Sex, What is it Good For? (In novels)

In the last Superversive Roundtable discussion, we discussed romance novels, and how fast they went to sex scenes. And, seriously, a sex scene … why bother?  In the context of literature, almost a sex scene in it has been a horrid waste of time, energy, and irritates, at least, this reader. Heck, I’m up to book three of a vampire romance series — (yes. Really. It’s called Love at First Bite, honest) and I haven’t had to use one once.

Why? Because I find sex scenes boring.

I am not certain how much of this is my own personal opinion and how much of it is a critique of how sex scenes tend to be inflicted on the reader.

One of my major problems is the OSS, or the Obligatory Sex Scene.

For example, in the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child novel Mount Dragon, our protagonists, after having found shelter and water in the middle of the desert, after nearly dying from thirst, while on the run from a nutcase with a gun…. are so happy they start having sex…

Huh? What the heck?

The OSS I just mentioned is quick. If it’s longer than half a page, I’d be surprised. But it was just dropped into the middle of the book, and was so jarring it broke the pace. It had been a nice, solid thriller, our heroes on the run from a psychotic killer with a rifle, and then…. they’re stopping to have sex? Really?

Looking at it objectively, what is the point of an OSS?

Playing Thomas Aquinas for a moment, I’m certain someone could object: “Physical intimacy shows the the relationship involved has gone to another level and has thus impacted the characters.”

Yes, this is perfectly true, but does that necessitate a five page sex scene? Or even half a page? If one wanted to tell the reader that, yes, two people slept together, I can do that right now: “X and Y fell into bed, kissing passionately as they stripped each other’s clothes. They then turned off the lights and hoped they wouldn’t wake the neighbors.”

Done. Two lines and a bit of smart ass can carry something a long way.

Objection two: “Things can happen during the scene that are relevant to the rest of the novel.”

True, but rarely does it necessitate going into intimate details. In fact, I would suggest that anything interesting that happened could be covered in the next chapter. “On reflection, s/he noticed something odd while lying on his/her back. S/he didn’t really notice it at the time, but now that it’s quiet…..”

Done.

Exceptions can be made to this rule, obviously. If the couple rolls off of the bed as someone walks into the room, be it with room service or with a gun, then that is a useful detail.

There are moments when character can be served, strangely enough. I’ve seen sex scenes done well. I don’t mean the sex scene in the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, where he dwells on a nice neat serial killer, his girlfriend comes in, starts kissing and disrobing him, and the next line is, literally, “How did that happen?” I mean a sex scene, rating R to NC-17.

John Ringo’s “Paladin of Shadows” series (Ghost, Kildar, et al), has sex scenes and nudity. However, the point of the hero, nicknamed Ghost, is that he is not a “nice guy;” he hangs out in strip clubs, and some of his contacts are strippers… it’s rather amusing reading a scene where a stripper is informing him of pertinent information during the course of her duties.

The sex scenes themselves are surprisingly thought out. The first novel, Ghost, is a series of vignettes. The second vignette is described as “two-thirds bondage porn and deep sea fishing, and who knows which is worse” (I’m paraphrasing there). Before the sex scenes take up whole chapters, the character Ghost has a discussion with the two young ladies he’s dealing with… and their parents. The conversation that follows is one part clinical dissertation on bondage subcultures, and five parts comedy routine.

After that, you can skip read, unless you really want to learn more about leather goods and deep sea fishing than you ever really wanted to.

So, here we have someone who makes sex funny without it being gaudy. In fact, the amount of thought put into many of Ringo’s later sex scenes shows a lot of character, intelligence, and humor.

Even then, are they necessary? Surprisingly enough, some are, and two are crucial to the stories they show up in. Almost all of them impact the characters in some way. And almost all of these scenes can be entertaining for reasons that are anything but sexual. Why Ghost does what he does (and I don’t mean sexual maneuvers or positions) tells the reader more about the character than a hundred pages of sex scenes from any given novelist….

Laurell K. Hamilton, I’m looking at you.

Laurell K. Hamilton created a novel series about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. It was a nice, solid series, set in St. Louis, with a well-constructed, detailed world, where vampires were public figures, werewolves are treated like HIV cases in the 80s, crosses work against vampires, and demons aren’t the actor in a suit you see on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For nine novels, the series went well. There was sexuality here and there (a major character was a French vampire, after all), but it never really got in the way of the story. By book seven and eight, the main character was sleeping with both a vampire and a werewolf, but the OSS’s were few and far between, and they were easily skipped by turning a page. Quite painless, overall.

After book #9, Obsidian Butterfly, I was warned off several novels because they opened with a hundred pages of vampire rituals of who gets to have sex with who. I went back for book #15, because it featured the return of Hamilton’s best, scariest character: a mild mannered, white-bread fellow named Edward, a mercenary who started hunting vampires because humans were too easy.

However, I had to skip a hundred and fifty pages of the novel. It was one, long and drawn out OSS. Not a menage a trois, but a bisexual sextet among Vampires and were-creatures. Yes, you read that right. Much of the rest of the book had pages of Anita Blake defending her sex life. “The lady dost protest too much.”

When the author herself was asked about the overabundance of sex during a Barnes and Noble interview, Hamilton’s best defense was that “I only get complaints from men. I had two reviewers tell me that they’re disturbed that a woman is writing this sort of stuff. ”

Ahem…

Dear Madam. Hamilton: I get disturbed with John Ringo writing about a man and two coeds on a boat with bondage gear. For the love of all that’s Holy, what makes you think that a bi-sexual sextet with were-furries would go over any better, no matter who or what you were?  So, you’re going to defend yourself against criticism with some kind of strange faux-feminism based off of two reviewers?  How about “I want more plot than sex scene,” are you going to blame that on me being male? Really? Really?

Again, I’ll go back to John Ringo, only a different series — The Council Wars.  One short story is seriously NC-17, and reading through it, I would be hard-pressed to see how it could be written otherwise. With Hamilton’s novels, I could skip over a hundred pages and not miss a single plot point. That’s screwed up.

As I said, in my book series, there are no sex scenes. Book one and three have some interesting and creative make out sessions, but that’s about it. Can I write a sex scene? Sure, they’re easy. I’ve gotten requests from lady friends of mine for erotica (please God, do not ask. It’s a long story).

But are they necessary? Not really. Did I need intimate details to add to the plot, the character, or anything related to the story? No.

Frankly, I think a PG-13 novel sometimes requires more skill than an NC-17 rated. I find that sex sequences are a cheat, sort of like premium cable—just because you can use four letter words doesn’t mean you have to write them into every single line.

I have actually made my lack of OSS’s in my novels work for me. For example, the hero of one of my books has had a long term girlfriend … they’ve never had intercourse because every time they do, someone tries to kill them. And there are other creative ways around a problem.

Just because an author can throw in a sex scene doesn’t mean s/he must do so. Doing sex scenes well takes skill, and making them relevant takes talent; most people don’t have it. Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer had several moments where our heroine’s sex life was literally going to get people killed (Season 2, Season 4, et al). Sherrilyn Kenyon, a ROMANCE NOVELIST, wrote at least one book where the LACK of sex was a key plot point, and another where intimacy between the hero and heroine was surprisingly crucial to the story. Ringo was mentioned above.

So, it has been done well. Just not very often.

To answer the opening question: Sex, what is it good for?

In novels… yes, it can be good for something. It just rarely is.

Declan Finn is a Dragon Award nominated author. His “Catholic Vampire romance novels” can be found on his personal website. As well as all the other strange things he does.

This entry was posted in books, writing and tagged , , , by Declan Finn. Bookmark the permalink.

About Declan Finn

Declan Finn is the author of Honor at Stake, an urban fantasy novel, and nominated for Best Horror at the first annual Dragon Awards. He has also written The Pius Trilogy, to be released by Silver Empire Press. Finn has also written "Codename: Winterborn," an SF espionage thriller, and "It was Only on Stun!" and "Set to Kill," murder mysteries at a science fiction convention.
  • I think you answered your own question. If it’s relevant, then it’s needed, and as with Ringo’s Ghost, it’s needed to flesh out the protagonist. But Romance readers don’t read for sex — they read for romance. Sometimes the two (sex and romance) even go hand-in-hand.

    A sex scene is about the physicality of Tab P going into Slot V. A romantic sex scene isn’t about the physicality at all. In fact the naughty bits don’t even have to touch or get involved. It’s a mental game. An emotional one. Sometimes there’s physicality involved which is why there’s a fine line there.

    Diana Gabaldon says that LOVE scenes are about the exchange of emotions, not body fluids, and I agree. In order for a scene to be a love scene, not a sex scene or outright porn (which is sometimes exactly what’s needed as with Ghost), it had to be unique to that situation and those characters (again, Ghost). If you can put any person into the scene then it’s about Tab P and Slot V, and yeah, most of the time it’s not necessary to the story.

    So if it seems gratuitous, it’s probably because there’s no connection with the characters OR it’s not about fleshing out that character. Sometimes authors just throw it in there to make up for other faults. It must work for some or they wouldn’t keep doing it, right?

  • Mrs. Wright

    Having read many, many romances, I can tell you that Dianna Gabaldon writes some of the best love scenes out there, why?

    Because plot happens in her sex scenes. Things matter. Characters matter. Things change. Most authors write the kind of sex scenes where I find myself flipping by the sex part to get to the arguing.

  • Overgrown Hobbit

    Why? Because I find sex scenes boring.

    I call these the “poo scenes.” Extended, sometimes goofily euphemistic or clinically detailed (or worse, both at once!) descriptions of the elimination of waste from the lower intestines. Oh boy! I can’t wait to read that!

    Yes, you can make the scene about characterization. Yes, you can make it plot critical. And yes, if you’re telling an SF horror story about sentient enterobacterial parasites, you probably do need to put one in.

    But mostly? Yawn.

    Even well done, there’s a corrupting, subversive effect: normalizing porn, voyeurism and fornication, made tempting by the opportunity to “shock the squares.” The only effective way to beat that, unfortunately is another appeal to emotion:
    “Oh. You wrote a poo scene. How nice for you.”

    • Benjamin Rodriguez

      Honestly if you’re writing sex to “shock the squares” you’re in the sad state of thinking that there are still Squares out there.

  • Benjamin Rodriguez

    Stacia Kane wrote a *lengthy* LJ series on why (and when) you *should* write sex (and the best ways to write it well) years ago. http://stacia-kane.livejournal.com/73271.html
    Given my own output, I’m more likely to agree with her than the “never-never-ever!” crowd.
    Partly because there’re some jokes that only work when the pants are off. Also because a nice smutty scene can be the you, reader can’t have. And by that I mean, the full trapeze act. (Zero-G canoodling is incredibly cost prohibitive.)
    The elephant in the room here would be the current reigning “mommy porn” 50 Shades trilogy. A lot of the kinky stuff is better left as those fantasies, and the market for them is clear. (Once again, logistics. And physical limitations. I for one, couldn’t bend that way even in my prime.)

  • Dawn Witzke

    Sex scenes sell, though. The steamier the better. Why is totally beyond me, because I most of them are awful.