Let’s talk about sex

I’m not enjoying writing at the moment. I don’t know if I’d call it writer’s block but I can’t work out where to go with Shards at the moment. It’s been a year since I finished the first draft and I’m still doing rewrites. The main stumbling block’s been getting my head around some of the themes, but recently there’s been another problem. The direction of the story has changed a lot and it’s causing a conflict for me with two of the characters.

They were going to be my star-crossed lovers, to borrow Shakespeare’s phrase, but in rewriting it their story has become less of the focus. Now I’m not sure where to go with it. The romance is still there but it’s not as important; I could cut it out, but the story would still lose something. Or I could keep going with it, but I’m worried it might seem exploitative… like the only reason it’s there is to follow formula.

Maybe I’m making too much of it, but I don’t want it to be one of those books where the dynamic just doesn’t feel right… particularly the sex. We’ve all read those books which seem hollow or have sex for sex’s sake; if you’ve read I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe you’ll know what I mean, and I still don’t know what Robert J. Sawyer was trying to do in Humans (a human and a neanderthal, WTF?). Writing sex scenes always makes me uncomfortable but the challenge is finding an aspect in the scene that affects the greater story… without the preceding scenes here, I’m not sure I can.

Anyway, while I’m working that out, it’s brought up an interesting topic. We’re a highly sexualised society, but we still rarely seem at ease with our sexuality. We watch sexy movies, read juicy novels, but do we talk about sex itself? Perhaps amongst our closest friends, but beyond that it’s usually awkward and behind closed doors; likewise we’re still uncomfortable with public displays of affection. It’s strange that sex can be seen as such a commercial entity, yet still remain something of a taboo as well. So when does marketing sex go too far? When does it become gratuitous?

I’m not sure myself. I was trying to think earlier of books/writers I’ve read that have used good sex scenes and I can’t think of many. Maybe Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, Bear’s Darwin’s Radio… Bret Easton Ellis and Neil Gaiman for giving scenes an interesting dynamic. And of course DH Lawrence. But overall I don’t think many writers write sex scenes that well or realistically. Most scenes seem to be either lyrical and wafty or anatomical and overly detailed. I know Laurel K. Hamilton’s are dull and don’t interest me much; in a vampire novel, that’s not a good thing. There’s even an award for it – The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

A lot of sex scenes seem distant and it’s strange really that they’re presented in such a detached way; sex is such a natural part of our lives, you’d think writers would want to explore it in a more satisfactory and natural way. But maybe a realistic sex scene is almost impossible to write because it’s something words can’t adequately describe; it destroys the illusion, the feeling. A sex scene can be funny, awkward, escapist, but can it be interesting if it’s made to seem too real? Perhaps not; then it just becomes voyeurism.

I’m not sure I’d agree that writers include sex scenes purely for saleability or formula, though; I’m sure some do, but I’d hope that most still consider it a part of the story and the development of the characters. For that matter, I’m yet to see evidence that you need to have sex in a book for it to be marketable; for any books that don’t sell, it probably has more to do with plot and pace than whether or not the characters shagged on page 180.

There’s been a lot of fuss made over David Duchovny’s new series Californication recently and that sort of plays into this as well. Californication is an adult sex comedy, something of a throw-back to the ’70s movies like Shampoo, and it’s been garnering criticism for its content; one columnist went so far as to call network executives pornographers, while some conservative groups are calling for a boycott of sponsors who advertise during episodes. Personally I find the controversy bizarre. Certainly Californication is not to everyone’s taste, but I don’t see what the networks have done wrong; over here it’s on at an adult-only time and each episode has an M/MA rating. It’s not for children and no-one’s suggesting it is; it’s probably not even appropriate for some adults. But we’re a democracy, aren’t we? If you don’t like a show, turn it off – seems like the ultimate form of free choice to me. What I’ve seen of Californication is actually quite interesting; yes, there’s sex and drugs and nudity, but beneath it is a story about a lost man trying to get his family back. The writing’s sharp and at least it’s something other than reality TV for a change.

Californication definitely markets itself on its adult content, but I don’t think it crosses the line in to exploiting it. This website, though, has to cross that line. It’s for a German company that has created a new cosmetic fragrance for men called Vulva Original. It’s marketed as “the erotic, intimate scent of an irresistible woman… a beguiling vaginal scent”. Um, what? This has to be the most bizarre product I have ever heard of. Just who would be interested in a product like that? And for the love of God, why? It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so gross.

But it’s an example of how an entire industry has evolved around our fascination with sex. Some of it is part of a healthy sexual appetite, but then you get something like this or the rise in pornography; you could argue that it doesn’t hurt anyone but look at Maddison Gabriel being named the face of Gold Coast Fashion Week – she’s just twelve. It sexualises her to adults and surely must be going to mess with her head later on. But it creates publicity and so it’s achieved everything the organisers wanted.

And that brings us back to this idea of marketing sex. As a culture we’re fascinated by sex, so it’s inevitable that that fascination would be exploited. The simple truth is sex sells and companies, writers, directors, musicians use it for marketability. The real question is how far is too far? Something like Californication is pushing the boundaries; I think something like Vulva Original has gone way past them.

For writers, though, I think it’s fairly simple: if you aim for the characters and story to change though the scene, you’ve done your job. And I guess that’s what I’m trying to do with Shards… so I’ll probably keep those scenes. Now I’ll just have to go back and finish it! 😉

3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about sex

  1. Good post and I applaud the answers you are seeking. What I would challenge you to do is two fold. First, read some erotic fiction. Understand the ways that people (men and women–I can provide suggestions for you if needed) are integrating erotica into their writing. Second, watch “Tell Me You Love Me” and compare it against Californication (which I personally find too “male” oriented) and Vulva Original. There really is a happy medium out there.~~Dee

    CJ: Hi Dee, thanks for your comments. I think sex and our interest with it is a fascinating topic. As far as writing goes, though, my personal feeling is that there are interesting sex scenes in fiction, ones which are well written and tantalising, but that most of the time they don’t go beyond that and so don’t connect with the reader as they should. Sex is a natural part of a relationship, so it should be represented as giving some change to the characters and the story. I’ve got nothing against works which take a different perspective on it – I enjoy many of them myself, who doesn’t? – it’s just not what I would personally like to write in the scene.

    I’d like to find some kind of a balance between intimacy and character development, and you’re right, the only way I’ll be able to find that is to read more. So if you do have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them. I think someone like Jodi Picoult is a good example as well (how I left her off the list I don’t know!). 😉

    I hadn’t actually heard of Tell Me You Love Me (it hasn’t reached Aus yet), but it sounds like something the next stage up from Californication. I’m not sure what to make of it, but it’s good networks aren’t afraid to take a gamble on shows which push the boundaries; Six Feet Under was one of my favourite shows and that had an interesting dynamic, macabre but funny, and sexy too… must have been a risk when it started as well. And Vulva Original is fine for people who want it… I just can’t imagine who would want it! I’m sure there’s a happy medium, but it’s still one of the strangest ideas I’ve heard in a long time. 😀

  2. I was never able to understand why sex and nudity is such a cloistered subject in the United States, especially. You don’t see a lot of that in Europe where nobody really cares if they see a nipple on a soap commercial. Running around in your underwear is no problem and you also don’t see a lot of freaky people with weird fetishes. Sex is a normal thing, boobs are normal, skin is skin. Why all the fuss??

    CJ: It is here as well, and probably still is in most countries which have a religious element to their governance. Most of the time the people objecting are in the minority but as soon as an issue becomes moralised, as sex so often seems to be, it polarises people and then it becomes a much bigger issue.

    My view is that sex is a normal, natural part of a relationship, so it should have a place in fiction and TV – as long as it serves the story. I don’t agree with having it just for its own sake or to be controversial; like everything else, it should serve the story or it’s just gratuitous. The difficulty is in deciding just where to draw the line – is graphic sex between a husband and wife gratuitous or a reflection of real life? I’m not sure I’d want to be making the call. I’d probably just put it on in a late time-slot – like our networks have! 😀

  3. This text is too long but i read it and i was shy 😀

    CJ: Too long? Well, I guess it’s kind of long – but I’m a writer, I love words! 😉 I hope it didn’t make you too uncomfortable. Sex is a natural part of our lives and I think it’s important we explore it. But there’s nothing wrong with being a little shy, as long as we’re honest. 🙂

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