Queering SFF

Queering SFF: Writing Sex—To Do, or Not to Do?

The question of whether or not to include sex scenes in a story is somewhat integral to discussions of writing fiction across the board. After all, people have sex. They tend to do it quite a bit. Some stories have to have sexual content, some don’t, but the weight of “to do or not to do” increases with queer characters—the question develops from just “is this appropriate” to “can I do this or will I lose readers” or “how do I write authentic queer sex if I’m not the same gender/orientation/etc.?”

Various popular authors have different methods of writing queer sexuality in their stories, and I’ll use some of those for particular examples. There’s also the question of what one expects that scene to achieve—plot movement, character development, titillation, shocking content, or a mix? Does the scene need to be sexy, or uncomfortable, or heart-breaking? And that’s not even getting into scenes that have sexual content but are about violence or abuse. The sex scenes that tend to work less well (not just in queer SFF but all fiction) are those that the author included solely for perceived shock value or in an attempt to be avant garde without treating the subject matter respectfully.

The foremost concern, that an explicit queer sex scene will automatically make certain readers not buy your book, has an unfortunately strong basis. Discussion of one of the examples I use frequently, Richard K. Morgan’s The Steel Remains, is a case in point: many reviewers and commentators, as well as commenters here, expressed the sentiment that they would not ever pick up the book because they didn’t want to see the gay sex in it. When it comes to The Steel Remains there are so many other scenes that are a better reason to not read the book if you’re sensitive: the method of torture and execution for gay men, for one thing, is so graphic and horrible that I had literal nightmares about it. The main character at one point beats a child to death with his bare hands. If the most disturbing thing in that book for a reader is a few sex scenes, their priorities are perhaps not in order.

I hate this argument to not read a book, unless the reader chooses to never read a book with sexual content at all ever. I think it’s generous to say that 90% of speculative fiction is about straight characters, many of whom have sex with other straight characters in varying degrees of explicitness.

And you know what? Queer people read those books, and most aren’t particularly excited by those straight sex scenes—but if they’re in a good book, what’s the problem? It’s part of the characters and their relationships. The point of sex in speculative fiction is not solely to be an erotic experience for the reader. If the entire turning point of a reader picking up a book is how titillating they personally find the sex in it, I suspect they should be reading erotica, not speculative fiction. If a queer person reads straight sex in a good book, why won’t a straight person read queer sex in a good book?

The excuse that a book isn’t worth reading solely because it contains queer sex is homophobic. Cushion it however one may, it is. The fear and disgust that motivates a reader to avoid a book about a queer character has a definitive root, and it isn’t prudishness. (Especially considering that the physical acts being performed in those scenes are frequently the same acts that one might find in straight sex scenes.)

The thing is, you-the-writer can’t win over those readers anyway. It doesn’t usually even matter how graphic your sex is or if you fade to black: someone who is terrified of encountering a queer sex scene in a book is not going to read a book about a queer character. Just in case. It’s a backwards argument that completely misses the point of sex in stories that aren’t designed for pure eroticism, but you can’t win, and you might as well not try. So if you want to write that sex scene and it fits your narrative while doing important story-work—go ahead! You won’t lose any readers who won’t have already put the book down when they realized the orientation of your lead.

But what about the other parts of the question—writing the Other, writing with authenticity, and how to do a good job in general? This isn’t much of a problem is you’re writing about a character who is just like you, but most people don’t write characters who are just like them all the time.

There are four “levels” of sex scenes by my reckoning. Each of them is constructed a little differently and can do different things. Which one of these is right for the story you want to tell? It might depend on your word-count constraints or your personal comfort level, or maybe the comfort level of your characters.

The first is the fade-to-black: the tension ramps up between the characters, you might see a kiss or some foreplay, but the scene cuts away for the actual business. The words used in the build-up are usually softer and less anatomical than other scenes. This is the version that’s least likely to come off wrong, but it can also rob the story of development and emotional climax between characters, not just the physical. The popular “Nightrunner” series by Lynn Flewelling uses this method of dealing with sex. It also creates a “fluffier” air, like a gentle romance novel, no matter the story content.

The second is one step further. The build-up and the foreplay is there, and so is the consummation, but it’s written in delicate, short form. Frequently, it’s only a few lines, and those lines are more poetic and metaphorical than anatomical. This sort of thing appears frequently in short fiction, like Sarah Monette’s Kyle Murchison Booth stories in The Bone Key (reviewed here). Usually, this allows the writer to do the emotional and narrative work without having to get down and dirty with the actual scene. It works well for dream-quality scenes and is often one of the harder things to manage, because it treads a line between poetic and physical and can easily tip into the next level.

Your third sort of sex scene is balanced between eroticism and poetics. There will be some anatomical words here, descriptions of what is physically happening between the characters, but it’s also glossed over with delicate language in parts. It’s not lengthy. The sex in Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest falls under this category more often than not (though sometimes it is Level Four, so to speak). The play between the explicit and the delicate is tenuous but it still isn’t quite tipping over into explicit sex. The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan also treads this line (reviewed here).

The fourth kind of sex scene is the most common, really—the explicit scene. I don’t mean that explicit sex scenes aren’t also poetic and can’t be delicate, but they are extended scenes with description of the sex itself, often intense and erotic description. While I have argued that the point of sex scenes in speculative fiction isn’t just to titillate, when an author is writing an explicit scene, it is usually to attempt to provoke a reaction in the reader—just like a scene to incite sorrow or laughter or anger. Some are prone to anatomical words, others are more about description with euphemisms. A Companion to Wolves by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette has explicit sex scenes that still manage to do a great deal, narratively, and work with sexuality as a more fluid concept.

I’d argue that those are actually the hardest scenes to manage, because the author has to juggle dialogue and description of an act that can be, well, goofy at times—and make them sexually intense, and keep the reader’s attention while still achieving some sort of narrative work. That’s a lot of things to do at once. It’s also the sort of scene that provokes the “oh god how do I write this authentically” terror.

It’s not as hard as you’d think, with care and diligence.

Read queer SFF fiction and see how other authors, especially those I don’t always use as easy examples, do it. Read queer literature, for that matter. Buy a few sex manuals for the type of scenes you’ll be writing and read them. (I mean really read them, not just look at the lovely pictures.) This goes for queer writers dealing with straight characters, too; any time you are writing a person different from yourself, it’s best to do research and be careful. There are plenty of guides all around the internet for queer sex of all stripes from genderplay to lesbian sex to gay sex and everything in between or outside of those categories. There’s nothing more wince-inducing than a sex scene that the reader knows physically would not work like the author is trying to tell us it does; it shows a lack of research.

Don’t be afraid to write outside your comfort zone. Be respectful, be cool, and be authentic in your own desire to write—it’ll turn out okay. And if it doesn’t, that’s what beta readers and revision are for. Fail and fail better. Writing sex seems easy, but it’s difficult, if it’s to be done well. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lesbian writing about a lesbian or a straight man writing about gay men or a cisgendered person writing a transgendered narrative—it’s going to be difficult to do well, but it’s worth it, because we need more queer speculative stories. There are so few, and while the number grows all the time, I’d like to encourage more experimentation and boundary-pushing for all of our stories.

If you’re too uncomfortable to deal with the physical aspects of sex you don’t have, use one of the softer levels of scene instead—hell, a fade to black works almost exactly the same for any couple (or more) regardless of gender.

So when it comes down to the wire—To Do, or Not To Do—go ahead and “do” if it’s right for your story. It sucks to lose readers, and you will, but you’ll gain others in return. Plus, it’s more rewarding to tell the story you want to tell without sanitizing it in some way for the worst possible audience.

So—who are some of your favorite writers who deal with queer sex in their stories, and what “level” do you prefer? What do you see the most of, or the least? How do you prefer to write your scenes? Discussion welcome and encouraged!

Photo by user helgasms! on Flickr. Used with Creative Commons license.


Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.

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