When most people hear the word fantasy, they don’t automatically think of world-building and quests. Chances are, they think of sexytimes. Examining where these definitions overlap—sex and speculative fiction—is the purpose of this post. So, in the immortal words of Salt-N-Pepa, let’s talk about sex, bay-bee.
Sex, like hard science, violence, humor or magic, can enrich and energize a story. Or, when done badly or excessively, it can desensitize the reader. Like anything else in a story, it should be a means for understanding the character and bringing about change. If the sex scene doesn’t matter, it drains the reader of the desire to engage in the narrative. When that happens, a book that you hoped would sustain you through the night no longer looks so appealing. You put the book down, move away from it and say, “Gosh, I wish I could stay and read you some more, but I have this thing I have to do in the morning. Maybe I’ll call you sometime for another chapter.” But you never do. You’ve moved on to better lit.
Some fantasy and science fiction stories are intensely sexual. Others are subdued and chaste in presentation and still others are not sexual at all. Whether or not sexual situations are appropriate in a story depends entirely on what sort of story it is. Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest, if the sexual themes were taken out, would be about four pages long and read like a travelogue with occasional asides on supernatural dermatology. The story necessitates the erotic content (and boy howdy does she do a good job of providing it). On the other hand, inserting a sex scene in The Lord of the Rings would have felt disastrously out of place. No one needs to know that ancient forests echoed with the clack of trunk-knocking when, at long last, the Ents and Entwives reunited. And I’m guessing you didn’t need me to mention it either.
Before I go further (without the Ents; I’ll leave the poor fellas alone for now on) I think it necessary to say I am talking about books and short stories here, not film or visual arts or other media. And since I’m defining my terms, I should also distinguish between two kinds of sexual writing: romantic and erotic. Romantic writing, I would say, focuses on the emotional aspect of relationships and erotic writing attunes the reader to the sensory aspects. They do overlap, of course. The emotional gives personal depth to the sensory and the sensory gives added expression to the emotional. A severing of emotion and sensation leads to a frustrating or ultimately unrewarding experience. (Except for this one time in Vienna. But forget I said that.)
Clive Barker’s work is often erotic and seldom romantic, unless your idea of Valentine’s Day involves a lot of hooks. Robert Jordan wrote a great many romantic scenes but I can’t really think of any erotic content, as he chose not to consider that breasts can do more than frame folded arms and not every time hair is pulled is it necessarily done out of frustration. That may be the first, and is probably the last, Clive Barker and Robert Jordan comparison.
In investigating sex in science fiction and fantasy I noticed a disquieting trend: almost all of the really good sex scenes I’ve read were written by women. If anyone cares to vindicate male authors here, please jump in, because I really don’t want to think guys are almost unilaterally terrible at writing sex scenes in speculative fiction.
Bad sex in writing usually fits one or more of these unpleasant categories:
1. Confused and mechanical. Imagine following anatomical IKEA instructions on prom night. One wonders if the author is just guessing.
2. The Unbearable Penis of Lightning. Brutal, unnecessary, misogynistic beast-bumping with no more erotic sensibility than jamming an electric pencil sharpener. For some reason, these scenes often involve spit and thumbs. Don’t ask me why.
3. Purple treacle gingerbread smothered in creamed velvet. Completely missing the primal element, these scenes drown any joy or sense of abandon in favor of thesaurus abuse.
4. Nothing when there should be something. I’m talking about leading up to a perfectly appropriate moment for sex, and then? Bupkiss. This isn’t the same as sexual subtlety, or avoiding unnecessary scenes. This is when the author sticks his fingers in his ears—all the penetration you’re gonna get—and goes “Lalalala, sex? What means this hu-mon word, sex? That comes between five and seven in German, right?”
Some of the female authors I’ve read can weave amazing tapestries of sensation and anticipation, poetic choreography of interaction, and bold, searing prose. I’m not saying every female author writes great sex scenes by default or that all male authors fail; that would be an absurd claim. But in what I’ve read, women do a far better job overall. Why the disparity? In her essay collection, In Favor of the Sensitive Man, Anaïs Nin writes, “I would say that woman has not made the separation between love and sensuality which man has made.” Could this separation be the cause? I don’t know. It would account for male authors who think that an erotic scene will make them look like big sissy-boys. But I hardly think the majority of male speculative fiction writers can be considered so macho or divorced from romance. In general, writers are a pretty sensitive and gentle bunch, regardless of gender, non?
Is it an editorial choice? Do publishers feel the stories are less appealing to a male audience if erotic scenes appear in work written by men? That doesn’t sound right to me either. Perhaps the editors who read this can clue me in.
Another possibility is that I’m simply not as widely read as I’d like to believe. I'm sure you’ll let me know if that is the case. Or, I’m biased, predisposed to prefer the female view of sex because I am heterosexual and just think women are sexier than men. But I don’t buy that either, since when the masculine perspective of sexuality is conveyed properly in art—as with Pablo Neruda or Marvin Gaye, for example—it’s a serious thrill, every bit powerful to me as a woman’s approach. But…where is the Neruda of science fiction?
Leaving the gender issue, what authors do you find excel at sexual storytelling? What books and short stories do you think not only convey sensuality, intimacy and pleasure, but also use it well to propel character development and plot?
Like Water for Chocolate, by magic realist author Laura Esquivel, certainly qualifies for me. I especially love the scene when Gertrudis, bathing in an outdoor wooden shower, becomes literally enflamed with passion. (Her water is boiling. Bring on the chocolate!) The water from the shower turns to steam as it hits her skin. The wild need increases until the shower bursts into flames and she runs off naked into the countryside and goes for some country lovin’ with a revolutionary. This scene makes perfect use of sex and magic, indistinguishable from each other in this case, to bring the reader into the no-longer-containable passion Gertrudis feels.
Martha Soukup also writes (wrote?) some great sexual fantasy, as does Amy Bender (though I think her endings tend to fizzle). Much as it pains me to admit it, given the utter hack Anne Rice is in almost every other book, Interview with a Vampire and The Vampire Lestat turned me on mightily.
My good friend Maria Alexander told me that writing about speculative fiction and sex without mentioning Cecilia Tan would be a huge mistake. I admit I’m not very familiar with her work, but I understand that Tan has, for some time now, been one of the leading voices in writing and publishing erotic science fiction and fantasy. I conclude with a great quote from one of her essays. “But any story reveals the subconscious. Sometimes like a hypnotic confession, sometimes like a cryptic Tarot reading. Ultimately, that is what some of the best sex does, too, allowing us to lose our self-consciousness and reveal another plane of emotion, understanding, or self. So once again, sex is like writing, writing is like sex. Writing is sex. Writing is identity and loss of identity at the same time, just as good sex reaffirms who we are, even as we lose ourselves in each other.”
When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA. He now has sex on the brain, which is OK as that is what he most often has sex on.