Here’s an entry guaranteed to get me that sweet, sweet link juice. (That’s a thing, right?) Sex. It’s in the majority of books I’ve read that were written post 1980 where the intended audience is adults. It’s either implied/fade to black sex or as anatomically correct as a surgical dummy. Sex scenes aren’t ubiquitous, but their absence is rare enough among bestsellers that when the deed doesn’t happen, it’s remarked upon – Dan Brown being a bestseller I recall reading specifically about in this regard. Unless you’re reading Christian Fiction, sex is more likely than not to show up in your books.
Why is sex in so many books? Certainly not to sell the books, unless we’re talking about erotica. I don’t think anyone ever picked up a copy of Gone Girl because of the sex scenes, and the lack of sex scenes didn’t stop Dan Brown from dominating the bestseller lists for so long. So why are they in there so often?
I can’t speak to why individual authors include them, but I can make a guess as to why they happen in so many books. Most fictional stories break down to being about people. They can have themes — like what happens when you have a society that is ruled by an oppressive authoritarian government (1984 by George Orwell) — but ultimately, even in heavily thematic books like Orwell’s, the author needs to tell a more personal story in order to bring the reader into their world — one about people.
A story is full of people. To make the people more realistic, they have to have realistic motivations and actions.
One of the strongest drives in humankind is the drive to procreate; it’s often listed as one of the base needs of all creatures and Maslow specifically called it out in his hierarchy of human needs. It’s so important, it’s at the base of the pyramid. But what does that even mean? Maslow came up with this list of human needs as a means to explain motivation — why do we do the things we do? This is an important idea to keep in mind when asking the question, ‘Why so much sex?’ We might only think of sex in writing as the explicit act, but in truth, the motivating factor of sex crops up in stories you might not have thought about before.
Even fairy tales, where heroes and villains are as black and white as it gets and the story is relatively simple, the evil is usually represented as a dark version of one of Maslow’s defined needs. Fairy tales are, after all, a way to teach a lesson — usually about overcoming the less savory aspects of our desires and motivations. That means that, yes, sex is a motivating factor in quite a few fairy tales. It’s there, it’s just implied sex rather than explicit.
When a child reads Snow White, all they need is the basic premise of bad guy/good guy. The evil queen is jealous, so schemes against Snow White. The story for them is saying jealousy is bad and kindness is good. To a child, they might be jealous because another kid has a toy they want — a covetous emotion more than jealousy. But the evil queen in Snow White is most certainly jealous of Snow White’s beauty; that is explicitly stated several times in the story. So, let’s dive into that and how it relates to Maslow and sex.
What is jealousy? In the case of Snow White, the evil queen’s jealousy comes from a desire to be the most beautiful. Why do people wish to be beautiful? It’s because they want the most choice in romantic partners — in theory1, the more attractive you are, the better your potential mate will be — which brings us back to the base need of sex driving the Queen’s motivations. That’s a deep reading of a fairly simple tale, but it’s a theme that comes up again and again in these old stories.
As our minds mature, we prefer more complication in our stories than “evil bad, hero good.” When a movie is made based on this same basic story of Snow White, but aimed at a more mature audience, it comes out like Snow White and the Huntsman, where the evil queen gets a backstory full of trauma that leads her to the kind of person she is. Villains like Cersei Lannister are given redeeming qualities to make them more human — she loves her children and would do anything to protect them. All these aspects create more fleshed out characters, in other words, complexity.
When you start to make a character more complex, you also start to include a variety of scenarios to explore them as a person. Often times, one of those scenarios is to put them in these situations with someone either strongly compatible with them, personality-wise, or strongly incompatible (characters who hold no particular interest to your protagonist are rarely interesting to write, and probably less interesting to read). Once you have two characters in a story who are strongly compatible, you will inevitably have sparks — that is the natural course of two people who have good chemistry meeting up.
Since sex is one of the core driving forces of motivations, it’s absence in a book where there are two characters of compatible sexual orientations becomes noted upon. Dan Brown doesn’t write sex scenes, but there’s enough tension in those books it would not feel out of place if something did occur. In fact, the absence of it feels more purposeful to some than the inclusion would.
I don’t think readers and critics noting the lack of sex is because readers are sex crazed and want sex shoehorned in everything. On the contrary, I think it’s because they really got into the character of Robert Langdon. They put themselves in his shoes. And that character is clearly into whichever female character he’s paired with. He’s in tense situations, they help each other out, the woman is always described as being quite attractive — the fact that they never knock boots is notable. We, as readers, cannot see ourselves in a situation where a single person, who is obviously into us, never makes a move or vice versa. It’s unrealistic. We would make that move with the dashing hottie. If said move didn’t work, then things get awkward, and that also makes for interesting fiction as it causes a new kind of tension.
Two characters who wander along in a story as friends only can work; I’m not saying it can’t. But even if it does, there’s probably a boatload of ‘ship stories out there finishing the job for the author who didn’t put it in there. Pretty sure Fanfiction.net could change their name to Shipping.net and a majority of the people who post and read there wouldn’t mind. I think that shows just how much of an uphill battle a writer is fighting if they try to forgo putting sex into their books.
There’s a frustration that builds with a reader when you put two people together who never consummate that relationship in a sexual way. I honestly don’t think it’s because the readers desperately want to read a sex scene — though I do admit those readers exist. I think most readers are frustrated for a deeper, more emotional reason. Sex is the shortcut way for a writer to say, “Hey, these two are in love and this is the culmination of that.” We all recognize that’s not the case in real life, but in writing, you only have so much time with your reader. Sometimes, shortcuts like these are a necessary payoff for a hundred pages of will they/won’t they. Readers appreciate it when you reward the characters they’ve fallen in love with. Sex is a shortcut to saying these characters have achieved happiness. Even if the world is falling apart around them, at least they found each other.
And if none of that convinces you why sex is in so many books, maybe the simplest answer is the truest: Sex is in books, because readers and writers are human, and humans have sex. Simple as that.
This ended up being a little bit longer than I planned. I wanted to get into how I write my sex scenes specifically, why I choose to write them the way I do. Turns out, I’m a pontificator. That’s what you get for reading a blog by an author. The next entry will be all about my sex scenes in particular – specifically my penchant for writing fade to black sex scenes.
- I wanted to expand on this point, but it didn’t really fit into the them of the piece, so here it is, in a lengthy footnote —In reality, there are obviously a lot of factors that go into choosing a superior partner. Humans are far more complicated than most mammals in this. However, despite that, we still primp and preen as if it is still one of our highest priorities as a species. The beauty industry is a 500 billion dollar industry. The fitness industry nearly $100 billion — I suspect most people who go to gyms and keep at it aren’t doing so primarily for health. So, despite our protestations that true beauty is on the inside, and every tinder profile that says they’re looking for a great personality, we continue to strive for outward perfection, in both ourselves and our potential mates. I find that pretty interesting, especially as someone who writes character motivations. If we were to write that Jane falls in love with Paul, and Paul is an extremely handsome man, we don’t really have to dwell too much on why Jane falls in love with Paul. Same with the other way around. But if either character is plain looking, or even more drastic, very unattractive, as a writer, I have to justify this love with a whole bunch of other character traits for it to work for the reader. I have no judgement on how people choose their potential partners. People like who they like, and in life, I’ve found little evidence that frequent poor matches because of preferred features changes a person’s outlook on who they find attractive to them. It’s just an interesting human quirk to me; despite everything we say, we still kinda go back to the roots of our species, and often pick who the best partners are based on physical appearance — even when the evidence suggests that physical “perfection” does not create an ideal, stable relationship (as just about every super hot movie star’s marriage to another super-hot movie star can attest to.) I think, as a species, we’d like to have evolved past this simplistic and rather shallow notion of who a good partner is, but in truth, most of us are still slaves, if only just a little bit, to our base instincts. The desire to overcome these instincts, I feel, is what truly differentiates us from the other animals. Paradise birds don’t care that they’re shallow. Pretty feathers — that’s all that matters to them. Will they ever care? I’ve no clue. But, we do, and that’s what matters. We want to care about the bird beneath the feathers. Books are a great analogy for this. We can fall in love with a cover, but it’s fleeting love, and we’re easily distracted by other covers. But what’s inside the book? If it’s high quality, it sticks with us for a lifetime. The fact that, despite our instinct otherwise, we recognize that can be true with people as well is an aspect of humanity I admire. Many of us truly want that lifetime experience in a partner and many of us do find that, regardless of our own shabby covers.