I’m scheduled to be on a panel this weekend at WisCon called “Justice Demands Good Sex.” Here’s the description:
There is a lot of sex described in genre fiction, but it’s often violent, mainly heteronormative, and sometimes just poorly worked out. A lot of us grew up reading sex in books and trying to project ourselves into the characters in these scenes in order to learn about both mechanics and mores in sexual relationships. As adults, we still learn and absorb a great deal from the sex scenes in what we read, be it representation, the depiction of specific acts, the politics of sex scenes, or even our expectations about the orgasm gap. If justice demands good sex, who’s writing good sex? How can we write more good, inclusive, affirming sex scenes? What would we like to see more of in SF/F as the genre continues to grow? (x)
Our panel moderator suggested we jot down lists of recommendations for books that have sex scenes “done right.” Yes, it’s a subjective description, but I have plenty of subjective opinions and am happy to share them.
I have read a lot of good sex in my time. Here are a few. This list will continue to grow over the next week, so feel free to drop back in again:
This book is a historical romance between two men set in Edwardian England. The sex scenes fall in that space between fade-to-black and explicit. They are always essential, moving the story forward and giving the reader a deeper understanding of the characters. I love the demisexual representation and the fact that the characters learn to communicate about what they want. This is the first book in a series, and as it moves forward we see the characters negotiating their different sexual desires in a way that isn’t always perfect, but is healthy.
This series centers about a perpetually angry incubus who sucks energy from other men by working as a prostitute in pre-Victorian London. Also, he’s a racist and a classist and an all-around jerk. That probably doesn’t sound like a great set up for socially conscious sex. And indeed, there is a lot of exploitative sex in the series. But the thing is, the exploitative sex isn’t written to arouse, and definitely not to model what sex should be. It’s there to reveal things about the characters—both Damon and the men he has sex with—including their flaws. And for me, it’s a positive thing to write about dehumanizing sex in a way that acknowledges how dehumanizing it is, instead of glorifying it. It’s like reading 1984 by George Orwell. Very few people read that book and come to the conclusion that totalitarian governments are the way to go.
Also, there are some amazing, “good, inclusive, affirming sex scenes” in the series that provide a sharp contrast to the exploitative sex Damon has become used to. Over the course of the series, he experiences a transformation in his understanding of sex for the better.
I mean, he’s still an asshole at the end of the series, but he’s less of an asshole.
Other reads I’ll probably mention
I need to go to bed so I’m all fresh as a daisy and sharp as a tack for the panel tomorrow, so the rest of the ones I want to mention, I’ll just list for now. Please note that this list includes stories where the sex itself is good, where the sex isn’t great but the communication around it is, where the quality of the sex isn’t as important as the way it changes the characters. It also includes erotic horror (labeled), because apparently I get a lot out of that type of fiction. Sexual content ranges from non-explicit to detailed scenes of kink:
- Stir Fry by Emma Donoghue—A lovely little college romance about women who love women, first published before that was really a genre.
- Hood by Emma Donoghue—A woman grieves after her longtime female lover dies suddenly. The death happens before the plot begins, but one of the main characters is still dead, so YMMV. Sex was both something that deeply connected the characters and served as a source of conflict, and a lot of the main character’s grief revolves around trying to understand that part of their relationship.
- Everything I’ve read so far by Celia Tan and Annabeth Leong. They write erotica (and other types of fiction) both in and out of the SFF genre. I highly recommend Annabeth’s “On Some Maps, but Not Others” in Best Women’s Erotica Volume 2 (Cleis Press, edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel). Emotionally intense (at least for me!) story about an AFAB character awakening to their genderqueerness, in part through kink.
- Speaking of Celia Tan, check out Circlet Press! For example, these three stories in the collection Ultimate Wired Hard:
- The Changeling by Whitt Pond—Romance between a gay teen and a genderfluid alien.
- Hidden Desires by Chris Jones—Erotic-but-not-titillating sci-fi in which a military man who participated in the genocide of a sentient species tries to expiate his guilt by sexually submitting to one of the genocide’s survivors, and things don’t work out the way he expects.
- The Tomorrow Kid—Erotic-but-not-titillating sci-fi horror that kept me on the edge of my seat; the kinky sex in it is appropriately humdrum and utilitarian for the context and brings up interesting questions about consent, marginalization, and mortality.
- Companions/Nich’ooni by Jed Bryan—Mid-20th century gay interracial/intercultural romance with Navaho, white, and Pueblo characters. Only one or two sex scenes, the first of which is fairly clumsy based on the characters’ sexual inexperience, but with a wonderful depth of emotion conveying that imperfect sex can be awesome under the right circumstances
- Light by ‘Nathan Bourgoine—A modern urban fantasy/paranormal/superhero-ish novel that is not a romance but contains a (gay) romantic sexual relationship as an indispensable part of the plot. Go ahead and read all his stuff!
- “Alien Dick” in the short story collection Mormon Underwear by Johnny Townsend (who was raised in the Mormon church and therefore gets a free pass to talk about Mormon underwear)—The alien in this story isn’t from outerspace (probably), but he looks like it is, and that’s what gets the protagonist hot. This is a funny, sweet, and slightly bizarre story about atypical sexual desires and finding a partner who helps fulfill them. Warning for an incident of ableist language that may or may not be intended to be ironic; I can’t tell.
OK I really need to go to bed …