Lots of books have sex.
Let me rephrase that, since that wording could be interpreted as a couple of hardback copies of your favorite novels flipping each other’s pages under the covers (pun intended).
Lots of books depict scenes that involve sex. The depictions can be either graphic or subdued, described in every erotic detail or done in an artistic fashion. But since I’ve discussed those differences before, I have a different perspective today with regard to literary sex. The idea of sex from a religious, moral, and philosophical view.
I’ve read articles before that discuss things like “slut-shaming,” which is negativity and insults directed at people (most likely women) who embrace their sexuality instead of conforming to a more conservative view on sex. In other words, people will trash-talk women who have an active sex life and treat them as if they’re doing something wrong. Usually, these articles point out the contrast between men and women, since a man that has an active sex life is seen as successful–a Don Juan, a “player,” and someone envied by other men. I’m not going to get into detail about the various views on these issues, since there are plenty of better-informed individuals out there with more expertise on the psychology behind it all (this article is a good example that provides detailed definitions with academic references). Instead, I’d like to examine these ideas about sexuality in relation to characters in novels.
Characters are portrayed differently in many novels (and other forms of media) when it comes to their sexuality. I’m not talking about the descriptions of the physical act itself. Instead, I’m talking about what sex means to the characters and by extension to the reader. A few examples of how sex is portrayed include:
- Sex as a Goal – Some stories involve characters trying to seduce others, where having sex is considered the main driving force behind the character. One example of this would be the first American Pie movie, where the four main characters are intent on losing their virginity before they graduate high school. Throughout the film, sex is portrayed in a variety of ways (one couple is in a serious relationship, another is falling in love for the first time, one boy is seduced by an older woman, and another has a one-night stand with a girl who was gone when he woke up in the morning). While each of these situations has an emotionally and thematically different meaning, the overall message is that the boys in the film are “victorious” when they lose their virginity. This is consistent with what I mentioned above about sex often being viewed as something acceptable for men to pursue, and one might argue that female characters in the same roles would be viewed in a more negative light because of society’s preconceptions.
- Sex as Emotional Bonding – In many romance stories, there is a long-running “will they/won’t they” tension as the two main characters develop their relationship. In these types of stories, the characters may not end up having sex until well into the story, after they’ve struggled through the early stages of the relationship, faced a near-breakup and overcome it, and then finally confessed their undying love for each other. Certain societal views would generally consider this a more “moral” type of sex, since it’s sex as an expression of deep emotional connections. Also, “make up sex” can be portrayed in some stories as a type of emotional bonding, showing that the characters are reunited after a conflict.
- Sex as an Immoral Act – A more negative portrayal and the one most closely associated with the idea of “slut-shaming” mentioned above, sex as an immoral act can take a variety of forms. Sometimes it involves one character in a relationship cheating on the other, showing that they aren’t committed to the relationship (though it’s worth nothing that in some stories, the cheating is celebrated because it involves finding one’s true love (with someone other than the character’s current spouse or partner)). Another example could include one character “stealing” another’s love interest by seducing them, when they had no interest in the person other than taking them away from the main character. Or one character might lead the other on with the idea that they’re going to end up in a committed relationship but instead it only ends up being a one-night stand. This last example can lead to the “innocent” character being heartbroken when they realize that the other person just used them for sex.
- Sex as a Release – Sometimes, characters have sex just because they need to release the tension. This can lead to further conflict if one character thought there was a deeper meaning when the other thought it was just a one-time thing. Other times it can be a situation where both characters have no expectations of each other and they simply decide to enjoy the experience, then move on.
There are plenty of other possible ways sex can be portrayed, but even among these examples we have a broad spectrum of potential moral views. Sex can be seen as a victory, a manipulation, an expression of love and affection, or just a quick romp. Depending on an individual’s moral stance, some of these types of sex might be seen as “right” or “wrong.” For example, people who believe that sex should be saved for marriage (or at least, for a committed relationship) might view any one-night stand as an immoral act, while others would simply view it as two consenting adults embracing their sexuality. It’s worth noting, however, that not all one-night stands are created equal; if one character wanted a serious relationship and the other just wanted a good time, then someone’s feelings will end up being hurt when they feel like they were seduced and used.
So what does all this have to do with your novels? Well, if your characters ever end up having sex, it’s possible you’ll end up being faced with the question about what that “means” and what message you’re trying to send. Many readers will believe that your characters’ actions are sending a message about what is or isn’t acceptable. For example, some people argue that most media depictions cast a negative light on any woman who has casual sex and a positive light on any woman who only has sex within a relationship, thus reinforcing a certain moral perspective. A good example of this is the Iron Man movie franchise. In the first two films, Tony Stark’s various one-night stands depict Tony as a glamorous playboy and the women he sleeps with as trashy. Pepper Potts engages in a lot of “slut-shaming” in the way she treats these women:
Pepper: [after Stark’s one night stand with Christine] I have your clothes here; they’ve been dry cleaned and pressed. And there’s a car waiting for you outside that will take you anywhere you’d like to go.
Christine: You must be the famous Pepper Potts.
Pepper: Indeed I am.
Christine: After all these years, Tony still has you picking up the dry cleaning.
Pepper: I do anything and everything Mr. Stark requires. Including occasionally taking out the trash. Will that be all?
Yet while Pepper implies that this girl is “trash,” and makes similar insults to other women throughout the films, Pepper herself is viewed differently when she ends up involved with Tony at the end of the second film. When Pepper and Tony get together, it is portrayed as a declaration of their love for each other and the desire they’ve been hiding from each other for years. No one shames Pepper for this in the way she shamed other women who got involved with Tony. The message here could be interpreted as saying that a committed relationship is good and casual sex is bad.
This is the sort of thing I think it’s important to be aware of when writing a novel. Even if it isn’t intentional, you could end up giving off a similar message (or at least, your readers might interpret a message that you don’t think is there). If you hold the stance that certain kinds of sex are good and others are bad, you might be okay with adding such messages to your novels. If you don’t want your work to be interpreted that way, however, you should give careful thought to how your characters are being depicted.
To give an example from my own writing, I have a few sexually active characters in the series I’m working on. The two primary main characters of the series are Gabby Palladino and Tock Zipporah, and both of their sex lives are seen (to some extent or another) in the course of the books. Both of them, as individuals, have very different views on sex. The differences in their views can be seen in this excerpt from one of the early chapters of Manifestation:
“I’m looking for Frankie,” Gabby said.
Gabby looked her over with a slight frown, and Tock pulled the sheet up tighter over herself. Gabby blushed and looked away, then asked, “Are you . . . are you his girlfriend?”
Tock snorted, denying the notion despite her reaction to the girl’s presence. “Nah,” she replied. “We’s jus’ shaggin’.” She decided to keep telling herself that. “What the fuck’s it to ya?” She didn’t much like the way the girl was acting as if Tock were the one who needed to explain her presence here.
“He’s my brother,” the girl said. Ahh, Tock thought. So that’s it. The strange looks the girl was giving her suddenly made sense. So did the apparent look of hurt and disappointment when she’d learned that Tock was just the girl her brother was fucking.
This scene is Gabby and Tock’s first meeting, and their conflicting views on sex are clearly seen. When Gabby finds a strange girl in her brother’s bed, her first assumption is that Frankie and Tock must be in a serious, committed relationship. In Gabby’s innocent worldview (a worldview influenced by her religious upbringing), she believes that sex should be saved for someone you love. In Tock’s view, there’s nothing wrong with just having a good time.
Is either Gabby or Tock “right” or “wrong”? No. In my opinion, both views can be valid, as long as the views aren’t forced on another person. I think it’s possible to have two characters with two contradictory views on sex and have both of them be perfectly right in their individual opinions. Just like I believe that if someone thinks sex should wait until after marriage, that’s perfectly fine, because that’s what that person believes for themselves. The only time I see it becoming an issue is when one character tries to force their views on another. For example, if Gabby had started insulting Tock in this scene (engaging in “slut-shaming”), then that would show Gabby trying to force her views on Tock. She doesn’t do that, however, even if she disagrees with Tock’s views.
Would Iron Man have been different if Pepper Potts never shamed any of Tony’s girlfriends? The message in those films is clearly one that holds Pepper as being “better” than the other girls. How would that depiction be changed if the shaming scenes had been deleted?
I’m not sure I have an answer to that question, just like I’m not sure if my own characters’ depictions are giving the message I want them to give. My goal is to express Gabby and Tock’s different and conflicting views, without holding one set of views above the other. In my opinion, both are equally valid. But I do worry that people will misconstrue Tock’s sexuality and think that I am sending a message from a certain moral stance.
How do you handle sex and morality in your writing? Do you struggle with the right way to manage these depictions?