The other day, there was an article in the Guardian entitled “Good Sex In Literature: Why Is It So Hard To Find?”
It’s not what the article was actually about. Well, I know leading headlines sometimes help sell papers.
The article was, actually, a sort of mashup of questions without many clear answers. One of the questions was why, in this era, writers feel that their work isn’t commercially as viable if they don’t include sex scenes. The obvious answer is, of course, that sex sells, and now that more open discussion of it is permitted in our culture, authors have the option to include sex scenes without being arrested or having their books banned. It is, actually, a privilege to be able to write about sex. And even if you are uncomfortable with that privilege or choose not to take advantage of it, the fact that it’s now there means that if you’re not taking advantage of it, you may not be selling as well as someone who is.
It’s not that sex in a novel automatically equals better sales; a well-written book is better than a book full of bad sex anyway, and will probably sell better. Not to mention that books which are formally focused on sexual themes, like erotica, are still struggling to be accepted in the public eye. I’ve written for erotic publishing houses, so I’m aware of the fine line they walk. Books like 50 Shades Of Grey, which are explicitly sexual and heavily focused on sexual themes and yet become bestsellers, are the exception, not the rule. But clearly there is some cachet to a novel with a steamy subplot.
The most interesting question in the article was, to me, why authors are hesitant to include explicit sexuality in their stories. I’m not sure what the deal is with the guy who wrote the article, who posited that it’s because novels are a more intimate experience or the production of a single individual or imply that the author has participated in the specific sex act being described, but he seems to be overlooking a fairly major, fairly simple explanation.
It is hard to write about sex because then people think you want it. And we might be more open about sex but that doesn’t mean we don’t still think it’s a shameful thing to want, pursue, and enjoy.
I haven’t included sex in many of my published novels; only one of the four has an explicit sex scene, a threesome between a married couple and their close friend. Mainly it’s because sex wasn’t necessary in two of them and would have been creepy in the third. In the novel where I do include explicit sex, the scene is there for a specific reason. But I have written a lot of fanfic, and a lot of it has been explicitly sexual. Sometimes it’s been specifically sexual, written for no other purpose; sometimes sex scenes have been included as part of the plot; sometimes sex scenes have been included because sex is fun and it draws eyeballs, and in fannish culture it’s more permissible than elsewhere. I’ve written from the point of view of different sexual orientations and genders during sex, as well.
Every time, without fail, when writing a sex scene I think to myself, what if people think I want this? This particular kink, this particular position, this particular partner (or set of partners). What if people think I want this, or worse, what if I want this and people figure that out?
And then I think fuck it, so what if they do? I’ve already amply proved that I like sex, and that I want sex, so what do I care if people think I enjoy a specific sexual act? I’m a writer. I’ve written torture scenes and I don’t enjoy torture, I’ve written scenes set in prisons and believe me, those taught me just how much I never want to go to prison. We have a lot of hangups about sex, culturally, but as a writer I’ve found most hangups of any kind can be adjusted by reminding yourself so what? You don’t have to watch anyone read your novel.
A lack of squeamishness about sex and a confidence in my ability to portray sex acts I don’t necessarily personally enjoy was something I learned from fandom. More importantly, the article author’s last enumerated fear — that writers are afraid they might draw attention for writing terrible sex — is also something I don’t have, because I’ve had a lot of practice reading, writing, and talking about sex.
You don’t have to put sex in your stories, particularly if it doesn’t belong in the plot you’re working or if you don’t, you know, like sex. But if you do want to put sex in your story, fandom’s certainly the place to go to learn.