Let's Talk About Sex Roundtable (part two)

Welcome to Part Two of our Roundtable discussion on sex in gay fiction, with authors, Larry Benjamin, WS Long, Andrew Q. Gordon and Hans Hirschi, all of whom write gay fiction. Deb McGowan, author, editor and publisher is the discussion's moderator.

Miss Part 1? Don't worry, you can read it here. http://authorlarrybenjamin.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/lets-talk-about-sex-roundtable.html

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You have until 12:00 a.m. April 8, 2014, to enter and winners will be drawn on April 9, 2014. Winners will be notified by email.

DM: Welcome back gentlemen. Let's just dive in and pick up where we left off, shall we?

What's your approach to writing sex?

WSL: The sex scenes should propel the story, involve the characters at that moment. That's the only reason to include it. If the sex doesn't add to the plot then don't add it.

HH: I try to be as realistic about it as possible. I've read far too many books to know that some writers have no clue what they're talking about and some of the sex scenes I've read were pure fantasy.

AQG: Typical for me is to get them to the bed, get them naked, have some playful banter that is a prelude to sex, but when it gets to more than kissing, groping, fondling, undressing, I generally fade to black. I will also at times add 'after' scenes. These would be where one character makes a comment about being too sore to walk, their jaw is sore, they ran out of condoms, etc. I'm not opposed to letting folks know what I see the characters preferred role or what they like, but detailing it in a 'blow-by-blow' account is not my approach.

LB: Here, I'll have to agree with WS; the sex only belongs on page if it propels the story or illuminates something about the characters that adds a dimension to them. Otherwise I think it can be led up to, then fade to black. When I write sex I try to make it realistic—the marathon sex sessions and positions requiring acrobatic agility in some books leaves me puzzled. When I write, I try to make the words beautiful and there is always a rhythm in my head. I try to keep that going through the sex scenes so it seems part of the story rather than a scene inserted randomly.

AQG: I agree W.S. (and Larry) too, it has to add something, but cycling back to a previous answer and comment by Hans and Deb–sex between characters is no different than them going out to eat in a sense, it's a glimpse into their lives and interactions so–in theory at least–all sex could add something to the plot, character development, mood, etc. But as Larry puts better than I can, the pages of detail and contortions and fabled, we always come together and multiple times every time, well that seems more gratuitous to me that necessary.

DM: When you write sex scenes, what are you hoping to elicit from your reader?

WSL: Hopefully, the reader feels the attraction between the characters, what each character wants from the other. Sex shows the dynamics of a relationship and those dynamics should be explored.

HH: A better understanding for my characters, what makes them tick, how they feel, how they love, why they love, or simply how they're horny. Whatever else happens in the privacy of my readers' homes is none of my business…

AQG: As I've said before, if I write a sex scene it needs to advance the story. Sometimes it can be to shown that one character is out of touch with the needs of his partner, or is in total sync with his partner.  If I were writing about someone's first time, I could see some merit to that, but again, the actual act itself doesn't need a step-by-step recitation for the characters reaction to be conveyed to the reader. The afterwards is generally a better time to get out those emotions. But again, I can see it being done while they're in the act. 

I also think that sex – or the build up and aftermath – can be a good way to add depth to your characters. Just like showing them in different situations can let the reader know the character better. But honestly, writing about one character plowing the other deep and hard, or sucking each other off, really doesn't advance the character development all that much. 

LB: Well, I want them to get a sense of the emotion underlying the action and a sense of the dynamics of the relationship. I always hope the reader is learning something more about the characters, seeing something revealed that they may not have noticed before. For me a sex scene is essentially seeing someone clothed, then seeing them naked—you see so much more, so much that was hidden and that gives you a fuller picture of that person.

DM: This discussion raises some very important issues as regards readers' expectations, given that there is a massive market currently for M/M Romance, and yet being labeled as such seems to carry a certain stigma, in the sense that the genre is seen as mindless humping with little in the way of plot. Reading through some of the Goodreads reviews for books listed as M/M Romance but with no on-page sex, I notice that many readers are now expecting this and feel they've been mis-sold if it's absent. I'm not sure how we get around this so that we can tap into the market without "selling out" and including sex simply because our readers (customers) have paid for it.

Perhaps, then, it is a question of personal sensibility and artistic merit—do we stop selling fast food because it's bad for people? Depends on whether we want to get rich or keep our conscience intact.

However, I suspect there is also a much bigger political issue here, akin to the one which was fought (and to a greater extent lost) by 1970s radical feminists against the objectification of women in pornography. This led to a distinction between "pornography" and "erotica," the latter of which was considered to have (the potential for) some artistic merit. Yet in terms of written fiction, erotica has been adopted to describe "PWP"—the textual equivalent of pictorial porn. There's a whole lot more than fifty shades of gray in the language we use for the spectrum of sexually explicit fiction.

In conclusion, maybe the only important consideration here is the MAIN genre of the work. Larry Benjamin writes romance; WS Long writes thrillers, Hans Hirschi writes about family life; Andrew Q Gordon writes science fiction /fantasy. The identity of the characters shouldn't come into it. If sex is crucial to the story, game on.

AQG: Deb, you bring up several interesting points. All Romance eBook (ARe) has a heat index for their books. That should be a staple for all 'Romance' books in my opinion to avoid the 'mis-sold' problem. Then if you're told the book is a 5 flame barn burner and it turns out to be a barely smoldering pile of kindle, you've got a legitimate gripe.

But the other issue is something Larry and I discussed a few days ago, the focus of LGBT Fiction seems to be romance. If there is a romantic pairing in a book, it gets the Romance tag – why? Because that is what sells. The market for LGBT fiction, the kind that doesn't have a romance or sex, isn't as developed. One would think there is a large enough market for LGBT fiction that is not romance focused, but this takes us onto a different topic – demographics of readership. By many 'studies' the largest segment of MM Romance readers are straight women. They are probably not as interested in LGBT fiction, just the romance element. So as you say, the need is to focus on the main genre: family life, mystery, thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, paranormal, etc and 'convince' those markets that the orientation of the MC isn't as important as the story. Mercedes Lackey did this with her Valdimar world, or Richard Stevenson did with Donald Strachey. But we also need to educate the LGBT readers who are looking for LGBT character driven, non-romance books, that these books exist.

I'd like to thank everyone for participating in this discussion.

Our readers are invited to join the conversation by leaving a message in the comments section.

You can learn more about our participating authors by visiting the links below.

Larry Benjamin: http://www.larrybenjamin.com

WS Long: http://www.tumblr.com/blog/wslong

Andrew Q. Gordon: http://andrewqgordon.com/

Hans M. Hirschi: http://blog.hirschi.se

Debbie McGowan: http://www.debbiemcgowan.co.uk

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  1. This was a great follow-up to the first topic post of sex in stories. Building on one of the questions and comments, I have to say I think the propensity for the MM 'genre' to focus primarily on romance is that for many the gay lifestyle, or so I've heard it termed, is about a person's sexuality and expression of that sexuality. Hence, the focus on the romance and/or sex life of the characters.

    It is far less common to find authors who focus on sharing a story, and oh, btw, this character is gay. You do come across it where the romance is extremely muted, or almost completely off-page, but what I've seen watching sales lists is that those stories do not fare as well in the rankings.

    By and far, sex, or romance if you prefer, sells. It is a fact and easily proven. The key is to find the balance that works for you, your story, and your readers.

    Thank you to everyone for sharing their thoughts in these discussions. I'm always eager to learn more about why other authors who share similar themes in their work approach the craft.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Cia. I should mention, as I'm reading it, that Andrew Q. Gordon's "Purpose" is one of those "oh, btw, this character is gay" stories - it's excellent, but I agree with the point you make about sex selling - doesn't it always?

    1. It is! I got to read many of Andy's stories before he approached publishing, and he definitely falls into that category. His fantasy story, The Last Grand Master, is one of my favorite.

  3. Cia,

    Thanks. This was great fun to participate in. I don't often look at what is selling, so I'll defer to you on this point and as Deb says, that sex sells is a given.

    I think sometimes focusing on a characters orientation and sex life as the sole defining characteristic opens the writer up to objectifying and dehumanizing the character as if what they do with their boy parts is the beginning and ending of that character. I try to make my characters more than that. Don’t get me wrong its is central to who they are, as my gayness is central to who I am. But they have other qualities, others activities. If I gave up sex and became celibate, I’d still be gay. It would still be a part of who I was but sex wouldn’t be a part of my story. You see?

  4. To be brutally honest, if we are making a living from writing romance sells. Not necessarily sex. Those of us that make our living from the genre know there is a difference.

    I've read a series of sex scenes loosely strung together to make a book. That may be good as wank-fodder but it doesn't make a good book, and I think readers ask for more.

    What MM enables us to do is write a plot with gay characters. Is the romance the focus? Maybe, but it doesn't have to swallow the plot. Some of the strongest books cover social and cultural issues. One of my best sellers is about domestic abuse.

    There is a tendency to look down on romance with a curl of the lip. Yet non-romance mainstream authors add a relationship and sell. Fantasy, horror, crime. They all manage to shove in a relationship, some with more than sex than a lot of MM writers.

    MM isn't all about alpha males and hard dicks. Yes, there are those books and done very well, but a lot of us want to stretch our wings as writers in many sub-genres. MM gives us that opportunity.

    Stop focusing on "MM and sex" and look beyond that. Read the crime, the scifi and the historical. It's not all Mills & Boon with boy parts.

    1. I totally take your point, Sue. We chose this narrow focus, because there is a proliferation of sex-heavy gay fiction. Interestingly, the more violent and graphic thrillers and fantasy novels, as you highlight, also like to throw in lashings of sex, and generally of the wham bam, almost non-consensual variety, frequently driven by gender stereotypes.

      Romance does sell, as does violence, sex, murder, suicide, suffering, misery, vengeance, justice, good vs evil - regardless of the "next big thing" effect of wizards, vampires or whatever, the themes are consistent. We're a simple lot, really, us humans. We want to read about the extremes of our condition. A bit of escapism is a good thing.

      What irks me, as a social scientist I suppose more than anything, is that authors essentially have to sell out to sell books, by tagging them "M/M, gay, erotic, may contain scenes of a graphic sexual / violent nature". This is not only a disservice to those we write about who have been subjected to exclusion, discrimination and violence, but also to ourselves and our writing. But hey! It sells books, and that's what we all desperately want to do, right?

      I can't bring myself to do this, not even for the potential increase in sales. I even refused for a long time to tag my novels as "LGBT" because they're just about people and relationships, and they're more than the sum of their genitals and patterns of attraction.

      But, perhaps we are digressing. Discussing sex in gay fiction was, for us, about looking at what purpose it serves in the writing of the four authors interviewed, to offer forth their insights as authors of diverse genres, yet all with gay protagonists. It's not a critique of other books or authors falling under the very general umbrella of "M/M", although I imagine there are things we can all learn from sharing our writing process and our perspective openly and humbly.

    2. Selling my soul for sales? Well yes, writing is the household income. Every sale counts. However I choose to look at it with a different perspective. I'm not limited by my genre but enabled by it. Writing relationships and sex is part of the human experience and one I welcome. I just choose to explore gay/bi relationships, rather than lesbian or het.

      Your discussion was interesting, and made me think about what I write. Thank you for that.

    3. Sue

      I don't know I'd say you were selling your soul. You sound quite satisfied with your writing--and that's a good think. Every writer needs to be/should be proud of the books he/she produces.

      I don't write full-time and as frustrating as that can be sometimes, it is also freeing. I don't rely on my books to provide income, and I am lucky enough to have a publisher who is extremely supportive and looks at a book's merit more than its sales potential. That frees me to write the stories, I want to tell, in the way I feel they need to be told, with sex or without sex as the story and characters dictate. I find that enabling.

    4. The interesting thing for me now that I'm writing my third book is that I'm almost skipping through sex scenes of other authors.

    5. (Sorry, I hit publish before I got to finish). There are great male-male romance stories out there but the ones I re-read frankly have very little explicit sex. I truly love "Proxy" by C. Alexander London. I've read it twice. I adore Lynn Flewelling's series centered on Alec and Seregil, [With the exception of "Glimpses," the sex is not explicit.]

      I am drawn to the characters of Alex and Magnus in "The Mortal Instrument" series.

      I understand in the romance genre, especially in MM, is almost expected to be explicit. But hopefully, LGBQT fiction will evolve to include, I guess, more subgenres, if you will.

      Perhaps my desire for non-explicit MM romance at this point is based on my personal desire as a reader when I was younger. I wish back then there were more YA male-male romance stories when I grew up.

      Today my hope is that GLBQT fiction will expand: to show kids struggling with GLBQT issues that they're normal, that it's okay not to fit the "hetero" norms, and it's sometimes okay to say I'm not sure who that person is on the spectrum.

      I believe there will always be a market for MM romance with explicit sex but my hope is if you take away the sex that there's still a good story.

  5. This has been an interesting read. I must say that I enjoy reading the sex scenes in books. Most of the time, the 'fade-to-black' stuff annoys me. I'm not sure what that says about me, but when I pick up a romance book, it's done as a way to escape reality a little, to fantasize, and I don't want to let go of the characters for even a minute. That said, I have read some amazing books that don't give a play-by-play and way too many that think they don't need plot if there's sex.

    1. Thanks Andy - glad you've enjoyed the posts.

      I think, maybe, that the fade-to-black (cut to roaring fireplace) sometimes feels like we've been cheated out of the pinnacle of the relationship, but I suppose we authors need to look at other ways of presenting this that still give a sense of "closure" and completion without the reader feeling cheated.

      I've recently read a series that had a dual murder mystery / romance plot and to my shame I wanted to skip through the murder mystery parts to see what happened with the relationship!

    2. Hi Andy

      Thanks for joining the conversation.

      I think everyone has their preferences--and that's fine. But you do point out that sometimes absence of sex is fine and sometimes it's "too much" as when there is no plot, which I think speaks to my original point --that the sex in fiction, whether it is on-screen or fade to black, --at least for me needs to be driven by the story, the characters


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