Did best-selling novels have more sex a generation ago?
February 21, 2011 12:44 PM   Subscribe

Are modern best-selling novels less likely to have sex scenes than the best-sellers of a generation ago?

When I was a kid (80s), my parents' bookshelf had a pretty good selection of mainstream best-selling novels with explicit sex scenes. These books weren't labeled as erotica or sold in a special section of the bookstore. I'm thinking of the Clan of the Cave Bear series, Judy Blume's novels for adults, The Mikado, The Thornbirds (I think), etc.

Nowadays, I can't think of the last novel that I've read, let alone the last mainstream bestseller, that I'm aware of that had more than zero explicit sex scenes. In fact, I'm pretty sure that if I had a Clambone, Jr. going through my bookshelf, there wouldn't be anything terribly racy for him to stumble across. There might be a sentence or two, and it may be clear that sex is going on, but I can't remember the last time I read a "Letters to Penthouse"-esque recounting of who did what to whom.

I'm not sure if this is a real phenomena or not. Obviously, my interest in finding explicit sex scenes was much more pronounced when I was a teenager than it is now, so it might just be me. Or, I could just have very different taste than my parents, and if I read more widely I'd see that sex scenes never went away.

What do you think?
posted by Clambone to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Genre fiction (outside of the stuff written for a younger audience) is still full of graphic sex scenes. Every macho spy needs the scene where he has passionate love to the beautiful woman, you know, and the small town waitress needs her cowboy lover. The exception seems to be detective fiction, where outside of a few authors (eg Elmore Leonard) most of it seems really sexless.

Literary fiction is a mixed bag. Sex isn't as shocking as it maybe was in the 1960s but graphic scenes are still really common. There was an fpp the other day for a top ten 2010 sex scenes roundup, and I am pretty sure that all of the winning books were totally mainstream, not erotica.
posted by Forktine at 12:57 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

The first thing to come to mind when I read this was Laurell K. Hamilton, who has had several bestsellers (I think), and whose books' plots increasingly revolve around explicit sex scenes. Or, perhaps more accurately, the sex scenes take the place of plot.
posted by torisaur at 12:58 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Haven't read them, but aren't the "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" books highly sexual?
posted by Chrysostom at 1:04 PM on February 21, 2011

Chrysostom, the books have characters who have sex, but as I remember there is little description of the act itself, unless you count the rape scenes, and the writing/translation was pretty sterile over all, at least in my opinion.
posted by anotherkate at 1:10 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

The Thornbirds is pretty universally categorized in Romance. I'd say the Romance section is still chock-full of graphic sex scenes.
posted by litnerd at 1:19 PM on February 21, 2011

There was some extremely graphic sex in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. That's a pretty clear example of a mainstream bestseller.
posted by J. Wilson at 1:20 PM on February 21, 2011

(Just saw anotherkate's response to that. I was thinking specifically of the rape scenes. The consensual sex scenes are not graphic.)
posted by J. Wilson at 1:22 PM on February 21, 2011

Katie Roiphe wrote an article for the NYT just over two years ago about what she perceived as the decline of sex in the works of the current generation of "Great Male Novelists". There was also a MeFi post about it, which was naturally full of complaining.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 1:35 PM on February 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Haven't read them, but aren't the "Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" books highly sexual?

Mostly in that the author's thinly disguised alter ego boinks every female character that appears for more than a couple of pages, but the action is pretty sedate. There is also some sexual violence, but that's probably not what you are looking for.
posted by Dr Dracator at 2:51 PM on February 21, 2011

You must first remove Neil Stephenson from the equation, due to the massive length of his works and the near-absence of sex scenes; his vaguely erotic scenes have an antiquated, coy allusiveness that is more embarrassing than graphic description.

Maybe easier access to porn (whether your taste is visual or slash-fanfic) on the Internet decreased the market for sex scenes in literary fiction.
posted by bad grammar at 4:24 PM on February 21, 2011

Romance novels have lots of explicit sex nowadays, like the Laurel K Hamilton books mentioned above. I haven't seen much in regular fiction.
posted by shoesietart at 4:42 PM on February 21, 2011

I think it's because the sort of epic prose soap opera that was The Thornbirds has fallen out of fashion and been replaced by crime thrillers on the bestseller list -- and genre romance has gotten sexier and started overlapping with erotica.

But that's just a hunch; I read mostly YA.
posted by Jeanne at 5:10 PM on February 21, 2011

For literary fiction with sex, see Nicholson Baker Vox, and The Fermata; Jane Smiley Ten Days in the Hills.
posted by Daily Alice at 5:36 PM on February 21, 2011

The existence of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award seems to suggest there's still plenty in regular novels.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:38 PM on February 21, 2011

Wow... just wow. Did this question ever bring up some memories... Harold Robbins? The Pirate? I knew the exact page numbers of the good scenes and made a beeline whenever I was in the public library... "jack-knifed her legs backwards"... oh my God...!

Well I've moved beyond this kind of pulp fiction, but my guess is that you're as likely to find sexually explicit content in mainstream literature nowadays as you're likely to find an ad for a "gentlemen's massage parlour" in the business section of a broadsheet daily. Which is to say that it's just not PC these days — in those same times it was no big deal to see a full frontal nude of a woman on your friend's brother's bedroom wall, or to see her Dad's copy of Penthouse lying around in the living room. Circa 2011 I'm guessing child services would be called in if Dad's stash of porno mags were found by the kids.

So yeah, the times they are a changin'... ;o)
posted by braemar at 5:39 PM on February 21, 2011

Another thing that might be going on: a lot of best sellers are fantasy now (Harry Potter being the most obvious example). Sex in any explicit way has never been part of that genre.
posted by J. Wilson at 5:42 PM on February 21, 2011

J Wilson has never read and of the True Blood books.
posted by fshgrl at 9:08 PM on February 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Those big, trashy bestsellers from the 70s and 80s were known as "shopping and fucking" books in the publishing world (think Jackie Collins or Judith Krantz). Today they seem quite dated: they went out with 80s excess and shoulderpads.

See also:
posted by Violet Hour at 12:18 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

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