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Can a bad sex scene kill an otherwise great book?
Colleen Lindsay
Posted: Monday, October 1, 2012 11:38 AM
Joined: 2/27/2011
Posts: 353

I've been reading a literary historical novel called THE BLACK ISLE that I've really been enjoying. But every now and again, the author throws in sex scenes that are beyond awkward and I am embarrassed for everyone when I read them. It saps the enjoyment out of the book and I kind of wish the author had a.) gotten some help from romance writer friends or b.) left out the sex entirely.

My question to you: have bad sex scenes ever completely ruined a book for you?

Second question: Why is it that it seems literary fiction is the biggest offender?


Nevena Georgieva
Posted: Monday, October 1, 2012 12:21 PM
Joined: 2/9/2012
Posts: 427

Interesting topic!

I feel like writers sometimes feel as if they absolutely need to slap on a few sex scenes—or else their book isn’t going to be considered commercially viable. I haven’t read THE BLACK ISLE, but let’s conjure up a more popular example: THE HUNGER GAMES.

There are no sex scenes in THE HUNGER GAMES, you say. True, but there is a romantic plot that takes up a significant portion of the trilogy, even though it doesn’t seem that vital to the story overall. To me, the romantic happy ending in MOCKINGJAY seemed contrived and unnecessary. On the other hand, I wonder if I’d have been quite so engrossed in the story if it hadn’t been for the love triangle!

So, let me broaden/modify your question a bit: in which cases are romance and sex unnecessary? And are we as readers so compelled by romantic/sexual relationships that it has become compulsory to always have romantic/sex scenes, even if they don’t make all that much sense for the story the writer is telling?

P.S. I think literary fiction is the biggest offender because in that genre that defies all genres, sex scenes are often supposed to be disturbing J

Alexander Hollins
Posted: Monday, October 1, 2012 12:38 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

I really want to be snarky and say, because the literary fiction writer is less likely to have gotten laid often enough to have the experience to write a good sex scene, but I know that's often not true.  Why it's literary, no clue.

Ruined a book, yes, Shuttle People. Was a decent sci fi pulp novel, with a couple of detailed sex scenes that had some dirty talk that, just... no....  (that said, it did have a sex scene in microgravity, and explored some of the possible benefits and limitations thereof, which was cool. )

Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 11:00 AM
Joined: 6/26/2012
Posts: 2

I absolutely agree. A bad sex scene can ruin everything. Lately I've been reading a lot of self-published works and I'm always discouraged when I come across a bad sex scene. Those misplaced couple of paragraphs will often turn a good review into a bad one.

That being said, I think that readers crave relationships in books because they're human. The Hunger Games didn't have to contain a romance undertone, but the characters wouldn't have been "real" without the romantic piece, especially considering the age group.

I'm not a big fan of regency unless it's done really well and the story itself is enough for me to slog through the sex scenes. I know there is an entire culture around regency romance, but I'm not sure I understand why. I'm of the mind that all sex scenes can be done in a YA-style, that it to say, a few words to allude to sex, without being explicit.
Posted: Tuesday, October 2, 2012 12:16 PM
Joined: 3/14/2011
Posts: 44

That is unfortunate. I have felt a few times while reading lit fic that the authors perhaps made a conscious effort to remove anything that could have been titillating from a sex scene. Perhaps they felt that including a romantic or moving sex scene would have somehow detracted from the literary merit of the book. Not a sentiment I agree with.

But the effort was made to sway the scene away from pleasure and connection between characters and instead use it to focus on unappealing physical aspects of the act or use it to show one of the characters being mentally removed from the act. The latter I understand more as it can reveal the differences between characters or a disfunction in the relationship.

These scenes haven't really ruined books for me, but they generally haven't helped.
Elizabeth Moon
Posted: Wednesday, October 3, 2012 1:54 PM
Joined: 6/14/2012
Posts: 194

Sex scenes have ruined a number of books for me--often, but certainly not exclusively, when written by men who have no idea (apparently) what a woman thinks & feels when reading (or engaging in) sexual behavior.   I  enjoy titillation in a written sex scene; the mechanics of it--including the cutesy names some writers come up with for the body parts involved--are generally ho-hum boring.  Yeah, yeah, I know this can go here, and that can go there, you don't have to tell me.   Unless the only plot in the book is about whether A and B get together and if so will the sex be good (not a plot type I look for),. sex scenes generally aren't plot-relevant, and the longer they go on, the more I am begging for them to end and get back to the story. 

I don't mind a romance in the book (although I prefer romance running alongside something else, some sign that the characters are more than breeding bunnies), and don't mind when they hop into bed, as long as I'm not stuck watching them too long.  A paragraph--maybe two--is long enough to let me know whether they know what they're doing, are having fun or not, and are likely (or not) to come out of this experience wanting more.  (And a paragraph is plenty long enough to show whether or not the writer has a clue...several sentences of body parts named using euphemisms and overly detailed and lush description, and I'm SO out of there, often a combination of giggling at the absurdities and annoyance that a previously interesting book has this....this nonsense in the middle of it.

Madeleine Aime
Posted: Sunday, October 7, 2012 2:02 PM
Joined: 10/7/2012
Posts: 2

I find myself wearied and disappointed when a character's motivations is rooted in their loins - this is why Fifty Shades of Grey never appealed to me. It is not only sex scenes that I have an aversion to, but novels in which sexual tension is a cornerstone to the story, or the cheap force that moves it along.

Usually, sexual tension, cheeky comments, and an erotically charged interplay between two featured characters is found in pop-literature. Just recently, I read Grave Mercy, which had a fascinating take on a convent which worships a god of death. I found this to be the thread I just barely hang onto, because the constant bickering and/or flirting between the two characters discouraged me. When the story takes a back seat to romantic antics, I have a problem with this. The culinary equivalent to this lack of moderation would be drowning my entree with salt. 

I don't think the prose or pacing of a sex scene will enhance my enjoyment of the novel. I find it to be subtlety (such as fading out) or psychological insight to the characters that is most important. Mists of Avalon comes to mind - there is a scene in which Lancelot sleeps with Guinevere after she has been violated by a barbarian. There is very little detail except for the principle of the act - the reader knows that intimacy with Lancelot is a salve, and a way to cope with her trauma. 

I agree with Nevena that literary fiction commits the crime of poorly fashioned sex scenes in the pursuit of appealing to the market. In addition, I think that there is a misguided belief that if sex is included, the writer has illustrated the entire gamut of human activity. It is perhaps a lofty ambition to capture everything that encompasses human experience. I believe it is counterproductive to clutter a book with stagnant sex scenes that linger like boulders and stubbornly sit there when I want to move on.
Alexandria Brim
Posted: Thursday, October 11, 2012 4:36 AM
Joined: 10/20/2011
Posts: 350

I haven't had a book ruined by a bad sex scene but it has taken me out of the story for some time. Or I start skipping it. And I usually find I missed nothing of importance to the story.

I tend to read romances, so I notice another problem than badly written sex scenes. And that's too many sex scenes. It's like writers think it can't be a romance unless they hit a sex scene quota. Because of this, I feel the romances then suffer because they mistake building a relationship with just having the couple have lots and lost of sex.
Yezall Strongheart
Posted: Monday, October 22, 2012 12:02 PM
Joined: 10/8/2011
Posts: 15

From a writer's point of view, a bad sex scene is most definitely embarrassing.  In my early writing life I wrote the most horrible disaster of a sex scene in a book.  I tried to use different words for body parts and it was a ridiculous, clinical-like description of the action.  Now it makes me slap my forehead.  It was disturbing, gross, and most of all laughable.  
Thankfully, I have learned from my mistake.  I still think the best way to work through a difficult scene, sexual or otherwise, is to read it aloud.  What feelings does it evoke? Is that feeling what you are trying to achieve?  
I have to agree that in real life, just sex isn't the base of a lasting relationship. It's not a message I want to spread.
Posted: Tuesday, October 23, 2012 1:38 AM
Joined: 3/9/2011
Posts: 16

They haven't ruined any books for me because even though I write romance/erotica on occasion, when it comes to sex scenes in most other genres when I'm reading, I just skip them. It's like those that skip paragraphs of description, I do that but for sex scenes. I just am not interested in that part of the story.
Posted: Monday, November 5, 2012 5:47 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 222

Sex definitely ruins great books for me. Most sex scenes aren't done well. They're awkward, they're tasteless, and they're just not necessary. The few times I haven't disliked a sex scene, it was just vague enough that there was sex going on, but not in your face with the female bits and the male bits and all of the other bits that often make it embarrassing to read.

Patricia Briggs manages to write sex scenes that aren't completely embarrassing for all parties involved, but she also manages to build the tension in such a way where it isn't surprising, and the sex isn't exactly what I'd classify as pornographic.

For the most part, though, I don't read fantasy for erotica. I read it for new worlds and places. Talking about sex and mating doesn't bother me, but a discreet shutting of the door is much more effective.

My imagination is often much more... er.. creative than what most of these sex scenes bring to the table, so I'm happier just coming up with it in my own brain.

(Now I sound like a pervert...)
Danielle Bowers
Posted: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 8:27 PM
Joined: 3/16/2011
Posts: 279

I can think of several titles that were ruined for me by the sex scenes.  Jean M. Auel's series with THE MAMMOTH HUNTERS and VALLEY OF THE HORSES comes to mind.  I don't mind reading sex scenes, but most of the sex scenes in her books didn't seem to move the story.

Posted: Thursday, November 8, 2012 6:09 PM
Her sex scenes didn't seem to move anything.

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 6:12 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

What a laugh!
I was reading through this thread and immediately The Mammoth hunters series came to mind (is it Children of the Earth?) I didn't mind the first three, in fact I enjoyed them, though read as a teenager, maybe it's me that changed rather than the writting style in the time that passed before reading the fourth.
In this last of the four, everytime three people were gathered together and one left, you knew what was coming, every time Ayla and Jondular went for a stroll, every time..... you get the picture... it was that constant and lengthy.
Also, and my assumption may be wrong. But as the sex scenes were little to do with the story and felt artificial inserted I found myself outside of the story, wondering this;
If I read the original books as a teenager, and two decades later read the soft porn fourth edition of the series, what age is the biddy writing this explicit garbage. Maybe it's agist, maybe Jean started writing young, maybe the last in the series was out a long time before I was unfortunate enough to stumble across it, but either way, the picture conjured in my head of a world-worn author in the act of dreaming up and writing these episodes still haunts me to this day.

Having said this, in my own piece, I've somewhat chickened out. I've either opted to be explicit in the build up and finish the chapter just the MCs are about to get most energetic, or started the chapter with describing only the aftermath of an incredibly passionate romp.

P.S. I'm not a prude...... honest!

Michael R Hagan
Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 9:19 AM
Joined: 10/14/2012
Posts: 229

Also, I should mention, that I wasn't wearing my glasses when I read the posted question first.I nearly asked what you had against bald people having sex!

Ed Ireland
Posted: Thursday, November 15, 2012 7:32 PM
Joined: 11/10/2012
Posts: 11

I think the answer to the question is as bold a yes as can be shouted. I'm scared to death whenever I have to write one as it is, to me at least, one of the finest lines to walk. Not enough and it's boring...lean a bit too far and you've written porn. Maybe I should just start writing about robots. Nah...the hero would ultimately strip a wing nut and I'd be right back in the middle again.
Alexander Hollins
Posted: Friday, January 11, 2013 4:58 PM
Joined: 3/13/2011
Posts: 412

And , she gets ridden roughly over it, but Laurell K Hamilton!  The sex scenes don't ruin it. It's the baby gazelle knees the prose has for the 15 pages after each sex scene. 

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