Does lots of sex scenes mean bad books?

I was reading ‘The “Tyranny of Sex” in the Saudi Novel over at MuslimahMediaWatch today and it got me thinking about sex and writing, or more specifically, writing sex scenes. While the MuslimahMediaWatch article is more focussed on reflecting on Saudi society, this caught my eye:

It was government cultural head Mahmoud Al-Watan who complained of “the
tyranny of sex in the Saudi novel,” saying it falls to those without talent to
slap some sex on to the page and “call it a novel”

Which got me thinking about Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins and the bonkbuster novels of the eighties that I devoured. Now, I’m not going to argue that these books were great literature – that would be too contrarian even for me – but I do think they occupied an important place at an important time.
Most of us don’t have that many sexual partners according to my highly unscientific analysis of all the people I’ve ever known that have told me anything about their sex lives. Either you are sexually adventurous (caveat: this includes all varieties of motivation, postive or negative) or you tend to have had roughly the same number of partners as you’ve had relationships, and
for most people that number seems to be between five and fifteen.
My point is that most of us don’t learn about sex by doing it with lots of different people. For me, reading glamourous, sexy novels as a teenager was exciting and a large part of that was reading the sex scenes. Proper erotica just seemed too daunting: too hard to get hold of, and harder to defend if someone were to question your choice of reading material. So Jilly Cooper and Jackie Collins et al were a window on to the adult world of sex without the danger of getting into something you couldn’t handle.
It gave us an idea of what good sex could be like. Despite raunch culture and the ever-present sexual objectification of women, there is still an undercurrent of socialisation that insists women don’t and shouldn’t enjoy sex; that sex is really for men. Bonkbusters can be an antidote to this where they show women enjoying sex. They showed us how amazing it could be how good it could feel. Having had sex of varying qualities, I don’t think these depictions of sex were unattainable or fantastic. Sex can be as fun, exciting and fulfilling as the novels. And maybe more men should read them…
Storytelling is the way we share our interpretations of the world we live in. If Saudi novelists are writing about sex that’s because it’s vital to life and maybe it’s a little bit because it is reflecting how their society is changing.
The quote above rolls out the stereotypical connection between bad writing and lots of sex scenes. While it may be true that much erotica is poorly written, and it may be true that a thin plot can be padded out with sex scenes (not that I’ve ever done that myself, you understand), it is undeniably true that writing sex scenes is difficult. The Bad Sex in Fiction Award annually proves that all sorts of writers – the good, the bad and the indifferent – flounder when it comes to describing sex on the page. There is a lot of potential for getting it wrong.
There are also lots of writers getting it right. There are stories which have moments when having sex is absolutely the thing that your characters would do, and showing it to your reader demonstrates something about their relationship that is important. I can think of a number of books I’ve read recently in which the sex scenes were great. So, no, lots of sex scenes doesn’t equal bad writing.

2 thoughts on “Does lots of sex scenes mean bad books?

  1. Oh yeah, totally. Sex scenes and bad writing are really not linked. See you're having trouble with blogger too. I can't get it to format right.

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