Back in the days of obscenity trials, it was clear what you could and couldn’t write about when it came to sex. Lady Chatterley’s Lover is possibly the most famous example, but other books to run foul of the UK censor included Ulysses, Lolita, The Well of Loneliness, and Tropic of Cancer. Nowadays, of course, this is a thing of the past and writers can write, and readers read, pretty much whatever they want to.
There are still things that we would all agree that we shouldn’t read and write about (I don’t expect to see graphic tales of sex with small children any time soon) but otherwise people differ quite markedly on where they will draw the line. My publisher, Accent Press, has an erotic imprint, Xcite, which has received awards for the quality of its work, so obviously there are plenty of people relaxed about Addicted to Rope or Adventures in Fetishland. Pauline Reage’s Story of O is read even by people who might normally avoid what, in the 1960s at least, would have been regarded as ‘dirty books’. Yet, in a world full of quite explicit novels, many people seem surprisingly easily shocked. This is from an Amazon review of Leslie Thomas’s The Secret Army:
But we also see a country overflowing with sexual immorality. Yes, s£x did and does take place, but open oral s£x in streets or respectable married women regularly having multiple partners, even being passed from person to person? Perhaps, but surely very rarely, and not anywhere else as a regular occurrence except in Mr Thomas' mind, I expect.
The question of how much sex is too much (or too little) is, apparently, a constant concern of publishers. One author I know, whose ‘erotic’ novella seems pretty tame, told me that her publisher had asked her to hold back on the kink, while another, writing a straightforward romance, was apparently told to include more explicit sex. It’s a particular problem for me, because The White Rajah includes some (very unexplicit) gay sex. The simple fact of having a gay character at all is apparently too much for some Amazon reviewers:
Pity that such an excellent story should be ruined by the sexual obsessions of the author.
I think Tom Williams spoiled a great yarn by introducing a 'gay' element into a well known and loved adventure.
At the same time, several reviewers on other sites have complained that I shy away from explicit details.
The one disappointment I had, and why I give it three stars rather than four, is that the relationship between the narrator and Brooke is related in very timid detail. [Goodreads review]
Nowadays the notion that characters don't have sex and that their bedroom activities don't affect their broader relationship is simply silly. But how much detail do we need? Even well-known 'mainstream' authors often seem to feel the need to describe their heroine's enthusiastic response to the hero's thrusting organ, though I would have thought most of us could imagine it for ourselves. At the other extreme, though, we have books that avoid explicit sex but replace it with childish innuendo that I would think many adult readers find much more embarrassing. (I’m naming no names, but I have at least one mega best-seller in mind.)
Obviously, some writers are seeking to shock or excite and, for them, this isn’t a problem. But what about romantic fiction? What about old-fashioned adventure stories? What about literary efforts like Julian Barnes' dreary Sense of an Ending with its sad little paragraph about masturbation. (Uck!) I was going to say that it was a problem for everyone except children's writers, but in the age of Heather Has Two Mommies, sensible children's authors are questioning whether ignoring sex in books for children and young adults is really a good idea.
So: close the bedroom door and leave everything to the imagination? Or bring on the whips and chains and explain exactly what she means when she says that she loves him to death? I'm guessing most of us will go for somewhere in between. But where? I have a friend who was astonished by Fifty Shades because she had never imagined such things. Other friends would regard an evening with the eponymous Christian as a bit on the dull side. How can any author write a book with real characters with real lives that can satisfy all their readers without shocking any of them? And is it even worth trying?