Sex & the Christian Writer

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Let’s talk about writing sex.

Specifically, let’s talk about writing sex … from a Christian perspective.

Don’t pretend, as a writer, this isn’t something you struggle with, or think about, because it is. Writers write stories about human beings and their emotions, which means inevitably, sex is going to come up.

Some authors choose not to deal with it at all, and some readers prefer not to read it at all. Some writers choose to deal with it a lot, and some readers want to read it. Christians tend to fall in-between. I have read Christian novels without a whiff if intimacy even between a married couple, and a few that made me blush and stow the book under my pillow, in case my mother wandered in and wanted to read it. In terms of gratuitousness and in comparison to what we can see on primetime television now, that book was “tame” but for a thirteen year old, it was extremely racy.

I sometimes deal with sex in my books, for several reasons. Firstly, sex is significant, it forms bonds, and it is part of the human condition, and any relationship developing that does not involve sexual attraction I feel is inauthentic. I do not believe in adding sex for no reason, nor in being graphic, but I can’t write a novel about a married couple without touching on intimacy. Nor can I write a novel about flawed human beings who are attracted to each other without involving temptation. My heroine never gives in, but then it becomes an issue of faith overwhelming physical desire. Sex inside of marriage is a huge deal and a major portion of a relationship. Secondly, I also think Christians need to find middle ground on sex. It seems to be “all or none” a lot of the time, which is not healthy either for our thought life or our relationships. It is better to have a healthy view of sex as a natural, beautiful part of God’s plan for married life and to encounter it in tasteful moderation than to either be so sheltered that the idea of an undone cravat turns you on, or to be reading erotica to get your fix.

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Writing sex is complicated. There are so many valid opinions out there, and so many people whose tastes are varied. I could sit a group of godly women down in a circle, ask them about sex in books, and get a bunch of different answers. One will tell me that she doesn’t want to read it, or even an implication of it. One gentle kiss and a closed bedroom door is all she wants. Another will tell me that the emotional fulfillment of a relationship is often found through marital love, and that she likes to see the tension manifested in a love scene. Another might tell me that sex is nothing to be ashamed of and that she doesn’t mind it in books.

So, how do we write it? What do we do?

Our Biblical presidents are clear – we are not to lead others into temptation or become a stumbling block for them. This presumably means that we should write nothing that would cause others to have impure thoughts, which is why so many Christian authors avoid sex altogether in their books. Perhaps they are right, but I am not that kind of a writer. I deal with all things equally – religion, violence, betrayal, sex, in a tasteful manner but to challenge my reader and make them think. I am careful, but I still want to touch on all of these things and different things can be stumbling blocks to different people. I am far more turned on by a man in a suit than with his shirt off, and emotional repression to me is sexier than a couple getting hot and bothered. I cannot blame others for my thought life. I have to own it, and take responsibility for it. I do my best not to lead others into temptation but ultimately, we are all “turned on” by different things.

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The unspoken rule is to avoid graphic descriptions but personally, I have found that emotional intimacy can be way more erotic than graphic descriptions. One of my favorite on-screen love scenes is in The Painted Veil, when Kitty and Walter finally overcome all their anger and forgive one another. He puts aside her affair, and takes her in his arms. It’s a beautiful scene, because it is lovemaking – not graphic, though passionate, and full of intense emotional meaning. There is nothing carnal about it. It is an emotional high point in their marriage.

That, I think, if we choose to write about sex, is what we should aim for – not the physicality of it, but the emotional significance of it. Our hearts yearn for emotional intimacy between characters, so we do not need physical representations so much as emotional arcs. A simple solution would be not to deal with sex at all and not face the anxiety of getting it right, but … for me, at least, there is a sense of fulfillment in a beautifully written, tasteful love scene.

What about you? What do you prefer? The absence of love scenes? Tasteful love scenes? What are your struggles in writing love scenes?

22 Replies to “Sex & the Christian Writer”

  1. I generally avoid media where affairs and sexual immorality are promoted. So as long as your book doesn’t promote affairs and sexual immorality in general. I give up on movies, books, shows that do this.

    1. I do on occasion touch on those things, but they are never romanticized, never part of the main character’s arc (thus with the implication that it is “all right”), always have repercussions, and are not graphically depicted.

      Me, myself, I do not mind stories that involve adultery so long as it isn’t glorified, but instead is used to reveal how destructive and fulfilling that kind of relationship actually is (such as Anna Karenina). But nothing will turn me off of any form of entertainment faster than adultery that isn’t treated negatively.

  2. I’ve never written a love scene, but only because my stories have no need of them. I don’t know what I’ll do when the time comes to write one, but I know as far as reading goes, since different people are turned on by different things, it’s really up to each of us to draw our own lines and not cross them. What turns me on may be different from what turns you on, so I must be careful about what I read. For me, I won’t write something that crosses my own personal line, so it definitely won’t be a graphic scene. I’ll probably do more hinting than anything else, though you’re right, tension is a lot of what makes a scene good.

    And that was a super rambly reply. :p

  3. It’s such a fine line, isn’t it? Between sharing and pushing. Between truth and TMI.

    As a writer, I tend to write sex like you’d see in a ’40s movie, or a ’60s TV show. We all know what’s going to happen, we all know what just happened, but I’m not going to detail it. A lot of that is because I don’t want to imagine my characters having sex, which I’d have to do in order to write it.

    And similarly, I don’t mind reading books where characters have sex. But I don’t want to read details. No thanks. In fact, graphic sexual scenes will make me stop reading a book.

    Much of this is because I personally have to struggle to keep my mind pure, to not fantasize about men who are not my husband. I’ve never been tempted to be physically unfaithful, but I have a very vivid imagination and I love sex. Man, oh man, sex is amazing. But I’m committed to keeping my mind faithful to my husband, so I avoid writing and reading things that would cross that boundary for me.

    1. And similarly, I don’t mind reading books where characters have sex. But I don’t want to read details. No thanks. In fact, graphic sexual scenes will make me stop reading a book.

      Me too. I remember ceasing to read a book about Lady Jane (Grey) at one point, because the author decided to graphically describe her wedding night — when her husband rapes her. What shocked me even more was in the gushing reviews about the book on Amazon, NO ONE MENTIONED IT. I was sitting there thinking, “Did I get a different book than the rest of you??”

      Much of this is because I personally have to struggle to keep my mind pure, to not fantasize about men who are not my husband. I’ve never been tempted to be physically unfaithful, but I have a very vivid imagination and I love sex. Man, oh man, sex is amazing. But I’m committed to keeping my mind faithful to my husband, so I avoid writing and reading things that would cross that boundary for me.

      Firstly, I applaud you for your commitment to keep your mind pure and directed toward your husband. And secondly, thanks for bringing this up, because I think a lot of girls assume that once they get married and have an outlet for their urges, they will cease desiring men in general. Nope. Then, we face the danger of superimposing a fictional character / actor onto our spouse! =P

      It is, unfortunately, a CONSTANT temptation to remain pure of mind.

      1. Just like the article you linked to earlier that said women are expected to be immune to sexual temptation, similarly romance novels are seen to be somehow less bad than porn — reading about sex is better than watching it? I don’t think so.

        I read once, years ago, that “romance novels” are just as damaging as porn. Just like porn can create false expectations of what sex should be like, so romance novels create false expectations of what falling in love should be like. Both can cause people to become discontented with their spouses, and both can lead people to be mentally unfaithful. (And, in reality, both sex and falling in love are far more messy and complicated than portrayed.)

        1. You bring up something that has drifted through my mind more than once — porn or romance novels?

          Guys are visually turned on more than girls, who are emotionally stimulated. And what is more emotionally stimulating than a romance novel? So a lot of women get mad at their husbands for watching porn, while they are reading trash. That isn’t entirely fair, is it?

          Even more innocent romance novels can still raise false expectations. Mr. Darcy doesn’t exist. There probably will not be fireworks, either in a literal or a metaphorical sense.

          Alas, life is not like a book.

  4. I’m with you. I’ve long held that a middle ground is needed. I mean, look at Songs of Solomon for land’s sake! Tasteful, tactful use is by far the best way to go. Life is what it is–we shouldn’t pretend that certain aspects are there. It takes away from the reality. But in so doing, we also need to use the caution and understanding to do it in a respectful way, that comprehends the true nature of it.

    And I agree, emotional tension, real relationships, healing, forgiveness–those things are so much deeper, and real than all the hollow images modern media/literature (if you want to call it that) throws at us. One of the reasons I’m determined to get into moviemaking. I have a few choice ideas for how things should be done. 😉

    http://elorashorependragon.blogspot.com/2015/01/thorin-oakenshield-on-pier-of-his.html

    1. Song of Solomon is really smutty if you start reading between the lines. Ahem. But at least it is discreet and metaphorical, for the most part. 😉

      I hope you do get into movie making. I would love to see what you would create, and hope that you would show the world a nice romance that captures what true love is truly about. 🙂

  5. Great article, Charity! I love your point about aiming for “the emotional significance of it” and that “there is a sense of fulfillment in a beautifully written, tasteful love scene.” Personally, I won’t write anything graphic, but if I ignore sex entirely when the story clearly calls for intimacy between characters, then the characters and story both seem less real.

    For the past couple weeks, I’ve been re-visiting a fantasy/romance novel I started about 6 years ago. I’d pretty much finished part one, but lost the flow after the main characters got married. This time, as I’m working on part two, I’m trying to write more love scenes instead of skipping over them, and really show how their relationship is developing. Like Carissa said, I want to close the bedroom door after some foreplay instead of before. When I re-read the closed-door scenes I’d written a few years ago, I felt like I would be cheating the reader out of a huge part of these characters’ lives and growth if I didn’t write some tasteful love scenes.

    1. …if I ignore sex entirely when the story clearly calls for intimacy between characters, then the characters and story both seem less real.

      YES. This!

      I think you are doing the right thing with your fantasy / romance novel. There are so many ways to make characters seem more real through tasteful interactions and flirtations. The trick is learning to find that balance — and practicing at it. I can tell when a writer is awkward writing love scenes. I write them, and re-write them, and write them again. =D

  6. I dislike closed door sex scenes because it feels like the author is avoiding it. I also don’t like detailed sex scenes because that just feels like unnecessary gratuitousness. I’m one of those in-between people. I love kisses and longing looks and maybe even a little bit of heavy breathing, but nothing beyond. No actual sex in my scenes. Only after the foreplay, which is fun to read, can that bedroom door slam closed on the reader. That’s how I write and what I like to read.

    I love what you said about sex scenes needing to have a meaning, a purpose, emotional fulfillment that has nothing really do do with the act and everything to do with the emotional connection. Not enough stories go that route and it’s a shame. There is nothing more beautiful than the intimacy of The Painted Veil. If not for the last 20 minutes, it would be my favorite movie. Even Winter’s Tale has a scene of profound meaning and worth. If it had just been sex, I would have been offended, but I couldn’t be. Although I would have love, love, loved it if they’d been married!

    1. I feel the same way about closed doors. I remember as a teenager reading a certain author and there was never any form of emotional intimacy in her books and she always closed the door on their relationship beyond longing looks, despite them being married, and it just left me feeling … empty, as if they were characters and not real people. Maybe that is safer for my thought life but it doesn’t let me connect with them as real if I merely see their shadows, in a sense.

      Foreplay is fun to read. I like the soft conversations and brushing hair out of her face and sending little shivers up her arm when he barely touches her hand.

      Truthfully, whether or not a character is married (I am aware of this, and feel some guilt over it), I am more forgiving of a love scene in a movie if I feel that it is genuinely love and not motivated by lust or the need of the writer to sex up a plot. Most of the scenes today disgust me not merely because they are too graphic, but because there is an absence of any kind of true emotional intimacy. Two people going at it does not equal love. I am unimpressed.

  7. I appreciated how you mentioned there are Christian women who want to write/read nothing beyond a closed door, and some are ok with a sex scene. For me in writing, I prefer to go with the ‘closed door’ route, but I also realize that as I get older my writing changes, so there may come a day that I want to write a more intimate scene.

  8. Love this article, and the other one that you forwarded about sex and the Christian woman. I generally don’t write “sex” scenes; just never have. It wouldn’t really fit in with the rest of the story. I do write scenes that lead up to sex and then write the aftermath. I have read “sex” scenes in other novels/books and they don’t bother me. However, I tend to like the build up, I find the forging of a relationship, the first kisses and hand holdings to be as beautiful and romantic. Its the anticipation of what is to come.
    I’m curious as to how other writers will respond to this. I bet there will be some good discussions going.

    1. Ultimately, you have to be comfortable with whatever you decide to write — so if you want to go the build up and aftermath route, that’s awesome. I agree that a decent love scene is nothing if the romance is absent from the plot — two characters forging a relationship is vital, and that usually happens through interactions that are not physical.

      It will be interesting to see if there is much interaction on this post. The internet is pretty quiet these days, so I do not have much anticipation of discussion but it would please me greatly if others decided to participate. 🙂

    2. I do very much as Veronica does. I am 33, unmarried, and a virgin, but I’ve always been interested in romance (and I so identify with what you say, Charity, about emotional repression being strangely, well, erotic), and I’ve come to a place in my own writing where I am unafraid of displaying that my characters have sexual relations with each other. Most especially the married ones, but if it is appropriate in the development of the story for a character to commit adultery or have premarital sex, or whatever, I always deal with it, what leads up to it, how it happens, and the aftermath of it.
      But I never tell what happens. I try to be very restrained and have no “sex scenes.” I lead up to it and I frequently show the characters afterward, but I let the middle bit be unstated. There’s too much danger for the imagination.
      Does anyone else, though, have trouble with the temptation to imagine those scenes between dearly beloved characters, even if you never write them?

      1. Does anyone else, though, have trouble with the temptation to imagine those scenes between dearly beloved characters, even if you never write them?

        YES.

        You are not alone, there. I think it’s the plight of an author to feel intimately connected to her characters and as such, to face the temptation to use them as one’s own private erotica.

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