Sex in Fantasy
I’m in the middle of reading The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French. I’ll hold off on a full review right now, as I’m not quite halfway through the book, but there is one thing that I keep noticing: the book is averaging a naked woman every chapter.
Now, I’m not offended by this inherently. I like a naked woman as much as the next guy, I suppose. But these naked women…these are not love scenes we’re getting here. This is just pure sex, edging towards the pornographic. The women are described as sexual objects for the purpose of arousal. To be fair to French, he does the exact same thing to the male characters, too – lingering on descriptions of their muscular backs, their strong arms, and the rough dimensions of their penises.
French is not alone here. This kind of writing is fairly common in fantasy as a genre and in literature as a whole, and the purpose of this post is not to call out French as doing something wrong specifically so much as it is for me to wonder aloud why it’s being done at all.
Because, I kinda feel like those scenes – the graphic, sexually charged descriptive passages about breasts and buttocks and genitals – are totally superfluous to the story. Here I am, in the middle of a intrigue laden plot in a harsh land full of half-orcs and we have, suddenly and for no reason, a naked elf maiden hanging from the ceiling or the main character fondling some muscular half-orc female’s boobs. These moments are clearly intended to arouse but…like…why?
I dunno. Maybe I’m getting old or something.
I remember being sixteen or so and reading The Far Kingdoms by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch. The opening scene had the main character – the dashing, fit, and charismatic Amalric – having sex with an incredibly gorgeous woman. This scene was described in deliberate detail and, as an adolescent in the pre-internet era, it was possibly the most erotic thing I’d ever experienced. I confess to reading that specific passage over and over again. But it had nothing to do with the story and in no way advanced or improved the scene beyond giving a teenager an erection.
And, like, what the fuck is going on with that, anyway? Why do that? I’m picking up this novel for a solid adventure story – I want excitement and danger and mystery and, yes, even romance. But I’m not looking to be aroused. In fact, it’s damned distracting when a novel is trying to turn me on in the midst of what is otherwise a tense and gritty tale of survival and gore. Maybe I’m alone here, but those are totally different channels for me. I’m so concerned about man-eating centaurs showing up or giant oozes dissolving the protagonists that time spent lingering on the curve of some female character’s ass is, like, really weird.
This is not to say that sex scenes – even graphic sex scenes – don’t have their place in this genre (or any genre). I’m not even going to sit here and tell you that sex scenes should be restricted to those who are in love. What I am saying is that a sex scene needs to serve the plot somehow – it needs to be important and consequential or even just thematically related. In Neuromancer, Molly is clearly sexualized, but Gibson is making a deliberate point with that sexualization – she is a woman trying to reclaim her agency. When she has sex with Case (and yeah, that’s a pretty graphic sex scene), she is firmly in control, telling Case exactly what to do and not to do. He is powerless to resist her, physically or otherwise. That scene, and how Molly is presented in it, is immediately relevant to the characters’ relationship, to the plot, and to the broader themes Gibson is exploring. So, in other words, it works.
In general, the same rules that make a fight scene work apply to the sex scene. Random, gratuitous violence that fails to advance the plot or affect the main character is boring. The reader is not invested in the battle and vaguely wondering why and, in the worst cases, ends up skimming ahead a bit. The stakes are not clear and the relevance is not established. Same goes for sex: if two characters are screwing for no reason other than to describe how their genitals are currently in use and how much they enjoy that, then the reader is going to feel like we just took a little side trip into some weird little fantasy inside the fantasy we were already reading.
And this doesn’t even touch upon the whole male gaze/patriarchal thing we have going on, too, that is driving and underpinning the whole affair. That is arguably even more problematic and is in large part responsible for this kind of thing much of the time anyway. But that’s both a huge issue and somewhat parallel to what I’m saying here – I’ll save it for a post for another day.
In general, my point is this: go ahead and write boobs and penises! Just make sure the boobs and penises are on topic, writers!