Sex and Violence

I’m reading a new book series where the main character commits a lot of violent acts (usually with knives) and also has a lot of consensual sex. I have no problem reading about either of these, but I’ve noticed that, in these books, the violent acts are described in a fair amount of detail, while the sex is skimmed over or faded away from. It made me think about these two quotes:

If a man is pictured chopping off a woman’s breast, it only gets a R rating, but if, God forbid, a man is pictured kissing a woman’s breast, it gets an X rating. Why is violence more acceptable than tenderness?

Sally Struthers

I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a penis entering a vagina, and I get letters about it and people swearing off. To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness. Ultimately, in the history of [the] world, penises entering vaginas have given a lot of people a lot of pleasure; axes entering skulls, well, not so much.

George RR Martin

I wonder what the author of these books is thinking as she writes the various scenes. Is she afraid to describe sex acts, even in slight detail, lest her book be categorized as erotica? Does she just like writing violence more? Is she ashamed of sex in general? I have no idea, but I am curious.

When I write my genre fiction, I try not to shy away from sex too much, although I do understand some editors don’t like it. I remember submitting a story to a major professional sci-fi magazine and the editor said she would buy the story and publish it, but only if I removed the oral sex scene. It wasn’t even explicit; it was just something that happened. I removed the scene, she published the story, and we went on with our lives, but it did change the tenor of the piece a little bit.

And yet, when I write my genre fiction, I too tend to treat the sex with a much lighter touch than I do the violence. Hell, in a fantasy novel I’m writing, one of the main characters is literally a prostitute and another is a high-class escort — both of whom use sex in their daily lives and careers. Why then do I feel ashamed when my sex scenes get too explicit? I’m certainly not ashamed of the fact that sex workers exist (and that I’m friends with a few), and when it comes to actual sex, my partners can tell you I’m not ashamed there either. Am I afraid of being considered vulgar? Or am I afraid a publisher won’t publish the book if I leave the sex in?

One last memory: as a teenager I joined the Science Fiction Book Club, because it was a way to get my hands on sci-fi, fantasy, and horror that was more comprehensive than just what was sold at my local bookstores or carried by my local libraries. I remember going through the monthly catalogs and paying extra attention to any book whose description carried the warning: Contains explicit sex. I’ll admit that I did buy a few books just for that reason… but most of them were pretty good outside of the sex. One of my favorites was The Last Ship by William Brinkley — a post-apocalyptic naval epic that had two semi-explicit sex scenes toward the end. I might have bought it because teenage me wanted to read about sex, but I read the entire book because it was darn good.

I wouldn’t say this new book series I’m reading — the one with the violence but the fade-outs on the sex — is “darn good”, but I’m enjoying it. I’m rating each book with four stars so far. I’m sure I’d still be rating it four stars even if the author described the sex scenes in more detail. But instead she’s treating them almost like a comedic element, something to be laughed at.

I like to laugh during sex, sure, but at sex? Not so much.

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