There is nothing new about sex.  Birds do it, bees do it, and our ancestors most certainly did it (to butcher Cole Porter’s lyrics inexcusably).

What IS relatively new is the amount of sex appearing in “straight” historical fiction (I use this term to distinguish historical fiction from historical romance, not to imply that only heterosexual hanky-panky is included).  If memory serves, the historical novels of my youth did a lot of fading-to-black.  But somewhere between my decision to become a writer and my first book deal a shift occurred.  Today there are plenty of sex scenes in straight historicals—some of them quite explicit.  And sex seems to be a popular addition.  For example, a video recorded at this year’s Historical Novel Society Conference during a popular event called “Late-Night Sex Scene Readings” (the reading of a scene from Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet) has received over 6,000 hits on youtube since June.

Opinions on this trend vary.  Here is mine: the inclusion of sex in historical novels is neither good nor bad in a vacuum.  It’s not the sexual content that determines whether a particular scene works—it’s whether that scene (sex or otherwise) has a REASON for being in the novel.  Tossing in an orgy (or even a kiss) into your work of historical fiction without a solid reason is a bad idea.  The scene will feel “added on,” and gratuitous sex is no more acceptable in a novel than gratuitous dialogue.

So what can intimate scenes sometimes do well?

Forward the plot.  Yep, just like any other sort of action a sex scene can move a novel’s plot forward.  For example, one of my manuscripts includes the seduction of a royal courier for the purpose of getting a letter into his satchel.  This letter is an important step on the path to the book’s central climax.  So the sex scene (in a stable and pretty exciting in its own right, I might add) is vital to the forward motion of the novel.

Flesh out (sorry, I just HAD to) relationships between characters and/or give us emotional insights into characters.  Sex, as we know from real life (or at least some of us know – no pressure on or disrespect to celibates reading this), is seldom merely a physical act.  It has emotional ramifications, and can be a language all its own.  So, a sex scene in a novel (whether vague or graphic) can be effectively used to give readers a sense of how characters relate to each other.  For example, in my debut novel, The Sister Queens, readers learn a tremendous amount about one of my female characters and her relationships with two separate men simply by the contrast between her sexual experiences with each.

Help set the story firmly in its historical period.  Sexual politics, mores, and practices change over time.  For example, in certain periods, a man’s dominion over his wife’s body was complete – there was no such thing as rape between a man and his wife.  Likewise, for hundreds of years sex (seduction, withholding of, etc) was one of the few tools available to a woman seeking power or influence.  While today we would surely condemn a man for taking his wife by force and likely censure a woman for using sex to get ahead, seeing either such event a depicted in a historical novel reminds readers of the realities of the past and of our characters’ lives.

Beyond raising large issues of this sort, the inclusion of period details pertaining to sex—the acceptable positions for intercourse, its prohibition on certain days, the forms of birth control that were or were not available—can help build the “historical world” of the novel just as the inclusion of other period details can.  In my novel frequent reference is made to payment of the “marriage debt,” and one of my female protagonists feels wronged when her husband spurns intercourse with her.  As a matter of history she was entitled to feel gypped because, under the doctrine of the medieval Church, a married man was obliged, under penalty of mortal sin, to give his wife sex as a preventative measure against temptation to sins like fornication and adultery.

Give the reader a thrill.  Yep, this one is legitimate too.  But wait, Sophie, you are thinking, “you wrote five paragraphs ago that gratuitous sex is not acceptable.”  Since when, dear writer, is giving the reader a bit of fun gratuitous?  Meeting the needs of the reader is our business.  We meet needs for escape.  We meet emotional needs.  We help readers wrestle with difficult questions in their lives.  For heaven’s sake why should meeting readers’ needs for a bit of titillation be off the table?  And why should meeting that need be solely the province of historical romance?  Plenty of contemporary novels—from thrillers to literary fiction—include sex.  I believe that writers working anywhere along the historical genre continuum should feel free to include intimate moments as well.

What do you think?  Would you prefer to see explicit sex kept for historical romances alone?  Can the inclusion of sex in a straight historical novels can be a positive addition?


13 Responses to “Give Me A Little Kiss – Sex and the Historical Novelist”

  1. This is a question I agonize over. I tend to dim the lights, but I realize the full scene is sometimes important to the story.

    This post is great. It helped me understand the times/places when it might be necessary. Thanks!

    • Thanks Erika!

      Just as so many other parts of a novel come about organically (e.g. characters take on a life of their own and sometimes say things we don’t expect) I wonder if the sex scenes don’t often just pop up (why does EVERYTHING I write suddenly feel like a bad double entendre?) when needed. Though I (obviously) think the issue is worth pondering and discussing, ultimately the sex scenes I included in my own novel seemed to happen at the characters’ behest and not mine (lascivious characters, lol)

  2. Excellent post. As someone who enjoys writing and reading erotica, I think you know where I stand on sex in books haha. I love how you’ve spelled out how and why it can work in straight historicals as well. I don’t read much historical fiction, but a good steamy scene or two might sway my opinion!

  3. A true conundrum for straight historical fiction writers, Sophie. I too struggle with it. When I describe my books, I do add that there is a little bit of romance/sex in them, explaining that it mirrors life. Every life should have a little romance/sex, why should it be different for our stories? The crux of the struggle then comes from how the stories are perceived…straight historical fiction readers may feel it then belongs in historical romance and historical romance writers will complain that there wasn’t enough romance/sex. That said, I believe it must be integral to the plot and am bothered by gratuitous inclusions (as in, for example, The Tudors, Game of Thrones).

  4. I think the key may lie in learning to think of historical writings as a continuum rather than two little boxes—historical romance and straight historicals. At one end we could have historical romance (or even historical erotica) and at the other historical fiction without a touch of romantic plot line.

    I suspect this re-envisioning may take some time but might open the genre up to both more authors and more readers. And more readers is ALWAYS better 🙂 While we might find the sex in the Tudor’s gratuitous lots and lots of people watch the show so if another writer wants to write to that market she can stake out a different spot along the “historicals spectrum.”

  5. Hi, Sophie, thanks for this excellent post and for using my scene as the springboard for the discussion. While I was certainly blushing inside while reading the scene between Nell and Rochester aloud, the scene was integral to the book. It showed Nell’s and Rochester’s characters, and was important as Nell’s instruction in what power she had. One of the few sources of power she had! And as Nell was likely a child prostitute, then a popular comic actress whose frank and likeable sex appeal was a big part of her success, then a mistress, sex was central to her life and story.

    In fact, after I wrote the book I realized that in ways it was a meditation on sex – sex for survival, sex as rape, sex as commercial transaction, sex as an expression of love, sex as power, sex for fun and pleasure, sex as part of a long-term relationship. It’s all there in Nell’s story and in life.

    My second book, “The September Queen,” coming in November, has less sex and it’s not quite so explicit, because it’s a different story about a different woman.

    Still – I’m happy about the success of the scene on You Tube – though I shouldn’t be suprised, as I was fortunate to have the participation of the very talented actor and author C.C. Humphreys and the wonderful Diana Gabaldon, whose tweeting and blogging about our “literary three way” certainly got attention!

  6. Great post.
    I was wrestling with a crucial sex scene in my book and had put off writing it simply because every time I tried it all seemed rather toe-curling. It had to occur however, the plot demanded it so.. I left it for a few weeks, wrote more about the characters and returned knowing a lot more about their motivations in the scene. I wrote it really quickly and was pleased it actually seemed quite natural. It is a great way of placing your book in its time, I was going for shock-value as frankly in the period I am writing good girls just didn’t do that, and found it vital to the book.

    • I concur with Jilly Cooper as a reedar (and a writer) first and foremost, I have to care about the characters. If I don’t, when I reach the sex scenes, I either dissolve into laughter or want to throw the book across the room.On an author’s web site (can’t remember who or I would credit them!) I read that to write a sensuous love scene, you have to make yourself forget about the people who might eventually read it. Good advice. The scene won’t work if your OH, mum, in-laws, teenage kids, work colleagues etc. are looking over your shoulder as you write. The bedroom (or wherever) gets rather crowded That said, some of the best erotic scenes I’ve read don’t involve sex. You have to go with what feels right for your characters and plot.And Georgia, I was unable to resist looking up tumescent’ in my thesaurus. Darn it, the rest of the afternoon will now be spent giggling .*g* .

  7. Hi Everyone!

    Sophie is truly a woman after my own heart!
    While no one can dispute that history is made by PEOPLE and love is an integral part of the overall human experience, how can one possibly endeavor to write history without including at least a tiny piece of this universal theme?

    As a true history geek and incurable romantic, I have always held that history and romance are not mutually exclusive. As a reader, I have always sought out books to satisfy both the emotions and the intellect, and now as a writer my goal is to combine meticulously researched historical settings and plotlines plots with strong romantic elements (with or without explicit sex depending on what the story requires.)

    A little over a year ago, with the goal of seeking out like-minded readers and authors, I established the Goodreads group “Romantic Historical Fiction Lovers,” and more recently a complementary site on Facebook, not knowing how this idea would be received and both sites have really taken off! The proof is in the pudding, people!

    I hope some of you will join us 😀

  8. A great reminder to authors on how to handle sex scenes.

  9. A writer certainly should not put in a sex scene simply to “give the reader a bit of gratuitous fun.” The word “gratuitous” just doesn’t belong in good writing, no matter what it is–a sex scene, a murder, a war–or even taking a bath. Only relevant words, sentences, paragraphs scenes and chapters belong in a novel. Everything else belongs on the “cutting room” floor.

    • I am not arguing for “gratuitous” fun I am suggesting that giving the reader a thrill can be a goal that is not gratuitous. Sometimes sex is something the reader wants in a novel.

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