Writing Real Sex
Back in February, Canadian novelists Russell Smith and Lynn Coady went head-to-head on CBC's The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers, in a debate over the merits and pitfalls of writing about sex in fiction. I won't go into detail about their discussion - (you can read all about it HERE) - but their debate got me thinking about the "sides within the sides" of this argument, particularly the different approaches within the pro-sex camp.
Mr. Smith, for example, believes that understanding a character's sex life is crucial to understanding that character as a whole. A sex scene offers an intimate glimpse into a character's psyche, and can say something about his or her relationship with others, and the world. Sex can enrich your characters, deepen them, make them real. Make them human.
On the other hand, there are novelists who write explicitly about sex for purposes of exciting the reader. The success of E.L. James' Fifty Shades novels and the popularization of erotic fiction show that there is great public hunger for this sort of sex writing. It is also a fantasy. Impossibly beautiful characters having steamy, satisfying sex -- handcuffs and neck ties or not -- is exciting to readers because it's unrealistic. The emphasis is always on pleasure and glamour, passion and ecstasy. It's too perfect to properly depict the crude, sometimes embarrassing truth about what sex is, or can be.
In real life, sex is messy and awkward and even hilarious. Sometimes we have trouble performing, and sometimes we fake it. We have sex for all kinds of reasons -- because we love someone, sure, but we also do it for spite or revenge; to humiliate someone or to get somewhere socially. We have pity sex, drunken sex, and boring mechanical sex. Plain people and terrible people have sex, sometimes with each other. Sex drives us crazy and can give us diseases. We have sex with strangers, friends, enemies, and even ourselves. The possibilities, as they say, are endless. Human sexuality runs the gamut, so sex writing should too.
I'd much prefer to read a clumsy sex scene between two down-and-out losers in a janitor's closet than another roll in the glistening hay between some strapping beefcake and his impossibly beautiful concubine. But hey, maybe that's just me.