There’s a famous cartoon in the advertising world showing two half-inebriated account execs at a photo shoot for Alpo dog food. The object of the photo shoot? A buxom blonde on her knees, legs spread wide, holding a can of Alpo in front of her crotch. She wears a beaming 14 carat smile and nothing else. Right, spectacularly naked. One account exec says to the other, “Man, this is gonna sell a lot of dog food.”
One of the oldest axioms in advertising, movies, TV – and books – is “sell it with sex.”
Well, the obvious answer is because it works.
But it goes deeper than that. Humans are the horniest critters on the face of the earth. Yeah, all other creatures do it too, but not with the creative flair, intensity, and emotional explosiveness of us humans.
And no other female of any other species was quicker to discover the power behind sex to more devastating effect than the female human.
According to the Bible, it was the result of eating too many apples, but right from the git-go women were stamped as using their sexual allure to control the more physically dominant male. This dynamic became the driving force behind writing and painting and storytelling since humans first learned to communicate with one another.
Sex – raw, wild, and abandoned – is definitely the driving force behind my book Unthinkable Consequences, and the main reason it took me nearly twenty years to finish it.
I was raised in a Christian church. I attended three times a week, every week, all the way through high school. Ours was a New Testament church focused on the life and teachings of Christ. Consequently we didn’t get all the juicy stories that filled the Old Testament, many of them involving illicit, quite descriptive, sex. I had to find out about that by doing extra curricular work on my own. But the message was clear: sex equals sin. Women who used sex for gain were Jezebels (and look what happened to her!).
Ultimately the Bible stories had the reverse effect of what was intended. The ‘Thou Shalt Nots’ only made people more determined to do exactly the opposite (if it’s really that bad, I gotta try it). Yet the stigma remained.
So every time I picked up my manuscript for Unthinkable Consequences I would only make a little progress before I ran into the same brick wall. How do I deal with the sex scenes? Flustered, I would put the manuscript back on the shelf and continue with other projects.
No, I’m no prude. The normal raging hormones of teenhood got me past any ‘Thou Shall Nots’ concerning the opposite sex. Especially after I made the startling discovery that, contrary to what our parents told us, girls liked it as much as guys. Holy moley!
When I started working on Unthinkable Consequences, I didn’t set out to write a sex book. It was about a married woman who lived in a different time period in America, the 50s, who is having a mid-life crisis. Her only child is in college, her marriage is a sham, her life is empty and she doesn’t see it getting any better. A man enters her life who brings out long forgotten passions and they begin an illicit affair. In the 50s, those were the only kind of affairs there were, dramatized in the Susan Heyward movie Backstreet.
The driving force behind the affair in my book? Yep, sex. The all-consuming incendiary kind.
The wall I kept slamming up against was: how explicitly was I going to explore this relationship? Was I simply going to take it to a bursting point, do a ‘fade to black’ followed by a ‘fade-in: next morning’ and leave it to the readers do imagine what happened?
Oddly, the answer came in a family-oriented play I was writing, Letters From the Front. The story takes place during WWII and the lead female character, Katharine Hartgrove, has just discovered that her son is missing in action. In our research, many war moms were interviewed and asked what did they do upon getting this news. Every single one of then said the same thing: ‘I dropped to my knees and prayed for my son’s life.” In contemporary theater, a prayer scene is the kiss of death and I was reluctant to do it. But I decided to go for honesty, and wrote the scene. It became the play’s most powerful scene and I’m convinced is one of the prime reasons the show ran for fifteen years.
Honesty. What a concept. I decided I had to apply the same principal to Unthinkable Consequences. Uninhibited, fiery sex was what first brought Paula and Kurt together. They didn’t meet at a church social. Out of that urgent need, something much deeper gradually developed and a meaningful, committed love affair emerged. But the driving force was sex, just like in so many Biblical stories; sex so overpowering that Paula and Kurt could not resist its force. If I had not explored this force to its fullest, the story would have been, well, flaccid.
So does this mean I’m a strong advocate for explicit sex in books? No, that’s something every author has to decide for themselves. But I am a strong advocate of honesty in writing, even when it comes to sex. I believe readers pick up on it immediately. As a result you establish a trust bond with them. And as storytellers, isn’t that what we should always be trying to do?