Bodies and Permissions: Breaking Rules & Conduct (Transgressive Fiction Topic)

Shannon Waite
4 min readJul 5, 2023

PREFACE: If this is your first trip to my blog, I write a lot of transgressive fiction and my blog posts are resources for other transgressive writers. I offer book reviews, transgressive topics for inspiration, research on social change, and creative writing techniques. The article below is meant to support writers looking for information and/or ideas. Welcome!

Black and white blurred photo of woman touching her lips with writing that says Transgressive Topics / Bodies and Permissions: Breaking Rules & Conduct

With about 8% of the American population being blind, the other 92% of people will often first be introduced to other humans through sight. What does this mean? It means when I meet you, I first see what I think your gender is. What your skin color is. What your age is. If you use any assistance for disabilities. How you dress. If you have piercings or tattoos. Your size (relevant to height and weight). The kind of face you’re making (do you look pleasant or angry?) (among other things).

So now that I’ve looked at you, all of these things I just saw connect to previous assumptions I’ve made about people who look like that. This shows how “Human bodies are both biological and social in nature.”

Bodies and Permissions: Breaking Rules & Conduct

Now that I’ve used your body to assign you an identity in my mind, I decide what permission that gives me, and this, folks, is what makes bodies so usable in transgressive fiction.

Transgression is an act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct; an offense. If I’ve determined how I should interact with you or what I am allowed to do to you or the ways I can treat you based on your identity (or perceived identity), this may not align with what’s fair to you. This may, in fact, be harmful to you and could be an “offense”, right? It could act against an expected conduct, like the conduct of just being a decent human being who doesn’t hurt others.

But by invading others’ bodies, by showing those bodies damaged or destroyed, in the way that transgressive fiction often does, those stories are sending a message about identity and permissions.

This website talks about identities and permissions with IBM (International Business Machines), a technology company. It’s not talking about humans at all, but it breaks down the definitions and boundaries from a technology standpoint so well that it coincidentally aligns perfectly with what I’m talking about! So even though we’re talking about humans here, I want to look at IBM’s discussion.

We start with roles:

“Role hierarchy —

Roles can be hierarchical. One role might act as a parent role to another role. This role hierarchy is provided by this query subject. It can provide the role details like ID, name, description; and it provides similar details for the parent role.”

And then we talk about how the hierarchy of roles offers details about identities:

“Identity role attachment

This query subject provides details about identities that belong to a role. These roles are associated to a project”

And then we start diving into entitlement and membership qualifiers. With membership qualifiers, they say, “The users, who qualify based on those attributes and values specified in the rule, are part of the role or are associated with that role.” So what happens to those who don’t qualify for the group? This is where using the body to create identities can turn transgressive–

How do people react to others who do not belong to their group?

IBM says that “Permissions are part of or are associated to a role. Permission can exist in a hierarchy.”

And often times, people will decide what permissions they have based on the identity they’ve assigned you.

So as transgressive writers, the body is a perfect tool for exploring the breaking of permissions, of transgressive acts, of autonomy and social structures.

Examples of using the body in transgression include:

Tampa by Alyssa Nutting
Explicit description of sexual acts with an adult woman using a child’s (multiple children’s) body for pleasure. This story makes us consider power, manipulation, and what does or doesn’t count as permission.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
The main character, seemingly put together and doing well (as an investment banker) by American standards, repeatedly brutally murders a variety of people in the novel. The horror of all this isn’t because of what the novel itself writes about, but the society it reflects.

Boy Parts by Eliza Cark
The easily hate-able narrator uses men’s bodies in her photography to flip gender roles and demonstrate her own self-destruction.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The story shows multiple acts of violating/harming the body: male strangers fighting for the sake of fighting, using lye to create burns in the skin, the threat of death through project mayhem catastrophes… This book considers the body, consumerism, and what is important in life before we die.

Hogg by Samuel R. Delaney
This novel shows multiple characters who participate, graphically, in murder, child molestation, incest, necrophilia and rape among other things. All of which deal with power and permissions (/lack thereof) of harming another’s body.

And so many more.

Violence and sex are often used as tools in creating a transgressive novel because it’s easy to abuse the body. Use someone else’s body to harm them, hurt them, damage them — physically, psychologically, and emotionally. Many laws or social rules of conduct can be broken through these behaviors, which is why oftentimes transgressive fiction employs these acts.

What are other examples of body-violation in transgressive fiction that you can think of?

Check out my follow-up post with graphic ways the body can be used in transgressive fiction.

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Shannon Waite

Shannon Waite is an author focused on transgression and social change and, largely, how to combine the two. www.shannonwaiteauthor.com