they say “sex sells”

“Sex sells” is an annoying phrase, to me. For a few reasons. First, it implies (when used regarding romance or erotica) that people (like me) are writing sex because it sells. I can only speak for myself, but for me, that is simply not true. Second, it allots some kind of trade or monetary value to sex, which is… not ideal. Sex is beautiful and natural and not something to be used as currency, at least not in the dream world I like to live in. (Where do prostitution and porn fit into this dream world? I don’t know. I do like porn. And though I’ve never considered hiring any kind of prostitute, I don’t begrudge those who have.) The third reason I hate the phrase “sex sells” is it is tossed about in a dismissive and derisive way, to belittle any success an erotic-romance author might achieve. As in: “Hey, so-and-so’s book made the top 100!” and the response: “Pfft. Well, ‘sex sells’ I guess.” (eye-roll and lip sneer optional).

I have found myself fighting for my right to write sex, and it’s already grown tiresome. Comment threads, blog posts, and even casual discussions have all become  potential battlegrounds, areas where I might be forced to defend my sex-scenes. Sometimes I fight, and sometimes I walk away. Other times I just lurk and read, and get a little depressed.

Here are just a few of the things I’ve read/heard lately about erotic-romance that have made me sad/angry:

  • “Sex scenes are filler, and are used as an easy way to distract readers from weak plot.”
  • “People who write a lot of sex have unsatisfactory sex lives, and write to fulfill their own needs and fantasies.”
  • “I skim over sex scenes because they are boring and I don’t need to know what happens between two characters in bed.”
  • And sadly, people are still using the term “mommy porn”. (I know, right?)

Why is the inclusion of sex something that “cheapens” a work? Why are sex scenes in literary fiction totally okay, but in romance they are regarded as “fluff” or “filler”? Is it just sex, or is it romance in general that people have a problem with?

Perhaps it is my failing, that I want to associate with writers of other genres, that I think I should be taken seriously as a romance writer. Maybe that is too much to ask? Should I just not care what people think? Just keep writing what I want the way I want to and trust that my readers will support me, and forget everyone else? I guess that would be the best course of action. But it is hurtful when I hear/read other writers belittling romance. Or making assumptions about me personally or other romance writers based on the inclusion of sex in our stories.

I think the big problem I have is this whole thing about sex being somehow dirty or trashy or “unworthy”. As if including  graphic sex in your story makes your work of a lesser quality, makes your writing weaker, or makes your book “porn”.  And of course, the other side of that coin is the crazy idea that books with little or no sex, or “fade to black” type scenes, are somehow classier or better-written. (Which you know is bullshit if you’ve ever read more than a few books like that. The inclusion of explicit sex has no bearing on writing quality.)

Maybe another issue is I tend to read a lot in genres where sex is common. Paranormal romance, romance (either m/m or m/f), fantasy, urban fantasy… all have (often) pretty graphic sex. And while I have sometimes found plots weak or characters shallow, it had nothing to do with the sex scenes.

Someone on facebook linked to this article the other day, and it was at once very sad and very uplifting. The article is horrible. The comments, by readers of romance, are freaking awesome.

So as usual, I have lots of questions and few answers. I can’t stop writing what I write, I’ve tried but I can’t pretend to be something I’m not. I am a romance writer, and that’s just it. I guess the challenge then is to stop letting the opinions of others dictate my happiness, or my feelings of self-worth. And if I ever figure out how to do that, I will let you know.

8 thoughts on “they say “sex sells”

  1. Hi Amelia; Thank you for writing so bravely. A buyer will be drawn to a book for a lot of reasons, not the least of which are the title and the cover art. A reader will read the first chapter if it is well written and interesting. A fan will turn page after page if all the story elements are blended together in an intriguing and compelling fashion. A fanatic will rave about the book if the message resonates with primal urges in their souls.

    Blake Snyder (Save The Cat) offers up several primal messages, including hunger, survival, sex, and revenge.

    People who dismiss sex are probably one of several types. Maybe they are drawn to the sex and are too embarrassed to admit it. Or, they are moved more strongly by one of the other urges. Or, maybe they are dead.

    I hope you keep writing,


    • I am sure there are a lot of factors at play for those who condemn sexual content. Honestly, I sometimes feel sorry for people who have so much insecurity and uncertainty that they have to shelter themselves from such a natural and healthy part of life. But, everyone is different, and sex and sexuality are intensely personal.
      I just wish people were more open-minded, in general, I guess.
      Thanks for commenting, and for your encouragement 🙂

  2. I agree with you so much. Writing off a book with explicit sexuality is like writing off a book because a character eats a meal or falls in love. It is all human!

    • Exactly! If we are in a character’s head, knowing their thoughts and feelings, it only makes sense we would follow them in their sexual experiences as well. It is part of their story, in my opinion.

  3. I had to laugh when I put a sex-laden romance scene up for critique in my historical critique group–some had wondered why I had left a few of those scenes out (they aren’t a mmromance group, just historicals). I had also done the same for my m/f medieval mystery because I tend to write explicitly–likely to drown out the voices from my catholic upbringing. And the group doesn’t write a lot of sex scenes. I gave them a choice of two chapters, one with and one without. One comment was “beautifully and tastefully done” and the other was “this is pornography.”
    Did it move the plot forward? Hell, yeah. Integral to character development–yep. It’s historical romantic suspense. I wonder what Daphne du Mauriere would write like today? Margaret Fraser wrote a compelling, heart wrenching sex scene in one of her medieval mysteries and lost some readers and fans.
    Well, I guess it’s a paradox.
    Or like the Ricky Nelson song “You can’t please everyone so you’ve got to please yourself.”

    • True, you have to please yourself. And just like I’d never advise anyone to include a sex scene if it didn’t feel right for them to do it, it seems wrong to limit the scenes in many of my stories. I think being true to yourself is the best way to go, in every situation.
      I would loved to have watched the expressions on those faces when they read your sex scenes, though! LOL I can just imagine 🙂

  4. That article! I can’t even… argh! You’re right, the responses he received pretty much put him in his place even though his apology was abysmal. I can’t even understand why we’re still so ridiculously squeamish about sex. Sex is a natural part of relationship development and romance is about relationships! The very idea that romance novels are skimpy platforms to hide hold up scandalous smutty sex and have no “nutritional value” is just insulting. I’m not saying those books don’t exist, but I know I need a real plot and a real relationship story in my romance novels. It’s the relationship that drives it for me, as I’m sure it does for most readers. And if the sex is hot to boot? Bonus!

    • Exactly!
      I was so happy to see that article, actually, just for the comments. So often with articles, I skip reading the comments because they usually make me feel sad and hopeless, but that was the best ever example of commenting I’ve ever seen online. It kind of restored my faith in the internet 🙂

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