About six months ago, I did a guest post over at SF Signal called “Sex and Explosions”, in which I observed that according to the Hollywood model, the essential ingredients of a blockbuster/bestseller are – spoiler! – sex and explosions. A great action romance, I argued, links a suspenseful plot and an engaging love story in a positive feedback loop: each influences the other, so that the romance shapes the action and vice versa. Ideally, these knock-on effects raise the stakes and increase the momentum of the story.
Catchy title notwithstanding, that post was really about romance and action, rather than sex and explosions per se. Needless to say, not all sex is romance, and explosions are but one way (albeit a particularly awesome way) of demonstrating action. Sex rears its… er, head… in many different guises, serving various masters. Explosions, meanwhile, are merely one subset of violence, and this too can be used to achieve a variety of aims. (Or at least, they should serve a purpose; all too often, sex and violence are simply tossed in as a matter of obligation.)
As narrative tools, sex and violence are powerful and versatile. They can be used to create tension and conflict, or as a means of character development. They can add depth to a setting, particularly if a fictional society has a different perspective toward them than the one we’re used to. In this sense, sex and violence serve similar purposes. And yet, despite these similarities, traditional fantasy is so very much more comfortable with one than the other. Why is that?
To some extent, no doubt, it reflects broader socio-cultural tendencies; plenty of societies are more tolerant of violence, even brutal violence, than sex. But there’s obviously more to it than that, as evidenced by the success of Fifty Shades of Grey and the tedious ubiquity of graphic sex on shows like Game of Thrones. Readers and viewers want sex, so why aren’t we giving it to them? (Insert ritual disclaimer about loads of exceptions and heaps of talent – I’m admittedly painting in broad strokes here.)
Even in urban fantasy, where sex is practically obligatory, the way it’s represented is often profoundly unsexy. It’s fade to black, or described in obtuse language. It’s hilariously implausible and/or employs cringe-inducing euphemisms. (Worth noting here that “sex” emphatically does not include sexual violence, which belongs squarely in the “violence” category.) Even where sex is thrown in purely to titillate – a great word, by the way – it often falls short. I can count on one hand the number of fantasy reviews I’ve read recently that mentioned a legitimately hot sex scene. They’re out there, to be sure, but there aren’t nearly enough of them.
There’s also very little variety in how sex is portrayed, especially in comparison to its evil twin, violence. Even a passing familiarity with the fantasy genre reveals an impressive (and horrifying) array of torture, rape, mutilation, and slaughter. When it comes to bloodletting, we have seemingly limitless imaginations. Why isn’t this true of sex, something so fundamental to the human experience? Sex is capable of evoking a tremendous range of emotions, but it’s rarely called upon to do so. Instead, we tend to see two distinct species: lovemaking, which is often fade to black, and fucking, typically involving torn clothing, biting, and people being pinned against a variety of uncomfortable surfaces. These are staples for a reason: they both have their place in any healthy sexual relationship. But there are countless other ways sex manifests itself, even within a single couple. Sex as a means of (re)establishing intimacy. Sex as comfort. Sex as way of asserting dominance. Sex as an act of self-loathing, thrill-seeking, or existential crisis. And on and on. There is so much you can say about a character or a relationship or a society through sex. And yet precious little of this variety finds its way on to the page. Why?
Part of it almost certainly comes down to how difficult it is to write a good sex scene. Personally, I find it far more challenging than writing an action sequence. I want these scenes to be sexy, but also intelligible – I want the reader to understand, explicitly or intuitively, why this scene is important. That’s tough to get right.
Why it’s tough is an interesting question in and of itself. For one thing, sex, like humour, is very personal. We all have our own tastes, and our own sensibilities about how much is too much. Some people genuinely seem to go in for terms like “love rod” and “glistening portal of womanhood”. I try not to judge.
More fundamentally, though, I wonder if it doesn’t come back to cultural norms, and how dramatically these have shifted over the past couple of decades. The taboo against explicit sex might have broken down significantly, but this is for the most part a very young phenomenon. Game of Thrones-level sex would have been unthinkable on television even a decade ago. At the ripe old age of 38, I grew up in a time where those sorts of scenes didn’t happen in mainstream media – not on TV, and not on the page. Unlike violence, which has been with most of us from Day One, sex is still something of a debutante. So while readers might be ready for it, that doesn’t necessarily translate into authors being ready for it. Maybe the next generation of fantasy authors will find it much easier, and have us rushing to take cold showers as often as the current generation has us weeping, or shuddering, or both. One can only hope.
What’s my point here? Well, obviously it’s a plea for more sex. But also different sex. And for heaven’s sake, sexier sex. It doesn’t always have to be meaningful to the characters, but it had better damn well be meaningful to someone – author and reader, at least. It should evoke an emotional response, even if it isn’t particularly detailed. Give me sex scenes that make me break out in a sweat, but also those that make me cry, shudder, think, and yes, even laugh – though not, hopefully, because they refer to his “molten member” or a “frenzy of simultaneous explosions”.*
Recommendations for books that already do this are most welcome. In the meantime, I will be practicing on myself. Writing, that is.
*In case you’re curious, I did not make a single one of these up.↩