I’m rarely surprised when I encounter writers who say, “I would never write a sex scene. Just fade to black.” I’m sometimes a little surprised by readers who say, “I won’t read anything with graphic sex.” (Because frankly, reading a sex scene is easier than writing one, let me tell you.) I’m not even that surprised when I come across an article that decries the tawdry new trend toward graphic sex in books.
Surprised, no. Disappointed? Oh yeah.
Who among us does not love sex? Oh, sure, there are those rare fern-like creatures who shy from the very suggestion of their genitals coming into contact with another person’s genitals, but aside from that, the vast majority of humans like sex. Love sex. Obsessivly think about sex. How to get it, where to do it, and what to do once they’ve got it.
We did not reach a global population of more than 6 BILLION people by saying, “Ew. No, thanks” to sex. Nor did we get there because everybody wanted a baby. We got there because sex feels good and people don’t just like it. They use it as the answer to all kinds of physical and emotional needs they have.
For that reason alone, writing about sex seems important to me. I think a lot of squeamish readers come to the idea with the presumption that every sex scene is erotica. Most writers who write sex outside the erotica genre, however, approach it as they do any other activity, as another opportunity to reveal character. If you look back on your sex life, you know it’s true. The way people have sex says volumes about what kind of people they are and what kind of relationship they have with their partner(s).
Sure, the goal of sex for most people is primarily pleasure, so a lot of sex scenes are arousing, but they can also be awkward, uncomfortable, sad, angry, humiliating, funny, just like sex is in real life.
I ended up having to tackle this issue a lot in my most recent project, because my main character has been in prison for seven years and five of that in solitary. Freed, he has sex on the brain. (Not that it’s exactly a departure from his personality before he went to prison.)
More difficult, he’s a beast. (Hence the title, Ugly and the Beast.) One reader said, “Axyl is Conan, only without the PG-13 rating. Dude is straight-up NC-17.” (One intrepid reader, whose personal life I wonder about, said, “Am I the only one who wanted to date Axyl?”)
Writing the beastly part was easy. Put him in a cheap motel room with a girl he previously deemed “too ugly to screw on a dare,” and he changes his tune: “Honestly, from behind she was better than lots of girls I’ve fucked. Nice little ass and no ex-boyfriend’s name tattooed on her.“
Easy enough to write a guy whose outlook on the world is this: “In my book, a girl gets in bed naked, she’s open for business. I wasn’t so tired I was gonna turn down the invitation, but she slapped my hands away.“
Except nobody is that guy all the way through and through. Axyl is an asshole, but he’s not some cardboard cut-out baddie. He’s fighting this feeling of worthlessness and an emptiness he’s been trying to fill up with sex. As much energy as he puts into getting laid, he’s rarely completely happy during sex. Even with the ugly girl, he wonders if she really wants to be there.
“I wanted to kiss her, but when I got the hair outta her face and got her mouth under mine, her lips were tensed up, closed. When I tried to get my tongue into her mouth, she turned her head away.“ Axyl’s first thought isn’t the obvious one: no one’s ever tried to kiss her before. His mind automatically jumps to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to kiss him.
These are all rather tame examples, since I didn’t want my blog to turn into a NSFW pr0n-fest, but they get at the heart of why I think sex, and explicit sex, is valuable in novels. If characters are going to have sex, why hide it behind a curtain? It leaves a gap as surely as narrative summary in the place of dialog can. Don’t tell me, show me what the characters are like in bed. I swear, it’s only about 19% prurient interest. ;o)