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Sex In Fantasy

Sex in Fantasy. Forgive the pun, but for some it’s a complete turn off, and for others it’s a complete turn on.

As an author myself, describing the innards of my novels can be quite interesting at times, especially when I mention my book has ‘adult content.’ I usually get the occasional eyebrow raise, the unsure glance, or even the odd “Really? How graphic?” question, which I have to say, was quite hilarious the first time I heard it.

But it’s true, my novels contain adult content, and more than just the darkly descriptive hack-and-slash, blood-spilling violence of a good old thrilling fantasy fight. Each of my books has ‘a scene.’ The question I find myself asking though, as I did while writing them, is: does sex belong in fantasy fiction?

Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio CanovaSex in fiction isn’t constrained purely to erotica or chick-lit. It’s be preposterous to assume otherwise. I’ve read sci-fi books with it. Mythology is packed with it. Strange-fiction master Neil Gaiman often includes the occasional scene (one of which was strangely omitted from the film-version of Stardust…wonder why) and even the horror king himself, Steven King, likes to throw a bit in now and again. And, if anyone has ever read a GRR Martin book you’ll know that sex more than definitely features in fantasy too. Based on that, some would argue straight away that sex belongs in fantasy, as it belongs in any other genre.

I suppose, in a way, fantasy is a genre that can lend itself very easily to the sexual elements of life, the depraved, the debauched, or the downright saucy and controversial. We also have a unique freedom that not many other genres enjoy. By its very nature, fantasy is fantastical. Anything can happen. Magic and dragons exist, so why shouldn’t sex be included?

A great deal of fantasy is naturally medieval in style, a period where prostitutes and polygamy was seen as very normal, a time when wealth was shown off not only in coin and battle but with the amount of sexual partners. Fantasy has also grown darker in subject matter since the genre first emerged, and dark subjects often mean sex can be used as a driving or very shocking factor. (Just look at the incest we’ve seen in portrayed in A Song of Ice and Fire or the way Chuck Palahniuk uses it.) And despite the variety of elves (even elves have to do it!), dwarves, orcs, sex is also how most of our characters wound up to exist. Therefore, sex is there whether it’s mentioned or not. If you think about it, compared to most of the outlandish elements we find in fantasy, it’s actually one of the most down-to-earth elements there is.

Sacrament by anndrSex is also a great writing device. Sex in real life is a very powerful factor when human emotions are concerned, so why shouldn’t it be used in the same way as revenge, fear, anger, and betrayal is used. In a way, sex in itself can be power. Sex can be used as a motivator or a fixation, to create tension or emotion between characters, a neurosis for another, a source of disloyalty, a political movement, a display of wealth, an act of rebellion, a sexual identity, to enhance the profundity of loss, or as I mentioned before, a shocking element, if one were to move into the realms of incest or even assault, which can provide powerful sustenance for a plot.

The reason I included sex in my books is because I write about red-blooded humans and emotionally-driven decisions. For me, the inclusion of it in the plot was a necessary one, not only to give extra punch and meaning to my characters’ relationship, but also to power the emotions of later scenes when things went awry. I also used it to provide an important basis for the sequel. In that book, I chose to push the darker elements and used it as a shocking scene, and therefore an important motivator for the movement and decisions of the characters.

But hang on. There are a few downsides to all this sex. The number one problem for sex in fantasy is how much sex to include. Do you want to cross the boundaries into gratuitous erotica for half a chapter? Do you want to keep it nice and polite and merely hint at the activities behind locked doors? I think sex has to be in keeping with the plot and tone of a book, as well as the period in which it’s set. Nobody wants to shift genres halfway through a book and suddenly find themselves swimming through the dialogue of an unexpected orgy (unless that’s your style ;)) It runs the risk of alienating people, just as gore and violence or the use of magic can do. It needs to be considered carefully.

Sihaja and Salih by IrulanaThe second problem, and this is where it starts to get funny, is HOW to write about it. Do we use colloquial terminology? Do we explain every little in and out? (Yes you heard me). Do we keep it light and abstract? Some sex in fiction can be just downright awful, and not intentionally. Not everybody can write a good scene. We’ve all read them. More often than not there are cringeworthy moments of pinching, flicking, kneading, thrusting, biting, or fidgeting. There are painful references to voluptuous mounds, volcanic eruptions, slippery crevices, wet caves, throbbing appendages, heady aromas… I could go on, but I think you get the point. Some fictional sex is so awful that there is now an actual literary award called the Bad Sex Awards. Anybody writing sex should find out who was nominated, read their entries, and steer clear.

Even the simple differences between UK and US English and different languages can be unintentionally hilarious. Words such as “bonking” for instance, in Steven King’s new novel 11.22.63. Characters poorly named as though they were extras in an Austin Powers film. All of it can cause a reader to either laugh hysterically or skip the whole thing entirely.

Overall, it’s a hard thing to get right, and it shouldn’t be written lightly. A bad sex scene can ruin a book in one fell swoop. As powerful as it can be, get it wrong, and it falls flat on its face.

I think sex does belong in fantasy, but I also don’t think it’s a staple element either. Reduced to its simplest form, sex is a basic function of humanity, as natural as breathing. If you’re writing about humanoids in fantasy, then sex exists somewhere in there, whether an author chooses to acknowledge it or not. If you do, just be careful, and steer clear of those Bad Sex Awards.

What do you think?

Title image by Wen-M.

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25 Comments

  1. Charlieebird says:

    Sex in literature as you say should be like sex in nature. Natural. Awkward sex is never good whether literal or, well literal! But I don’t think you could ever say it didn’t belong in a specific style, genre or type of book anymore than you could say emotions don’t.
    You’re right though, I have read books I have loved up until the point an lumpy, bumpy sex scene has been shoe-horned into the narrative and created a galloping speedhump in it and it has turned me off the book altogether. The ability to include sex scenes is definitely a privilege; not a right.

    • Anjasa says:

      Aww, I love awkward sex scenes! Two fumbling people in love trying to please one another? Tug my heartstrings!

      Not to say that’s the only thing I love, but I think it can be really well written and explore a lot of interesting character traits. Perhaps there’s a young woman who pretends to be so sexual and in charge only to confess she’s a virgin when the time comes along ala American Beauty. That scene was beautiful because it was awkward and uncomfortable and broadened the development of the character past the previous 2d caricature.

    • Larik says:

      I considered adding a sex scene to my book, as well. What you said definitely made sense, and it could have made a great impact to the story, but half-way through the story, my sister had told me she would stop reading it if I included any more graphic content. So, I’m now just hinting at the gasps and moans that lurk behind the door. It’s harder than actually writing a sex scene, but at least it can be semi-readable for a kid that hasn’t had the “talk” with his parents yet. Of course, if a kid was reading my book, he or she would be traumatized by the bloody content I’d implemented during the first page. Literally.

  2. It’s always seemed to me that sex scenes are treated completely unlike any other content, and they don’t really need to be. Suppose, for instance, your MC is riding a horse. If s/he’s just aiming to get from A to B, you wouldn’t go into great detail about how the horse moves, the feel of its muscles, the wind in the MC’s hair etc. On the other hand, if riding is the MC’s favourite pastime and s/he’s just been released from 10 years in prison, it might be very important to describe all of that in fine detail.

    Sex scenes are a bit like that.

  3. Ronni Parker says:

    Dear Mr. Galley,

    Thanks so very much for writing about this issue. I am not one of your younger fans, I’m a bookworm grandmother who loves fantasy fiction. My two adult sons are avid Robert Jordan, George RR Martin, and Brandon Sanderson fans, to name but a few of their favorites. Strongly encouraged by my sons when they were teenagers, I reluctantly began reading The Wheel of Time and other fantasy literature. Because those authors have written primarily adult fantasy, not YA, I have never understood why there is so little sex in their novels. (Some may say that Mr. Martin has written more sexual content, but I don’t think incest or rape counts as healthy sex!) Not only is there little honest, healthy sexual content in their novels, there are few interesting female characters, especially in Mr. Sanderson’s writing.

    My advice to any author of fantasy literature: If one wishes to expand his or her fan base, include more multi-dimensional female characters and some well-written sex scenes, and you’ll increase your female fan base!

    I look forward to your upcoming novels, Mr. Galley.

    • BenGalley says:

      Thanks Ronni! Great advice too. I think you’re right that male authors sometimes “over-male” their books. I found myself guilty of such a thing with my 1st book The Written, and so made an attempt to rectify that in the 2nd and am currently doing that with the 3rd.

      I look forward to hearing what you think of them!

  4. Onyx Sturm says:

    I agree with Nyki’s comment. Sex scenes (to me, at least) have always been incredibly uneccessary. They serve no purpose other than to maybe attract mainly the male portion of readers. You can take just about any book with such a scene, omit it, and the plot would roll along just fine (although I’m sure if you did this to Twilight 95% of the series would be gone). The only reason I can see mentioning it is a couple concieving an offspring that would be of great importance later on, but even then there’s no need to get into any great detail other than ‘they had sex and six months later gave birth to Bob the Great’.

    In other words, I don’t give the slightest crap how amazing her breasts were or how hard his abs are.

    • Could I just point out that I was actually saying the exact opposite of this. My point was that sex is essentially just like any other content – if it’s relevant to plot and character development, then it should be there. It’s true that it’s often put in gratuitously, but so is a lot else, from backstory infodumps to pages of description of what people are wearing. I think we should stop getting hung up on sex as a special case and just treat it as content that can be appropriate or not, just like anything else.

    • Anjasa says:

      Females are actually the largest readers of erotica.

      Also, I thought Twilight was mostly about abstaining from sex? I never actually read the series, but I had heard that it was a major theme.

      • B says:

        I, sadly, read Twilight. There was some sex in the last book and it was not detailed.

        I’d also like to point out that the majority of books women love to read include sex: erotica, romance, urban fantasy, chick lit. Traditional fantasy, like the books mentioned here, were often male-dominated in both writer and readerships, and sex is often excluded.

        Voyeurism is not the boys only club people want to think it is.

        • B says:

          I didn’t finish that sentence. It should have read:

          The majority of genres women tend to read: chick lit, romance, erotica, urban fantasy, etc. have a high percentage of sexual content.

  5. Though I don’t write pornography, I almost always include some sexual situations in my books. I love using telepaths in fantasy (don’t use it much in my science fiction but there are other ways to link thoughts, like through computers) in sexual scenes. Both partners can feel all the physical sensations of the other and I like to show that in a scene. In a book called Afterlife that is still in the rewrite stage the characters are programs in a computer, uploads of their minds that allow them to live on when cancer or other processes have killed their bodies. I have a scene where one of the female characters introduces the male lead to sex in the computer, where not only can they tap into each others physical sensations, they can also control all bodily functions to any degree imaginable. The idea was not to write a titillating scene but to show the lack of limits in this virtual world that seems like true paradise to the characters, and gives them the motivation to fight the outside world when it wants to shut them down. But the scenes aren’t all in out, mostly dealing with thoughts and feelings during the act. Another area that might not really be considered sex that is used in fantasy is rape. Rape was a fact of life in medieval times. In fact, an army taking a city was expecting it as part of their reward. Again I think the best way to deal with it is the lead up, not a lot of detail, and then the thoughts and feelings that come after.

  6. I disagree. There is a difference between romance and sexuality. Fantasy literature is (normally) something of a fairy tale writ large. As such, romance with fairy tale princes and princesses in a fluffy, effervescent manner, is fine. Describing sexual intercourse really doesn’t belong, though, particularly because the standard audience for fantasy literature is a younger one. You can write “adult” literature in the fantasy genre, but I really don’t think it belongs. The Lord of the Rings had a few romantic elements, but no sex, and it is a masterpiece. The Wheel of Time has some sex, but really didn’t need it, and then there’s that whole thing where Rand has three women. I read LOTR for the first time when I was 8, maybe younger. Any fantasy literature should be written with the idea that some very young kids will probably read it at some point. The authors might want to take to that into consideration.

    • JL Merrow says:

      “Any fantasy literature should be written with the idea that some very young kids will probably read it at some point. The authors might want to take to that into consideration.”

      I strongly disagree with this – you could say the same about any genre. I don’t believe an author should censor her work just in case a child might pick it up. That’s what parents are for.

      (Full disclosure: I write gay romance in several sub-genres, including fantasy. Oh, and I’m a parent.)

      • Anjasa says:

        Why can’t there be adult fantasy?

        I don’t think I’d want children reading Game of Thrones, as that seems to have some incredibly adult themes.

        I don’t believe that anything should be censored because children might find it. As long as it’s properly labelled, and properly marketed to adults, I really don’t think it’s fair to limit what parts of societal behaviour adults can explore when writing for other adults.

  7. Ahimsa says:

    This is a great article and something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently.
    To me, it’s less about sex and more about limits (or a lack thereof). While I don’t need violence, profanity, or sex to enjoy a story, I think the best (or at least my favorite) stories have a sense that anything can happen. And that frequently includes profanity, fighting, and sexy time.
    I think to an extent that’s why Martin has become so successful. There’s a great joy reading something where a curtain never has to go up, where no-holds are barred. If America (and the world) were less puritanical, there would be as many sex scenes as fight scenes.

  8. BenGalley says:

    Thanks for all the feedback! Nothing like a good old discussion 🙂

  9. JL Merrow says:

    Great article, Ben. It’s good to see the subject taken seriously for once!

  10. E.K. Carmel says:

    Excellent idea for an article. Let’s face it, sex is a part of life, to one degree or another. To me, Fantasy has always been about (other than telling a great story) working through ideas of relationships between people and between cultures. What is more natural than to include sex? However, it has to make sense within the story and be appropriate to the characters involved.

  11. Anjasa says:

    Ah, the topic nearest and dearest to my heart.

    I’m a fantasy writer, and my stuff always has sex. I like sex. I like writing sex, and reading sex, and exploring character development through sex. I think that the way we interact as sexual creatures can convey a lot that otherwise might not be as clear. Some of my favourite moments in the Drow books of Forgotten Realms were all sexual in nature – when Halistrae got on top of Ryld, when Vhaerun’s followers talk about raping a woman, when Lyriel explains what a Spider’s Kiss is.

    I like getting titillated by writing and as much as some people get really into fighting and battle scenes, I much prefer interpersonal relationships. Friendships, flirtations, romances, families… I love reading about how they interact and develop, and sex is a part of that.

    I think how much sex you should include – and how much to describe – however, is very personal. Writing erotica is not like writing much else, and takes a special skill to make it realistic and compelling. If a writer is unable or unwilling to do that, then it should be handled subtly.

    However, I would love for there to be more mainstream fantasy that does have explicit / graphic scenes of sex and sexuality – so that’s why I’m writing it 😉 I may not be mainstream, but I do feel my writing partner and I have a knack for it.

  12. The key to whether a sex scene should be in a book is, does it speak to character or plot? If not, it shouldn’t be there. Real sex isn’t always perfect; in fact, it’s almost never perfect. It’s usually at least a little awkward, even good sex. I try to reflect that in my own work (a friend calls me the Queen of Awkward Sex). When I read purple-prose-heavy fireworks-and-simultaneous-orgasm scenes I tend to roll my eyes more than anything.

    • Anjasa says:

      Reading unrealistic sex is a surefire way to break my immersion, unfortunately, so I can’t read a lot of mainstream romance and erotica.

  13. Codaxi says:

    Thanks for the great article. I have read a lot of series, most recently Mistborn, and was actually disappointed by the lack of sex! I came across this article by Googling “do fantasy readers want sex in their stories”, because I honestly wanted to know if it was just me. I am a 29 y/o female, and I enjoy all aspects of the fantasy genre – relationships, conquests, magic, love, betrayal, violence…and sex. Reading Goodkind, Jordan, Martin, Tolken, etc., I see tons of these other things I enjoy, but hardly ever a nice fulfilling sex scene. I aspire to write a story of my own one day, and sex is something I planned to include – but the more I read fantasy, the more I see it being omitted, and wondered – is it just me who wants this here?

  14. Yakov says:

    I basically agree with your conclusion in the article. Sex, like any other story element, can be used when the author deems it necessary in the story. If it works it should be there, if not then it shouldn’t be. As for me personally, I don’t mind it in books I read, though it can sometimes be a bit too much for my tastes. In my own writing, at least at this point, I don’t intend to depict sex, definitely not graphically, both because I don’t feel that it would fit well into what I’m writing now, and also because I would feel uncomfortable writing such scenes.
    This is why, in my opinion, some writers steer clear of it. Brandon Sanderson comes to mind as an author who it just not comfortable writing sex scenes. (I recall him mentioning once that he hasn’t read through the whole Song of Ice and Fire series because it was too graphic for his tastes.)

    I would not agree that sex is something that ‘should’ be in books. It definitely can be, but that’s ultimately up to the author. (And as far as fans go, there are probably as many that don’t want it in the books they read as there are those that do.)

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