Perihelion Science Fiction

Sam Bellotto Jr.

Eric M. Jones
Associate Editor


Baby Wars
by Eric Del Carlo

by Kurt Heinrich Hyatt

Genocide in Three Acts
by Jenny Duptsi

Memory Farm
by Richard Wren

Schrödinger’s Suicide
by Daniel Roy

Chandler’s Hollow
by Sean Patrick Hazlett

Test Case
by Kris Ashton

Pink Adventure 87
by Gregor Hartmann

Shorter Stories

by Robin Wyatt Dunn

Dropping Payload
by Mord McGhee

Breaking the 3 Laws
by Trevor Doyle


Sex and a Sensawunda
by Ann Gimpel

Sunshine 2: the Sequel
by Eric M. Jones



Comic Strips




Sex and a Sensawunda

By Ann Gimpel

SEX-LADEN CONTENT ABOUNDS not just in genre novels, but in literary fiction, too. Why? I believe the driving force behind more graphic sex in books is the same, regardless of whether it’s science fiction, paranormal romance, urban fantasy, literary fiction, or any other genre I haven’t listed.

The consensus appears to be that readers would feel cheated if authors slammed the bedroom door in their faces. More important, authors would feel cheated to do a fade to black at such a crucial juncture. I agree. Everything has become so highly sexualized that books without some level of something gritty don’t have much of a chance on the market. No one writes by inference anymore—about anything. Why would sex be crossed out of the equation?

It’s an indisputable fact that a preponderance of the authors of books that are heavy on sexual details are female. The Indie movement and a proliferation of small presses have provided a vehicle for women to haul their sexual preferences and needs out of the closet and proceed full steam ahead. Not to be left out, mainstream presses (otherwise known as the Big Six, or Big Five, depending on who did what hostile takeover) have also ratcheted up graphic content.

We’re swimming in a veritable sea of sex scenes. Whether you want to read about cowboys, aliens, duos, trios, quads, you name it, it’s out there, and damned easy to find. We’ve traveled a long road from the days of esoteric fringe book stores with their “Adults Only” back rooms.

Along those lines, as an author I’ve had an interesting experience or two. My novels are known for a certain level of explicit sexual detail. I didn’t start out writing that way, but my sales rose along with the heat level in my books. Because I have a lot of very traditional (e.g. older) friends, occasionally they’ll bend close and whisper something like, “Now that you’ve become fairly well-known, surely you can leave the, ahem, intimate details out of your books.”

Encounters like that make me smile because I don’t want to leave sex out of my books. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t plan on a career writing erotica, and I’d rather write a bloody battle scene than a tender bedroom one most days, but sex is part of life. If we’re going to create real story people, then they have to have real lives. Unless they’re celibate by choice, those lives will include sex. They’ll also include strong emotions, conflicts, and a character arc growth that makes for satisfying fiction. Sex is a primary underpinning of the human experience, so it makes sense to include it in story characters’ journeys too.

A Brief Historical Digression

I remember when sex ran as a background program. People still thought about it—a lot—but those were the days of “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” Ozzie and Harriet slept in twin beds, along with June and Ward Cleaver, but in different houses of course. Brigitte Bardot baring her breasts circa 1957 in “And God Created Woman” was scandalous.

When sex first showed up in fiction, it was banned. As one example, D.H. Lawrence was a man ahead of his time. He touched on homosexuality, and did a surprisingly good job of describing sex from the female point of view.

Lawrence’s depiction of sexual activity was viewed as shocking when he first published in the early 20th century. His focus on physical intimacy had its roots in a desire to restore an emphasis on the body, and re-balance Western civilization’s overemphasis on the mind.

By contrast, most of the science fiction books that have been banned earned that right from off-the-cuff ideas and revolutionary content, not sex. Many of Kurt Vonnegut’s books were banned, so was Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series. “Animal Farm,” “Brave New World,” and “A Clockwork Orange” made the banned list too.

More History. How’d We Get Here From There?

The easiest answer is the 1960s. The years when sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll emerged from the closet. But real answers run much deeper. The Beat Generation included Allen Ginsburg, William S. Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac. They were so far to the left of society no one paid much attention to them, but sex and drugs were where they lived. And philosophy. Kerouac died quite young from complications of alcoholism, but Burroughs, who had a history of heroin addiction, lived into his eighties.

Sex in fiction has come full circle. A hundred years ago, you couldn’t find it outside esoteric publications like “The Pearl”—a pornographic monthly magazine published in London by William Lazenby from July 1879 to December 1880. It was closed down by the authorities for obscenities including incest and flagellation. Today, you can’t get away from sex—even in mainstream books.

Erotica, Romance, and Their Reliance on Descriptive Sex

Before we go much further, I want to toss a couple definitions onto the table.

First, let’s look at erotica (from the Greek eros). Wikipedia defines it as: “any artistic work that deals substantively with erotically stimulating or sexually arousing subject matter. Erotica has high-art aspirations, differentiating it from commercial pornography.”

My practical definition as an author is this: if the story falls apart with the sex removed, it’s a good bet it’s erotica.

Next, let’s look at romance. The romance genre is huge, but for a book to be categorized as a romance, the romance is the story. So it’s boy meets girl, or boy meets boy, or boy/girl meets girl, etc. You get the picture. They’re attracted, struggle against the attraction, and come face to face with a big, dark moment that defines the book. Even though it appears all is lost, the couple (or trio, or quad) manage to batter their way through to a HEA. That’s shorthand in romance-talk for “happy ever after.” Some romances end with a HFN, which is “happy for now.” Much more realistic, even for someone like me who was raised on “and they lived happily ever after” fairy tales.

Up until around 2000 or so, most romances were “sweet,” but then things began to shift. Today, outside of Christian or young adult (YA) romance, it’s hard to find romance with a tame heat level. Authors say they’ve raised the ante to keep up with other authors, so their sales don’t get left in the dust. I certainly saw a sales boost when my writing developed warmer tones.

How does this apply to genre fiction, specifically science fiction? With a few notable exceptions (Octavia Butler comes to mind), traditional science fiction has been virtually sexless. The Indie author movement and a proliferation of female authors are changing that, shifting the pendulum toward more sex, steamier sex, and, ahem, more fully fleshed-out characters.

Male Versus Female Sexuality

I want to digress slightly. Men and women view sex through different lenses. For a very long time, men were dominant in the sexual arena—at least on the surface. They were the ones who engaged in pre- and extramarital sex. They were the ones who claimed to do “no strings sex” like champs. No one ever called a guy who slept around a slut. No one expected him to show up a virgin at his marital bed. There was definitely a double standard. The guy’s job was to get the girl to say yes. Her job was to hold the line. Interesting dichotomy our culture set up because woe betide the girl who gave in. That’s when the slut title came out to play.

Let’s take a quick peek at Prince Charles and Princess Diana: someone actually checked the sheets for blood, to make certain her hymen ruptured after their wedding night. God forbid (possible, but looking less possible with each passing year) the future King of England would take a loose woman as a mate. Not good queen material at all. She was subjected to a physical exam prior to the wedding as well. No one cared he’d been screwing his brains out from the time he could achieve erections, but they sure as hell cared about Diana being a virgin.

Can you spell double standard?

Men, women, and sex. Things have changed a lot—at least on the surface—in the last twenty-five years, give or take a few. Women can have sex lives without being labeled harlots. But things that haven’t changed are our physiology and our emotional needs. We may pretend otherwise, but we have the same hard-wiring we’ve had since the dawn of time.

In a fascinating twelve-part article in “Psychology Today,” Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., provides an in-depth, painstakingly researched view of what turns on men and women. Let me toss out a few quotes, beginning with men:

“It’s essential to note that the literature specifically studying men’s arousal patterns (gay as well as straight) has repeatedly emphasized their sensitivity to visual cues. As soon as a lust-inspiring image registers in their brain, men become turned-on—not only physically but psychologically. Exposure to erotic stimuli immediately activates the parts of their brain related to getting an erection. Men’s greater sex drive may be partially due to the fact that their sexual motivation pathways have more connections to the subcortical reward system than in women, [or, in short] men’s brains are designed to objectify females.”

It’s therefore no coincidence that many adult sites targeting men zero in on body parts. Drs. Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam (computational neuroscientists) cite the website [Warning: explicit content!] to point out that of their one hundred top-rated images no fewer than twenty-three exhibit close-ups of female anatomy without a face. Alluding to another porn website’s presentation of female body parts, they observe: “The site looks like a Victoria’s Secret catalog passed through a paper shredder.” They’re forced to conclude (lament?) that “men’s brains scrutinize the details of arousing visuals with the kind of concentration jewelers apply to the cut of a diamond.”

Ogas and Gaddam make observations about male sexual desire that indirectly suggest the perpetual war between the sexes boils down to instincts. If a virile man’s libido can instantly be set off by one or more visual cues—that, in turn, compel him to take direct (i.e., orgasm-related) action, then how could he not view women as vehicles of (or receptacles for) his lust? The evolutionary imperative so deeply embedded in a male’s orgasm—the demand that his attention be focused on what’s linked to perpetuating the species—makes such innate impulses, if not laudatory, at least understandable.

Additionally, the authors talk about male desire as “a solitary affair.” That is, the single-minded pursuit of sexual arousal can exist totally independent of a relationship. “Getting off” has precious little to do with emotional intimacy. A man can sit alone, half-mesmerized before his computer screen, as he intently clicks on images and videos in his hunt for what will ignite his libido.

Unlike his female counterpart, he gives little or no thought to actually sharing his erotic predilections or experiences with friends. And searching for stimuli that will engender or enhance sexual excitement (and ultimately create a most pleasurable dopamine release) is quite apart from any tender feelings, or craving for a genuinely intimate human attachment. Literally—and symbolically—it’s masturbatory: sex for one.

Now let’s take a peek at what Dr. Seltzer has to say about what turns women on:

“If there’s such a thing as porn for women, it revolves around the romance novel. The amazing popularity of this literary genre suggests the vast differences that distinguish what arouses a woman’s libido versus a man’s.

Even more curious is the fact that while sex is ever-present in romance, it doesn’t really appear to be crucial to the woman’s enjoyment. What is crucial? Ogas and Gaddam cite Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan’s book on the subject, “Beyond Heaving Bosoms,” 2009, which reflects that the central fantasy in such fiction is the “awakening to love”—which is glorified all the more by a sexual awakening. gimpelEven then, sex scenes depicted in romance novels are comparatively tame as compared to erotic stories written with males in mind. There’s far more emphasis on the emotions and relationship of the two principals than in male-fashioned fiction.

The hero in romance novels may be, as Ogas and Gaddam describe him, “virile, dangerous, and lusty,” but he’s not reduced to a sex object either—as, so commonly, are women in “adult” fiction for men. In fact, the hero in romances becomes increasingly human—and vulnerable—as the story develops, and he falls head-over-heels in love with the heroine.

These heroes are virtually always alpha males, to whom a majority of women seem almost magnetically attracted. Romance novels exploit this preference in various ways. It’s not simply the hero’s physical prowess that is so compelling to female readers. [Photo, above, by MarisaSha/Shutterstock] It’s also his “status, confidence, and competence.” Each of these traits contributes to his overall dominance—and such male authority, or ascendance, is what most women appear hard-wired to be susceptible to, as well as willing to submit to. Ogas and Gaddam observe that studies have repeatedly demonstrated the erotic appeal of alpha dominance to women—from the sensory cues of the male’s voice, to his scent, to his movement and gait, to his sharply defined facial features.

No coincidence, then, that the ten most popular vocations of the hero—as determined through reviewing the titles of more than 15,000 Harlequin romance novels—are doctor, cowboy, boss, prince, rancher, knight, surgeon, king, bodyguard, and sheriff. Moreover, swaggering alphas aren’t simply natural, born leaders and hyper-confident about their abilities; they’re also fiercely protective. Even though, rationally, contemporary women are less and less in need of a forceful male savior, they still find them immensely attractive as romantic partners.”

Tentative Conclusions

I apologize for the length of the above quotes from “Psychology Today,” but they’re important to understanding why women write sex differently than men. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that women write the kind of sex they like to read about. Ditto for men.

That bears repeating in its own paragraph: Women write the kind of sex they like to read. So do men.

Women remain more attuned to emotions. Not all of us, but a preponderance. Which is why many female authors have jumped in with both feet adding descriptive, open-door sex to stories. When I tossed the question, “Do you put sex in your stories?” out to several author loops, here are a few of the responses I got back from female authors:

“I write romance, romantic comedy, and erotica, and all of my books have graphic on-page sex. The one time I tried to write a sweet romance, I ended up with the guys barebacking over a desk with improvised lube. Let’s just say repression isn’t tolerated by my muse.” —Vanessa North

“Even my sweet romances have one good love scene because to me, there is nothing more disappointing than when the hero and heroine finally get together and the door closes on the scene. No! I have read this much of their story, I deserve the rest, damn it! LOL. However, I write under two names because I know not every reader wants the degree of sex that I put into my books as Emilia Mancini. And not every reader wants the degree of story I put into my Marci stories.” —Marci Boudreaux Clark

“I write what I’d term steamy. I want my reader to experience the thrill but also to use their imagination to find what is most sexy for them in their mind instead of what I write from my point of view.” —Amy Riddle-DeClerck

“I included descriptive sex in my science fiction romance novel because it fit the characters and story I was telling. The characters connected and evolved through their sexual interaction, so it needed to be on screen. I don’t think it’s right for every story, though. In the short stories I’ve written, I’ve kept the sex off-screen. There’s not a ton of time for character development in a short story, so I’ve found I needed to use characterization shorthand, which precludes descriptive sex.” —E.J. Frost

And here’s what I got back from the two men who responded to my mini-survey:

“I always write love into my novels and I tease with desire but I don’t get graphic. I feel the reader is capable of understanding what happened when the door closed. I don’t want the heat of sex to overwhelm the story. I write science fiction. My novels don’t mimic others in the same genre. I try to remain unique. Getting too graphic would cheapen it.” —David Morris

“I’ve never actually given this any thought. I come from a literary fiction background where there’s pretty much an open door for everything, from sex to taking a shit to cutting open someone’s stomach. So I tend toward visceral erotica. Even uncomfortable, awkward, and strange sex is totally on the table. Romance isn’t even necessary.” —Mark Henry

To be totally fair, I did get some responses from female authors saying they didn’t include sex, and that their sales have languished as a result.

If it’s one thing I discovered in many years as a therapist, it’s that people are lonely. When they got so lonely they couldn’t stand it, they’d show up in my office. The primary reason people are lonely is because they’re afraid. It’s a classic dilemma. I want someone to share my life, but what if they get tired of me? They’ll dump me like my last five boyfriends (or girlfriends), and then I’ll be alone again.

For me, good fiction mirrors real life, so characters with flaws and fears who find one another and grow over the course of a book create solid fiction. Toss a few aliens or bacterial cultures gone awry into the mix, and you have a good start at a science fiction book. Caveat here: I’ve seen a trend in more than a few books where you have badly damaged heroes and heroines. If someone is too damaged to begin with, not much will change it. Besides, books like that create lousy role models for readers. Power inequities in relationships are never a good thing. If someone needs to control someone else to get turned on or be happy, they need therapy, not a book written about them.

I had a great deal of fun researching this article. If I have take-home messages, they are:

• Men and women have very different mechanisms that drive sexual arousal.
• Hence male and female authors write sex scenes differently.
• Anything an author writes has to resonate for them while they’re writing it,    otherwise the words on the page feel dead, lifeless, dull.
• Not too surprisingly, we tend to write in the same genres we read.
• We also tend to write the same heat level we prefer to read, but not always.

Kameron Hurley, one of the up-and-coming female voices in science fiction says: “Stories tell us who we are. What we’re capable of. When we go out looking for stories we are, I think, in many ways going in search of ourselves, trying to find understanding of our lives, and the people around us. Stories and language tell us what’s important.”

Relationships are important to us all. Good fiction draws character and plot arcs that weave together and utilize relationship growth as linchpins. Frequently those relationships have sexual content. Why? Because physical intimacy is one of the most potent ways to deepen relationships.

What Do Readers Want?

To close, I tossed two questions out to readers in my various social media loops. Lots of them. Over fifteen thousand fans/followers/associates in aggregate. The questions were:

• Do you prefer open or closed door sex in your novels?
• Why?

Responses, almost all from women, ran the gamut. A few are listed below:

“I prefer sex (if it’s a romance). Gratuitous sex is never welcome, but if they end up in the bedroom, I don’t appreciate a fade-to-black. I’m an adult.”

“Descriptive is fine. But crude language is not. I don’t like to read books where the characters refer to each other, their body parts, and their sexual activities in crude or vulgar terms. That is so unromantic and ruins the feel of a book that is otherwise a love story. I lose all respect for the characters when they use crude language; and the author, too.”

“Without. I have a pretty darn vivid imagination, and if you build it up well enough, my imagination is probably better than what’s on the page.”

“I prefer books with really strong plots and characterization. If I can have those and descriptive sex, then I’ll take both. But I won’t buy a book just for the sex when the plot and characterization suck.”

“I like a lot of descriptive sex in a book but hate the coarser language. A billionaire with the finest taste, a Harvard education, and such is not going to use the c word for his wife’s genitalia all the time. I also prefer realistic sex.”

It would have been better if some men had responded to my survey, but they didn’t, which is another gender difference. Women take the time when someone they know peripherally asks their opinion; men tend not to.

It appears that a preponderance of women prefer descriptive sex, but not at the expense of story. So take that, Mommy-porn yay-sayers. The reader who said she prefers books with strong plots and characterization wins my vote. Those are the kind of books I write. Do they have sex? Sure, but it doesn’t take away from the plot or character arcs.

How about you? Yes. You reading this article. You made it to through to the end. What do you think? Do you like your novels sanitized? Would you prefer reading about dismembered bodies and bloody battles rather than sex? Or do you want it all? Sex and a sensawunda in science fiction. END

Ann Gimpel is a psychologist turned successful novelist. Her recent novel, “Icy Passage,” is a science fiction romance set in the Antarctic. Ann enjoys interacting with readers and has contact tabs on both her website and blog.