Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Sex and Violence

 [PG-13/ R. And, for the record, this is a completely amoral blog post—preaching morals gives me a headache and upsets my ulcer. So I’m not going to comment on “X was immoral.” This is a WRITING POST.]

1. Sex. What is it good for?

Were this a song parody, the next line would be “absolutely nothing.” But, given that I've had bad experiences with song parodies, I will forgo that.

But, seriously, sex in books… why bother? In the context of the written word, almost any novel with a sex scene in it has been, in my opinion, a horrid waste of time, energy, and irritates, at least, this reader.

I don’t use sex scenes. Why? Because I find them boring.

I am not certain how much of this is my own personal opinion and how much of it is a critique of how sex scenes tend to be inflicted on the reader.

One of my major problems is the OSS, or the Obligatory Sex Scene.

For example: In the Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child novel Mount Dragon, our protagonists, after having found shelter and water in the middle of the desert, after nearly dying from thirst, while on the run from a nutcase with a gun… are so happy they start having sex…

Huh? What the Hell?

The OSS I just mentioned is quick. If it's longer than half a page, I'd be surprised. But it was just dropped into the middle of the book, and was so jarring it broke the pace. It had been a nice, solid thriller, our heroes on the run from a psychotic killer with a rifle, and then… they're stopping to have sex? Really? Weren’t you two just dying about a minute ago?

Looking at it objectively, what is the point of an OSS?

  • “Physical intimacy shows the the relationship involved has gone to another level and has thus impacted the characters.”

Perfectly true, but does that necessitate a five page sex scene? Or even a page? If one wanted to tell the reader that, yes, two people slept together, I can do that right now: “X and Y fell into bed, kissing passionately as they stripped each other's clothes. They then turned off the lights and hoped they wouldn't wake the neighbors.”

Done. Two lines and a bit of smart ass can carry something a long way.

  • “Things can happen during the scene that are relevant to the rest of the novel.”

True, but rarely does it necessitate going into intimate details. In fact, I would suggest that anything interesting that happened could be covered in the next chapter. “On reflection, s/he noticed something odd while lying on his/her back. S/he didn't really notice it at the time, but now that it's quiet…”


Exceptions can be made to this rule, obviously. If the couple rolls off of the bed as someone walks into the room, be it with room service or with a gun, then that is a useful detail.

Now, I’ll admit, there are moments when character can be served, strangely enough. I have seen a few sex scenes done well. I don't mean the sex scene in the novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter, where he dwells on a nice neat serial killer, his girlfriend comes in, starts kissing and disrobing him, and the next line is, literally, “How did that happen?” I mean a sex scene, rating R to NC-17.

John Ringo’s “Paladin of Shadows” series (Ghost, Kildar, etc), has sex scenes and nudity. However, the point of the hero, nicknamed Ghost, is that he is not a “nice guy;” he hangs out in strip clubs, and some of his contacts are strippers… it’s rather amusing reading a scene where a stripper is informing him of pertinent information during the course of her duties.

The sex scenes themselves are surprisingly thought out. The first novel, Ghost, is a series of vignettes. The second vignette is described as "two-thirds bondage porn and deep sea fishing, and who knows which is worse" (I’m paraphrasing). Before the sex scenes take up whole chapters, the character Ghost has a discussion with the two young ladies he’s dealing with… and their parents. The conversation that follows is one part dissertation on bondage subcultures, and five parts comedy routine.

After that, you can skip read, unless you really want to learn more about leather goods than you ever really wanted to.

So, here we have someone who makes sex funny without it being gaudy. In fact, the amount of thought put into his later sex scenes shows a lot of character, intelligence, and humor.

Even then, are they necessary? Surprisingly enough, some are, and two are crucial to the stories they show up in. Almost all of them impact the characters in some way. And almost all of these scenes can be entertaining for reasons that are anything but sexual.

Why Ghost does what he does (and I don’t mean sexual maneuvers or positions) tells the reader more about the character than a hundred pages of sex scenes from any given novelist…

Laurell K. Hamilton, I’m looking at you.

Seriously, when discussing unnecessary sex scenes, she is the elephant in the room.

Laurell K. Hamilton created a novel series about Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. It was a nice, solid series, set in St. Louis, with a well-constructed, detailed world, where vampires were public figures, werewolves are treated like HIV cases in the 80s, crosses work against vampires, and demons aren’t the actor in a suit you see on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For eight or nine novels, the series went well. There was sexuality here and there (a major character was a French vampire, after all), but it never really got in the way of the story. By book seven and eight, the main character was sleeping with both a vampire and a werewolf, but the OSS’s were few and far between, and they were easily skipped by turning a page. Quite painless, overall.

After book #9, Obsidian Butterfly, I was warned off several novels because they opened with a hundred pages of vampire rituals of who gets to have sex with who. I went back for book #15, because it featured the return of Hamilton's best, scariest character: a mild mannered, white-bread fellow named Edward… he’s a mercenary who started hunting vampires because humans were “too easy.”

However, I had to skip a hundred and fifty pages of the novel. It was one, long and drawn out OSS. Not a menage a trois, but a bisexual sextet among Vampires and were-creatures. Much of the rest of the book had pages of Anita Blake defending her sex life. “The lady dost protest too much.”

When the author herself was asked about the overabundance of sex during a Barnes and Noble interview, Hamilton’s defense was

“I only get complaints from men. I had two reviewers tell me that they're disturbed that a woman is writing this sort of stuff. ”

Uh huh.

This feels like the story should end with “and then everybody clapped.”


If I may respond…

And this is my blog, so I can…

Dear Madam, Hamilton,

I get disturbed with John Ringo writing about a man and two coeds on a boat with bondage gear. For the love of all that’s Holy, what makes you think that a bi-sexual sextet with were-furries would go over any better, no matter who or what you were? You’re going to defend against criticism with some kind of strange faux-feminism based off of two reviewers who may or may not exist? How about "I want more plot than sex scene," are you going to blame that on me being male? Really? Really?

Again, I'll go back to John Ringo, only a different series — The Council Wars. One short story is seriously NC-17, and reading through it, I would be hard-pressed to see how it could be written otherwise.

With Hamilton’s novels, I could skip over a hundred pages of sex and not miss a single plot point.

That’s not “you wouldn’t object if I were a man.” That is just screwed up.

Make it sextets with were-furries, it’s even worse.

2. “I want a Heroine not an excuse for sex.”

As I said, as a rule, I don’t do sex scenes. I will, on occasion, have moments of physical intimacy off screen, that the reader doesn’t see, but that’s about it.

Can I write a sex scene? Sure, they’re easy. In the past, I’ve gotten requests from lady friends of mine for erotica (don't ask, long story).

But are they necessary in fiction? No. And no. And hell no.

Did I need intimate details to add to the plot, the character, or anything related to the story? No.

Frankly, I think a PG-13 novel sometimes requires more skill than an NC-17 rated. I find that sex sequences are a cheat, sort of like premium cable—just because you can use four letter words doesn’t mean you have to write them into every single line.

I have actually made my lack of OSS’s in my novels work for me.

(For a quick example: The character of Sean A.P. Ryan has had a long term girlfriend… they’ve never had intercourse because every time they do, someone tries to kill them.)

Just because an author can throw in a sex scene doesn't mean s/he must do so. Doing sex scenes well takes skill, and making them relevant takes talent; most people don't have it.

  • Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer had several moments where our heroine's sex life really was going to get people killed.

  • Sherrilyn Kenyon, a ROMANCE NOVELIST, wrote at least one book where the LACK of sex was a key plot point, and another where intimacy between the hero and heroine was surprisingly crucial to the story.

  • Ringo was mentioned above.

So, it has been done well. Just not very often.

To answer the opening question: Sex, what is it good for?

In novels... it can be good for something. It just rarely is.

The Next Elephant

We’ve covered sex.

Now a quick word on violence.


Violence: what is it good for…?

A lot more than sex is.

I have heard multiple answers to the question: “Why put fight scenes into a novel?

David Drake, author of dozens of sci-fi novels, and Vietnam Veteran, has said that he puts fights scenes in to honor those that served, who had been there, done that.

That is a great, good, and noble answer.

Not mine.

My answer is: “A is trying to stop B. B will not be stopped with words. Time to incapacitate B. Chaos ensues.”

I will not say that violence is always required in a story. If you watched the series Burn Notice, it was practically built around a limited use of violence—tricks, blackmail, lying cheating and stealing, but rarely violence. It is like Mission: Impossible, or MacGyver for the dark side.

Like with sex, violence can be a cheat, a substitute for a plot. This is more obvious in the novels where the violence is more about brutality than anything else. When you consider that the average fight may top out at around five seconds, a long, drawn out, Steven Seagal-type battle royale is more of a dance routine than anything else.

Tolkien’s novels were part of a war story. In the current day and age, much of warfare has been / can be done with Special Forces troops. A war waged with SpecOps is still a war.

And, the bible aside, there are few audiences that will allow a book to get away with something as simple as “The two of them struggled, rolled towards the edge of the roof, and the enemy fell off.” Right there is a failing grade in any creative writing class.

Jackie Chan pointed out that there is a difference between violence and action—it's hard to think of his action films as overly violent when you consider that he came out of a ballet company. When one observes the original A-Team, one of the running jokes among tv watchers is that there were thousands of bullets fired, but no one was shot.

Like with Burn Notice or MacGyver, guns are tools, not solutions.

In the case of my books, have both fight scenes and action sequences. Have two people stand there and pound on each other is boring at best, gratuitous at worst. Have a running battle leading someone into a trap? Slightly more interesting.

For example, in A Pius Man, every fight scene serves a function. It leaves a clue, tells the audience something about the enemy, their motives, and their identity. Why would X group attack Y person? The level of force and determination can indicate the enemy's strength of numbers, the weapons they have access to, what intelligence they have access to, etc.

I tend to overthink things in my day to day life, so fight scenes occasionally get the same treatment.

I also try to have action sequences and fight scenes serve character... granted, in some of the oddest ways imaginable. For example, one thing they all have in common is that the only fair fight is the one they win. Letting the bad guys draw first is for suckers and dead men.

Some examples, and I’ll use one of my earlier works, A Pius Man.


Matthew Kovach: Appears briefly in A Pius Man, but is a primary character in the second novel, he’s interesting in terms of fighting style. His thumbnails are grown a little long (“the better for gouging, my dear”) and his main weapon—his pens. He knows twelve ways to kill someone with a ballpoint, and several more ways to disarm and incapacitate them. When things get really nasty, he has his fountain pens. He also spends most of his time running, so he can hide and get into a good position to attack from. He's basically an academic with an odd past; as he says, violence finds him.

Sean AP Ryan: being a former stuntman, his fighting style is… psychotic. “Why are you using moves out of The Matrix?” Answer “Because I can do it without the wirework.” He carries a tactical baton around with him at all times—because there are occasions when he needs to take someone alive. 

I’ve practiced with a self defense system called Krav Maga, which is about practical defense. Krav Maga even disdains the title “martial art,” if only because there is no art. We practice eye gouges, train for anti-weapon tactics, guns, knives, long guns, uzis … and any other weapon added to the itinerary. 

In the case of Sean Ryan, he has an “expert” level in Krav Maga—which means he can face multiple attackers with multiple weapons. However, he uses moves that most Krav practitioners look at and say “No. Flipping. Way.” When he is outmanned and outgunned, Sean tends to become even deadlier. There's a reason he lists his resume by property damage.

Giovanni Figlia: as a former soccer player, Giovanni prefers a good solid kick to the groin, or headbutt to the face. As well as the occasional suicide dive into someone's stomach. “SCORE!” Also, being a former cop, he believes in the power of handguns and body armor.

Maureen McGrail: elegant and deadly. For reasons undisclosed, she started taking martial arts from a relatively young age, well before she got into double digits. MMA for the dark side, she has used bits Krav Maga, some have said Kung Fu, as well as penjakt silat (an Indonesian fighting style where punch defenses equal lethal force). She doesn't carry weapons, she is the weapon. The only people she needs to kill are the ones who just won't stay down any other way. And in A Pius Man, a stake to the heart may be required.

Hashim Abasi: He is, at heart, a street cop. A street cop from Egypt, but a street cop nonetheless. While he has some experience with a sword, that's not exactly practical for carrying around in the street. He prefers using his bulk for a standard kick-punch-elbow combination, and knows most ways to disarm someone. Think of it as an abbreviated Krav Maga.

Scott “Mossad” Murphy—a brilliant spy, but his philosophy is that if he needs a gun, his job had failed. Also, the last time someone gave him a handgun, he nearly blew his foot off. In a fight, he prefers to use his innate ability to blend into a crowd the shadows, and anything else available. On an intellectual level, he knows how to fight. On a practical level, it's a good day when he doesn't kill himself during practice drills. When possible, he prefers improvised weapons that he can launch from a distance—the further the better. If he must go up close and personal, he prefers a heavy object he can deliver to the back of someone's head.

As I said above, I tend to overthink everything, and at points, so do my characters. I have yet to have one novel that did not have a scene of analysis immediately following an action sequence. The protagonists examine the weapons used (local? Foreign? Military? Civilian? Homemade?), the tactics (professional or amateur? How many operatives?), and, if there are any survivors, the people themselves (accented? Languages spoken? Do they respond to interrogation?). You can see why a two page fight scene can be broken down into a three page discussion about the implications.

So sometimes, even the fight scenes are a clue.

When we get to White Ops… well, now we’re just back to a war story.

As you can see, there are more things that can be done with violence than with sex. Violence can move the story forward a lot more easily than sex can.

Sex can move the story forward, but very rarely, and it takes a deft hand. Violence is conflict, and conflict moves the story. Sex… is very much not conflict, and if it is, I’m not quite sure I want to read it.

You want sexuality and art, check out Martina Markota on any of her visual media. You want porn, read

If you want a story… then tell a damned story.

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