Jun 18 2010 11:09am

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.

Rob Munnelly
1. RobMRobM
Brit - I'm not gay but also am not generally uncomforable with reading gay sex/love scenes in literature (assuming I like the book). I haven't read most of what you've discussed here but I have read Diana Galbadon's Lord John books about a gay military officer/noble in the mid 1700s that include pretty darned explicit sex scenes. Brotherhood of the Blade in particular has essentially a two day enounter with a lover where a lot happens. While I don't need that level of detail to enjoy the books and novellas, and might even have preferred a bit less, Galbadon treats the gay scenes with an equivalent level of detail to her many hetero sex scenes in her principal Outlander series -- and, again, I probably would have preferred a bit less descriptive stuff there too.

2. tigeraid
There'll always be that demographic who don't read due to explicit scenes altogether--they're old-fashioned, they're prudes, they're devoutly religious, whatever... To them I say "their loss." Someone not reading because of homosexual content, then it's for all the same reasons, and add homophobia onto the list.
Ron Garrison
3. Man-0-Manetheran
"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."

Exactly! If it is pertinent to the story, then by all means include it. But the "one from column A, one from column B" style of writing where it's added just because it sells, is an insult to everyone.
Lucas Huntington
4. L.P.Huntington
Great post.

I think I can tell you what I don't like more than I can tell you what I do like. I don't like fade-to-black, because I end up feeling cheated. Ideally speaking, I like books that are gritty, maybe dark, and certainly not afraid to "go there." Books that are R-rated in some senses (violence, thematic content) but PG or PG-13 in others (sex, language) tend to irritate me.
The only time I think fade-to-black is okay is when the rest of the story (the plot, the characters) is so well done that you're not even thinking about sex, because you're too wrapped up in the story (but if you are an author, are you aware of whether or not the rest of your story is good enough to counter-balance that? Can you tell?).

However, when stories include things like romance, or intimate relationships, I get irritated when an author leads up to the bedroom door and then that door gets closed in my face. That, in my opinion, is being afraid to "go there."
But then again, I have read authors, like Ruth Sims (author of The Phoenix), where she doesn't write explicit sex scenes, and I don't remember that bothering me when I read it. I guess the rest of the story was involved enough that I didn't mind, if I even noticed.
I guess I'm saying it depends, if I'm even making sense.

Have you ever read Storm Constantine? I'm not sure I should talk about Wraethu because I never made it all the way through, but I remember becoming completely lost in the authors use of metaphors. I mean lost in a bad way, like I had no idea what was going on. That being said, I think I should give it another chance because it looks deep and it has some pretty hardcore fans, so I probably missed something. But the point I'm making is that authors should be careful with metaphors, that they don't obscure the reality of the scene they are trying to depict.

Finally, I know that I don't like it when sex consumes the story, which happens all too often in queer sci-fi and fantasy. Like half the time, I wonder if an author just wrote it to get his or her rocks off. If it is just sex for the sake of sex, it is probably boring. Give me a real character with an engaging story and then its a different matter. Erotica gets boring fast, and sometimes I think authors literally accidentally write erotica. Like they meant to maybe write a queer sci-fi, or a queer horror, and oops, its erotica. Is that because they paid more attention to the detail of the sex, and the sexual relationship, than they did to the other elements of the story? That's my guess. You can tell when plot and character elements are weak compared to the "romance" (I put it in quotes because even that winds up being tacky) and the explicit sex scenes.

Anyhow, I rambled (what a surprise!).
Thanks agani for another great post.
Ian Gazzotti
5. Atrus
I don't avoid books because of graphic sex scenes, but I find there are very little stories where the inclusion of those scenes make actually sense (like, as you said, 'Palimpsest').

It is true that people have sex, and quite a lot of it, but then it's the same for having breakfast, and commuting, and taking a dump, and waiting in queue, and so on and so forth; how we tackle all these things depends on the tone of our story, and the genre, and our general storytelling ways. In an adventure story, a whole chapter might describe some daring scene that really happens in just a few minutes; imagine if the same amount of pages and description were used to describe 8 hours of sleeping: it would be boring, and dull, and rather not adventurous. On the contrary, a psychological sci-fi story might spend the same whole chapter talking about the main character's breakfast and put the actual science deep in the background.

So it's natural that we gloss over the parts that are no use to our story; and long and windy sex scenes usually only make sense in a book which is about sex or sexuality.

(And of course, most writers just don't know how to write about sex without making it sound silly. Better no sex scene, even if the story needs it, that a badly written one.)
Ben Frey
6. BenPatient
"Better no sex scene, even if the story needs it, that a badly written one."


Also, I have a question. Why is it "queer" and not "gay" when you're talking about gay sex in SFF stories?

Is "queer" the new in-crowd word? is the gay community owning it the way black people decided to own the "n word"?

Just curious, because it has been my observation for most of the last 20 years that if someone calls you "queer" that's a lot more derogatory than calling you "gay."
Heidi Byrd
7. sweetlilflower
Yeah, even if I read one of Nora Robert's fantasy/romance novels, I skip the sex scenes. I have never enjoyed reading about sex, and I am not "old-fashioned, a prude, or devoutly religious". I just have a VERY good memory and things like that stick in my head FOREVER! I read a book 20yrs ago that had a lot of explicit sex in it, and I can still remember certain scenes. There are very rare instances where an explicit scene actually moves the story along. I read a book where the main heroine had been raped when she was 12 and the sex scenes were there to show her progression through that. In that book, it was necessary, but I can't think of another book I haven't completely skipped over them, no matter who was involved. If I want porn, I'll watch a movie or seduce my husband :)
8. Lane Haygood
I will read any level as long as it is well-written, by which I mean, not merely an excuse to have two (or more) characters get naked. Jim Butcher does level 3/4ish quality writing, but manages to make it seem germane to the story and not tawdry. Others are... less successful.

In my own writing, I find myself to be bad at anything explicit, and feel stupid when I do something around level 1 or 2, so I avoid the question of sex altogether, though sexuality itself might be prominent. One can deal with themes about personal identity and sexuality without actually showing the sex.

Still, it was sort of fun to watch people overreact to "The Steel Remains." Good job to Morgan for subverting that paradigm.
Liza .
9. aedifica
BenPatient @ 6: Others can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think the draw of "queer" as opposed to "gay" is that it's more inclusive--it covers gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, and otherwise genderqueer people without recourse to an unwieldy acronym.
10. LeeH
Interesting commentary on an overlooked topic. Good stuff. I agree with the whole "better no sex scene...than a badly written one". One caveat: I wouldn't confine "queering" a narrative to the simple inclusion of non-hetero sex scenes. There are probably far more ways to queer a piece of writing than just spelling out its physical consummation. In fact, the existence of a physical consummation probably isn't the main ingredient of an effectively queer'd work (imho). I wouldn't say 'queer' is always homosexual by definition - it can involve hetero characters transgressing fixed sex/relationship roles and taboos too, or simply having a character perceive and interact with his/her setting and other characters in a certain atypical way that demonstrates the (sexual) liminality of the character.
Lucas Huntington
11. L.P.Huntington

To my mind, it doesn't make a difference, I think the terms are (to some degree) interchangeable.
I think aedifica said it better than me up above.
Linden Wolfe
12. Lilith
When I read the title of the post, the first book that jumped into my mind was The Steel Remains, mainly because it is the only SFF novel I've read that had explicit gay sex. I liked the book a lot and am hanging for a sequel, not because it turns me on to read about men fucking, but because I liked the protagonist and want to see what happens to him, and other characters, next.

I have read other non-SFF queer literature in the past (mainly crime novels), but again, it was for the characters and the story, not for the sex (which was never intrusive).

I have been put off more by an excess of sex in hetero SFF books. I stopped reading Laurell K. Hamilton once the sex scenes took over the plot.

Bottom line: straight or gay, sex should add to the plot and enhance an understanding of the characters. It should written in an appropriate style for the rest of the book, and shouldn't make me giggle, if it's not supposed to be funny, nor gross me out (it can anger me, if that is an approriate reaction to the fate of a character). And usually less is better, because it allows the reader to exercise their imagination as much, or little, as they are comfortable with.
Lannis .
13. Lannis
Hear, hear!

Brit, as a straight reader and writer, I always find your articles extremely interesting and helpful. Your breakdown of the different types of sex scenes simply puts into words something I've known for a while without consciously thinking about it. Thanks!

Personally, sex in what I'm reading (regardless of the orientation of the characters) doesn't put me off as long as it's dealt with honestly. Nothing drives me crazy more than something that doesn't ring true for the characters.

...any time you are writing a person different from yourself, it’s best to do research and be careful.

Excellent rule, regardless of the situation.

Great post! Thanks!
14. PhoenixFalls
As a reader, I'm comfortable reading all four of the levels you describe, though sometimes the fade to black makes me roll my eyes at its coyness and sometimes the explicit makes me roll my eyes at the "put tab A into slot B" nature (though of course, this is only when it's poorly executed). However, if I had to choose between a poorly execute fade-to-black (in other words, where it feels coy and inorganic to the characters involved) and a poorly-executed explicit scene, I'd choose the explicit scene, because improving that one is just a matter of technical skill, while to improve the bad fade-to-black the author (or maybe the publisher) needs to get a new mindset on the place of sex in fiction (and likely also its place in everyone's lives).

The scenes that stand out for me (that you didn't mention) are the ones that accomplish the most in terms of the storytelling -- so Jacqueline Carey's F/F and sado-masochistic sex scenes, explicit and frequent as they are, make some impact in aggregate (because they are absolutely essential to the plot) but the individual ones tend not to do so much, while the various queer scenes in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels, which are about as close to fade-to-black as you can get without actually fading to black, have stuck with me for years because they're important turning points for her characters, almost all of whom are struggling with their identity (and on more than just the level of their sexuality -- they tend to also be struggling with their roles in the larger society, and accepting their sexuality is symbolic of that larger acceptance).

Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
Brit Mandelo
15. BritMandelo
@L. P. Huntington

I actually hate the fade to black for that same reason, usually--I feel cheated. There are authors who do it well, though, and I hardly notice. (On the straight-sex front, Carrie Vaughn's books are like that. They always cut away but it feels appropriate.)


See, the difference is that most people while sleeping or eating breakfast aren't emotionally or physically rendering themselves vulnerable to another person, dealing with psychological issues and connecting with another person on a deep an irrevocable level. Sex is not the same as other real-life boring things because it has so much weight to it psychologically. Most of the sex scenes I like in books, I like because they are not just titillating--they deal with, even subtextually, character interaction and development. That's just not the same as having a bowl of cereal.


As @aedifica said: it's not about gay sex, it's about queer sex--trans, gay, lesbian, gender-queer, all of that. It's the inclusive term. In my case, I prefer the words because the only label that fits me is "queer," or perhaps the awkward "omnisexual."

@Lane Haygood

I think Butcher does a good job, too.


Agreed, thoroughly. When I use the word queer I'm usually referring to everything that it CAN refer to, including gender-queer straight sexuality.


I sometimes wish I could make myself stop reading Hamilton. It's my dirty, dirty, awful guilty pleasure. I just have to know how it ends; I've been reading those books since I was thirteen.

@everyone else--Thanks for the good words!
Leigh Butler
16. leighdb
I would say that in general I'm comfortable with any level of sex scene in a novel as long as it's consistent with and relevant to the rest of the story. If it belongs there, it's good; if it doesn't, not.

I've read novels where detailed and explicit sex scenes were entirely appropriate and I loved their presence, and there are others I've read where the the sex scenes were nothing but gratuitous porn, and I hated them (and the book) as a result.

It's a distinction that's really hard to explicate, but is definitely there: As Justice Potter Stewart once famously said, I can't define it, but I know it when I see it.
isserley always
17. isserley
Great post. I like the levels idea, and for preference I'm probably a metaphor over anatomical girl myself, but I think it's just a dynamics thing. If your action and dialogue is raw and full-on, then a graphic sex scene is, generally, going to feel right. When the dialogue is intentionally antiquated and elegant and the action more ballet than brute force, the language required for intensely erotic description isn't going to work. Gay, straight or otherwise.

Earlier this year, although not intentionally in sync, I read The Steel Remains by Richard K Morgan (mentioned above) and Nights of Villjamur by Mark Charan Newton - both fantasy books I really enjoyed that feature badass war heroes who also happen to be gay. In terms of the sex scenes, although very different, both felt organic and believable within the context of their worlds and I think that's the key. It doesn't need to be graphic to be convincing, and I'm not averse to the fade to black if it's executed elegantly. It just needs to be true to the characters and style of the book overall, and in both these cases I felt the authors were honest in their approach.
18. N.Mamatas
Personally, I think avant-garde disrespectful shock value sex is the best.

Oh wait, in BOOKS...? Uhm, I'll have to think about it some more. Is there a reading list I can check out?
Rikka Cordin
19. Rikka
Sex in literature is always a complex issue. Sometimes I want sex in a good book for the characters' sake (man, so-and-so really needs to just get laid ALREADY) and sometimes for my own personal enjoyment of a writer's style. When it's unnecessary, implausible or straight up bad, it can ruin a book, which is disappointing on so many levels. However I must point out that anyone who's ever dabbled in writing erotica knows... that stuff is DIFFICULT. Trying to write sexy literature with a plot and point can be quite frustrating. (teehee) Which is part of the reason I must applaud someone like Jacqueline Carey for her skillz.

I must also point out that some authors simply suck at writing sex and probably shouldn't do it. Ever. XD

I read a lot of YA fiction (I do not have to justify this!) and I'm pretty accustomed to the 'level 1' because that's how a lot of YA authors deal with 'sex'. Characters that are romantically interested in each other to the point where even 13 yos are going, c'mon, they'd be touching each other by now! will kiss and cuddle and fade-to-black, leaving the reader to make certain assumptions.

What I can't stand about said fade-to-black moments is when authors do that and then never have characters refer back to the 'incident' directly. People talk about sex with their friends, their families, most especially (hopefully) their partners. It is utterly unrealistic to tell us that those characters aren't going to brag, ask advice, make jokes at each other, show more physical affection in public, &c. Some authors come through, others don't but I like to think that if there's a place to get teenagers thinking about sex in a healthy way, literature is it. So when authors don't take advantage of the power they have in that situation to either portray healthy, normal relationships or, if it makes goodstory, fucked up and twisted relationships and then the consequences of such, they're missing out on great opportunities.

Also, I think I need to read this Steel Remains book.... o.O
Alex Brown
20. AlexBrown
I hadn't thought about the different types of sex scenes before, but I find it very interesting that I (a straight female woman) tend to brush over the heterosexual sex (it rarely makes it up to a 2 on your scale), but my m/m sex is a very hard 4, no pun intended. I haven't written any f/f sex scenes, though I do have lesbian characters. Seems like I've been reading too much yaoi lately...

Personally, I guess I'd rather see the more vivid sex if it's appropriate, but not if the author is trying to be shocking. Same with violence. And it's challenging to do a 4 without veering too much into porn. If it fits the characters you should write what works for them, not what you want to attract attention or stimulate.

BenPatient @ 6: I like to think of like the difference between Black and African American. There are far more of us blacks in the world than there are us African Americans. African Americans are descended from slaves brought to America from the African continent while blacks can live anywhere as long as they are African or of African descent. In other words, Obama is black but not African American. So, like queer to gay, one term is more inclusive but there's still a lot of overlap. And personal preference. I prefer to be called black (even though my ancestors were slaves) and my aunt calls herself African American.
Brook Freeman
21. longstrider
For me which level of detail for sex feels appropriate to the book depends on the level of detail for other things in the book. If you spend lots of words on characters cloths, food, etc generally don't skip anything, fading to black would just seem wrong. On the flip side if you gloss lots of stuff, the reading isn't entirely sure what the characters look like, certainly doesn't know what they are wearing or what they had for breakfast that day and suddenly there's a lv 4 sex scene, that would be wrong too. I'm making no judgment here about the gender of the individuals involved in the sex act.
Chuk Goodin
22. Chuk
Any of the four levels of sex is all right with me as long as there's not too much of it. I gave up on the Laurell K. Hamilton a while back -- I read one of them that would have been about 50 pages if you skipped the sex scenes.
Also going into A Companion to Wolves, I didn't expect so much sex and it was a bit too much for me. (Not like throw the book at the wall too much, just enough that if there's a sequel with similar proportions of sex:plot I probably won't pick it up.)
I'm a straight male and I probably do have less tolerance for books with sex that's not something I'm into, too. (The Steel Remains was fine, though. Maybe it just felt more relevant to the story? The stuff in ACtW was fairly relevant, too, though, but I remember it feeling like too much.) Maybe it was a clash in tone...epic-ish fantasy seems like the wrong place for explicit sex.
Brit Mandelo
23. BritMandelo

As for ActW, I suspect the discomfort is because of the situation of the sex, not the sex. It was for me. The scenes tread somewhere between consensual and not, which is supposed to make the reader uncomfortable--less to do with body parts and more to do with the "sex for duty because it has to be done whether you like it or not." I thought they handled that thin line well without being overly tawdry or angsty about it, but still making it uncomfortable.
24. XtremeCaffeine
I like how it was handled in The Vesuvius Club...

"He was cute, so I buggered him. What did you expect?"

Also quite enjoyed the lone sex scene in New Model Army, where it was able to be hot and sexual, but also about relationship and the people involved...
Rikka Cordin
25. Rikka
@Milo1313 re: yaoi

You and me both, babe. You and me both XD
[da ve]
26. slickhop
Great post, love the level system.

I think the best, for me, is usually a bit of lvl 3 and a bit of lvl 4. I think of Nicola Griffith as doing this sort of writing with searing, aching precision.

@4: Re: Storm Constantine. The Wraethru books are all very sex-as-metaphor, but I think it stands okay within the world she created. Her later book, say, the Grigori trilogy, demonstrate she can write sex more concretely, so I think we can agree it was on purpose. I can see how it could feel like a failing in an otherwise pretty radical series.

@18: hehe.

As for Laurell K. Hamilton ... if they were going to be this porn-y from the get go I wouldn't read them. They started off with such a good mix, and now it seems like there's no reason to introduce a new character unless Anita can get in their pants or have the most unfeminist girl drama with. Boring.
27. welovetea
Brit, thanks for this great post! I've been dealing with this as a straight writer of a gay protagonist. To me, it comes down to making the scene work for the characters. The less I stereotype a character, the easier it is for me to create an authentic sex scene no matter the level of explicitness.

The point here is, if we focus on the act ITSELF instead of the PEOPLE, we lose our opportunity to create something truly memorable. A single gesture that may mean nothing outside the story can be incredibly intimate and a complete turn-on within it. Let's be creative! ;)
28. RachelAKA
Wow, nothing stirs up conversation like sex on a Friday night.

@19 "...if there's a place to get teenagers thinking about sex in a healthy way, literature is it." Right on, Rikka.

The fade-to-black, or "almost 2" feels right for most YA fantasy. Kids that want more read adult novels, anyway, or watch cable. Maybe it's good to know YA won't "go there"? Whenever I've taken it "all the way" in my YA fantasy novels, it's like, "Man, I'm 46, should I really enjoy writing a scene of two teenagers knockin' boots?"(and does anybody even say that, anymore?). Maybe I'm just a prude. But I also think YA writers, in particular, should have a sense of responsibility to their young readers, to not write for shock value or titillation or to get on a banned book list- fun as all that might be- and, conversely, to not overly self-censor, too afraid to let a story be meaningful. Good YA should explore emotional intimacy, not mechanics.

Thanks too, Rikka, for your observation that young people talk about their "incidents". I've probably missed some good chances for my characters to interact and grow "after the act". Appropriate to their culture, some of them aren't very open about sex, sexuality, or their feelings, hetero or queer- More's the challenge. But it gives those scenes more resonance, I suppose, especially when a character is struggling with sexual identity in a fearful social setting.

All that said (*whew!*), reading YA need not be justified. When it's good, it's the best- All natural, no fillers, additives, or fluff (no innuendo intended). How many of us remember a "life changing" book that gave us what we needed, when we were most receptive? Pity to those stuck with vivid memories of time-wasting crap they probably shouldn't have read in the first place.
Wesley Parish
29. Aladdin_Sane
I'm tempted to think it's a bit like editing/interpreting scores, being a trombonist, flautist and violinist - do I really want to be told every position, every fingering, everything? Am I allowed to interpret or not? Is the composer/writer a tyrant or a friend?

That being said, I did write a story with a couple of love scenes, in which I used fade-to-black. The reason was the character was quite a private person, and would not have gone into details anyway (Not forgetting, that he is at that moment too traumatized by the news of his mother's death to go into too much detail.):

Ieghan was there before me.

"Tyeari, Tyeari, Tyeari. Whatever happened to you?"

He washed my hand and picked the glass out of it. A medicine cabinet provided him with a bandage.

"My mother died. Poison, probably Narena."

I spoke like an automaton. A computer couldn't've been more emotionless than me then.

I broke down again.

He clasped me close.

"Let me spend tonight with you, Tyeari. In the morning you'll feel better, and you can talk about it then."

I mumbled yes, though we hadn't spent the night together since he had married Kenarant. She was a bit possessive. And women don't like their men spending too much time with other men. Particularly this blood-brother bond.

But they are perfectly happy to exploit it once their husband dies, and they are free to claim their rights from the surviving blood-brother. The wife of the surviving blood-brother has no say in that, and I suppose it kept the city together in the past, but, but ...

Rhoda would kill me, if she ever realized this. Her father is an anthropologist, but she never took that much notice of it.

But the world was crumbling around me. And Rhoda wasn't with me. I took the comfort available to me.

No, I never took much attention of what happened to the party after Ieghan shepherded me upstairs and into my suite of rooms. And what happened to my uncle - well, I was too upset about myself to care.

Ieghan waited until I had calmed down, and laid myself on the bed. Then he went back downstairs and the sounds died away, somewhat. He came back upstairs and slipped into bed with me, and - well, it happens all over the city. I don't need to describe anything.

It was balm to my soul, that precious bit of stability, when you waver on the edge of sleep, your body worn out with love-making, and Rhodzaii Se-Teno lightens the night. Nothing to fear, nothing to worry about, exhaustion pushing and pulling you down that long slope until you give up resisting.
Brit Mandelo
30. BritMandelo

With regard to YA, I actually prefer 2 or 3, though I understand just not being able to write a 4 in that genre. Cory Doctorow's "Little Brother" has an excellently handled sex scene--he never cuts away, and there are some minor details, but because he doesn't fade to black he gets to deal with some of the serious emotional issues of in-the-moment-losing-your-virginity, and from the male point of view. I thought that was one of the best sex scenes I've seen in a YA.

Interestingly, he did get some complaints from parents about it, which baffles me. It's barely detailed and is more about the emotions the main character is feeling during and after, in the cuddle-phase. Fading to black often steals that moment-after, as well, not just the action.
31. TrudyJ65
I think gay sex is handled quite well in Robin Hobb's new "Dragon Keeper" and "Dragon Haven" books, where a gay character and two of his relationships are quite central to the story. I am generally a fan of Level 1 or 2 sex scenes in novels; I don't feel the need for any more detail than that, though I respect the fact that some readers do. If it gets to the point where I feel voyeuristic reading it, I feel icky and start skimming (feel the same way about graphic violence too though).
Ian Gazzotti
32. Atrus
15@BritMandelo But stories are not real life - not even the realistic ones. If, and how, you use sex (or anything, really) in a story should depend exclusively on the impact it has on the story itself and not on its real life value or equivalent; even more, it depends on the single scene, or the single act.

Try to imagine an asexual True Blood; not one where sex has fade to blacks, but one with no sex at all, where no one even *thinks* about having sex. Did you go "Ewww"? Good. That's the feeling I have when I read sex in a book when there is no need for it. ;)

(By the way, you *can* give character interaction and development to a scene about eating cereal, and have a sex scene completely devoid of it. It's our story, we can do *anything*.)
Brit Mandelo
33. BritMandelo

Yes, that was what I was saying in the post--it has to be necessary to the story and do narrative work. It's once you're past the "I need this sex scene" and into "so what do I do?" that I was discussing.

(Actually, I hate True Blood and the unnecessary level of porntastic sex that's sprinkled through it. It's why I stopped watching. The books have sex but not like that, and I was a fan of those first, so the show always struck me as HBO trying to out-HBO themselves.)
34. Cat98
This reminds me of a post that Steven Pressfield wrote about Sex Scenes and how, if you use them, they should advance the story.

This is part of the post:

"I once did a rewrite on a porn flick. Before I began, the producer wanted to get together with me, to give me my marching orders and to make sure that I didn’t slow the project down by making avoidable rookie mistakes. We met for breakfast at a coffee shop in Santa Monica. In that meeting, I got two of the best lessons in writing I’ve ever received.

"'Kid, every porno movie is the same: talk, talk, screw, screw. That’s why they’re so lousy. That’s not good story-telling. Here’s what I want from you: when you get to a sex scene, don’t let the story come to a screeching halt while we watch two people diddling each other.'

"Wow, I thought, that’s pretty smart.

"'Make the screwing scene advance the story,' the producer said. 'Wherever the story stands when the actors start banging each other, I want it to have moved to the next level by the time they finish.'

"In other words, he said, if it’s a private eye and his gorgeous client, by the time they finish, their relationship has to have advanced—she confesses something, he reveals some secret, whatever. The story has 'turned' and mounted to a higher level.

"I confess I had gone into this breakfast expecting the worst—and even condescending in my mind to what I imagined was some pretty low-level entertainment. Now the scales fell from my eyes. My employer had become a mentor. Immediately I grasped that the don’t-stop-the-story principle could be applied to other, more mainstream genres."
35. marilynsue
I recently finished "Amnesty" which might be a little dated, but the sex scenes were somewhat funny as in, sex on a deserted beach on Maui in the middle of the day, with roaring orgasms for both females, and no unpleasant sand in the wrong places. Maybe it belonged in science fiction!
Ian Gazzotti
36. Atrus
@33 And my comment was more on the "to do or not to do" part, so in the end I think we basically agree. :)

I've never read the TB books, so I can't compare the TV series to them, but I think the sexcess is in tune with the camp/over the top feel they gave to the series and not just for titillation (though of course there is that, because HBO).
Noneo Yourbusiness
37. Longtimefan
Dear Brit

This really struck me.

"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."

I know people think that sometimes but it is good to see it out there.

I was working on a play about a relationship that had just ended and I gave up on it because most of the people who read parts of it said they did not like the fact most of the dialouge takes place in bed.

I tried to see their point and change the dialouge to other times in the relationship but it lost some of the impact because the crux of the play was the emotional fragility of being a "gay" man dating a "straight" man.

It is not science fiction but your words have inspired me to work on it again.

I really do appreciate your contributions to this web site.
38. marilynsue
Sorry, I meant to cite "Choices" by Nancy Toder, published in 1980, re: fantasy sex scenes (female).
39. Bruce W Cassidy
I'd like to think that "queer" sex, in respect to Science Fiction, may also involve the alien.

Now the challenge is to find a "how to" book on alien sex!
40. Adrianna Dane
A good post. I believe the only thing I might add in writing any fiction is the psychological/emotional aspects that come into play of the characters are also extremely important be it in a scene of physical intimacy, a battle scene, or any other. When researching, that's important for a writer to understand as well. It's not simply a matter of what parts of anatomy work together in a sex scene, but the emotional aspects as well. Be it hetero or same-sex, human or alien.
Ashe Armstrong
41. AsheSaoirse
My first experience with queer characters was Poppy Z. Brite's addition to the mid to late 90's Crow novels, The Lazarus Heart. It was explicit. It had gay lovers, straight guy bangin a hooker, and transgendered incest. And it was a good story. I was 12 when I first read it and it's stuck with me every since.

And good on ya for putting this article out. I'm (mostly) straight but I've never really seen the big deal in switching up writing. While I haven't done that, this article has inspired me to do so in the near future (once I whittle down some of the stories waiting already). Cheers.
42. Seward
Hear, hear. A lot of my characters are queer in one way or another (up to and including asexual), and it's nice to see that the issue of them getting it on (or not, depending) is important to someone other than me. It bothers me a lot that something as basic as two or more people expressing affection/lust/love/playfulness/etc. can turn people away from a excellent story. Who cares if the characters both have Tab A or Slot B (or Phlange C)? Isn't the point of SFF the chance to revel in imagination and variety?
43. Vulpine
You might check out Mercedes Lackey's "Last Herald Mage" series about Vaniel--a gay Queen's Herald. The book is over 10 years old and very well written, albeit not overtly sexual.
You'd probably like it.
Aquila G
44. Aquila1nz
@39 I'd like to think that "queer" sex, in respect to Science Fiction, may also involve the alien.

I dunno, from where I'm sitting having sex with someone of a different gender feels more like sex with an alien than having sex with someone of the same gender as myself.

Just another viewpoint.

Your comment, while I'm sure well meant, and pertinent to the topic, felt very othering, and I've been debating replying to it all day.
45. P. Host
Question is (also) do you want your readers to identify to your characters. I don't think a male homosexual will be *that* enthralled by the magnificient lesbian love scene. Neither will I by a Wild male trio depiction. The fact that my two wedding witnesses are gay does not imply that i won't shut down a book after begining reading that specific love scene. All bestsellers keep sex to a minimum, and that's for a reason (not that I approve, I personally don't really care, as sex scenes in books and movies and even in puppet shows always bore me out in comparison to the real thing)
Also, the fact that we do it a lot in real life does not mean that we have to write about it a lot. I've (pardon my french) shitted more than twelve thousand times in my life already, and havn't been writing a single line about the amazing process ( and dont tell me this is not as fundamentally essential as sex : if we retain from doing it, we die ;-)

All this with due respect, for this article is a very good read.
46. Jarla Tangh
I've always balked at not including sex as an aspect of character/plot growth and development.

I'm all for level three and four descriptions. That's what I write and I've heard comments from my crit groups that range from my work is porn to there isn't enough clinical detail. I find, sometimes, the comments about the sexual content divide along gender lines.

Fade to Black makes me feel like I'm being treated as a five-year-old. Level two descriptions of queer or straight sex are more preferable than level one. I excuse the asexuality frequently imposed on queer characters in pre-1980 books like Sturgeon's Venus Plus X.

I watched True Blood series happy to see sexuality treated as just another aspect of living. I adore Lafayette's sex scenes especially because it's so rare to see Black gay males on-screen. I know he never enjoyed such notoriety in the books.

And now I'm grateful to read this discussion for all the steamy title suggestions that I can add to my reading list. Woo-Hoo!
47. chris19
My two cents : I prefer fade-to-black. Generally speaking, the explicit sex isn't really nessecary. If you're trying to make a point (be shocking, highlight a specific aspect of the character, whatever), then yeah, a level 4 scene might be nessecary.

But bringing me through the whole process step-by-step just makes me feel like I'm intruding, and if there's no actual need for it, then why bother? 9 times out of 10, fade-to-black will do. The reader assumes that the relevant bits were put in the relevant places, and that a good time was had by all. There's no need to advance it any further than that.
48. Gerd D.
I don't feel comfortable to read sex scenes in general, regardless of orientation.
Though I must admit that the idea of reading explicit male/male sex makes me feel more uncomfortable than most other (non violent) sex scenes.
So, in most cases I prefer the fade-to-black approach, and in those it doesn't matter much what pairing you use long as it deals with consenting adults; call me stupid, but I like my sex to stay a romantic idea rather than detailed action.

I don't actually read gay literature of any colour, not consciously anyway (that's not entirely true, I did read "Desert of the Heart" because I love the movie, but ended up hating it). Not because the sexual orientation of characters matter to me, long as I don't have to read (or skip) overly much of it, but because gay literature holds no niche it seems in mainstream literature.
The books I encounter that are marked as gay literature, seem all to fall to greater or lesser extent in the realms of erotica.
Brit Mandelo
49. BritMandelo
@P. Host

Actually, I'd totally disagree that bestsellers keep the sex low--the Anita Blake series that has come up in other comments doesn't just have a ridiculous amount of sex but kinky, multiple-partner and sometimes queer sex. Stephen King's books frequently have sex in them, too. Sex isn't just something we do a lot, it's something that holds extreme emotional and psychological sway in our lives. It's a way we interact with other people, on a deeper level than simple conversation.

Also, I don't think that a character needs to be a carbon copy of the reader for them to identify with them--that goes back to my point about the fact that sex scenes aren't there solely to titillate but to do narrative work. I don't even think the purpose of a story is always to make the reader identify with the characters--it's to tell a story. I frequently don't identify with character I otherwise love because I would probably need psychiatric help if I did.

@Gerd D

"Not because the sexual orientation of characters matter to me, long as I don't have to read (or skip) overly much of it,"

I think it would be wise to look at that sentence and think about it--if the orientation of a character is something you'd rather not have to read much of or something you'd rather skip, then it does bother you, and it does matter to you. That's a distancing statement, like saying "I don't see color but I feel uncomfortable about being around black men."
50. P. Host

>>Sex isn't just something we do a lot, it's something that holds extreme emotional and psychological sway in our lives

nonono... that's called love ;)
There's nothing more forgettable than sex. And that's the problem (or advantage) with sex in general. It doesn't translate well into feelings.
Being French I should state the opposite, but I'm quite tired of that cliché ;)
I remember the people i loved, not the specific sex i had with them. I know I had some. But I remember their smiles or tears more than their orgasms.

>>Stephen King's books frequently have sex in them, too

As a matter of fact, from my experience, they don't. Not often.
(except in terms of Abuse, preliminary violence, rape evocation,..)
I don't remember of a single sex scene (ie : two characters depicted as having an explicit sexual intercourse out of love or for sheer pleasure) in the whole Dark Tower series, for example. Neither in Duma Key, neither in Under the Dome,...

>> a character needs to be a carbon copy of the reader for them to identify with them

Carbon copy... Strong word.
Now, are dozens of millions of human being on earth, clones of Harry Potter, or is this all sheer marketing & propaganda; or is there something in this story that reaches lots of people's... hearts ?

>> I don't even think the purpose of a story is always to make the reader identify with the characters--it's to *tell a story*

Which also, according to a great many people, happens to be *exactly that* : story's core being characters interacting. The rest being decorum. (Lord of the Rings without Sam doesn't exist).
This, of course, being a theory, is worth shit.

Know what, I'm going to re-read this excellent almost-sexless-novel called "name of the wind", then I'll have sex with my partner to celebrate :)
Brit Mandelo
51. BritMandelo
@P. Host

Yes, when it comes to real life, we're more likely to remember loving people--but in the middle of a story, which isn't real life, sex between two characters (especially for the first time) frequently can be used to do a whole hell of a lot of character-building. It doesn't mean every author does it, or that every story needs it, but a lot of them do. I tend to feel cheated if a story built up the dramatic tension between characters and placed thematic freight on their relationship... Then skips the sex scene, and therefore any narrative work that scene could and should have done.

I swear I remember reading sex scenes in Stephen King books, but even if I cross him off the list, trust me. Most bestsellers have sex in them. (I work in a bookstore. At least four out of the top twenty at any given time are romance novels, usually more.)

As for "Name of the Wind"--I'm betting on some sex in the next book. *g* Once Kvothe and she-who-always-changes-her-name stop dancing around each other.
52. Gerd D.
@BritMandelo: Ahm, that's taking my statement out of context. What I was saying is simply that I generally don't put down books because of their characters orientation, but because I don't like to read overly descriptive sex scenes.
But it's true, if I where inclined to read erotica, or generally sex scenes, sexual orientation would matter to me. I'm shallow that way, I would want to enjoy what I read. :)

In general I fail to see in most novels how the included sex scenes are supposed to advance the characters involved or the story in any way, and therefore I regard them as a waste of space and time.
It's a decorum I simply can't care less about.
53. Leroy F. Berven
Bruce @ 39: ObTiptree: "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side".
54. Anne Lyle
Apologies if I'm gravedigging here, but I was surfing for tips/thoughts about writing sex scenes and had to add my half-groat...

I'm always bemused when folks ask on forums "is there any gay SF?" or "I'm writing gay fantasy - any chance of getting it published?" I think half my bookshelf, from Lynn Flewelling via Ellen Kushner to Melissa Scott, deals with queer characters, mostly gay men. Interesting, though, that it seems to be mostly female writers - and, I suspect, female readers - who gravitate towards the genre. After all, why settle for one hot guy when you can have two at once? It's the female equivalent of those "lesbian" pornos made for men. Srsly.

My own fantasy WiP has characters of every sexual stripe, so to speak, from the mostly straight* male protagonist to the outright gay characters - and most of the sex in the book is of the m/m persuasion. The funny thing is, during early drafts I joked to my writing buddies that no-one in my book was getting any, but during revisions the characters rebelled and upped and had sex anyway *sigh*

I approached their sex scenes the way I do anything else - how much detail does it need in order to move the story forward in an appropriate and entertaining way? Is this a significant emotional encounter requiring some time and detail, a casual shag that only merits a fade-to-black, or somewhere in between? I also ran the entire manuscript past a gay writing buddy, to make sure I wasn't making any faux pas. Apparently I did OK :)

* I say mostly straight - when you're single and skint in Elizabethan London, you'll take what you can get ;)

P.S. Thanks for the warning about "The Steel Remains" - I've been enjoying the first few chapters, but I have to confess I was a bit worried about the escalating violence. Gil can bugger his way across the continent and I'll happily cheer him on, but if there are any explicit Vlad-the-Impaler-style execution scenes (more explicit than the passing references early in the book), I'll have to skip them. I had nightmares after reading the broken-glass torture scene in "The Lies of Locke Lamora" :(
Brit Mandelo
55. BritMandelo
@Anne Lyle

Oh, man--there are some scenes later in "The Steel Remains" that you're going to be skipping, then. They go into graphic detail about the scene that gets referenced a few times early on. (That scene in Lies of Locke Lamora didn't get to me too awfully, but there was stuff in TSR that gave me horrible nightmares.)

On the other hand: never feel bad about commenting on an old post. *g* I try to make sure to respond, even if it's old.
60. wielli

I'm VERY late to the party, having only just now come across your fascinating text. I'm always on the hunt for recs of queer fantasy; most of what you've mentioned I have read or is in my to-be-read pile.

I've recently come across a few examples of this subgenre, most of which I really enjoyed:
The Iskryne books (ACoW, TToM) are wonderful, and I can't wait for the sequel.
Megan Derr, 'Prisoner' and 'Bound', both very good reads, I thought.
Rachel Haimowitz, 'Song of the Fallen' duology
I also like how Martha Wells handles gender and sex (both het and queer) in her Books of the Raksura.
I read Storm Constantine's Wraeththu as an impressionable youth and loved it, even though I may have been a little too young to fully appreciate its complexity.

One book which I think handles queer sex very delicately is Jim Grimsley's 'Kirith Kirin', which I only stumbled across because I read his non-genre work (most notably 'Dream Boy' which is gripping and devastating).

Thanks again for your thoughtful analysis!
61. E.S. Tilton
I've begun to think of writers who use the first two options, 'fade to black' and 'one step further' as prick teases. By that I mean, tease with promises of sex then when the moment finally arrives, nothing. Funny thing, that is also how I used to write. My beta readers taught me not to do that by telling me that I was disapointing the reader. I am guessing that a lot of writers don't realize how disapointing it is when a really descriptive writer skims over something they have been looking forward to for a third of the book. Perhaps this article will help enlighten them.

I'm struggling with whether or not to include gay sex in my storys right now. I have a couple of gay couples in some of the ones I am writing but not sure how ready the world is to see the sex. The question of whether or not I could write it realistically is also huge in my mind. I thought it interesting that you brought that up and wish you had delved more into the pros and cons of doing that.

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