(More) Thoughts on Sex in Urban Fantasy. . .

I’ve written before about sex and urban fantasy, partly because people often ask me about it. This curiosity isn’t surprising, as sex is a big part of a lot of the genre. Meanwhile, sex is also a huge part of human life, and yet, for the most part, as a literary trope sex is associated mostly with women.

Notice I said “literary,” meaning not sex of the porn and Penthouse letters variety. Instead, I mean the writing of a character’s sexual proclivities as a way of fleshing out that character, or of making him or her more three-dimensional.

This is not to say that men have not written sexually explicit material the purpose of which was to expose character. A most obvious example of this would be Mickey Sabbath in Sabbath’s Theater, or Alexander Portnoy in Portnoy’s Complaint, both by Philip Roth. And yet, if you know your Roth, you know that the point of these two characters is to shock us with their sexual proclivities, and make their form of extreme sexuality endemic of their intrinsically extreme characters.

In fact, a lot of the sex written by men that I can think of falls into one of two categories: It either establishes the male character as some sort of sexually frenzied individual or it does the opposite, and reveals the character to be a sexual failure.*

In genre fiction, sex is often not touched on by male writers. Or, if it is, it’s done “off screen,” with the bedroom door shutting in our faces for the bulk of the action.

Obviously, however, women’s fiction has been very different. Ever since Kate Chopin wrote about a storm that didn’t foreshadow doom, but an orgasm, women have been writing about sex in all its vagaries. In both literary and genre fiction, female writers have insisted on portraying sexuality in ways that are nuanced and valuable to characterization: from the bleak and lifless sex of a Jean Rhys protagonist to the buxom sensuality of a Harlequin heroine.

I’m not sure why this is true. Partly, I think women feel they have less at stake: for the bulk of (at least Western) history, women were expected to be utterly passive partners in the bedroom. In other words, we’ve gotten to lie back and think about what everything means while the man has to do all the work. Traditionally, we’re judged less on our performance than men are, although that’s been changing for the past few decades. And, finally, sex is considered part and parcel of all those ooky girl feelings like love, and emotion in general.

Which is why I get so steamed when people (read a tiny but obnoxiously loud portion of hard core misogynistic SF/F fanatics) moan about “urban fantasy being all about sex.” What they’re really saying is, “Dammit, women started writing OUR STUFF and they BROUGHT THEIR VAGINAS.”

Yes, my little spotty Lords of Onanism, we did bring our vaginas to this party. And we are going to use them!

Because sex isn’t just about mushy feelings, not that there’s anything wrong with exploring emotional responses other than “Hit! Pillage! Attack!” Sex isn’t about one emotion, or even a single set of emotions. At different times (and sometimes at the same time), sex between the same two people can be about power, control, possessiveness, obsession, love, hate, adoration, infatuation, affection, comfort, mortality, life, fecundity, exploration, grief, hunger, yearning, anger, revenge, or simply scratching an itch.

Which of these emotions is actually revealed during sex is often a surprise to the lovers in question. “Surprise!” says the claw marks down his back, “I didn’t actually forgive you for checking out that checkout girl’s ass, even though I said I did.” “Actually,” says that tender kiss delivered by the playboy, “I hate being alone.” These are only a few examples of the sorts of things that physical actions can say that a character would rather die than admit, consciously.

So why do we ladies (and those awesome men out there who also read UF) like our fantasy with a little fa-fa-fantasy? It’s because women, for the most part, aren’t afraid to admit that even meaningless sex means something. Not necessarily about the love between two people, no, but it can still say a lot about who we are, how we treat ourselves, and how we see others.

And let’s not forget that sex is also fun. I bet even the Lords of Onanism would think it was fun, if they managed to do it with someone else.

Now go wash your hands!

*James Joyce’s Molly Bloom is the best example I can think of a male writer who writes an interestingly sexual female character. Yes, yes, yes, he does. D. H. Lawrence also explores sexuality and character in great detail, but he is inchoate and crazy, bless.

Why do you think we like sex so much in our urban fantasy?

Posted by Nicole Peeler

Author, Professor, Lover, Fighter

21 thoughts on “(More) Thoughts on Sex in Urban Fantasy. . .”

  1. I think the question should be "why do you think that some of us like sex so much in our urban fantasy?" Do I like sex in urban fantasy? To a point. When it overrides the story, when it's nonsensical, when really those positions aren't possible even by multi-jointed non-humans, I don't care for it. When it works with the story, when it's not just thrown in, when it really has something to do with the characters and something those particular characters would do (even to scratch an itch), I do like it. But to be clear, I don't read UF for the sex scenes. I read it for the story. Just like when I read PNR, SciFi, Fantasy, etc.

    I've recently seen books called Urban Fantasy Romance (by the publisher). Do I expect more romance and sex in those books? Yes, I do. Do we need yet another genre classification? Probably not. Is this a way to say "Warning: I added romance and sex to your UF?" Probably, but I hope not. Regardless, if the sex doesn't work with the story and the characters, it's not going to work for me.

  2. Very interesting article, Nicole. The role of sex in urban fantasy has often left me scratching my head.

    Okay! Question, Dr. Peeler: Do you think that genre fiction written by men — fiction with little to no sex — is at a disadvantage in the urban fantasy market, specifically in regards to sales and fan appeal?

  3. I feel like it's the only genre that acknowledges that women are people who also happen to be sexual creatures. We enjoy sex– we enjoy it a lot. We enjoy thinking about it and its implications in the real world and the lives of our heroines. If I get to imagine the wild adventures of the people I read and they include no sex, they seem less real to me– those characters have less dimension, because most people have sex or at least sexual urges in their lives. If I'm going to fantasize about kicking some supernatural butt and being completely badass, I think it only makes sense that the fantasy would include some world-rocking sex.

    I also think women today are so stigmatized about sex that watching the characters in books deal with it and triumph and enjoy it brings hope and sets an example of letting sensuality take hold of and allowing oneself to enjoy it. Watching our heroines give themselves permission to take charge and to own their bodies and their pleasure is a freeing experience. I think that the more we read through each moment of those experiences the better worn that path is within our own minds, which allows us to more easily travel down it in real life.

  4. Um, wow, normally I respect you, but I stopped reading when you called everyone who's sick of sex in urban fantasy a misogynist.

    Maybe I'm just sick of sex being everywhere and in everything and the center around which all things revolve in modern media and modern entertainment. Even modern literature.

    I don't care who wrote it, I'm sick of going to the bookstore and seeing urban fantasy books which faceless women on the cover, and knowing that really, no matter what it says on the back, it's about sex. Sure, monsters and vampires and werewolves and whatever else, but really, it's about sex. And urban fantasy series that drag on too long tend to leave whatever semblance of plat they had behind in favor of sex, sex, and more sex.

    Sex is an intrinsic part of life, yes, but it should really be no more or less important than any other intrinsic part of life. And as Qwill said above, when written well and balanced well with plot, sex is fine, and I did agree with your statement that showing a character's sexual proclivities can be a way of fleshing that character out.

    But I am not interested in reading a book that is 75% sex and 25% plot. I'm just not, and that does not make me a misogynist.

  5. Bravo!!

    I really don't have anything to add, because I've had a hard time articulating why I feel disappointed when there *isn't* sex in my Urban Fantasy series. I need that connection to be made, I need my heart to race, and I feel rewarded once that sexual and emotional contact has come together.

    "It’s because women, for the most part, aren’t afraid to admit that even meaningless sex means something. Not necessarily about the love between two people, no, but it can still say a lot about who we are, how we treat ourselves, and how we see others."

    – I do completely and whole-heartedly agree with this statement.

  6. Sabrina, I don't know how you got that anyone who doesn't like sex in UF is a misogynist from that, but you misread. She specifically said 'a tiny but obnoxiously loud portion of hard core misogynistic SF/F fanatics'. What this means is there are OTHER people who ALSO don't like sex in UF that are not a part of that group. No reason to get defensive. And really, I can't think of more than a handful of authors with so much sex it's not a plot anymore. But then, I know my preference is for less sex and read books labeled UF rather than books labeled Paranormal Romance(PNR)for that reason.

  7. Honestly I think so long as it fits with the story and serves a purpose it will help evolve the characters in our minds. Far too often will be the meaningless plot-filler. Oh, there's nothing going on? Surprise! Have a sex scene. When sex is a piece of the narrative you follow through and are even more engrossed by the characters. You understand them in another perception.

  8. Qwill: Excellent points! Sex can be like any other plot device: if it's not used well, it shouldn't be used at all. And I haven't seen that "urban fantasy romance" but it makes sense it's out there. It does do a good job of guiding readers!

    Bill: Not at all! I think there are all types of UF writers AND readers. I can think of loads of examples of UF writers (women included) who don't go the sex route. As for fan appeal, there will be fans or prefer (and maybe even a few who specifically look for) sexier versions of UF. But there will also be readers who look for the opposite. So I think we all have to write what we're comfortable with, and that it finds its audience. Does that help?

    Elizabeth: Lovely post, I agree whole-heartedly! Thanks for sharing.

    Sabrina: I absolutely was NOT saying that everyone who doesn't enjoy sex in UF is a misogynist. A misogynist is someone who hates women, and people with certain reading tastes regarding sex/no sex are NOT going to fit into that category of "women hating." What I AM saying is there's a very small group of male commentators who hate UF, and bash it at every turn. ONE of their critiques is that it's got sex, but they criticize UF on about every other level. I think this group is a boy's club who doesn't like women writing SF/F, and I think that some of their motivations are misogynistic.

    I was not calling you a misogynist, and I do not think you are a misogynist for preferring your UF without sex.

    Indeed, Sabrina, some of my favorite people and writers, such as Kat Richardson, don't write sex in their UF. I love Kat's books, and I am glad that there are all sorts of writers writing all sorts of things for all different types of fans.

    Spaz: I often miss it too, but I'd rather it not be there than be done badly. And I feel as satisfied by other emotional interactions, it doesn't have to be sex. But sometimes it's nice when it is sex. LOL

    Jess: Thanks! 😉

    PW: Absolutely, but these requirements should exist for every plot device, no? How many times have you read ANOTHER meaningless "Going through the weapon's trove to talk about shiny weapons" scene, or ANOTHER meaningless "and now they have to be attacked because nothing's happened in a while" scene. Sex is no different from any other plot device, and needs to be used as carefully.

  9. I agree w/ you and w/ Elizabeth.

    I've enjoyed plenty of books with and without sex and think while sometimes (not all the time cuz I enjoy reading it) it's un-needed and tacky, I find the honesty of the characters more believable when there's an attraction. Are you going to save the world from the mecca and alien races and not see any attractive people along the way?? are you blind? the last person on earth?? maybe you're a robot yourself w/ no feelings just a task to complete.

    Okay, fine. But sometimes I like to become my character, and if I can't relate to the characters feelings I feel like there is none and it's harder for me to read.

    (Not saying I still don't read it, it's just harder to get thru the whole thing w/o feeling like somethings missing. Beef it up w/ some good mystery & action and I'm good)

    I agree also, that woman write it best. I read books by both male and female authors, but the attraction in some like, Jim Butcher's Storm Front, or Marcus Pelegrimas' Blood blade has nothing on the down to earth Phaedra Weldon, Casey Daniels, Keri Arthur etc. in the sense of expression.

    I agree w/ some of the others as well. As long as it fits in the story, and doesn't take away from it I'm happy. 🙂

  10. Angela: I would totally be checking people out DURING the apocalypse, I totally sympathize! LOL Thanks for posting, great points!

    Bill: I thought more about the issue of men and sex and UF as I ran, and I think it's important to note that I don't think that men CAN'T write good sex, it's just that for whatever cultural reasons they don't do it that often. Maybe, just maybe, it's a biological thing and a function of how men and women view sex. But I doubt that. I'm pretty sure it has to be mostly cultural/social, so I'd love to see a man write really good sex in an urban fantasy.

    I have two good friends who are male and erotica writers, and the fact they write gorgeous, genuinely sexy smut just makes them all the more interesting to me. But only one of those two are open about writing smut, and I imagine it's an area where a lot of men would feel judged for writing it, like it's the purview of women. And I shouldn't say they'd "feel" judged; I imagine they would be or are judged. Women can "get away" with sex in a way that men can't, in our society. That might have to be another post! 😉

  11. Wow – great topic! 🙂

    There's actually been a great deal of discussion about sex in Fantasy as well (the High Fantasy/Sci Fi stuff), but more of it seems to be drawn toward the female gaze – i.e. is there a difference in the way women write vs men, particularly when it comes to descriptions, settings, and yes, sex. (And it's always a hot button topic when it comes to RPG games too.)

    For me, though – the sex generally does have to have a purpose – even if it's seemingly random initially, if it adds to the character development in some way, that's great.

    I was a hard core sci fi/fantasy reader growing up and most of those books were written by men…and most of them were pretty much sex free. And mostly romance free, come to think of it. Or if there was romance of any sort it was glossed over. When I got old enough to buy my own reading material, I found women fantasy authors – Mercedes Lackey, Jacqueline Carey, Robin Hobb, Kate Elliott, Lynn Flewelling and Tanya Huff among others.

    And you know what? For the most part, I liked their stuff better. I don't know if they tended to write the relationships better between their characters or if it was because I just connected to the styles better, but I definitely prefer it now. And yes, that includes the sex. I honestly can't name a single UF male author that really managed to make things click for me. (Except Charles de Lint – and he's not overly descriptive/explicit, but the emotion is very poignant. He writes female characters beautifully.)

    I think I'm rambling here – but I guess the long and short of it is – as long as the sex is there for a reason and it's well written, I'm fine with it. And as Nicole pointed out, sometimes it can be very eye-opening to read/write a sex scene, because how the characters react to each other non-verbally can be extremely important. Hell – when I'm feeling new characters out, sometimes I'll just throw them into bed together to see what they do – even if that scene never ends up in the final book – it's very helpful for me. 🙂

  12. Charles de Lint! How could I have forgotten him! I stand before you humbled and corrected. I totally award Charles w/ his own honorary trophy vagina that he can bring to a party. He writes SUCH great sex, and he's actually (along with Misty) the first really sexy UF I read. Greenmantle rocked my SOCKS because it's all about sex. I was like 9 when I read it and I was RIVETED. Thanks so much for reminding me, Allison!

    And Bill! Charles is a man who writes great sex! Honorary-vagina great!

  13. Your footnote really made me rack my brains for another "male writer who writes an interestingly sexual female character" and Allison's comment about de Lint writing female characters "beautifully" FINALLY helped me out: Lewis Grassic Gibbon in Sunset Song. Such an awesome book. And I can't believe I haven't thought of it for years.

  14. Great post! I admit with shame that I had to look up what Onanism meant, and then snorted coffee from my nose.

    When I think about my favourite urban fantasy series, there is a huge variety in terms of amount and type of sexual content, but in all cases the sex is fundamental to how I connect with the main character and let myself escape into the novel.

    I love imagining what it would be like to wield a deadly katana, or shoot fireballs from my eyes, or swim through the ocean with the grace of a selkie, but I'm still imagining what that would feel like based on the beautiful descriptions from the authors. When I read about a certain someone hesitating before finally moving his hand off the steering wheel onto another certain someone's knee*, I can vividly imagine those feelings on an intensely personal level and experience what the characters are experiencing.

    Watching Jane's relationship with Ryu unfold early in the books, for me, was a key part of realizing that Jane is not broken in spite of her hardships. She was inexperienced in some ways, but not naive. It showed me that she had respect for herself, and a spark in her that made me want to watch her develop into a confident woman.

    Same way that when I read Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts books, the unbearable anguish and sexual tension between two characters is what really makes me feel like I've escaped into the books more than anything else, in spite of the (in my opinion) flawless world-building.

    Even with Kat Richardson's books where any sex is mostly off-scene, I can really connect to Harper's practicality and lack of anguish over her sex life. If the sex was more explicit, it almost would detract from the character. I really respect Harper Blaine for her lack of anguish, yet I love Chess Putnam for the exact opposite reason.

    All three examples are vastly different in terms of how sex is portrayed and why, but it's often what connects me to the books and protagonists. We are all complex people with complex thoughts and experiences with sex, which allows us to emotionally connect to so many different sexual situations we read about, whether it's a chaste first kiss, a quickie with a couple strangers in a bathroom stall or a lazy weekend morning snog with a long time partner.

    I love the imaginative story lines and worlds and powers in urban fantasy, but sometimes I need something more human to connect me to the kickass protagonists so that I become deeply, emotionally invested in them and get the most out of my reading experience. Sex (when on scene or off) is one of ways that I make that connection.

    So, that's my two-cents!

    *Nicole, that brief scene, for me, was so beautiful and intense I had to go back and re-read all three books the next day just so I could re-experience it in its full glory.

  15. Sara, thank you! That totally made me cry! And it wasn't just because I was only half-way through grading midterms. 😉

    Your post made me think, "I love my job!" So thank you!

  16. " D. H. Lawrence also explores sexuality and character in great detail, but he is inchoate and crazy, bless. "

    Hahaha 🙂

    Nicely said.

  17. Great article! I have been reading your website for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Lubbock Thanks! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic job! All three examples are vastly different in terms of how sex is portrayed and why, but it's often what connects me to the books and protagonists. Thank you so much and i want more.

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