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.