Sex scenes serve several valuable purposes in novels in my view. For one thing, they can reveal very intimate things about characters that they might not say in dialogue, for instance their capacity for intimacy, whether or not they’re comfortable with themselves, the relationship they have with the other character, and the power dynamic in their relationship. And let’s face it, if done well, sex can help maintain reader interest. But the harder question for a writer is how do you do sex scenes well and without overdoing it?
In the Fifty Shades trilogy, there was a lot of sex. Almost every encounter between the main protagonists resulted in intercourse. It was incredibly titillating to be sure, and no doubt played a huge role in the series’ success. And as a device to explore the shifting power dynamic between the characters, it was at times essential: in the beginning of the series, it appeared that Christian held all the power and later, it became clear that Ana was also powerful (and perhaps more so) because his desire for her was something she could wield over him to change his behavior and move him toward the kind of relationship she needed to have. That to me, was incredibly interesting. I was not particularly impressed by the writing, but thought the writer was genius at understanding that element of relationships, one that transcends the BDSM world.
When I read ‘Fifty Shades’ and the other two installments, I was hooked by that element – the assumption that he was dominant was challenged when it became apparent that while Ana was able to change him in fundamental ways, she remained largely the same person she had always been, though she grew more self-confident. Her self-confidence grew as she realized the power she had over him, and that her feelings of powerlessness at the onset of their relationship were illusory.
So that’s what was good about the sex. Now what was not-so-good.
At one point, I felt as I read the books that the sex was distracting me from the more compelling underlying themes. I actually skipped past the sex scenes at one point; they grew tiresome to read not only because they were so numerous, but because they grew increasingly graphic and devoid of meaning. Here’s one example of what I mean: toward the end of the first installment of the trilogy, Ana and Christian have intercourse while she is menstruating after he removes her tampon. He asks whether it bothers her that she is bleeding when they have sex, and she responds that it does not. However, in the final installment of the trilogy, she is unwilling to pee with him standing several feet away but in the same room. Huh? That inconsistency was hard to reconcile with the prevailing theme of the trilogy, which was her realizing the inherent power her body has over him and becoming more confident and self-assured because of that realization.
At that point, I decided that the author may have become so engrossed in creating more and more sex scenes that pushed the envelope further each time that she was inattentive to what the sex was telling her reader. She became overly attentive to the shock-and-awe aspect of the sex her characters were having to the detriment of its other messages. Now you may argue that in erotica, all bets are off and the more sex the better. I would disagree. The line between erotica and pornography, I think, is just that. Knowing where the line is and toeing but never stepping over it.
This taught me something very valuable as a writer. I write neither porn nor erotica, but the ‘Fifty Shades’ series clarified for me that sex in novel-crafting should be like sex in real life: sometimes you should do it just because it feels good, but sometimes you should do it because it means something. And since novelists must be economical in our use of words, I would err on the side of doing it more often when it means something. As for real life, well, we each have to make our own call on that one.