Thursday 29 November 2012

The Power of Sex

How's that for a title huh?
Today I'm forcing myself to take a day off from work, so I figured a nice relaxing blog post might be a good way to unwind. I thought it might be fun to talk about the power of sex as a topic in fiction, how it can be treated, and what it can mean.

Over on Kindleboards there was an interesting thread I stumbled upon last night about a Christian erotic author who was having trouble reconciling their feelings of guilt with their publishing schedule, and it got me thinking about how powerful sex can be to both readers and writers alike. It's a shame it's still such a rarely used tool in a lot of mainstream fiction, because sex can be used to explore and contextualise both some of the most wonderful, and some of the most harrowing extremes of the human emotional spectrum. I'm sure for a lot of people some of the most intimate and loving moments in their lives have involved, or will involve, sex with a significant other. Equally, nonconsensual sex rates for many people as by far one of the most abhorrent and harrowing things that can happen to a person.

So we have those two extremes, and all the shades of grey in between. That's a fantastic palette for an author to work with, but also a tricky one to manage. When it comes to handling any sensitive subject matter, I think any creator of fiction has a degree of responsibility to their audience. Your audience trusts you to deliver an experience that's entertaining, thought-provoking, cathartic, or stimulating in some way. A bad author usually loses this trust before too long, and the reader along with it. But equally problematic, I find, is an author who doesn't treat their subject matter with the respect it deserves.

This was what was going through my mind when thinking back to the Christian author on Kindleboards; is there a context in which it's right to feel guilty about depicting sex in your work? Religious concerns aside, my answer was yes; if you're going to portray sex in a lazy, callous, or damaging manner, then you're doing your readers a disservice and potentially communicating some rather unsavoury sentiments about the subject in general.

To look at some examples in my own reading, there's a distinct difference between a couple of popular series' I've read in recent years regarding how they tackle sexual issues, namely George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (or Game of Thrones, to use the far catchier popular title), and Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children. Neither series shies away from sex and sexuality, but there's a key difference in how these topics are presented. I found myself unable to get past the third Game of Thrones book in part because of the callous way it handled sex, violence, and morality in general. But looking specifically at sex here: George Martin frequently references rape, defloration, unwanted pregnancy, and the general abuse of women in his books in order to establish the brutally grim reality of his world.
Jean Auel also deals with these themes in an even more direct and harrowing manner, but her books leave the reader with a far more healthy and balanced view of sex as a result.

So why is one author's treatment of sex so different from the other? The key is that Jean Auel presents the other side of the coin. She shows the intimate and loving extreme of sex alongside the negative and disturbing one, providing contrast and context to her subject matter. George Martin by comparison overwhelmingly touches on sex in a debasing, sordid, negative light, without really going very far to explore the emotional effects it has on the individuals involved.
This was why, even though Jean Auel reaches far darker places (in my opinion) with her depictions of sex, her series has by far the more balanced, positive, and wholesome portrayal of this sensitive subject matter.
Martin uses sex as a tool to establish tone and setting, whereas Auel treats it as a critical part of the story worth exploring and understanding in and of itself.

I'd argue that these two authors demonstrate how sex can be presented and contextualised in both the right and the wrong ways, and how other writers can learn how to give sex the understanding and the respect it deserves as a core theme.

I feel like I should wrap it up here, as this has been quite the ramble!
I suppose my overall point is this: if you're going to tackle the emotional extremes of a particularly sensitive subject, take the time to flesh them out properly. Don't write kinky erotic shorts that make your readers think BDSM is a bad thing because you were careless in explaining how a master/slave relationship works, and don't write novels that portray every other male character as a rapist just because you wanted the tone to be dark.

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