Over the past four or five years, I've been having an internal debate about sex in books. The more I expanded outside of YA, the more likely it was that the books I read contained sex scenes. And through reading more widely, I began to notice other things about sex in books - things that changed my opinions.
Though sex in general is a pretty taboo subject, it's even more taboo in literature. We've created countless euphemisms for the act, some of which are too confusing and leave me wondering if sex happened or if they just built an IKEA shelf.
But taboo or not, I think it's an important discussion to have, and I'm ready to share my journey with the topic.
There's a lot of things to consider about this, I know that. Being a Christian, this is a debate I've had with myself for a long time. Both as a reader and as a writer, I've had to figure out where to draw the line for myself and if I'm supposed to be the one drawing the line for others.
The best way I can think of is to tackle this through two perspectives: the reader and the writer. Of course, that's entirely subjective to me and everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt for consideration. With that in mind, let's talk about sex in books.
through the lens of being a christian
As a reader, I grew up feeling incredibly ashamed about reading books that had sex in it. I never sought them out, but when it did happen, I felt ashamed for not knowing earlier. It didn't matter if that faded to black or was explicit, it felt wrong. Most of the books I read when I was younger were free of this, but when I started reading YA, that changed.
The early books in the age group were mostly free of sex. We had the occasional implication, but it rarely even got to the fade-to-black part. I think the first time I came across a YA-appropriate sex scene was in Champion by Marie Lu. It was mild and very, very PG, but I felt so bad for reading a book that had anything like that in it.
While it was never explicitly told to me that I shouldn't read books with sex in them, growing up within the church and with my faith meant that sex was a taboo subject in general. I wasn't announcing to the world that my books had sex in them, but it didn't make it better. Somehow, keeping it to myself felt worse. It was like a really dirty secret and on more than one occasion, I felt like a really, really awful person and Christian for...occasionally enjoying the scenes.
I wasn't seeking out books with sex in them. Not being a romance reader made that a lot easier for me, but it still happened every now and then. I noticed it more and more when I ventured into adult mysteries, and that's when I also started thinking about how different the scenes were. Scenes written by women were often more discreet and about the relationship between the characters, but scenes written by men were far more sexualized and focused on how hot the woman was. That gave me something else to think about.
As a Christian, was I allowed to want the sex scenes to be somewhat satisfying? For the women to actually be the focus? For it to not just be written about the male gaze? I went back and forth on this for years and only very recently came to a conclusion.
In many ways, I've changed my thinking about this a lot. Reading sex scenes, however mild or explicit they were, helped me work through issues I've always had with purity culture. I'd spend all of my teenaged years and early 20s feeling incredibly ashamed for having a sex drive at all. I felt like a bad Christian for thinking about it, much less reading about it. But the more I came across it, the more it challenged me to reconcile my issues with purity culture and figure out where I stand on the idea that women are allowed to be sexual beings and that it's okay for me to have physical desires. I've become a lot more comfortable knowing that I'm not actually doing anything wrong if I happen across a sex scene.
As a writer, I struggled with this the first time I wrote a book where a character had sex. It was a supporting character and the scene wasn't graphic, merely a series of noises that interrupts a moment my main character was having with her love interest. I felt bad about even having the scene in the story, though it served a purpose. And that fact that I wrote that while in my Christian college dorm felt even more scandalous.
A short story I wrote for class began in a bedroom after two characters had slept together. It wasn't about sex, but merely saying that they had been sexually physical felt like a major taboo. I remember wondering what my professor would think, only for my roommate to remind me that it shouldn't matter (thanks Maggie). There was still some fear about submitting it to my professor and my writing group, but looking back at it now, it wasn't a big deal at all. There was no bolt of lighting to strike me down for turning that in and workshopping the dynamics involved in the story was actually a lot of fun.
I refrained from writing any more scenes about the characters having sex until the idea for Project Bodyguard came to mind. It was an adult romance and one central scene of the book took place in the bedroom. I spent all the time leading up to that scene wrestling with whether or not I should write it. As a Christian, was it okay for me to write something like that or include it? Was it somehow against my faith for me to be writing such a thing?
In the end, I chose to include it because it was an important moment for the two characters. They get to share something really special and having it play out on the page drives the story forward. I had to allow my characters the freedom to let their story play out in the way that worked best for them. None of my characters share my faith, and it wouldn't be fair to limit their lives to what I would or wouldn't do. I mean, I write about murder. I don't kill anyone, but my characters do. Likewise, my characters can have sex with their partners or with strangers, even if that's not what I do.
outside of my faith
As a reader, I enjoy the well-written scenes. Those are few and far between among the books I've read. It was still weird for me to read sex scenes of any kind because I hadn't been exposed to good ones. Yes, there are distinctive qualities that make a scene good. And when I came across them, I found them enjoyable.
Most of the sex scenes I came across were in mysteries and thrillers, and that meant they were very much about the male gaze. The scenes didn't have a purpose other than proving that whatever male lead in the book had enough masculinity to score with the woman or because it somehow made sense for two characters who didn't know each other to spend the night romping in bed while people were being murdered. I've never been a fan of that.
Just as a woman in society, there's so much stigma around women and focusing on their sexual pleasure. Outside of my faith, I still felt bad about wanting there to be more focus on the woman instead of men just getting the job done for themselves. The books that had more explicit scenes were always about the man being so good in bed that it was obvious the woman had a good time in the three minutes between the guy taking off his pants and being done. It frustrated me and yet the stigma I'd been so surrounded by told me that it wasn't okay to want or feel these things.
Only very recently did I find a book that was highly sex positive - The Roommate by Rosie Danan. It changed the way I thought and felt about sex scenes in books. For the first time, I was reading something that had female pleasure at the forefront, and it was a major game changer. Part of the book's appeal is that its male lead is an adult film actor whose focus has always been on his partner's pleasure. Naturally, that meant the scenes between him and the female lead were incredibly steamy, well-written, and fresh. Like I've said, it's rare for the woman to be the focus, so reading about that for the first time changed the way I thought and felt about sex scenes in books.
I think one of the things I had to come to terms with was that reading such scenes was that the good ones did make me feel something. And that it was okay to feel those things. There aren't many books that are open about women having sexual desires and it being normalized, so I felt that by reading sex scenes, I was somehow still doing something wrong. I didn't believe it was actually okay to have these feelings and desires until the past couple of years. Reading The Roommate really solidified that for me.
As a writer, it wasn't something I'd had experience with. Writing it felt weird because I had nothing to pull from. The common advice of "Write what you know" doesn't apply to me at all in this case because I don't know and I occasionally write it.
To this day, I feel awkward creating those scenes and do my best to emulate what I've read in other books. What works best for me is actually watching TV shows and movies where actors have amazing chemistry. Watching it play out helps me create that tension between my own characters and gives me a better understand of how attraction might grow between two people.
When fitting to the story and the characters, I do think it's important to let that kind of romance play out. I've had some fade-to-black scenes and some more explicit scenes, depending on which one felt more fitting for the story. It's not always easy to figure out what fits best for the story, so I tend to write fade-to-blacks and add more if the scene feels like it needs something more. And I have to admit that writing it can get awkward because my focus is on making sure things make sense and body parts aren't appearing in numbers beyond what's humanly possible.
Ironically, a lot of what I've learned not to do has come from listening to the My Dad Wrote A Porno podcast. The title kind of says it all. Jamie Morton's dad wrote a badly written erotic novel, so Jamie decided to bring two of his friends along for the ride as they read the terrible book. I started listening to it because the premise of the podcast was interesting, but over time realized that I learned a lot of what not to do. For one, it taught me to keep track of the number of body parts and limbs going on. It doesn't sound like something important, but trust me, it is.
The more I've had to plan for them, mostly because of Project Bodyguard, the more I've learned that writing it is a very intentional process for me. I spend chapters building up the right kind of sexual tension so that it feels like the right thing. The characters get to dance around each other until it makes sense for them to take that as the next step.
fade to black vs. explicit descriptions
As a reader, I think I prefer a good balance. Since I don't really read in the romance genre, most of the scenes I come across are vague euphemisms that leave me wondering. Sometimes I figure out pretty quickly that sex is happening and other times the fade-to-black makes zero sense until I read over it again. The latter mostly happens in YA where authors have to be mild when they talk about sex. It's starting to change a bit, but I think the tasteful fades are often what I prefer unless the book is explicitly within the romance genre.
Of all the explicit sex scenes I've read, most of them have been quite middle of the line for me. The majority lean toward being heavily about the men and them being good in bed. Scenes like that drop to the bottom for me and I usually just skim until the end because I'm not interested.
Having read The Roommate now, most other scenes pale in comparison for both writing quality and steam level. There's something about explicit scenes that requires the author to be a better writer because it's a very intimate moment. I don't like the scenes that involve character rushing to tear each other's clothes off because it makes the moment feel crude to me. As the reader, getting to be part of something so intimate and special to the characters feels like it deserves to be well-written and appreciated.
I think it ultimately depends on the story. It has to be appropriate to the age group, the genre, and the characters to work well. I don't have a preference of once over the other because it's hard for me to say what fits best. Personally, as long as the scenes are free of weird euphemisms for male and female body parts, I'm good. My least favorite thing is when the author makes the whole thing awkward with the weird descriptions that I can't follow.
There's a skill to writing both, a skill that I haven't learned yet, so I refrain from giving my opinion too much. Being a reader of primarily the fantasy and mystery genres, I don't have enough experience of romance (fictional or real) to be a good judge on the matter beyond my own preference.
As a writer, I still think it depends on the story. So far, only Project Ceiling Cat and Project Bodyguard have sex scenes of any kind. I know there will be a few in the sequels of Project GHOST, but I haven't gotten far enough in that to figure out exactly how explicit those will be.
Writing the "fade-to-black" was easy because it didn't even involve writing anything physical. I had a lot of fun making it amusing because it's meant to ruin something else. Had it been more explicit, I don't think it would have worked. And it saves me from sitting in front of my screen, wondering what words to use and how I'm supposed to describe something I haven't experienced.
I spent several hours working on the one scene in Project Bodyguard. It took a lot of remembering who was doing what and which limbs were where. One of the things that helped was knowing that the scene would come up and spending a lot of time visualizing it. Yes, I spent a lot of time thinking about it. We can make all the jokes about what that says about me, but it worked. I think. No one has read any of it yet so we can wait for the feedback to see if any of it makes sense or is remotely good at all.
For the most part, I doubt that my work will get explicit because that's just not my style. My characters can have their privacy and we can use our imaginations for the rest.
when is it fitting for the story?
As a reader, I don't want sex to take away attention from things that are actually important. If the characters need or want to get it on, I can respect that. But I don't think every story needs it or that we need to know the details of each time it happens. I tend to be more of a fan of implied moments. You know, one character comes out of another's bedroom and you know something happened during the night. It's more fun and I find it a lot less awkward.
If the writer does a good job of making the moment feel like a necessary part of the story, I can't really complain. There are some books that I think could have done without sex entirely (ahem, The Green Mile by Stephen King) but I'm not the writer so that's not my decision.
The main reason I would call it fitting to a story is when the build up between the characters makes it clear that spending the night together is inevitable. As long as the characters are under 18, I just want the vague euphemism that could be sex or could be a plant blossoming. They're kids and as far as I'm concerned, it's inappropriate to read anything explicit about characters of that age. Once they get older, I think it's fine to give them more explicit times together. All in good taste.
As a writer, it's not going to happen often in my work. Project Bodyguard is an exception because it's more romance based and the characters are in their mid-twenties. They get to have an explicit scene because it's important to the story and their character development. Without it, it'd be hard to veer the story in the direction it needs to go in. It has a purpose and that's really the only reason I've included it in the first place.
Like anything else in the story, I think sex scenes should be used to further the plot. It's not just about two characters getting it on because they're horny. Things have to move forward and change because of that. There has to be more reason to them having sex than just having sex. Otherwise, we don't need to know about it. I think it's poor use when sex is just something that happens for no reason within the book. And in about 50% of the cases I've read, I think it could have been taken out without the story changing much, if at all.
There's a lot of responsibility in making the time feel right for the characters and the reader. Rushing it lessens how special it is, unless that's the purpose. Dragging it out too long runs the risk of the culmination not being satisfying for the reader. It takes a lot of planning and intentionality to make everything feel right and fitting. And then comes the matter of writing it well.
For everyone's sake, I plan on limiting sex scenes in my books. There will be implications and maybe some steamy make-out scenes, but sex itself will be scarce. It's not my area and admittedly, I also don't necessarily enjoy writing it as much as I enjoy writing about murder.
This is a discussion that could take up many more blog posts and hours of talking. I feel like I've done my thoughts and opinions justice without being crude, which was my main concern. There's value in having these discussions no matter what you think of sex in general. At the very least, it might not be your cup of tea and that's fine. In other cases, it could help you challenge your own ideas like it did for me.
What I've come to realize most is that reading books that had sex scenes pushed me to be comfortable with the fact that as a human, I do have sexual desires and feelings. Normalizing that for myself made me feel less dirty and terrible for having desires that are perfectly reasonable.