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Inside the Blogosphere: SF&F’s Bedroom Antics

In SF&F, should sex be included in the narrative or not? Should there be different standards for its inclusion in young adult or adult literature? What should those standards be? What are your personal standards and why?

SQT @ Fantasy and Sci-fi Lovin’ Blog: I think I would have answered this question much differently 10 years ago. I’m not sure if it’s because I was more prudish back then… Okay, I’m sure I was more prudish back then.

I think my attitudes are changing a bit because I get so many paranormal romances to review. This is a hugely successful genre right now and sex is integral to most of these series. I’m not talking the basic paranormal fiction, I’m talking about the ones that have “romance” in the title. Romances have been big business for a long time. They’re easy to make fun of because they seem silly and unrealistic to people who don’t like them. But I suppose the over-the-top sex in romance novels is part of the overall fantasy. Most of the books have the “average” woman meets the most gorgeous guy who inexplicably falls in love with the secretary/waitress/teacher
heroine–fabulous sex ensues, followed by a marriage proposal. Paranormal romances take that premise and go a bit further with it. J.R. Ward has fused the vampire novel with romance and actually come up with a pretty good series of books. It’s kind of silly at times, but I think she actually came up with a good vampire myth– and the books are selling like hotcakes. I actually gave the series to my husband’s 80-year-old grandmother and she loves them.

But sex and mainstream fantasy/sci-fi walks a finer line, though that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have it’s place. The Cassandra Kresnov series by Joel Shepherd comes to mind when I think of a good use of sex in a sci-fi novel. Kresnov is a genetically engineered person– completely man made– with a sex drive. Kresnov is sexual without any normal human modesty and I thought the way Shepherd wrote the character was interesting without being gratuitous. Her lack of inhibitions regarding sex is part of what makes her different and adds to the discomfort regular humans have in her presence. And at the same time the fact that she has any kind of sexuality at all makes it harder to dismiss her as having no human feelings. All in all I thought the issue added to the characterization.

On the other hand, I’m not a fan of rape scenes. Too often rape is kind of an obvious, and easy way to make a character suffer. I rarely read a rape scene and continue on with a book. It’s kind of a personal pet peeve of mine. But if the rape is merely suggested or mentioned as being part of a character’s backstory, I don’t mind as much. I understand that rape is something that happens and it’s a real horror that people face. But I don’t think a graphic rape scene needs to be part of the story.

Sex and YA fiction? I’m kind of on the fence. I have kids and I really only want them reading age-appropriate books. But I have no idea when to say sex is an age appropriate topic. I do think that by the time kids are in their mid-teens they’re already flirting with sex, if not more, in their day-to-day life. That said, I don’t think YA fiction is the place to be in-your-face with sexual content. I think addressing the fact that a character is becoming aware of their sexuality is okay– it’s normal and expected. Getting too explicit would probably just put the book in the adult section anyway.

Daya @ The Road Not Taken: Definitely sex should be included in narratives. It adds realism. A peppering of daring, urgency, jealousy, flirtation, sexual tension–they are all real human emotions that add flavor to a book and its characters. From extremes of chastity to incest to rape, each action gives us a glimpse of a character and his/her motivation. If an author chooses not to include sex, that’s a personal choice, and there are plenty of great books that exemplify such choices.

On the other hand, there are certain books that wouldn’t be the same without some inclusion of sex–Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy, for example. Paksenarrion (Elizabeth Moon) wouldn’t have the same climactic rise from sheepfarmer’s daughter to paladin if she hadn’t survived a rape. Jaime and Cersei Lannister (George R.R. Martin) wouldn’t have nearly the same dynamic without their incestuous relationship. Overall, sex is not a must in SF&F, but when used properly, adds greatly to a story.

However, I do believe that we should leave out the whips/chains/handcuffs in young adult literature. Kids are bombarded enough as it is by media (the first few seconds of this commercial come to mind). As to drawing the line at some exact point, I can’t be sure. What was risque twenty years ago is mainstream today. Most young adult literature I have read seem to skirt the issue fairly well. As far as my personal standards (I’m talking big here as I’m not a parent), I think that parents are the ultimate filter–they should be reading (or at least reviewing) their child’s chosen reading material and giving it the ok. Granted, my parents never did that for me, and I grew up unscathed (for the most part), but it’s also about being involved..and that’s another blog post for another day…

Heather @ The Galaxy Express: Sex, and sexual tension, should serve the story. Whether intimate physical relations between characters exist in the context of a romance or the author includes them for a separate purpose, they work best if the storytelling is organic. This goes for all genres, not just SF&F.

When I encounter sex scenes in SF&F stories, I often analyze it using the following questions:

Does the sex move the story forward?
Does the sex arise naturally from the choices and personalities of the characters?
When the sex scene happens, does it reveal new information about the characters?
Does the sex lead to other kinds of tension?

Much also depends on the scope and focus of the story. Naturally, with science fiction romance, authors devote more space to the developing relationship of the hero and heroine. But not all of these stories drown in graphic sex scenes. Some, like Pauline Baird Jones’ THE KEY, don’t have any. With other stories, the sexual attraction and dynamics between the characters are intertwined with the plot, and rightly so. But if a story is steeped largely in political elements, the sex might stick out like a sore…thumb.

Regardless, authors write according to their muses. I’m wondering if the question should be re-framed, i.e., not should sex be included but what is an effective way of using it to the story’s advantage? My personal standards have to do with how well the sex fits the tale. As long as authors make the right call for the story and integrate the sex scenes well, I’ll enjoy anything from sweet to steamy.

My main concern regarding sex/sexual tension in young adult literature is that it not be exploitive of young readers. I trust that most authors will not include sex in YA fiction for the sheer sake of titillation or gratuitousness. I trust that most people responsible for marketing books are aware that there is a line–albeit an ever-shifting one depending on the times–that shouldn’t be crossed.

YA literature deals with all kinds of sexual issues, and should certainly continue to do so. However, I might question the inclusion of sex scenes in YA SF&F more than I would, say, contemporary stories. YA SF&F covers many coming of age tales, but since it’s also about exploring the strange and fantastic, I’d argue that there’s not much more room for actual sex scenes. Of course, there will always be exceptions.

Generally, publishers and authors will “police” themselves regarding mature content in YA fiction, but realistically, some youth somewhere will expose themselves or be exposed to material that might be inappropriate vis a vis his/her developmental stage, whether that be a YA or adult book. The one standard most people can probably agree about is common sense.

SMD @ World in the Satin Bag: I think the problem with this question is it is assuming that erotica cannot fit within the SF/F genre. But it does, which makes answering this rather difficult. My biggest issue with sex scenes is that they are often unrealistic. This is why I don’t read erotica. No matter how hard an erotica author tries to write a good story with sex, it always comes off as amateur. Some SF/F writers do manage to write good sex scenes, but I always prefer scenes that don’t try to paint the picture for me.

There’s something unnatural about sex in written form. If a writer can do the scene really well, without making me roll my eyes, then I’m okay with it, but the writers who can do this are far and few between. But, because I don’t feel I have the authority to tell people what they can and cannot have in their fiction, I’m not going to sit here and say sex scenes absolutely must not be in SF/F novels.

I think something adults have trouble grasping is that young adults are a lot more intelligent and grown up that we would like to think. True, they don’t know everything, even though they think they do, and they’re still growing and maturing, but at the same time they’re not stupid. I don’t know why it is that adults develop this assumption that anyone under the age of 18 is automatically incapable of deciding anything for themselves. So, when it comes to young adult books, we’re dealing with novels meant for teenagers. Why shouldn’t sex, in some form or another, be a part of those books? Sex is a part of growing up, even if you’re not partaking. It’s built into the fabric of teenage life. It’s everywhere they turn and a lot of them are dealing with new urges and feelings. Books that have them as their audience should very well deal with the issues they deal with, because otherwise you’d end up with an unrealistic book. Teenage boys get urges. That’s just the way it is. Some of them go through a crisis of gender identity, or they experiment, etc. Adults don’t like it, but a lot of us adults did things our parents didn’t like when we were kids.

I don’t agree with imposing standards upon literature in any fashion, aside from the standards of writing that publishers are looking for. If publishers don’t want a young adult novel that deals exclusively with sex or drugs, then they don’t have to publish it, but I don’t believe in the public sitting down and agreeing that those subjects must be banned in literature for young adults. Adults have to realize that teenagers are going to read adult books too. So, if that’s the case, should we apply the same narrow-minded standards some want on young adult books to adult books, since there’s no way to keep young adults from those books in the first place? That seems utterly idiotic at best. True, there are limits to what is acceptable, but I don’t think the limit is what some have proposed. I’m very against the idea of book banning. I understand the removal of pornography or the Anarchist’s Cookbook, but if a book has been banned for reasons that really aren’t valid, I’m against it. Philip Pullman’s books have been banned because religious people got all uppity that kids would read them and turn into atheists. Catcher in the Rye was banned for its language, which today is rather mild. The list goes on of books that were banned for stupid reasons. So, I don’t think we should ban books because of sexual content, unless that sexual content falls outside of the literary scope, i.e. pornography is not literature.

Severian @ Severian’s Fantastic Worlds: Sex should be included in the story if it’s relevant to the narrative. In effect the inclusion of sex should be on the same merits as any other activity that could be described by the author in their work. So for instance if a description of a sex act tells us something about the relationship of two characters or moves the plot forward in some way, then it should be included. If there’s sex for the sake of titillating the reader then that’s a different thing and the story is perhaps on the periphery of soft porn rather than fiction.

I can’t think of many instances where sex actually is relevant unless the story is about the love lives of people – a subject which is not usually dealt with by most SF/F books. However, if its important to the story being told then it should be included. I think one of the difficulties then is how to describe it without being cliched. Sex like other physical activities such as fighting can be difficult for writers to describe well.

The issue of young adult literature is an interesting one. I actually think that this is the age group where readers are going to be more interested in sex and the rites of passage aspect to many of these books should mean that sexual relationships to merit inclusion by the writer. Older, adult readers, assuming they are sexually experienced, are probably going to be less interested in reading about sex than young adult readers, so maybe this should be considered by writers for this age group. I don’t write for a young adult audience so this isn’t something I could pretend to know how to do best, but I can appreciate that there is a bit of a mindfield here to be navigated with the sensitivities or schools, parents etc to take into account. I bet, though, if you asked the readers they would like realistic portrayal of sex to be included – it would probably help them better understand sex, which can only be a good thing.

Mark @ Walker of Worlds: Sex, it’s a part of life for everyone. Should it be included in books? Well, yes – why not? Violence in books can be so much more excessive than the sex scenes I’ve read in recent years, but not too many complain about too much of that. When sex scenes are included it’s pretty difficult not to be to the point and just say what needs to be said, it would be much more annoying to have a scene that implies sex but doesn’t say it, or worse, just cuts out ‘as the door closes’. Most people that read most of the stuff with these scenes are adults, and in adult books there shouldn’t be limitations on what can or cannot be included. If it is relevant to the story, or at least doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb, then I see no harm in them being there. If someone is putting a sex scene in there for the hell of it then that’s down to editing. Authors should have the freedom to write a novel how they visualise it. YA stuff falls under a different umbrella and should be moderated to an extent – but that is down to the authors and editors. It needs to be suitable for the target audience, and I’m sure that if a teenager wants to read something sexy, I doubt they’ll be heading for the fantasy and sci-fi section.

If you would like to participate in our next discussion and you own a blog (authors who blog are welcome too!) that writes SF and Fantasy Reviews, send me an email, or leave a comment. Question suggestions are also welcome.