Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Happy Valentines Day, Internet!

While I wait for my heart-shaped sausage pizza to be ready, I thought I'd talk about something topical: Sex.

Or more specifically, the writing thereof.

I generally tend to think of sex as something I don't write much, but that doesn't hold up to any serious scrutiny. Most of the characters in my stories are sexually active, many even sexually aggressive- I don't have a lot of patience for that coy, nervous first part of romances, where people are wringing their hands and thinking "ohmygosh does he like me?" The story that's being reprinted in Aoife's Kiss next month starts out with a casual hookup (followed by a vivisection, because... well, why not?), but on the other hand I do tend to glide over a lot of the details. I find myself generally treating it much like I do other character traits and interactions. Unless a character is a fanatic about her car, I'm probably not going to give more information than, for example "a black SUV in good condition" or "a red Mustang" or "the pickup her father had kept running since the depression" (since I'm not personally a car person, I'll generally give less). I'm certainly not going to write a whole paragraph about it, unless it's a major point in the story. Likewise, I find I tend to give information about sex that's little more than "on the cold stove", "messy and embarrassing", "well, at least it seemed like she had a good time", or "with handcuffs and heavy tongue; standard, but adequate". I think part of it is that if I've written a character conflict, by the time the characters have sex, either it's resolved successfully or the sex came before and isn't related to the conflict. And if the conflict isn't between the characters making whoopie, then the sex is not any more narratively important than that pick up truck- it's interesting and it adds character development, but it doesn't need its own paragraph.

I've read a number of books with sex scenes, and they have a tendency to fall into three camps: 1) good sex scenes were two developed characters come into a scene with an established conflict of dominance, emotional attachment, confidence, etc- whatever it is, something that can either get better or worse by the end of a sex scene; 2) lame sex scenes in which there is no conflict, just a kind of point by point "and then this happened" in a way that kind of feels like the writer's nudging you for a bro high five (I say that, but lady writers are just as guilty); 3) rape scenes, where the conflict is, of course, obvious.

Actually because I enjoy horror, I should probably add a subset 4) the scene where there's endless, off-putting objectification and sexual tension build up, and then one party turns into a monster and eats the other. Seriously, this is not a twist ending anymore. Please stop doing it.

I have to give props to romance writers here. While the romance books I've read have some sex scenes that have made me giggle like a middle schooler looking up "butt" in the dictionary, I've also never scanned over them thinking "blah blah blah penis blah blah blah oh baby blah blah suck". I've read thoroughly and turned the next page (also there's not very many sex scenes in romance books, and allegedly if you read a lot of them, you can open straight to the page number where you know they will be, based on a formula of sexing). But then again the central romance plot is pretty much always getting to know the other person in a new relationship, and sex is a reasonable part of that process.

The second class of sex scene- the one where it seems to happen on some remote island with nothing to do with the rest of the plot (or in the worst case scenario where the "plot" appears to be nothing more than a framing device for the sex scenes)- always makes me uncomfortable. In practice it tends to be the longest and most explicit of the examples (unless we're counting four) even though in theory there's no reason it needs to be and I always get the feeling that the author expects me as a reader to be having a menage-a-une over. I mean... if it's not doing anything narratively productive, then clearly it's pornography, right? Which I suppose is all well and good if you want pornography, but is obnoxious if you've come into it looking to read a story.

It's also very hard not to feel about it the way one feels about Mary Sue fiction- that it's self-indulgent wish fulfilment, especially because this sex tends to involve at least one super hot character, usually not the one whose viewpoint the story is told through.

I think there is a part of us that wants there to be perfect sex- maybe as a kind of breather, maybe as a reward or even just something nice for characters we identify with. Maybe even just because we hate to write about sex being disappointing or conflicted- the same way we often like happy endings to be wrapped up and cleanly happy. But, I mean, how much space would you devote to a character having a really delicious piece of cake? How much cake eating would you read before you start scanning down to the point where the ship blows up? Even if the cake is a reward for a character having gone through fifteen pages of horrible unsuccessful diets, isn't there an upper limit?

Anyway, I'm off to pick up a heart shaped pizza. Y'all go on and celebrate love in your own special ways.

Happy Valentine's Day, Internet!


  1. This is an interesting thought provoking post.

    What you're calling pornography, I think is now called erotica. Where the point of the story is two people having sex. The reader getting some voyeuristic thrill from reading about it. But, I could be wrong about that. I don't read it, so I'm only guessing based on what I have read from people who write it.

    Good food for thought, thanks.

  2. I honestly feel like splitting hairs between erotica and pornography gives pornography a worse connotation than it deserves in theory (the practice of pornography often being another can of worms) and elevates erotica to a level it probably doesn't merit. Either way, someone is still writing sex that the reader is expected to use as a tool toward sexual gratification, aren't they? Or am I misrepresenting here?