Sex in novels…

At the risk of having many soft, rotten, mouldy and mouldering and/or hard objects hurled at me by those who strongly disagree, I’m going to say what I think about this.

What I think is this:  in general there’s too much of it.

Explicit sex, that is.

And I say this having just read a book which possibly contains the highest word count of the c-word and the f-word on record.  And no, I wasn’t particularly offended.

I am of the opinion that a writer should be unafraid of language and there should be no word that a writer fears to use, if it’s the right word.

But the problem remains that once an author has used and used and reused those words (so that it’s more a veritable cascade of obscenity than a sex scene), they lose all ability to shock or titillate or even, eventually, to raise the eyebrow.  It becomes business as usual.  No more expressive than “yadda yadda yadda.”

Which is a grave shame.

There’s another problem with lots of explicit sex in a novel.

Frankly, it gets boring.

And when I say boring, I mean it.

A list of the most boring books in the world has got to include that outsize tome by de Sade.  Possibly if his French could be called something other than the sub-literate ramblings of a puerile adolescent, I might feel differently.  Still, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” as the reaction to uber-naughty sex is just stupid.  In any language.

But I digress.

Because as far as the novel goes, lots of explicit sex has little or no point; it contributes and achieves nothing.  It won’t demonstrate character development or action.  And as far as the rule about not repeating oneself goes, it breaks that little sucker in every conceivable way.

I mean, let’s be honest, once the characters have gone at it hammer and tongs for ten pages, what more is there to say?  You’ve emptied the thesaurus.  We’ve got the idea.  And after a certain point, it becomes hyperbolic and ultimately ludicrous.

So why is it so relied upon?  I don’t know.

I’m guessing that it’s the modern literary equivalent of charity, there to cover a multitude of sins–literary sins that is–such as lack of character development, lack of writing skill or literary merit, lack of a proper plot.

Or perhaps it’s there to shock me?

Er, I’d just like to mention that I and millions of others read Lady Chatterley’s Lover some years ago.  That didn’t shock me, though I did wish Lawrence had not written it into such a Mills and Boon ending.  I was hoping for a bit of early and interesting feminism.  But that’s just me.

I don’t mean to suggest that I disapprove of the idea of sex in novels.  Because I don’t.  But I do believe it has a proper and good context and use.

For myself, I always use that old film, Coming Home, with Jon Voight and Jane Fonda as a yardstick–he as the returning parapelegic Vietnam vet and she as the Susie Homemaker cheerleader hospital volunteer married to the gung ho officer.

Voight’s character has been incapacitated by the war; she has always worshipped physical perfection.  The love scene in that film is amongst the tenderest on screen, and only through showing her loving him, can we see how far she has travelled in her understanding of the horror of war, and equally, how her growing love for him has redrawn her character.  They couldn’t have demonstrated the point so effectively in any other way.

It also served to question the audience’s definition of what is man at a time when it was needed.  So much so that one was tempted to quote Burns:  “A man’s a man, for a’ that.”

But a novel isn’t real life.  It is a distillation.  Or perhaps a single or a sequence of life-altering episodes.

We don’t write dialogue as we really talk–that would be tedious beyond words.  (Try it if you disbelieve me:  write down what you actually said to your mates down the pub and see what it reads like…)  Instead we capture the essence of speech, though every bit of dialogue in a novel should have some point, be making some contribution to the whole, adding some nugget of enlightenment to the reader’s perception.

So too, therefore, with love or sex scenes.   If they’re there, let them serve a purpose, let them contribute to our understanding of a character’s transformation or illustrate a side of his or her character we’ve not yet encountered and can understand in no other way.  Let them forward the plot.  And above all, let us see how the act worked upon their emotions…

Otherwise, we might all just as well go and marvel at Lion Watch on telly where one can see what it really means to be shagged out:  every ten minutes over a 48-72 hour period when the lioness is in season.  And the expression on that poor lion’s face said it all.

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26 comments on “Sex in novels…

  1. The only way I could agree with you more would be to actually become you. 🙂

  2. Robb says:

    Well said. As always.

  3. Sandie Dent says:

    Yes, you are SO right… agree with all you say. It’s the essence – that moves the story forward, emphasises a point, defines character(s).

    Lovely post.

  4. Rowenna says:

    So true–I’ve read too many sex scenes that I think may have just been thrown in there, at some otherwise dull spot, serving no purpose but, I suppose, intended to “interest” me as a reader. I guess I was interested…in a head tilted, eyebrow raised, “well, that was odd” sort of way.

    I think Sade was quite a bit like that sixth grader on the school bus who delights in saying naughty things, just to watch other people react.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      de Sade had the intellect of an underdeveloped mosquito, and somehow convinced himself that if only he could act like the Emperor Tiberius that would make him…not the Emperor.

  5. Stella says:

    And you are damn right, as usual, m’dear.

    Apart from that, sex-scenes are the most difficult to write.

  6. pete says:

    Okay, so my current ms is about a recovering sex addict. 8000 words in, and so far, no nookie. But he’s bound to relapse, isn’t he? Isn’t he?

  7. Noelle Pierce says:

    I just *had* to come read this, given my genre. I have a hard time deciding how explicit to get with my love scenes (I’ve done one erotica story with explicit sex–no love–scenes, and won’t ever do that again, though I’m glad I did it once). In pure romance–you know, the genre most people laugh at–the trend is to get more sexual, more sensual. Writing a sweet romance (a la Austen) is less common. Not to say the sex is gratuitous, but the bestsellers nowadays are looked at in terms of not only plot, but also steaminess. Writing without those cliches and phrases that even I read as “Ugh, what were they/was I thinking?!” is challenging. I almost wish the sweet romances were more popular, because I really don’t like to write the sex in love scenes (Imagine it? Yes. Research it? Yes. Write it? No.).

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Well, if the popularity of the Twilight series is to be believed, less can be a great deal more.

  8. Ellie says:

    I have great difficulty writing explicit sex, so I think you’re safe with my books! It’s not from a lack of imagination, I hasten to add; I can picture it all very well, but I singularly fail to get it down on the page without cringing. I mean, my mum might read it. Or–horrors!–my dad…

  9. Paul House says:

    Oh, oh, oh, indeed! Best bit about Coming Home was the end, I think, although I agree with your analysis of the scene in question.

  10. 🙂 loved the post and totally agree. There’s so much unnecessary explicit sex in novels nowadays it’s astounding..not that there’s really anything as necessary explicit sex.

    It’s gotten to the point of when I was writing my MS I had to stop and think..should a “scene” be inserted here? Not because I thought it would help the story along, but because a lot of the “romances” I’ve read feature those scenes. It makes it look like in order to be successful in the publishing world you need to/have to have those scenes.

    June and I even tried to find books classified as romances but did NOT feature sex..it was a difficult search yet to be realized 😦

  11. Rudolf says:

    Sex, sex, sex, that’s all you think about. Will the girls like this? Is it too big, is it too small?

    Oh, sorry. Went off into Python there for a moment. *nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more*

    Seriously. Yes, I agree. Sex is everywhere today. The media is awash with sex and sexual content. Even children are under pressure to become sexually provocative in the way they talk and the way they dress. Books that are full of it sell because people are sheep and follow the crowd, the clarion call of the “media” Film, TV, music, fashion, magazines, books.

    Ho and hum.

    Whatever happened to love? Romance?

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Sex isn’t all I think about, RP. Today I thought about drinking claret and ale; I thought about saddle sores and playing piquet. I thought about the velocity of a lead ball shot from a pistol with a rifled screw barrel and whether it would be more inclined to graze or go through and through when shot from no more than 30 yards…

  12. cavalrytales says:

    Oh dear…a sex scene.
    Now, one of my readers (and friends) told me I didn’t have enough of them. ‘More sex and violence,’ SHE insisted, ‘always lots of both in a war.’
    So in my current story there are two (as yet unwritten – because I’m a coward) sex scenes involving a main character, one marital rape, one attempted rape and one minor sexual assault. That’s plenty for one book. Plus slightly more graphic violence because a).it was a pretty horrible phase of the war and b). the main characters notice it more; they have more experience, and thus, in action, more (apparent) time. If that makes sense.
    But you’re right, as usual. Remember how seventies films had an obligatory sex scene, often completely out of kilter with the tone of the remainder? If a story’s full of graphic bonking,the sex becomes the story. So it’s porn, not literature, and that’s for watching, not reading.
    Not that I’ve ever seen any…

    • M M Bennetts says:

      Rape is a tricky one, Cav. I remember talking to Dorothy Dunnett about it some years ago. She said that there are a few things that modern readers will not accept, no matter how historically accurate they are. And rape is one of those. You cannot have your hero raping a woman–even though, as she so rightfully pointed out, rape was often in the middle ages, the certain way to get the bride of one’s choice. So while you often have your MC sailing very close to the wind morally, in some things you have to soften, soften…

  13. cavalrytales says:

    It’s OK – the marital rape is the British baddie, the attempted is the French baddie. And the minor sexual assault, or the saving of the victim therefrom, is the catalyst for the two illicit MC scenes. The victim becomes the instigator.(She’s older so I think I can get away with that).
    It’s the latter short affair (socially absolutely non-PC) which drives the ‘falling-out of two friends’ part of the plot.
    But it’s the operation to remove a musket ball from Killen’s horse that’ll be awkward to write. (Can’t lose him this early in the war!)

    • M M Bennetts says:

      You’re right about the last. I rely on the kindness of a neurosurgeon to ‘walk me through’ all woundings, beatings and deaths, to ensure I’ve got the blood coming from the correct orifaces and the damage is consistent–everything like that.

  14. Mockingbird says:

    Okay. It’s a balancing act. I have to admit that I find a veritable cascade of smut to be a bit of a turn off to the rest of the story. But sex sells. Writing M/M romance, it’s a tightrope to keep it “romantic” without turning slushy, or too smutty.

    • M M Bennetts says:

      It’s always a balancing act. Always. Which is what the makers of Lady and the Tramp never understood.

  15. Viv says:

    I find most sex in novels pretty boring. I couldn’t read erotica for that reason.
    There are ways of upping the heat without ever depicting a puckered n****e, or anything else, for that matter.
    Enough is enough. We all know that tab A fits into slot B (or C, possibly), so why bore the reader with what their own imagination can supply.
    Excellent article, with well made points.

  16. Well said as always. I am doing a scene that I show literally, as a series of sentence fragment sensual glimpses.
    It ends up reading like poetry and it’s hot as hell. 🙂

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