Are sex scenes really necessary in novels?
That depends. I just read a book that had a sex scene that took up one entire chapter, and I got to wondering if it was really necessary to the plot. Did the story really need that chapter? The scene was between two characters, a male and a female, who had already been introduced to the reader as lovers. Before the sex scene, they’d never been shown having sex in any overt way, but because of their well-characterized relationship, the reader almost certainly got the idea they were lovers. My conclusion for that book in particular was that, no, the sex scene wasn’t really necessary. In fact, when I began reading that chapter, I wondered almost immediately why it had been put in. It seemed so out of place. I assume it was there largely for the titillation factor. Possibly to hold the reader’s interest in the crucial middle section of the book when the reader might falter in his/her desire to continue reading. He/she might put the book down and have a ham sandwich. But that brings up the real question I want to examine here: are sex scenes ever really required in a book?
There are a few reasons a sex scene might reasonably be present in a novel. (I’m not talking about porn novels here.) Sex scenes are always going to be suspect because of the titillation factor. Many readers might look at them as simply erotic nonsense, unrelated to the plot of the book. And why have a sex scene if you can just tell the reader that two characters are lovers, or show them being lovers in other ways? But I think there are two situations where a real sex scene might be acceptable. To wit:
1. To introduce two characters as lovers when that fact was not evident from the context preceding the scene. This might be difficult to pull off, though. Again, why not just tell the reader the two are lovers? In some cases, the old adage, “Show, don’t tell,” could come into play. “Telling” the reader could be literarily unacceptable. An intimate love scene might just be the best way to show the love between two characters.
2. To demonstrate the conception of a child. And even introduce that child as another character in the book.
I have to admit that in the three science fiction novels I’ve written, two had sex scenes. In one, the second reason above was the prime motivation for including the sex scene. The birth of the new character becomes a vitally important factor in the plot. (You’ll have to read the book to find out exactly how.) In the other, the sex scene wasn’t as graphic as it was in the first, but it did show the developing relationship between the two characters, who hadn’t had any sexual relations up to that point.
I may be treading on thin ice here with this post, because many people may consider sex scenes totally and completely unnecessary. But sex scenes, like anything else in the book, can work if used sparingly and properly. Everything in a novel, and this includes sex scenes, must do one of several things: advance the plot, show us something about the characters we didn’t previously know, or provide a little background in the form of backstory. A sex scene, tastefully done, can be a part of that. Everything else is fluff, and probably should be removed.
What do you think? Are there other reasons sex scenes might be acceptable in a novel?