Bug Ladies in Victorian England: Queer Sexuality in Insexts (NSFW)

Note: This article contains spoilers for Insexts and images that are not safe for work.

On the surface, Insexts is a monster story. It is gory and graphic, with no qualms about Alien-esque birth scenes and vagina-teeth eating a man’s arm; at no point does the art veer away from being downright gross if it needs to be. But the monsters, a pair of beautiful women who also happen to have the ability to turn into bugs, are also our heroines. A couple trying to keep their family, including a little bug baby, together and safe in a world that is constantly trying to tear them apart. Set in Victorian London, Mariah and Lady deal with constant resistance to their unapologetic queerness, eroticism and unwillingness to fall in line with expected and acceptable behaviors. Insexts uses grotesque imagery, graphic violence and a Victorian setting to explore women’s sexuality, particularly with regard to queerness and sexual desire.

Marguerite Bennett isn’t subtle in her positioning of these bug women as metaphors for living queer sexual lives; the title is InSEXts, after all. Of course, yes, they are also queer; Mariah and Lady are established as lovers almost from the first page of the first issue. But unlike your standard queer text, Mariah and Lady never face any particular backlash on the basis of their queerness. In fact, many of the characters they interact with seem to be at least tangentially aware of the nature of their relationship; even their enemies seem to have reasons to seek their destruction unrelated to the fact that they’re lesbians.

Their insect identities are inextricably linked to the fact that they’re queer. The first time they go to bed is the moment when Lady begins her metamorphosis into a bug creature, after Mariah impregnates her with a bug egg. This happens at the same moment that Lady has an orgasm, immediately tying together the fact that they are lovers with the fact that they transform into insects. Mariah later tells Lady that she was granted these abilities through interactions with a maid in another household, the implication being that she was sexually involved with that woman as well. There is a sense of “It takes a queer woman to make a queer woman,” that there is some initiation into the world, that one can best come into her own as a queer person with the aid of other queer people, both sexually and culturally.

We’re privy to their sexual interactions at every occurrence; the art doesn’t veer away from the scenes or give coy allusions to the fact that they’re having sex. Ariela Kristantina draws these women completely nude, often in two-page spreads; she focuses on the details: the kissing of nipples, curling toes, parted mouths, arched backs. These scenes are meant to be sexy; we’re supposed to find them satisfying in their eroticism.

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Sex is happening — this page is severely cropped for hosting reasons.

But from that first scene, when a slimy bug egg is passed between their kissing mouths and Lady orgasms with it bulging in her throat, their sex lives also seem slightly gross. They are bugs after all, and we’re reminded of that every time they’re intimate. If something immediately grotesque doesn’t happen while they’re having sex, something tangentially gross does. For instance, Mariah, who has the ability to see people at great distances, can often only use this power when in the midst of sexual pleasure. This means that she often sees other types of monsters and murderers while having sex with Lady, again linking their sexuality with grotesque or macabre imagery.

It is perhaps intentionally unsettling. Lady and Mariah are both comely, conventionally attractive women, with full lips and round eyes, long flowing hair and hourglass figures. Lesser characters in the title comment on how beautiful Lady is and how attractive they find her; she is sexually appealing, especially to the men in the story. We, as readers, are supposed to think Lady and Mariah are beautiful. They’re meant to be sexy. So seeing Mariah getting Lady off in a dark corner of a garden party, followed immediately by Lady turning into a scary bug monster when a man comes onto her, is certainly uncomfortable. At no point are we allowed to see them just as pretty ladies who have sex and sometimes destroy their enemies; we are never allowed to sexualize them completely, not without also acknowledging their other identities, the ones where they’re bugs. They acknowledge their sexuality at the same time that they resist a sexualized gaze. There seems to be one major reason for this: this is a book about queer women, written by a queer woman, presumably for queer women (or at least queer people). This move, to link the sexual lives of Mariah and Lady to their lives as bug creatures, makes it impossible to fully sexualize them, therefore rejecting a non-queer or male gaze. You cannot read this title for the sex alone, can’t ignore the actively queer lifestyles that are linked to those sex lives, the same way men can’t (or shouldn’t) be turned on by lesbians without acknowledging that queerness goes beyond simply having sex with or being attracted to someone of the same gender. 

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Their queerness never makes them weak. It is a trope in queer texts that queerness is a vulnerable spot, or the secret they must keep lest they be destroyed. We never see that from Mariah and Lady; they are almost recklessly forthcoming about the fact that they are lovers. They live as a wedded couple, complete with a bug baby, and their household is aware of their relationship, even defensive of it. Even Sylvia, Lady’s sister-in-law who actively seeks to destroy their lives, seems to be aware of the nature of their relationship, though as mentioned she’s never used that information as a means for their destruction.

Lady also finds a certain power in her bug abilities, a desire to use her powers to help those who are unable to help themselves. Before she begins living as a queer woman, she is a victim herself, locked into a loveless marriage with a man who is an adulterer and at least emotionally abusive. She clearly fears him and his wrath, to the point that she wants to give him a child in order to keep him at bay. Almost immediately after she and Mariah become lovers, she changes, both in her feelings about her husband and also in her confidence in her ability to handle him. It is only shortly after this that she and Mariah successfully murder him by using him as an incubator for their insect egg, in the process of his death ironically giving themselves a child and creating a small familial unit.

Subsequently Lady particularly welcomes the ability to help disenfranchised women and children who find themselves in difficult situations at the hands of people who would capitalize on the fact that patriarchy doesn’t allow them many options. She murders sex traffickers, rescues kidnapped children, and takes revenge on a butcher doctor who is more concerned with money and opium than with the health or safety of his (mostly poor women) patients. Lady finds herself in a different position because of her new identity as an insect lady; she no longer cares about her status or whether or not people approve of or recognize her lifestyle. Instead, she is more concerned with improving the lives of others in the same way that her life has improved. It is perhaps one of the few texts in which acknowledging queerness and being out as a queer person doesn’t immediately mean that everything becomes much worse.

It is also no accident that this story takes place in Victorian London. Setting a story that is, at its essence, about the beauty and power of queer feminine sexuality in one of the most buttoned-up, sexually-averse times in Anglophone history can only have been a thoughtful decision. The text actively seeks to dismantle the hypocrisy and taboo that exist around ideas on sexuality, both within this magical universe version of Victorian London, and also within modern-day, real-life attitudes. Lady’s major crime, in the eyes of her in-laws, is the fact that she has a child who does not seem to belong to her late husband, based on his appearance, and she is therefore guilty of adultery. The fact that her husband frequented brothels, (and impregnated a young worker at one of them) and often raped his maids, goes uncritiqued and is often brushed off as an inevitability.

Lady’s greatest personal foe, Sylvia, actively hates and wishes rape and torture on women who are sexually promiscuous, as she believes that Lady is. Sylvia acts as a personification of the internalized misogyny rampant during the deeply-religious times of the Victorian era; she actively hates women who she does not believe act as proper women should, usually in the name of God. For her, proper Christian women obey their husbands, raise their children and remain quietly faithful. Ironically, these feelings of piety lead to her attempts at murdering Lady and her child, as she believes that she is defending the honor and reputation of her family.

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Sylvia is also the person that the Hag, a monster being that feeds on the hatred and self-loathing of people, finds the easiest to possess for her own purposes. Since Sylvia feels such intense hate for women, it is clear that on some level, she has a certain amount of loathing for herself. While she does not act on the desires or tendencies that she believes that all women possess, because they are inherently sinful, she must on some level have to identify and acknowledge the fact that she also possesses those feelings. This makes her ripe for doing the Hag’s bidding, since she needs people who will act on their hatefulness in order to feed.

This creates an interesting juxtaposition in the personal power dynamics between Lady and Sylvia. Lady has come into her own as a queer woman who owns and enjoys her sexuality, to the point that she can be the defender of others who have fewer options and are more easily exploited. She also has little regard for Sylvia’s attempts to dismantle her life, as she is confident in her ability, and in Mariah’s, to protect their family. She understands that she is powerful, even if others don’t fully understand or accept that power.

Sylvia, on the other hand, becomes a literal slave to the feelings she won’t recognize or acknowledge about herself. While perhaps we don’t have enough evidence to read her as closeted, we can certainly see her as a sexual woman whose ability to acknowledge or act on her sexual desires is strangled by the fact that she has been conditioned to believe that those feelings are inherently sinful and disgusting. Because of her desire, and the desire of all the people who reject sexuality as dirty or shameful, the Hag is able to thrive, feeding off of the energy of that self-hatred and using Sylvia for her purposes, enhancing Sylvia’s own desires to condemn others to the point of murderousness. Lady, of course, kills Sylvia when Sylvia attacks her son. This is also the first time we see Lady become a full insect, the first time she fully sheds her human form. She is at her most powerful, and arguably her most revolting, in this moment, when her family is in danger and she must protect them. Her anger is righteous and spurned on by love, and that makes her deadly; Sylvia is absolutely no match for her.

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The fact that they’re insects, and that Lady becomes more fully an insect as the story progresses, points to the fact that she seems to be more open about her queerness and her sexuality, until she literally cannot control it anymore; she has to show her identity as it is because that is when she feels the strongest and is best able to help others. It is also when she is the ugliest. This points again to the idea that the fact that they’re insects operates as a metaphor for their sexuality. Most readers of this title probably wouldn’t cringe at the idea of queerness, since if they know anything about Bennett, they probably know that the likelihood of queer themes was high before they opened the first issue. So the use of the insect metamorphosis is especially clever; we get a sense of the horror someone, perhaps someone like Sylvia, might feel upon discovery of someone they know being queer. The insect identity works on several levels because of that; the fact that she is grotesque and murderous is juxtaposed with the fact that she is inherently powerful, confident in her abilities, full of love and compassion for those around her. While her queerness can be read as a negative aspect of her identity, she utilizes it as a strength. She owns her identity, creates a safe space in her home for herself, her family and anybody who needs sanctuary, because she knows how difficult it is to not have any.

Ultimately, Insexts functions as a narrative in which queer pride and sexual freedom are upheld and treated as powerful. Prior to becoming Mariah’s lover, Lady lives a life of despair and fear, unable to satisfy her desires and restless under the thumb of a man she does not and cannot love. Only after she escapes his influence and takes her life into her own hands, creating a family unit with Mariah and surrounding herself with a small community of people who love her and protect her, as she loves and protects them, does she achieve the power and confidence to live her life as she sees fit and to help others do the same.

Elizabeth Brei

Elizabeth Brei

Elizabeth Brei holds an MFA from San Diego State University. She's written for HelloGiggles and Loser City. When she's not hanging with her cats, Moo and Mai Tai, she's working her dream job at Disneyland.