Stories and Sex (Safe for Work)

Today I’m going to be talking about a topic near and dear to my heart: Sex. Oh yes. More to the point, sex and its depiction in modern stories, whether they be TV, movie, game or book. This will be a strictly PG affair (well PG-13 anyway) so there’s no risk to anyone who chooses to read this at work or library or something.

So I’m going to assume all of you have taken basic sex education and skip the physical description of it, and skip right to the heart of the matter: What purpose does sex serve in a story?

Remember when I said characters are the most important part of a story? Well for that same reason, sex is a valuable and effective way of portraying an intimate relationship between characters.  If you want to show that two characters are in love, a sex scene is a great way to show that. It doesn’t need to be X-rated descriptions of the various…mechanical intricacies of the act, in fact the more subtle the better. One of the best scenes I’ve seen is from Gone with the Wind, and you don’t even see anything. You see Rhett and Scarlet staring into each others eyes, burning with anger from their argument but also with passion, and then Rhett carries her up the stairs…fade to black. The coy smile on Scarlet’s face the morning after shows the audience more about what happened that night, than an entire hour of smutty pornographic scenes could. We see in that smile the intimacy and the love that was shared between the two characters, and it’s these qualities that seem to have gotten lost in recent years.

Half these people ended up lost in the bedroom at some point in the show.

That’s not to say that you can’t have a promiscuous character having no-strings sex in a story, it may be a meaningless one night stand, but if in that scene it reveals more about the character itself, then the scene has done its job. Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy is a great example of this, the protagonist Mikael Blomkvist has sex with anything even vaguely resembling a woman, but each time this happens the scene itself reveals something important about his character. That makes the sex he has with Lisbeth seem all the more intimate, because it’s a much different scene than those with his editor. Both of them step outside the promiscuous shell they’ve developed to protect themselves, and actually risk a meaningful and intimate relationship where sex is only a part instead of the whole.

Sex isn’t the end, it’s the means. Of course in real life, people have sex just for the sake of having sex, but in a story revolving around characters, having sex for its own sake is usually just a boring tactic; a way to titillate the reader or drum up controversy. Intimacy is the end. Showing intimacy between two characters is incredibly important if you’re trying to portray them as lovers, and I’ll admit, showing that kind of intimacy is hard. Sex is the easiest, most obvious way to accomplish that end, and so most writers take that route. Unfortunately, some writers seem to forget that how the sex is portrayed is just as important as the act itself.

It’s all in the presentation…

In 90% of the movies and TV shows I’ve seen, you get what I like to call the “Wall Slam Sex Scene”. You know what I’m talking about, two people burst into a room panting and ripping off articles of clothing, while one of them, usually the man, slams the other into the wall and kissing so hard it looks like a snake trying to swallow a basketball followed by the most emotionless, anemic sex ever witness by the human eye.  And while I’m sure there are plenty of people out there that love to have their clavicles broken by being slammed into a wall, often repeatedly, why is this the preferred method for EVERY scene? It just looks so artificial and rehearsed, it’s exactly like a scene from a pornographic movie. It’s merely the act being shown, the intimacy is conspicuously absent and without that critical component, the scene is meaningless. This scene is used so often, I’m sure many of you already knew what the Wall Slam Sex Scene was before  I even described it. It happens so often I’m pretty sure there’s a WS3 form that must be filled out on stage before the shoot for the lawyers sake (you know, for the broken clavicle suits that will inevitably come up).

What’s worse is just how unnecessary it all is. There doesn’t even need to be a sex scene to denote intimacy in a relationship, it can be a kiss, a touch, or even just a simple look. For the all the problems Avatar had in the writing department, I thought the whole “I see you” line was a great way to show intimacy (between two cat people anyway), but of course it’s hollywood so there had to be an implied sex scene in there as well. Everyone remembers Up, right? That montage of their life together remains one of the greatest scenes depicting a romantic relationship I have ever seen, and the final note she left in her adventure scrapbook? Whoever wasn’t bawling like a baby as he read that note is either a liar or a machine plotting to take over the world.

Even Skynet would cry at that scene…

On that same note, intimacy between friends almost forbids using sex as an easy way out. Using Up again, the final scene with Carl and Russel eating ice cream on the curb was a great way to shown the two’s friendship as well as Carl’s becoming an almost surrogate father to Russel. One of my favorite shows, Boston Legal, routinely shows Denny Crane and Alan Shore sharing scotch and cigars on their balcony every night at the end of the show, really cementing their friendship in the eyes of the audience. In video games, one of the finest examples of intimacy between characters was in Ico. No dialogue (in english anyway), no sex, no kissing. All you did was hold the girl’s hand to lead her around as you tried to safely guide her out of the castle where she’d been condemned to die. Sometimes subtle is the best way to go, is the point I’m making.

None of this is to say that I’m against sex in stories, quite the opposite, but you have to take care in crafting those scenes. This isn’t like playing with K’Nex, you can’t just snap two characters together at the groin and call it a day. Give me something to care about in the scene, let the characters show their emotions rather than just their junk.

1 comment

  1. Intimacy is so much more important in telling a story. Sex can enhance it but it is not in itself intimacy. People want to feel emotions such as love, lose, triumph and all that goes with it. As an audience, people want, perhaps need this emotional connection. Strong emotions provide pleasure when not associated with their own lives. Viewed from a distance, it fuels their imagination and stirs their dreams.

    Common sexual scenes are alright but it is the emotions that make the plot seem real. Some authors have taken a sexual scene and turned it to provide a more powerful device to develop the plot.

    So what you are saying is completely correct.

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