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The Problem of Sex

I woke up around four this morning on fire. First of all, it's 91 degrees outside with 49% humidity and our air conditioner is decades old. But less literally, I was also set alight with an unquenchable drive to write for the first time in weeks. It's not that I haven't been working, but it's been tough going and I haven't entered that elusive "state of flow" for some time. But this morning, you couldn't stop me until I had that 1,500 word scene down.

Unfortunately, it wasn't a scene for WIP-B. It wasn't a scene for any WIP, actually, but the hitherto unmentioned sequel, WIP-B2. No, it didn't just pop out of nowhere. I had a definite inkling that I would have to write it after outlining WIP-B. There are some secondary characters with a lot of unresolved issues whose fates don't much concern the main plot (in fact, they disappear entirely after chapter eight and only pop up briefly for an open-ended conclusion in the epilogue), but they really deserve their own treatment. But I haven't mentioned it before because (a) I have too many books in the works as it is, and (b) there will be sex.

It's not that I'm some kind of pervert, or I throw in meaningless sex scenes for the shock value or adult rating. But a major component of WIP-B2 is adultery, and adulterers have an unfortunate habit of having sex. There are multiple problems with putting the sex in, though:

1. There's no place for sex in WIP-B, which is rather tame and old-fashioned in general, so it might come as a bit of a shock for people who pick it up as a sequel.

2. As soon as you put in explicit sex, your work gets pigeon-holed with all of the other "obscene" material. It's been more than a century since Thomas Hardy was driven out of the literary community for Jude the Obscure, but the public landscape has changed only marginally. I've read of non-erotic books stashed in Barnes 'n Noble's erotica section for a single love scene, and seen a multitude of one-star reviews of classics for having "offensive" language or subjects. A lot of people, especially "concerned parents," see sex and profanity as superfluous; icky things that can be stripped out to retain the same meaning but in "good taste." Much of the time they can; I'm still scratching my head over that random encounter in the fields in A Lesson Before Dying. So poetic, so completely useless. But sometimes, believe it or not, there's a point.

Oddly, I don't think I'd get the same assumptions if I were French. French books and films get to have all the nudity they want and people say it's "artistic." American books and films that show the slightest glimpse of a breast are "trashy." We can say "fuck" all we want, but as for acting the verb out, we have to keep it clean. Note to self: come up with a French pen name. And maybe a second bland English one for the "translator." I'm thinking "Thérèse Chevalier" and "David Smith."

3. It isn't even the titillating kind of sex that draws in the cheap thrills crowd. It's not glittery fantasy sex, gritty thriller sex, or glossy romance sex. It's realistic, cringe-inducing, grotesque sex—more punishment than pleasure. I don't mean S&M, which for some reason is extraordinarily popular in media despite the very, very small percentage of people who actually like being whipped by riding crops in real life (say what you will about open-mindedness, but it doesn't seem to me to be a very healthy behavior). I mean bad sex, with twisted motivations and messy consequences. There's some happy sex as well, as a kind of consolation prize for making it through the horrible bits, but even that is more complicated than OMG-swoon sex.

4. Sweetie has banned any of my stories with explicit sex from our shelves. He's not opposed to other people writing about sex, but it's a bit different when it's someone you live with. On a related note, I have concerns about future coworkers and relatives...I try to hide my more explicit stories from anyone I'll see daily in an office or who have similar DNA. I felt weird enough knowing that my grandmother had a copy of Bubbles Pop, where they're cussing and making out shirtless and stuff.

Acknowledging all this, however, I have to conclude that the sex needs to stay in. Sure, I could dance around it, hint at it, sprinkle euphemisms here and there after the fact...but what would be the point? Seeing how tortured the adulterer is during the very betrayal will show his state of mind much better than having him whine about how guilty he feels later. It's much more powerful to see the train wreck as it happens than to read a headline with a body count the next morning.

What it boils down to is that none of my sex is actually about sex. Sex is the background activity, and the real action is in the participants' heads. It's like a conversation during a country walk; the central point of the scene is not getting the couple from the carriage to the lake. It's the interactions between them, their complicated thoughts and feelings and choices. If the best way to show those is through intercourse, well, my apologies to Sweetie, my future coworkers, and concerned parents everywhere.


Anonymous (May 27, 2012, 10:11 pm)

Maybe the trend has come around (again) -- "Fifty shades of grey"?

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What is the first letter of "Arkansas"?