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Do Sex Scenes Make You Squirm?

Here's why they are so important.

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Hyesu Lee
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My name is Joy Frank-Collins, and I read sex scenes in books. And listen to them in audiobooks. Why am I writing this as if I’m confessing some deep, dark secret? Because to a lot of women, it is.

As an active member of The Girlfriend Book Club — a 15,000-plus member group of book lovers on Facebook — I actively participate for the recommendations, engaging discussions about our monthly title, and the chance to dish on everything book!

Recently, a member asked this question: “Does anyone else hate listening to love/sex scenes in a book?”

“No!” I practically shouted. I both read and listen to books and would no more skip a sex scene than I would any random three pages in the middle of my latest novel. As a writer, I always assume everything in the story serves a purpose — even the sex. Sometimes, especially the sex. I was expecting the same response from other members of the club, so imagine my surprise to learn that the vast majority of the hundreds of responses the post received were from readers affirming that they, too, skipped the sex scenes.

Equally blown away by this revelation is Courtney Wennerstrom, a former visiting lecturer at Indiana University and expert on 18th century British and French literature whose research includes extensive study in the subjects of erotica, pornography, and gender and queer theory.

“You can gain so much insight into how society views gender, sexuality and intimacy by how [authors] portray it,” she says, adding that a sex scene that focuses only on male pleasure reveals a great deal about the world in which the characters exist, and many times holds a mirror up to our own.

Literature, Wennerstrom adds, does many things for society, and two of the most important are helping readers develop “imaginative empathy” and allowing readers to consider the systemic ways we view intimacy. “So, to erase sex scenes would be sort of catastrophic for thinking through how we view bodies and pleasures and who is allowed to have pleasure.” The romantic comedy Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert was mentioned in The Girlfriend thread by several members from both the “read” and “skip” camps.

One woman commented that she was MORTIFIED (yes, all caps). “I had no idea it would have so much sex in it,” her post reads. Shelby (not her real name — interestingly enough, most members of the “read” camp have qualms about publicly admitting they read or listen to sex scenes in books) believes that sultry passages are especially necessary right now, given the separation brought about by the coronavirus. “I’m single, live alone — oh, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. It’s a lonely time. Sometimes these sex scenes remind me of my femininity and that there is an opposite sex.”

She enjoyed reading Get a Life, Chloe Brown.

“The book made me laugh and squirm in all the right places, but also made me wonder … am I overlooking white men as dating options in this Black Lives Matter era?”

Shelby’s reaction is the exact reason sex scenes belong in literature, and should be read, Wennerstrom adds. They can inspire an innate curiosity and spark a desire to explore what was once out of our comfort zone by answering questions like, “How do other people have sex? What does it mean for them? How does it feel for them?”

Another “reader” (this time a member of a smaller book club I belong to — who asked to be referred to as “a sultry brunette in Ohio who looks good for her age”) hypothesizes that “if you’re not comfortable with your sexuality, you might be uncomfortable reading about sex,   Puritan underpinnings and all.” Wennerstrom agrees. “We have this Puritan notion of sex that’s really dangerous,” she says, pointing out that in the 18th century there was a collective fear of women reading novels and the “sexual deviance” they might inspire. We’ve come a long way, she admits, but as long as people are skipping sex scenes in books, there’s still work to do.

As for the women who happily consume the steamier scenes in books but are reluctant to publicly admit it, Wennerstrom believes there are both internal and external pressures at work. “Psychologically it does suggest that … they have some sort of dualistic idea that their bodies and minds are not connected.”

For Shelby, it’s mostly about keeping herself to herself — but also a little bit about religion.

“I’m really into church and God, and Lord knows I can’t have the ‘saints’ running back to tell the pastor I’m reading porn!” she says.