Violence Vs. Sex In American Culture

Nat RussoArt, Culture, Opinion 56 Comments

I hope you don’t mind me taking an uncharacteristic journey into self-indulgence for a moment. This will be short, I promise. The title of the article is probably far more lofty than it deserves. Earlier this evening on Facebook, I spotted the following image:

George R.R. Martin

This rustled my jimmies enough to share the image on my page with a bit of a rant. I know many of you will disagree with what I said, and that’s ok! No, really! It’s ok!

Here’s the original text of my rant. I’d love to hear your comments, whether they agree or disagree. I just think we as a society should at least discuss it, rather than take certain things as objective truth because we were raised a certain way.

I don’t write explicit sex scenes because I’d be too self-conscious while doing it, and therefore I wouldn’t really be able to pull it off.

But that’s the only reason. Why? Because from where I sit, there’s nothing immoral about sex. There‘s nothing immoral about nudity. There’s nothing immoral about the human form. I know…I happen to have a human form (granted, my wife is probably the only person who’d want to see it exposed, though.)

George makes a great point here. Why are we as a society so easy to accept the most graphic of violence, yet so appalled by human sexuality on ANY level?

Maybe because we’re a nation of puritanical hypocrites? Just guessing.

As we speak, groups are being organized to boycott the 50 Shades of Gray movie. When’s the last time you saw a boycott of the latest summer action blockbuster? When’s the last time you saw a boycott of a gory Halloween horror movie?

Kill as many people as you can on prime time TV. Have a good revenge plot? We’ll cheer you on! Hell, while you’re at it, cut out their body parts and fry them up with a nice Chianti. If you make the anti-hero sympathetic enough, we’ll go along for the ride as he slaughters his way through one victim after the next.

But show a nipple? How DARE you expose our children to that kind of immorality? Think of the children!

America…get your act together.

– Nat

Having grown up in a somewhat repressive environment, I can tell you from experience that treating human sexuality with suspicion (if not open contempt) around children leads to an unhappy adult life in which a therapist’s kids could be put through college on the co-pays alone.

No, I don’t intend to start writing Erotica. I’d never be able to pull it off. Nor am I a consumer. But I support any writer or reader who wishes to do so. And I will defend the creation and consumption of that art with my dying breath, no matter how many celibate men in fancy robes try to “correct” me.

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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening and Necromancer Falling. Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He's spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun. Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do. He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 56

  1. Americans fear sex more than violence. They don’t expect their kids to commit acts of violence as readily as they might commit acts of a sexual nature. So they repress any mention of sexual activities more than they do the most detailed descriptions of violence. I can almost understand their point, but I think the practice backfires on them. It only serves to increase the curiosity of young people in sex. Since sex isn’t openly discussed or portrayed in fiction to the same extent as violence, young people can’t learn that much about sex except through experimentation. Not the desired effect of those puritanical souls, but they’ve done what they think is right. Just because it doesn’t work out doesn’t mean they should change their behavior or beliefs.

    I’ve read blogs by authors who say they won’t read books that include explicit sexual scenes. Yet these same authors have no problem filling chapters of their own books with detailed fight scenes resulting in the deaths of one or more characters. Often the person(s) doing the slaying may be portrayed as heroic. But write a detailed description of two people engaging in the activity that can bring a new life into the world, and oh, the humanity.

    1. Post

      When I was growing up, I knew a devout Catholic family who attended mass at the same parish I went to. They had 8 kids. All girls. This was a matriarchal family, and the mother ruled with an iron fist. Of all the parents I’ve known through the years, she was the most unwavering I’ve ever known, when it came to her rules. I once told her that what she was trying to do was like grabbing a handful of water and squeezing real tight so as not to drop it.

      All 8 girls, without exception, got pregnant before they were married. And every time one of them got pregnant, the mom got even more strict with the remaining girls.

  2. I also read an article somewhere (can’t remember where, it was linked to Facebook so it could have been anywhere) that even within the context of sexual content, there is a massive disparity with what is apparently more acceptable. The article in question mentioned that Ryan Gosling accused the MPAA of sexism after it rated Blue Valentine NC-17 because it shows a woman receiving oral sex and reaching orgasm. He said that there are many films where men are shown to receive oral and they are only R rated. Why is a woman receiving pleasure worse than a man?

    1. Post

      Oh, that’s crazy talk! We ALL know the female orgasm is to be feared above any other kind of orgasm! If she’s capable of orgasm then…then…she’s capable of drying up a productive cow too!

      I’m coming down with a cold now. I bet it’s because my female neighbor is masturbating.

  3. All too true. There’s a series of TV promos about parental-control tools, that feature parents confronting various cable-type thugs for their violence– but the ads never dare to show the real controversy, sex. Spider Robinson said it best, “a naked blade is less offensive than a naked woman.”

    Michael, you’ve got a point: a lot of it could be that we worry more actively about sex than about violence because it seems more *likely.* Or more controllable; for most of history we’ve spent a lot of effort telling people to keep their clothes on, and had some limited success, but we’ve never been able to stop wars.

    And yet we’re stuck with the old language about it. We flat-out say sex is “sinful,” and then everyone feeling hormonal also gets to use the word as a badge of rebellion. (Why are there 50 shades of gray? Because nobody let any sunlight in to show it shouldn’t be as big a deal.)

    I’d rather just call sex “powerful.” Not bad, but too important to get too reckless with, same as driving a car. Or knowing the difference between shooting a killer and stalking an innocent.

    1. Post

      I love that Spider Robinson quote!

      I’ve long thought that if we dropped the “sinful” language with regard to sex, there’d be far fewer sex therapists in the world.

    2. I utterly despise feminism (in its modern day or “third-wave” incarnation). It’s a mental illness. But, the only cure for it is for there to be more, more, more female orgasms (given by men)!

  4. Perhaps it’s not so much the sex or the violence that should be our biggest concern but the confluence of the two. Violence inhabits the fiction we’ve known longest: from fairy tales to Bible stories. Perhaps we’re afraid of adding sex to the mix, not for all the ways in which it can go right but all the ways it can go wrong.

    As a writer, I’m not likely to touch on the erotic (some strange notion about giving characters privacy… For now) but I believe we explore the world and our beliefs through fiction. Banned topics only serve to keep us ignorant.

    1. Post

      Excellent points, Shannon. I think at its heart, the issue is driven by fear. As you mentioned, fear of all the ways it can go wrong. I suspect it’s going to take a slow roll over an extended period of time for American culture (and others of a similar ilk) to grow more comfortable with healthy expressions of sexuality that just so happen to be more explicit than the one-foot-on-the-floor variety.

  5. I feel that it stems from a long line of people not being willing to get comfortable with expressing their own sexual appetites. I feel this stems from the Protestant culture. Protestants (or any rigid “sexual conservative”) feel guilt instead of pleasure for the honest sexual self-expression that each person has, because as children you are told that sex prior to marriage is a sin that will taint you and cause diseases that wil curse and kill you. This causes fear, and fear leads to about 90% of all the other challenging emotions that a person will feel in their lifetime (anxiety, low-self esteem, being a disappointment, etc.)

    Our culture in America is uncomfortable with what we don’t understand, and we don’t want to understand sex because our culture has made it taboo.

    An unfortunate messy cycle.

    1. Post

      I sometimes wonder how different society would function without the “taboo” association with sex. I suspect there wouldn’t be a fraction of the preoccupation we seem to have with it (an ironic preoccupation, since we ban most forms of it from our media).

  6. I am able to agree with most of the points made, both in the post and the comments, and even see some of the reasoning behind them. However, I do not agree with the teachings which make the results a reality.

    I cannot understand why most people instruct their children that sex is bad, or “sinful” as the religious have dubbed it. The more you tell a child not to do something without a concrete reason with visible results, the more they want to try it to see why it’s so bad, and then they find the only bad thing about it is getting caught. (Same situations with smoking, drinking and drugs.)

    Possibly, the origins run back all the way to after the fall of the Romans, who (I think, anyway) seemed to have a quite healthy attitude about sex. The were bound to, with all the prominently displayed naked statues decorating the public areas. Did they not allow their children to roam the public areas? Did the kids who saw the statues ask their parents, “What’s that?” while pointing at the warrior’s penis? I doubt it, because all the statues had them bared. The only question I would imagine from the culture would be, “Why is that one so much smaller than the others?” And even that one, I really don’t think would have surfaced. Too often.

    It wasn’t until the powers-that-be started putting fig leaves on them that questions began forming. Maybe some monarch had one smaller than even the smallest chiseled in marble, and demanded to have them covered so he wouldn’t feel so uncomfortable. (Imagine, being jealous of a piece of rock!)

    Be those neither here nor there, we must all conform to the sociably acceptable standards, or risk our works being snubbed. We could only hope to write a novel which would be agreeably published, then banned for being too controversial, for that controversy fuels sales, the exact opposite of intentions. I wonder why those fools have not figured that part out yet?

    1. Post

      “The more you tell a child not to do something without a concrete reason with visible results, the more they want to try it to see why it’s so bad, and then they find the only bad thing about it is getting caught. (Same situations with smoking, drinking and drugs.)”


      I’ve often debated this with some of my more conservative friends (whom I respect greatly, merely disagree with). I think if they looked deeper into some of the religious justifications behind this questionable definition of morality, they’d see the position is untenable right from the beginning. Literally the beginning of time, as written in the Bible.

      Let’s take, for a moment, a Judeo-Christian approach to this subject (I myself am a member of a Judeo-Christian Tradition). After the whole apple debacle, we’re told that God approaches Adam in the garden. I’ll grab a quote from the New International Version:
      Genesis 3:8-11
      Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.” And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

      Now I don’t want to glorify my education here, but suffice it to say I’ve spent a LOT of time around sacred writings. My take on Genesis 3 is that we were not created to hide our form from the world. It wasn’t until *after* sin entered the world that *we* deluded ourselves into thinking the human form was something to be ashamed of and covered up.

      Straight from God’s mouth, according to Genesis: “Who told you that you were naked?”

      Now I understand this isn’t dealing with the subject of explicit sex. Granted. But I definitely believe it addresses the subject of nudity from a biblical perspective.

    1. Post
  7. I’m quite familiar with this phenomenon myself, but I wouldn’t say it’s because Americans are puritanical hypocrites. It’s because the puritanical hypocrites who are here will stop at nothing to make sure that everyone else knows it, whether we want to know it or not. It is often made worse by the fact that those who control much of the mainstream media rely on these puritanical types for their political power. This is why there are still so few non-stereotypical LGBT fictional characters that are prominent and readily accessible.

    1. Post

      Excellent points, Signy!

      I find it amazing how speculative fiction predicted the state of our nation as much as 50 years ago. The radical groups are taking power because the mainstream feels disenfranchised within the system.

  8. Sorry I’m late to the party! I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that there is a double-standard in sexuality versus violence, and it makes me remember something funny I heard from Jon Bernthal (Shane on “The Walking Dead”) discussing doing a sex scene with the character Lori. There were explicit orders from the producer/director that there can be absolutely “no thrusting!” That’s where they draw the line on cable (non-premium channel) television. Thrusting!

    In the next scene, zombie heads are split wide open and entrails spill forth from both the living and the dead.

    I do want to comment, though, regarding the first commenter taking issue with bloggers not reviewing erotic work, but writing violent scenes. That’s really an apples/oranges comparison. The seeming hypocrisy may be due to the fact that very few people have ever witnessed an actual evisceration, while sex is an intimate part of our souls. The violence we experience in fiction is unreal, and will always remain so to most people. Describing it in detail is little more than just words on paper, and it takes a lot of those words, specifically, to draw an image that will never, ever be real to the person reading it. However, almost every adult knows and understands sex, regardless of their skill, and it is a very personal taste. Erotica doesn’t typically satisfy the desires of a lot of people because there are so many different ways to experience sex, pleasant and unpleasant. No two orgasms are the same! Would you ever say that, just because I enjoy movies like “Saving Private Ryan” that I should also give equal time and consideration to double-penetration bukakke porn? They are both equally vivid, and I don’t see hypocrisy in enjoying one and not the other. So, I will continue to write about the spike embedded in the antagonist’s head, but I reserve the right to not have to read badly written porn.

    Basically, I am okay with acknowledging that a double-standard exists, but I think trying to make it against another factor that is also vivid and personal is the wrong comparison. Further, I believe there are responsible uses of both sex and violence and that it is fallacious to infer that because we accept violence we should also accept explicit sex for the masses. People are free to protest, and we are free to watch the movie or read the book.

    I watched a 7 year-old play GTA 4 once and shout, “I’m gonna kill that bitch!” That was the saddest and most disturbing thing I’ve ever seen. Kids, unsupervised, learn from these things.

    I’ve had a Three Philosophers and a Gulden Draak tonight, so I may have rambled at the end there:)

    1. Post

      No rambling at all, Brett! I appreciate your viewpoint on this, and in many ways agree with your apples/oranges statement. Maybe rather than treat them as opposed, we should treat them as separate.

  9. Whether it’s horror, action, slice and dice, or sex, what I’m looking for is a story & characters that involve us in the story. If it fits the story, that’s one thing. If the sum total of everything society thinks about is horror, action, slice and dice or sex, and that’s what the entertainment industry is catering to, then it’s shallow.

    1. Post

      I agree. Regardless of the content, if it doesn’t fit the story, it shouldn’t be there. Conversely, if it does fit the story, it *should* be, I believe.

  10. My theory is that we’re better able to detach ourselves from violence, but sex is intimate. It raises body issues, and self-consciousness. Imagine walking in on friends having sex…you would feel a sort of shame at having seen something so private. So when you show a sex scene, your exposing what, in most people’s minds, is only appropriate behind closed doors. That, of course, comes from our Judeo-Christian culture.

    Cartoonish violence, on the other hand, doesn’t tap into our insecurities in such a personal way. It’s horrific, but we can disassociate.

    Regardless, I agree with you, of course. Our society would be much healthier if we could be free and open about sexuality and much less free and open about violence.

    1. Post

      Thanks for sharing that, Dane! It’s a very well thought out theory, and it has the ring of truth to it. I agree that the shame we feel has its origins in our Judeo-Christian culture. There are many cultures where that wouldn’t be the case, particularly those cultures that have long-standing traditions of entire families living in a single large-room dwelling. In those cultures, it’s actually customary for couples to have sex in front of the family, and no one thinks twice about it.

  11. Maybe there is an answer if you dig even deeper: There is a degree of villainy that is needing to be stopped in violence, and that’s often used to create a background for the hero. But villainous sex (like in a clockwork orange or Law and Order SVU) is allowed for the same thing. Situationless violence that exists simply for the sake of the viewer’s enjoyment is snuff-film territory, and indulgent erotica is more acceptable, but still ultimately snuff. “a romantic tale of so-and-so giving up the grape” is less acceptable than “a guy mows down terrorists and happens to grope some grape in the process because he’s such a hero” I’m not agreeing with it, but the difference between conflict and indulgence seems to change the opinion of the mpaa or whoever at least.

  12. I don’t know if this has been touched on: 50 Shades Boycott is because it normalizes intimate partner violence, rape, and abuse. NOT because of the sex. it also portrays a very WRONG side of the S&M subculture. It is NOT BD&SM. That’s the main reason why it’s considered so bad. It ignores the Consent, it ignores the safeword, and it ignores after care.

    I write erotica. Therefore I’m one of those “Scummy” writers that people love to make fun of. I don’t care. I portray it as Consentual, non-rapey and very loving. probably why I dont’ sell many books heh.

    1. Post

      I agree that the movie does all of those things, Monica. But I don’t believe that’s the primary reason it was boycotted. (I do believe it’s the primary reason certain subcultures boycotted it, but I don’t believe it’s the primary reason American society in general boycotted it).

      If you take a casual glance of any “Top 100 most controversial films” list, you’ll see the majority are considered “controversial” because of their depiction of sex and sexual issues (some of which have nothing more than lead characters in a homosexual relationship). The ones that are condemned for their violence usually contain some other aggravating factor, like cannibalism, etc.

      On “The Walking Dead”, when it came time to film the sex scene with Shane and Lori, the actor who played Shane was instructed “absolutely no thrusting”. On a show where we have more gore than anyone has seen on television in quite some time, they drew the line at pelvic thrusting. We’ve seen limbs chopped off. Eyeballs scooped out. Torture. Bodies graphically engulfed in flame. But pelvic thrusting? We can’t let the American public see something that immoral.

    2. Oh I agree there’s a huge prudish blind spot in the majority of this society regarding sex. Take Game of Thrones, the television show, not the books, and it’s full frontal female nudity all the time, the first time I saw any kind of penis on that show was…season 5… Any movie with any kind of actual sexual pleasure for the woman is rated a hard R to Mature17+ (or whatever the grade is below X but above R) but a guy sticking it in dry is at most an R and possibly a PG13. The whole thing is just strange.

      Scribid has completely removed any erotica from their library, you know that? That’s stupid. Amazon will *not* allow erotica authors to purchase advertising to promote their books through their website. It’s like they want us as a dirty little secret in the back, even their latest KDPSelect per-page policy is aimed at hurting erotica short story writers. You know, the ones like Pandora Box, and others like them. 5-8k words a bored housewife with a Kindle Ultimate sub can read in the course of the baby’s afternoon nap for escape. Amazon hasn’t specifically *Stated* that’s who they were trying to drive out, but the writing on the wall is painfully clear.

  13. Pingback: Violence vs Sex in American Culture (Reblog) | Monica Baker's Official Blog.

    1. Post

      I appreciate it, Monica! I use self-hosted WordPress, and they haven’t made the “Reblog” button available to us yet. I keep wishing they’d hurry up with it! There are so many articles written by friends and colleagues I’d love to reblog here!

  14. I think I’d boycott ’50 Shades of Grey’ because it’s a single shade of keech, but that’s a different question.

    There is a large amount of culture to unpick in this issue – the question is not as simple as it sounds. The reason given, for example, why the gladiatorial games, wild beast hunts, and executions of criminals in Rome were such well-attended public spectacles, is usually that they were put on to reinforce Romans’ self-image and Roman ‘virtues’. I’m sure that the real answer was more complex than that, and that if anything about the issue was simple it was that people had grown up used to the Games. Similarly, we have grown up used to the idea of violence in performance. You can trace this right back to ancient Greece, where the portrayal of violent or tragic acts served as catharsis – and indeed the catharsis of violent TV or movies is undeniable, it’s an integral part of their psychological effect. Yes our movies do serve a culturally-reinforcing role (just think of the movies produced in the austerity of 1950s Britain, that harked back to the country’s struggle in WW2, or to modern US television’s portrayal of the USN or the Marine Corps). But there is also the aspect of the necessity of tension. risk, and danger in (adventure) fiction genres. Unless the berserker’s axe can be seen splitting a skull, the hero’s heroism in going mano-a-mano with him is meaningless.

    The privacy of sex, on the other hand, can be traced back to innovations in architecture in the Middle Ages and their consequent effect on social living. The communal hall, where sex was just something that happened, phased out as building techniques made internal walls more possible, and the private chamber was developed. Other factors, such as the equation of sex with ‘sin’, whilst there, have not had as profound an effect as we might imagine, and are more a cover-all. Sex has become intimate and privatised. In some case that privatisation became a political issue – the gay lobby, for example, long argued that the law should not touch what was done in private. Perhaps the privacy of sex and nudity is changing, in the age of the ‘sext’ and the ‘xelfie’.

    However, the biggest influence in all of this is The Market, our modern God, to which we all bow. Violence sells. Sex does too, but it is a lesser and less respectable marketplace. If a market can be created for something, then it will sell. [In capitalism, markets do not depend on basic needs, but on creation and cultural coercion.] If it sells, it can be milked, made to sell as long as possible. Who knows – G R R Martin’s meme above may mark a tipping point at which, we may realise in retrospect, sex starts to become increasingly more marketable, in direct proportion to our relaxation of its social privacy…

  15. My problem with sex in novels is not that they are immoral or that sex is immoral. Neither, in my opinion, is true. HOWEVER, in my experience about 90% of the time sex in novels is BORING. It stops the story cold while someone indulges their interest in describing, groan by groan, the exact details of a sex act in a way that is no more interesting or imaginative than the last 1000 times someone described it. It rarely progresses the story or the characterization in the least.

    If there is a REASON for including the sex, then I’m fine with it but there is a much larger chance that the ax to the head progresses the story than that the penis in the vagina (or other forms of sex because penetration is NOT the end all and be all of sex) does. I do get tired of ALL novels being turned into erotica these days with no payoff for me unless I feel like masturbating.

    1. Intriguing theory. I’ll admit, from a plot standpoint most sex scenes could be reduced to “she (or he) said yes, curtains blow in the wind, next morning they begin deciding what it meant” without losing any changes to the storyline– and for generations that was how they were shown.

      Still, a lot of violence scenes don’t pass that test either; you know going in that the hero’s going to win, or a scene’s set up as a “suspense-building defeat and retreat.” And yet we rarely expect the Big Battle to take place off-page.

      I guess it’s how it’s used. One more comparison: how many books have leading characters that are rich? We don’t say protagonists aren’t allowed to have money unless it’s a major plot point– we accept that some authors will minimize it to to get on with other parts of the story, some will plot around it, and some will take extra time to show the power and luxury they have in scenes that might be appealing in their own right. Or might be boring.

      So maybe the worst thing about sex scenes is just that they attract so many bad writers. 🙂

  16. Agree completely. I grew up in the Catholic tradition, traditional values but thankfully expressed in a much healthier way. I originally thought sex was sinful, now I think that sex is only sinful when it is forced on someone, or when a person uses it to fill an emotional gap within themselves, essentially using it as an addiction. Sex is something natural which we were made to do, and it is the reason we continue to exist as a species. Murder, however, defies the laws of nature, because it is not up to us to decide who lives or dies. I recently spoke to a very Christian friend of mine who thinks the rapture is coming because of homosexuality and sexual liberation. I find this silly. I think the rapture is coming because of climate change, the depletion of resources, warfare, inequality, and greed. It is coming because we are a greedy species who exploits others and our planet, and that has very real consequences. These are much greater sins than people choosing to love or have sex with each other. I just smh and carry on when I hear these things.

  17. Nat, I couldn’t agree more!

    I’m replying from another perspective. I’m British – we see this all the time in American culture, on the news, on the TV. If anything it’s polarizing – TV shows are getting more and more graphically violent but the same is not true of sex scenes.

    Over here, a movie with extreme violence is more likely to be rated 18 than one with sex in it! To us, the idea that you would keep a gun in your house to ‘protect’ yourself is appalling – and of course; E L James is a Brit!

    …And us Brits are the prudes in our European family!

    PS: I love writing and reading a good sex scene! 🙂

    1. Post

      Thanks for stopping by, Amy!

      I think the gun thing here in the States (keeping one for protection) is because of our inherent distrust of government. 🙂 Unfortunately, we seem to mistrust all things sexuality even more than government. I sadly believe that if you polled certain regions of this country, you’d find the overwhelming majority would rather see something extremely graphic than, for example, two men kissing.

    2. Amy, the Poles out-prude you Brits by a long shot 🙂 To us you’re just promiscuous sex addicts 🙂

      PS. I try to weave some erotic tension into my stories, but just I feel I still need to work on that. When I write an erotic scene worth reading I will definitely let you know 🙂

  18. Nat: I’m reminded of the day 50 Shades of Gray came out, and my wife insisted we go see it, and I looked it up on IMDB and found, kid you not, about 3,000 negative reviews. I hadn’t expected it to be a quality film, but the reviews were relentless in describing how horrible and vile and vicious the movie was.

    So we went and saw it, and while it wasn’t Francis Ford Coppola it certainly wasn’t anything like the reviews I’d read. It became clear that those people hadn’t even seen the movie, since their depictions weren’t even remotely similar to the actual movie.

    Anyway, long story short: I agree with your assessment (or Mr. Martin’s assessment). In America, sex remains the great taboo, while bloody violence is (yawn) too routine for comment.

    On a side note, John Sandford left a lengthy and fascinating post on his FB account about this very topic, stating that he avoided sex scenes simply because they slowed down the narrative of his fast-paced thrillers.

    1. Post

      Only under the rarest of circumstances do I even read reviews. I learned (back in the monastery, of all places) to never allow others to form an opinion for me. Sometimes I’ll read a book or see a movie *in spite of* bad reviews. And in many cases, I find the reviews were way off base. Or, they focused on areas i couldn’t care less about.

      I haven’t seen or read 50 Shades yet simply because I have no interest in the subject matter. But if the content were different…say it was a sci-fi movie…I’d run out and see it, even if critics were saying much of the same about it as 50 Shades.

  19. Nice rant, and it’s one I’ve made a few times myself. I think it’s a bizarre confluence of reasons. One, of course, is our puritan heritage. Another is that sense parents often have (rightly or wrongly) that seeing murder on TV won’t make their kids into murderers, but seeing sex on TV may lead their kids to have sex too soon (or at all, if they’re the kind of parents who want their kids to die virgins).

    There’s also a separate issue with the insertion of a highly sexualized “gaze” into media that’s about objectifying one gender or the other. Even when sex isn’t shown overtly, attractive bodies are used to sell products and lingered over by cameras in movies. Women have most frequently been the targets of this kind of objectification, and unsuprisingly, it makes them uncomfortable with and somewhat resentful of sex in the media.

    This might explain why women’s and religious groups sometimes find common cause here (though for very different reasons). Yet sultry romances (and erotica) are quite popular with women (and less interesting to men) when it’s written from their perspective.

    I sometimes think, though, that the people who squawk loudest about the horrors of sex in the media are the squeaky wheels that get the oil. Meanwhile, the silent majority buys books and watch movies with sex in them. I mean, I’d love to write a book that has outraged people into “not reading it” the way people “don’t read” GRRM’s work 😛

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      You and me both! I’ve often joked with my wife that if I could land my books on the Church’s “Banned Books” list, it would be the best thing to ever happen to my career! 🙂

  20. Great article, Nat. My home country (Poland) is just as prudish as the USA in that respect. Authors here face the same “morally correct” groups (and after today’s election maybe even a government like that), but the interesting thing is – sex sells books. I don’t mean erotica, but a glimpse of a nipple here and there, and possibly a romantic scene of a physical nature every few chapters…

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  21. This is an interesting topic. It makes me think about the American attitude towards breastfeeding mothers. There are seductive ads using women’s bodies, everywhere, but a nipple with a baby attached to it is supposed to be nasty. The logic behind that is irrational at best. Now, to comment on your article here on erotica vs. violence in literature, it made me realise that I don’t ever read anything violent. I couldn’t ever write anything violent either! Even if violence were a part of the plot, I cannot even imagine bringing myself to describe a human being murdering another human being, let alone any gory details of how it would be done. It boggles my mind how any other human mind can even imagine these things happening. I also don’t like people who consume loads of violent literature. When it comes to intimacy though, I think that is a beautiful thing to write about. But just like with most any topic, sometimes it is horribly written, and other times, it is magnificently written. Violence though, cannot ever be magnificently written, in my opinion. The fact that someone can imagine it to write it, truly bothers me.

    With that been said, the Fifty Shades series has gained an intense amount of criticism, for other reasons that don’t have anything to do with any erotica involved in it. It’s not about the erotica in it. It’s about the violence towards women and the seemingly twisted message that all women as individuals would actually ENJOY a man treating them as if they have no value or worth beyond being used as a hired, contracted sex slave for BDSM! Aside from that horrible message this series sends out about women, it’s also poorly written (I read a snippet from the book and couldn’t even understand what the author meant, due to terrible use of verbs and punctuation).

  22. M. Joybell C, I understand the inclination to be disturbed by those who can write violence into fiction, but as a peaceful person who writes violence (but not sex), I’d like to offer a different perspective.

    We live in a nonideal world, where violence happens everyday, not only in distant places but also near our homes. Unlike sex, it’s unavoidable. We would never choose to experience it personally, given the option, but for those who have empathy and compassion, it pervades life in the news and in the grief of our friends and neighbors.

    Reading and writing about violence gives us a chance to examine healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms and to develop our ability to sympathize with others in a context where we don’t have to do it right. In a context where our poor handling won’t further injure someone who’s already a victim. Or further provoke someone in edge.

    Hypothesizing how violence comes about and can be overcome is essential to learning how to prevent it and how to care for others subjected to it.

    From this perspective, until we’ve wiped out violence in the world, reading and writing about it is essential to improving the world. Sex isn’t as much; people can figure that out in their own, as they choose.

    Just my opinion. I’m glad we have both our opinions in the world.

  23. With respect to Mr./Ms. Joybell C, I’d like to offer a different opinion as a generally gentle person who writes about violence. While I can understanding how disturbing it can be to realize that others can conceptualize violence, I’ve come to the opinion that this is essential.

    Since we live in a nonideal world, violence is prevalent, happening both in distant places and nearby our homes. Sometimes, it’s reported thoroughly. Usually, it’s not. Sometimes, it’s happened to people we know who feel to ashamed or afraid or isolated to speak about it. It’s much harder to shut out of our lives than sex is.

    Reading and writing about violence serve a vital role in that they allow us to develop and practice sympathy with both victims and with the perpetrators in a safe environment in which we can neither further isolate the victims nor set off the perpetrators. By developing that sympathy, it allows us to better guess how to comfort victims we encounter in our lives or to notice the signs of the aftermath in someone who would otherwise continue to be unnoticed and ignored. While sympathy with the perpetrator seems like a dark and terrible thing–and it can be–if the reader/writer can stay grounded, it also allows us to recognize incipient signs of violence in those around us and guess at the root cause. It gives us a chance to know what to say or do and when to do it to have a chance to head off those violent tendencies in someone else. For example, if we see in fiction how grief and bullying combine to push someone into, say, shooting their coworkers, perhaps if we see bullying and grief in our workplaces, we can stand up for that person, form a bond, give them something to hold onto that’s more tangible than their despair.

    Reading and writing about violence also helps us as bystanders. Atrocities occur every day that we can’t do anything about. (And even if we take action about one thing, there are still hundreds more.) Having that bystander experience in fiction, coping with atrocity as the characters do, helps us to learn (hopefully) healthy ways of coping with the terrible things going on in our world.

    Reading and writing about violence can empower us to not be bystanders. It’s easy to think the heroes are outmoded, but there are key places in every violent event where one person could have made all the difference. By exposing ourselves to stories of people making a difference, we learn how to do it ourselves. Perhaps it’s not the most efficient form of learning, but it may also be one of the most versatile.

    So while I enjoy romance and agree that breastfeeding perceptions in America are ridiculously skewed, I don’t think it’s a terrible to thing to have violence more prevalent in our fiction than sex. I think it’s necessary. Sex you can learn by trial and error with a trusted partner, and sex (not rape) is something you can choose to avoid. Violence you can’t. It’s worthwhile to train yourself to deal with it by experiencing it through the buffer of fiction.

    And maybe one day we won’t need that.

  24. I’m all for dropping the Puritanical description of anyone who doesn’t buy into our personal definition of what’s sexually acceptable. The Puritans may have had their issues, as most cultures did back then, but without them our country would not have survived and prospered the way it did. They were some of the most well-educated, prosperous colonial settlers we had. Way better off than the ragtag group that rolled off the Mayflower. I get tired of seeing them disparaged as though they were a scourge upon the Earth.

    Now, for sex and violence. Full disclosure – My 1st four novels are in the “steamy” category – explicit sex, just not anything unusual. My current WIP is “clean” – nothing explicit, but enough kissing, they might wish chapstick had been around in the 18th c. I don’t have an issue with sex. (Reread Genesis last month and came away amazed at how much focus their is on “coming into” that I never really noticed before.) I don’t have an issue with violence. Vive le testosterone, know what I mean? It’s kept our species alive, fed, and continuing for many a millennia. That said, I don’t watch what I consider excessive forms of either. My main issue with sex and violence is when the two are brought together and called “romance”. I also have an issue with young girls being told they are “sexual beings” and left with the impression that it just isn’t cool to say no, but that’s a rant for another day.

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      I think the “Puritanical” description is used when the people in question aren’t simply not buying into our personal ideas of what is acceptable, but instead running further to the extreme of being counter-cultural. I don’t think anyone is promoting the notion that explicit sex should be handily within reach of any person of any age. But when people riot because a nipple was accidentally exposed on television, I believe that falls firmly in the category of Puritanical.

  25. God held sexual purity as being sacred in the bible, and that is still relevant today, so to have that sacredness tainted in our media upsets our core values we’ve carried over from the ancient times, I believe.

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  26. Hi Nat!

    Just happened to catch your Tweet about this and thought I would stop in. I’ve been reading since a young age and when I hit my teens, I discovered the romance genre. The details are VERY clear on how that all works. Oh my!

    I can only guess here as I don’t know the particulars, but my guess is those organizing against 50 Shades may be deeply religious. Personally, if I wish to boycott something, I do it without announcing it to the world. I just don’t support the things I don’t feel I can. But I don’t expect everyone else to jump on my bandwagon.

    It’s always been the way here in the US that violence is more acceptable than sex. I see the same irony that you do.

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