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Sex scenes in novels: autobiographical or imagined?

7 March 2013

From The Telegraph:

Authors are often urged to write about what they know, but does this apply to sex scenes? Should they be based on personal experience – cue sniggering from friends, family and fellow authors – or drawn from the realms of pure fantasy?

The novelist Julian Barnes claims in an article today that modern writers feel a commercial obligation to include sex scenes and then struggle to write them. Chief amongst their many fears is the assumption that readers will conclude they are in some way autobiographical.

According to Barnes: “Writing about sex contains an additional anxiety on top of all the usual ones that the writer might be giving him- or herself away, that readers may conclude, when you describe a sexual act, that it must already have happened to you in pretty much the manner described.”

. . . .

But did book clubs believe me when I told them that the entire scene was the figment of my (admittedly warped) imagination? Did they hell. And do you believe me, reading this? I doubt it, but I don’t blame you and nor can I complain. In this game, you make your bed and lie in it, as it were.

Fortunately, my immediate family had the good sense not to comment about the sex (I still cringe at the thought of my mother-in-law reading the passage), but friends gave me nothing but grief for months afterwards.

Link to the rest at The Telegraph and thanks to John for the tip.


30 Comments to “Sex scenes in novels: autobiographical or imagined?”

  1. I’m about as far from a prude as you can get without going to jail, but I almost universally despise sex scenes in books. They’re always so awkward, they add nothing to the story, and it seems like the author couldn’t figure out a better way to up their word count.

  2. We had a similar discussion a few months ago in my critique group–how important are sex scenes, and how graphic do they need to be in mainstream (i.e., non-erotica) fiction? Some people said they found such scenes repellent and preferred them to end, black-and-white 50’s style, with a suggestive fade-out to “the next morning”. Others felt that, since sex is a part of life, any realistic fiction that includes sexually active characters, and whose sexual activity is central to the storyline, must therefore show sex in the detail warranted by the importance of said sex. We discussed this at great length and over several days–but the issue of whether sex scenes were or could be interpreted as being autobiographical never came up. Funny. Denial?

  3. Well, I disagree (with Dan, edit). Mostly. Actually I’ll agree first, a little.

    Sometimes sex scenes are the point. Or the selling point. It’s not a recent trend either, try Fanny Hill or Jean de La Fontaine’s erotic Fables (few know he wrote those). So you walk in with full knowledge of what to expect : sex, written in a skillful, entertaining, witty way. I’ll concede that in this case, they may not add to the story (indeed there may not be a story)… though often enough, they actually do and there actually is one. Fanny Hill does have a kind of story and even a kind of moral. And it is, IMHO, a delightful read ; certainly never “awkward”.

    Sometimes sex scenes are arguments. Like in Diderot’s La religieuse, about homosexuality in female convents in his time (XVIIIth century, France). His sex scenes are not too graphic, but quite clear.

    Now on to recent romances ; some dispense with sex scenes altogether (the whole inspirational subgenre), most don’t. And admittedly, many sex scenes feel bland and generic, riddled with superlatives and never-felt-such-extasy-before and the like. I remember a series of four romances in which the sex scenes were almost xeroxed ; the same actions exactly. It was all the most jarring as some care had been taken to give the protagonists some depth of character ; only, in the bedroom, they became interchangeable.

    Add to that the very prevalent model of a highly experienced and skillful alpha hero paired with a highly innocent heroine (especially in the huge historical subgenre), and well, boredom often ensues (for me). Word count concerns might be right.

    Also, I’d say (just my .02c) that often enough, sex scenes are written for fantasy purposes rather that story or character development purposes. Hence the superlatives and lack of interest.

    On the other hand, I have read some authors who dare to explore sexuality as a way of discovering a character’s self (I even remember the one and only romance novel, AFAIK, that featured bad sex before it got good… no, actually, make that two novels. Most daring take on sex scenes I can think of). Also, some gestures, when they are not perfect, can become meaningful.

    And then some sexual orientations suffer such social prejudice (homosexuality, for instance) that the emotions they elicit (doubt, denial, fear, secrecy, guilt, defiance, acceptance of one’s self…) give special meaning to the sex itself. When a writer can make this apparent in his sex scenes, you’ve got something that might not be sexy, but rather eye-opening, experience-sharing. And romance has plenty of authors talented enough to write such powerful scenes.

    • Maybe I should have added that I read mostly horror and thrillers. I stand by my statement! 🙂

      • Regarding horror and thriller, your statement makes more sense.

        From the rest of the comments, I’d say you made a careless comment, but one I’d easily have made not so long ago, before I started reading romance. It radically changed my perspective (and I enjoyed it plenty as well). Romance is a huge and yet swept-under-the-rug genre. Very easy to fail to notice, or to dismiss. And yet.

        BTW, there is such a thing as a thriller subgenre to romance, represented by, for instance, Suzanne Brockmann. Just sayin’.

  4. I know this is nothing brilliantly new to say, but…it still bothers me that we complain about sex having nothing to do with a story but nobody bats an eye over the violence in a book. Killing a person (in great detail, no less) is moving the plot forward. Having sex with a person has no bearing on the plot or character. It’s just there to sell books.

    Some of my novels (The Malja Chronicles, in particular) are very violent. There is a short sex scene in one of them and I put it in for the same reason I put in the fighting — plot, character, story. But still, that’s the thing people comment on — the sex.

    There’s something deeply wrong with all of us.

    • This. So many turn their noses up and sniff in disdain over a sex scene in a book (romances couldn’t actually be good storytelling, heaven forbid), but a violently graphic Koontz or Patterson is genre fiction at its finest. *eyeroll*. I’ll take a well written sex scene (yes, they do exist in many romance novels) that gives an emotional payoff to two characters’ relationship over a graphic description of someone torturing and murdering another human being any day.

  5. Two things:

    1) If the situation calls for it, then go for it. Same thing with violence. If it’s gratuitous it’s gratuitous.

    2) The thing that bugs me about that article is the “write what you know” assumption.

    If you are writing non-fiction, then that’s great. Same thing if you are a high-school student trying to learn how to be coherent and interesting but have no plans to become a professional. But if you are writing fiction, I expect you to have a great imagination. If the awesome sex is really drawn from memory, then congratulations, I suppose. But I hope all those gruesome murders, magical dragon slayings, and voyages through wormholes are not part of your everyday experience.

    • I went back and forth over whether to include a few sex scenes in one of my novels. The MC is 22, and I looked around online at various sites.

      Twenty-somethings have sex. They “hook up”, do “Walks of Shame”, discuss birth control, Plan B, talk about who they’d like to have sex with, on and on.

      I decided it would be unrealistic for the MC to not have a few open door sex scenes (and they are rather pertinent to the story, plus set up for other situations later on in the series). They don’t go on for pages and pages, nor is each instance of sex “open door”.

      Another of my novels is a “sweet romance”, no on page sex scenes at all, and only one closed door at the end. A few reviewers said they enjoyed it, but wished it had been “steamier”, which I take to mean more sex and open door sex at that.

      You can’t please everyone, so I’m agreeing with Stephen’s #1 above: “If it calls for it, go for it.” 🙂

      And uh, “no” on the autobiographical thing. My characters are born from my brain, but to me, they’re “people” in their own right, with their own lives and ways of going about living them, sex included.

  6. @ Stuart, I was typing when you posted so I missed your comment. I completely agree with you.

  7. I haven’t included more than vague allusion to sexuality in my work thusfar, but that’s because they’re Edwardian steampunk and written to invoke the period style.

    More acutely, none of the stories I’ve written have required sex. I try to practice a very tight style; if it isn’t required, it isn’t included. That goes for sex, violence, or any other sort of characterization.

    Maybe that’ll change when I get to writing longer works with more room for characterization, but as is unless the sex provides characterization while advancing the plot, I don’t have room for it in my novelettes.

  8. OK, historical romance writer chiming in here, with huge gusty sighs. I can’t/won’t address the purpose or content of sex scenes in any other genre. In romances, however, a sex scene does not exist solely to up word count (and really, it’s insulting to think it’s there for that reason). In some subgenres., i.e. inspirational or “sweet” romances, the sex is either “closed door”, or exists solely in the form of yearning, desire, etc., but is not explicit.

    For those works that include “open door” sex (the sex is explicit), it is NOT the body functions that are important–it’s the emotions of the characters and what the stakes are for the relationship. When done right, it is always from the POV of the character who has the most at stake, emotionally. It marks a turning point in the relationship and the plot. It’s a way of saying “from this point forward, we can never go back to the way it was.” Whether open or closed door, the physical act of intimacy changes everything.

    And I think that’s one of the differences that needs to be noted: most of you are discussing sex as a purely physical act, “tab A into slot B” kind of thing. And that may be true for other genres and subgenres, or even in erotica (but not erotic romance, which is different than erotica). But there is a huge difference between sex and intimacy, between purely animal functions and emotional human engagement. When you see a poorly done scene, it’s likely because it’s all physical with no intimacy. And it does take a skilled, fearless writer to do them effectively.

    And as to whether or not they are autobiographical? I know lots of women who make a fortune off writing gay romances. And really, there are only so many ways to actually do the deed, so we are bound to bring our own knowledge to the table, even if we then gild the lily.

    • Thank you, Kat. Couldn’t say it any better.

    • I totally agree with your post. When I write open-door sex scenes (contemp. romance), mine don’t occur until the relationship is well-developed (second half of the book) and I definitely focus on the feelings of the couple at least as much as the physical actions. As to whether or not the scenes are auto-biographical, I suppose some real life experience creeps onto the page (LOL), but none have ever been truly auto-biographical.

      When I read a well-written/developed romance (not erotica), I’m so eager for that first kiss, that first sex scene, etc., by the time it arrives, I feel cheated if the scene is given the short-shrift (closed door).

    • Thank you, Kat. Yes, to everything you said. Last I checked, I wasn’t a gay man, so no, the sex scenes in my books aren’t biographical.

      They’re also not there to up my word count. Or to be gratuitous.

      I frequently write erotic romances (which, for those who don’t know the difference, means the romance develops largely in the context of the sexual aspect of the relationship) and the reason I do so is because there is a great deal you can discover about a character through their sexual expression. Sex can be a time when a character becomes deeply vulnerable, or when a character shuts down for fear of being vulnerable. It can be a time when a lot of the masks fall away. Touching can be a means of bonding for characters who have trouble communicating their emotions otherwise. Do they use sex to deflect from uncomfortable topics, distract themselves from their troubles, comfort and reassure their partner or seek comfort and reassurance for themselves?

      It’s definitely the psychology of the act, rather than the act itself, that makes or breaks a sex scene. I guarantee that 99% of the time if a sex scene feels gratuitous or as if it exists merely to pad the wordcount, it’s because the characters are phoning it in, because they’re not psychologically engaged and it’s just about the act.

    • I apologize for my lack of specificity. I didn’t think that I would have to state that sex in romance or erotica isn’t exactly out of place.

    • Thanks Kat! Love the gild the lily comment – what a great title for a gay romance (going to google now). Check – many books with that title. *sigh*

      Just got through reading Melusine by Sarah Monette which is a pretty gutsy debut fantasy novel where one of the main characters (male) is gay. Her description of a rape and what it does to the character’s sexuality could not have been conveyed better if she hadn’t included a subsequent sex scene (interrupted). There are lots of reasons to include open-door sex, even in non-romance novels.

  9. As for people sniggering or pulling the writer’s wife aside (as is said in the source article), those people need to be treated with the contempt they deserve, as peurile idiots. One of my favorite tales comes from a romance writing friend. At a dinner party, one of the husbands thought it would be the height of hilarity to stand in the middle of the kitchen and read a scene from one of her books aloud. After a few minutes, the author’s husband strode over and snatched the book from the guy’s hand. He said “Yes, aren’t I the luckiest man in the world? Perhaps your wife could learn a few things from mine,” then turned and handed the book to the man’s wife.

    Lori Foster, a quite popular romance author, created two articles of clothing for her husband (and has them for sale). The hat says “I sleep with a famous author”. The t-shirt says “Yes, I AM the inspiration.” I’ve promised both to Hubs when I’m eventually published.

    • Kat I think you said it perfectly. I am a paranormal romance writer, and though I do not show the sex in my books, I believe that there are a lot of reasons for intimacy in ones book. Especially in a love story. As two people grow closer, whether in a romance or not, the physicality that takes over is a normal process. It has been said that even seeing a horror movie, or riding a roller coaster can cause people to become sexually aroused. The fact of the matter is, whether or not you choose to show sex in a book, it needs to be done well and with an emotional purpose.
      Saying that people write it just to add to a word count is silly IMO because those of us who write romance and sex know just how hard and long a process it is to get it right. It would be so much easier to add to my word count by having them go bowling, or to dinner, or be in a chase scene. The sex scenes are so much more difficult because you have so much more to make sure you get right. Sex scenes in a romance, or erotica for that matter, make or break the book.
      I read a book that the plot could have been really interesting, same with the relationship, but the sex scenes were so poorly written that they were unbelievable.

  10. I agree with Kat. The sex scenes are not about word count. I am an erotic romance writer for straight and gay romance. My gay romances are very dark erotic and have a lot of kink in them. My sex scenes are very emotional and drive the scene forward.
    I resent being frowned upon for what I write.

  11. Call me what you will, but in my opinion sex is a private thing and should remain private. It should never be described or shown in detail. But I’m not going to judge people who write sex scenes. I’m just not going to read their books.

    For the record, I also dislike books that depict graphic violence.

  12. Seeing as pretty much this entire discussion has turned on me for saying that I typically find the sex scenes in the books that I read to be forced, I’m going to go thataway.

    I’ll be on the lookout for a mob that I can join in the future. Seems like a lot of fun.

    • Don’t despair Dan…I didn’t turn on you for your comments! I just liked the way Kat described the importance of sex scenes in certain books and agreed with her opinion on the question at hand (is it auto-biographical).

      I would even generally agree with you that sex scenes in many non-romance books (especially horror/thriller) might be unnecessary (unless a relationship in the book is a critical part of the story and an appropriate sex scene heightens it).

      One of the problems with social media is that we tend to dash off a quick opinion as if all the readers really know us (and can ‘hear’ our tone/delivery). Unfortunately, often an opinion can end up sounding judgmental or derisive even when that wasn’t intended by the author. I’ve made that mistake myself in the past and feel your pain!! But you’ve certainly made several attempts here to clarify your comments. I don’t think you intended to insult anyone, if that makes you feel any better!

    • I didn’t turn on you either, Dan. If that’s your opinion, then it’s your opinion. I’m cool with it, and even agree with it in some cases. 🙂

    • Hasn’t PG expressed multiple times how dangerous romance novelists (and fans) are to mess with? LOL. Even in romance there are scenes that feel forced or dialed in and inconsonant with the mood of the book. I think some of that in tradpub books has been editor driven as the market shifted more (perhaps too far) to the “explicit sex all the time!” model of the genre.

      Anyway, not to troll this (but I will anyway), I was no joke writing just a couple days ago about how hard it is to write a good sex scene. I would think many to most romance authors take them very seriously and without gratuity. Other genres…well, can’t say’s i read them often enough to speak on their sexual proclivities. But i am happy to be assumed to have the worlds best sex life if anyone needs to take it that way 🙂


  13. What I find most interesting is how often folks will assume that sex scenes must somehow be autobiographical, and yet no one ever asks a thriller writer if he’s ever actually committed a murder.

    • LOL…although I presume that’s because most adult writers have actually had sex (hopefully good sex, and often), but they have NOT killed anyone!

      • I write books about mind control.

        I have been asked if I have ever mind-controlled anybody.

  14. Suburbanbanshee

    Actually, it used to be a trope in mystery/thriller books back in the Twenties and Thirties that people at parties were always asking them if they’d killed anyone (and of course Agatha Christie had worked as a nurse in a dispensary in WWI, so maybe other writers in similar occupations conducive to plots had the same questions asked).

    And Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is cr*p, so of course 90% of sex scenes are. And that definitely includes romance novels. Hooboy does it include romance novels.

    To be fair, however, romance novels today are much more inaccessible to the casual reader than they used to be, and include a lot more genre tropes requiring precise interpretation. So it’s possible that some romance sex scenes that seem terrible and pointless to the normal reader actually include points of interest and mastery of the romance writing style, but that they are simply invisible and pointless to the casual reader not educated in the genre’s expectations.

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