Did that get your attention?

There’s romance in my novels, and it often culminates in sex. Not all of them, but many of them. I’m told this is still an unusual thing in the fantasy genre — an almost entirely new development centered around the popularity of urban fantasy (UF) and paranormal romance (PR), and the publishing industry’s desire to attract women readers. I’m not sure why this is such a new thing, given that romance (especially romance with an erotic component) is the biggest-selling category in genre fiction, and given that women have been about half the human population for oh, awhile now. Seems odd that fantasy has only recently started trying to attract them. Nevertheless, not so long ago, used to be that fantasy, like other speculative fiction, shied away from anything deemed sufficiently girly, and romantic subplots are about as girly as it gets.

Sex, note, was never off the fantasy table. From the comparatively mild sexual silliness of Piers Anthony’s Xanth series to the “is this legal?” master-slave ethos of John Norman’s Gor books, the fantasy genre has never been prudish. But this take on fantasy sex has usually been oriented towards a specific demographic: male readers, probably young or at least adolescent in their sensibilities, and probably heterosexual. This demographic has made up the bulk of the fantasy audience for the past few decades, and even with the advent of PR and UF, it’s still probably a very large percentage of the readership.

Particularly in epic fantasy, which is what I write. Which puts me in a bit of a quandry. How does a female epic fantasy writer, whose audience will include many or mostly male readers, handle the delicate matter of sex? Do I write sex in a way that appeals to me as a modern, postfeminist woman? Or do I write the kind of sex that sells, and has sold well in the past?

This is more than a sales issue. This is about my values, my complicity in perpetuating problematic genre conventions, my career reputation. This is srius bizns, yo.

So I give serious thought to the sex. I often ask myself whether I should include it at all — and sometimes the answer is no, I shouldn’t. So I don’t. But when I do, I have to consider how to include it. “Fade to black” or explicit? Stylistically depicted or plain straightforward language? If I’m writing a third-person narrative with multiple PoVs, should the sex scene be written from the hero’s perspective or the heroine’s? (And since I sometimes include gay characters, hero 1 or hero 2?) Given societal reactions to sexually assertive women, how will readers react if my heroine initiates the sex, or controls it? Given the male-centric history of sex in fantasy, is it good or bad if my male character is into bondage? What if the core romance is a threesome? How far can I push the envelope, and still make both myself and my readers happy?

It’s a delicate balancing act. Too realistic and the sex feels gratuitous. Too stylized/symbolic and it becomes laughable, or incomprehensible. If I follow the genre’s conventions too much, I run the risk of repeating the problems and cliches that have repelled me from other fantasy novels. If I get too avant garde, I risk alienating my traditional-fantasy audience.

This balancing act is not unique to me, note. I think most fantasy authors do it to some degree, especially the women. Quoting here from Dr. Debra Doyle, one of my instructors from Viable Paradise and an award-winning established fantasy author herself, in her hilarious essay, “The Girl Cooties Theory of Genre Literature”:

It’s possible to include sex (as distinct from romance) without adding girl cooties, but it’s risky. There’s always the chance that the hero might take a few minutes to talk to the girl afterward, and that gets you perilously close to cootie territory.

I think UF and PR have successfully proven that girl cootie-infested fiction can sell like hotcakes. But can it sell beyond these categories? That’s still up in the air. I hope to become one of the authors that proves it.

But y’know? In spite of all this talk about sales, those aren’t my first consideration. In general, I tend to opt for what makes me happy first. But then I always show my first draft to others — my writing group, or my agent, or friends who are willing to give me an honest second opinion. Then I rachet down, or up, depending on how they react. (And yeah, it’s sometimes weird giving sex scenes to friends; I do wonder what they think of me! But I usually hope they’ll apply the same fiction-reading standards to sex stuff that they do to any of my other writing. Writing about serial killers doesn’t make me one, and writing about characters who are into Sexual Kink #475 doesn’t mean I am.) This input is invaluable, and often keeps me from making mistakes.

For example — there’s a scene in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that you’ll never see, or at least not as it existed in its original form. In this scene, a woman makes love to a god whose appearance varies depending on his viewer’s perceptions and expectations, even on a subconscious level. So although she wills him to look like the man of her dreams, there’s some slippage: at one point he manifests distinctly feminine characteristics. (Yes, I mean that.) I’m a psychologist in dayjob life, so I’m aware of concepts like the Kinsey Scale, and the relative rarity of people who fall into the “exclusive” extremes of this scale. This woman’s heterosexual, but not exclusively so, and her lover reacts accordingly.

When I showed this draft to pre-readers, however, those who mentioned it reacted strongly in the negative. It was squicky, they said; it made the scene completely non-erotic. One person said it “took her into primordial Id territory”; this was not a compliment. Worse (IMO), it was too obvious that I was trying to make a statement about human sexuality and my beliefs; this turned the scene from one of pivotal, climactic character development into an authorial soapbox.

This proved to be the clincher for me, so I modified the scene, removing the variable-gender bit. I can make statements anytime, after all — but with this novel, my job is to entertain my readers. I think pushing the envelope and challenging dominant paradigms can be entertaining, but it has to be done in a way that doesn’t make readers run screaming from the Message ™.

So now I’m curious. What novels have you read in fantasy that handled sex well, and what did those authors do that made it work for you?

(Sex sex sex sex sex! Does that make you want to comment?)

41 Responses to “SEX SEX SEX SEX SEX”

  1. 1 Liz
    February 19, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    Well, now you’ve made me want to go pull out some quotes from sex scenes in fantasy novels! That would make a hilarious blog post, like the Bad Sex awards. Because fantasy (and sf) have their own cliches, don’t they?

  2. February 19, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Of course sex sex sex makes me wanna comment. 😀

    Isn’t it funny how what stands out in my memory is the sex scenes that DIDN’T work for me? The ones that did work blended in so well with the story that my brain doesn’t need to point them out. (Either that, or I’m all hopped up on decongestants this morning and can’t remember straight.)

    On an unrelated note, I had a thought/idea/request for the blog: for those of us reading it on RSS feed (on LJ, myself), it doesn’t tell us WHO wrote the post. Would it be too annoying for you all to sign or intro your posts for the folks reading feeds? Thanks! 🙂

  3. February 19, 2009 at 7:10 pm

    I’ve written a lot of sex scenes in the past and I’ve read enough to tarnish my halo pretty good but I have to say, these days, it’s the UST (unresolved sexual tension) that thrills me more than the act itself.

    But if two characters are going to have sex I prefer the absence of purple prose and metaphors. Tell me straight up what they’re doing/characters impressions during the act or just fade to black. Nothing makes me skip paragraphs faster than schmoopy luffluff talk and euphemisms for sex organs.

    I like stories where there is obvious chemistry between characters that aren’t suited for each other and if they do have sex there is horrible fallout after with much shame, fighting, and hopefully a relapse into angry hate-sex that will perpetuate the cycle. =D

    I skip right over heterosexual sex scenes that present a 2-D female whose only purpose is to fawn over the male and be a socially acceptable target for his ‘affection’.

    So what works for me:
    1. The characters involved have history and have been developed. (Unless it’s an anonymous one-night stand situation.)
    2. Attraction between characters that struggle against it. Nothing is more boring than ‘love at first’ sight followed by ZERO conflict before they are together for evers!
    3. Straight up telling me what’s going on instead of leaving me to puzzle out what ‘her feminine mysteries’ are doing with his ‘jutting flesh’.

    I’m trying to think of examples of well-written sex scenes in fantasy but I’m drawing a blank. I do remember that, at thirteen, I thought Piers Anthony was the best writer in the universe just because he wrote about sexy stuff. Oh, and I thought Anne McAffrey was a chicken for using dragons having sex to mirror her characters having sex.

    I suppose that is another thing to keep in mind, who is your target audience? And do you really mind if adventurous teens (or pre-teens) with library cards will be reading your stories?

  4. 4 Jeremy
    February 19, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    With the caveat that my views on the topic aren’t going to reflect those of a ‘typical’ male, given that I’m a slightly hetero-romantic asexual, I’ve never had any issues with girl cooties in my fantasy. I enjoy interesting character development, and a romantic relationship can definitely add to that. When it comes to sex, I need the romantic elements to be able to identify with it at all — take them away and that’s also taking away the lens through which I relate it to my own experience. Mind you, I tend to have a similar disconnect with love at first sight — I don’t work that way, so it ends up coming across to me as either extremely rushed or outright unbelievable.

    I do have to voice my agreement with several other posters about either fading to black or actually describing what’s going on. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner, is a prime example of a story I enjoyed with sex that made sense…and then she spends several pages describing a sex scene in such vague terms that I was left wondering what the point was supposed to be. Granted, it was a male/male scene in a book written in the late 80’s, so the fantasy audience may well have played a large role in her choice to avoid being more detailed.

    I’m a little sad to hear that the gender-transitioning bit was cut, even if it probably was the right choice. Particularly since I tend to miss out on the erotic value of sex scenes, intellectually interesting bits are a definite bonus.

  5. 5 Terri
    February 20, 2009 at 1:51 am

    When I attended VP(X) one of the lectures included the “how much sex/violence does one actually show” topic. The consensus was that when it came to sex and violence, it’s no different from any other scene in a story: If it moves the plot along, fine. If it doesn’t, ditch it. So far, I’ve found that very basic advice works every time.

    When it comes to sex scenes in fantasy (I’ve written everything from fade to black to explicit) I find that brutal goes well with brief; the more romantic can go on a bit longer. Both absolutely MUST say something about character as well as plot. Sex (and this goes for violence too) has to do double duty, otherwise it’s gratuitious. The longer a sex scene goes on, the more it must say about the characters/plot involved. It can be an AWESOME device, when done well. When done badly, it drags just like any other overdone scene.

    Good sex in books? Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar trilogy. There’s brief and brutal, and there’s long and luxurious. Both move the plot. Both done really well. And more than a few times. 😉

    JK Rowling–Harry and Ginny’s kiss. Come on! That was awesome! All the years waiting for it and SHAZAM–it rocked.

  6. 6 mlronald
    February 20, 2009 at 4:16 am

    It’s funny — when I first read this, I got to the question Do I write sex in a way that appeals to me as a modern, postfeminist woman? , and my gut reaction was Yes, of course! But reading further, and having had most of the day to think about it, I’m thinking it’s a little more complicated. I can see why what would seem to be an easy question becomes a balancing act.

    I just got through working on the closest thing to a sex scene I’ve written in a while, and I’ve tried to make it a bit different, notably in terms of female agency. But I can tell that I’m using some of the same genre patterns that drew me in when I was first reading fantasy (and skipping ahead for “the good parts”) and that became problematic on later examination. The trouble for me is figuring out which of those conventions were the ones that triggered my original fascinations and which are just relics of old sexist or heterosexist approaches. What it’s safe to keep and safe to ignore, in other words.

  7. 7 Saladin
    February 20, 2009 at 8:37 pm

    How weird — I’ve been wrestling the past couple of days with just this issue.

    The emotion-phobic male heterocentric POV of much high fantasy sex is def. an issue. But then there’s the body-phobic chaste lovers thing too — perhaps an inheritance from prudish Tolkien? If anything, my own work is probably guilty of this PG-13 flavor — more comfortable with explicit violence than explicit sex. I think one of these two problematic approaches are part of the admittedly cartoonish set of expectations that dorky male readers, espcially, seem to expect. Sadly I’m probably part of this demographic…

    So which is worse in a fantasy novel? Corny guy-centric sex, or a world where nobody ever seems to do anything more than kiss?

  8. 8 nojojojo
    February 22, 2009 at 6:26 am

    OK, been busy/out of town; going to mass-respond here. =)

    Liz, I would pay money to see that, if you do it. =)

    Aimee, thanks for the feedback on the RSS feed. The Magic District folks are conferring on it, trying to figure out if this can be fixed — it seems to be a peculiarity of the template we chose. Hopefully soon!

    Tammy, I don’t mind if adventurous teens read my stuff, b/c I’d rather they read it and experience something sexual vicariously than do it for real, particularly if they’re too young to handle it. What I’m freaked out by is my mother reading my stuff, which she’s promised me she’s going to do when my novel comes out. ::wibble:: That said, my target audience is fantasy lovers, whether young adult or adult (probably not kids, given the uncomfortable nature of the subject matter [e.g., murder, oppression, abuse]). Another reason I’m not sure my mom should be reading it… but I can’t stop her at this point. -_-

    Jeremy, I was sad to cut the gender-ambiguous bit of the sex scene too, but the ambiguity isn’t completely gone from the story; it’s made clear at other points that the god in question is just as happy in a female form as a male form. Basically I just made it more subtle and less in-your-face. Unfortunately with content that challenges readers’ expectations and values (especially re “hot button” topics like gender/sexual orientation), sometimes that’s the route a writer has to take, I think. Too heavy-handed and readers react badly.

    Terri, I agree with you wholeheartedly about an inverse correlation between brutality/short and romantic/longer. Great way to frame it. Re: the Fionavar Tapestry — y’know, the only sex scene I can remember in that one is the horrid rape of [er, drawing a blank on her name] by the evil god/bad-guy. That was mercifully brief. Who was the long/luxurious one? (Been almost 10 years since I read this…)

    Maggie, the great thing about writing modern post-feminist sex is that I can write anything I want, as long as I don’t reinforce sexist gender expectations! One of my favorite things about the scene I described in the article is that the heroine is a woman who is short, flatchested, and frequently mistaken for a boy. There’s a tendency in American society to view women like this as asexual or undesirable, so it was a lot of fun to mess with that. Aside from that, and the god thing, it was actually a fairly standard sex scene. I figure there’s a lot of value in the old genre patterns, and they can feel fresh again if one just strips the old sexist silliness from them. Maybe that would work for you?

    Saladin, I don’t know if there’s an answer for that. When I was 12, the corny guy-centric sex worked for me; it was silly and mostly non-threatening, because although it treated women like objects, it was also from the male perspective, so I didn’t identify with it much. As an adult it doesn’t work for me at all, though, and the “nothing-but-a-kiss” thing does, depending on how it’s handled. Unresolved sexual tension can be even more sexy than straightforward sex. That said, there’s a third option that you haven’t mentioned, which shows up a lot in the PR and UF novels I mentioned in the OP: female-centric sex. Some of that’s corny too, especially if it’s just a female version of the same silliness seen in a lot of male-centric stuff. (e.g., Extensive descriptions of impossibly huge body parts are non-erotic to me no matter whose POV.) But quite a bit of it is majorly hot, since it borrows from both the silly-male convention and the overly-romantic-female convention, and merges the two. Maybe that’s an angle you can try?

  9. 9 katchi mohmad
    May 17, 2009 at 1:57 am

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