The following post is part of an ongoing series about how sex is used to attract and hold customer interest in authored works of all kinds, and particularly in stories. Previous posts include Sex Tells and The Sex Question.
The Question of Sex
Think for a moment about any type of authored end product: movies, songs, books, web sites, stage plays or musicals, fan fiction or zines, newspaper columns, magazine articles, graffiti, paintings, tweets, doodles, t-shirts, sculpture or anything else that someone creates in order to communicate ideas or feelings. If I asked you to come up with a sexual example from any of those product categories, or from any category I failed to mention, it would probably take you less than ten seconds to recall one from memory or locate one via internet search, and less than a second to imagine one.
Sex is everywhere because sex is part of who we are. It’s not all that we are, of course, though if you get your life experiences from television or other advertising-driven mediums you may find that hard to believe. Still, apart from business motives sex is found in the art and ritual of cultures around the world, from phallic symbols to fertility rites to images and descriptions of sexual acts and relationships. Despite the advent of the internet and world-wide, on-demand, in-home pornography, when it comes to sex there is, truly, nothing new under the sun.
It may seem absurd, then, to wonder about the motives for including sex in authored works, but that’s just what I’m about to do. If sex is a known ingredient in authored products — and I have stipulated that it is — then we are as justified in asking whether that ingredient is being used effectively in the authored works we consume as we are in asking whether a chef’s ingredients have been used effectively in the food we are eating.
The question is not: What is this ingredient? The question is: Why is this known ingredient being used?
The Craft of Sex
For me, questions about sex in authored content are craft questions. I know that’s not true for all writers, or for much of the publishing industry, but I don’t want this basic point to be overlooked. When I write fiction I don’t want to be a bad chef. I don’t want to include ingredients in my work that make your literary meal less enjoyable, or that conflict with other ingredients. Even if we allow that sex is the equivalent of a ubiquitous seasoning (salt), rather than a spice (cayenne, thyme) or raw ingredient (pork, tomato), it’s important to know if that seasoning is correct — even if such judgments are ultimately subjective, as are all matters of taste.
Because the human brain is hard-wired to have an interest in both salt and sex for reasons life-critical to the continuation of our species, we tend to favor these things with our attention. We also tend to seek them out when they’re missing, and generally have a rather high tolerance for them in overabundance — witness the salt content of the average American diet and the ubiquity of sex in American media. For most people, complaining about the ready availability of sex or salt would be like complaining about the ready availability of ice cream or hundred dollar bills. Which is why few people ever ask what sex as an authorial ingredient is doing in a given authored product. Yet from a craft point of view the question still needs to be asked, in the same way a chef asks whether an ingredient is improving or weakening a particular dish. Again: the question is not the validity of the ingredient, but its utility and appropriateness in any given instance.
This post, and others like it on this same subject, are intended to increase your ability to determine whether sex in a given authored product — like the salt in a meal — is working harmoniously with the rest of the work. (By authored products I mean both products consumed by you and products written by you.) Whether the work in question is genre fiction, experimental fiction or literary fiction, it’s not only fair to ask such craft questions, it’s critical. The alternative — an assumption of worth or merit dictated by the most ancient part of our brains — is the antithesis of mastery.
For the purposes of this discussion we’re going to set aside marketing and advertising as authored products, at least for the time being, and focus on fiction. When a chef adds salt to a dish we know why: it makes the dish taste better. With salt the motivation couldn’t be clearer. Unfortunately — and perhaps not surprisingly — the motivation for using sex as an ingredient in any given authored product is considerably murkier, and across the spectrum of all authored products the motivations may not simply vary, but actually be at odds with each other.
As a reminder, here’s how I defined sex in the previous post:
sex = images and descriptions of sex that are
graphic, literal or representative of sexual acts.
Pornographic imagery and text would meet this test. A literary reference or allusion to two people making love would fail this test. Paris Hilton’s Carl’s Jr. commercial meets this test. Paris Hilton’s FILA commercial fails this test.
The idea here is that I’m not just talking about references to sex, but actual descriptions. The kind of descriptions that used to be generally equated with pornography, but which have been rightfully legitimized in literature after hard-won battles against censorship. (For a brief recap of this evolution see the 3:37 mark in the first video in this post by — and interview of — Richard Nash.)
Such descriptions feature detail and specifics about what’s happening sexually, as against some sort of abstracted reference. From a craft point of view such passages might be thought of as the difference between telling about sex and showing sex in fiction. Because it is a basic maxim in storytelling that you should show and not tell, in theory it can only be a good thing that authors — at least in the United States — have a protected creative right to depict (show) sexual scenes. In practice this right has no bearing on authorial effectiveness, any more than the right to add salt to a meal guarantees appropriate seasoning.
Sex and Authorial Intent
To answer the question of whether sex in fiction works in any instance, we need to try to figure out what it’s doing there. It may be critical to the plot, it may be critical to our understanding of a character or characters, it may simply be the kind of unnecessary detail that was Dickens’ genius. What it is not, however, is an accident. If you’re reading an authored product with sex in it, somebody took the time to write those words and we must presume they had a reason for doing so.
Knowing with absolute certainty why anything appears in an authored work is impossible. Even if you had everyone on record who had anything to do with a particular project there’s no guarantee that people would remember things accurately, or even honestly. To avoid such discussions I’m going to assume that anything that ends up in a final authored product is the responsibility of the author(s). Whether we’re talking about the creation of a novel or an album or anything else, many people may offer suggestions and ideas along the way, or contribute in more substantive ways, but at the end of the entire process I’m going to assume that the author(s) are responsible for creating, approving or otherwise editing all contributions into a cohesive whole.
The reason this is important is that no matter what happens behind the scenes, or what other factors may have been involved, at the end of the authoring process — and here I specifically include the commercial authoring process, where corporations dictate terms to individual artists — the credited author is responsible for the content. Any other assumption leads to slippery slopes that I’m not willing to entertain.
So: when you come across sex in an authored work, the author is responsible for its inclusion. But what about motive? Why might a given author (storyteller, songwriter, poet, etc.) choose to include or not include sex in their work? The short answer, in keeping with our salt analogy, is that it’s there to make the story somehow better — maybe better for the author, maybe better for the reader, maybe better for the market into which the story will be sold.
Unlike salt in your food, however, sex in authored works is not actual sex: it’s abstracted sex. It’s also not being added to make a sexual experience better, but rather to make your reading experience better, and that’s a critical distinction. To see this clearly, imagine a literary description of someone salting a meal, and how removed that written passage would be from the reality of a meal served to you with too little or too much salt. Fiction is not reality: it is an artifice, and one wholly created by man. In creating narrative works authors use many techniques to create and sustain suspension of disbelief so that readers can access the narrative in an emotional way. In this sense, regardless of the specific intent any author has in adding sex to a story, sex — like all other aspects of a work of fiction — is subservient to a greater cause.
As an aspect of craft, adding sex to a story is the logical equivalent of writing a passage about the salting of a stew. That it is not the functional, psychological or social equivalent speaks to the power of sex in attracting and holding our intention, and to the necessity of redoubling our authorial efforts to make sure we are using it in a way that furthers our goals.
The X and Y Axes of Sex
There are two basic types of authorial motivation for including sex (or anything else) in an authored work: creative motives and business motives. If it occurs to you that these two motive types are not mutually exclusive, I agree. In fact, rather than seeing them as distinct groups I think you should view them as the ends of a shared continuum.
At one end we have the pure creative motive, devoid of any concern but for the work itself. This is art for art’s sake, with no expectation of approbation or compensation in any form. At the other end we have the pure business motive in which the only concern is sales. Here nothing is added to an authored product that does not further the goal of selling that product.
In the middle of the continuum we have various proportions of creative and business motives, and it is in the middle that we find the great majority of all authored products. Proportioning these motives in any given instance may be next to impossible, but as I’ll show in subsequent posts, I believe the internet, and in particular the legitimizing of self-publishing that is inherent in the internet, makes it at least possible to entertain the question in a way that was not been possible before.
If we think of this creative/business continuum as the X axis of sex in authored products, the Y axis is defined by the current social context. (I’m sure someone could come up with an awesome graphic for this, but I’m not that someone.) For example, when I was growing up sex was caught in a time warp. The three broadcast television stations all had Standards & Practices offices that were charged with keeping shows clean, ostensibly so that consumers wouldn’t be offended — though the reason for fearing offense was not a moral concern. It was, rather, the universal corporate fear that moral outrage in a segment of the audience might translate into lost revenue.
The end result was that television painted a generally white-bread portrait of American culture while there were riots in the streets about the Vietnam War, riots in the streets about the Civil Rights Movement, riots in the streets about the Women’s Liberation Movement, riots in the streets about the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and generational riots in the streets and homes and bedrooms of America as a result of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. Clearly censorship was being practiced as a business model in television at that time, and from the point of view of sales-first corporations I don’t think anyone should be surprised by that fact. (Or by the fact that the eventual and continual loosening of network broadcasting standards and practices has been driven in large part by concerns about revenue being lost to bawdier cable and internet channels.)
Because TV made use of the public airwaves, trouble with grandstanding members of Congress was only a raunchy punchline away. Other mediums were freer to experiment with content in part because they had no direct government oversight, in part because they were less controlled by corporations, and in part because they had already established a right to artistic expression that was protected by the Constitution. Movies had their own history of Standards & Practices, but the walls were starting to come down by then, in part as a result of the collective trauma of the HUAC hearings. Music, at the heart of everything in the counterculture 60’s and 70’s, broke loose sexually in a big way on the gyrating hips of Elvis Presley and the blues-based chords of the Delta south. And books were earning almost complete artistic freedom in the courts — although sex was not being written and published as routinely in mainstream markets as it is today.
The point here is not to be exhaustive or authoritative about a moment in time, but to show how any moment in time, and each medium in that moment, affects the authorial choices that might be made on the creative/business continuum. Where someone might have been seen as an artistic pioneer in the mid-60’s for writing scenes that depicted sex, that same text and that same author might be considered tame today. Similarly, what sold sexually thirty years ago may now be considered passe.
The Current Sex Climate
As you’re probably aware, sex is in pretty much everything today — meaning all stories, all genres, all authored products. But it obviously didn’t use to be this way. When I was reading gobs of stories in the early-to-mid-80’s, most of what I was reading — both classic works and new fiction — had little or no graphic sex in it. There were a few books I remember that seemed to be ushering in the literary world we now live in, including The Loo Sanction (the sequel to The Eiger Sanction) — a book I recall (unfavorably) for its embrace of psycho-sexual content and violence against women. In the main, however, the fiction I read then was little different in terms of explicit sexuality than the fiction that was written twenty, thirty, even fifty years before.
At some point, however, the status quo clearly changed. Sex was not common, then suddenly it was everywhere. During the transition I had two friends comment independently that they had given up on their favorite genres (sci-fi and mysteries) because of the sudden ubiquity of what they regarded as gratuitous sex, but it wasn’t only genre fiction changed. At some point writing good literary fiction meant writing in physical, intellectual and psychological detail about your character’s sexual lives — to the point that if you weren’t doing it you weren’t taken seriously as a writer.
As to why these changes took place, I don’t have the answer. I think the answer is knowable, and maybe someone else has already done the requisite research, but there are some obvious suspicions. As with other mediums it’s likely that sex wasn’t included in the majority of fiction because of some sort of censorship — most likely of the businesses-protecting-profits-and-avoiding-legal-costs kind. After laws against explicit content were challenged and defeated in court, publishers had less exposure to legal costs and reprisals. After sexually-explicit content began to sell they also had a profit motive to go with this new-found legal immunity, and my guess is that these factors were simply an overwhelming one-two punch in favor of sex in authored products.
Like all movements in the arts — e.g. Impressionism or Expressionism — the right to include sex in a literary work expanded the palette available to authors, and I think that’s a good thing. The problem is that not all creative dams are the same. When the dam holding back Impressionism was broken the world didn’t become hypnotized by biological responses that are hard-wired in the human brain. Cubism didn’t cause anyone to fantasize about ______ their ______. Since time began, however, sex has pretty much dominated the market in terms of show-stopping, traffic-stopping, logic-stopping subject matter, meaning adding it to the storytelling palette was bound to have considerable impact.
So what has the net effect of this new freedom been? Well, most of the classic works of fiction that have stood the test of time do not have any graphic sex in them, yet they don’t seem to have aged badly now that sex is freely written and published in new works. I don’t hear anyone saying, “Wow, I can’t believe how bad storytelling was before we had the right to talk about genitals, fluids and friction.” Similarly, my own readings of classic works in a number of genres suggests both that sex is not currently a requirement of literary merit, and that the commonplace inclusion of sex in literary works has not increased the number of great works being created.
In short, whatever sex (as defined above) is doing in fiction, it doesn’t generally seem to be making fiction better. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot to consider and a lot to sort out. It’s not only the answers that aren’t easy, it’s the questions, too. So let’s start with an easy one.
Sex and Authorial Motive
Starting at the creative end of the X-axis, and moving to the business end, what reasons might an author have for deciding to add (or not add) explicit sex to a work of fiction?
- Authorial vision
- Authorial interest
Some people are interested in fishing, some people are interested in parties, some people are interested in sex. If that’s what you’re into, chances are it’s going to show up in your storytelling.
- Narrative intent
Following the maxim that one should show and not tell, any number of authorial choices — point of view, plot, scene and character — might logically compel the inclusion of explicit sex in order to tell a given story. To omit sex in some cases might leave an unintended question in the mind of the reader, or omit information critical to understanding the story.
Here an author may include sex not for reasons of personal interest or craft, but because sex is part of the human experience. From this authorial perspective ignoring the sexual lives of one’s characters would be tantamount to self-censorship.
- Authorial disinterest:
Some people have little or no interest in sex, or, in talking about or writing about sex. It boors them. Or it seems a pale imitation. Whatever. For some writers, sex is simply not an interesting subject, just as some writers are not interested in fishing or parties.
- Craft concerns
For all the reasons that sex might be right for a story, sex may also be wrong for a story’s point of view, plot, or characters.
- Authorial Inexperience
Another maxim in writing is that you should write what you know. While all authors invariably fake experiences from time to time, faking experiences that are either common or complex is generally a bad idea. Some authors, and particularly young authors, may omit explicit sex from their stories because they don’t know enough about it to write about it well.
- Audience expectation
- Genre conventions
The most obvious genre to embrace explicit sex would be erotica. I have no familiarity with erotica and no interest in trying to define the difference between erotica and pornography, but I think it’s probably safe to say that fans of erotica want sex in their stories.
Rather than make a moral argument here I’ll simply note that children and young adults have very little life experience with sex. As a writer you can describe sex in minute detail, but a younger audience simply cannot relate to the physiological or psychological complexities of what you’re detailing.
- Sex sells
Even if the author has no interest in sex, and gets no enjoyment (of any kind) from writing about it, some authors may slap sex scenes in their works in order to attract demand from readers and publishers.
- Sex doesn’t sell
Some markets may not want sex in their stories. I don’t know anything about the Christian market or the Islamic market or any other religious market, but it wouldn’t surprise me if overt sexuality was not particularly profitable — except, perhaps when attributed to faithless characters who are suitably punished for their sins.
- Contractual requirements
Authors of original works or works for hire may be offered a deal contingent on the inclusion of sex in the end product. If the author includes the required sexual content, as well as meeting other requirements of the contract, the deal goes through.
Some publishers and editors may find sexual content objectionable — either on moral or business grounds — and may use their position to compel authors to remove or alter that content.
This represents what the author wants, both from the act of writing and from the completed story. Some authors may have no concern for their audience, others may intend their work as a communication to others, but in any case the author’s artistic objectives are dominant.
- Reasons for including sex:
- Reasons for excluding sex:
Here we’re concerned not with market demand, but with what an author believes readers will want from a particular story. Call such expectations conventions, or imagine a world in which books are only available on loan from libraries (at not cost to readers), and the distinction between writing for audience expectations and writing to sell in a market should be clear. It should also be noted that deciding to meet such expectations is no less an artistic commitment than deciding to ignore them.
- Reasons for including sex:
- Reasons for excluding sex:
Here we’re concerned with the author who treats writing as a sales process. It is still the author who is in control creatively, but in this case the author willingly shapes narrative choices in order to improve sales.
- Reasons for including sex:
- Reasons for excluding sex:
Here the author is of no concern. The people calling the shots are publishers or editors or corporate administrators whose only aim is the manufacture of products that they can sell to existing and developing markets.
- Reasons for including sex:
- Reasons for excluding sex:
Whether this list is exhaustive or not, it at least provides a framework for discussing the individual motives that authors have for including explicit sex in their works, and for placing those motives in context on both the X and Y axes (as described above). The goal is to make concrete what is often overlooked: that the inclusion of sex in a story is an authorial craft choice like any other, and that it should be treated as such.
In the posts to follow on this subject I will use the above framework to explore these various authorial motivations. In doing so I hope to offer some useful observations about how the addition of sex to authored products relates to the craft of storytelling, and how it relates to choices you may be faced with in your life as a storyteller.
— Mark Barrett
Richard Nash says
What a fascinating perspective, thanks Mark! Lordie, I wish more folks could emulate your calm discourse on the topic…
Thanks for the note. You and others may or may not agree with some of the downstream arguments I’ll be making, but we can’t have those conversations if we don’t limit the discussion to questions of craft. Subject matter of any kind can overwhelm the conversation about a story, and all the more so when the subject matter is seductive or hot-button.