Sex Scenes

Warning: Content possibly unsuitable for minors and nervous persons

Sex in fiction is tricky.

The Marquis de Sade writing Justine and Juliette or Pauline Reage (the pseudonym of Anne Desclos) writing The Story of O, did not exhibit much restraint in how they wrote about sex, pushing the boundaries past what many (perhaps even most) would call acceptable. But these authors knew what they were writing and why: the sex didn’t contribute to the story, it was the story. Fifty Shades of Grey, a financial success but generally regarded as poorly written and uninformed, used the expectations of its audience to deliver what they wanted–not reality, but a fantasy. Successful romance writers have a keen sense of what is appropriate to their audience and the type of novel they are writing. There are subgroups within the romance genre that prepare the reader for how much or how little sex the novel contains and how graphic the descriptions will be. This is true of other genres as well. We might expect a graphic rape scene in a hard-boiled mystery, but never in a cozy.

In a series, we might expect a character to change their relationships over time, but we don’t expect them to go too far off the rails. Laurell K. Hamilton started her Anita Blake series as really good urban fantasy with a solid core of mystery. Unfortunately, a few novels into the series, the plots disappeared, and the books because vehicles for paranormal porn. This wouldn’t be a bad thing in and of itself, except I was expecting a good story, not endless sex scenes. Some of her fans liked where the series went. I wasn’t one of them.

Sex in a work of fiction (including it, leaving it out, dialing it back) has to be appropriate to the story and to the audience. When it goes wrong, sex scenes can be jarring and distracting, taking the focus off the story being told. In his book, Jaws, Peter Benchley included an affair between Chief Brody’s wife and the shark expert. It contributed nothing to the story and was wisely left out of the film version. The legendary editor, Maxwell Perkins, persuaded Ernest Hemingway to remove from For Whom the Bell Tolls the scene of the hero masturbating on the eve of battle. Hemingway felt it showed the character’s humanity. Perkins knew it would be a distraction.

I find writing sex scenes hard. It’s not that I’m a prude–quite the contrary. But I know if it is not done well, it can be the undoing of a novel. I know that the sex scenes can go too far, that badly written scenes are laughable, that expectations not met can disappoint the reader. I know that a sex scene not expected and anticipated can derail the readers opinion of a character.

Sex is important. It’s how nearly all of us got here. Most of the time, most of us like it. It usually makes us happy. But bad sex in fiction can serve a purpose as well–for example, what better way to show a failing marriage than through the demise of intimacy? In the end, what sex should do, as every other element of fiction should do, is serve the story.

Image: Priapus, ancient Roman wall mural in Pompey, Rome. Photo by Marilyn Evans.