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Sex in Novels - Can We Say Too Much?

Updated on May 28, 2018
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Sara has been a Freelance Writer and Editor since 2007, currently in Cincinnati, OH. With a lifelong dream of writing this is it for her!

Authors Don't Even Know What To Do

While researching this topic I was interested in what authors, also readers, have to say in their articles and posts as well as what recent book reviews are out there from publishers and editors. It is quite clear that this is not only a subjective question, but one that rests on so many different barriers that it cannot simply be asked alone. I definitely appreciate the fact that publishers and editors are much more open today to the content that authors are allowed to place out there for the public, and that readers are allowed to choose for themselves what they wish to read. I definitely consider myself an open-minded and liberal person, yet quite scared of what I may place on the written page considering what my own family members or son may pick up in the bookstore or library and realize that I actually wrote for the entire world to read! That still is my right-brained, conservative, American voice beating furtively inside of me that will not go away. So, I turned to some articles and postings by other authors to see if there is some sort of solution to this subjective question for the correct “answer”, yet still opinion, as to the right amount of sex to place within a novel when writing it.

In America We Used to Ban Books for Foul Language

I know that as a writer myself I am nervous about the creation of my very first book and the various types of scenes it may contain, especially if there may be romantic relationships between characters and the possibility of sex. I know the question of writing a sex scene is one that disturbs the writer’s mind, in how much detail to include in a scene, how many scenes are appropriate within a novel, and so forth and so on. I know that even though I wasn’t born until the year of his death, one of my favorite all-time authors, Henry Miller, lived under a dark cloud of infamy for more than two decades at the beginning of his career due to his bravery in overstepping the boundaries of America’s literary conservation during his era. Because he was willing to go to Paris and face the external culture of Europe and publish overseas, he ended up being banned from America’s bookstores and library shelves for over 20 years with his first novel. I definitely praise his liberation against the conservative voice and willingness to place shady four letter and sexual words on the page that would keep him published outside of his native language for years to begin his writing career. But my only question is… how far has literature in America evolved when today we have bestsellers like Fifty Shades of Grey and Sweet Surrender containing so much more sexual content than Tropic of Cancer did in 1934? Should we still ban or even limit the books that are published for sale today? Should there be any sort of limit to the amount of sexual scenes or content in the novels being published?

Tropic of Cancer Banned for 27 Years

Focus on Writing, Focus on The Book

From what I was able to find in my research it appears that plenty of others also agree that there is no reason to throw scene scenes absently into novels simply to fit within the popularity of the general media or just to rise to the top of the bestseller list. Several references to novels within the articles and postings I was reading recently stated that many of these scenes within books were either too lengthy or detailed, or at times were ill-placed for things like the genre, plot, theme and characterization of the novels. It seems that in the pieces I read there was a general consensus regarding the potential for overdoing it when it comes to the issue of sexuality in literature today in its overall aspects. The authors/readers today who had posted on this topic emphasized the importance of the sex scene being well-written as well as applying to the genre, plot and characterization of the overall story, while helping to build the relationship between the two characters involved. There was agreement in the lack of need to focus simply on the sensuality and physical actions of the scene itself. A couple of discussions arose on the possibility of writing a bad sex scene, which would be one unfitting to the actual book itself, potentially over-lengthy or oozing with erotica or sensual language and details if they were definitely not fitting to the story, characters or type of book being written. It appears from some of the reviews offered within those articles and posts I read that some books have been over-written with extreme sexual content unfitting to their genre and audience simply in order to draw extra attention and potential sales right off the bat. However, writers must remember that those attention pulls will eventually turn negative if they are unfitting to the books they are truly writing and the audiences they are trying to draw, and will be hurtful in the long run.

Some Authors Offer A Few Guidelines

Now, since I have definitely been considering topics for my very own first book and would like to branch out I had thought of what some authors’ tips on this very subjective topic might be. I know that Tessa Bailey, young author of Unfixable, states that there is in fact no correct answer to this question and that everything about a book is always unique, from the plot to the story to the characterization, and that you always have to consider every point when making decisions like where to insert scenes like this. In another article by Bobby Hutchinson commenting on the amount of sex in romance novels, he emphasized that the scene itself be well written in order to develop the relationship between the two characters rather than describe the physical actions themselves. Personally, I found some great quotes and theories from author Sydney Katt regarding both sex in novels and the placement of sex scenes in her own writing. She states first, “…I’m not happy with a book that’s filled with sex when the scenes don’t serve to further the overall plot or an aspect of character development.” Later in her article she states a little more thoroughly in regards to her own work, “That means I can’t just plop a sex scene in via manuscript roulette and hope that it’s not enough to work.” So, in order to make her sex scenes work with her books, Sydney Katt follows a few key tips with the new couples she places in her novels, roughly 300-350 pages long, and I thought these were an interesting set of guidelines to place within an otherwise subjective topic. There tend to be usually three sex scenes for a new couple that happen within one of her novels at three key points in time: the first time, the first meaningful time (i.e. “I love you”), and the break-up or make-up time. I would guess that if it were a novel including a married couple or a long-term couple or something slightly different the guidelines could vary, but it was nice to see some sort of standard slightly set that could be followed for a newbie like me just hitting the road.

I Believe There Are Well Written Books Out There

I know that personally I never had a desire to read anything like Fifty Shades of Grey and its trilogy or anything similar to it, like Sweet Surrender and all of the series that follows with it. For some reason all of those books and the way they are marketed just sounded to me to be pages oozing of erotica and sexual content, splattered about to the public and having gained popularity from their negative attention. Though something does make me wonder what has brought these series to their incredible popularity and profitability, and I hope to take the time to research that factor in the near future

Now, I’m not saying that I am a professional critic or am famous for book reviews; I am just saying that they never drew my attention simply for their sexual content and erotica. I did happen to stumble upon an author named Christine Feehan by chance not too long ago and I read a few of her novels by chance as I came across them while I was looking for something to read, and they did seem to fit some of those guidelines I wrote about earlier, as well as some of my personal standards for looking to maintain a certain self-control when discussing sexual actions within a book. I definitely enjoyed Christine Feehan’s books because of the overall wonderful content including creative characterization and scientific and paranormal activity, and when the sexual scenes came into play they were both romantic and seductive and were well-placed both in the story as well as the character relationships at hand. The entire stories were extremely striking, and some of the first contemporary novels that truly piqued my interest for deep and touching literature. I definitely praise her as an author for that and I hope that someday I can put words together like that for readers myself.


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