In Medias Res (IMR)

IMR | Should I Feel Uncomfortable Or…?

I remember the first time I read a scene with explicit sex. It was Stephanie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn and from that moment forward my sister and I always referred to such scenes as the characters “breaking dawn.”

I’ve read plenty of books since then. None of it erotica, but a wide variety that contained scenes with everything from page breaks implying sex to make out scenes to undressing to…

phoebe friends my eyes

The point I’m getting at is sex is a thing. A thing that writers sometimes include in their stories. Sometimes in great detail.

The question: Should I feel uncomfortable or…?

The last two series I finished (Anna and the French Kiss and The Infernal Devices) both had sex scenes in them. And now I’m reading Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone which, I kid you not, contains the following dialogue:

“I don’t know many rules to live by,” he’d said. “But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles—drug or tattoo—and… no inessential penises, either.”

“Inessential penises?” Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. “Is there any such thing as an essential one?”

“When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,” he’d replied. “Stop squandering yourself, child. Wait for love.”

Um…

To be fair, about fifty percent of my discomfort was eased by the need to laugh, because, hey, it’s kind of funny.

But then I come across scenes where one minute they’re talking and the next they’re on the bed and clothes are coming off and hands are places where hands shouldn’t be if it was a G-rated. (Tessa and Jem in Clockwork Prince…seriously, when did his hands get under her nightdress?)

Not to say that these books are supposed to be G-rated, there’s enough gore and violence and inappropriate behaviour in them to keep them at least PG.

But then why am I so shaken up by it?

I’m okay with throats getting ripped out, severed limbs that still flail around with life, and characters being psychologically tortured. I’m okay with people screaming “FUCK” and even stupid dick jokes like Will’s limerick in Clockwork Prince and Benedict’s order for what appears to be the demon Kama Sutra. So why am I not okay with hand roaming and hot kisses and…

Ugh. I’m having difficulty just typing that out.

See what I mean?

Though I do have to admit that it doesn’t bother me all the time. And similarly, there are times when violence and swearing irritate me, despite my higher tolerance for it. And I think I know why.

When things like violence, inappropriate behaviour, and sex are included in books, there’s a reason why we’re disturbed. This is stuff that we consider taboo or out of place. And it’s there to draw our attention. If a writer does it well, then it means something. If not, it feels like pandering. Because sex is kind of like when you go to the bathroom—it’s obviously necessary for life, but no one wants to read about the gross nitty gritty details.

There are two stories that come to mind when I think of a sex scene done well, and they are The Fault in our Stars and Isla and the Happily Ever After. 

In Isla and the Happily Ever After, the sex scene was indicative of how far Isla and Josh had gone, how much their lust has taken over their judgement. How do I know? Right after, everything starts to fall apart for these two, and they have to work to find the real relationship among the pieces.

There’s a similar situation in The Fault in Our Stars. Or rather, the reverse: Hazel is finally accepting her feelings for Gus despite their impending deaths. She’s still afraid of a relationship, but she’s willing to take that leap. And the scene in Gus’s hotel room is indicative of that.

And I can get behind that. I can read that and be satisfied in knowing that there was purpose to it. Because just like I don’t want to read about when the protag takes a crap, I don’t want to read a useless scene full of pandering.

Speaking of pandering…I’m (regretfully) turning to the scene in The Infernal Devices. 

Which one, you ask? Both of them.

Clare’s “After the Bridge” is obvious pandering, there’s no denying that. After that epilogue everyone wanted some Tessa and Jem, and Clare delivered. Sort of like how Scott Westerfeld complied when the the fans wanted to read about Alek in a dress. But Will and Tessa in Cair Idris…

Okay, I know what you’re thinking: Gus and Hazel also are getting together even though they’re about to die! And I understand that, I do. I understand Tessa and Will wanted to admit their feelings to one another, make it known before they died, especially since they’ve been lying to each other about it for a while. I even get that they are really into this whole romanticized adventure story where people make love before dying tragically. But despite seeming desperately romantic superficially, I just found the scene to be awkward and impersonal. This is made worse by the fact that Tessa just found out that her fiance is dead.

I would have believed it more if they spooned on the bed, comforting each other and confessing their love. That seems more intimate to me, less impersonal and hormone fuelled.

But what do you think? When you come across taboo in books, what do you do? Discretely skip the scene? Read it straight? Put the book down? 

And should there be sex in books? Is that fair when we don’t censor violence and gore? Let me know in comments!

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10 thoughts on “IMR | Should I Feel Uncomfortable Or…?

  1. I have read a lot of books ranging from those filled with violence and gore to others which people have outright called smut. The truth is if the scenes are well written and they fit in the story line, then it is less likely you will find yourself uncomfortable with them and you will then be able to read right through them. A sex scene randomly thrown in for seemingly no reason is not good writing and I would expect it to throw a reader off, those are the sex scenes that I tend to skim over since they aren’t providing anything to the actual story.

    Whether we should outright censor sex from books is a much more difficult question to answer. Personally, I am incredibly against the idea of censorship because it shouldn’t be the decision of anyone else what is or isn’t available to me – I should be able to make the decision myself. Basically, this all comes down to knowing the material and being willing to censor it yourself if you don’t want to read it whether it is violence or characters getting down and dirty. Great post and an excellent discussion question.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree with you. I believe in “personal censorship” myself. That is, just deciding to put a book down or skipping over the scene when you become uncomfortable with it.

      And like you say, when higher-rating stuff occurs in books, I’m fine with it if it’s done well. I was able to read A Song of Ice and Fire Series after all. And for all I’ll complain about the stuff in The Infernal Devices, I still love that series and would recommend it.

      The utter paradox of it is that how can you censor yourself with spoiling the story? Should we put ratings like on movies on books? Or should we be expected as “adults” to be able to handle it?

      *sigh* These are the questions that haunt me…

      Liked by 1 person

    2. You raise some very important questions and I can see why they haunt you. I don’t know if censorship without minor spoiling is necessarily possible, unless you are only receiving recommendations for books from those who know of your preferences and would inform you of scenes which would make you uncomfortable ahead of time. Something like a friendly, “Hey, I just want to let you know that in this chapter there is a somewhat explicit scene.” This would sort of limit your own book choosing/shopping in some ways though if you are constantly waiting for someone else to tell you it is a good choice for you. Utilizing a rating system on books as we do movies could work, but I don’t know exactly how the standards would be determined, how would it be implemented, and the all important question of who would ultimately determine the rating(s). I think the expectation that “we are all adults here” while a-typical is also incredibly naive of us because that which makes us tick is different for everyone and what one person may see as alright could be a trigger for someone else. I won’t tell you what you should or should not be able to handle, that is definitely an incredibly personal question – at the same time, I think there is most definitely an expectation of society that as an adult you should be able to handle the big “it.”

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Movie ratings are controversial as it is. I don’t know if book publishers and sellers could handle the same treatment.

      And I agree with the idea that “we should just handle it” is a very naive way of looking at things. Though at the same time, people can’t simply ignore it even though it’s there. It exists. I remember getting really mad about people boycotting House of Hades because they didn’t want their children exposed to a homosexual character. I sat there thinking, “That’s ridiculous, there are homosexuals in the real world. What, were you going to just shelter them forever?” And the same is true about “it”—whatever we choose to define “it” as: sex, drugs, violence, racism. We can’t ignore it, because it’s there.

      I was talking with a friend once about our English courses and he was absolutely horrified by “The Bloody Chamber.” But it was on his syllabus—For some reason, it was considered important enough to read. At some threshold level we’re expected to understand and accept things. What that threshold is, I have no idea to define.

      There are never any easy answers, which really stinks, but I think talking about it opens our perspective at the very least, so thanks for discussing it with me 🙂

      Like

  2. I don’t see your POV here.
    Okay so maybe Infernal Devices and those other books you mentioned really do have bad sex scenes. But out of all the books I’ve read, I’ve never felt too uncomfortable about any kind of sex scenes and/ or violence.
    This may be because I’ve only read the good, clean books (I don’t know).
    I can only think of this trilogy called Millennium. There’s violence, sex, gore and violent sex and well… all of that.
    But I didn’t actually feel uncomfortable reading it. Because it was necessary to the story. It was a huge part of the plot- and I was alright with it.
    Also, ever since I was a kid, every piece of general knowledge I’ve acquired, it is through books and I believe that we need to learn about everything: the good, the bad and the tabooed. Books are in fact the best way of getting knowledge out there- because most kids/ young adults aren’t comfortable talking about it with anybody (and with good reason too) so how are they going to learn things?
    Only if they understand how everything works will they be able to form their own opinions- and maybe it’ll help them make better choices about their own lives too.

    The only time I actually get uncomfortable reading about tabooed topics when there are rude, sexist or demeaning comments and all of this is not shown to be wrong but in fact, perfectly alright.
    Like, recently an Indian author published a book where the protagonist stalks a girl to make her fall for him (and she does- no really!) then he calls her a bitch, treats her like she is his slave (and not in the role-playing sense) and by the end of the book they’re together in a happily ever after kind of way.
    Here not only was the way he treated her completely unacceptable, but it gave out the wrong message to society that it’s alright to treat girls like that- in fact, that’s the way to get girls to like you!
    And the book is targeted at young adults or what you’d call the youth of the country.
    That’s the kind of thing that literally makes me cringe.
    (The sad thing is, I had read other books by the author and I thought he was pretty good- now I wonder why I thought that!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I suppose my POV here is not that I’m always uncomfortable, but when I /am/…why? As the title suggests, I was just rather confused about why I’m okay with violence and drugs in books, but not sex. And I came to the conclusion that it’s because those scenes are badly written, or the scene is misplaced.

      To be truthful I don’t think there’s ever going to be such a thing as a “good” sex scene simply because of the physicality of it. That just doesn’t translate well to page. The same way that thoughts in books can’t be translated well to film without exposition.

      That experience with the book you talk about is rather unfortunate, though I wouldn’t discard the author entirely.

      Then again, they did publish Lolita…which is just plain wrong.

      Like

    2. Hmm.. maybe you’re right about the “translate well to page” thing.
      And yeah, maybe I shouldn’t discard the author, but if he thought- even for a few months while he wrote the book- that he was justified in writing all of that; it really makes me wonder what kind of a person he is.

      Liked by 1 person

    3. Hmm…I wonder how and why those books get past editing. Somewhere, someone thought this story was worth telling. And I don’t really want to put it down to reverse psychology, because that doesn’t seem logical.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. OMG, you are so right!!! This is by far my favourite post so far. I’ve been thinking the same thing. Sex is a thing in YA. Sometimes, I feel that YA authors are pressured to write sex into their books in order to receive more sales.

    There are times when sex is fine in a book. When it doesn’t have lust or restless hormones and it doesn’t give me all the intimate details. I’d rather it make its point and fade to black. Clare’s “After the Bridge” went way too far. I was “Alright, that’s it. My mind has been stained. Thanks a lot Clare.” I feel as if a lot of the sex in YA is driven by extreme circumstance like danger or impending death or just purely lust. And I feel as if pure love is lacking into all of it. I haven’t read Twilight (not planning to) so I don’t really know how sex goes in that book. But I’ve heard it’s quite detailed.

    Fantastic post!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked the post 🙂 I remember once I really got into YA fiction in high school, sex seemed to be inserted everywhere: implied scenes, innuendos, heavy emphasis on the physicality of the characters. And I hate that. I hate relationships that seem to be based entirely on physicality. I don’t know who told YA authors that puberty-influenced teenagers only think about sex, but someone either (1) told them and they believed it or (2) erased their memories of adolescence.

      Sex scenes should be treated like any other scene in a book. Carefully thought out and considered by the author if whether or not it lends to the story as a whole. If not, chuck it out a window and don’t look back.

      Liked by 1 person

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