld, even if time and distance have worn down the edges a little.

The other names, the ones that will seem awkward and a bit hard to approach to many of our native English speaking readers: There’s a reason, we promise. We’re not just making the names difficult to make them difficult. The novels are porn, yes, but they’re porn we have put enormous thought, time, and attention into.

The first two books plant some seeds that grow in the later books. As the series goes on, you can expect to see a lot of this detail and complexity start to emerge. We’ve both really enjoyed the work we’ve put into these books, and we hope you’ll enjoy reading them as much as we’ve enjoyed writing them. Even if the names are sometimes hard to pronounce.

Trust us, it’s worth the effort.

Telling the Story that Wants to be Told

Image: Nong V on Unsplash

A few hours ago, we finished a new novella in the Passionate Pantheon universe. When we set out to write, we had an idea of the story we wanted to tell, which we expected to be somewhere between 3,500 words and 3,700 words long.

The first draft of the novella weighs in at 40,133 words.

It’s safe to say we overshot the mark a bit…and 40,133 words is after we deleted 3,039 words of sex that we felt didn’t add to the plot or the world. In other words, the deleted sex scenes alone are nearly as long as the entire story we’d planned to tell. (If you’re very good, we might share those snippets with you!)

So what happened?

When we wrote Divine Burdens, we introduced a character named Ortin, who we describe in a single sentence as having a scar. People in the City can sculpt their bodies however they want (subject only to the constraints of physics and biology), and any injury that doesn’t instantaneously kill you outright can be fixed without fuss by spending the evening in a medical pod, so scars are very rare, bordering on non-existent. Divine Burdens doesn’t explain why Ortin has a scar, but we, the authors, know how he got it and why he keeps it.  As we’ve talked about before, we know our characters very well, and we’ve had hours-long conversations that become a sentence or two in one of the books.

So we set out to tell the story of how Ortin got his scar. As it turns out, sometimes the story you want to tell isn’t the story that wants to be told. We discovered whilst writing a short story about Ortin’s scar that the interesting part of the story, the most significant to him as a character, isn’t how he got it, or even why he kept it, but rather what that says about him, the impact those events had on him, and his relationship with the people around him. (Spoiler: It’s a lot. He only appears for a few paragraphs in Divine Burdens, but he’s a complex character and his relationships are even more complex.)

As writers, we have quite different ways of approaching the blank page. Eunice is what George RR Martin calls an “architect” and some other writers call a “planner”—she sits down and constructs the world of the story, building each part of it before the first word is written. Franklin is what GRRM calls a “gardener” and other folks call a “pantser”—he creates some characters, sets them loose in the world, and sees what happens. It’s the difference between planned writing vs discovery writing, a “let’s decide what happens” approach vs a “let’s see what happens” approach to the empty word processing file.

You might think this clash of styles would make writing together hard. We have nearly diametrically opposed ways to think about the mechanics of storytelling! Yet, paradoxically, that might be precisely what lets us write together so well.

Eunice builds the world and setting of the Passionate Pantheon with meticulous care. She’s drawn sketches of the City, spent countless hours working out the mechanics of the rituals in the various temples, even devised the hierarchies of the priests and priestesses and how their social interactions work.

Franklin drops characters into this crafted environment and lets them loose, then watches to see what they’ll do. It’s a process of discovery: What happens when this character appears in this world? Given these goals, desires, and motivations, what will the character do?

The stories we write together are constructed both top-down and bottom-up. We both put a huge amount of care into the world—we know how the language spoken in the City evolved (even though we don’t know it ourselves—neither of us are conlangers!), how the first colonists arrived on the planet (technically, they’re second generation colonists, but that’s a story for another day), how the generators that feed the voracious energy needs of the City work (those on-demand molecular assemblers require prodigious amounts of energy!), even how the Blessings do their magic in the brains of the folks who use them. None of these details are part of the novels, because the stories we want to tell are, ultimately, about people, not technology. But we know. We need to know, for consistency.

That rich, detailed world lets us set characters free. The fact that we know so much about the world means we aren’t trying to create both the world and the characters at the same time. That gives us the freedom to explore what Terry Pratchett calls “L-Space,” that abstract space where every potential story exists. And every so often, we discover that the story we think we want to tell…isn’t actually the story that needs to be told. The characters tell us who they are, and we find the parts of their story that make up a book.

We don’t write the way most co-authors write. Every set of co-authors has their own style of working together, of course, but frequently what you’ll see is something like what Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett did in Good Omens: they’ll lay out the plot, and then each go off and write a chapter, then come together to merge the bits into a whole. Of course, in order to do this, you need to figure out your plot first. This is, we suspect, part of why pantsers are typically less likely to co-author—it must be very frustrating to co-author if your writing partner comes back a week later saying “I know you’re already writing the next chapter, but it turns out this chapter I’ve just written actually totally changes the way the plot works because the characters disagreed with what we’d decided to do.” Or, alternatively, “I know you do discovery writing, but you need to write what we agreed, no matter what the characters are trying to tell you, because we already decided the plot.”

For us, this really isn’t an issue. We will often write in the same file at the same time (right now, as we work on this essay, Franklin’s cursor is seven lines away from Eunice’s cursor in the Google doc where we’re composing this!), but generally speaking, the world, the gods, and the social structures are Eunice, the characters are Franklin. The plots are some hybrid mashup of us both. We start with a high-level, bird’s-eye overview of the story as we want to tell it, decide who our characters are, and then place them in the world. And occasionally, they make choices that surprise us.

We live on opposite sides of the globe, but the miracle of videoconferencing and Google Docs means that matters not at all; functionally, when we write, we might as well be in the same room together. (It helps that Eunice is a real nightowl, given that London is an inconvenient eight hours ahead of Portland.)

A key ingredient to the way we work together is trust. Not just trust that we have similar ideas about what the world looks like and how it works, though that’s part of it. (We do have remarkably similar ways of viewing the stories, to the point where we consistently bring up a point that the other person was just about to mention.) The major factor, however, is trust that if one of us comes up with an idea and the other says “no, I don’t think that really works,” that’s okay. Our first instinct is always to say “Ok, let’s change that,” and ask questions after, not “you need to persuade me before I agree to change anything.” That small difference, that level of trust, makes a huge difference to the feeling of safety we built together and the confidence you need to be able to co-write.

We also trust our characters. They will do things that surprise us. They will let us know what story they want to tell. The stories don’t always end up the way we planned them…which is precisely why it’s so important that we both understand the world and the society so well. The world is a living thing, and the characters have as much freedom of action in that world as real people have in the real world.

We’ve had a character in The Hallowed Covenant break up with a long-term partner. That wasn’t part of the plan, and it took us both by surprise, but then when we looked back and saw the trajectory those characters were on, we both realized that, actually, it was inevitable. But we didn’t plan for it to happen; the characters told us it happened.

That’s part of the magic of creating in this world. The characters feel vivid and real, independent of each of us. They all have stories to tell. We have a list (in Google Docs, of course) of minor characters from the novels whose lives we want to return to, whose stories we want to learn more about. The backstory of Arjeniza, a very minor character in the upcoming novel Unyielding Devotion, is complex, poignant, and a bit heartbreaking. She damaged herself in the pursuit of service to her chosen god many years before the events in Unyielding Devotion, and that informs her interaction with the protagonist in a subtle way that isn’t at all obvious in the novel.

It’s a good story, and one we want to tell. Or perhaps, one she wants us to tell.

Conversely, there’s another character in the same book, Jakalva, who has such an impact on the book that Eunice compared her to a stone tossed into a still pond: the book is about the ripples. The entire novel is, in a sense, her story, even though she barely appears in it. The novel explores how she affects the lives of the protagonists, even the ones she scarcely crosses paths with. She is old, enigmatic, powerful, and has a very, very interesting history. We would love to write her story…but she won’t let us. We tentatively tried exploring her, but she is so private that she practically skywrote Do Not Touch across our attempts, and we have to accept that. She just doesn’t want anyone to know her.

The novels changed as we wrote them—structurally, narratively, thematically. The first two novels, The Brazen Altar and Divine Burdens, are structurally simple: we’re presenting an entirely new world, after all, and there’s only so much we can show of that world without overloading the reader. They work to establish a foundation, and set the “tick tock” pattern of Utopian-themed and dark-themed stories.

The third book, due out later this year, builds on that foundation; it’s both structurally and narratively more complex, with much more intricate relationships and characters. The fourth novel, Unyielding Devotion, is even more complex still…and the most important character in the novel, the one who shapes the decisions of all the protagonists, is barely present in it. It’s also the first Passionate Pantheon novel with a nonlinear timeline.

We knew the first two books would likely be the most straightforward, but we didn’t explicitly set out to write a nonlinear story with Unyielding Devotion or to write a novel in The Hallowed Covenant about seven friends whose lives intersect in ways that sends all of them off on a different trajectory. We created a high-level overview of the landscape, and then let the river flow through it, establishing its own twists and turns as it did.

Funny thing about rivers: the landscape may shape the way the water flows, but the water also reshapes the landscape.

We have had to make peace with the idea that there will always be more stories we want to tell in the Passionate Pantheon universe than we will ever be able to tell. We set out some months back to start writing short stories in the universe, just to set free some of the ideas that are in our heads, which is what we’d planned to do for Ortin’s story. The reason he has a scar is interesting, we think…but it turns out that the effect the experiences that gave him the scar had on him and the people around him, not the way he got the scar, is the story that wanted to be told. What else could we do but buckle in for the ride?

And since we don’t intend to stop writing together any time soon, hopefully you’re up for following us on this ride. Trust us, sometimes we’re as surprised by what comes out as you are. But then, that’s the fun of co-authoring—you never really know what will come out at the other end. But then, what’s life without a few surprises?

What Is Degradation?

Image by Bianca Berg, Unsplash

In a flash, Marel lunged at Lija. Her stick blurred through the air to strike Lija hard in her ribs. She let out a cry of pain, even as she whirled to grab it. She tucked the end of the stick under her arm and charged at Marel, driving her backward. Marel stumbled and went down heavily on her back.

Someone grabbed Lija from behind. She kicked. Her foot hit something gratifyingly soft. She heard an equally gratifying cry. Then two more people had her, a man and the pale-skinned woman. Marel wrenched the stick from Lija’s grasp. The man to Lija’s left hit her in a flying tackle, hard. Lija went down, buried beneath three bodies. 

Lija exploded into a fury of fists and feet. The short, pale woman atop her—Janli, judging by the sound of her cry—flew backward. Lija squirmed free of the two anonymous men. She had almost regained her feet when someone tackled her again. She fell face-first to the ground. Marel stood over her and used the forked stick to press Lija’s face into the dirt. “Stay down!”

Lija flailed helplessly, the dirt cool and damp against her face. She heard a chuckle behind her. Someone—she couldn’t see who—pulled up her skirt. Marel held her face to the ground with her stick while one of the men lifted her hips and shoved himself into her. Lija cried out in impotent fury. She grabbed for Marel’s legs. Marel stayed safely out of reach.

The man took her from behind in fast, rough strokes. Lija came a moment before he did, in a shuddering orgasm so intense it left her lightheaded and breathless. He roared as he spent himself in her.

Marel held her down until the last twitches of his orgasm faded. He slumped sideways. She kept Lija there, pinning her face against the ground, while another man took his place. Lija let out a cry of shock when his hard shaft thrust into her. She grabbed for Marel again.

“Help me hold her,” Marel said.

Faraie and Janli each grabbed one of Lija’s wrists. They pulled her arms out to her side and held her against the dirt. Lija felt her breasts press into the soft, damp earth. She howled with rage. Faraie laughed triumphantly.

—from Book Two, Divine Burdens

The second book in the Passionate Pantheon series, Divine Burdens, is now out in the wild, flittering free through the world. It’s always a bit nerve-wracking for an author to pass a book into other hands; it’s hard not to look at it and say “oh, but maybe I could have done it better!” Books are perhaps a bit like children that way. They hold a little piece of you and carry it to further shores, for good or ill.

Divine Burdens is the first even-numbered book in the series, a ‘tock’ in the tick-tock cycle of upbeat, happy Utopias and dark erotic horror. It’s not an easy read, and it’s not intended to be. We set out to explore ways the happy post-scarcity Utopia of The Brazen Altar might be twisted into something much darker.

One reader, Christine Gilbert, seems to think we hit the mark:

“So, I finished Divine Burdens. And I think I identified why it took me so long to finish it. It’s a deeply uncomfortable book. I think it’s more uncomfortable for readers who really enjoy their own rape and non-consent fantasies, yet place a high emphasis on consent in actual practice. Essentially I had to keep putting the book down in order to think about my own self and reactions and reconcile them in my own head. This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that forced me to do that sort of self-examination that I did NOT find ultimately annoying or preachy or otherwise frustrating. So overall, the two of you have produced something really remarkable here.”

High praise indeed for porn.

There’s a lot of sex in Divine Burdens, and we do mean a lot. And much of that sex is, yes, deeply uncomfortable (sometimes uncomfortably hot as well, we hope). The first part of the novel follows a character named Lija, a top athlete—one of the best the City has to offer—who spends nine months competing with the City’s other best athletes for the honor of being Sacrifice to the god called the Hunt. During her time as Sacrifice, she will spend three days being pursued without sleep through a vast forest by Hunters seeking to overpower her by force so they can use her body for their own pleasure.

Deeply uncomfortable stuff. 

During the Hunt, Lija endures painful, violating experiences at the hands of the Hunters, some of whom have modified their bodies to make her experience that much more intense. Since only one who has previously been a Hunter can compete for the position of Sacrifice, she knows exactly what she is signing up for—she has engaged in the same activities from the other side.

And she competes for this position, with other people equally ferociously determined to be that Sacrifice who will be stalked through the forest. 

In conversations about sex, particularly about non-traditional forms of sex such as BDSM and even sex work (although let’s be honest, there’s no form of sex that hasn’t existed since long before our modern definition of ‘traditional’), people will frequently use the word ‘degrading.’ Bondage is degrading. Commercial sex is degrading. Kink is degrading. Oral sex is degrading (yes, there are people who say this). Anal sex is degrading. And on and on.

But here’s the thing:

There is, we would argue, no such thing as a sex act that is inherently degrading. Degradation is always, always contextual. Anyone who’s been part of the kink scene knows that one person’s “degrading” is another person’s really fun Friday evening. In some cases, the “degradation” is the fun.

Degradation is contextual.

This nuance is missing from a lot of contemporary real-world conversations about sex. Those who oppose certain kinds of sex (and often favor laws that would prevent anyone from engaging in those kinds of sex—think kink, sex work, porn, anal, and so on) will often say the kind of sex they don’t like is “degrading,” as if that settles it. 

But what does ‘degrading’ even mean? Frequently, people call something “degrading” when they actually mean disgusting—that is, it creates a repellent emotion—without seeming to be aware that “disgusting” is merely a subjective personal opinion. (Franklin finds eggplant, what Brits call aubergine, disgusting. Eunice has the same opinion about cucumber. That’s not a reason for anyone else not to eat it. The world would rapidly run out of food options if everything that anyone had ever found disgusting was taken off the table. Starvation does not seem like the better option.)

The dictionary defines “degrading” as “causing a loss of self-respect; humiliating.” Leaving aside the fact that many people in the BDSM scene find it hot to be humiliated, under the right circumstances and with the right partners (see, even that is contextual!), this seems to be the core of what a lot of folks mean when they call something degrading.

But what causes loss of self-respect for one person doesn’t necessarily for another, and what causes loss of self-respect in one context doesn’t necessarily in another. Consider the difference in the way many people think of “Michelin star restaurant chef” versus “burger-flipper”—and yet, some junior chefs in some very expensive restaurants are constantly, deliberately, humiliated by their head chefs, whilst some people working in fast food enjoy the environment. Again, context, including environment, is important.

Think about the most ‘normal,’ ordinary, plain-vanilla sex you can imagine: heterosexual missionary PIV intercourse, for example. Is that degrading? When it’s consensual, no. If it’s not consensual, yes. The context, not the activity, is what matters.

Are the things that happen to Lija in the forest degrading? She is pursued, frightened and exhausted and incoherent, for days. Her pursuers force themselves on her, and if she is not able to fight them off, satisfy their lusts in graphic and uncomfortable ways.

Yet she fought, hard, for this—against a number of opponents who fought equally hard to be there. And the ones who lose this competition are emotionally crushed. (We’ll be exploring that more in book six; stay tuned!)

Why? What’s in it for her? Why would anyone want any of this?

Ideas about sex are complex, and informed both by our own tastes and by the attitudes of the society around us. Society tells us, often with considerable pressure, what forms of sex are acceptable and what forms aren’t (typically this can vary by your status, and in some cases it can be actively self-contradictory). Sometimes—often, in fact—it’s possible to internalize those ideas so strongly that we literally cannot imagine it’s possible to feel any other way.

The society of the City is not like society in the real world. Sacrifices to the Hunt are venerated. They’re recognized as the best of the best—the strongest, the most skilled, the most capable athletes the City has to offer. Only those who have already proven themself the most proficient are considered able to take up the most extreme form of worship. 

And the thing is, veneration of non-sexual activities that might in a different context be ‘degrading’ isn’t unusual, even in the real world. People are often venerated for enduring physically violating, uncomfortable, even dangerous things…and sometimes are willing to risk death for it. (We talked in an essay on post-scarcity horror about how the citizens of Lija’s City would be utterly appalled by the grotesquery of the boxing industry. And we think a strong argument can be made that the sport of boxing—or many others, for that matter—can be more abhorrent than what happens to Lija, if you see sex and violence as equally primal, visceral activities.)

The society we live in is deeply uncomfortable with sex, which means using sex to illustrate these ideas is deeply uncomfortable. That’s part of the point; that’s why we write the even-numbered books the way we do.

We aren’t saying that Lija endures degradation to win the admiration and kudos of the City, though. That’s not it at all. The point we’re making is much deeper: For Lija, what happens to her in the forest is not degrading. She would not in any way characterize her experiences as degradation. Just the opposite: for her, they are an act of ecstatic religious worship.

Throughout history, deeply religious people have endured all kinds of things that might be considered degrading by outsiders in their quest for religious expression: self-flagellation, scarification, starvation, self-crucifixion (warning: link contains graphic images). Even the annual ritual in which the Pope washes other people’s feet on Holy Thursday—in a different context, this might be degrading; in this context, it’s considered a showing of piety and humility.

None of this is seen as degradation by those who do it—just the opposite, in fact. If you take the reflexive reaction many of us have been taught to feel about sex out of the equation, some of these activities are, we would argue, actually much more intense than what Lija experiences. Certainly the isolation alone would make it so. Lija, at least, has the support and admiration (and oftentimes envy) of the entirety of her society and community to encourage her in her worship.

And, let’s be honest: there are people in the BDSM scene right now who would, if their safety were 100% assured, volunteer to be in Lija’s place in a heartbeat, even with no religious element to the Hunt at all. Absolute safety changes what people are willing to consent to.

Hell, there are people in the real world who would sign up even without a guarantee of absolute safety. But that does illustrate an important point: Lija knows, absolutely knows the way you know that you exist at all, that she will not be permanently harmed by being Sacrifice to the Hunt. Anything, short of instantaneous death by destruction of the brain, is totally fixable—and without even a scar or extended healing time. She knows that, as uncomfortable as the experience is, she will be okay. That matters. Context is everything.

Degradation is contextual. Recognizing that is important, we feel, to nuanced, ethical conversations about sex.