Let’s talk about sex

I’m writing a mystery/crime fiction novel. It’s full of secrets and lies and deceit and conflict, and a good dose of humour. It’s about a private investigator going undercover to try to find out who killed two activists, and why someone framed a dead junkie for their murders. It turns out the novel includes sex scenes, and I’m developing a whole new level of appreciation for romance writing all of a sudden because of that.

Sure I’m a Feminist,
Whitney Museum of American Art

Despite the fact the novel has a character who is a sex worker, I didn’t intend to include any sex scenes, it’s a crime novel after all, but my MC and a secondary character had other ideas…and it happened.

Writing those scenes made me more nervous than writing any others. Excuse the pun, but is that performance anxiety? Sex is a messy, clumsy, three-dimensional business. One minute you’re chatting over a great curry and the next there’s an entanglement of sweaty body parts. It’s not easy to bring to life with black ink on a page. To little information and its confusing, too much is tipping into pornography…besides people I know might read it.

The Golden Penis,
Prague Castle

The Bad Sex in Fiction Awards lingers like a shadow over my keyboard whilst I edit. Do I hint at a bit of foreplay and fade to black, or follow them into the bedroom and record what goes on in there? I don’t want to sound like a gynecologist, just include enough to get readers imaginations going and leave them to it. I question every word, knowing that crass metaphors and clumsy euphemisms seem to be what gets authors on that Awards list.

My other lingering doubt is the question of whether sex belongs in crime fiction at all, which some seem to have strong feelings about. Desire and conflict are infused in the genre, and as Kurt Vonnegut said, characters must want something ‘even if it’s only a glass of water.’ Lets face it, intimate relationships are ripe for conflict and what greater desire than the sexual urge? Crime novels revolve around a death, so bringing in its intimate cousin is not so strange, is it? Even crime crusaders have sex sometimes, look at James Bond.

Sex Life of Plants,
Flecker Botanical Gardens, Queensland

Sex and death are intimately connected, and not only because they are topics you’re not supposed to talk about in polite company. For some species in the animal kingdom death is the cost of sex. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and French social theorist Michel Foucault argued that the two topics are fused, that humans have a life instinct, and a death instinct, and that the death instinct pervades sexual activity. The French even frame orgasms as la petite mort, translated to the little death, likening the sensation of post orgasm to death.

If the scenes are important for the development of the character or the plot, and add tension, say because it’s someone the MC shouldn’t be getting intimate with, then they a have a purpose. Just make it low risk and avoid too many metaphors and similes I say.

What are your views on sex scenes in fiction? Do you have favourite or most disliked examples?

Main image: Street Art, San Francisco USA

3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about sex

  1. I generally prefer subtle rather than graphic descriptions of sex in novels. I find that graphic descriptions of sex often feel out of context with the rest of the novel.

    The best examples of this are from two books which I’ve read recently. In Kjell Ola Dahl’s The Courier there’s a small scene which I felt was out of step with an otherwise excellent novel. In Johana Gustawsson’s Block 46 there is a scene which is more graphic than the one in Dahl’s but is more in context with the novel and therefore wasn’t jarring to me as a reader.

    Liked by 1 person

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