When Sooz asked me to write a post about sex and literature I jumped at the chance. You see, I don't consider myself a writer of erotica, I just happen to have written one work that has significant—and explicit—sexual content, but when Harper Collins reviewed that work-in-progress, Appetites, in late 2010 their review included the comments:
I feel that ‘Appetites’ is a little confused about what sort of book it wants to be. It’s not straightforward erotica as the sexual scenes are unromanticised and often unflinchingly honest. In other words, they are more sordid than arousing . . .
The main thing you need to do is decide what you want your book to be, not least because it would present a publisher with considerable problems as to how to market it in its current form.
And so the issue is one dear to my heart.
It seems to me that there are two questions tied up in Sooz’s prompt for this post: first, what is the relevance of sex to literature; and second, how, if at all, has this changed in recent times. I shall consider each in turn.
Everybody’s doing it
Funny how sex always attracts attention. Consider how—at least here in Australia—American Pyscho (1991) is sold in cling wrap, whilst Red Dragon (1981) is freely available. Here we have two protagonists who are both psychopathic killers, but it seems that the sexual aspects of the former makes it more threatening than the latter.
After reading my review, academic, author, publisher and literary thinker Dan Holloway (check out his website here) made some interesting posts about transgressive fiction—American Pyscho is an example—which according to Michael Silverblatt, as quoted in Wikipedia :
graphically explores such topics as incest and other aberrant sexual practices, mutilation, the sprouting of sexual organs in various places on the human body, urban violence and violence against women, drug use, and highly dysfunctional family relationships
It and the related genre of blank fiction have been around since the 70s, though its roots can be traced much further back. 
In fact, sex in literature is nothing new (that's right folks, we didn't invent it). Whilst the bible may have been the first work off Guttenberg’s press I wouldn’t mind betting it was quickly followed by some piece of smut—and, just quietly, even the bible contained the odd bit of nooky. Erotic verses have survived from ancient Greek and Roman times and the genre is represented throughout the history of literature, even Shakespeare wrote a poem or two that could be considered erotic, see for example Venus and Adonis .
There are any number of reasons that writers may include sex scenes in their work. The aim may be to titillate, to shock, to educate, to amuse or to realistically reflect life.
It is that reflection of life that most interests me, as a reader and a writer, though each has its place. I’m a fan of what has been coined Dirty Realism, where the focus is on unexceptional characters and the seamier or more mundane aspects of ordinary life (See Wikipedia for a little more on this). And, let’s face it, sex is a part of our mundane lives. To exclude it from consideration results in a depiction of the world that simply is not true to life.
Of course, the writer's intention and the readers experience may not be aligned. I remember as a child sneaking Mantissa off my parents' book shelf for night-time reading; I'm not sure titillation was John Fowles intention. And there were scenes in Frederick Forsyth’s Day of the Jackal that were more riveting—and puzzling—to a young teen reader than any surreptitiously obtained copies of Mayfair magazines.
For me sex is relevant to literature to the extent that a work requires it, no more, no less. One might as well ask: what is the relevance of car chases or ‘deep and meaningfuls’. None of these are mandatory, but none should be forbidden and none should attract particular attention for any reason other the quality of the writing. Like all other action sex in literature should serve to advance plot or develop character. I’d advise all writers who include sex in their work need to exercise caution, if only to avoid the bad sex writing awards. Those interested in writing sex scenes could do a lot worse than getting their hands on a copy of Elizabeth Benedict’s The Joy of Writing Sex, one of the best books on writing I have read.
Wherever my adult work is displayed I make sure that it is marked as adult and that the sexually explicit content is noted. When I was pursuing the pot of gold at the end of Authonomy's rainbow that is an ED review I guided readers uncomfortable with sexual content to chapters of the work that were PG (well G anyway). Of course, there is always a danger that warning of adult only content will serve to attract younger readers rather than discourage them.
I believe strongly that there should be no prescriptive dictums as to what is or is not relevant to literature or any other field of the arts and that, as writers, we should all resist any attempt to tell us what we can and can't include in our writing. However, I also believe that rights imply responsibilities: I will defend any writer's right of free expression, but I also hold that we each have a responsibility to do our best not to cause harm, which must affect how we exercise our rights.
The times they are a changing (or are they)
So what of the second question, what’s the state of play in 2011? Realism and the impetous for more honest consideration of sex in literature is certainly not new, this is a movement dating back at least as far as the nineteenth century. And we’re long past the obscenity scandals of works such as Tropic of Capricorn or Lady Chatterley’s Gardener. So what has changed in the early twenty-first century?
One often hears that Gen Y have shorter concentration spans and higher thresholds to being shocked and we are told that society has become more permissive, but is this true?
If I compare 1985s Less Than Zero with 2010s Imperial Bedrooms, it seems to me that the former is more reflective of fragmented attention and self-conscious angst than the latter. Of course that may simply reflect Brett Easton Ellis’s own maturation, but I see little to suggest that readers today are any less capable of following an intricate narrative than those of yesteryear.
It may be true that what once shocked now seems tame—anyone read Madame Bovary recently?—but the fact remains that there are those who continue to object vociferously to any mention of the act.
At the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival there was some considerable controversy regarding pornography. And it seems to me that many don't differentiate between pornography and erotica or even passing mention of sex: it's all tarred with the same brush. There have been similar signs of rising conservatism in other fields of the arts, for example photography where a 2008 Sydney display of the work of Bill Henson generated much media attention, if not hysteria. I fear that rather than living in more permissive times, the baby-boomers’ Iiberalism is being challenged by a new conservatism.
It is interesting that this is an area where elements of the feminist left are united with the Christian right. Men who write about sex risk being accused not only of moral interpitude, but also of objectifying women.
And yet, off course, explicit literature is not only produced by men. From The Delta of Venus to The Bride Stripped Bare women too are writing about sex. I spoke earlier of transgressive and blank fiction, genres dominated by men, but it strikes me that Nikki Gemmel's sex scenes ares more explicit than those of Ellis, Palahniuk or Houellebecq, and more real. And the same applies in popular fiction: boys, I’ve got to tell you the sex scenes in chick-lit are way hotter than anything I’ve seen in the crime and thriller genres—try pretty much anything by Marian Keyes, you’ll be surprised. Interestingly, lad lit (I'm thinking Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons) seems to have much less sexual content.
There is, I think, a tendency for us all to believe that we live in times of particular significance—that we are in some way different from all who have gone before us. I’m not convinced. Throughout the history of publishing there have been works that have challenged the conventions of the time and there have always counter movements decrying the erosion of morals standards: Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
Have you finished yet
It seems to me that writing about sex—now or at any other time—is dangerous, but then the same could be said of politics or religion (and I’ve probably sinned in both those areas in this post). However, if the job of literature is expose the truth, then that’s always a dangerous exercise.
With regard to my own work-in-progress, I’ve taken Harper Collins advice on board, to a degree; there’s less sex and I’ve worked on character development (though a certain distance is deliberate, after all it worked for Camus) but there remain explicit scenes—though I hope that they are honest and serve to advance the story.
It is my intention as a writer to be confronting and I make no apology for that.
JD Revene is an Anglo-Australian writer. His style is minimalist. You can find the first five chapters of Appetites, his work-in progress, here. He also has two short stories in the collection Words to Music (which also features contributions from Sooz and Dan) available in paperback and for Kindle.