Sunday 4 January 2015


Specifically sex in fantasy novels.

I'm moved to blog partly by this review of The Liar's Key, which contains the surprising line:

I now have a favourite literary sex scene! 

And partly having read a discussion on reddit r/fantasy, "do you think sex is hard to right(sic) in fantasy?"

Now, my own scene was probably the reviewer's favourite because it's funny and there are cows. But there are more general points to make - and here's George RR Martin making one:

“I can describe an axe entering a human skull in great explicit detail and no one will blink twice at it. I provide a similar description, just as detailed, of a penis entering a vagina, and I get letters about it and people swearing off. To my mind this is kind of frustrating, it’s madness. Ultimately, in the history of [the] world, penises entering vaginas have given a lot of people a lot of pleasure; axes entering skulls, well, not so much.”

And it must be said that George's books have more sex in them than many fantasy books do. Though far less than is on screen in the TV adaptation, and perhaps not very much on a per-page basis ... he just writes a lot of pages!

I'm sure that, as many people have said, the causes for the imbalance are several in number and prime amongst them are society's irrational prejudices and prudery. Violence (generally illegal, cruel, and destructive) is lauded and spot-lighted, sex (generally legal, kind, and productive) is considered shameful and hidden.

However, I have a couple of additional thoughts on the subject - not perhaps the prime causes but possibilities to be considered:

I wonder if one factor might not be that when it's violence we're reading about we're generally interested in the outcome - we want to know who will win, who will survive. The protagonists haven't just said, "let's have a spot of violence, shall we?" ... it's about something. Whereas sex is an end unto itself, and if you're not a participant, one might wonder what the point of being party to it is.

Another thought runs thusly: Most of us have sex and because real sex (as opposed to porn) is private, we have a particular and private experience of it. Very few of us kill people with swords or watch people burn. So when describing the latter the writer is leading - they are describing something about which the reader is unlikely to have strong expectations. When describing the former you risk running roughshod over the reader's expectations/sensibilities ... or giving them porn.

A sword-fight has to be pretty unrealistic before many of us complain because few of us have any real experience of sword fighting. Similarly with GRRM's axe-entering-skull - how many of us will be jarred out of the story by the sudden thought that 'no, the last time I put my axe through someone's skull it was rather different'? Sex, on the other hand, is more difficult to get right on the page - people have opinions, experience, and it's far more easy to lose them with a clunky line or an image that for them is unintentionally funny.

After all - get it wrong and you might find yourself starring on the Worst Sex Scene lists that crop up every year!


  1. Yep, the puritanical streak, especially of Americans, is beyond tiresome.

  2. I don't know, Mark. Is it because sex is a more universal action than violence? Maybe, but the prudishness about sex I think is a holdover from previous rounds of social mores (Victorian, Puritan) that have influenced and guided our current culture. It's not innate, I think, to human biology, but in a Oswald Spengler sort of Civilizational descendance, our current culture's reaction to sex is based on the previous ones. But it wasn't always so!

    Consider how much sexual material Bowdler had to, and tried to, remove from Shakespeare, for instance.

  3. I think an additional issue is that stories are advanced by conflict, peril and resolution. Since these are generally less likely to be elements in sex scenes, there is less narrative justification for any excess of detail and so greater risk of sex scenes being clearly gratuitous.

    Fight scenes do have much more of an element of "will (s)he/won't (s)he how will (s)he survive this?" tension, which justifies a little axe thudding detail to flesh out the mechanics of the scene of conflict, (just as you would fill in ideas of colour, sound etc to fill in the context in any other scene in a book)

    That said, some battle scenes do have over-blown details blow after samey-blow which does just get a bit tedious and looks like gore for gore's sake.

  4. It might come from a similar mind set as 'violent video games encourage violence from the players', that publicising sex encourages sex.

    But this mind set is countered by the argument that a reasonable person can surely separate their light entertainment and their physical entertainment.

    In the same way that you can write about a dog being brutally murdered but don't actually kill dogs or otherwise maim domestic pets yourself.

  5. I think it is more than accuracy though. When the Hot Coffee mod came out for GTA, someone made the observation that shooting people in the face with an Uzi was perfectly fine but pixelated breasts was enough to get a game torn off the shelves. We glorify violence, both in sports and in fiction. At the same time, we vilify sexuality as something shameful and disgusting.

  6. As a longtime reader of smut and romance and having tried my hand at writing short stories that included sex scenes, I should say... I laud whoever is brave enough to try to write them. Sex scenes are very hard to write (excruciatingly hard) and more often than not a fade to black will work wonders. Yikes! I hate writing sex scenes.
    Here is my masterwork: "Insert Tab A into Slot B, rinse and repeat. Have cows rate your performance*"

    *Inspired on the cow sex scene mentioned by Mr. Lawrence.

  7. It has been interesting to me how the Romance (soft porn) industry was able to hop over to a fantasy genre but God(s) forbid should we add sex to Fantasy. I get real tired of trying to find a well written, non-repetitive, multifaceted character laden book to get my girly romance fix in the Romance section of the book store when it is a lost cause. I also know (am related to) a great number of religious extremists that tell me I am going to hell for having Harry Potter books whose very own book shelves are lined with Romance novels. WTH?
    Give me a good Fantasy/Sci Fi by a good writer and add the sex of a romance and that would be the perfect book for me.

  8. Luckily the grimdark genre has some promise. R. Scott Bakker's The Prince of Nothing series has graphic sex scenes which actually have a place in the plot, unlike GRRM's meaningless sex scenes. They are also quite well written. I think the more authors disregard the puritanist religious mentality around, the better. I might include romance/sex scenes in my own trilogy, if my characters want so, since they write the story and not me. I'd include it if it was up to me, though.

  9. I already like your writing quite a bit but using the sex part of "The Sex Pistols" raises you onto an playing field very very few authors can claim.

  10. If I read the word 'sexy' in a blurb or description I'm out.

  11. I haven't read your books, Mark, but in GRRM's case, sex vs. violence is something of a false dichotomy. The scenes in his books that cause the most controversy tend to be sexual violence.

  12. That's funny - Zachary Jernigan and I were discussing sex in epic fantasy earlier this month, and there was quite a bit of discussion around it when he stopped by for an interview on Monday. Like Mr. Martin, he made the comment "Frankly, I'm far more comfortable with a person who loves reading about sex than someone who loves reading about dismemberment."

  13. This is a great post, Mark - glad someone shared it again on FB. (Plus i'm going to have to carry on reading now to get to *that* scene*.

    I'm not sure what the psychology is behind the somewhat puritanical aversion to non-violent, consentual sex in fantasy, While GRRM goes into some fairly graphic detail on the non-consentual and the paid-for-in-coin variety, he's hardly the first to reference itin fantasy, and as far as I can tell, fantasy readers don't object. So why the aversion to the very normal, loving kind?

    Sure, if it's just a case of keeping the camera running rather than fading to black, perhaps it doesn't move the plot forward - but it certainly moves the characters forward! And that would also hardly make it gratuitous, not if compared side-by-side with other elements frequently found in fantasy where it is also questionable how far those details move the plot forward.

    I think my biggest gripe is this: I see alot of comments on fantasy sites where readers praise the "realism" of a given book or author - but somehow, loving, or at least moderately friendly, sex doesn't make the cut as realistic?

    Bizarre logic.

  14. I fucking hate sex scenes in any media. Sex is the most basic bitch, normie, zero-accomplishment thing people can do (and, related, having a child - oh, only everyone's ancestors in history have done this, so interesting!). I am fucking angry at how often he interrupts the plot for his faggot ass sex scenes and boring-ass navel gazing. I'm about to fucking delete the audiobook because I'm tired of this bullshit.
    I read fantasy for war, philosophy, ubermensch protagonists and magic; I don't give the putrid shit of a dead dog about your literotica wank, you dumb cunt.