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…
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.”
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!