Let's Talk About Sex - A Roundtable Discussion

This week on my blog, we’re trying something different. I have invited several writers, WS Long, Andrew Q. Gordon and Hans Hirschi, all of whom write gay fiction, to join me a virtual roundtable discussion on the topic of sex in gay fiction. Deb McGowan, author, editor and publisher graciously agreed to act as our moderator.
This discussion is divided into two parts. Part 1 is below. Part 2 will be posted here on Thursday, April 3, so be sure to check back then to read Part 2. In addition, we have arranged a giveaway of eBooks and a $30 gift card. Just click the Rafflecopter link at the bottom of this page for details and to enter the drawing.
You have until 12:00 a.m. April 8, 2014, to enter and winners will be drawn on April 9, 2014. Winners will be notified by email.

Meet Our Roundtable Authors

Deb McGowan is an author and publisher. She writes character-driven fiction, going wherever the story leads, covering life, love, relationships - the whole shazam. A working class girl, she went back to college at 25, having ‘run away’ to London at 17, been homeless, unemployed and homeless YET again, interspersed with some animal rights activism (all legal). Studying with two toddlers was tough, but they had a ‘stay at home’ dad, so it all worked itself out.
These days  Deb teaches social sciences to undergraduate students, writes novels and runs Beaten Track Publishing, occasionally grabbing an hour of sleep where she can!
W.S. Long writes male-male romance because he finds relationships and romance fascinating. Raised in a military family, he joined the military himself and left the service to go to law school. When he’s not lawyering, he enjoys traveling, and visiting Orlando theme parks with his husband.
Hans M. Hirschi has been writing stories since childhood. As an adult, the demands of corporate life put an end to his fiction for more than twenty years. A global executive in training, he has traveled the world and published several non-fiction titles.
The birth of his son provided him with the opportunity to rekindle his love of creative writing, where he expresses his deep passion for a better world through love and tolerance.
Hans lives with his husband and son on a small island off the coast of Sweden.
Andrew Q. Gordon wrote his first story back when yellow legal pads, ball point pens were common and a Smith Corona correctable typewriter was considered high tech. Adapting with technology, he now takes his MacBook somewhere quiet when he wants to write.
He currently lives in the Washington, D.C. area with his partner of eighteen years, their young daughter and dog.  In addition to dodging some very self-important D.C. 'insiders', Andrew uses his commute to catch up on his reading. When not working or writing, he enjoys soccer, high fantasy, baseball and seeing how much coffee he can drink in a day and not get the shakes.
Larry Benjamin was born in the Bronx and considers himself less a writer than a wordsmith creating beauty out of words instead of clay or bronze or paint. He is the author of the gay novels Unbroken and What Binds Us and, Damaged Angels, a collection of short stories.
He lives in Philadelphia with his partner of seventeen years and their Silky Terrier.

The Discussion 

DM: Thanks to all of you for taking part in this discussion and agreeing to share your thoughts about sex in gay fiction. As an academic specializing in gender and sexual politics, I must admit this is an area of particular interest to me, but I’ll try not to make it too political! When Larry asked me to moderate the discussion, I was honored, of course, although a little wary, in that I’m conscious of how much of gay fiction is being penned by female authors, and I personally have very mixed feelings about this. However, it highlights how important it is to hear from the guys for a change so I’ll be taking as much of a backseat in this discussion as I can. Without further ado…

DM: What genre do you write in? (e.g:  gay romance)? How do you define your genre (that is do you see it any differently to the way it is widely viewed/referred to)?
WSL: I write male-male romance. I think by its description it’s pretty self-defining.
HH: Its been called and dubbed literary novels by the powers to be. Personally, Id add gay to it, as all my stories (so far) deal with gay characters and story lines in one way or another.
I dont have a problem with being labeled literary, as long as people enjoy the stories. I do have an issue with being labeled m/m, as my stories arent about steamy romances, but rather life in general, romances can be a part of that.
AQG: I'm not sure I write true Gay Romance. I know the genre is broadly defined, but if I had to describe most of my works, the romance is a minor part of the plot.  I prefer Fantasy and Science Fiction with gay characters. The sub-genres of Paranormal or Urban Fantasy also apply to my work.
LB: My books are generally put into the “gay romance” genre and I like to think they push the limits of the genre description because while there is always a romance at the heart of it my books are always about people and the world around them; they don’t live in a bubble of love.
DM: In your books, do you have on/off page sex? Why?
WSL: In my book, Love and Murder, and, in another work in progress, the sex is on the page.  I don’t think gay men should be ashamed to have sex explored on page as long as, in my opinion, the sex adds to the story and sex depicted involves consenting men. If the book is coming of age, or coming out, then it’s probably more age appropriate not to depict sex on the page. It really depends on the target audience your book or story is designed.
HH: Yes, there are sex scenes in all my books, some more detailed than others. I add them where I deem they are necessary to carry the story forward. Its not a topic I shy away from, but its also not something I specifically add to attract a certain clientèle of readers who look for M/M romance novels.
AQG: For the most part, any sex in my stories is off page.  And even the on page 'scenes' are rarely explicit. Hardly more than letting the reader know the characters are naked and aroused. 
There are two basic reasons for this approach. The first is very personal – as in specific to my situation, not private.  As a parent, and a gay parent with a husband, I know that at some point my daughter is going to read my work. Unlike a female writer who has kids, detailed sex scenes could never plant the – "I wonder if that is what my parents do in private" question in their child's mind. Perhaps it's silly on my part, but I do not want my daughter to read a detailed sex scene I've written and wonder if that is what her parents do/did.  There isn't enough bleach in the world to erase that image from her mind. 
The other reason is also specific to me, but this is a personal preference. I don't really enjoy on page sex scenes when I read. They are rarely arousing and often seem gratuitous. I’m happy to imagine what happens after we fade to black. Keeping the sex off page gives a bit more license for a reader to connect to the characters by placing them in whatever 'roles' or situations the reader wants. That might just be me again, but I write the way I like to read.
LB: It depends on the book, on the story; I’ve done both.  In What Binds Us, there isn’t a lot of sex that plays out in the pages. It’s certainly implied and led up to but not actually described. That was a conscious decision on my part because I wanted that book to focus on the emotional side of the characters’ romance.  In Damaged Angels, it varied - I discovered it was hard to have a hustler as a main character and not describe the sex.  Unbroken probably has the most explicit sex I have written so far. Again that was a conscious decision on my part. It is part coming of age novel, part romance so it wouldn’t have been authentic not to describe Lincoln’s sex life as he grew into manhood.
HH: Im not surprised to read Andys point of view, even though I dont share it. In fact, being a father myself, it never even struck me that our son (or anyone else who knows us for that matter) would picture me and my husband in any of those scenes, not even my autobiographically inspired novel. Besides, I think its great if children get a bit of extra sexual education from books, saves me the explanation. The real point though is that unless you write explicit M/M romance/erotica, the sex isnt about arousal, its about moving the story forward, and unless it serves that purpose its as unnecessary as a car chase or a walk in the park
DM: I find Andy’s point about keeping the sex ‘off-page’ really interesting. Readers tend to look for the author within their work. It’s quite a paradox really, as writing intimate, moving sex scenes does seem to necessitate having some notion of how these things work. So I have to ask each of you, how much of yourself is in your writing? Do your characters share your traits?
AQG: I think every character – even the 'evil' ones – have some whiff of me in them. Be it a stray thought, a like, a dislike, a mannerism. Some have more than others. But overall, I have a lot of me in my writing because I try to write what I know, and that by necessity means I've used more a than just a bit of me in my work.
LB: Like Andy, I think there’s at least a little of me most of my character. Certainly Lincoln in Unbroken is  a lot like me—well he’s a lot better looking but personality wise he’s very much me. Further, I think there’s me in the characters who are not at all like me because they are often based on people I’ve met or know. My mother certainly appears a lot.
DM: Do you feel on-page sex is necessary? Why? Or why not?
WSL: On-page sex is necessary only if the story line involves adult gay men in the male-male romance. The idea is to show through the sex the emotions, the connections between the characters. Sex is a very intimate act and the use of sex scenes implies character change and development.
HH: It is necessary if it adds value to the story line, not otherwise. I add them to move the story along, e.g. bring characters closer to each other. Sex is part of our lives, so why not describe it? We have dialogue, car rides, dinners etc., sex is no different in MHO.
AQG: Can I answer with a qualified, "No?" No. Unless the scene is needed to advance a plot – for example, the MC has changed and is now more controlling or aggressive or passive or disinterested.  Or if the sex is meant to show a reconnection between two estranged characters, then some – some – on page sex is needed. But only as much as is needed to advance the plot. There is an entire genre devoted to on-page sex – Erotica.  Otherwise you run the risk of being PWP – Porn without Plot.
LB: I think it varies based on the story you are trying to tell. From my own writing, I feel it’s usually not necessary.  That’s just my preference. Nothing bores me more quickly than page after page of sex that doesn’t tell me anything about the characters or their situation, that is sex thrown in simply to titillate, to entertain.
DM: Personally, I’m inclined to agree with Hans - that sex is part of life and deserves equal (though not preferential) treatment within fiction. I wonder how different everyone’s responses would be if I had asked instead, “Is on-page death necessary?”
AQG: Sex is a part of life and I totally agree with Hans that it is something that gives us a greater connection to the characters, much like any personal act would. It's a question of detail for me. What's the definition of 'on page-sex?'  Is it kissing? Groping? Undressing? Getting to the bed? Or does it require penetration? Do you need to show the MCs fucking, sucking, rimming, whatever, or is it enough to get them to the point that it's clear that is going to happen?
In the law – and I'm a prosecutor by day – there are different 'degrees' of sexual contact. While the analogy is flawed, it also illustrates my point. There is a very wide range of what is considered sex. As a married man, I think my husband would consider me making out and groping someone 'on-page' sex and wouldn't require I get naked and fuck before it rose to the level of him getting mad.
HH: I think I also detect some cultural differences here. There is a lot of Anglo-Saxon angst when it comes to sex (e.g. Nipple-gate), which I find interesting, as the worlds largest markets for porn are the Anglo-Saxon countries. Nobody makes more, nobody consumes more, yet please, lets not talk about it. As a European, I find this approach rather amusing. Go on Amazon and find German or French erotica You wont find much.
LB: Well I’ve certainly had my fair share of characters die on page. I agree with Hans, sex is a part life. So is death. To have fully realized characters, I think you need to show both—as long as it actually moves the story forward. 
Please feel free to join the conversation by leaving a message in the comments section. Make sure you enter the giveaway below. Click here for a description of the eBooks Available for giveaway.

Part two of this discussion is now available on Deb McGowan's blog.

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  1. Very interesting discussion and something I think about a lot. I'm a romance writer and I write a gay historical romance series set in Britain during WWII. Most of the sex is implied in my books and not explicit. I know when I read M/M I often find myself reading around the explicit sex scenes just as I did when I read journal articles in college and read around the statistics to understand the point of the article; I often find them repetitive, boring, and unnecessary. If you can read around these scenes, why are they necessary? Just my two cents and what works for me. Really great discussion here with varied opinions that I think is well worth sharing on FB and Tweeting. So will do. Great job here.

    1. Hi Paul
      Thansk for commenting--and sharing.
      I go back and forth on whether sex is necessary or not. Typically I make that decision based on the characters and what I want to get across about them. So sometimes there is implied sex, sometimes it's explicit. But I always try to write sex as brief scenes so that it's not a major portion of the book. That way, if a reader opts to skip those passages they still get what I hope is a great story.

  2. I am a writer and a father of a 7 year old girl. I am not gay, but I have written one explicit sex scene into my soon-to-be-published novel. The scene involves a man and a woman. It is in the book because it moves the story and character development forward. I believe the on page sex ought to be in service of the writing, of the story. Anything written just for the sake of it appearing on the page is useless and unnecessary in any writing. However, sexual scenes are a representation of a dimension of our personalities as human beings. We are sexual beings. Why not be proud of that and celebrate it? Why not honor it constructively? As for how my writing sexual scenes on page ends up being related to my being a father and to my child accessing it, I believe, again, those sexual scenes are in service of the work. For me, they are not in any way decided about because of how, when, why or where my daughter may or may not read them and how she will interpret such writing. I address this point because I take my child's healthy development as a human being very seriously. However, I also take my writing very seriously. Personally, I do not intend my writing to serve as sexual education to my child or any child. My novel is not a children's book. Therefore, a child has no business reading it. Ironically, by the time she can get her hands on my book, no doubt my daughter will have already, in my estimation, concocted some ideas or images concerning sexual activity, be that my own or someone else's. Our world makes sure that is inevitable. No one lives in a vacuum. So I worry not about how my writing might affect her or our relationship. When the time comes, I am confident I can explain my writing, its purpose, and how it relates to off the page life. If I've done a good job as a father and as a writer, my daughter will enjoy the fruits of my efforts in both of those domains.

    J. Prieto

    1. This is a very insightful comment - thanks J Prieto. I do wonder, though, if there is a broader issue here of the sexualizing of some gender/sex identities which means that if a heterosexual male writes a sex scene, it is somehow seen as less defining than it might be for 'other' gender/sexual identities (I'm using the term in the social scientific sense here of 'othering')?

    2. Welcome, Debbie McGowan. Your question is a good one. I would venture to suggest that for some, if not many or most, a sex scene written by a heterosexual male (or female, for that that matter!) would be seen as less defining than it might be for 'other' gender/sexual identities, as you so well put it, and therefore, as less sexualizing. I would say the strictly hetero mindset tends to look as hetero sex as a given, non-defining element, so to speak. I'd also venture to say the same acceptance is definitely not given to 'other' gender/sexual identities. This, I'd say, is an inherent reality of the biases connected to issues of 'other' gender/sexual identity.

      J. Prieto

  3. As a writer who writes in several genres, I have written many gay sex scenes, both where there is the fade to black moment and the all the way to the gold moment. I agree that the scenes need to be loyal to the book and advance the plot in some way. One of the funny things about my explicit scenes, a good friend of mine who occasionally does editing for me says she can't read the graphic sex scenes because she hears them in my voice and makes her feel awkward. On the other hand, my mother reads all my books and isn't bothered by them. You've started a very interesting discussion here. Can't wait for part 2.

    1. Hi AM

      That's interesting that your friend and your mother have such opposite reactions. My 89 year old aunt insisted on reading Unbroken, which has some pretty explicix sex. I hesitated because of the sex but she insisted. It had never occurred to me that anyone in my family would read the book, never mind my 89 year old Aunt. But I think even if I had known, I would have still written the sex in because I never let anyone influence my writing. I write the story I feel it needs to be written. I write what I see as the truth. To me editing out sex for someone else is like living in the closet; it denies your own truth and devalues you to make others comfortable.

      Most interesting about my Aunt was for her the most intimate and tehrefore disturbing part of the book was when Lincoln talks about Jose's Adam's apple. She thought that provided a deeper insight into same sex attraction than the sex itself.

    2. Also on the point of Unbroken, my sister read it and was a bit blushy at the sex, but my mum's reading it and is quite blasé! That said, the sex in Unbroken tells a story in itself.

  4. I'm one of those women authors who write MM. I know Andy *waves* from a gay fiction website where we first met. That site began my writing career, and I continue to write, in large part, because of the encouragement I find there. I straddle the fence as a bi woman and find that, while I write MM and not FF, my stories tend to walk the middle of the road just as I do. Usually sex comes into play for my longer stories. For me there is a fundamental purpose to showing sex within the story. One, of course I wish to arouse my readers. I wouldn't write it if I didn't think that intimate connection isn't a good way to connect the reader to the characters. But above all, it has to fit. It needs to be done at the right time, and place, and in the right way for the characters and plot.

    While I'm a woman, and can't 'know' exactly what it's like for men during sex, no matter what my own experience... I have a ton of men willing to call me out if I writing anything 'wrong' with graphic sex scenes. That support, and feedback is very helpful because, contrary to the publishing world that seems to be dominated by women authors, there are far more male authors there, plus a whole ton of readers of all sorts of genders and sexualities. Of course, much like your round robin discussion, the styles preferred for authors and readers varies. It's fascinating to learn the hows and whys behind authors' choices. I look forward to part two of this discussion too!

  5. I enjoyed the discussion. As far as on page sex scenes being described in detail, sometimes the plot or character build requires it. Two young people discovering the joys of making out together and going all the way for the first time may require more detail to show their response and understanding of their bodies and their mates as well as they explore and grow in their relationship. Unrelenting sex scenes one after the other, with graphic details do not show further growth, just practice and quickly become boring IMHO.

  6. I really enjoyed this discussion, thank you all for doing this.

    I think there's somewhat of an expectation among many of the reading public that on-page sex will occur in mm romance but that seems to be slowly changing. I read a lot, most weeks at least 3-5 books depending on their length. I’ve read books that had no on-page sex and didn’t even realize that it wasn’t there until other readers complained about it in their reviews. If the author can show me the emotion and the connection without the sex then I am fine without it. The build up to the sex is often more interesting anyhow because really, as a friend of mine says frequently, slot A into slot B is only interesting for so long. I’m reading these books for the emotional connection to and between the characters. If that can be conveyed without the sex then the sex can become unnecessary. That being said I think that some authors are quite adept at not fading to black but not running into the slot A/slot B problem either.

    I’ve only read Andrew’s work so far but I am looking forward to discovering everyone else's books.

  7. As a writer of both m/m and m/f novels, I write sex scenes when I think they fit, and I write as explicitly as I feel they need to be. There is no one size fits all. I don't believe writing gay sex is any different in that respect than m/f sex, other than the obvious parts. I find it easier to write m/m sex usually because I can relate to a man wanting a man better than I can relate to a man wanting a woman, since I don't. But as an author, I can work around it and do both.

    I think people put too much of an emphasis on gay vs m/f romance. It's all love, and people shouldn't discriminate either way, although I know many do. There are people who would never read a m/m book, and those who would never read a m/f, when it should be a matter of reading about characters, and what they're about, not how their parts fit.

    I also take umbrage with those who think women less than capable than men of writing m/m fiction. You don't have to be male to understand a man, and vice versa. But there seems to be an ingrained prejudice that if a man wrote it, well then, it must be better, and I resent the hell out of that.

    The question of sex on the page is the same for m/m as m/f - depends on the writer, the writing, the situation. Is there such a thing as too much sex? Hell yes, and I call that smut. When you can't see the plot for the bodies, maybe you're got too much sex on your page. Just saying.

    Thanks for letting me speak my mind, and hi Andy! *waves*

  8. "When you can't see the plot for the bodies, maybe you're got too much sex on your page."

    Julie, I'd say you nailed it there. A while back, I read a book, "m/m romance," written by a woman incidentally...a gay guy rushes to the hospital where his twin brother was taken, unconscious after a beating in a park. Twin 2 gets there as they rush Twin 1 into emergency surgery for a catastrophic brain injury. 10 minutes later Twin 2 is having sex in the bathroom with the other guy who was in the waiting room. The on page sex in that context, for me, wasn't the offensive part, it was the idea that someone would write a character that selfish and self-centered to say nothing of unreal. And before you ask, had a man written it, I'd be equally offended.

    As I threw the book across the room, I wondered, "Seriously, we have come no further than this?"

    So in short I think it is not always about whether the sex is detailed or simply implied; it is also the context of the sex.

    1. That's just poor writing, I agree. I once read a story which was like MMMF shifter blah blah (it was free) and one of the M fell victim to another pack and the woman comes in from shopping to find out he dies and she strolls over to him. Strolls?! There was a lot of poor situational responses from the characters all through the story, with far too much sex, because of course she meets someone else who takes the M who dies place literally as she is walking out of the room with his body.

      If the story wasn't an eBook, and in my kindle, I might have thrown it too. :P

    2. LOL - yep! Know the stuff you're talking about. I read some M/M shifter Christmas 'romances' from which I doubt I'll ever recover. We now have a standing joke in our house about f**king under the Christmas tree, as that's pretty much how every story concluded (awaits sarcastic comment from Hans Hirschi - he thinks I'm obsessed with Christmas romances).

  9. I have to say I get my hackles up when someone tells me that because I'm a woman I can't or shouldn't write about male love - that's like saying to Thomas Harris he couldn't or shouldn't have written Silence of the Lambs because he wasn't a serial killer. It's all about research, listening, and empathy. It's all about being sensitive to the subject matter.

    As to love scenes within fiction. I don't care if you're talking F/F, M/M or M/F, there is no one size to fit all. Different characters and their stories demand different treatments. Some stories/scenes will require fade to black, some will demand a rosy glow, and other something more gritty and explicit. I think the key is to listen to your characters so you know how, or even if, a sex scene needs to be depicted.

    Thanks for the forum - most interesting.

    1. Lily,

      I think author preference definitely plays a part in the decision whether to describe sex, and how, or whether to fade to black, but I personally agree with your statement that the key is to listen to your characters. That's my approach: I listen to the characters and pay attention to the demands of the story.

      Thanks for sharing your viewpoint.

    2. I totally agree, Lily.

      Being a writer means getting inside the heads of our characters, whoever they are (sometimes at the detriment of our sense of self), but we don't write in a vacuum. I'm not suggesting all characters should be treated sympathetically, nor that our identities being at odds with the characters means we can't possibly understand what they would feel, just that we need a sensitivity to the bigger picture of what we write.

      Something I recently finished writing had one line in it that to me was about the character's need for revenge, but when read by someone else was interpreted as homophobic. I'm not homophobic and I'm very careful about how I write; however, I have to accept that it was an insensitively phrased sentence that came from the lack of authenticity of my experience of the world. Regardless of how hard I listen, how much research I do, how often I get into trouble for people watching, this is going to happen from time to time if I writing as anyone other than me.

      But to come back to the points raised in this post, there are authors out there who write sex for the sake of it, not because it portrays an extra dimension of their characters, but purely for titillation. It's no less wrong doing this in gay male romance than it is doing it in "girl on girl porn", unless, of course, the author is being upfront and stating that it is a work of erotic fiction that objectifies and commodifies the bodies of those portrayed, i.e., it is not packaged as M/M romance. That said, M/M implies slash fiction, so perhaps we just need to avoid using that term for anything other than erotica.

      In short, what I'm saying is that unless it is porn (in whatever form):
      Sex in stories = good, if relevant and sensitive.
      Sex for the sake of it, especially if it objectifies the characters = bad.

    3. Lily -- I couldn't have said it better. :)

      Debbie -- Interesting discussion, thanks for letting us all pull up a chair!
      I agree with what you said about the label "M/M". I write Romance, not erotica, and sometimes wonder if labeling Romances as "M/M" creates the wrong expectations in readers. Wish I had a better idea, but so far I really don't.


    4. Thanks for sitting down with us awhile to chew things over! :)

      Part two coming soon...


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