Sex scenes which were actually essential for the story

Recently, over on Tunblr, I have been engaged in a discussion about George R.R. Martin’s inclusion of the rape/de-virginisation scene of a 13 year old girl, and whether it was, you know, actually necessary. I sit in the camp that the whole thing is creepy and gross, and completely unneeded. However, usually what happens after I state that a sex scene is creepy and gross is that people assume I think ALL sex scenes are creepy and gross.

Which I don’t. And in that spirit, I’ve decided to compile a short list of sex scenes that I think actually served a purpose within a story, rather than just being there as a sort of ‘oh look they are having sex!’ type scene.

1. All erotica ever

Well, yes. Because the point of erotica is to be titillating and to get you off. So pretty much if you’re reading erotica you are hoping for sex scenes in their dozens, if not hundreds. I’ll also include ‘racy romance’ in this category, since the pay-off is the characters getting together and sex/marriage is pretty much the way that gets signalled to the reader.

Why it works: Because the sex is the point.
Shop for erotica

2. The sex scenes from Choke

Choke is Chuck Palahniuk’s novel about a sex addict, who goes to a sex addicts 12-step program. So it kind of figures there’s going to be some sex in this book. You’ll either love Palahniuk, or you’ll hate him. But given half the point of his books is to push right to the edges of what is acceptible and to try and make you feel uncomfortable; the sex in these books is pretty fundamental (and not really written to turn you on or make you think of sex in a positive way)

Why it works: It’s part of the nihilistic, taboo pushing backdrop to the book and an essential part of the character
Shop for Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

3. The rape scene in Clan of the Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear is the first Earth’s Children novel, and whilst the novels very quickly go downhill, and even the first is filled with rambling purple prose that you can easily skip, it’s also one of the best explored and logically thought out ‘alien’ cultures. Ayla is a Cro-Magnon girl who ends up growing up with a group of Neanderthals. There is a point where she is repeatedly raped, but because of the society she lives in, the rapist can carry out his crime pretty much in the open wherever he wants. The consequences of the act have a massive impact on Ayla, from a character development point of view, but also lead to her child.

Why it works: It isn’t romanticised, it’s written from the female character’s perspective, and it permanently changes both her character, and the nature of her relationship with the rapist (not to mention the rest of the clan)
Shop for The Clan of the Cave Bear: Earth’s Children 1 by Jean M. Auel.

4. The sex in all of Robin Hobb’s books

Robin Hobb writes Fantasy, but she writes grown-up, incredibly well thought out fantasy with complex characters. Sex turns up often, but it always feeds into our understanding of character, advances or complicates the plot, helps the character come to terms with or understand aspects of themselves, and generally is realistic and often beautiful. Did I mention I love Robin Hobb? I love Robin Hobb.

Why it works: Robin Hobb is a genius for character
Shop for books by Robin Hobb

5. The sex in Earthly Powers

Earthly Powers is an Anthony Burgess novel that opens with a fairly infamous line that references sex. It is a giant novel that explores morality, humanity and religion and you can’t really talk about any of those things without talking about sex. Read the book, it’s great.

Why it works: It’s irreverent and playful, and underscores the main themes.
Shop for Earthly Powers

6. The sex in The Illuminatus Trilogy

A book by Robert Anton Wilson, whose stated goal is pretty much to get you to trip the fuck out. There is a rather memorable sex/death scene involving an apple (I won’t tell you more than that).

Why it works: It’s part of the whole magical mind-bending sixties sexual freedom vibe.
Shop for The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Suggestions from others

  • Rochefort and Dariole from 1610
  • Woman on the edge of time
  • Anything in Diceman
  • Swastika Night
  • Lolita
  • The Time Travellers Wife

There are many more examples, and it would be great for people to share any that they think worked particularly well – using sex to develop character, illuminate a main theme, or for some other reason that you think makes it work.

2 thoughts on “Sex scenes which were actually essential for the story”

  1. For the record, I KNOW that you aren’t offended by all sex scenes ever 😉 because you didn’t avoid it in your Smoky Days story (although I don’t remember now if that made the final cut?) and because you did it really well then, focussing on the emotions.

    Which I think is crucial if you are going to write about sex. No-one wants to read graphic descriptions of what goes where. OK, lemme rephrase. *I* don’t want to read graphic descriptions of what goes where. But I do want to know what happens inside the characters heads, how it changes them, how it changes their relationship. Because if you fade to black outside the bedroom door you miss all that, which is funny because sex is one of the most powerful crazy things we do as humans.

    My favourite couple in a novel are Rochefort and Dariole from 1610, but there’s no particular scene which amazing, I just think their dynamic is badass. Actually, Dariole does get raped in that story, although it’s not really described except to make it obvious how much it hurt her, and broke her ability to relate to Rochefort (he wasn’t the rapist, btw)

    1. It didn’t make the final cut! Mostly because the dynamic of that scene changed, and I switched it to Denise’s pov. It ended up reading a bit like Denise only slept with Tabbi to get her to change her mind, which was weird and manipulative. I wanted Denise to be flawed, but I didn’t want the readers to completely hate her!

      I think sex scenes are one of the hardest things to imagine from someone else’s perspective, and so hard to get emotions/consequences right. Rape is even harder; if you’ve never been raped you need to do a lot of research to get beyond ‘it made him/her sad’. Which is why it’s a shame it’s used as a character device in so many books…

      I know you don’t think that I hate sex scenes, just it is often a knee-jerk reaction. Plus I’m trying to reframe discussions to go in a positive direction – instead of arguing about whether something is bad or not, instead try to find examples everyone agrees are good!

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