I’m generally cautious when it comes to sex in fiction. Now, Christians are probably waiting for me to give an answer like, “Never mention sex in fiction.” Liberals are probably waiting to dismiss everything I say because I’ll be too restrictive for them. I’m probably not going to satisfy either party. Why? Because I think the answer is more complicated than “Never include sex in fiction” or “Include sex just as openly as you would any other part of life.”
Christians, the Bible has tons of sex in it. You can hardly go a chapter in the Old Testament without someone sleeping with someone else, and some of those stories aren’t exactly family friendly. Non-Christians, I’m about to make it pretty plain that sexual openness doesn’t always lead to satisfying sex—or a satisfying story.
I’ll tell you right up-front: I’m not going to tell you what the line is. But I’ll give you enough information so you can consider what is a good, realistic, artistic portrayal of sex in fiction.
Why the death of sex in fiction wasn't caused by moral conservatism
Way back in 1930, American society reacted strongly to the frankly pornographic material that was pouring out of films. So a bunch of movie producers got together and created a set of industry-wide moral standards, known as the Motion Picture Production Code or Hays Code (named after Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America president Will H. Hays). This code governed the industry from 1930 to 1968, when it was replaced by the MPAA rating system, and is the reason why films from this area are, generally speaking, family friendly.
I first heard of this code when I took a college course on American film. An entire section of the course addressed moral standards in film during this “clean” era, and I was surprised when I heard various film historians and experts speak of it with nostalgia. Every one of them made the observation that we lost something when the standards relaxed, especially when it came to sex.
During that era, they explained, one had to be very creative. Sex could not be shown on screen, but the creators had to find a way to sexually charge the scene. So they used camera angles and suggestion to plant understanding in the viewer’s mind. One director from that era recalled how he directed the camera to linger on a kiss between two lovers, then remain on the woman’s face as her lover moved out of the frame…but remained (so viewers assume) in intimate contact with her. Nothing but the kiss and the woman’s expression was shown, but the viewers knew exactly what was happening and what was coming next, even though they never saw it.
In contrast, modern movies leave nothing to the imagination, and every single one of the film experts, while applauding the “virtues” of sexual freedom, expressed a sense of wistfulness, noting that something powerful was lost. Suggestion, they agreed, is more powerful in the imagination than exact images. In some ways, the sexual revolution killed sex.
Why sex in fiction is unrealistic--and encouraging harm
I was brought up in a Christian household, with certain standards regarding the viewing or reading of sexual material. We understood that sex is a part of life in general, and that it is even more a part of our current culture. There’s no point in pretending that it does not exist. But we were also taught that sex is something sacred. You don’t just do it with anyone you feel like or think you might have feelings for. You might ask: Why is that? Let me explain.
First of all, there are serious physical consequences to that lifestyle, such as sexually transmitted diseases, which affect millions of people every year, especially young people. Read Epidemic: How Teen Sex is Killing Our Kids by Meg Meeker if you want to have the living daylights out of you. And here's a CDC info graphic to put things in perspective.
Second, there are serious emotional and physiochemical consequences. (Read Hooked by Dr. McIlhaney and Bush if you want to know the science behind it.)
Third, there are spiritual consequences, which are far bigger than we want to admit. (The Bible explains this better than I can.)
So having uncommitted sex splashed across a page or a screen is not simply a way of liberating ourselves from restricting cultural norms. It’s a way of denying reality. Because in reality, people get hurt, people get STDs, and people pay for their sexual misbehaviors—either now or later.
It drives me nuts when I see fictional characters fall into bed with each other when neither of them has defined the relationship. Is this a long-term thing? A short-term fling? Is he willing to guard, honor, and commit to her for life, or is she just Hot Chick #14 in a continuing line of conquests? Is she willing to bear his children and be a life-long companion for him, or is she just eager to prove to herself (and to the general male population) that she is desirable? In real life, uncommitted sex has consequences. I’ve seen it over and over and over, and not simply because I volunteer at a pregnancy center and work one-on-one with some women who are dealing with the life-long consequences of uncommitted sex.
You never forget your first time. (At least, if you were sober when it happened.) There’s a reason for that. Sex is not just recreation; it involves a part of you that is deep and precious.
You would think that sexual openness in literature would help people to be more satisfied in their sexual lives. The truth? People need more and more sexual material, of greater shock value, in order to get the same rush. And the long-term result is not satisfaction, but disappointment. Sure, sex sells, but what’s selling obviously isn’t satisfying, or people wouldn’t need to continually get more of it. See my point?
Okay, but sex is part of reality. How do you depict it in fiction?