Sex in Literature
When I first got into the world of writing at the end of last year, I did so via sex.
No, I didn't sleep with some publishing executive at Barnes and Noble, but like many indie authors I took my first dip into self publishing by dabbling my toes in the ever-lucrative pool of Erotica.
What started as a fun attempt to make a few bucks from a handful of naughty short stories quickly turned into something of a passion for me, and over the past months I've been focused on understanding exactly what makes the erotic so compelling in literature as opposed to other mediums.
I'm sure most of us have had to sit through an uncomfortable sex scene in a movie theatre, cringed when too much detail about their bedroom habits, or giggled at the cheesy bow-chicka-wow-wow porn soundtracks of the eighties. There are plenty of examples of sex being silly, sordid, or just downright embarrassing in popular culture. So what makes sex in literature so different?a friend goes into a little
Well, in my opinion, literature has the unique power to reflect the most intimate and personal qualities of our most taboo pastime in a way few other mediums are able to grasp. There are no strangers sitting in the movie theatre with you, no actors fudging up their sensual lines (though authors aren't exempt from this either, admittedly!), and no exterior distractions to take you out of the experience. Books can plumb the depths of emotion and sensation in a way that often escapes other forms of art, and in my mind the intimate relationship between the reader and the page makes literature the perfect medium for tackling sex.
But what's the point of cramming pages and pages worth of sizzling prose into your story? There's an important distinction to make here, and it's one I've seen overlooked time and time again by casual critics of erotica: Sex that exists purely to titilate and sex that exists to facilitate the story being told are two very different things. One erotica novel can leave you hot and flustered, but no richer as a person, while another might leave you deeply moved, with a renewed understanding of relationships, sex, people, and the whole range of emotions we attribute to the erotic.
So the point of sex in literature, just like the point of anything in a well crafted story, is to evoke emotion. In particular: arousal.
Just as a comedy scene exists to make you laugh, or an action scene to make you excited, a good sex scene triggers an equally powerful emotional response that a skilled author will use effectively to engage the reader with what's happening on the page. This is just as true for the cheap and cheerful side of erotica as it is for the deep and meaningful end of the spectrum. As an author of both the cheapest and smuttiest of single-chapter sex scenes, as well as much longer and (hopefully!) more engaging sexual stories, I've learned that erotica is a complex beast, with just as much potential to be amazing (and terrible) as any other medium out there.
But what I love in particular about sex is the ability it has to convey information alongside all of its exciting naughtiness. It's a way to show characters at both their most passionate and their most vulnerable. The way a husband looks at his wife in these moments, the way an authoritarian lets go of all their control in private, or heck, even the difference between a character who rips off their clothes and one who folds them neatly on the dresser; all of these things are ripe with potential for exploring character, emotion, and relationships.
It's a shame that most literature that concerns itself with sex is often classified under the same umbrella, because sex has so much potential to be used to powerful effect beyond simple titilation. Many of my favourite (non-erotic) books are what first interested me in writing sex scenes through their masterful use of them within a broader story, and I often find myself wishing that many other novels would give us more than just a fade-to-black when the hero and heroine close the bedroom door behind them.
However, having said that, I understand that not everyone's as dirty-minded as I am! As academic as you can get about the idea of sex in literature, the vast majority of it wouldn't exist (or be anywhere near as popular) if it wasn't ultimately all about evoking arousal. Some people like to dismiss erotica because of this, but I think the distinction isn't a whole lot different than that of any other niche genre.
Ultimately, sex is there because people enjoy reading about sex. Erotic scenes can cater to different kinks, be artistic, inartistic, move a story forward, or reveal information about characters; but their fundamental purpose is to serve the same basic emotional need that any other genre of entertainment exists to supplement.
Sometimes we're in the mood for drama, sometimes we're in the mood for sex.
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