by Lee Cross
So, what makes a good sex scene?
First let me explain what I mean when I say, ‘good’, I’m not talking about scenes in books that… well… that excite your interest? or… Well.
I’m not against scenes that… get you motivated (???) but for me they belong in a niche – one I’d suggest not entirely suited for consumption on public transport.
A good sex scene for me, is one that is absolutely intrinsic to the plot. Most commonly in stories of personal discovery sex, or perhaps the sexualisation of a character, can play a big part in that journey. Melvin Burgess’s Doing It pops (…I originally typed ‘springs’…I don’t want to risk a third attempt…) to mind. That book couldn’t exist without it’s sexual content, which is why I’d say its falls on the good side of the line, even though I didn’t enjoy the book and couldn’t honestly recommend it to anyone over the age of fourteen.
I’ve found readers like stories of discovery so much because we are learning right along with the characters on the page. When a sex scene is done well in this format we’re experiencing another mind’s perspective of thoughts and feelings so personal that they are not ordinarily discussed, which is a powerful thing and makes equally intoxicating reading.
A couple of quick non-teen and spoiler-free examples of effective sexual content, which I’d suggest highlight my point and I could recommend are; Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, and the treatment of the prostitutes in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
Oh yes… and then there is… Fifty Shades of Grey.
Disclaimer alert – I’ve not read E.L James. That being said, I don’t have a problem with her book selling many millions of copies. Well, aside from the obvious – the puntastic nature of the title and the fact that one day I might to have to beat someone about the head with it, after they suggest allusions to Oscar Wilde.
Now I’ve got that out in the open, let me explain briefly why I think 50 Shades of Grey represents the good side of sex in literature. Simply, it’s because that while the book focuses on and is centered around sex (…BDSM, as I understand it…) that’s not what the book is actually about.
How can I know this without reading it? Well, if it was just “Erotic Romance” (…as the omniscient Wiki calls it – personally I’d go with ‘softcore pornography’…) there’s no way it would have transcended from something most commonly read as a guilty pleasure, to the mainstreams consciousness and further still, to being a novel that real readers know the name of. Those jumps just don’t happen unless a book has its basics right; things like the makings of a plot and characters that can be related to – even by people who have never been tied to a bed or… well, whatever else goes on…
When a novel is about nothing more than graphic details and explicit words…well it’s a novel about nothing.
Sexual content is a tool, a dangerous one certainly but one I think that can make writing better, you just have to really trust the person that held the pen.
(While I’m here, on the record in a sense, I do intend to read E.L James. I’m just waiting for a week free and clear of the necessity of public transport.)