More and more often, both in the blogosphere and in real life conversations, I'm running into adult readers who actively avoid sex scenes in novels. "It was better back when writers left something to the imagination," they'll say, or "I stick to older books, before there was so much sex in fiction," or even "I enjoyed Book X. There was one explicit sex scene, but I just skipped over it."1 In the spirit of trying to understand a position far removed from my own, I'm wondering: what's your position on reading about sex? Do you avoid it? And if so, can you shed a little light on why? Personally, I love a good sex scene, and I'll be attempting to explore that in more detail below.
First off, let me just say that I can totally understand including sex scene warnings if one is reading middle reader or young adult novels with an eye toward recommending them to young people. Developmentally, readers are ready for different levels of mature content at different times, and content warnings provide information useful to parents, teachers and librarians. And I can understand including specific warnings if a novel includes a scene of rape or sexual violence, since sexual assault victims can be triggered by these scenes.
But we're talking about adult readers, reading for their own pleasure, and the scenes they seem to be avoiding depict consensual sex between adults. I must admit, this position puzzles me. The way I see it, sex is an integral and enjoyable component of human existence. There is no reason a scene depicting sex can't be just as subtle and revealing of human character as a scene in which characters prepare a meal together, or get ready for a party, or fight in a war. Furthermore, it seems to me that to exclude sexual activity from the literary scene in any kind of systematic way would be to restrict unnecessarily the palette with which we paint our own existence. Most people, at some point in their lives, have sex. Shouldn't it therefore be a valid literary subject? Peoples' sexual lives can sometimes reveal aspects of their psyches difficult to depict in any other way: after all, many people are at their most vulnerable during sex, and some expose aspects of themselves which they hide away at all other times. For many, it's a powerful bonding activity, and taking a reader through the experience with the characters can communicate that bond, as well as revealing or foreshadowing sources of discord between the partners. In other cases the motivation for seeking out, and methods of enjoying, commitment-free sex can be just as revealing of a character's inner life.
Furthermore, it's simply untrue that modern authors write more sex than those of the past. Sexuality has a long and glorious literary history: Chaucer and Boccaccio are full of joyfully raunchy sexual farces, and the ancient epic of Gilgamesh features lines like the one that Stephen Mitchell renders "Let me suck your rod, touch my vagina, caress my jewel." The Song of Solomon in the Judeo-Christian Bible links the sexual love with love of the divine, and plenty of Roman poets, including Ovid, Lucretius and Catullus, treated of explicitly sexual themes. Shakespeare's plays pulse with the many shades of human sexuality, from Iago's deliberate crudeness when goading Brabantio ("Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe") to Juliet's lovely, starry-eyed honeymoon speech ("Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night"...). Much of eighteenth-century British literature is gleefully ribald, with Tristram Shandy's sorrowful retelling of his distracted conception standing out as a particularly humorous example.
Even Victorian literature, notoriously repressed, is hardly without sexuality—and here we come to the "leave it to the imagination" debate. Any thirteen-year-old can perceive the sexual passion between Jane Eyre and Edward Fairfax Rochester, and the dynamic between these two romantic leads is, I think, one huge reason (among many) for Jane Eyre's status as a perennial classic. Some would argue that Brontë's ability to depict this tension without writing an actual sex scene into the novel, is an argument that all sex scenes are "unnecessary." To do so is to take the default position that the right amount of sex for any given book is the absolute minimum amount possible, and that writers should only leave a sex scene in a novel when they cannot find any other way to provide equivalent character or plot development in a sex-free way.
Yet why should this be? I certainly wouldn't argue that Brontë's technique is ineffective, but that doesn't mean it's the correct treatment in all cases. To take just one counter-example, it's not always the aim of a writer to create a burning sexual tension à la Jane and Rochester. The claim that books and films are sexier when authors and directors "leave something to the imagination," involves the assumption that the goal of depicting sex is always a kind of sexualized romanticism, with the fade-to-black or "Reader, I married him" allowing the reader to fantasize a happily-ever-after. But sometimes the goal is realistic rather than romantic: to depict complicated, ongoing sexual relationships, with all their warts and subtleties. One of my favorite examples is the sex scene between Paul D. and Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved: Morrison evokes a nuanced mix of lust, disappointment, nostalgia, anger, tenderness, roaming thoughts and eventual temporary peace, all in a brief scene of rushed sex and subsequent awkwardness between these two old acquaintances. Is there another way she could have demonstrated the same emotional arcs? I'm not sure there is, but even if there were, why would it necessarily be a better choice? The scene is beautiful and effective just the way it is.
Don't get me wrong: I have read books and watched plenty of films in which the treatment of sex seemed too slick, too packaged, as if the purpose of its presence was solely to titillate the reader/viewer long enough to suck some dollars from his or her pocket. These books and films seem more like products to be consumed than artworks to be engaged with, and seeing sex in this way is understandably disturbing. I think this is what people mean when they say that they don't mind sex scenes "as long as they're not gratuitous." A sex scene should further the plot, character development, atmosphere, or other aspect of the literary project; it should be integrated into the work of art in an organic way.
Yet, if you think about it, this is true for every type of scene, every type of treatment. When I read Junot Díaz's The Brief Glorious Life of Oscar Wao, I felt that I was being sold a too-slick product involving the sanitized presentation of a certain ethnic milieu—and encountering a commodified cultural identity didn't feel any better to me than encountering commodifed sex. Any variety of scene or subject can be done well or poorly, yet few other types of scenes garner the caviats that sex scenes do.
Plenty of books and movies are explicitly conceived and executed as products, rather than artworks. Yet I never hear people claiming that they "don't mind depictions of [babies, food, convertibles, etc.], as long as they're not gratuitous." "Food porn" and "woodworking porn," for example, can get as gratuitous as they want: there is no cultural stigma around watching cooking shows or looking at craft magazines, so we don't feel we need to apologize. Viewers of AMC's show Mad Men, which is both a commodified product and a thought-provoking artwork about commodification, hardly ever opine that they "don't mind lush costume and set design, as long as they're not gratuitous." On the contrary, the fans love the clothing and sets—and well they should, as both are gorgeous. Our culture tells us it's okay to enjoy beautiful clothes and architecture, and so fans of Mad Men openly celebrate the show's look and feel. Why should our attitude toward well-executed sex scenes be any different? Obviously, we need some level of analysis around the commodification of our culture at large—but my answer to the problem of the commodification of sex is not to foreswear all depictions of sexuality, but to seek out those which strike me as nourishing, thought-provoking, and/or plain well-done.
Although I am obviously strongly pro-sex scenes, and do feel sex in fiction is unjustly maligned, I'm genuinely eager to hear conflicting opinions. If you avoid sex in fiction, what is it you dislike about reading these scenes? How do your perceptions of sex in modern fiction differ from mine? If you are positive or neutral toward sex scenes, what makes a really effective one in your mind (if you can even say, as there are so many different uses for scenes involving sex)? Are there any that stand out in your memory, for whatever reason?
In the spirit of further celebrating sex scenes in my personal canon, here's a short list of my personal favorites and the work they do. There are so many, but I'll leave it here for now. Share your own in the comments!
- The scene between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison's Beloved discussed above. In just a few pages, it reveals a remarkable amount about both characters and the trauma in their shared past, and eventually ends up at a point of mutual peace and generosity.
- Say what you will about the sexual politics of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (and the corniness of that scene with the rain and the wildflowers), Lawrence does an excellent job at using sex to illustrate the evolving relationship between Connie and Mellors, including all their myriad resentments as well as the few transcendent moments of connection they manage to achieve.
- Although not solely a sex scene, Molly Bloom's monologue in James Joyce's Ulysses is certainly heavily sexual, and deservedly famous as an orgasmic affirmation.
- In Possession, AS Byatt uses images of loose hair and unmade beds to explore the oppressiveness of constant sexual emphasis in our post-Freudian culture, and then presents an alternate model of relating to sexuality in the late sex scenes between Maud and Roland.
- The brief sex scenes between the two leads in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda accentuate to a heartbreaking degree the fragile, glass-like nature of the dynamic depicted, which is about to be shattered. And they're just hot, there's no other way to put it.
- Simone de Beauvoir's discussions of her sexual awakening in La force de l'âge are powerful in their honesty and insight; I find it especially unusual for a woman to write so openly about the psychological effects of an overwhelming physical passion.
- The many scenes of sexual duplicity in Choderlos de Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses—the ones in which Valmont woos one woman with a letter written on another's naked body, for example—walk the thin line between humor and tragedy, and demonstrate as nothing else could the daring and amorality of the characters.
- Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu features an ongoing theme of voyeurism and masochism in its sex scenes (beginning with the young Marcel's observation of Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her female lover through the window), which Proust uses as a jumping-off point to meditate on the effects of observation in general, and the intersection of human tenderness and cruelty. As usual with Proust, these scenes tend to be some delectable mixture of funny, sad, and thoughtful.
1Yes, that last is an actual real-life quote. How did the person know the scene was explicit before skipping over it? You tell me.