I started the week talking about my short story class, and some of the challenges that come with providing feedback to our peers. The worst of it was talking about a sex scene buried in one of the many stories we’ve read so far.
And, mostly, it was a whole lot of worrying over nothing. We’re in this class to speak openly and honestly. We’re in this class to share our best thoughts and solicit judgment. It doesn’t make any sense to worry we might get some.
But I drew a surprising epiphany out of all that introspection. Arguing with nobody, trying to justify to myself my claim that “I don’t like reading sex scenes,” I came to a pretty startling realization about myself. Not just that, it was a realization about American culture, and a double-standard that many have found baffling for a very long time.
For what it’s worth, I really don’t read sex scenes very often. I stumbled across a library book about shape-shifting druids back when I was in middle school that featured some. I felt a forbidden, rebellious thrill as the first scene unfolded.
At that age, I lacked the context and vocabulary to really understand what was going on (and being part of a book about shape-shifting druids, it wasn’t exactly your standard fare anyway). The stuff I did comprehend just felt awkward and unpleasant. Even after it was over, I couldn’t look the characters in the face anymore. That was probably the first book I consciously chose not to finish.
And after that…y’know, I don’t think I encountered one sex scene in a novel until my Category Fiction class last fall. For that class we did a review of all the most popular genres, and that included a pair of romance novels. One of them was pretty good apart from the sex scenes. The other one was no good at all.
Oh! I forgot one. Courtney’s got a sex scene in her fantasy epic. That was the only part of the book I didn’t like. And she’s almost got a sex scene in Colors. Again: least favorite part of the story.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t dislike sex. Ahem. I don’t want to get too personal here, because I’m broadcasting this to the world. You come here to read writing advice. You come here to keep up on my writing projects. Maybe you come here to hear amusing little anecdotes about my children or my childhood.
So I won’t dwell on this topic. But I feel like I should at least mention it for context. I’m a fan of sex. I like that it happens. If some of my favorite characters in literature get to have great sex…awesome! Good for them! They deserve, after everything they’ve been through.
But, personally, I rarely want to read it.
And that’s where we get to the double-standard. On the flip side of the coin, I hate violence. I really don’t want that to happen to anyone I care about, literary characters included. Yet I read about that all the time. I seek out books where it happens to them.
That’s kind of a weird conundrum. And it’s not just mine; it’s a big (and much-criticized) part of American culture. It’s built into our decency laws and laid out in startling clarity in our movie ratings system. As a culture, we’re totally comfortable watching brutal violence, but we shrink away from a little personal contact between consenting adults.
I think I know why. And I think understanding it is valuable writing advice.
Hurting the Ones We Love
Story violence represents an application of force. When we participate in stories, we understand that. It can be force a villain is applying against a hero, or it can be force the hero is applying against his enemies. In either case, it represents the weight of the story. He’s either losing (which generally represents 90% of a given story), or he’s winning.
But even when he’s losing, we understand that this is part of the process of winning. The violence being done to him will be answered. We don’t like to see sympathetic people suffering, but we understand that it happens, and we love seeing a good person who has suffered overcome it. If we have to see some of the suffering to appreciate that, we’re willing to.
Maybe that’s enough to explain why we tolerate violence in our stories–maybe–but why are we so terrified of the physical act of love?
The heart of the problem isn’t the “awfulness” of the scene. It’s not a matter of what we, as a culture, prefer to happen. It’s a matter of what we’re comfortable sympathizing with. Of what we’re comfortable participating in.
I think that’s the key to it. And maybe I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been involved in so many discussions about character- versus plot-driven stories recently. But it’s not about what’s happening, it’s about how what’s happening impacts the character. And, more than that, it’s about how we connect to that impact on the character.
In character-driven stories, writers and readers both work hard to get readers inside the protagonist’s head. We work hard to create that connection, to experience the world our characters are experiencing. It’s always a delicate negotiation, but writers who can do that tend to become extremely popular (and, sometimes, even wealthy).
That’s the big challenge with first-person perspectives. It’s the big challenge with men writing female protagonists (or vice versa). It’s the challenge with writing narrators who have mental disorders or an extremely foreign cultural background or even just strange tastes.
Now, many readers read with the specific goal of accessing that different perspective. But that’s some very deliberate word choice. It’s not to “see” or “glimpse” the character’s perspective: readers read to access the character. To engage. To internalize, if only for a moment.
The more unique a character’s perspective–the more it differs from a readers–the harder it becomes for that reader to effectively connect with the character. The more personal a protagonist’s responses, the harder it becomes for readers to access them. And if they differ from the reader’s own responses, the more personal the responses are, the more uncomfortable it becomes to internalize them.
And nowhere are we more personal than in our response to sex. I think a close second might be the grief response at losing a loved one–and you’ll notice how much I complained about that in the stories we read last week, too.
Ultimately, it’s not a question of awfulness, it’s a question of intimacy. Culturally, we’re not comfortable sharing that intimacy with strangers. We can recognize violence together, and we can strive side-by-side for a victory over it, but there are some thing we just don’t really want to know about our neighbors.
Of course, like so many things, it’s a matter of personal choice. Different people have different comfort levels when it comes to intimacy, and I’d hypothesize that you can see that expressed in their opinions concerning sex scenes in their stories.
For my part…I like to keep a little distance. Now you know something about me. Hopefully now you know something new about audience analysis, too. At the very least, I’m happy to finally have a little clarity on the old sex/violence conundrum.