“Warning: we are going to be adulting, and if this is an issue, this might not be your Friday morning panel.”
With these words, moderator Maryelizabeth Yturralde opened the Sex and Science Fiction panel at San Diego Comic-Con, which featured writers Wesley Chu, Gini Koch, and Nick Cole, comics artist and illustrator Camilla d’Errico, and cartoonist and comics writer/artist Marisa Acocella Marchetto. As is often the case with panels on such dense, baggage-laden themes, it felt as if the discussion touched on a wide range of subjects within the larger subject of sex and sexuality, but lacked the time to really delve into any one of them. Still, the panel covered a number of interesting questions, and even some controversy.
Yturralde started off by asking the panelists how they use sex and sexuality, and their reasons for it. Chu talked about how often sex is used in a very narrow manner—either as masculine power over women, or as a part of a “they’re meant for each other” romance. He felt that increasingly, fiction has a lot more variations in how it can be used, citing Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire, which portrays women with strong sexual agency. Koch noted that sexuality is part of being human, along with romance and humor, and for a character to be fully formed, they need a sexual life, which might be involve them being gay, straight, bi, or even completely uninterested—you learn a lot about a character, she said, by how they act in bed. d’Errico talked about the problem of how nudity is often immediately linked to sexuality, and treated with the assumption that it can only be sexual, and Marchetto talked about her forthcoming graphic novel Ann Tenna, which she describes as a romance with science fiction as part of the story, using sex as an exploration of connecting with the higher self.
Cole offered a contrarian viewpoint, saying that “Sex ruins everything.” He argued that a lot of writing now has “an agenda of sex” that distracts from the story. As an example, he pointed out that Han Solo wasn’t thinking about “nailing Princess Leia” while he was navigating the asteroid field—he was thinking about not getting killed. Other panelists conceded the point, with Chu noting that if Han Solo was thinking about sex while piloting through the asteroids, “he’s got problems.” Koch observed that afterward, he might be thinking about how much he’d just impressed Leia. Cole asked again if you’re supposed to stop the adventure to dwell on the sex and relationships, and Koch countered with the example of Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the quiet moments developing Indy and Marion’s relationship provided breathing space amidst the action.
d’Errico added that while she values the character development that happens when two characters fall in love, she doesn’t like it when romance is shoehorned into a story, or when a woman is used “just to give the male lead some action.” Marchetto said that she’d like to see an opposite case, with men “shoehorned” in for the benefit of female characters, to which Yturralde suggested reading Joanna Russ.
Yturralde asked how the panelists used sex within the context of science fiction to create something different that speaks to a common experience of sex. Marchetto talked about sexual experiences as a powerful exchange of energy between two characters, coming from a place of love. Koch talked about how when she had a female character have sex halfway through her book, “I couldn’t believe how many people said ‘oh, she’s really a slut!'” She argued again for sex and romance as part of action stories, citing Terminator as another example, and added that giving female characters sexual agency also gives them more power. Chu added that American culture puts sex on a pedestal, and that while love is powerful, sex is not necessarily romance, and sex can mean different things to different characters.
Cole offered another contrarian viewpoint, saying that just on this panel alone, there were radically different ideas about the sacredness or lack thereof in sex. The danger, he argued, is that in treating sex casually, you’re likely to profane what’s sacred for someone else. Koch plainly did not agree that this was a valid argument against using sex in fiction, stating that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and that your work would suffer if you tried to be all things to all people.
A discussion about “something that you pull out of the toolbox to say ‘this is sexy'” continued in Koch’s vein, with d’Errico talking about an artwork she had done showing a girl with a hole in her chest that was deemed “too sexual” by a father with a young daughter. “Puritanical” American attitudes came in for a bit of a beating, with d’Errico remembering how, as a teenager, she was surprised to see the cover of Vogue Italy—an actual fashion magazine—with a naked woman on the cover.
At this point the audience questions began; the first questioner (dressed rather magnificently as one of the War Boys from Mad Max: Fury Road) asked how you portray the normalization of different sexual attitudes in stories set in the future. Both Koch and Chu talked about how you use description and the character’s focus to make these points without derailing the story; Koch’s example was a character seeing a naked person walking down the street and only noting that they had interesting piercings, and Chu’s was of character who looks at a naked woman sitting in a chair and really only notices the chair. Cole noted that you should always be aware that sex is tied to commercialism and commercialism is determined by the zeitgeist: “You always have a group of people who objectify another group and that’s what they use to sell soap.”
A digression ensued, as Cole expressed concern that current objectification of women was taking away from the feminist movement of the 70s. Marchetto agreed, talking about how female TV anchors these days have increasing displays of cleavage, and wondered how a woman talking about the news was supposed to happen when “there are people who probably want to fuck you right now.” d’Errico talked about game platforms where viewers could watch other people play video games, and how the top players were all women who couldn’t play, but wore low-cut tops. After further discussion of objectification—during which Cole brought up the “Jeff Goldblum maneuver…be funny and you can get any girl ever”—Chu offered a slightly more positive take with the example of Sense8, pointing out while some things may be getting worse, the general move in fiction is towards greater openness on sexual matters.
The Q&A got back on track with a question about deciding how you write a sex scene—”Playboy or Hustler.” Marchetto said that it depends on the character and where you want to take the story, and Koch talked about how it depends on the words you use, such as your choice of slang words for orgasm and how you spell them. She noted that Harlequin has a lot of resources, as well as Romance Writers of America. “Those are the people who write this every day, so you get a lot of good advice.”
The next question asked about whether any of the writers had received any pushback on sex scenes, or pressure to remove or add them. The general consensus was that generally, your editor only asks you to remove a scene or trim it if it doesn’t add to the story. Koch talked about an editor telling her to remove a scene on the grounds that an injured character would not be in any kind of mood for sex, and Marchetto talked about using sex scenes as comedy. d’Errico said the only problem she had ever gotten was over an image of a girl with an object in her mouth—it was not meant to be sexual, but in France, any image of a girl with something in her mouth is deemed too much so.
The final question concerned the use of bad or awkward sex, such as the birth control discussion or the STD discussion. Cole didn’t believe there was a place for such things in escapist fiction, arguing that writers are trying to entertain and not “kill the vibe” for the sake of realism—except, possibly, in the case of dystopian fiction where you want to show consequences. Koch said that it depends on the tone of your book; those discussions will add realism if you want. Chu closed the discussion with pointing out that every word in a story should be about the character or plot, and if you’re going to include anything like this, it has to have a purpose besides “being real.”