The Sunday Salon: Let’s talk about Sex

Let’s talk about sex.  In books.

I recently read The Eye in the Door, the second novel in Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy, which explores the psychological impact of World War I on British soldiers.  By focusing on treating mental illness, Barker strips away the glorification of war all too common in literature and film.  The trilogy is an important work, but there was one aspect of this second book that turned me off.  In my review of The Eye in the Door I wrote:

But here’s the thing: in the first fourteen pages, the reader is treated to one episode of heterosexual foreplay, followed almost immediately by a more graphic gay sex scene.  OK, the character is bisexual, I get it.  Ms. Barker, why didn’t you just say so?  Did you have to hit me over the head with it?

This inspired some thought-provoking comments from Marieke at Athyrium filix-femina:

  • Would the sex scenes be Barker’s way of ’showing not telling’ when it comes to the characters’ sexuality?
  • Does the sexuality need to be subtle? Or was it unexpected because of how subtly it was dealt with in the first book?

Generally speaking, I love the “show not tell” technique in literature, and the awakening that occurs as an author slowly reveals a character.  And sex scenes don’t normally bother me.  So I’ve been exploring my reaction to the scenes in the opening pages of this book, and I’ve discovered an uncomfortable moral overtone.  I appreciate sex in the context of a relationship — “when two people love each other very much …” and all that.  In The Eye in the Door, the opening scenes are purely physical, almost primal.  There is no relationship, and not even any affection, between those involved.  Is that why the scenes bothered me?  Well, I’m afraid so.  And frankly, I don’t like discovering this little hangup.  I thought I was more open-minded.  Damn.

The other day I listened to an NPR interview of Ewan McGregor. The interviewer asked him about his nude scenes, and I loved McGregor’s response:

“Movies reflect life, and in life you’re naked some of the time. And movies are about the dramatic side of life — and sex and sexuality and love and romance are definitely in that area of drama.”

I think this is equally applicable to sex in literature … I guess I need to keep that in mind!

What do you think about sex scenes in literature?   What works?  What doesn’t?  Why?

Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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8 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Let’s talk about Sex

  1. Laura, don’t be too hard on yourself! Maybe Barker meant for the scenes to create discomfort or even shock in a reader. I clearly need to read this before speculating any further! 🙂

  2. I confess that I do not like too much sex in a book. I don’t mind it when it is in small doses and in context of the story. I think how a sex scene is written makes a big difference with me too. There is one paranormal/horror series I follow in which the author isn’t the best at writing sex scenes (in my opinion). There was one scene in particular that read like a how to manual. I think it was then that I realized just how important the writing can be in a situation like that. And how much of a turn off. I’ve read other similar sex scenes and books and thought they were very well done.

  3. I agree with Literary Feline. I am no prude but I don’t particularly like explicit sex scenes in literature. Hitchcock said in relation to both suspense and romance in movies that what is implied is way more powerful than what is shown outright. For me, the same holds true in literature.

    • It’s funny you mention Hitchcock. I was thinking about films like Psycho, compared to more modern and violent films. I almost made that comparison in my post!

  4. I think Marieke is right – I think Barker meant to create discomfort. Having read this trilogy, I agree that the sex scenes in the second book took away from the story. I don’t mind sex scenes (in fact, when they are done well I actually really like them!), BUT, I don’t like graphic stuff which feels gratuitous. Barker made me feel like a voyeur and it made me really uncomfortable.

  5. I asked a similar question on my blog recently. I don’t have a problem with reading about sex in literature, but most of the time I don’t feel it is needed. I think it kills off the romance in a book. It seems to be more relevant in violent scenes as I think the graphic descriptions make the crime seem worse. In terms of couples in love – I prefer it when they keep the bedroom door shut!

  6. @Wendy (Literary Feline), Wendy, and Jackie (farmlanebooks): I’m glad I’m not the only one!

    @Marieke: thanks for inspiring such an interesting topic!

  7. As long as the sex scene feels necessary to the book, and is well-written, I don’t mind it. But if it’s written in a way that makes me cringe, or if it feels gratuitous, I’m not a fan.

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