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.