Sex Scenes in Fantasy Novels

I need your help, big time. My debut fantasy novel, now tentatively titled “Love After Death,” includes a number of explicit sex scenes. I’ve written them this way because that’s how they flowed onto the page. I have no qualms myself about publishing the novel with the sex scenes remaining as explicit as they are currently written. But I know there are some readers who are turned off by the inclusion of such scenes. Are there that many readers who feel that way, or just a few? I’m at the point where I’m ready to revise as needed and I’d love to have your input.

When it comes to sex scenes, I see four basic approaches:

  1. Not having any sex scenes at all, not even to mention that sex happens
  2. Mentioning that sex happens or alluding to the fact, but not describing any details beyond kissing, hugging or other activities that many people might do in public
  3. Describing or alluding to actions that most people would not do in public, but glossing over the specifics, and not mentioning people’s private parts in any way
  4. Placing no restrictions on descriptions of the actions involved during sex, typically being specific about what is done to or with people’s private parts

I say these are “basic” approaches, because between any two of them, there are many degrees of explicitness.

Nude on the beach

A nude lying on the beach, covering all her private parts. Image licensed from ClipArt.com, artist unknown. Please do not redistribute.

 
As written, my novel takes approach #4 above. I don’t want to back off to using approaches #1 or #2, but I would consider taming down to approach #3, or at least closer to it. I’ve even considered publishing two forms of my story. If I self publish, nothing would keep me from doing so. I could publish an explicit version that takes approach #4 and a tamer version that takes approach #3. You see this with music released by Rihanna and other musicians all the time. They release explicit versions and tamer versions of their songs and albums. The tamer versions are often just as suggestive as the explicit versions, but certain words are removed or replaced with some other words or sounds intended not to offend.

I’ve taken a step in the direction of taming down my story from approach #4 by using what I consider mild forms of the terms that refer to the male and female private parts (e.g., manhood, womanhood), but I still fully describe what is done with those parts. Is that enough for some readers who might otherwise object to explicit sex scenes in a fantasy novel, or would descriptions of how people’s private parts interact still be too much? In other words, is crude language the only objection for some people who don’t like explicit sex scenes?

Do fantasy fans in general prefer that the books they read not include explicit sex scenes? Should explicit sex scenes be reserved for stories that are strictly erotica, or at least more erotica than whatever genre they might be crossed with? How do you feel about the inclusion of erotic elements in a novel that is primarily fantasy? Which of the above four approaches to sex scenes in novels are you most comfortable with, as either a reader or a writer? Erotica is a popular genre now, and I’m about to take my fantasy novel in that direction. Do you think that’s a bad idea? Please weigh in with your thoughts on this.

For this discussion, we can restrict it to one-on-one male/female sex scenes. Those are the only kind in my story. But if you want to weigh in on other types of sex scenes, feel free.

Please keep all comments as clean as you can. If you link to a page on another site, please describe the page to the extent that visitors will know what to expect before clicking the link. I retain the right to edit or remove any comment for any reason on this site. I don’t want to, but I will if I deem it necessary. This page is not rated for 18+, so just be careful what you say.

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Author: Michael K. Eidson

I'm a software engineer, an author, a digital artist, and a music lover. I've also dabbled with composing contra dances. I've written and published a few speculative fiction short stories, online tools for gaming and fiction, and a number of Tunnels and Trolls supplements and adventures. I'm continually working on my debut fantasy novel, currently untitled. I listen to all sorts of music, primarily with female vocalists, while I'm working on all my projects.

19 thoughts on “Sex Scenes in Fantasy Novels”

  1. Hi Michael, as a lover of fantasy novels, these are my thoughts on your approaches and what I like to see in these type of books.
    1. I would be disappointed if there were no sex. Could be well written but I would still miss it.
    2. Any alluding to or briefly describing sex is also a disappointment. I want to see it, hear it, feel it through the author’s words.
    3.There’s a subtle way of describing body parts and the author doesn’t have to be crude, but it needs to be clear what body part the author is talking about.
    Also, the sex isn’t all about boobs, hoohahs and joysticks, written foreplay is just as erotic.
    4.There are several levels of erotica and depending how far you want to go, it’s up to the author and prepared to make sure it’s labeled appropriately.

    If it’s truly hot, down and dirty sex, tell the reader because if stuff like that makes them blush and embarrassed, they will tell you in a public way. So always provide a warning for the hotness.

    I hope you can tell, I like my sex in my books and not just some creeper out here talking just to be talking. It’s just my opinion. There are many other that think way differently than me.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Yelle. In the Foreword I’ve written for the novel, I have this statement:

      If you are easily offended by explicit descriptions of sex or violence, this book will offend you.

      Do you think that is enough of a warning about the heat level, or do I need to be more specific about what sort of explicit details one might expect to encounter during the read? For instance, in the novel, a teen girl tells of being a victim of incest when she was younger, but the novel doesn’t contain any scenes of such illicit action. In fact, all of the explicit sex scenes are between consenting adults. Maybe I need to state that? Do I need to state even more? If there are mild elements of BDSM, do I need to state that? What if those elements aren’t as “mild” for some readers as they are for me? What if those elements are even milder for some readers than they are for me? Trying to set expectations correctly before the book is read almost amounts to telling the story before the book is read.

  2. I read a lot (well over 100 novels a year) and I enjoy several genres (SF/F, historical fiction, mystery, etc.). I generally expect the sex scenes to be written to same level of detail as the rest of the book. If you gloss over most of the book, but detail the sex scenes, then I know that your book is all about how to get the characters hot & bothered again and again, and I won’t particularly take your book seriously.

    If your book has characters of depth, a complicated plot, and detailed scenery, but you simply write that the characters kissed and then the lights went out & they woke up the next day, end chapter, I will be left feeling frustrated.

    Also, if you reserve your detailed sex scenes for only those intimate scenes that show how cruel or abusive one or both parties are, but you don’t detail how a loving, or playful, or fumbling couple make love, I will get out my soap box. Too often literature (and yes, I consider SFF literature) will show us humans how to abuse each other in the bedroom, but not how to be loving. So, I prefer equality in detail.

    Sex scenes involving more than 2 people, or gay/lesbian do not bother me as a reader. That is part of their character and their morals, etc. I feel that how people treat each other behind closed doors in intimate circumstances is very telling of their most deeply ingrained characteristics. So, I say, show it.

    A great example of all of this is the Terr D’Ange series by Jacqueline Carey (Book 1 is Kushiel’s Dart). I cannot recommend this series enough – for it’s rich world building, complex characters, intricate plot, and yes, the sex scenes.

    1. Thanks, nrlymrtl (Nearly Mortal?), for your comments and for the book recommendation. It’s going on my (already lengthy) reading list. I don’t read nearly as much as you do. I only manage about one novel a month. But I read a lot of technical books and magazines.

      I’m glad to hear your thoughts about keeping the same level of detail throughout the novel, regardless of the type of scene. This is how I wrote the novel, and you’re reinforcing the idea that I should keep it that way. I shouldn’t “tame it down” just to suit a potential market. It won’t be authentic anymore, and then no one will care to read it.

      If I keep the heat levels where I have them some people won’t read the book, including some people who I’d really like to read it. I just feel like I’m purposely ignoring them if I don’t at least offer a version of the book with the sexual heat levels toned down. But none of those people are commenting on this thread. It may be the mere mention of the word “sex” that keeps them from even checking out this post and chiming in with their opinions. If that’s the case, there’s little I can do to tone down my novel to their tastes. The novel has to mention sex, because sex is a driving motivator for some of the characters.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly with nrlymrtl’s remarks. Detailed sex scenes in a story otherwise lacking in detail is quite simply a turnoff. In my opinion, any gratuitous sex scene is on a literary par with a gratuitous death, explosion, or whatever. A love scene is like any other; it must advance the story–or more typically–enhance our understanding of the character’s personality. That said, it’s pretty easy to overdo a description of lovemaking, as much of the, uh, “nuts and bolts” mechanics are comparatively trivial points unlikely to shed much light on a character’s personality. Certainly, an overly graphic gynecological study lodged between action scenes will come off as gratuitous for that reason. Also, word choice is critical to maintaining tone. An overly raunchy expression, childish-sounding euphemism, or awkward clinical term can “spoil the mood,” so to speak. Dialogue can be particularly difficult. In the end, I would say if you are merely trying to titillate, you are writing erotica (however poorly disguised), but if you are trying to “flesh out” a character or his or her relationships with others, that’s just good storytelling and you needn’t self-censor. Just limit your description to that which enhances the story and leave the rest to the readers’ fertile imagination. You’ll still offend some readers, but muzzling yourself in an attempt to be inoffensive is a far greater peril.

    1. Thanks, fictivitypress1, for your comments. My problem may be that I’m too close to my story to know whether the sex scenes will be perceived as gratuitous. I did not have it in mind to titillate as I wrote the scenes. The scenes are meant to help characterize the participants and to advance the plot. But whether I went overboard with my descriptions is something I can’t determine on my own. I’ll be quite interested to see what my beta readers have to say on the subject for my novel in particular.

  4. I’m going to take the road less traveled here, and say that I do not prefer explicit sex scenes.

    However, I don’t think that means you have to say it’s erotica just because you have a few sex scenes. (If it’s happening frequently and your story can’t occur without them, then that’s headed more towards erotica in my mind.)

    I think Nearly Mortal said it well when they said that you can’t make the sex scenes the most detailed part of the book, or make it so it’s lacking emotion outside of the sex scenes. That derails the plot and makes it seem like it’s nothing but sex. In that case, I’d categorize it more of an erotica.

    With a warning message stating what’s in the book, I think you should publish whatever work you want. That would turn me away from reading it, personally, as those are just my personal views.

    I’ve read plenty of romance novels with sex scenes in the past and just glossed over them. Personally, I still felt like the characters were alive and enjoyed the books without hearing how they went down on each other. To me, if sex is the main force and the story/character can’t be told without explicit detail, that’s erotica. Again, that’s me. I think every one is going to have a different ‘take’ on sex scenes. I would not be disappointed if there wasn’t a sex scene, and I think alluding to it would cover the bases for me. I’m good with playful banter, flirting, kissing, etc.

    Bottom line: if the sex is #2 or #3, I’ll probably try the book out (or skim through) and see how explicit it gets. If the sex scene is there and it’s not too bad, I’ll skim past it. If it’s #4, I won’t read the book.

    Hope this helps?!

    1. There are other fantasy readers I know who share the same view as you, Katie. People who I’d like to read my novel, but who might not even attempt to read it the way it is now. I’m so torn, because I really want those people to read my book, but I don’t want to censor myself either.

      What no one has commented on yet is my idea of offering two versions of the novel, one that includes the sex scenes and the other that doesn’t. Thing is, if I could cut the sex scenes without affecting characterizations and the tone of the story, then that probably means the sex is gratuitous and needs to be cut anyway. I don’t think it is gratuitous, and if I’m correct, then the story will suffer if I remove those scenes. But I’ll see what my beta readers have to say.

      It’s easy to get discouraged about this whole novel-writing business. I have a story to tell and I want others to read it, and at its core it’s the kind of story that many people might like, but because of a half-dozen scenes, I could utterly ruin my chances with them.

      Another thought running through my mind is that if my first novel includes sex scenes, will readers expect the sequels to as well? I’m planning a series of novels, and not all of them will necessarily have sex scenes. But I may have already scared away potential readers for the sequels by including sex scenes in the first novel, even if the sequels can stand alone.

      It’s easy for people to say to stay true to yourself and your vision in your writing. Why am I feeling so conflicted about doing that?

  5. There are lots of good answers here. I most agree with fictivitypress1’s answer and I think there are a lot of people who would agree with Katie. I like fantasy with and without sex scenes. It should be appropriate and a natural part of the story and the characters. I’d rather have too little than too much.

    Sex doesn’t have to be loving–if you are showing a character’s violence and abusive nature, sex might be the perfect way to show. An excellent example is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (not fantasy, but it makes my point). Men and women tell me they cheered when Lisbeth got her revenge on her rapist. If you look closely at both those sex scenes they aren’t long and are just detailed enough so that a reader knows how violent and monstrous this man is. The same could be said for the loving sex scenes in the same book.

    I become annoyed with story that throws a sex scene(s) in just because.

    One of the best “love scenes” I’ve found is this: the sexual tension between a man and woman escalated until he climbed onto her balcony, and she, in her nighty, pining for him, invited him into her bed. That was it, but both characters were private and guarded. I’ve read some pretty racy sex scenes, but an explicit sex scene between those two wouldn’t have worked.

    Another thing to keep in mind: men and woman want different things from a sex scene. Who you going to satisfy? Unless there’s an excellent reason to be explicit, I tend to think less is more will satisfy both sexes.

    I have a file of really good sex scenes. Start a collection of sex scene you think are excellent and those you think are terrible. Analyze them. What works and what doesn’t?

    1. Thank you for your comments, Cora. You make a good point about men and women wanting something different from sex scenes. I’m a guy, so I don’t really have an idea what women want from sex scenes beyond what I read of works written by women, and those run the gamut from leaving almost everything to the reader’s imagination to being so raunchy that I can’t tolerate reading them. As for what men like in their sex scenes, I know what I like, but I also know from conversations with other guys that likes and dislikes amongst them also run the gamut. It’s just that the bell-shaped curves may have different leanings when you look at stats for likes and dislikes of men versus those of women.

      I don’t want to write only for men or only for women. So I’ve got both men and women beta reading for me now and I’ll see what they say.

  6. Hi Michael. I read a very good detective novel that was about a half to two thirds erotic BSDM. I skimmed through the sex parts, because that’s not my thing. I really wished the writer had written more of the mystery and less sex. In People of the Plains, the author describes explicit sex several times. Once with elephants. I started skipping through the sex scenes. I can’t say if they were written or not, they probably were. But I think, with sex, less is more. If you’re goingbto describe the acts in detail in a work of fiction that is not strictly erotic, I think twice is absolutely enough. After that, a less detailed description, imo, is more appropriate. IMHO, any more than two sex scenes in a non erotic novel is the writer just playing with himself.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Louise. I’d be one to skip reading a scene of bestiality. If I reached such a scene, I’d have to be really intrigued by the other parts of the story to keep reading the book.

      I’ve received some feedback from a couple of beta readers of my debut novel. Neither reader complained about my sex scenes. One had questioned their presence early on, but had nothing ill to say of them after reading the whole book.

      While my novel is fantasy, it doesn’t neatly fit into any fantasy subgenre. It doesn’t fit neatly into the erotica genre either. I’ve included more than a couple of explicit sex scenes, so by your definition perhaps I am playing with myself to some degree. But I tried to consistently stay true to the narrator’s voice. The narrator would be just as explicit in the fifth sex scene as in the first.

      Can readers skip the sex scenes without losing something? I don’t know, but the scenes feel important to me. Still, that’s why I have beta readers. I’m waiting on feedback from another couple of them, and we’ll see what they think. In the meantime, thanks for giving me more to think about. Every comment and every bit of feedback I receive will weigh on what I decide to do in the published novel.

  7. Hi! I just found your blog (via Katie Cross), so I’m a couple of months late to be commenting, but it’s an issue of great interest/concern to me too. I hope you don’t mind my jumping in and sharing my thoughts.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that you can’t please everyone with sex scenes. For every reader like Katie who prefers to have the sex less explicit, there’s one who feels cheated/dissatisfied when a book glosses over or implies romantic encounters.

    My rule of thumb is to be consistent (don’t use euphemisms in one scene and anatomical terms in the next) and only include what’s necessary to convey the important elements of the scene. Pretty well all my sex scenes are important from a character development or plot point of view (otherwise why include them?) and it sounds like yours are too. So no worries.

    As for what I’m comfortable with and what I’ll read? As long as there’s consent (or at least, as long as non-consent isn’t portrayed as romantic or sexy — ugh) and no animals or underage involved, I’m pretty open-minded. Just… no sword and flower metaphors.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kella. Yeah, I see you on Katie’s blog all the time. Nice of you to drop by and give your thoughts on this sensitive subject. I think you’ve hit the bull’s eye with your comments: we can’t please everyone, we need to be consistent in style throughout the story, and we need to focus on character development or plot with any scenes we include, whether they’re sex scenes or otherwise. Makes perfect sense. Thanks.

  8. I read a ton of adult fantasy. Most take approach 2 or 3 but there are a few that go full on 4. In my opinion, I don’t put a Good book down because it has more or less sex / graphic scenes than expected BUT I don’t like to see gratuitous sex scenes just for the sake of them. For example, a graphic sex scene between the two main characters (who are or will get together in the end) is fine and I enjoy reading these as I feel emotionally invested in those characters.
    A graphic sex scene between 2 side characters or between a side character and a main is a turn off unless it’s INTEGRAL to the plot (e.g a rape of a main character that deeply affects that character’s emotional stability).

    Basically I think sex is fine as long as it’s part of the plot progression. If its just there to titillate I skim over such scenes and if there are too many of them I may put down the book.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts on this delicate matter, Miss. From a reader perspective, I’m in agreement with you. From a writer perspective, I hope most of my potential readers are in agreement with you too. We shall see, whenever I finally get this thing finished.

  9. To avoid a pigeon hole, I think it is a great idea to write “clean” and “explicit” versions of your story, as I have heavily considered the idea, myself.

    As a reader, I personally want sex in my adult stories and I want it often, but only if it drives rather than defines the fiction. If the story can stand on its own without sex, but is enhanced by its presence, then that is a story I love reading.

    I recently completed “The Elfmaid Triology”: a sword and sorcery fantasy series by Warren Thomas . The main character – a female protagonist named Danica – had many sex scenes in the 1st book (all but one, however, was consensual). The second novel had almost none and the few that were present contained acts that were merely alluded to rather than explicitly described as they were in the first installment. The third book had a few more scenes than the second, but less than the first and either lacked description or had very little. [I remember reaching the third novel on my Kindle and doing searches for “kiss” on my device in order to jump to the sex scenes because so much of this character’s plight and development involved her sexual journey.]

    I struggle with what you struggled with in my own stories. Much of my characters’ personal developments are defined through their sexual journeys. So, I have to be certain as an entrepreneur-author to reach out to readers who this appeals to.

    Hope this helps.

    1. Hi, Kristopher, and thanks for your comments. I’m always grateful when visitors weigh in on questions I’m wrangling with.

      In my current draft, I’m keeping the sex scenes, but toning down their explicitness. I would rather avoid writing two versions of the story, so I’m hoping to strike the right balance between the two. This approach just feels right for my story, based on feedback I’ve received from beta readers and others. I’ll be submitting the story to beta readers again after I finish this draft, and I’ll see then whether I made good decisions.

Any thoughts?