I read sex scenes for the first time when I was about 11.
It came at me quite unexpected, in the Arabian Nights book which I bought for my own pocket money. The Polish title of the book that could be translated as “The Tales of One Thousand and One Night” promised me exotic fairy tales from the lands of sand and sun. I was prepared for them to be dark, maybe even cruel sometimes, as I was very familiar with Brothers Grimm tales and works of Hans Christian Andersen, but I wasn’t prepared for sex scenes. The description was very vague and brief, but for a girl who already knew what was what it seemed pretty obvious what the sentences were talking about.
It came as a surprise, sure, but it didn’t shock me or disgust me.
Reading such scene was more of a discovery: you can write and read about it. I made a similar discovery a few years later, when I came across speculative fiction, and found out that books don’t have to be fairy tales to tell stories of things unreal and places inexistent.
Not long after, there came some “real” scenes.
When I was in my early teens, I regularly took books off my parents’ shelf. They’ve been reading a lot of cozy mysteries and action thrillers, and they seemed happy that I was hungry for books. Especially that most of them didn’t have anything graphic when it came to violence and “other things” (many of them didn’t even have anything sex-related). Except for that one book where the two main characters, ex-lovers, rekindle their passion in a tasteful but also very clear way. I guess it surprised me again, but I was also old enough to read it with a curiosity of discovering things.
Later, when I became of “consenting age”, sex scenes in a book became something normal.
At the same time, I wasn’t searching for erotica. Whether the book had some steam or not was irrelevant to my perception of the book as good or bad. It seemed clear to me that some of the books had to have sex scenes because of where the plot took the story, and some were perfectly fine without even a single kiss, so adding a sex scene to them would be like putting a tomato on top of a chocolate cake. (I know that technically, tomato is a fruit, but let’s agree that it doesn’t belong in a cake.)
I also learned how different the sex scenes can be.
From that “fade to black” technique that focuses on the seduction and cuts the scene before anything starts to graphic descriptions full of vulgar language and nothing left out. As long as they fit the story’s style, I’m fine with them, though in case of too anatomical sex scenes, I tend to skim through them… not even because they disgust me, but because they are simply boring.
But recently, I discovered sex scenes I’m not okay with.
I was reading a book that was supposedly for adults, but in many ways felt like YA. As I kept reading, I came across an intimate scene between the main characters revealing their feelings for each other. Nothing wrong with it, right? But after a page of vague descriptions ended with the characters putting their clothes back on, I stopped dumbfounded. Wait a minute, did they just have sex? I went back through the description, wondering if I missed something, but I didn’t.
The whole scene was a bunch of vague descriptions of burning desires, with not even a single body part mentioned in it. Not even something as “safe” as a neck or a hip makes it to the page.
Describing sex as if it wasn’t happening felt like cheating.
I’m more than ok with “fade to black” approach and leaving everything to the reader’s imagination (and their comfort of “steam level”), but to describe it in a way it isn’t physical at all feels like misguiding the reader, especially the young reader about what sex is (which, in this case, might create the wrong idea and give wrong expectations for the future). It also feels like the writer has no idea what they’re talking about, making up things instead.
It’s not even about making things explicit. It’s about making things feel real, no matter whether it’s “cut the scene before action begins” or “give a full account of what the characters did”.
One of the best sex scenes I’ve read and still remember after years have passed, had nothing overly explicit.
In Andrzej Sapkowski’s Lady of the Lake, the final installment of the Witcher series, the main character Geralt engages in an intimate situation with sorceress Fringilla. What makes the scene really interesting are the books. The characters are in a library and when things get steamy, the book piles topple over and fall on the floor. We get to see what characters are doing through the perspective of how it relates to the books. It’s both interesting and tasteful, showing that a good and non-explicit sex scene doesn’t meant filling the page with some vague descriptions like “her desire was burning like a torch and he matched his desire with her” (a loose quote from the book I’ve read).
I believe sex scenes should be like everything else in novels: they should feel real.
Because if the writer feels uncomfortable with a sex scene, cutting it before it starts is always an option. Otherwise it’s like villains dying in Disney movies: they fall into the dark, so we get to pretend they’ve never met their end. It might work for the kids movies, but feels infantile in +16 fiction.
What about you? How do you feel about sex scenes in books? Do you have favorite ones?
Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games.
Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English.
Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.