Sex and the Thriller

by | Jul 25, 2016 | Chris Goff | 14 comments

by Chris Goff

The Cold Hard Truth

At the Rogue Women Writer’s panel at ThrillerFest on July 8, Steve Berry (our panel master) raised the curtain on the gender disparity in writing International Espionage thrillers. It was a great discussion, with audience participation, and everyone could see that there are some problems.

#1, it’s difficult to get thriller reviewers to read our books.

#2, there seems to be a disparity in advances.

#3, it’s perceived that men are the predominate readers of International Espionage Thrillers and those men don’t like reading books written by women.

Since readers are important for book sales, which influence reviews and advances, I decided to give #3 a fact check.


Every source I found seemed to support the allegation that International Espionage Thriller readers are predominately men, but none of those sources cited any stats that supported that belief. However, I did find a great blog on, written by Linda Rodriguez, author of the Skeet Bannion novels, that spoke to the subject. She contends that thrillers and mysteries used to split along gender lines because “thrillers were originally written by, for and about men.” To support the allegation, she cites the earliest thriller as The Riddle of the Sands by Erskine Childers, published in 1903 and states that “[the book] had not a single female character initially until his publisher forced [him] to add one.” She goes on to mention Ken Follett’s The Eye of the Needle published in 1978 as the first thriller with a female protagonist.

According to Rodriguez, the books of the time all “shared elements of idealized male protagonists braving physical danger and escalating threat that built to cathartic endings of explosive violence.” Then she goes on to point out, by contrast, the mysteries of the same time period were dominated by female protagonist, written by women and read predominately by female readers.

Of more interest to me is that—according to Rodriguez—things have changed. She contends that thrillers have become more violent, with the offset of cozy mysteries at the other end of the spectrum, and claims that “women are the majority of readers throughout the spectrum…and women [also] write roughly half the books in the combined genres.”

She’s right.

According to a 2015 US Media Audience Demographics report by young readers (ages 18-33) read more fiction than the baby boomers (ages 46-64) and mature readers (ages 65 and older) combined. Female fiction readers read mystery/thriller/crime books at a much higher rate than male readers (57% compared to 39% even though it is the most popular genre for both genders), and mature fiction readers have stronger preferences for the mystery/thriller/crime genre overall (61% to 48%). Another interesting fact was that in 2015 all ten of the Top 10 favorite authors were mystery/thriller/crime genre authors—and all of them were men. There were also two romance authors listed—both women. The female readers to male readers ratio was huge (37% women to only 3% men).

The take away?

There are no real statistics on who reads International Thrillers, but based on the blogs of the Rogue Women and comments by others, it appears to me that when women add sex to their thrillers, they are actually adding emotion and entanglements versus writing the more gratuitous James Bond-type of sex. Romantic sex gets messy, and may actually lead to the books being labeled Romantic Thrillers, Romantic Suspense or Romantic Mysteries, which—if the above survey is accurate—would likely be off-putting to men.

Another study I found does support the common allegation that women buy more books than men. In 2010, Sisters in Crime collaborated with Bowker’s PubTrack Book Consumer research service to gather data on mystery readers. They found that 64% of the mystery readers were women, 35% were men. 47% were over the age of 60. The study also revealed that readers under 40 look for  dark, suspenseful stories and don’t distinguish mysteries as different from other genres, while readers over 60 are more loyal to authors or characters.

So, what does all of this mean for the Rogue Women Writers?

Rogue Women Writers (left to right): Christine Goff, Gayle Lynds, KJ Howe with ARC of new novel The Freedom Broker, Jamie Freveletti, S. Lee Manning, Sonja Stone (kneeling on floor), and Francine Mathews.

Fact: we are writing in a traditionally male venue that above all lends itself to violence and action.
Fact: old stigmas of “men writing books by and for men” may not have totally faded.
Fact: women buy and read more mystery/thriller/crime fiction than men, though we don’t know the percentages of men and women buying International Espionage Thrillers.

Which leaves me wondering…

#1, Do you think it may be perceived that men write better International Thrillers because it’s believed that men stick to action, violence and gratuitous sex, while women writers are seen as bringing emotion and sensibility into their work, something male readers may find uncomfortable?

#2, Do you think it’s possible that women, who buy more of mystery/thriller/crime fiction than men, buy books they perceive as bringing in more emotion and sensibility than books they fear may be strictly full of action, violence and gratuitous sex?

#3, Is there anything to do about it?

So back to sex in the thriller

When I need to write sex, I will. When I can fade to black and stick to my story, I will. What matters is the book and what best fits the story. Does it make me squirm? To be continued…

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. S. Lee Manning

    Fabulous blog, Chris!! Your ending question, is there anything to do about old perceptions and stereotypes in international thriller writing, is exactly why we formed Rogue Women Writers. Being the optimistic sort, I think we can and will do something about it. A tip of my Rogue Women Writer's hat for doing the research and laying it all out.

  2. Chris Goff

    Thanks for the tip of the hat. My hope is some of our readers will log in and share their perceptions of the genre.

  3. Gayle Lynds

    It's a fascinating question, and it speaks to what has changed in the perceptions in the industry. Thanks for such a provocative and thoughtful column!

  4. Francine Mathews

    I would love to hear from any women readers out there: What helps you decide to pick up an espionage novel, rather than a mystery or thriller?

  5. Karna Bodman

    Great blog Chris! Like Francine, I would also love to hear from women writers just how they choose the novels they buy — either for themselves or as gifts….for a man or another woman.

  6. KJ Howe

    Love this blog, Chris. So poignant and interesting. I hope that female thriller writers and female protagonists will become superstars…lots of rogue women in the future!

  7. helaine mario

    very thought provoking blog, thank you. mentioned this to my husband – he wonders if it is because so many readers have the perception that most spies we have heard of – and read about – are men, and that readers also associate (rightly or wrongly) the world of violence more with men than women. yes it's so much about perceptions. helaine mario

  8. Chris Goff


    Thank you for your insights–and for those of your husband. I agree it's so much about the perceptions.

  9. Kay Kendall

    Lots of valuable information here. Thank you.

  10. rah

    Fantastic blog (you guys rocked that panel with Steve Berry as well). I think the problem is primarily old fashioned gender stereotypes about men and women. It is a symptom of a larger problem that (I hope) is getting better. AS women are now allowed in combat roles in the military and are beginning to have high profile leadership positions this will hopefully shift. Keep up the great work ladies.

  11. James Ziskin

    Great blog. Much food for thought and discussion. Thanks!

  12. Unknown

    Excellent blog, Chris. I have often pondered your three questions. I would add an additional factor to your first question, and that is that thriller readers like to learn something from the setting of a thriller. In addition to the perception that male authors write more action and violence, many readers also value the techno aspect of thrillers– going all the way back to The Riddle of the Sands which had tons of information about sailing and navigation–and readers perceive that they are more likely to get solid technical information from male authors. I believe female thriller writers are battling the perception that their books won't have accurate technical details, whether they are writing about spy craft, submarines or science.
    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  13. JudyinBoston

    Great post! I am an eclectic reader and I confess John Le Carré is my favorite writer, I don't like explicit torture and gore and for this reason avoid some writers (and Game of Thrones). That being said, I love espionage and foreign settings and hair raising adventure and dangerous situations, even violence. And technology! Loved Riddle of the Sands.
    I have no preference for male or female writer. Whoever tells a good story in a half-way literate voice with a good sense of place will grab me.

  14. Lisa Brackmann

    Without getting into my own publishing dilemmas, I do think there is an expectation that if it's a women author, you aren't writing "big" international suspense with political themes, you're writing domestic Girl on a Train noir, you're writing romantic suspense, you're writing cozies — the common thread being that your focus is somehow "smaller," more intimate in scale. Personally I would much rather read a book with "big" themes but that is still told through the lens of well-developed characters. It is not always easy to find those kinds of books, by men OR by women!