Thursday, January 17, 2008

Graphic sex

by Michael Dymmoch

I saw my first porn film way before I’d ever considered film as anything but entertainment. My brother loaned me an 8 mm movie because I’d never seen one, and he wanted to “educate” me. (Actually he was just showing off how much more he knew about porn.) It was entertaining until the novelty wore off—about two minutes in. Without plot, characterization, or suspense, it only had the improbable anatomies of its “actors” to hold my attention. And any appreciation of those was interrupted by observations like “she must get terrible backaches carrying all that weight up front.”

Since then, I’ve learned a little about movies, story and entertainment. And discovered some of the incredible variety in the ways Nature’s come up with for getting male and female together, as well as some of the other ingenious uses She’s devised for “sexual” behavior. For me, graphic sex, like baseball, is more fun to do than watch or read about. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well written sex scene (or a well written any kind of scene), and I have stopped to reread a few that were particularly good. But that’s my point. I stopped. Unless the scene has a point beyond proving the writer can write it, it doesn’t add to the novel. It stops the reading dead while the reader appreciates the sex.

My second sex-in-“lit”- education lesson came from a copy of Playgirl Magazine. Curiosity compelled me to take it home. After I’d studied the pictures, I checked out the text—material I suppose was intended to be erotic. I nearly fell off the couch laughing. It was just too graphic. As much of a turn-on as watching cattle breed. And the idea that the behavior described would turn on an observer was hilarious.

When any animals get it on, Nature provides hormones and pheromones to facilitate the process. Really graphic sexual material (or for many humans, romantic descriptions) may stir the gonads and stimulate the hormones, but great description can also turn off those whose tastes differ.

I recall graphic sex scenes from several mystery novels—don’t remember the plots or how the stories came out—but I remember that the sex stood out. (Having said that, I’ll admit to putting fairly graphic foreplay in my upcoming novel, M.I.A. --April, St Martin’s Press--which I hope doesn’t stop the action. ) Mary Stewart’s romances don’t involve graphic sex, but they all left me wishing I had some. (And I’m not the only one—they were best sellers.) There was nudity in the Goodman’s last performance of Lear, but I didn’t walk out of the theater feeling sexually aroused. That performance—the rage, the fear, the love and loss and conflict—left me feeling like I’d been flattened by a bus.

I can envision stories in which graphic descriptions of kinky or unusual sex might delineate character, heighten suspense, or constitute an important plot element. (In Basic Instinct, graphic sex was the plot.) But now that it’s been done so well, how do you top it? (The sequel tanked.) One man’s turn on may be gross or hysterically funny to someone else. And if it’s really good, it stops the action.

That’s my take. What’s yours?


guyot said...


JD Rhoades said...

Sex is good.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Well, hey. It's a real issue and a question writers cope with all the time. Not that I have any answer to what is good characterization or how much sex in books is too much. Mostly I chicken out. But I applaud Michael for asking the question. In a weird way, the amount of gore is easier to decide.

Anonymous said...

If it doesn't further the plot in a significant way, it seems formulaic to me. I think most writers feel that they are obligated to include sex to keep the reader interested.

Sara Paretsky said...

Sex is good, food is good, but not always all kinds for all people in all circumstances. After barriers to sex, nudity, shared beds came down in film & fiction in the sixties and seventies, we seemed to rush to think every drop of sweat or semen should be shown or at least described. Does that really enhance the movie or the novel?
The most dreaded award in literature is the London Literary Review's "Bad SEx in Fiction" award. You can read some of the m ore embarrassing effusions at They certainly make me think more than twice ab out describing sex in detail

Sean Chercover said...

Graphic sex is hard to do well. Wait, lemme have a re-write on that...

Graphic sex is hard to write well. Wait, one more...

Graphic sex is difficult to write well.

But I have no objection to reading detailed sex scenes, if well-written. Obviously, sex is one of the most intimately revealing things that people do. Not the fact that we have sex, but the way we have sex, and our reaction to that, say a hell of a lot about us.

To tell us that a couple of characters had sex, without showing us how they had sex is fine, but that represents a decision not to explore something that would tell us a lot about who those characters are, deep down (double entendre intended).

You could just say the sex was tender or angry or lustful or shy or whatever, but that's definitely "telling instead of showing" and is far weaker.

Having said all that, I go back to "graphic sex is difficult to write well". A bad sex scene is far worse than no sex scene, I think, for the reasons Michael talked about. If the reader starts giggling at your prose, you're dead (unless you meant to write a really funny sex scene, but that's a horse of a different feather).

So writing graphic sex is a high-risk, high-reward proposition. I don't "draw the curtain" on sex scenes, but neither do I write description that reads like a gynecological textbook or a spicy romance novel with Fabio on the cover.

Anonymous said that graphic sex seems formulaic if it doesn't further the plot in a significant way. But there's also the plot of the protagonist's development to consider. If it reveals character in a way that is significant to that development, then I don't think it has to lead to catching the bad guy.

Michael Dymmoch said...

jd, I agree. (Though sex is frequently not good in fiction.)

Barb, anonymous, Sara an Sean, you got my point. Thank you.