These obsessions are reflected in the huge popularity of pornography and erotica, in the success of the genre of romance (mainstream, pulp, paranormal, historical, kinky, etc.), and in the inclusion of explicit sex and/or central romantic interest in the most racy of “action” genres in book, film, and computer game. I suspect it is a combination of this popularity and a puritanism that leads most “serious” readers and critics to consider episodes of explicit sex, whether in speculative or “literary” fiction as, like violence, a low brow, crowd-pleasing, gratuitous element of a story whose real focus is elsewhere. (And I suppose there’s the fact that a lot of the time this is precisely what it is.)
As I observed a while ago in a review of M. Christian’s Bachelor Machine, however, in the hands of a good writer, the crucial role of sex and love in our lives can make the explicit use of erotic material a very powerful vehicle for all kinds of messages, including the social-political and progressive speculative fiction that The Future Fire publishes. As I wrote at the time:
The sexual content in stories such as these serve rather to remind us that we’re human, that our concerns such as love, lust, companionship, rejection, nostalgia, however fleshy or base, are universals. The sex in these stories serves as a microcosm for all of life, for social observation, for political satire, for the promotion of tolerance. In other words, the role of sex in well-written erotica is analogous to the role of technology in science fiction, or magic and beasts in fantasy: yes it’s exciting, yes we take a geeky or prurient interest in them, yes we enjoy them for what they are, but ultimately they’re the tools that tell a bigger story, that paint a more important picture.I might disagree with myself here a little on the last point: erotica should perhaps not be merely a tool that helps to tell a bigger story, a plot device to get things moving; sometimes it can be the story. The medium is the message. The story should be as much about sex (love, lust, carnal pleasure, self-gratification) as it is about whatever comes before and after it. Sex tells you a lot about a person, about their treatment of and attitudes to others, their self-esteem and confidence; a society’s sexual mores and allowances tells you a lot about the political climate in which a story is set. The history of sex, whom one is allowed to love, access to birth control and reproductive healthcare, and freedom to protect one’s own body, are all key factors in the political and social questions of our own day, questions on which we can’t afford to be without opinion.
A further point: science fiction that contains explicit sex should also colour the sex with social or technological science-fictional content.. That is to say: if you’re writing about a future world, or an alien setting, or a world in some other crucial way different from our own, then you should think carefully how the technology and/or politics of this time will affect people’s attitudes to, and for that matter practice of sex. An explicit erotic scene set 200 years in the past would be significantly different from one set today: social disapproval of casual sex would change the attitude of the participants, perhaps depending on their class, culture and gender (and relationship): there might be less concern for and understanding of disease, but conversely there would be little or no effective birth control for most; the very acts and paraphernalia of sex might be completely different. Why should the future not be at least as different from today as that?
If your speculative fiction is social-political and progressive and the sort of thing TFF is likely to be interested in, and you include explicit sexual material in your writing, then make sure the smut is as carefully crafted to bear witness to social-political implications as all the other speculative elements. Erotica is powerful stuff; use it with care and a sure aim.
And don’t be shy.