Readers Want SEX!

“Put a lot of sex in your book. It’s what readers really want now. The more graphic and taboo the better.”

“We’re looking for erotic stories.”
“We’re looking for ménage…”
“We’re looking for BDSM stories. They don’t have to have HEA, but at least HFN.”

“Fifty Shades of Grey has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide, topping best-seller lists all over the world and set the record as the fastest-selling paperback of all-time…”

Fifty Shades tops youngsters’ summer reading lists…

Of all the things I just typed, I find the last one the most disturbing.

I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination. I cut my teeth on romance novels by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers and Janelle Taylor. I rolled my eyes over Heather Graham’s time in the spotlight, but I read her books despite her “delicate, shell-like” ears and the “quicksilver” that seemed to run through everyone’s veins.

Even as a high-school student, what made those authors palatable to my mother was the fact that, aside from never having to explain the facts of life to me, these heroines were having awesome sex in a loving, monogamous, often married – or soon-to-be – relationship. The sex in these books was reasonably graphic in a purple prose kind of way and the language was seldom vulgar or crass but filled with flowery euphemisms that communicated the gist of the action quite effectively. The kinky, degrading sex acts were the purview of the villains. Heroes never treated a heroine with disrespect. Heroes cherished the heroines and their lovemaking reflected that.

It made an impression on me. So did my parents’ often Victorian sensibilities. To this day, I believe that some things are personal and private, and not meant “for the titillation of the masses,” to quote my own hero.

I originally wrote SOVRAN’S PAWN as an erotic science fiction novella in answer to a submission call from an editor I admire and wanted to work with. I read other novels and novellas that she’d edited for an idea of the kind of story she was looking for, and I crafted my book accordingly.

I finished the second draft and something odd happened. I remember being curled up in my office rereading the manuscript and noticing that my characters had subtly changed. The basic nature of who they were was different…harder…more brittle and infinitely less likeable. Blade Devon, my hero extraordinaire was a cruel misogynist who took particular delight in humiliating his soul mate. My strong, feisty heroine had devolved into a rabid bitch in heat who didn’t care how degraded she was, she wanted it and him all the more.

The coup de grace for this storyline occurred when my 78 year-old father picked up my printed pages and started reading aloud to my step-mom and husband. He paused, lowered the manuscript and peered over the tops of his glasses at me. The last thirty years slipped away and I was a teenager once again, slinking in after curfew. He didn’t have to speak to make his disapproval felt. To be honest, I was ashamed of myself anyway.

I’m a mom of daughters. I’m a grandmother of granddaughters. I wouldn’t want my 16 year-old granddaughter reading what I had written. I wouldn’t want her mother reading it either! Everywhere I looked the books that were getting the most publicity and the sales had lots and lots of graphic (and kinky) sex in them. It appeared that to sell my book to a publisher, I had to sell my soul as well.

After my father went home, I stared at the manuscript, trying to reconcile my own values with those the publishing industry seemed to give preference to. By accident I stumbled across a blog post titled “Killing the Porn Muse.” The author put into words what I’d been feeling. As writers it’s up to us to define relationships. I wanted to model for my girls what a loving, committed relationship looked like from the inside out, after all, that’s what I’m blessed enough to have found for myself. It’s what I want for them.

I’m not saying that being adventurous in the bedroom runs counter to that, quite the contrary. I think that in a loving, committed, trusting, monogamous relationship, a couple is only limited by their own imaginations and sense of propriety. What I am saying is that I don’t think the glorification of sex without the accompanying emotional attachment does anyone any good.

For myself, the intimacy of lovemaking between two people who are deeply in love is intensely personal. I can’t write a graphic sex scene without it being either too clinical, or too pornographic. It just feels too personal and I don’t see the need for it. Aside from that, for my children and grandchildren, I don’t want to advocate entering into a sexual relationship without first having a committed monogamous and loving relationship.

I will write you adventure. I will write you banter. I will give you nail-biting fight scenes and hovercycle chases. But do not expect me to invite you into my characters’ sex lives. You know they’re doing it. You don’t need to stand on the sidelines with a scorecard.

If you do find yourself in the bedroom with them, don’t expect to see anything glistening or heaving. This is one instance when I will tell, not show, what is going on. Innuendo is an art. I intend to practice it well.

43 thoughts on “Readers Want SEX!

  1. Well said. I had the same kind of dilemma in writing my books, but knew I didn’t want my stories to be just about the sex. Sex is a great part of life but I really don’t want the details of anyone’s sex life but my own.

  2. I’m so glad you pingged this. It’s sad when you write something, come back and read it, and realize you’d been slowly, once again, forgetting the importance of the genre we write. I’m guilty too.

    I think I am getting out of the erotica writing through traditional channels and moving into self publishing so that I can take back the control over the porn muse. When sex begins to dictate the story, rather than the story dictate the sex, we have a problem houston. Basically, what begins to happen in people’s lives, is JUST THAT. Sex begins to control them, rather than the important context of their lives. It begins to define their lives rather than their lives defining their sex. I swore to never do that. And yet, like you, I’m looking at my characters and sensing a slow change.

    We need to bring back the heart throbbing sexy of self control for reasons that serve the heart, not the body. And THAT is what makes true erotic romance more fulfilling than the porn erotica, or the erotica where pleasure dictates our hearts desires instead of our hearts desires dictating our pleasure.

    Every story I read where there’s 3 or more involved in a relationship, I see one thing. It DOESN’T WORK. We’re not designed for it, plain and simple. It’s unnatural, nature doesn’t support that framework. And trying to force it leaves us broken and half humans. I miss the articles I wrote on motherfugnwriters and think i will transfer them to my new blog. Please follow me. We need to stay connected with like minded pple in this affair. Wait, I think you are following me, that’s how I got this post to begin with, lol!

    1. You made a very eloquent case against this kind of erotica, and I’ve gone back to your post several times to remind myself why I don’t need to cave to the pressure to write sex for its own sake.

      True romance is about learning to give of yourself to another person. Sex and erotica for its own sake is about taking pleasure and/or control.

      As you said, self-control is sexy. My husband referred to it as “blah-blah-blah-longing.” That time before we became intimate, in which we got to know each other is our favorite time in our courtship. The fact that he wanted me, but practiced self-control taught me that I could trust him. If he could forego his own base urges with me, he could control himself around other women. I know that HE is in control of himself and not likely to stray. That knowledge is powerful on so many levels.

  3. Very interesting. I agree w/ most of what you said. But l write the sex l feel for my characters, not for the market. But l agree that “popular” books are getting away more & more from what l enjoy reading, let alone writing. Its sad, l agree. Kinky sells books. That won’t ever be me or my characters.

    1. I’m not trying to make a case against sex in fiction. This post is about my self-discovery of why *I* can’t and won’t write graphic sex scenes, and how disturbing I find this trend toward kinky erotica under the guise of “romance.”

  4. Thanks for having the courage to say this. I also was interested in seeing what it was about the so-called erotica that was selling, and while there is some very good and very sensual writing out there, there is also much that is thoroughly debasing. And that’s not just debasing to women, although much of it is, but also to the men who are supposedly heroes. Frankly, what goes on between consenting adults is their own business, but I do think that as writers, we have a responsibility to tell good stories, not just compete to find the most titillating money-maker. That sounds pretty prudish, I guess! Sex is great and sexual relationships are a part everyone’s life story. But they are not the whole story.

    1. It’s not prudish to stand on principles.

      Unless you’re writing porn for porn’s sake the graphic sex serves no purpose in advancing the plot and really is gratuitous. At some point you just have to decide what you’re writing.

  5. I hate picking up a romance and not knowing if I’m going to get an R- or even X-rated read. I avoid the whole genre because of that now. Unfortunately, I’m having to do that more and more with science fiction and fantasy, too. We rate movies so we can choose how much we want in our entertainment viewing. I vote we start rating books for the same reason. I might read more books.

    Call me a prude if you like. I don’t want intimate details of a character’s life, not even my own. I see nothing wrong with closing the bedroom door and not describing in detail what happened inside. Readers have imaginations, let them decide what happened.

    I’m glad other authors out there refuse to sell their morality in the name of commerce.

    1. My mother and I were having a similar discussion a few months ago. She picked up a book on a recommendation. She was appalled by the crass and base language in the bedroom scenes, so much so that not only did she not finish the book (unheard of) but she threw it in the trash! She is now wary of all romance novels.

      Many publishers have their imprints separated out into “heat level” to help readers determine how graphic and kinky they want to get, but readers like my mother won’t learn the different imprints of all the publishers out there.

      I agree that something should be left to the readers’ imaginations. One of the hottest scenes in history is the scene in which Rhett carries Scarlett up the stairs. We didn’t have to join them in the bedroom to know how explosive the sex was.

      1. Even with the imprints, I find myself surprised by very graphic sex scenes in books that were supposedly sweet romance or YA. I used to read 4-10 novels a week. Now I read 4-10 novels a year, partly because my eyes are going but also because I’m wary of trying new authors.

        If it isn’t graphic sex, it’s graphic language.

        1. I agree with the language as well. I cringe over the use of the f-bomb in Sovran’s Pawn. I took it out and replaced it several times. What finally decided me on leaving it in was the fact that it was used as a verb, in proper context, and the character was intending to be as offensive as possible and no other word would quite accomplish the goal. If the language isn’t a deliberate choice in character development or plot advancement, it really has no place in the story.

          1. If there is a reason for it to be there (other than to make it dark, gritty, and REAL, urgh) I’m okay with it. But when every other word is profanity, it reaches the same level of offensiveness as the gratuitous sex scenes, especially the really kinky ones.

            My first publisher said no profanity AT ALL. So my first book has none. The second has none, but that was also my choice. I had a reviewer ding me for it, too. The characters swear a lot but I never spell out what they say. I’ll let you imagine it.

  6. It takes me *forever* to write the one- or two-paragraph love scenes in my books. They wind up being metaphorical and poetic rather than literal, and readers tell me the scenes are “hot.” Huh? But I didn’t describe throbbing manhoods and swollen nubs. No, I mostly showed what happened to the characters because of the act. I think that if an author focuses on the act, not the way the characters are affected by the act, the result will be an anatomy lesson, rather than a look at humanity in tenderness and intimacy.

    Okay, look, this has been bugging me for something like four decades, ever since SHANNA first came out. What the heck is going on on the front cover? It looks like she’s just lost consciousness, and he’s fixing to topple backward, his balance thrown off by her weight. Is that supposed to be romantic? I’m thinking herniated disk and skull fracture for him, bloody nose for her, bruises for both of them. So much for frolicking in the garden. I can see why Fabio steered clear of this one. 🙂

    1. LOL!! Well, nobody said bodice ripper poses were comfortable!

      Suzanne, your comment reminds me of one of the first things I learned when I started writing. An editor once told me that the job of good writing was to evoke emotion. If you didn’t make your readers feel something, you may as well write cookbooks.

  7. Imagination is much more powerful. I think the Victorians were definitely on to something.

    When I’m watching a movie with sex in it, it looks stupid. Mostly because I know it’s not real. It’s just … weird and silly!

    I’ve written sex scenes in stories, but I’ve realized that what I’m writing about–even though it happens in a bedroom, with two naked people, with one on top of the other, and certain things go into other certain things–what I’m really writing about is the communication between the two people (yes, only two in my case), and the probable mind games they play on each other (some of which are welcome). It is about the ‘intercourse’ between them which is not sexual in nature. (Oh, and I do still use the word ‘member.’)

    Besides that, the story I’m writing now probably sounds to my friends (those who know I’m writing it and what it’s about) like it’s a real bodice-ripper. But it is actually quite devoid of sex. I know that bringing that element in would completely change the dynamic of the story. Very much like two friends deciding they want to ‘go all the way’; the friendship is never the same again.

    1. I think you hit the bullseye on that. A love scene *should* be true intercourse. It should be all about creating that intimacy and trust, or playing the mind games. I really think that, done properly, a simple thing like holding hands can convey so much more about the two characters and how they feel about each other than all the throbbing members and glistening sheaths in the romance writer’s repertoire.

  8. The concept we’re all getting at is downplaying the “what” and “how” in sex scenes and focusing on the “why.” Here’s a resource that I highly recommend. It provides excellent discourse and examples for the “why”: THE JOY OF WRITING SEX by Elizabeth Benedict.

    1. Thank you for the recommendation, Suzanne. But it’s a little beyond downplaying the “what” and “how” of sex. What I take exception to, and what you’re not going to see in my work is taboo or titillating sex for its own sake. I don’t think you can call a book a romance of any kind when the characters have no other basis for a relationship than to be in heat for each other. In real life, a romance is two people getting to know each other, faults and all, becoming best friends, and wanting to travel through life together for good or ill. The sex is the icing on the cake.

      There is a trend in current romantic fiction, especially science fiction romance that takes the *relationship* out of the romance in favor of bedroom antics. Even if you’re pushing the envelope with BDSM, without a committed, loving and trusting relationship, it’s still cheap sex. Sex in itself is not intimacy, nor is it romance.

      The comedian Jeff Foxworthy talks in his stand-up routine about sex with his wife, after so many years of marriage and children it’s so much better than his single friends are having because he “knows the combination” of unlocking his wife’s pleasure. THAT’S Romance.

      Love is a basic need. Romance used to model true love for its readers. The trend I see happening now, and one I will not be a part of is modeling sex and acting like it’s love, or a replacement for love. As a writer, I have to be aware of the message I’m sending to the young people in my life.

      1. Actually there’s a “why” to the taboo/titillating sex, too, explained in Benedict’s book. The problem comes when the author doesn’t have the capacity to include the emotional “why” with the mechanics. Then it becomes dumbed-down acrobatics, as people who have commented are pointing out. Kinda like delivering an electric shock to the nerve in a dead frog’s leg, as demonstrated in basic biology lab. In other words, yeah, they can do that, but so what? Booooring at best.

  9. Oh my, what will become of poor Fabio? This is like a scene featuring any writer, sitting at their desk, the crimson-clad, pointy-tailed fellow on one shoulder arguing with the harp-strumming, wing-flapping ‘angel’ on the other. I’m certainly not prolific enough to have an opinion that carries any weight, but as I’ve evolved as a writer, I’ve gone through the stage where I’ve thought, “What would sell a lot of books?”

    That’s not even a consideration for me anymore. I grew up reading books that were far above my young pay-grade, including Rebecca and Jamaica Inn by Daphne du Maurier. Heady stuff for a kid in 7th grade. Mrs. du Maurier managed to convey passion and romance without the need for headstands and handcuffs. I remember stumbling across Arthur Hailey’s novels sometime during high school – some of the scenes in those books were almost pornographic and, looking back, I think what strikes me now is that they were presented so matter-of-factly, like, ‘Doesn’t everyone drop trou whenever they meet someone attractive?’

    It’s heartening to see a push in the other direction.


  10. As an erotic romance writer, sex is obviously my bread and butter but I always try to either integrate it into the plot as an essential element or use the sex to further the plot and emotional connection. Otherwise, it’s gratuitous and becomes stale and tiresome to write and to read. I’m detail oriented by nature so nothing is left to the imagination in my books, but I can still see the appeal of doing so. Interesting post!

    1. Thanks, Jenna!

      I’m so glad you chimed in on this topic. As a writer, you handle the erotica beautifully and responsibly. It is an integral part of your plot. I enjoy your books. I’m not going to argue with your formula for success.

  11. It’s interesting reading all the comments and getting everyone’s take on the topic.

    I know there are fans of both camps. I’m not making any judgment calls on my fellow authors who write graphic, taboo, or kinky sex scenes. I have written them, too, I just couldn’t bring myself to publish them, much to the chagrin of my beta readers and the delight of my husband.

    My issue is with the current trend among publishers (particularly e-publishers) who imply that they favor submissions with erotic elements. Many of them say that they will consider submissions without erotica in them, but in the next sentence they say they will give *priority* to erotica, menage, BDSM, LGBT. This has the result of flooding the market with these kinds of books. As a writer, I felt pressured to produce this kind of manuscript in order to even be considered for publication. This is one major reason I opted to self-publish.

    Among science fiction, more and more sfr has erotic elements. It’s hard enough for a woman who writes and publishes science fiction with romantic elements to be taken seriously without having so much erotica flooding the genre. It’s almost as if we are shooting ourselves in the foot.

    As a young reader of science fiction, the glut of erotica would have bored me with the genre very quickly. I feel that there is already enough of it out there in the market that I don’t have to write it. It’s not that I don’t know how. It’s not that I can’t. It’s that there is a line that I, personally, will not cross.

    My father has a copy of my book. He recommends it to his friends. My mother has a copy and told my aunt about it. My Sunday school teacher has a copy, my daughters have copies. My nephews and nieces have copies on order. I don’t have to worry about how they’re going to react to gravity-defying sex stunts and world-shattering orgasms.

    I knew that I wasn’t alone in my stand on this issue. I just wanted to open the lines of communication so that others who feel that graphic, gratuitous sex is not a vital story element can speak their minds.

  12. I just finished reading Sovran’s Pawn. I found the relationship aspects of the book intriguing and seductive minus the filth. In my opinion, JC nailed the nuance of Blade and Bo’s romance.

    How many of us wish our husbands would caress our hands with kisses and desire us with tenderness balanced by raw animal attraction? I’m raising my hand!!

    JC, I applaud you for your conviction and determination to write a book without graphic, gratuitous sex. Loved the book!

  13. I bought 50 Shades of Grey just to see what the fuss was all about. I’m not a prude, either. I read a few chapters and found the heroine shallow and boring, while the supposedly hot male lead was a total bore. It’s the first book I’ve ever returned to Amazon. Twilight is Shakespeare compared to 50 Shades of Grey.

    1. I tried slogging through the first few pages of the sample on Amazon. I couldn’t pull the trigger on a purchase. A close friend of mine read it and explained the fascination with it to me this way:

      “I’m pretty vanilla. I’m not into any kinky stuff. This was a peek into that world to see if it was something I’d like to try with my husband.”

  14. Well said. I’m happy for the door to close on the sex scenes, and find the relationship – without the graphic sex – to be sufficiently titillating. If a book goes into the bedroom, less is more: I find myself getting frustrated, wanting plot and character development, if there are successive sex scenes.

    Regarding adventurous sex in committed, monogamous relationships: David Schnarch wrote a brilliant non-fiction book called the ‘Passionate Marriage’. Schnarch is a sex therapist and he was writing about how people in *long-term* committed relationships can have great sex, exploring new frontiers standing on the foundations of intimacy and trust built over time.

  15. “What I am saying is that I don’t think the glorification of sex without the accompanying emotional attachment does anyone any good.”-JC Cassels
    This is my M.O. when writing. Personally, I like explicit sex scenes in books (as well as movies and adult TV series), but I also appreciate, as you so eloquently expressed it, “The Art of the Innuendo”. I’ll give you two great examples of films: “Desperado” (full on sex scene, very sensual and quite appropriate to the film) and “Under the Tuscan Sun” (charming movie, tons of sexual tension, implied sex scene). I have noticed with my reading lately (and I am new to the world of erotica reading), that there are a large amount of books written with the mind set of, “How much sex can we fit in this book?” and it’s silly to be honest. (Unless of course, it is appealing to men or women who are already half way there.) Nevertheless, I feel like there is no limit to what should be written in a story. That being said, the sex should revolve around the story; not vice versa. As a side note, I noticed that you mentioned being “ashamed” of what you had written. I do wonder, did you solely write it for the purpose of people pleasing or did you have some desire to write that type of material? If a part of you wanted to write it, then I think you should embrace that. I am an artist. Sometimes I paint some evil looking stuff (that even scares me), but most of the time, I am a lighthearted painter. I didn’t used to paint the evil looking things but I realized that I can’t pick and choose who I am. I am that I am. I don’t paint everything that I think, just like I don’t say everything that I think, but I also don’t deny who I am. If you are not being true to yourself and instead, you are making decisions to please either the devil or the angel, then either way you are cutting yourself short and limiting your art.

    1. ~ “I do wonder, did you solely write it for the purpose of people pleasing or did you have some desire to write that type of material?” ~

      You ask a pointed question, Lola. Thank you.

      I have made it clear that I was writing graphic sex solely to please an editor and not for myself or my story.

      My mother always told me not to let anyone touch me or do anything sexually that I didn’t want. I really feel that writing should be the same way. I felt violated that I was “expected” to write graphic sex, and subtly pressured and encouraged to do so.

      I’m not saying that graphic sex scenes are evil. I’m saying they are not for me. I resent feeling pressured by a fickle industry to compromise my principles in exchange for writing a book that is tossed aside and forgotten as the last tremors of orgasm fade away.

      There’s an old misogynist saying that there are two kinds of girls, the kind you take home to mother and the kind you to take to bed. Applying that here, I prefer to be the former, giving readers the soul-shattering love-of-your-life romance that stays in their heads and hearts years after they close the book. I prefer to be read and reread until the cover is worn and tattered, in danger of falling apart. I want my readers to sigh over my hero because he touches their hearts, not necessarily their g-spot.

      Given the fact that there is absolutely zero sex in my book, graphic or otherwise, and the reviews use words like “sexy,” “thrilling,” “intricate,” and “pretty hard hot,” I believe I’ve made the right choice in sticking to my guns on this issue. In fact, more than one reader confided that one scene in particular is the hottest scene they’ve ever read. Given the fact that the participants are more or less clothed, there is no mention of slick folds, wet slits, or throbbing shafts, I think it validates my point that graphic sex isn’t necessary to appeal to an audience.

  16. I am really inspired together with your writing skills and also with the layout on your blog. Is that this a paid theme or did you customize it yourself? Either way stay up the nice quality writing, it’s rare to peer a great blog like this one nowadays..

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