A lot of people have forgotten – if they ever knew – who Billy Bragg is. Bragg is a singer/songwriter from England who occupies a particularly interesting niche in the music industry. With music that combines folk, rock, a little punk, and heavily into a message of protest, he was a big part of the life of my friend’s and I in our twenties and thirties. He definitely sings a message that appeals to me, progressive and socialist in nature.
With so many great songs, it’s always seemed a bit sad to me his biggest hit in the United States was the single, Sexuality. It’s not a bad song at all, though. It’s a generally sex positive song and, for the 1990’s, anti-homophobic at a time it still wasn’t terribly popular to be so. It was good to see a message of sex being something that’s not shameful, locked away behind closed doors.
I bring all that up because of a recent thread I was involved with on Reddit, that bastion of logical takes and gentile discourse. A science fiction author asked if it was okay for them to include a sex scene in their work, which featured a strong romantic subplot. First and foremost, the answer to any writing question that starts with “Is it okay. . . ” is always a resounding yes. There are no limits and what you can and cannot do in your work. Do what YOU as an author think is best. That said, plenty of early-career authors ask these sorts of questions, and I like to see the answers that other folks are giving them.
But I was surprised by how many people gave squeamish and wishy-washy answers. Most often it was “well, it’s fine, but ONLY if it works to move the story along.” Which. . . wait a minute. We can only include things that are key to the plot and never take side journeys into other activities? What about pausing for a meal? Taking a train ride? Buying a pair of shoes? We may never deviate from the plot line and things that directly relate to it in order to elucidate other truths about our characters? Well that seems pretty restrictive to me.
And that’s ignoring the answers that were flat out saying “probably not, it’s science fiction after all, not erotica.”
I decided to go a different route. I said sex was a normal human behavior, and we need MORE examples of sex in our genre literature. It’s up to the author to decide if it feels right for the characters to engage in that activity. That they should do what they think feels right and not what repressed puritans think. Note that this was a general reply, I didn’t direct it at any of the other commentators. None of them had taken a puritanical line in fact, but I was referring to the general attitude of American society as a whole, which tends to be largely negative on matters of the depiction of sex and sexuality in our literature.
Boy, did a few folks take offense to that. I was called out as ignorant for taking this view. I was told that folks weren’t puritanical because they didn’t think sex was needed in a story (and I never said it was of course, I said the author should decide if THEY feel that it is). They said “not every book is fifty shades of grey.”
The last comment only helped solidify my opinion about the topic. This is EXACTLY what I meant by the puritan influences on our culture. Any depiction of sex or sexuality meant, as far as that poster was concerned, that a book was trending towards erotica and porn, and it was frowned upon. Beyond the usual “I hate 50 Shades of Grey” tirades (and I admit, I don’t find the writing appealing myself, but plenty of people do and I see no reason to jump on the wagon train), the idea that sex always equals erotica is a nasty little virus that we insist upon infecting our society with.
Why? Why do we persist as a society to see sex as shameful, to be kept out of sight unless it “is important to the story?” One of the two main characters of the novel Leviathan Wakes, the first of the Expanse series of novels and novellas, has zero gravity sex in the first chapter of the book. It does NOTHING to further the plot, it’s simply a moment of connection between two characters. All the work of that scene was also done with other scenes and dialogue. It wasn’t necessary by the standards others had set. Yet there is no doubt The Expanse series has been very popular, and the zero sex scene fit in well where it was placed.
People may think they have a healthy relationship with sex and sexuality. And then you get to posts like this one, with a thread full of the same sort of nonsense that puritanical views have filled our minds with for decades, even centuries. The idea that you may only include sex in a story “if it works for the story?” I’m sorry, but is sex not a behavior adults engage in? If we can show folks taking the subway, going to work, eating, sleeping, waking, showering, shopping, getting cut up by an ax murderer, why not sex? We as a society have a VERY unhealthy relationship with sex, and it drives through everything in our lives. Politics, media, our personal conversations, relationships.
Let’s compare this with our attitudes about violence. In America, we tolerate it. Hell, you might even say we glorify it. No author seeking publication would ever think to ask “is it okay to include a scene of some guy getting shot in a bar?” They would simply write it. Our media is rife with violence and its results, and we barely blink an eye at this. Every action movie is a bonanza of shootings, maimings, car crashes, building explosions. Think of the movie, Taken, and you have the standard for PG-13 rated films and how they treat violent activities. As long as you don’t linger on the dead bodies, you’re fine.
Yet it wasn’t until the 1990’s that American television could show a bare buttock on broadcast channels, and then only after certain hours. And only briefly. And not too often. Sex has been censored for decades in our country, ever since the late 1920’s and early 1930’s when the morally righteous went after the film industry for its depictions of sex and sexuality. Review Taken again, and you’ll realize there isn’t a single nipple visible in the entire film, and that despite a plot revolving around sex trafficking schemes. No breasts, no butts, but the bad guys sure do murderize a lot of half naked women.
Guns can be openly carried in lots of locales. But try going topless if you’re a woman in most places. There are thousands of gun ranges that openly advertise their availability to the public. Sex clubs are hidden away in dark corners and most of the time it takes word of mouth to locate them. I can walk into a Walmart and buy rifles and ammunition. Where are the floggers, the erotic movies, the vibrators?
Puritanism never left us. Hell, it may NEVER leave us. It’s one of the foundational roots of our society. To fail to acknowledge that, to examine it, to try and understand it is a root failure to get past it and move forward. To form a society that is sex and gender positive. Instead of constantly fighting the same battles over and over again about who should get equal treatment under the law (spoiler alert: everyone of course), we might be able to begin to understand that sexuality has a vast range, and that expression of it is a net positive to our world. Unlike violence, sex is intimacy between individuals, bringing them closer together. Sex is one of the ties that most closely bind us, whether or not you use furry cuffs.
So let’s have more sex in our stories. More of this normal, intimate, human behavior. More gender fluid characters. More explorations of what it all means. Let’s trade it for a bit less violence. With luck, most of us are never going to be shot at during our lifetimes. But most of us are probably going to have sex at some point. Why shouldn’t we genre writers be revealing what 99% of the population does? So get funky, get weird, get naked, and get off. In print, and in life.
And who the hell can’t get behind that? So sing it, Billy.