Monday, June 07, 2010

It's All About Sex

I’ve been pondering censorship, and what it means to be authentic to our characters when they commit sexual acts which might lead to censorship. Where does one draw the line when it comes to deciding what is ‘appropriate’ for publication? How slippery does the slope get once that line is marked? For material considered appropriate today may be deemed worthy of a banning or a burning tomorrow.

Like most things, offending material is largely subjective. Some readers take orgies in stride while others flinch at the baring of a shoulder. Editors – and the government – have the power to deem what is ‘appropriate’ for publication – or not. One of the beautiful things about America is that, for the most part, we have freedom to write what we wish – and editors have the right to publish what they want.

But that’s external censorship. What about internal censorship?

Sex is one place where are characters are naked – literally and figuratively. Sure, the myriad acts of sex are interesting – how to do it, with whom, in what positions – but what is really important is what lies underneath: a character’s motivation, his emotional reactions, history, hurts, joys. A character’s hang-ups and desires get writ between the sheets, and her insecurities and ego. Sex is often about power, conveyed in the positions taken, who initiates, who accedes, who orgasms. Thus, the importance of a sex scene in all genres – even erotica*-- is not in the sex, but in what the sexual act means to the characters and how they respond.
It’s our job as writers to get to these nuanced levels, get beyond the physical descriptions only.

It’s rather a squeamish endeavor to write sex scenes; they elicit all of our own fears and misgivings. Well writing about sex does that to me. The prude in me quavers when I write ‘cock’ or ‘fuck’ (even now, I almost wrote the ‘c’ and ‘f’ words). But, it is rather inauthentic of us to dance around sex with blinders and bathrobes on if our character has a sexual life, and it’s one central or important to the story. It’s disingenuous for us to pretend our characters are not sexual, to not write about their sexual lives in a way they would not describe it. In other words, we should not internally censor our words to be inauthentic to our characters’ intentions and voice.

I struggled with this in deciding to post the prior post (The House that Tien Built), and then in further discussion with a fellow writer whom I consider a friend. Yes, the scene is graphic, but I am so proud of this excerpt from PURE – I got honest with my character’s feelings and voice. This was a most difficult scene to write – I’ve spent hours on it – but felt, at last, this was Ben’s story. I have no regrets posting.

So tell me – where do you draw the line when it comes to writing about sex? About violence?

Peace, Linda

*erotica is NOT necessarily pornography, which is an entire different kettle of worms and not of interest in this post.


  1. It's all fair game as far as I'm concerned. the reason your piece worked so well is that it was authentic and within a scene that was critically important to the development of your characters. The moment clamored for the power that you gave it with the sex scene that was far from gentle sweet or cloying. yet it worked. As far as censoring my own work, I try not to push into taboo type areas unless it advances plot or character development in a necessary way. We're all big people here, we can stop reading if we are not comfortable with what is written. I thought your piece was powerful and explosive, yet not at all exploitative or gratuitous. Good on you for having the courage of your convictions to stick with it.

  2. I liked your post a lot. Certainly you must write what you think is appropriate for your book. And you have total choice over what you think is appropriate for your blog. But the guidelines for #FridayFlash state, "No explicit erotica." Meeting the requests of a particular market is not censorship. It's just part of the business.

  3. "Gratuitous" is the key word, for sex or violence. The rape scene in the Jodi Foster film "The Accused" was very hard for me to watch, but it was essential to the story, and it should be hard to watch. On the other hand I was repulsed by a Schwartzenegger film I saw on TV once. The "hero" is tearing through a crowd to get the "bad guy" and pushes an innocent bystander into a pole. You actually hear the guy's head crack into the pole. That's gratuitous - and offensive.

    In terms of the details, they have to fit the characters. Sometimes the word "fuck" is right, other times a softer word is the right one.

    In your story the detail of Ben licking off his own cum really made me cringe. I want to know now (and I realize I might not know until I read the whole thing) what it is about him - and her - that would result in this act. BTW I'm not prudish, I read the Marquis de Sade, just so you know...

  4. Oh, good comments here. Michael, this scene is all about the power dynamic between Ben and Tien. They are together because of expediency and because of past abuses of position (Tien is and has always been his immediate supervisor).

    And this, Mark, is why the licking up of his innards :^) It shows a subservience to her, even though he goes into the act angry at her. Here, he continues to accede.

    Tim! Absolutely I agree with you re policies/guidelines on markets. To tell the truth, I was not aware of the #ff policy and would not have tagged/tweeted my story had I been cognizant of the policy. The decision to include my piece in the collector this week was not mine, and I was fine with it not being listed if Jon so decided. I think both of us did a lot of thinking about this particular piece -- I know we discussed it. My ponderings here are really about the self-censoring we as writers are subject to.

    Mark (again). Gratuitous is spot on. I always ask myself before writing in violent or sexual content -- is this needed? is this the best way to convey this information? is there an alternative? For myself, I would rather see (non-violent) sexual activity in media than ANY violence. One reason I enjoy Europe so much.

    Ah, great discussion guys! Thank you -- keep it coming! peace...

  5. I self censor my writing...I know I shouldn't but I do and I say it's not wrong of me to do so, cause that is how I fly (at this time ;-p)

  6. Really good post, Linda... I find that I deal with internal censorship alot. I guess it's just habit. I work at a newspaper and we are constantly asking one another what can we say so I guess it filters over into my creative endeavors.

    I find myself sometimes holding back and really admire those who can just let it all hang out...

  7. Fantastic post, Linda. I commented on Facebook, but didn't realize this was a blog post, so I'll c&p my comments here.

    I haven't written violence, but have tried sex (giggle). It's a topic I struggle with, even though it central to the plot of my novel. I know I want to write authentically and present the truth of my characters, but writing those "behind closed doors" scenes causes so much angst. And, what's my mother going to think??

    It takes a lot courage and hard work to move beyond the puritanical and get to the truth. I'm glad you have no regrets about The House that Tien Built. It's a remarkable story.

    Also, I didn't know there was a #FridayFlash policy on explicit erotica, either. I must say, it seems incongruous considering all the violence and horror. Market rules, though, and I do understand that.

    Thanks for this post. Great conversation.

  8. LOL. I'm sure you'll delete the post above mind, which is from an escort service, apparently. One drawback to posting naughty words; they bring all sorts of creatures to your web site during a search.

    I couldn't write a scene like that in something I'd hoped to publish unless I did it under a pseudonym. I would worry first about my kids reading it, particularly at a point where they were old enough to understand the words but too young to understand why daddy used them. I'd worry second about what people close to me thought.

    Perhaps I need to see the Wizard about a vial of courage.


  9. Interesting you say that about yourself, Anthony, because I've often felt your writing has an edgy openness.

    Paige, you write beautifully and honestly, and I wish my characters were not so dark and desperate... but they are.

    Olivia, I stopped worrying about what others will think of my writing last year. I am lucky, kind of -- my family does not read my poems or stories. Though John, I do worry about what my children will think. Although they know me well enough to know my writing is not me -- just from me.

    I very well may publish this under a pseudonym; not so much for the sex, but for how I portray the institution that pays my bills. Peace...

  10. Very good post here, Linda. And I appreciate every one's thoughts who've commented here. I trip up on this alot too and I haven't made up my mind. I do know this, when it comes down to the characters and what they are experiencing, if we inject ourselves in there we are controlling their world, their choices, their FREE WILL for crying out loud. I feel that is wrong and you wont have an amazing story (maybe a good story, but not amazing)

    Thanks for being so open. I always love your thoughts.

  11. I don't hold back in what I *write*, but I do hold back in what I post on the Internet. I've done erotica on my blog, but nothing especially graphic.

    I occasionally post more explicit material in other venues, where the readership is more broad-minded. Pretty rare, though.

  12. Writing sex is very hard to do, at least for me. I tend to be very general, describe feelings and motivations before the act, then fade to black. I'm not a prude, but I find writing it convincingly hard to do.

    Language and violence are two other points that I struggle with. My kids are now old enough that I do not need to worry about them reading variants of F in my stuff. It if fits in the tone and character of the scene, it goes in.

    I think gratuitous sex, violence, or cursing are where it crosses the line into being offensive. I struggled with your piece, as you know, but ultimately decided the sex was not gratuitous, though it certainly was explicit.

    I have struggled with other stories, as to list them or not. And not just for sex. There has only been one I did not post a link to. It was erotica, plain and simple - sex for the sake of sex.

    The #FridayFlash guidelines will remain. If nothing else, I hope they help minimize the number of people tempted to post gratuitous sex, violence, or foul language. I don't want to play the part of a censor, it's a slippery slope to go down, and a tremendous amount of work.

    But I don't want #FridayFlash to become an NC-17 magnet either. I'll continue to play each instance on a case by case basis, whether to list it or not, after discussing it with the author.

    Glad you opened this discussion. Probably one we all needed to have.

  13. Jon, glad you commented (just found it this evening... hmm, google's failing me here). I think the #ff policy is fine, though wide open to interpretation, and I'm glad you give a wide berth to stories. I will certainly think twice before posting another story with the #ff hashtag that might straddle the policy.

    I think gratuitous is key -- for writing violence, sex, cursing. Jodi expresses it well -- when authorial intrusion influences the 'free will' of the character. Which points out that as writers we are responsible for the authenticity of our characters and their 'voice'. At any rate, thank you for making me stretch, and thank you for your extreme generosity.

    Tony, interesting - you hold back on what you post. Something for me to chew over.

    Thank you all for a fascinating discussion. Next week - religion!

  14. I just got a chance to read this post, and I'm oh so glad that I did. Internal censorship is something I struggle with as well, but I think, in the end, honesty is the most important. My characters often do things I would never do, but the actions are true to the character. I had a language warning on my blog last week because of the "f-word" which I generally don't use, but it seemed right for the story.

    I think good writing has to walk that line sometimes. For the record, I enjoyed "The House that Tien Built" because it was raw and honest. Otherwise you're cheating your readers.