It’s time for an awkward conversation, guys, but I care about you and I want you to be educated on this important matter, so you’re just going to have to suck it up. Let’s talk about sex, baby. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things…oops, got a little distracted by 90s hip hop there. But seriously, let’s talk about sex and how it’s used in stories.
Did I say used? Because I meant abused. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those prudes who thinks we should just ignore the activity that propagates our species and pretend we’re all the result of immaculate conception instead. I love a good sex scene as much as the next person, and I actually kind of pride myself on being unflappable when it comes to weird sex-related things in fiction. I spent a lot of time in the fan fiction world as a middle schooler; you get pretty immune after a while. My issue with the use of sex in books and movies has much less to do with the sex itself and much more to do with how utterly pointless sex scenes usually are.
Here’s the thing. When you’re writing, ideally, everything should either further the plot, or expand upon either characterization or an aspect of world building (yeah, I nested an either/or clause inside another either/or clause. Sentence structure. Come at me, bro). It doesn’t matter how lovely your sentence is if it isn’t actually relevant to the story (unless you’re Mervyn Peake). Unfortunately, most of the time, sex scenes seem to exist for the soul purpose of cheap commercial appeal. Instead of furthering the story, they squander it in favor of crass attempts at tantalization. Unless you are writing a romance novel (in which the point of the story is the sex), the sex should have a point. (Here’s another parenthetical aside in this paragraph! Parenthetical asides for everybody!)
And there are lots of sex scenes that do have a point! For example, I’ve just finished reading Chimera by Will Shetterly, which features an extended and detailed sex scene between the detective-protagonist and a police investigator who later turns out to be a robot. The scene exists to demonstrate how convincingly human these robots are–and also to poke fun at you for not noticing the hints when you go back and re-read it after the she’s-a-robot reveal. Sex scenes can also demonstrate lots of things about a character, like that he is lonely, or that she’s stuck-up, or that this couple is perfect for one another. It can be catharsis at the end of a long romantic arc plot. It can even be a microcosm of the larger society, demonstrating societal ideas about gender or sexuality or morality (coughcough Heinlein, but only about 10% of the time coughcough).
Reasons abound, so if you want to include sex scenes in your story, knock yourself out. Just make sure you know why you’re doing it. If someone asks you, “what is the point of this?” and your answer is, “uh…I like it?” then it probably isn’t furthering the story. It might still be good porn, though, if that’s what you’re after. Nothing wrong with that. Go ahead and write your porn. Just don’t pretend it’s Great Literature, because everyone can see right through that bullshit (again, COUGH. COUGH. HEINLEIN. COUGH).
On a related note: if your male protagonist either has sex with or references having had sex in the past with every single major female character, that is some hardcore objectifying. Lookin’ at you, Shetterly.
“His man lance prepared for duty.” –Naked Dragon, by Annette Blair