Monday, February 02, 2009

Sex and Fiction

When I first started in publishing 15+ years ago, the demand for historical romances leaned toward sweet, family-type books set in the American West. Well, we’ve come a long way, baby. Any time I talk to editors now about historicals, one of the first questions they ask is, “Is it sexy?” Does that mean everything you write has to be filled with sex, sex, and more sex? Not at all, but certainly the trend these days is leaning toward the sexier book. And the sex in books isn’t limited to romance; in fact, I think that whatever you’re reading, the level of sex or sexual tension has increased. Thrillers, SF, fantasy, and even mysteries all have or can have a sexual element, which means how much sex is enough or too much is on the mind of many writers.

Which is why one reader wrote in to ask where the line is drawn between fiction with sex scenes and something that would be called “adult” or, I’m assuming, porn. The trouble I have with a question like this is that there is really no line. The line between a sexy romance, an erotic romance, and porn differs more today than it did 30, 20, 10, or even 5 years ago. And the line is very different for every single person. In fact, I gather from the terminology this particular reader used that the line for her is very different than the line for many of my other readers or even for me. For example she said, “If the interaction between characters is more detailed or quantified than the kind of 'warm, womanly glow' so typical in the trite potboilers of yore, does that earn it the fictional equivalent of an NC-17 movie rating? I'm not talking about the stuff which is deliberately sexual first and fiction afterwards, as some of the 'erotic' imprints seem to be, but rather how much 'real sex' is acceptable to editors and publishers of mainstream, literary, or women's fiction.” It seems to me that the reader feels that the erotic imprints she talks about lean more toward porn and that the “real sex” she is discussing is something different than the sex found in romances or erotic romances. Of course I know a number of my readers would beg to differ (and I imagine we’ll hear from them) and say that the sex they write about is well-researched and as real as it gets. And I think that this proves and will prove my point perfectly.

When you are talking about something like sex or violence or even offensive language, it’s difficult to say what is too much since everyone has a different threshold. The movie industry obviously has a rating system but even that, to the best of my very limited knowledge, is based on the judgment of a few, and could and has changed over the years in terms of what is acceptable within certain ratings.

My answer to this question is the same as the answer I would give to many questions when asked how much you can or should or need to do in your book. It has to fit the story. If you feel that a particular character in your story is very sexual and you need to show those scenes to make the book work, then it works to do so. Anything that’s gratuitous, whether it’s sex or violence, never works: it never works for editors and it never works for readers. The reader asked how much “real sex” is acceptable to editors and publishers of mainstream literary or women’s fiction, and frankly I’m not sure what that means. Every editor is going to be different and I don’t think any of us would ever tell an author you can only have x number of sex scenes. It has to work for the book.

When writing or not writing sex in books you will always have people who disagree with what you’ve done. You’ll have some complain that you needed more and others complain that you had too much. The trick isn’t to figure out what will satisfy everyone else, but what satisfies you and makes you comfortable and proud of your book.



Anonymous said...

I'd rather do the research, then not include sex scene in my book. Much more fun.

Anita said...

This may sound crazy, but I follow my character's lead on this issue.

Sometimes I'll start writing a sex scene and it just doesn't work. It's as if the character is telling me, "Hell no. I'm not having sex with him right now."

Other times, the timing seems completely inappropriate and my character starts having sex. I'm thinking, "Why are you doing this? You were almost murdered a few hours ago." And my character basically tells me, "Get over it a write the scene. I want to have sex with my husband."

And just so you all know, when I'm not writing, I'm perfectly normal.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently writing a character (mind you this is a paranormal) who's literally Lust incarnate. Believe it or not, I have 1..1 sex scene in the entire book. I'm sure if I wanted to I could have written a plethora of sex scenes, thing was..I didn't want to and neither did she want me to. You know she's having sex, and plenty of it, but aside from the one it's all alluded to and behind the scenes. Like Anita that's how my character wanted it. That's what made her more comfortable. If anyone asked me my book is definitely sexy, but it's not sex filled. I completely agree with Jessica, the definition of sexy varies widely but I think if done right, they all work.

And you know, I just gotta add this..I get so tired of people calling romance porn. Half the time the ones who do don't even read the genre. And no, this has nothing to do with whoever wrote in the email to Jessica in the first place, rather a discussion I had with my own DH last night. Sigh...

Kimber Li said...

The readers I know don't like to be shocked by the graphic level of sex in books, Romance novels especially, and they hate it when sex scenes are there just to sell the book. It's the main reason I started my book review blog, Enduring Romance, almost two years ago. If there was a way these readers could know in advance what they're getting before they spend their money, more of them would leave the well-reviewed books in the libraries and used bookstores and return to the New Releases. Also, sexy may be selling, but even more would sell if there were 'sweet' novels as well. Right now, you have to be a Christian or a teenager to find a 'sweet' novel in the New Releases, but not everyone who prefers 'sweet' fits into those two groups.

Here's the way we define things for our readers at Enduring Romance:

Heat Level Definitions

Sweet - no nookie

Mildly Sensual - nookie, but not 'seen'

Sensual - nookie, but no graphic descriptions of private parts

Highly Sensual - nookie with graphic descriptions, but not the kind you'd hear in a bar full of drunken sailors

Regardless of Heat Level, all nookie in books reviewed at Enduring Romance supports the growing love relationship of the couple involved.

Tena Russ said...

"Get over it a write the scene. I want to have sex with my husband."
Anita, LOL.

Jessica, thanks so much for this post. It's a topic that's been rattling around in my mind. My eighteen year-old protag just had sex for the first time and while it wasn't *graphic*, it was specific and definitely written in her humorous voice. (I didn't write this novel for YA readers.) With regard to sex, where is the line drawn between adult fiction and YA? This is probably an unanswerable question.

My verification word is "menlit". :-)

Anonymous said...

That's so important to remember.

Some pieces are bogged down by sex scenes. Even a well-written scene doesn't work in certain books.

It's important to be true to the story.

And, if you genuinely believe you're being true to your book and the editor says, "You need to put a sex scene here" and you don't want to -- then you need to find a different place for the book. The same with the reverse. There are instances where the sex scene is vital to the book's/character's development, and taking it out is not true to the book.

Again, it's a case of thoroughly doing one's research before one submits.

Keri Ford said...

Yep, I agree with Anita and Linda. I've got 2 books, same genre, similar tone. One book has ONE sex scene and the other has two described and a couple other scenes that are glossed over.

It's all in the characters and what they need. The book with one scene fit the characters. They were playing a 'cat and mouse' game. Also, too much too soon would have smothered my heroine and she would have been out of there.

For the other book, the hero was a very sexual man. The heroine in turn needed to be desired or else she would have never lasted with the hero's stamina.

Characters aren't cookie cutters. Same as real people, they all have different needs and wants. Everyone has their own tolerance level.

Anonymous said...

I definitely agree that sex needs to fit the book. Is romance porn? LOL, no I don't believe that at all. I can think of at least one recent romance release (Shomi imprint) that had only 'behind the scenes' sex. I can think of non-romances that have more sex than many of the romances I've read.

Personally, I DO laugh when the characters keep thinking about and/or having sex all the time when the plot has them saving the world/foiling assassinations/etc., but I still read them. I just find it funny.

Sex sells for some people, it doesn't sell to everyone though. I don't think I've ever bought a book just because it had a bunch sex in it (though I have bought some that I was aware would, it wasn't my reason for buying).

Follow your characters, follow your plot, and make it fit the story you are telling. If it doesn't, you aren't being fair to your characters, yourself, or your readers.

Anonymous said...

I write YA but this is an interesting discussion that also lends itself well to YA writers.

In YA we call it being "edgy" or not, and "sex" goes along with how many curse words you use, etc... Most YA is classified for ages 12+, Edgy YA is usually for ages 14+.

This past year I've read one sex scene in a YA that made me blush and a few that "faded to black" where I felt they shouldn't have happened at all, even if the "event" wasn't described -- the character seemed so young (in her way of thinking) that it seemed like she wasn't sophisticated enough to make that decision just yet. So I guess the debate goes on for all of us. It's so hard to find that balance between what someone wants and what they do, and between how much to say and what to leave out.

Anyway, great discussion.

Anonymous said...

I love this! I would say that my current novel is pretty sexy and I was worried about how the sex scenes may be viewed. The scenes are appropriate to the characters and are necessary to define the relationships of these characters.
I had all of my girlfriends reading the scenes and contributing to the language that I should use so that it would be tasteful and not raunchy. It is amazing how many words we came up with to describe the male and female anatomy. We also got a good laugh out of it.
I certainly love a good sex scene or two and I hope that the reader of my book will get the same thrill out reading them that I did writing them.

Kimbra Kasch said...'s true everything depends on the characters, their ages and what's right for them.

Debbie Schubert said...

Jessica, How relevant! I had some - as Kimber An put it - Highly Sensual scenes in my book, but my copy editor kept taking them out! My sister, on the other hand, wanted more scenes and juicier details. Too funny. As much as I love my sister, I went with the expert on this one. Like you said, it makes me feel more comfortable and proud of my book.

Anonymous said...

I struggled with this issue in my current manuscript. The overall tone of the novel is fast and madcap, with action that often hovers on the edge of chaos.

The sex scene that fits my characters' feelings and pent-up desires is slow and sensual.

Getting that one scene right (and yes, it's essential to the plot) has been very tricky. I either go too far and break the tone of the novel, or I end up with something that reads like a prudish maiden aunt's idea of sex.

It's so frustrating, but I'm committed to getting it right.

Robena Grant said...

I agree with those who said it depends on the characters.

If the sex scene is meaningful to the heroine's growth, her character arc, then yes I need to know what she's going through and why she feels as she does. I want to be swept up in those feelings.
And afterward I want to know what the sex means to both H/H. Did it change them. If it didn't why not, if it did then tell me.

If it's just sex and body parts who cares? Those scenes are like the gratuitous sex scenes in movies. They're in the story to titillate, to sell the movie or book. Those are generally the scenes I skim. Sensual writing pleases me more than description of the sexual act.

Kate Douglas said...

Since I write erotic romance, this is a subject I'm fairly well versed in--one thing I've learned is that one person's erotica is another reader's porn. Even the 10,000 member strong Romance Readers of America hasn't been able to come up with a comfortable definition for erotic romance in order to categorize the genre. My feeling is, why try? We all approach the subject with our own baggage, and the only thing you can do as an author is write the scene that's true to your characters and your plot. Gratuitous sex never works in a book--it must either motivate or develop or explain some aspect of your story.

I never start a book thinking, "I have to write X number of scenes and explicitly describe X number of sexual acts." I write from a deep point of view, thinking as my character thinks, and take it from there. What happens often surprises me, but it always fits within the context of the story.

Before Kensington picked up my Wolf Tales series, I had one editor at the epublisher where it was first published who was offended by a violent rape scene between two men--she told me I had to take it out. I refused and actually went over her head because the entire plot pivoted around that one scene. I made my case and the scene was left in--and when Kensington bought the series, it remained as an important part of the story. It's a shocking scene, but the readers who took the time to contact me when the book released agreed that it was a pivotal point in the story. If it had been at all gratuitous, I know I would have heard about it.

No writer should try and add sex scenes if they're uncomfortable with them, just as readers should never read books they find offensive. I avoid romantic suspense and horror because I can't handle the violence--it's all in what you're comfortable reading and/or writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm writing a historical, but romance is small sidestory. Putting a sex scene between my characters would throw the whole story off as well as be inaccurate for my characters' personalities (especially the one who is incredibly traditional and reserved).

I think I'm one of the few readers out there that really doesn't like reading the sex scenes. I tend to avoid getting straight-up romance or will skip the section in a book that will have it. But that's just me.

I am more along the lines of Kimber An's thinking--I don't mind mildly sensual books but I don't want to see the graphic sex scene. But that's personal taste.

Julie Weathers said...

I have some sensual scenes in m WIP, but I am not describing the act in a "blow-by-blow" account. It's not what I'm comfortable writing and, for the most part, I'm not really interested in reading it. I know how it's done.

I've read some erotic excerpts and the ones I read seemed to be written by a teen boy with an over active imagination and out of control hormones or a teen girl trying to impress someone with how hot she is. I'm sure there are some quality erotic writers out there; I just haven't seen them yet.

Anonymous said...

Julie Weathers comment has got me to thinking...

I wonder about the different standards for "guy" books? I've read a few thriller books recently and was sort of dumbfounded at the sex scenes -- they were all "fast and powerful" -- I guess because the MC was an assassin.

I felt foolish reading those parts -- they seemed so unrealistic, and each scene graphic, plus at the end of each I had no idea how the MC felt about the girl in question. Also, the assasin guy and his "girlfriend" were on the outs for the whole book -- I truly think it was only so the MC could have sex with other characters.

Anonymous said...

You most definitely are not the only one that would rather not read sex scenes. You can lead me up to it or even mildly indicate it, but I skip right over too graphic parts in a book. Sometimes I will just put it down if there are too many. It most certainly better be called for, for me to read it. My own imagination is so much better than the authors anyway. I think there are times it takes away from the book.

Tena Russ said...

It's really interesting to see how different our sensibilities are when it comes to reading sex scenes.

Anonymous said...

Okay, okay. I'll get that boy into my YA historical somehow. :)

Anonymous said...

I've never written sex scenes in books. Which is odd when you consider that werewolf/vampire/faerie paranormal seems to be full of sex as of late.

However, I do swear. It fits with my character (it's hard to find modern day military wives who aren't well versed in the four-letter phrases) and uses them freely. But, I'm that way, so I think she gets it from me. :-)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Jessica. I found this post interesting and reassuring. In my current manuscript, my female protag is a virgin. I have thought often about changing this detail because I thought it might hurt the book's marketability. A twenty(ish) year old virgin, even in fantasy, might be considered stretching suspension of disbelief. She was born and raised in a tavern where her mother was the local prostitute. She now owns the tavern due to circumstances I won’t bore you by listing. It just seems to me, and fits her personality, that she would still be a virgin. So thank you Anita as well. I'm going to follow my character's lead on this.

Jessica Milne said...

Anita, your post made me laugh and I totally agree with you. I learned the hard way not to agrue with my characters when they decided to do things. There's a scene that I was writing where all of my MCs come in at different times. As soon as they're all in the room, I discover that they have fallen in love with the wrong people. I've finished my third draft and I still don't know how Nadia (the MC) feels about two of the guys she may or may not be in love with.

Which brings us up to the next point. Her feelings haven't developed enough yet for anything extremely sexual, or even sensual, to occur. There's really no opportunity except for one night that a male friend stays over, but she's ridiculously tired and drunk and he was a complete gentleman. The other one of the two possible love interests might've tried something, but at that point he thought that Nadia was sleeping with the first guy.

It's also an age thing. Nadia started out as 17, but when I wrote the last quarter of the manuscript, I realized that she was too young at that point. As of now she's 20, but I almost feel like that's too old. It's a mix between a historical and fantasy because it's set in a different universe. (It's a mixture of Revolution Era France and 1860s England, actually).

I think that she'll choose one eventually, but my characters do things on their own time. (Besides, Man #1 may or may not have a past with one of the other members of their group. Needless to say, they're all a bit confused at the moment.)

Thanks for the interesting topic! :)

Anonymous said...

So editors like sexy these days? Excellent. Sexy is hard to avoid in my historical filled with battle-scarred, manly Spartans wearing next to nothing. And it's all seen from a young woman's perspective, so all of that glorious detail isn't put to waste. :) Is it sensual? Yes. Does it have love scenes? Yes - so far two. Are the sex scenes advancing the plot and/or characterization? Absolutely. Otherwise they wouldn't be in the story. To me, the sexiness is a product of the time and setting, the earthiness and intensity of the people I'm writing about, and the human need for intimacy, bonding and comfort in a brutal society, no matter how stoic one might be out on the battlefield.

Anonymous said...

I would say that leaving something to the imagination would be the best bet. But when you have a character who sees sex as the only important attribute to a relationship and that is what drives ths plot, I think it's okay to let loose a little. As everyone has indicated, it's personal preference. Those who don't like to read it, probably don't like it. mother told me that she WILL NOT read my book if it had sex in it. I wonder why...??? :-)

Anonymous said...

^ I meant - those who don't like to read it probably don't like to write it.

Evangeline Holland said...

The only issue I have with sex in the romance genre is that there is little room for really remaining true to your characters. If Book 1 is marketed as a smoking hot romance, everyone expects the sensuality level in your subsequent books to be exactly alike. And vice versa (if Book 1 happens to be "warm" or "kisses").

Sometimes, my characters just don't feel like going at it. Sometimes they do. Other times, they don't feel right until the last few chapters of the book. I can't force it, particularly when I feel that it would be dishonorable for, say, the h/h to get it on when he's still engaged to her sister.

If you're writing erotic romance, the sensuality level is pretty set, but non-erotic romance shouldn't be so inflexible.

Sandra Cormier said...

I'm still looking for my comfort level when writing sex scenes in my novels. With three different publishers and different expectations from each, I find that I can adjust.

My latest was for an erotic e-pub, and I'm not sure if the heat level will meet the expectations of the readers. I guess it helped that I had four protagonists, and not all of them were hot to get into the sack. I was able to let my characters move naturally through the story.

Shirley Horney said...

I agree with Jessica that if the story calls for sex--write the sex.

I don't have a problem writing sex because I'm Shirley Horney.

Anonymous said...

This conversation has been going on since the 70s! One of my favorite books of all time, one of the first 'chick lit' books was marketed as 'an erotic romp.'

Well . . .

True, the book did have a lot of sex in it, some of it rather graphic. However, it was all geeky, uncomfortable, unconventional, inappropriate, awkward, and just in general hilarious (good thing, since the book was sort of a dark comedy).

Not a single sex scene in the book was titillating. Most of it was embarrassing, which was the writer's intent. In short, it was a fabulous 'coming-of-age' book, but hardly an 'erotic romp.' Yet, that is how the publisher chose to market it.

If you ever want a primer on how to write unsexy sex scenes, check out 'Kinflicks.' It is freaking hilarious and brilliant.

Anonymous said...

Ha! Terri...I know the book that you are talking about. I think I read it a hundred times when I was a teen. LOL

Anonymous said...

Terri, I loved Kinflicks. In fact, I love all Lisa Alther's books

Anonymous said...

On Lisa Alther and 'unsexy' sex scenes, two memorable lines:

1. "Truth is, I feared sperm more than I did communists,"

2. "While Ira amused himself, I debated whether to thaw out roast or liver for dinner."

Alther is a genius!