Guest blog: Sex in stories, stories in sex

Image by the fabulous Stuart F Taylor

For a long time I’ve had a discomfort with the way that sex is often carved out and set aside from the rest of any given story. Whether it’s people complaining about how ‘unnecessary’ sex scenes are in movies, or books which get dismissed as trashy just because the characters have the temerity to fuck, I find the way sex is treated in media both frustrating and fascinating. I’d never really been able to articulate the root of this discomfort, but when LJ Amber got in touch with this week’s guest blog, I suddenly got it. They argue the case for sex in stories with such power and clarity – I am so grateful to them for sharing their perspective, and I agree so wholeheartedly with their point. LJ Amber’s debut novel – Song of the Wild Knight – is coming out next week (29th Feb), so please do check that out and share this post if you agree. Here’s to sex in stories, and the beautiful stories we tell through sex.

Sex in stories, stories in sex

Once upon a time, a fledgling novelist sat down to learn how they should be writing. There were many books available, some very highly regarded, and so this ought to have been easy. How better to learn, than to read what the masters had to say?

True enough, there was plenty of good advice in those books. There was also bad advice, but that was only to be expected; art, like life, is gloriously imperfect. But what was puzzling to the fledgling novelist was what wasn’t in the guide books, what the great authors didn’t elaborate.

They had nothing to say about sex.

Sure, they held forth for pages upon pages about writing action, conveying emotion, simulating human beings as characters. Yet real human beings, the kind who live and breathe and yearn and die, are notorious for fucking. Study after study has shown that we’re driven by libidinous urges – often sexual – and that we only justify our actions after the fact. We tell ourselves stories to explain behaviour that arises from our wants, from our needs. To live is to desire.

But despite this, not a word on sex. Well, mostly. There was one book that dared comment, but it did so by describing sex scenes as a high-wire act, a don’t-try-this-at-home trick for the very best to show off their talent. To write two characters fucking (note: only two) was described as a specialist skill reserved for accomplished authors, an add-on to the art and craft of storytelling.

And even if the sex was good, it was important not to add too much. A little pepper to season the dish! Add too much, and you’d be writing pornography — for perverts.

This was when our fledgling novelist closed the books, and went back to writing. Much like having sex, sometimes the best way to learn is by doing.

Let me ask you: what makes a story hot? Not just arousing in the sexual sense, but utterly searing, the sort of story that commands your attention and demands that you return to it long after you have finished reading. There are characters and scenes and tales that lodge in our hearts and return to us unbidden as we move through life, and they radiate warmth that nourishes us, often in ways we can’t begin to explain.

Everyone who reads will one day find a story like this. Alas, not everyone who writes will one day create one. Yet I will confess that, as a fledgling novelist, many of the stories that crept under my skin and changed who I am are stories that would be dismissed as pornographic. It’s for this reason that I closed the books and went back to writing, back to learning, and back to the quest for a story that burrows deep.

Sadly, the prevailing puritanism of our times means I must emphasise: there’s nothing wrong with erotica, smut, and good old-fashioned pornography. Stories that are written only to arouse are in many ways purer expressions of human feeling than some of the weightiest literary works recommended by critics. We are all libidinous beings, most of us sexually, so give us this day our daily bread — for we are forever ravenous.

Yet even among those stories that are just about the sex, there are works that stand out. Surely you, too, have read or heard something so extraordinarily good that it turns you on every time? Perhaps it caters to niche personal preferences, like water in a desert, or perhaps you – ahem – came across it when you were in a vulnerable and receptive place, and it left an indelible mark.

Or perhaps it was simply very well done, and possessed some quality that elevated it beyond the mechanical pleasures of sex. Perhaps it went something like this?

… It was never just sex. Even the fastest, dirtiest, most impersonal screw was about more than sex. It was about connection. It was about looking at another human being and seeing your own loneliness and neediness reflected back. It was recognising that together you had the power to temporarily banish that sense of isolation. It was about experiencing what it was to be human at the basest, most instinctive level.

Emily Maguire

As an author, and as a lover, I have found that sex is best when it’s done as an act of communication. I don’t mean that good communication is fundamental to good sex (though it is). I mean that the hottest sex is communicating something, whether between participants or to observers, an expression of something that needs to be shared. What that thing is varies with the people involved, but the best sex is the most uninhibited and authentic in what it reveals, and always expresses some part of what it means to be human.

And if this is true, is this not storytelling? Do we not tell a story to ourselves, our lovers, our audience when we fuck? Stories of love, stories of lust, stories of power and control, stories of uncertainty, and vulnerability, nervousness and teasing, stories of anger and reconciliation, stories of self-loathing and obliteration, stories of catharsis — so many different stories, all reaching toward a freedom that lies beyond ourselves alone.

It follows that, in storytelling, sex is a powerful means of characterisation that can in turn transform characters and advance narratives. As an expression of humanity it can be as powerfully thematic as any other literary device. Sex can be the pulsing blood of stories that have something to say about life. How sad it is, then, that so many well-established authors are more comfortable depicting scenes of sexual assault than writing a meaningful everyday screw. When the full, human power of sex in writing is shunned, no wonder people grow weary and wary of sex in media, not to mention alienated from their own sexuality.

What makes a story hot? When it means something. The best sex scenes mean something to the story, and the best stories are interwoven through their sex scenes. Together, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts.

So let us be grateful for the cherished pornographers who feed the famished with stories about sex. For my part, I will repay what they taught me with stories that are unashamedly sexual, unashamedly human.


Don’t forget, LJ Amber’s debut novel – Song of the Wild Knight – is available for pre-order now

1 Comment

  • Reba L. says:

    This is a beautifully written elaboration on the way that I have felt for a very long time. Thank you for putting this out into the world!

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