Author Alissa Nutting's debut novel Tampa, while it's been pegged as a beach read by places like Vulture, is hard to actually read on the beach because it has graphic descriptions of a 26-year-old woman having sex with a 14-year-old boy. It's a frankly stated examination of female predators and their depiction in the media from the point of view of Celeste Price, a beautiful pedophile who takes a teaching job in Florida in order to seduce a prepubescent student. It's also extreme on almost all counts, including Celeste's insatiable sexual urges and, underneath it, her sociopathy.
I talked to Nutting (who is so nice, incidentally!) about the book, the marketing process and what the fuck may or may not be wrong with Florida.
You got the idea for this book, sort of, when you saw the Debra Lafave case on the news — because you went to high school with her, right?
That’s what first made me really stop and think about the way female sexual predators are received in our society, yes. I began to pay attention in a way I might not have if I hadn’t recognized her as someone I’d gone to school with.
Did you do much research into other similar cases?
After the LaFave case broke, I began to have an ear out for similar cases and couldn’t believe how often it popped up in the news. I did read about a great number of cases once I decided to write the book, but the stunning thing is how many there are—it wasn’t even possible for me to look closely at all of them.
On that note, what is it with Florida? I feel like there are a disproportionate number of cases like that down there.
That’s interesting; I’d be curious to see the statistics on that. I wonder to what extent the fetishization and degree of implied acceptance that occurs in the media with cases like LaFave’s might make such a scenario feel normalized and possibly more likely to occur nationwide.
Do you think cases of male-teacher female-student vs. female-teacher male-student get different press coverage?
I think female predators tend to be sexually objectified and obtain a sort of celebrity status. I can’t remember the specific names of a single male-teacher/female-student case that got national attention off the top of my head. It’s not sensationalized or sexualized in the same way.
Agreed. Tell me a little bit about the selling/marketing process for Tampa — did the extreme sexual content of the book put publishers off or attract them?
It’s definitely a hurdle; the graphic content makes it a lightning rod for criticism. There’s still a hugely puritanical urge to marginalize anything with a lot of sexual content in our society. People want to resist the fact that a book with a lot of sex in it has any worth beyond mere titillation or that it should be the topic of serious discussion.
Do you think that the fact that the lead was a sexually-charged woman instead of a man had an effect on who was intererested/disinterested in taking a leap of faith on it?
The book is a satire about the perception and treatment of female sexual predators in our society—the book’s umbilical cord is wrapped around that social context. It simply couldn’t have a male lead.
Expanding on that — do you think there’s still a weird stigma against female–written, female-character-dominant sexual novels in the publishing world? (One can make the argument that even E.L. James doesn’t break the formula, since the whole point is that the character Ana isn’t calling the shots sexually, if that makes sense.)
I do feel like there are rigid boundaries for sexually explicit female characters (and for females in society in general), and when you cross them or go beyond those prescribed confines people are quick to devalue the book. I think one of the reasons that Fifty Shades was able to be such a commercial hit with its female-driven sexual content is because it’s ultimately an extremely traditional love story. As a culture I’d say we’re most comfortable talking about female sex when it’s in the confines of romantic love.
There are very, very few sexually explicit books about female sexual predators, which is part of the reason I felt the need to write Tampa. There’s a way to write a novel about a female sexual predator that would be quite accepted—to do so the same way the issue is largely discussed in the national media: talk about the ways or reasons the woman herself is a victim (which we care about far less, if at all, when the offender is male), show her being contrite and ashamed, take the focus off the sex or belittle its harm and violence. But that all goes back to precisely the reason that it’s hard for us to see females as sexual predators with male victims in the first place in our society. I had no interest in writing that book; we see that tale every time one of these stories makes the news. Tampa had to be graphic by necessity.
The main character, Celeste, is a sociopath in addition to being a sex addict and pedophile. Do you think she represents most women who have sex with their young male students? That is to say, do you think pedophilia and sociopathy go hand in hand?
Celeste’s character is purposefully extreme—saying that she represents most female sexual predators would be like saying Hannibal Lecter represents most people who commit murder.
And was there any particular reason behind your choice to make her a sociopath?
I felt that it was the only way to wholly escape the framework of the current way female sexual predators are largely viewed. Any act or thought of remorse on her behalf would fall into the current trap of rendering the female predator in a sympathetic light—its relevance in the text would balloon up in a really disproportionate way because that’s what we’re used to looking for in these cases: tell me how she’s sorry. Tell me why it’s not her fault. Tell me why predatory sexual behavior isn’t as harmful when a female is the perpetrator. So I had to write a book that did none of these things.
Would you distinguish a difference between the pathology of your character and a Mary Kay Letourneu (who has stayed with Vili Fuulau, the now-adult student she first molested at 12, to this day)? Or not really.
Celeste’s behavior is a social commentary about scandals like Mary Kay Letourneu rather than a representation of any real-life female predator.
Yeah, that's fair. Why do you think a lot of these women are above-average in terms of conventional attractiveness (which you drew on for Celeste as well)? Any theories?
These are the cases that get the most national media attention; they play the best into the tendency of our culture to showcase female sexuality in the way society is most comfortable with: packaged as something for men to enjoy. There’s a sense of, “adult men would want to have sex with this woman, so she’s incapable of committing a sexual crime.” This perpetuates the harmful patriarchal stereotype that female sexuality can’t be violent—that it’s simply there for male use with no agency of its own, that it doesn’t hold power.
What did you hope to educate readers on or achieve by writing Tampa?
I want to draw attention to the ways we view predatory female sexual behavior, and to the limitations of sexual discussion in our culture.