Last time I talked about Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean M. Auel, a book whose dedication to scientifically accurate detail was very much an inspiration for my writing. But the elephant (or, if you prefer, the panicked pachyderm) in the room with that book is its sequels, which are full of sex.
Lurid, graphic sex, with much throbbing manhood. Kind of difficult, for a series one might otherwise recommend to older children.
A few months ago, I was discussing these books with my sister, who called them “smut” and said that the sex scenes dehumanize the characters. She may be right. In fact, as I’ve developed as a reader (and as a writer), I’ve come to dislike Auel’s sex scenes to the point that I actually skip them. I’d never thought about why before, but my sister is right–they do seem like an invasion of the characters’ privacy.
But do all literary depictions of sex dehumanize?
My sister might say yes, but I do not have the same negative reactions to most sex scenes in novels—and, on the few occasions I’ve read actual smut, pornographic writing intended primarily to titillate, I haven’t reacted negatively, either. I’m not sure that pornography itself is actually a good thing, but it doesn’t produce the odd sense of invasion.
On reflection, I believe that Auel’s sex writing fails because it is smut, and yet is embedded within a novel, thus forcing the same characters into two mutually exclusive literary styles–the strength of good fiction lies in the emotional realism of its characters, while the whole point of porn is often its lack of emotional realism. Christian Grey would be a horrible boyfriend in real life, but his fans enjoy pretending otherwise.
Jean M. Auel makes her characters deeply and humanly real, and then dehumanizes them by putting them in sex scenes where nobody needs to communicate or ever does anything awkward or wrong, and everybody always has Earth-shattering, simultaneous orgasms. And it’s painful to see characters I’ve come to care about being used in that way.
It is possible to write about sex in an emotionally realistic way that serves character development, theme advancement, and plot—that follows, in other words, the same rules that apply to all other kinds of scenes in good fiction writing. And just as all other scenes should be engaging and evocative, so should these.
Non-smut sex writing, in other words, should still be hot.
My book, To Give a Rose, does include sex scenes. I suppose they’re quite tame by general standards. Only in one scene is it even possible to tell what position the characters are using, but I’m not entirely comfortable writing about sex, so even admitting to the existence of this scene feels very risqué to me (and my mother has read that scene—Ack!). I wrote the scenes, despite feeling a little uncomfortable, because I wanted to use the portrayal of sex to say something about life outside of humanity.
As humans, we segregate different types of experience. Not only do we confine certain activities to certain designated circumstances, but to varying degrees we ignore the existence of these activities while we are in other circumstances. For example, not only would you not take a crap in the middle of the dining room, you wouldn’t even talk about feces at dinner (or, even if you would, you know it’s frowned upon). We divide our experience so thoroughly and so rigorously, that when a child or animal ignores the boundary it can seem almost miraculous, in a gross sort of way. Almost as if there is a physical law against, say, sex in the middle of a dirt road at noon.
To watch a pair of dogs flout that law is almost as odd as seeing them levitate.
My foot-ape characters lack this mental segregation, and in this way they are animals. For them, sex is an ordinary activity, no different from anything else they do. They do not hide it (unless they fear someone else might interfere), nor do they call attention to it. Each moment simply contains what it contains, and in that sense they experience life more directly than we do.
I wrote about their sex lives deliberately in order to evoke that directness—no decorous fading to black, no fascinated focus on throbbing detail, just a moment that happens to feel erotic to some of the people experiencing it.
My second book will have no sex at all, for the simple reason that the main characters (who are human) are not sexually active during the story. Or, at least the male protagonist is not—he’s monogamous, and his partner is elsewhere. The female protagonist might hook up with someone at some point, but if she does it’s irrelevant to the plot, so there’s no mention of it.
But I’m also working on a novella about that male protagonist and his wife. And they do have sex “on camera,” so to speak. Except that, in contrast to Rose, here I do “fade to black.” The scene proceeds only to the point where it is clear they are going to have sex—we see kissing, even some undressing, and at least once some naked cuddling afterwards, but the actual hanky-panky is out of view. Why?
At first I thought it was because I modeled this man on real people whose sex lives I don’t want to know about—but the same thing is true of two of the foot-apes who get sexy scenes in Rose. Using my sister’s comment as food for thought, I’ve realized that the real reason is that, were I to show these humans actually coupling, the result would be smut.
There was a reason for the sex in Rose. For the reader to watch Semana and Sevin copulate supports and furthers the themes and objectives of the book. Andy and Ale (her name is pronounced “Ally;” it’s short for Alejandra) bear no such burden because they are human and most readers already know how humans have sex, more or less. I include their initiation of sex in the novella because I want to establish that these people are flirty and passionate with each other despite their advanced age and their well-established marriage. I also wanted to show how sex can function in a marriage as a medium of communication and expression. None of that requires knowing what Andy’s favorite position is, or who puts whose body-parts where and when.
I’ve read books with sex scenes as graphic and intimate as Auel’s that didn’t seem disrespectful of the characters. But in every case I can think of, the sex served a purpose that would not be served as well by anything less. For example, in The Lightening Charmer, by Kathryn Magendie, there is a quite graphic scene between the protagonist, Laura, and her boyfriend. The way she communicates what she wants, how she responds to him, and how she feels and thinks during the sex act all show the reader something important about the relationship and about her. Had Magendie chosen to fade the scene to black after it became clear sex was immanent, we wouldn’t have seen any of that. The scene is uncomfortable to read, not because the characters are dehumanized, but because of their terrible and flawed humanity. Magendie was right to reveal them so. The sex scene works.
To take a sex scene further than what serves the story is bad craft for a writer, since a major part of the discipline of writing is to remove anything from a draft that does not actually serve a purpose. In this sense, sex writing is no different than any other kind of writing—unless the sex itself is the point of the piece. And then you have smut.