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Author Resource Round Table > How graphic is too graphic? Sex scenes in NON-EROTIC popular fiction

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message 1: by Benjamin (last edited Apr 25, 2014 09:00AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments BE ADVISED: Thread my contain spoilers to certain books. Apparently a lot of people have read good books on this website.

When I first gave this novel to beta readers after it had been through the hands of an editor, one or two commented on my sex scene being "highly explicit." I had my first paid writing gigs in erotica (oystersandchocolate.com) and I'm wondering, with the success of such authors as E.L. James and Sylvia Day, if there is really a line when it comes to writing sex into mainstream, NON-EROTIC fiction.

Some of the more popular and controversial books of the late 20th Century have broached sexuality in a way that progressed the plots of novels without becoming gouche or central to the story line. I wonder how other authors feel about this.


message 2: by E.G. (new)

E.G. Manetti (thornraven) It's an interesting topic. I consider my novels scifi/fantasy/romance. However, the reviews are coming back with an assessment of scifi/fantasy/erotica. Sometimes the erotica first. Yes, I admit there are some steamy passages, but they serve a purpose both in terms of establishing the relationships among the Main Characters and in terms of the customs and attitudes of my imagined society. I've considered toning it down in subsequent volumes, but that seems dishonest.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments See, I think as long as you keep from using certain words and your descriptions are tactful, you can have steamy scenes that are pretty PG if you get down to what is actually on the page. It's like the chainsaw scene in Scarface. You don't actually see anything. You just see blood hit Tony Montana in the face and hear the sounds of the saw and the guy screaming.


message 4: by E.G. (new)

E.G. Manetti (thornraven) Benjamin wrote: "See, I think as long as you keep from using certain words and your descriptions are tactful, you can have steamy scenes that are pretty PG if you get down to what is actually on the page. It's like..."

Good analogy, but regarding Scarface, let me just say 'yuck.' I can read and watch almost any genre but gruesome.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments John Gardner, when he was writing James Bond, had some rather good but tactful sex scenes. I read them when I was 13 or 14 and didn't feel at all uncomfortable about the language he used or as if I were reading something dirty.


message 6: by D.C. (new)

D.C. | 327 comments I think it depends on genre and tone as well. What might be completely over the top in a cozy mystery or a traditional Regency could be absolutely fine in suspense or dark fantasy.

Personally, I would classify E.L. James as erotica, or at least as erotic romance.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments E.G. wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "See, I think as long as you keep from using certain words and your descriptions are tactful, you can have steamy scenes that are pretty PG if you get down to what is actually on th..."

Well, sex and violence have often been paired together in discussion of what is obscene. George Carlin talked about replacing the word "Kill" in movies with the word "F*ck" as a way of making it sound more ridiculous.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments D.C. wrote: "I think it depends on genre and tone as well. What might be completely over the top in a cozy mystery or a traditional Regency could be absolutely fine in suspense or dark fantasy.

Personally, I ..."


E.L. James is erotica. But the fact that she sold so well in the mainstream makes me wonder if mainstream readers can accept similar sex scenes in mainstream fiction. I liked E.L. James but I was getting tired of the sex being 3/4s of the book before I finished book 2.


message 9: by D.C. (new)

D.C. | 327 comments There's always an appetite for sex, LOL! Sometimes it will catch the popular imagination. I haven't tried E.L. James personally. I'm not really put off by erotic content, but it wasn't resonating for me, for a number of reasons.

I enjoyed, and highly recommend Anne Rice's A.N. Roquelare novels. However, while they did well and got a fair amount of critical acclaim, they were not nearly as widely successful. Of course, what is?


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Loved the Sleeping Beauty Books :)


message 11: by dbbks3 (new)

dbbks3 | 4 comments What is and is not erotica does change with the times. "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" was a scandal in its time, the 1950's. Read it now and nothing would seem hot at all. I enjoy reading books with erotic scenes which may or may not contribute to the progression of the plot. I do not enjoy erotic without plot or characters that I like or find intriguing. I do not read rape, incest or abuse of children as the central theme. A mystery to be solved about those crimes, maybe.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Deanna wrote: "What is and is not erotica does change with the times. "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" was a scandal in its time, the 1950's. Read it now and nothing would seem hot at all. I enjoy reading bo..."

Does Lolita count?


message 13: by J C (new)

J C Mitchinson (JCMitchinson) For me, if it fits in with the plot and the tone of the book then it doesn't really matter. If you get the feeling that the author is being self-indulgent and getting off on their scenes, and including them for that reason, that always jerks me off out of the story ;-) Everything in a story should have a point.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Glo wrote: "For me, if it fits in with the plot and the tone of the book then it doesn't really matter. If you get the feeling that the author is being self-indulgent and getting off on their scenes, and inclu..."

Agreed. The sex scene in this novel sets up the conflicts at the beginning of the next book (as yet still in progress).

I guess what I'm getting at, is should there be rules about sex in non-erotica? Are their certain things you shouldn't name or reference? Should you do the authorial equivalent of zooming in so close that you're not sure if that's an elbow or a... (!?)


message 15: by Benjamin (last edited Apr 25, 2014 08:21AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "D.C. wrote: "I think it depends on genre and tone as well. What might be completely over the top in a cozy mystery or a traditional Regency could be absolutely fine in suspense or..."

Justine & Juliette and 100 Days of Sodom were pains to get through. I mean, de Sade is only edgy because he uses the most profane and graphic terminology. There's no poetry in it. It's all grotesque.

I much prefer Nabokov or Anaïs Nin.


message 16: by Rhoda (new)

Rhoda D'Ettore (RhodaDEttore) | 73 comments You know, I was kinda wondering this myself. Readers are strange in what they expect. I wrote a historical fiction, and this pregnant woman gets sexually harassed by her boss (1820). She is basically told, "do as i say, cause no one will hire you". And my wording of the rape scene itself was more like, "he took her on the desk, everything about her-- her innocence, virtue, and soul". Two lines was truly the extend. One beta reader called me and said, "I was never expecting you to really go there, and you did. So okay. You went there".

In one scene I have a shocking kill, and someone was shocked I did that. So when it comes to anything, not just sex, I think some people expect more, and others less. People have preconceived notions of where a story is going. Sex itself is a touchy subject only because there are still sexual hang ups in America. Go to Europe and no one would notice the erotica in the book! lol


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Rhoda wrote: "You know, I was kinda wondering this myself. Readers are strange in what they expect. I wrote a historical fiction, and this pregnant woman gets sexually harassed by her boss (1820). She is basi..."

About a shocking kill. The prologue of this book has a brutal senseless murder of a young girl. One reviewer commented on that being "jarring." Oddly, the beta's had not problem with the prologue.


message 18: by Rhoda (new)

Rhoda D'Ettore (RhodaDEttore) | 73 comments See? As a reader, I myself want "jarring" lol. I mean, if the read is boring, or predictable, I am not interested. My mother was the one that was most offended by the one sex scene.. it is romantic, loving, "caressing, running their hands along while lovingly lost in each other's eyes" Then a bayonet comes through the chest of the husband, and blood squirts all over his wife. lol I got some grilling over that one by readers who wanted romance, and got praised by the thriller/mystery/historical type of readers. there is no way to satisfy everyone. ::shrugs::


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Rhoda wrote: "See? As a reader, I myself want "jarring" lol. I mean, if the read is boring, or predictable, I am not interested. My mother was the one that was most offended by the one sex scene.. it is romanti..."

Reminds me of a scene in Richard III. One of my betas talked about the sex scene being "brutal" and another said it was "definitely written by a guy." I kind of found that a little sexist, to be honest. Women can't have or write brutal sex scenes?


message 20: by Benjamin (last edited Apr 25, 2014 09:01AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "D.C. wrote: "I think it depends on genre and tone as well. What might be completely over the top in a cozy mystery or a traditional Regency could be..."

Well, the murder victims in my book are a lesbian couple and the crime is staged as a hate crime. My heroine and leading male both have histories of violence (this is in a future where America had a severe nationalist regime that indoctrinated children with sociopathic tendencies and personality disorders into a sort of "Hitler Youth" program).

So, yeah, they have issues with intimacy and trust and aggression. The fact that they're still in a relationship at the start of the second book is kind of surprising to both of them.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "D.C. wrote: "I think it depends on genre and tone as well. What might be completely over the top in a cozy mystery or..."

One can only hope it is. A few conservative friends think I'm pushing a liberal agenda with this book, but for the most part I'm writing about what it would be like if classes were segregated and conservationism had it's way with the next 50 years.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "Julie wrote: "Benjamin wrote: "D.C. wrote: "I think it depends on genre and tone as well. What might be completely over the top in a cozy mystery or..."

I was almost exclusively a playwright and short story author before this book, so I've been taking my time with constructing my character arcs through the three planned novels and the overall trilogy.


message 23: by dbbks3 (new)

dbbks3 | 4 comments Benjamin wrote: "Deanna wrote: "What is and is not erotica does change with the times. "The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit" was a scandal in its time, the 1950's. Read it now and nothing would seem hot at all. I e..."

Great example


message 24: by Justin (new)

Justin (justinbienvenue) | 2163 comments Interesting. I think a lot of authors feel they may not be writing erotica but since they are writing romance, naturally they put sex into their books. If you have romance it's assumed sex will follow or be incorporated in some manner, now graphic sex? That to me seems like it would have to be considered erotica or be a romance with erotica moments.

I'm not a fan or follower on either genre, just my two cents.


message 25: by dbbks3 (new)

dbbks3 | 4 comments Rhoda wrote: "You know, I was kinda wondering this myself. Readers are strange in what they expect. I wrote a historical fiction, and this pregnant woman gets sexually harassed by her boss (1820). She is basi..."

Yes that Puritan influence still has a hold on us. I used to watch "The Highlander" series and much preferred the French version.
As to rape in a book. If it is part of a bigger plot, I have no problem. I was recently asked to review a book where the whole book was a teacher and a young teenage male. There was no plot. Only the abuse of the child and her misuse of her position. Writing was terrible. That is a book I can do without.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Justin wrote: "Interesting. I think a lot of authors feel they may not be writing erotica but since they are writing romance, naturally they put sex into their books. If you have romance it's assumed sex will fol..."

Well, I've read erotica and written it. I would not say that I'm a fan of it. I much prefer science fiction, mystery, and satire. But I think sex and death are destined to happen in any plot. One is about the affirmation of life and the other is about it's frailty and inevitable end.

I have problems with books that aren't about finding or losing someone and trying to make the event work for the main character. It's about integration and change in the main character's life, after all.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Deanna wrote: "Rhoda wrote: "You know, I was kinda wondering this myself. Readers are strange in what they expect. I wrote a historical fiction, and this pregnant woman gets sexually harassed by her boss (1820)..."

Have you read "Notes on A Scandal?" Same premise, but much more to it than just the "abuse."


message 28: by Stan (new)

Stan Morris (morriss003) | 362 comments The reason for the scene is what's important. I wrote a scene where a girl is describing a graphic rape to a minister. She is trying to explain why he needs to be more of a minister and less of a preacher.


message 29: by Humberto (new)

Humberto Contreras | 66 comments In the future, if progress is plotted with any kind of curve and even if dystopic, most probably the following will happen;
Health will improve and people will feel younger. Their sexual urge will stay at the level of our twenties. In consequence sex will be prevalent. Like in colleges.

This means that any science fiction story must have more sex than a contemporary one.

Now, that is a lot of sex and partying and very little time to study.

SF, if it projects this future is hot. Too much sex.

When I write my books, I have to take this into consideration.

To me, it's obvious.


message 30: by Stan (new)

Stan Morris (morriss003) | 362 comments Humberto wrote: "In the future, if progress is plotted with any kind of curve and even if dystopic, most probably the following will happen;
Health will improve and people will feel younger. Their sexual urge will ..."


Okay. Just curious, how many kids to you have?


message 31: by Humberto (new)

Humberto Contreras | 66 comments 4


message 32: by Humberto (new)

Humberto Contreras | 66 comments By the way Stan. Contraceptives will also be better. Since some time ago sex has been independent from # kids.
I have had sex many more than 4 times.

PS. Sex is also not a sin. At least in the future.


message 33: by Stan (new)

Stan Morris (morriss003) | 362 comments Humberto wrote: "By the way Stan. Contraceptives will also be better. Since some time ago sex has been independent from # kids.
I have had sex many more than 4 times.

PS. Sex is also not a sin. At least in the f..."


Four kids, and you think old folks will have more sex. My hat's off to you.


message 34: by Humberto (new)

Humberto Contreras | 66 comments Old folks do it now more than a few years ago. There is that little magical blue pill.


message 35: by Christine (new)

Christine Hayton (ccmhayton) | 324 comments Thought we were talking about books... Explicit sex does not enhance most genres. Implied sexual activity is sexier and shows character and personality. If you just need to wake up your readers - include pictures. Want to read about sex - read Erotica.


message 36: by Angelo (new)

Angelo Falanga (angelojfalanga) | 17 comments Some people are going to be genuinely revolted by what I'm working on now. Others will get it and say that even as it is a tolerably thought out work, it wasn't really necessary to go there. Perhaps people have the right to be concerned about those it will entertain. I'm creating a situation where there is and has never been any concept of violence along with an utter and complete absence of pain. Without these elements an entirely new realm opens up. My hope is that something to contemplate emerges. Until the end of the year when I finish, that's all I can really say about it...


message 37: by Humberto (new)

Humberto Contreras | 66 comments Christine. I was talking about books. Got sidetracked by Stan. Sorry.

Essentially my point is that people will have better health and live longer and younger. I postulate that realistic human futures will see an increase in libido of the people and thus more sexuality and sex.

I see fifty and sixty year old women looking better than ever. Many are actresses. It is logical that the technology will improve and many more people will look young and beautiful. And with better health they will be biologically younger.

I see that as the future. The near future.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments I personally don't find sex dirty if it is done in a way where nobody is a victim and both parties in the scene are consenting adults. "Graphic" means "detailed" while "explicit" means "raunchy." I view it as one might view the distinction between a thriller and a slasher film.


message 39: by Lance (new)

Lance Charnes (lcharnes) | 326 comments I don't object to sex scenes per se in either the real or literary worlds. I do, however, object to sex scenes that stop the action cold, which unfortunately seems to be nearly all the ones I've read. It also has been my experience that the more explicit they are, the longer they go on and the more they disrupt the story. It doesn't seem to be confined to inexperienced authors, either; the nominees for the annual Bad Sex in Literature awards usually include some of the biggest names in the business.

The other problem I've developed with explicit sex scenes in books is that they seem to feature some of the silliest metaphors and similes committed to print, and all too often devolve into instruction manuals ("insert Tab A into Slot B and turn 90 degrees..."), except without the pictures.


message 40: by Tom (last edited Apr 29, 2014 09:53AM) (new)

Tom A. Wright | 33 comments This issue is best described as a matter of personal choice. It reminds me of comments made over Jean M. Auel's sequels to her Clan Of The Cave Bear novels (Earths Children Series.) Many people thought that the sex scenes in the second novel, The Valley Of The Horses, were too graphic and unnecessary. Other people loved the scenes. I personally liked them and believed them to be completely necessary. Brushing past the fairly graphic, but tender love scenes between Ayla and Jondalar would have severely lessened the emotional impact. Ayla had only known sex through violent rape up until that point. It was a huge growth moment for her. And the other, earlier, sex scenes with Jondalar helped paint a picture of culture quite different than those we are used to.

As a science fiction writer, I rarely have a story that needs graphic sex, so I mostly will keep it toned down or hinted at. The one time I had to be graphic, in my novel Broken Ties, the story and character demanded a graphic scene. Tracy, the estranged sister for my main character Diane, is kidnapped and held for ransom. Because Tracy was a reformed junkie and prostitute, I had the difficult task of making my readers care about what happened to her. Early in the story, just after the kidnapping, she is sexually assaulted by some of her kidnappers. If I had glossed over the incident, most readers would have dismissed the effect on her because of her past. By drawing it out, showing details others might avoid, I let the readers see how horrific the rape is for her, and show how heroic Tracy becomes through the ordeal as she not only endures her captivity, but fights in her own way for the safety of her sister. Without the early graphic rape, her later actions and her character development are severely lessened.

So my advice is to do what needs to be done for your character and your story. Some will like it some will not. The best you can do is to write the scene the way YOU want it to be.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Tom wrote: "This issue is best described as a matter of personal choice. It reminds me of comments made over Jean M. Auel's sequels to her Clan Of The Cave Bear novels (Earths Children Series.) Many people t..."

See, I felt that these two characters with their violent pasts needed to have a violent and spontaneous kind of love. I felt that the sex was natural and that the amount of description was tasteful. I don't plan on always including a sex scene in every book, but I felt these characters were more interesting than cutting to the next morning.


message 42: by S. (new)

S. Aksah | 387 comments Oh oh..My short stories came with "Sex" in its title..but nothing graphic in it actually..


message 43: by Roberta (new)

Roberta Pearce (robertapearce) | 38 comments Glo wrote: "For me, if it fits in with the plot and the tone of the book then it doesn't really matter. If you get the feeling that the author is being self-indulgent and getting off on their scenes, and including them for that reason, that always jerks me off out of the story ;-) Everything in a story should have a point."

I think this nails it exactly, Glo. While I also concur with Rhoda's comment [#19] about boring and predictable, even the "jarring" must make sense.

This is a great topic, and you've all provided much fodder for thought. The sex scenes I write are semi-graphic and largely euphemistic, and I've been debating whether I should dial them up or down. Personally, I'm comfortable with their level, and I don't want to change for the sake of a current trend of overt eroticism.


message 44: by Jacqueline (new)

Jacqueline Rhoades (jackierhoades) | 149 comments Benjamin wrote: "D.C. wrote: "I think it depends on genre and tone as well. What might be completely over the top in a cozy mystery or a traditional Regency could be absolutely fine in suspense or dark fantasy.

P..."


Sorry to disagree, but EL James is Erotica light. New York just happened to wake up and realize people were reading it!
I write romance and how much or how little sex (and how explicit) is always difficult. Even in more mainstream genre's I expect it to move the story along, whether it's revealing personalities or plot and it should flow naturally. Too many books give me that insert-sex-scene-here feeling. Then you're selling sex, not story.
Either way, there will be some who want more and some who want less. Write what feels right for your story and forget it.


message 45: by Michael (new)

Michael | 29 comments I've been surprised at some of the scenes Clive Barker has written. But they keep the tone of the book. While they're graphic (and Coldheart Canyon certainly was) I really think such scenes were appropriate for the plot and mood.


message 46: by Steelwhisper (new)

Steelwhisper | 118 comments I don't think there is anything "too graphic" in that respect. I also don't think good fiction of any kind needs to be PG unless aimed at a non-adult audience.


message 47: by Scarlett (new)

Scarlett Finn (scarlettfinn) | 49 comments I want to say thank you for this thread because this is the issue I've struggled with on my latest work.
My concern hasn't been about what's appropriate for the story because I know the sex scenes I've written are important for character development.
Sex appears in all of my other books but the detail isn't as graphic and in some cases the sex is merely implied.
But I don't have a "fan base" who would know what to expect from my novels which is what leads me to the problem.
Though I am fine with the setup in my present novel I worry that readers might see the more graphic nature of the sex scenes coming and go, "oh I'm done" and cast the novel aside without finishing thinking I've bracketed it in the wrong genre.
On the other hand I don't want to suddenly have a lot of sex-happy readers buying my other novels and being disappointed!
Anyway reading through your thoughts has helped me order mine so thank you.


Benjamin Smith (b3n_r_5mith) | 61 comments Scarlett wrote: "I want to say thank you for this thread because this is the issue I've struggled with on my latest work.
My concern hasn't been about what's appropriate for the story because I know the sex scenes ..."


Novelists are just insecure narcissists. It's all awesome-sauce. :)


message 49: by Jacqueline (new)

Jacqueline Rhoades (jackierhoades) | 149 comments Scarlett wrote: "I want to say thank you for this thread because this is the issue I've struggled with on my latest work.
My concern hasn't been about what's appropriate for the story because I know the sex scenes ..."


I wouldn't worry too much about readers mislabeling your books, Scarlett. Much of what's listed as erotica isn't. It's just sexy. If you don't have more than 2-4 scenes, I would say you're fine and that doesn't count implied sex which is a good way to avoid "another sex scene". If the sex is an integral part of the story, most readers won't mind and some simply skim those parts anyway.
Once you develop a fan base, they'll let you know if you go too far or not far enough!


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