by | Jul 15, 2016 | The Writer's Life | 5 comments

S. Lee Manning:  Okay, I’ll start with the question of sex in thrillers. How to write it? Whether to write it?

Sex is entertaining. It gets attention.  It’s pretty much expected in a spy thriller. But exactly how sex   is used – how hot, how explicit – is very much a question of the writer’s taste.  Some writers cut away at the bedroom door. Others do an in-depth description of every move. I’m somewhere on the continuum between the two extremes, both as a reader and as a writer.

I write sex scenes not only for the intrinsic pleasure but either to further the plot or show something about the characters. In my novel Trojan Horse, the sex scenes between Kolya, my protagonist, and his fiancée, Alex, a smart and tough attorney, do both.
She sat on the side of the bed and leaned over to brush the light blond hair from his forehead. As she did, his arms circled her waist and pulled her down into a kiss, his mouth tasting of vodka. She melded her body against his as his hands untied the sash to her bathrobe.
Then she remembered he was leaving again, after only two days in Washington, and that he hadnt bothered to mention that fact.
“I shouldnt have to find out youre leaving town from Teo.”
“We can fight later.” He moved his hands to her shoulders and slid the robe back, but he had said the wrong thing.
“Exactly when shall I schedule you in?” She grasped his wrists to stop the hands from caressing her breasts.
His instinct is to avoid the emotional confrontation, and hers is to not let him get away with it. He eventually gives in, and they have the talk that Alex is demanding. And the reader learns something about both of them and about their relationship – which will be important, not only to their  personal development, but to the twists and turns of the plot.
Then they have sex. Fun for them. Fun to write. Not too too detailed, but just enough.
I have no problem writing sex. I have no problem writing violence. If I did, I would be writing in another genre. But then there’s rape. It’s a little more problematic when writing about rape, which is also in my novel, because some people confuse rape with sex. Rape is not sex; it is violence in the guise of sex. And that’s clear in Trojan Horse. When Kolya and Alex are being held prisoner, Kolya is offered a Hobson’s choice by Max, one of his captors.
“Just to show how fair I am, Im going to let you choose your punishment. Either I break your other leg, or I fuck your woman in front of you. Which do you prefer?”
Kolya immediately chooses to have his leg broken, but the choice is illusory.  Max wants not only to punish but to humiliate, and to illustrate his position of power, and to do this he has already decided to rape Alex in front of Kolya, while pretending to offer a choice.
The rape scene is important to the plot, and important to the character arc, but it wasn’t easy to write.  So while as a writer I needed the scene, I didn’t linger. I wrote the scene from Kolya’s point of view, and Kolya closes his eyes, unable to watch. I figuratively closed my eyes with him, because I was no longer writing sex. I was writing sexualized violence – which somehow is harder for me to write than either straight sex or straight violence. I wrote what he hears, and the description is brief.
It’s an interesting question – why do I find it harder? Is it my gender? Is it because rape takes an act

that is meant to be intimate and pleasurable for both parties, even if it’s casual, and turns it into a brutal act that violates personal integrity in a much deeper way than a punch or a gunshot? Or is it because rape is still so often not taken seriously – regarded by some as a youthful mistake meriting nothing more than a slap on the wrist – and all too often victims are mocked or blamed for the violence that was perpetrated on them?

I pose the question, but I don’t have the answer.

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  1. Gayle Lynds

    LOL, S. Lee. There sure is a lot of controversy about the subject. I've had editors who wanted no sex scenes at all, and then my male readers complained, and I've had editors who did want sex scenes, and no one complained. In the end, it's the book that should dictate the sex scenes as it does the chase scenes and the political scenes, or at least so it seems to me!

  2. S. Lee Manning

    Absolutely agree, Gayle, that the book should dictate the sex scenes as much as it dictates any other scenes.

  3. Karna Bodman

    It is so true that a scene like the ones you describe certainly enhance the reader's understanding of your main characters — what each wants, needs or demands. I know that including these scenes can be controversial. I've had male readers say that including a love scene (vs. "shutting the door") just slows down the action and "guys want non-stop action," whereas many women say they like to dwell on such a scene. Since we are told that 80% of books are bought by women (to read or give as gifts)…. why not go for it!.

  4. Jamie Freveletti

    Sex in a thriller is often a subject that comes fraught with baggage.If it's done well and fits the novel, then I think it definitely has its place.

  5. Chris Goff

    I have never written a rape, but I think that I could do that more easily than I write sex. To me rape is a brutal act, just like a murder. The emotions are harsh, full of anger, a desire to humiliate and dominate. Sex is much more intimate and forces you to bare the soul. Even when it's the soul of a made up character, it feels like you're exposing yourself–and what if the reader doesn't like it? They're not supposed to like the rape, but they are the sex.