Sex Scenes and Why I Hate Them

Although humans tend to view sex as mainly a fun recreational activity sometimes resulting in death, in nature it is a far more serious matter.
–Dave Barry, “Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys”

Ever since reading the not-so-hot mess that was Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ve been thinking a bit about the use of sex scenes in storytelling. The truth of the matter is I don’t like them, I never have, and I never will. I don’t find them romantic or fun to read- they just make me really uncomfortable and I always try to forget they happened. To date I’ve read hundreds of books, and I cannot think of a single sex scene that was necessary to the plot or the details of which I needed to know to understand the story. But I’ve never really thought about my distaste for them until I took on E L James’ waste of paper.

For the record, I knew exactly what I was getting into when I started reading that book. But now that I have read it, I think I can articulate better why I find sex scenes in fiction, film, and art so distasteful.

I like being immersed in stories, and I like being able to identify with the characters and believing that people like them could exist somewhere (NOTE: I am not saying I believe the characters themselves exist, just that people like them do). It’s part of the fun of reading for me- I get to have a picture of new kinds of people and places, and I enjoy it when a book allows me to follow characters so closely that I can imagine what these people might be like. And for a little while, I’ll be taking the events in their lives seriously, and following them as if they were real people.

So when I have such a clear image of these people in my head, I do not want to see the details of their sex lives.

Think about it. If you’re a journalist following someone for an in-depth feature, would you want to see what it is your subject is doing in the bedroom? You’re following the characters, catching a long look at their fictional lives and how they react to the situations life throws at them. So for me, when I get a sudden blinding look at a part of life that would normally be kept behind tightly closed doors, it throws me out of the story. If the characters were real- and like I said, I enjoy a book where I can temporarily believe they are- I don’t want to know! Ever! I want to find out about these characters and how they’re growing, and if for whatever reason the sex act is key to that, then the main focus of the scene should be the character and not the sex.

In my experience, understatement is always more effective than explicit when it comes to sex scenes, at least for me. Let me give you an example of a sentence that actually does a nice job of showing what’s happened without making you want to gouge your eyes out- I promise it’s safe for work:

Fascinated, she passed her fingers over her husband’s skin from one battle scar to the next, delighting as his deep voice whispered to her of far off campaigns – of the spice of India, and the exotic colors of the Orient, and she wondered how she ever could have seen a life half lived in him before.

That came from a Sense and Sensibility fanfiction, believe it or not. Now it’s quite possible that this isn’t even meant to be depicting a sex scene and I just have a dirty mind. But I still think that this is a really nice example of illustrating physical intimacy while simultaneously showing a certain touch of character- Marianne is still prone to putting things romantically, even though she’s learned from her experiences. It does so in a way that’s understated and sweet and doesn’t make me want to scrub my brain.

Another example, one that was used nicely for comedy, was a bit of prose in Terry Pratchett’s Men at Arms, in which two characters are in a room together. During their conversation, it’s established that the bed in the room has very creaky bedsprings. A few paragraphs later, after the two in question kiss, the text says something to the effect of “After a short time, the bedsprings went clink.” That’s it. And that’s really all we need to know. We can figure out what happened. No horrible descriptions of orgasms needed.

Pope John Paul II once said that the problem with pornography is that it shows too little, and I think this is true for a lot of sex scenes in literature. The mere physical act is all we get to see- less often do we see how it affects the characters and their outlook, which is where the heart of character growth lies. Using the implications of physical intimacy for the characters will show much more about their relationship and more about their story than will a detailed description of bedroom kinks. When I’m reading a story supposedly driven by plot and characters, I want to read about events pertaining to those things. And if the sex details are not absolutely necessary for my understanding of those components of a story, then I really, really, really do not want to see them.

 

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14 thoughts on “Sex Scenes and Why I Hate Them

  1. Huh, I think that you raise some valid points here. I remember reading Harlequin romances in middle school. My mom was pretty easy going on what I chose to read. The most that I can say about THOSE reads truthfully? What a disappointment for my early twenties. Seriously. The descriptions that the writers use to cause “hot and bothersome” in reality are just as far from the truth as the dramatic relationships. What, oh pirate?! You’re going to RESPECT me even though you OWN me and then we’re going to fall in love? Whatevs.

    I’m trying to rack my brain and recall what if any books I might have read where the sex scenes were relevant and enjoyable. I have Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn on my shelves for my classics TBR list. It’ll be interesting to see how the scenes are written since it was such a revolutionary book of its time.

    I guess bottom line for me is that sex scenes aren’t offensive. And I also can see how writing erotica could be powerful and desirous for some people. There’s just very little *good* sex in fiction. I much rather not have the small details, which are often ridiculous, and have the ambiance.

    [Real quick side note – when I first read the words not so hot mess, I thought you were saying that the book was not as big of a hot mess as naysayers said. But then I read your linked review and all was corrected].

    • Haha, if those were what formed your expectations for your twenties, I can see the real thing being a bit of a disappointment. I think I got sort of a prejudiced look on romance novels because the first one I tried to pick up was in high school, and while I don’t think it was a Harlequin, there was an actual ownership plot, and I reeeallly didn’t find the resulting interactions romantic.

      That does sound interesting from a classical reads standpoint. And yeah, I totally get that tastes for people on sex scenes differ- I have a very low tolerance for them, but it’s when I try and think of a time where a fully fledged sex scene was necessary for the plot and the characters that I get annoyed. I feel like I’ve read a bunch of stories that throw in details gratuitously, and it takes me out of a story really quickly, for pretty much all the things I said there.

      Aaah, yeah- I am not a fan of that book. At all. Granted, a good chunk of that is bitterness that EL James is making millions off a re-worked fanfiction that isn’t even well-written. And that’s not even touching my personal distaste for the subject matter.

  2. Hmmm…I guess I get what you mean, although in general I have to disagree with you on this one. I understand how it could apply to a lot of books, specifically erotica, but in most cases in books I’ve read I do feel like sex has added to the story. Maybe it’s because I read a lot of YA, but I often interpret sex as a rite of passage in them, a way to progress the character and to show their maturity.
    Other times sex often works as a plot changer – for instance it is often after characters have sex, that everything goes wrong because they have been so intimate with each other and then are unsure how to act afterwards because they have become more emotinally invested.
    In some cases I also feel like it helps build empathy towards characters, especially in fantasy or paranormal books. I think it helps people fall in love with the characters because of there love towards each other, and it makes the book much more entertaining/dramatic when the lives of their loved ones are at stake. I often find a sex scene draws me into a book rather than push me out of it.

    Although maybe this is just my interpretation of it… lol, feel free to argue against my views, it doesn’t necessarily mean I am right! 🙂

    Very interesting to hear your opinion on this, I had never really thought that much about the topic until now.

    • I’ve not read very many YA sex scenes- most of the time those cut away and then focus on the character interactions afterward. Here I’m talking about scenes that are nothing but the details and the various sensations and actions, and then have no consequence or effect on the characters afterward, such as those in the later Anita Blake books, those in Fifty Shades, or some of the things in the fourth Game of Thrones book, which came across as thrown in for effect rather than plot relevance.
      My dislike for them is partly a personal taste and partly because I’ve read so many bad sex scenes where the aftermath doesn’t hold up. From what I’ve seen, often the two characters who sleep together are depicted as always coming back together and always having true love with the other when most of the time that’s not what happens in real life. I’m not saying that’s impossible, but it needs a lot of character development to work, especially if the two people in question are teenagers. I can see how it might build empathy, but only if there’s more to it then the ‘tab A into slot B’ description. The writing of the act alone isn’t enough to show how that affects characters, and in many of the books I’ve read, there’s not enough exploration of that aftermath.

      • Yeah I do see what you mean, although it doesn’t really bother me either way whether they are detailed or not and in terms of the plot. But you can get some really crazy and over-the-top ones (aka fifty shades of c%@&) When I begin to start having problems with them is when they become degrading to women – I imagine Fifty Shades of Grey is like that from your review. I’m not sure if Game of Thrones is because I haven’t read them yet, but I imagine that could be a possibility..?

        • I was able to handle Game of Thrones throughout the first three books- there were a few violent scenes with sex that made me sort of uncomfortable, but I could put up with them in terms of it being a medieval setting and there were enough well-rounded female characters that it didn’t feel like it was being too objectifying. The fourth book is where I feel it got out of hand.
          As for Fifty Shades… *tries not to explode* yeah. That was a major problem with that book, it was like that author had a chronic allergy to writing healthy and normal human interactions for any kind of relationship.
          Like I said- too much detail makes me go “Ick.” It’s just not something I’m interested in- I’ve run for the hills when people try and tell me about their sex lives, and I do much the same when I’m reading a book 😛 It’s a personal thing, certainly, but speaking for myself, I don’t need to know.

  3. I’m with you on this one! I couldn’t explain why I just didn’t find sex scenes appealing, and people would just accuse me of being a prude or something, which really annoyed me. So thank you for this post. I guess some things are just better left for the imagination.

    • I’m glad it helped! I usually don’t get accused of being a prude openly, but a lot of times I get a certain sense that that’s what people think and it bugs me just a bit 🙂 Plus imagination is much better with that kind of thing than someone else’s images, since personal taste varies so much.
      Thank you for commenting!

  4. Fascinating comment by the Pope. And a great summary of the problem. It certainly does seem like the climax of many stories is…well…the climax. Great if you’re purposely writing porn, but if not, then why use it as a culmination of everything the characters were feeling up to that point? The worst part is, it isn’t original! It’s funny that authors (well the better ones) try to be creative in their plot and characters, and then mindlessly throw in a sex scene because it’s almost expected.
    And what you said about realism in following the lives of characters is valid too. Like you suddenly know too much about them and it creates a jarring feeling. If that was the focus of the book, then fine, but it rarely is.
    Not to say I haven’t read sex scenes I liked, it just isn’t very often. And while I’ve written a couple in my time, I don’t pretend they are anything but smut.

  5. Interesting, but I think you are meant to put yourself into the main character, not just follow them around. You are supposed to become them. It’s not about voyeurism, but having an experience inside your head.

    • That’s a fair point, and one that I hadn’t really considered when I wrote that post. On the whole though, I still feel like they’re one of the hardest things for a work to do well for one of the lowest payoffs (assuming you’re not dealing with erotica, which is not a genre with which I’m familiar; I’m aware for that the rules would be somewhat different).

  6. I can’t stand it either. One of the main reasons I don’t watch TV. It’s like Hey, people need to know that these two are in love so lets throw in a sex scene! Because, you know, sex is love! UGGGGGGH!!! Haaaatteeee itttt. I always avoid those scenes at all costs in books and movies. Pretty much why I only watch PG rated movies now. :l I also hate nudity unless it’s in a completely non-sexual way.

    Oh, and I’m Asexual. So that is probably part of why i hate it. xD

  7. I love porn. I love sex. I love romance. I love stories. I hate sex scenes in stories that have nothing or very little to do about sex. I never ever go watch an epic war movie for a retarded sex scene. I never ever go watch a romantic comedy to see a sex scene especially since the scene is never romantic or comedic. Romance is about communication and they never show any worthwhile spoken or even unspoken communication in sex scenes. Even if they ever did, there is nothing that can be said or shown about romance that can be presented in a sex scene that cannot be presented just as well outside a full blown sex scene. “looks deeply into her eyes while thrusting into the core of her being” doesn’t say anything more about romance than just “looking deeply into her eyes as if he could enter through them and reach her deepest hidden soul”. The latter doesn’t carry with it the mental baggage that comes with sex scenes. Sex scenes are just lazy writing unless it is specifically about sex. Then its porn. I like porn. I hate sex scenes.

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