We all know it. That title alone probably brought you here. It has become common place in many movies to have a sex scene or two. Many books, especially in the general market, have them. Some more descriptive than others.
The Christian market’s response appears to be “don’t indicate it happens at all.” Even in the romance novels, hints that a couple have had sex, even when married, are absent. The buyers of those books read them primarily because they don’t have to worry about running into a sex scene, among other “naughty” things.
Somewhere in the middle is a group of writers who want to offer a more “realistic” but not “erotic” set of stories. Show that it happens, but not end up writing erotic porn into their stories. I’ve seen various views presented, including those in the past on Mike Duran’s blog to most recently in a series of articles on the Speculative Faith blog about Vox Day’s new book, Throne of Bones, published by an imprint of Marcher Lord Press.
I’d sum them up like this:
No show. Among those willing to go further than nothing, one group doesn’t mind indicating it happened or is about to happen, but don’t show anything about it. Perhaps the most you’re likely to get is kissing and holding hands. Then a statement, if any, that he took her to his bed. The rest you fill in for yourself. Scene break, and you are on the other side of the event. Note: this is what one might refer to as the Biblical model, since this is how the Bible tends to speak of a couple who has had sex.
Stop short. That is, more showing is done to indicate where this is headed. Some heavy petting, maybe touching in more suggestive ways, but the scene cuts away before anything too erotic-like happens. Maybe a telling statement tacked onto the end, but usually not. It is real obvious what happens after that. This is more natural for fiction in that if one is going to show it, then it comes across as more realistic. The “no show” method can appear like someone is purposefully avoiding it and coming across unrealistic. After all, the Bible isn’t fiction, and mostly tells rather than shows.
Crack open the door. In this version, the reader follows the characters into the sexual act, but very scant detail is given or more allegorical terms are used. It might be as brief as “he pulled her under the sheets and enjoyed his wife’s love.” This would use language more like that found in The Song of Solomon. One must keep in mind, however, that the Song of Solomon isn’t describing a specific encounter, but is more a teaching on faithfulness to one’s spouse, and therefore to God. It isn’t going there to tell a story, but to instruct readers.
The primary issues with both the “stop short” and “crack the door open” models is where is the cut off point? At what action in the “stop short” method have we crossed over into a lead up to sex and are getting into the act itself? Once you crack the door open, how far is too far before it becomes erotica?
Some of these can be “gray” areas. For instance, in my novel Reality’s Fire, I used the “stop short” method for showing that a married couple who have been apart for a long time were about to have sex. I had them involved in some semi-heavy petting right before cutting away. One of the last actions I had written was him running his hand along her thigh. My editor felt that crossed a line. I was okay cutting it, even though for me, it seemed minor. But that represents that gray area. Some draw the line slightly differently.
That said, it is easier to draw a line with that method than the latter. Certain actions will obviously be crossing that line. If I’d had him groping intimate parts of her body rather than sliding a hand along her thigh, there is no doubt we would have cracked the door open and followed them into a sex act. There is some gray area, but not a lot. Only on the boarder between heavy petting and sexual acts. Most people will know the difference.
But the “cracking the door open” method has its problems in there is no well defined boundary when one has gone too far. Some will find any description of a sex act, no matter how medical, allegorical, or brief, to be too much. Such an intimate act is reserved only for the couple, and to crack open the door on the bedroom is invading their privacy and causing the reader to be voyeuristic.
Some might accept my brief example above as fine, but balk at referring to any body parts, or touching any of them. Others are fine with the body parts or touching, but any descriptive words that convey emotions or feelings would put them into erotica-land. Each person would have different boundaries as to what is too much. So, it is much harder to write with that method and not cross lines.
One also has to consider the unique nature of this act. Unlike a lot of other things: violence, greed, gossiping, eating ice cream, etc., a couple in bed together is an intimate act. Few of us would (or should) feel comfortable sitting in a chair watching their married friends have sex.
Most of us, sitting with the family watching a movie, will feel real uncomfortable when a hot sex scene comes up. “Don’t look kids!” But if we are in the room alone, a different feeling arises. Suddenly it is okay, because we’re adults and can handle these things. But is it any different, really? When reading about it in a book, are the mental images it creates any less voyeuristic?
The key for me is based upon the following guidelines in my own writing:
Is it gratuitous? That is, does the scene further the plot and/or characters or is it tacked on adding little to the plot? This can be a fuzzy line. What may not be to me could be to an editor or reader.
For instance, the above mentioned sex scene, to me it would have come across as unrealistic to not have that there (more on that in a moment). Removing it and the consequences of that act would have drastically changed what happens. So some case could be made that it furthered the plot. But I could have left that out, even though it would have created a gaping hole. As a sub-plot, it wasn’t essential to the main plot. But the initial reason I put it in there is it would have felt extremely unnatural to ignore it based on the circumstances in the scene. Some, however, may conclude the scene was gratuitous. For me, it had a distinct purpose in furthering the story, so it wasn’t gratuitous.
Does it promote a sinful lifestyle? When take as a whole story, does a sinful encounter, and this goes for showing all sinful actions, not just immoral sex, give the appearance of endorsing that sin? I’ve said before: It isn’t where a story starts that makes it Christian, but where it ends. I have no problem showing sin, but its negative consequences and moral failure should be shown as well. Otherwise, I’m not being realistic within a Christian world view.
Does it end up drawing the reader into reading pornography? For me, whether an affection can be done in public or not is the key. What happens in the bedroom, stays in the bedroom. Even for fictional characters. Strictly speaking, when the actions and descriptions move into experiencing a sexual act, it becomes pornographic. Once you’ve gone there, you’ve drawn the reader into sin, not just observing it. If it would be sinful to watch in real life, so should it be in fictional life.
Is it realistic? Hold on before you jump on that and let me explain. I’m not one to suggest because people do it, we need to show our characters doing it all the time. That would be violating the gratuitous rule. For the same reason we don’t show our characters going to the bathroom very often, or taking a bath, or think all the random and meaningless thoughts that go through our heads everyday. Why? Because we’d have one ultra boring book on our hands, and it would take a mega-volume to write it that way.
No, fictional stories are very unrealistic. Few people are put through what most fictional characters endure. How many times in your life have you saved Earth from annihilation? You would have multiple times if you were the Doctor (Doctor Who). If everything that happened to Sisko, my protag in Reality’s Dawn, had happened to me, I’d be in a mental ward. Not riding off into the sunset to my next adventure.
But despite that, we give stories the appearance of realism. What destroys that isn’t failing to include every bit of realistic activities possible, but to include any that would destroy the illusion of realism. Big difference there. That’s why I said to have a husband and wife who have been apart for months, suddenly be together again for a short time and avoid thinking about sex would have broken that sense of realism. It would be expected in that situation. To not go there would have felt artificial.
So I wouldn’t include those things to be realistic, but I would to maintain realism in the story.
The issue for me in moving from “stop short” to “crack the door open” is in necessity. Rare would be the plot, short of writing an erotica book, that would require us to follow a couple into the sex act. It is enough to know that it happened whether through telling or cutting away. Much beyond that is venturing into pornography.
Where are the lines you draw as a reader? As a writer? If you are both, do they differ?