I bet I grabbed your attention by the title alone.
What do we always hear, whether we are a creator or reader/viewer/listener? That’s right: sex sells. I direct your attention to the overwhelming (albeit questionable) commercial success of Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s garbage. Yeah, that’s right, I said it. It’s garbage. I don’t have to read it to know this. But despite its shortcomings, it sold like hotcakes. Readers didn’t care if the main characters were relatable. They were in it for the smut. For them, it must have been like sneaking a porn mag into class. The hotter it got, the more they loved it. The reader in me wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten foot pole (I prefer my books to be intelligently crafted, not reworked Twilight fanfiction); however, the businesswoman in me applauds the effort. If E.L. James was looking to cash in on something everyone already loves, then I tip my hat to her. She’s the one laughing all the way to the bank.
Now, I have nothing against the sex in my media. I read plenty of romance novels in my adolescence, and let me tell you, I lived for those scenes. Even the creepy scene at the end of Flowers In The Attic (you wanna talk controversial, hoo boy) would make me giggle. Ha ha. They’re totes making out, lol. A lot of my earlier writings were replete with phrases like ‘velvety softness’ and ‘his tongue plunged into her mouth’. Too bad most realistic sexual encounters aren’t quite so flowery. It’s for this reason alone that I believe romanticizing the sex act will probably always be a lasting fascination to us. The same could be said for fantasizing about dating/wedding/bonding with vampires, werewolves, witches and the like. But I digress.
My problem with sex scenes is when it feels foisted upon me. I cannot tell you how many books I’ve read or movies I’ve watched where, for whatever reason, the writer finds it absolutely necessary to include it. Now, I’m not talking about romance or something with a romantic subplot. I’m talking about a story that was clicking on all cylinders when bam! The main character is suddenly and inexplicably possessed with the desire to copulate with his/her co-character. Why? Why not. I mean, who doesn’t like reading about bumping uglies?
Well, for starters it’s jarring. Why the hell would the MC who, up until that point would be hard pressed to brush up against someone by mistake, suddenly overcome that anxiety? Sure, you could cite lots of reasons: possession, alcohol, drugs, evil twin/clone, dream etc etc. Maybe the plot depends on it. Maybe your character is fighting against an inner demon and giving into it that one night results in an otherwise weird scene. The difference here is that those actions have legitimate reasons for being. It’s not just hastily slapped together because hey, the narrative is dragging a bit, LET’S GET NAKED.
I also bring this up because I have attempted the inclusion of sex scenes, and by doing so, the characters involved ceased being who they were. Case in point: early drafts of Renegade featured my two leads hooking up at the end. It seemed to make sense at the time. They’d just escaped the bad guys, were headed back home, the danger was over. Why not celebrate survival by some gratuitous skin on skin action? Well, when I wrote the scene, it never, ever felt right. It wasn’t that it was poorly written. It’s just that my female character wouldn’t be willing to give herself to a man she hardly knew (and an alien at that). My male character had spent his entire life keeping everyone at arm’s length; for him to go against it would require a LOT of character development, which the plot for the novel didn’t allow. I eventually removed the scene. What had originally been a romp on the floor was now a somewhat awkward, but grateful farewell. Perfectly in character for both. I had always planned for them to get together, but much, much later in the series, and after a lot of plot-related elements took place that shaped them both. There would be sex, and only when they were ready. It would be more rewarding for them, and the reader.
When I first came up with the trio leading the charge in Lifeline, it never, ever occurred to me to slip in some unresolved sexual tension between Gabriel and Evelyn, let alone getting them together in the end. Well, whether I was driven by curiosity or a burning desire to envision Gabriel’s face/body model, Chris Noth, in an intimate setting, I decided to give it a go. I slept on the idea, but when I re-read it I felt like I had betrayed my characters. Gabriel has so much emotional baggage committing even to a one night stand would be asking too much. Evelyn cares for him as a friend, sympathizes with his pain. Plus she knows that his emotional and spiritual attachment to Maria has pretty much warped his ability to maintain a normal relationship.
Do I have plans to have someone take pity on poor Gabriel? Not at the moment. He has to sort through his own feelings before he can consider opening himself up to someone else. These are issues I plan to focus on for the sequel, Skies More Blue, which also happens to be the subject for my Camp NaNoWriMo project. I admit, its experimental status will have me playing with my favorite cliche: the love triangle. Oo, I get excited just thinking about it.
The point I am trying to make is that yes, we all have a soft (or hard, if you wanna be THAT guy) spot for sex. Embraced, shunned, scorned or altogether avoided, it’s everywhere we look, and on multiple levels.
However you slice it, the fact remains that It can be appreciated as a romantic endgame or as the ultimate fantasy. Just please, please make it worth your while, and something your reader will care about. You want them to clutch the book to their hearts and wail about how much they hated it but loved it because it hurt so good (readers of John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars seem predisposed to this reaction). Don’t encourage them to do this.