The Sex Substitute

Image
Embrace Fine Art Print – Amy Marie Adams

Something strange is happening in women’s fiction these days. I call it the ‘Sex Substitute’. Not a substitute for sex, but rather, where authors use sex as a substitute for what’s missing in the stories we are being sold. More and more writers are falling under its spell; and though I am resisting it with all my might I can feel myself succumbing to this affliction.

Here’s what happens: you begin writing your new book, your head filled with wonderfully layered details about the lives of your characters, the experiences that made them who they are, and the situations that will help them find and bond with each other. And then you get lazy. You realize that you can circumvent all of that hard work by just making your characters have incredibly hot, graphic and frequent sex, creating an instantaneous connection that is fiery, passionate and exciting for your readers.

Writing sex scenes is loads of fun. And if you have a willing partner, you can even reality-test some of the more creative ones. But what is much more challenging is crafting scenes where your characters connect emotionally and reveal something about themselves to each other in a way that is authentic and organic.

In my book ‘Commitment‘ it was very important to me that my characters’ relationship not become reduced to their considerable sexual attraction to each other, so I found it very difficult to sacrifice even a single scene that demonstrated how they connected emotionally. But at the same time, their sexual chemistry was a vital element of their relationship as well. The result was a long book, of which I am proud, but there’s no denying that it is long at just over 500 pages.

To get a novel to a reasonable and well-rounded 350 pages and convince your reader that your characters have come to know each other, and to care for each other takes some degree of skill, which I for one am still working on. But lately, I think far too many writers have given up on that skill-building and given in to the sex substitute. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve read those books that contain a lot of prose like: “we had a connection that I could not explain, and which I was powerless against” followed by a sex scene; or “he looked at her and she was awash with desire” followed by a sex scene; or “his eyes smoldered as they found her across the room” followed by a sex scene. And these are not Harlequin romances, people, these are novels aimed at thoughtful women who want texture, character development and depth to their fiction. For the sake of expediency, authors are increasingly and artificially creating emotional connections between characters using the sex substitute.

After several scorching sex scenes, we become utterly convinced that the protagonists cannot live without each other. It is a particularly clever ruse because it happens like that in real life too, doesn’t it? Scorching sex can lead you to believe you’re “in love”. But like real life, the sex substitute in books is a mirage, an illusion that something substantial is there. And like all illusions, it disappears after a time leaving you feeling duped.

In my next book, ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta‘ the main character is often away from her husband, which made it very difficult to construct a believable emotional connection between them, so the sex substitute was incredibly tempting as a device for me to show the love between these characters. Only after many, many edits was I able to strike what I hope is the right balance.

In ‘Unsuitable Men‘, it was far easier because in that book the main character very clearly uses sex as a way to process emotions that are very difficult for her to face, so I was at liberty to make her have sex in every single chapter (though I didn’t). What I learned from writing that character is that almost always, the sex should stand for something other than my failure to say something more profound.

Emotional vs. Physical Infidelity?

ImageMy friends and I have an ongoing debate about the relative weight that we place on emotional versus physical infidelity. The central question goes something like this: if you were to discover that your partner was having many intense, deep and searching conversations with someone else, sharing their innermost thoughts and yet honestly hadn’t ever considered sleeping with that person, would you feel more or less betrayed than if you discovered they had a one-time only sexual encounter with that person and were genuinely not interested in repeating it?

For me, hands down the emotional infidelity would be a deal-breaker. I’m not sure there would even be anything to discuss. Sexual infidelity would also be a bitter pill for sure, but I think the nature of sexual attraction is such that I could understand (though not condone) an intense physical, momentary connection with someone else. Now what would concern me more about physical infidelity would be what it implies about my partner’s honesty, or their ability to forego sexual gratification in favor of something else (i.e., the emotional relationship with me) that they value more. 

Many of my friends are preoccupied with the actual act itself, the idea of their loved one touching and being touched by someone else. I wouldn’t want to picture that, certainly, but I think it troubles me far less than the average person. In my writing, I explore jealousy and infidelity in all its forms quite a bit, working out through my characters what that concept means to different people. I was first alerted to my apparently uncharacteristic lack of jealousy when I shared with a friend that an ex-boyfriend had gone to a strip club with friends. She was aghast and thought it was incredibly permissive (not to mention naive) of me to have “allowed him to get away with” such a thing – looking at another woman with lust, etc, etc. I explained to her that I thought men who went to strip clubs were being had – being sold an image of sexual wantonness by women who were more likely thinking about their dry-cleaning and despising the very men who gave them money. Still, she insisted strip clubs are like a gateway drug to physical infidelity and I should manufacture some disapproval even if I did not honestly feel it, the next time he suggested he and his friends were planning to spend their evening in that way.

Well, that boyfriend didn’t last for other reasons, but it got me thinking: are there gateways to emotional as well as physical infidelity that we should close off just to guard our relationships? Some women forbid their husbands or boyfriends from having female friends. Others don’t permit them to go on vacations alone or “with the boys’. For me, that all seems like a little too much work and in the final analysis, futile.

Emotional and physical infidelity are sometimes the consequence of opportunity and recklessly exposing oneself to temptation, but I think more often they are a symptom of something being broken to begin with. The question always, will be whether it’s worth the trouble to fix.

In ‘Commitment‘ I explore the relative weight placed on different kinds of infidelity, but also strongly encourage you to see this little known movie, ‘Last Night’ with Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington (also Eva Mendes and Griffin Dunne). Amazing treatment of this subject, well-acted and far too probing to have been a theatrical success, as all good films are these days.

And then I’d love to hear what you think. Emotional vs. Physical infidelity? Which is worse?

Laws of Attraction

Painting by Cheri Reichers, available at CheriArt.com

I don’t believe that we have one soul-mate in this life. While I love the idea that we might all have someone out there who is our bashert, and would be delighted to be proven wrong, I tend to think its a romantic, fanciful notion. What I do believe is that as we journey through this life, we meet many souls that connect with our own. In my own life, I have had at least two such encounters and neither was with someone who was either sexually or romantically interesting to me. The first time I experienced that connection, it was to a friend who within a week seemed more like a sister, with whom I shared thoughts, experiences, fears and dreams that I had never before shared with another human being. Over time, our lives took different paths and we saw each other less, but across continents, marriages, deaths and births our connection has remained exactly the same. We no longer speak everyday, or have the luxury of falling asleep in each other’s beds because we could not bear to voluntarily end the conversation, but even now, almost twenty years later, when we do talk it is effortless. Our connection seems to transcend the mundane details of our lives. We just fit.

My second experience with that kind of connection happened very recently with someone who is so different from me in so many ways that it’s a wonder we can even sustain a conversation. And yet from the moment we met, it was instant, electric attraction. What made it most interesting to me was that while it was not at all physical, we had a stereotypical moment of eyes meeting across a crowded room and feeling a sense of recognition. When finally we spoke, it seemed strange that we were introducing ourselves when I was sure I knew him in some elemental way. It felt foolish because I was very clear that we had never before met.

A few minutes into our conversation, completely unexpectedly, he told me that he felt like he knew me and that I was someone special to him though he knew we had never met before. It was rather unsettling, to say the least, not only because he’d voiced his feelings so frankly and so soon, but because his feelings were a mirror image of my own. On the occasion of our meeting, we weren’t given much of an opportunity to talk at length but before we parted he made me promise not to leave without telling him how to get in touch. I broke my promise and told myself it was inadvertent – things had just gotten too hectic before I left. But in reality, I broke my promise maybe because I had no category into which I could put this person or this unusual experience.

Several months later, out of the blue, I thought of him again and wondered how he was and had dim regrets that I hadn’t kept in touch. I felt as though I had lost a friend, but chided myself. This was no friend, this was a charismatic stranger and nothing more. My conscious mind told me I was being silly. The very next day, I got an unexpected message. A mutual acquaintance of ours reached out to me to let me know that this ‘stranger’ had been searching for me, and asked whether it was okay to provide my contact information. I said that it was, and he reached out to me immediately and expressed such uninhibited joy to be reunited. And almost instantly, I felt as though something I had lost was finally found.

I don’t know what the laws of attraction are, and how it is that some people touch something in us and we simultaneously touch something in them. I don’t understand why I sometimes meet someone who is, objectively speaking, quite attractive physically, and yet something about them repels me. And I don’t know what the formula is for making a relationship grow and flourish, rather than sour and die. Examining these questions is on my short list of obsessions, studying the many dimensions of human relationships: turning them over and over in my mind. After years engaging in this curious pursuit, working through it in my writing, I’ve decided that in all likelihood, there are no laws of attraction. There are only souls reaching out into a vast universe of other souls, finding another who for a time meets a need. But occasionally, there are those souls that connect in a way that does more than that, they are the ‘mates’ of your soul who help you become your complete and best self. I am so grateful to have met mine.

Snarky: When Good Critiques Go Bad

Click image to read the full review.

In my limited time blogging, I haven’t been shy about saying what I don’t like about a certain popular trilogy.  In fact, I’m rarely shy about anything, even admitting when I’m wrong. Yesterday, I grabbed a link from somewhere that led to a particularly lengthy takedown of the series, the characters, the editors, the readers and finally, the author. It was easily a 2,000 word tome, this “review”.  And I use the word review loosely because the writer/reviewer seemed to have spent as much time grabbing movie clips online as she did critiquing the content of the books. She freely admitted to having hated the first one from the very first sentence, and nevertheless being inexplicably drawn to read the second and third installments. And at some point, what began as amusing and creative became a cesspool of pure, unadulterated snark. Meanness of the worst kind, bordering on cruelty.

Now there is no doubt that writers voluntarily put themselves out there when they put pen to paper and publish their work. Generally speaking, we want to hear what people think and keep our fingers crossed that there is some segment of the reading public who will like what we’ve done.  And with this particular series, there is no doubt that a significant percentage of the public liked what this initially self-published author did. So much so that not only publishing houses, but Hollywood came calling and she landed a seven-figure deal for the film adaptation of her work.  Now, say what we will, this is every self-pubbed author’s dream scenario. We can pretend that we would be equally satisfied if we had no public support but plenty of critical acclaim, but I don’t buy it. Ideally, we would have both, but my guess is that if forced to choose, a majority of us would take the cash.

That’s likely what’s behind a lot of the snark about this series. The awareness that with negligible talent, this writer was able to pull off something that happens to one lucky author once every decade, if that. She has become the Kim Kardashian of the literary world – someone who is viewed as famous with very little natural ability to justify that fame, and the wealth that’s come along with it. I don’t even have to imagine how much that’s pissed off the literati, all I have to do is Google the name of the books and the word ‘review’ and a flood of snark will come cascading my way, some of it well-meaning and much of it funny, but most of it just plain nasty.

I had the series recommended to me by a family member who said she loved it. I told her I’d heard about the hype and would read it, so I did. I admit that by the time I finished the first few chapters of book one, I felt somewhat like a hostage to my impulse to finish all reading material that I start. And by the end of the trilogy, I was downright resentful at the series’ success. That feeling lasted for about a week.  And then common-sense returned. And following that, empathy.

Here’s the thing folks: it takes extraordinary bravery to share what you write. Few of us who do feel completely confident about what we have committed to the page. And fewer of us still will write something and go on to share our work despite our insecurity about how it may be received. Even praise doesn’t banish our uncertainty. One bad review can negate all the good ones, no matter how numerous they are. Hence all the jokes about book critics with that novel hidden in the bottom of their locked desk drawer. And let me tell you, when you read some of the reviews of this popular trilogy, almost all have flourishes that reek of  “frustrated-unpublished-novelist.”

I think the writer of this trilogy, however technically flawed her product, spoke to something that women are feeling today.  I for one am intrigued about what that might be and what it says about us. So lately I’ve begun to focus more on that question, and less on the millions of dollars this author is earning, some say unjustifiably. I’ve also decided to focus on the guts it took to put herself out there, knowing that legions of armchair critics would be polishing their swords, ready to eviscerate her for having the temerity to think she had something to write worth reading.

I say more power to her.  And to those purveyors of snark, go ahead, let’s see some of your work. I dare you.

Sexing it Up

Okay, so the title of this post is a shameless attempt to reel you in. But lately, I have in fact been considering two questions: what value do sex scenes add to my work? And, how much is too much? 

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.

Happy Reading!

And if you’ve a mind to, please check out my books ‘Commitment’ and ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ on Amazon.com. And leave me a review! I want to hear what you think!

Damaged

Click image for ‘Shame’ trailer

I spent the afternoon watching the movie ‘Shame’ starring Michael Fassbender. It was much talked about last fall for the most ridiculous reason: it included a scene or two with full frontal male nudity. I was curious to see it because I loved Michael Fassbender in the best film representation of the book ‘Jane Eyre’ that I’ve ever seen. I also find books or movies intriguing when the title is one impactful word that evokes something different for each person who reads it.

‘Shame’ is about a man struggling with unidentified inner demons that cause him to act out sexually, and who is unable to connect with his sister who similarly acts out in her own life. What is implied, but never explained, is that they have a shared trauma that renders them incapable of having a healthy relationship, even with each other.

The sex scenes that people made much of were raw and painful to watch: examples of how sex can be alienating and isolating and distancing rather than what it should be: intimate, meaningful and connecting. As  I watched the Michael Fassbender character (whose name is Brandon in the film) fail to connect sexually with a woman to whom he is drawn emotionally, I felt his pain. And it reminded me of how damaged we can be. In that scene in the film, I tried to watch him from the point of view of the woman who does not understand his failure to connect with her, and I thought of how often that probably happens in real life – how often have we been on the receiving end of an experience that feels like it’s about us, but is really about the damage suffered by the other person?

Fascinating stuff. I was taking a break from writing to watch the film but it turned out to be absolutely fortuitous because it’s added a new layer to a character I’m working on!

By the way, if you want to check out ‘Shame’ for yourself, you can do so by going to Amazon.com and streaming it here.

And if you do watch it, come back and leave me a comment. I would love to hear what you think!