“Mom, can I be a feminist and still like sex?” —Sylvia (actually Sylvia’s daughter) by Nicole Hollander
This is part of my continuing effort to improve what I find myself reading. And it’s also part of my effort to put off starting the next novel. Both my readers need that much of a break.
A hot sex scene
Here’s a snippet from what I can just about call my forthcoming novel, The Road to Bluehorse:
“Damn it, Clay,” said Vera. “Two stinking months. Damn it.”
That song. Love, sister, it’s just a kiss away.
She hooked him with those eyes again. She reached a hand to his cheek, prickly with a thin stubble. Those sharp, deep eyes half closed. Their faces were coming closer, closer. No woman in history had ever been more beautiful. Their lips met. They kissed. They kissed, they kissed. She sighed. He sighed. They kissed some more, their bodies meeting through their vac suits. He kissed her neck, and she sighed, and she kissed behind and around his ear and he sighed. Their lips met again like long lost friends. Finally just their lips parted and Vera said, “You’ll be careful.”
“Of course I will,” he said. “You won’t forget me.”
“How could I.”
(I’m not giving anything away here, by the way. This is not by any means the climactic romance scene. You still have to buy the book, should it ever see the light of publishing day. But I think it will.)
What is going on in this scene? Vera is the first of his fellow fighter pilot recruits with whom Clay falls in love. They’re about to set off, but his wing is leaving first and he won’t see her for months. Here, at the end of a pre-flight party, they kiss for the first time. That’s all they do; later, actual sex occurs, but never much more than the afterglow is described:
Vera and Clay lay in each other’s arms, their sloughed‑off vac suits bunched up near their feet.
“So Clay,” said Vera lazily, “what do we do for two weeks besides that, and talk?”
So here’s the Paul philosophy on sex in fiction, in a double nutshell:
- The first kiss is very important. The main characters will be paying close attention to every detail; so will the readers.
- Most adults have sex, and most of those have sex a lot, i.e. fifty or a hundred times a year. It’s an important part of life, it matters to relationships, and yes, we think about it a lot. Sex is kind of like the United States quarter dollar: it’s valuable enough we don’t waste it, but most of us see it so often we don’t really need to dwell on the details. Unlike that first kiss, an individual incident of coitus is not uniquely meaningful. It’s more interesting what happens after: that lazy, languorous intimacy of two naked people who like each other.
Besides, while sex is undeniably important as part of a relationship, in the real world as well as in the rom-com universe, it’s not the first sex act that marks the beginning of the relationship: it’s the first kiss. I speak to those of you who are in long-term relationships that involve regular, consensual, ordinary couple-type monogamous sex: you probably remember the first time you made love with your current partner. But I bet you remember every detail of the first time you kissed your partner.
Prudes among us
And you know what else? There are prudes among us. There are people who say, “I wish novelists today didn’t just have all that sex!” (They should reread their Shakespeare, they should. Romeo and Juliet aren’t chastely sighing at each other all that night he spends chez Capulet, you know.) There are people who don’t want to think about erect nipples. They don’t want to know that the characters have vaginas and peepees.
For some of them, let’s call them the Moderate Prudes, it’s enough that I don’t ever mention Clay’s penis. The word “vagina” never occurs in the text. For them, Vera kissing Clay is plenty. It may be a bit risque that they later have their vac suits bunched up around their feet. The Moderates definitely don’t need to hear about thrusting shafts. Vera and Clay kiss; they kiss, they kiss. That tells us everything we need to know, and we don’t need to know any more.
But then there are the Extremist Prudes. For them, sex should be as it is in The Return of the King: people should get betrothed, then married, then dads should have babies plunked in their laps by moms.
By now, you know where I stand on this. Among my bajillion unpublished novels, there’s some variation: Princess Alice never encounters sexuality, while Ryel has a whole thought process unfold while straddling a guy she’s exploiting:
Ryel sat straddling him, looking down on him with a smile of her own, still enjoying the feeling. Oh, he was good, all right, for a human. He was well practiced and in good shape physically, and quite possibly his manhood was enhanced by an herbal formula: Ryel knew a variety of those and could whip a decent one up herself with ingredients available in any market in Baharna (or any dell in eastern Mirkwood in the summer). She shifted left and right, back and forth, up and down, not quite ready to relinquish her hold on him. She bent forward and kissed his nose, then, on a whim, gave the thief a thorough smooch. No reaction. She sat back up, smirking.
This is well beyond what even the Moderates will put up with. (Well, fuck them. Sorry. They can read any of my other bajillion minus 1 novels.) To me, it’s necessary because of what it says about Ryel. But by the same token, I don’t need to say that about any of my other characters. She’s the only one who would go in for this sort of thing, and while I think it makes her kind of cool, I will never love her as much as Countess Viv, who is in love with and faithful to her husband.
Sex but Not Sex
I’m quoting from my own, um, oeuvre not because I think it’s so great but because (a) I know it really well and (b) it clearly represents how I think. But lots of other novelists, not to mention most of Hollywood (in spite of what the prudes might say) think the same way. Sex is important. But, when you get right down to it, the sex act isn’t the best way to occupy the attention of your readers.
Aw, why not? Because it’s a distraction. Ryel atop Thaeron is in the act of stealing something from him, sort of. But if, say, Tolkien had given us Arwen welcoming Aragorn to her bed, in complete detail over four pages, it wouldn’t have moved the story along. Not only might it turn off a significant number of readers, but even those who were turned on would have been turned away from the actual thrust (hee hee) of the story.
What about the quote at the top? Aren’t sex scenes, or even the characters makin’ whoopee off-page, inherently demeaning to women? Clearly the answer is: it depends. I would never say that all female-male relationships in the real world are good, or all are bad; the same is true of fictional relationships. Not all sex is domination. Good sex is cooperation, empathy, understanding.
And it is not feminism to pretend that love and romance occur in a world scrubbed clean of sexual attraction, or that people fall in love, get married and have babies without the least wafting breeze of lust.
But I’ll leave the feminism question for next time, because I do care about it.
What do you think, as a reader or a writer?