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Adult content, anyone?

Lucas Cranach P-1947-LF-77-tif-10575In a post I wrote several years ago, I expressed my frustration over the use of “clean” when designating sex-free romance—mostly because the antonym to “clean” is “dirty”, and IMO there is nothing dirty about sex, definitely not when the participants are consenting adults.
I notice that quite a few books on Amazon come with the warning label ADULT CONTENT. As far as I can make out, adult content in this context is almost always equal to explicit sex, all the way from the passionate embrace between a husband & wife to the substantially more edgy sexual activities involving restraints and other implements.
Now, labelling a book ADULT CONTENT may not necessarily dissuade a curious reader, but fine, I can understand why those readers who want to steer clear of anything beyond the “Yes,” she sighed happily, “yes, please make me yours.” He smiled down at her and lowered his mouth to claim hers. THE END may feel they need such a label. What I don’t understand is why it is considered necessary to label books with sex in them, but not books with blood, gore and vicious death.
Assuming the label has as its purpose to shield the more innocent among us from the seedier sides of life, I find it sad that sex, apparently, is very seedy, while violence is not. What does it say about modern man that we take depictions of torture and pain in our stride, no matter if in written form or on the screen, but still have people screeching in protest when confronted with a scene in which a lover kisses a breast, slides down to kiss a navel, a mons, a vagina?

Personally, I’d like it if books that contain gratuitous violence, where I risk reading scenes involving torture, debasement, mutilation, death, blood, gore also came with a warning label. I may be wrongly wired, but I get far more upset reading about a character I’ve bonded with being subjected to inhuman pain than I do when the same character has hot and wild sex—well, any kind of sex (as long as it is consensual). I must be in minority as otherwise I suppose there would have been a warning sticker on such books as well. I guess the major problem would be that so many books would require such a warning: after all, there is far more blood spatter among the pages of various books I read than there is sex.

In general, we have become gradually desensitised to violence. I remember the first time I saw Die Hard and poor Bruce Willis staggered about covered in blood and bruises. I alternated between feeling shocked and wondering how on earth he could survive all that. These days, the beatings Bruce survives in that movie don’t elicit much of a reaction (As to how he survives, there is rarely a “get real” demand on crime & thrillers. Come to think of it, there probably isn’t one on steamy books either. How else to explain the plethora of well-hung men with testosterone levels through the roof that abound in such books? Neither here nor there—I think)

I have on occasion walked out of movies (one of the recent James Bond movies comes to mind) because I just couldn’t stand the violence and had no desire to subject myself to seeing things that I believe will, somehow, affect my boundaries. There are very many books where I have either just stopped reading or skimmed through some chapters, finding little purpose to the detailed descriptions of brutality. Yes, I get it that if you’re writing about a bloody battle, things have to be bloody, but from there to wallow in details of entrails and brain matter, to submerge the reader (or viewer) in a red sea of pain—no.

Frederic_William_Burton_-_Hellelil_and_Hildebrand_or_The_Meeting_on_the_Turret_StairsObviously, some of the people reading this post will retort that if I have problems with violence, they have problems with sex. “I just can’t read a book with explicit sex in them,” someone once told me, going on to say that they could therefore not read my books. Not that my books are 400 pages of constant sex, I hasten to add. I have sex scenes because I write about love and in general adults who fall in love like to have sex. I also have some scenes with violence—albeit not too graphic. Why? Because I’m writing about times steeped in unrest and in general such times are defined by surges of violent behaviour as the various contenders jockey for power. Never has one of my would-be readers come back to me to say “I just couldn’t read this book because the violence in chapter 18 turned my stomach.” I find it interesting that the person obliged to set my book aside due to sex happily reads some pretty gruesome violent stuff—but to each their own, hey?

My books don’t come with an ADULT CONTENT label as I’ve always felt that sex between married people or people in love is pretty much par for the course. Plus, I don’t write pages and pages of it. (I want to sometimes. Dear BFF and Beta-reader extraordinaire is pretty harsh on me when I do…) So yes, for those of a sensitive nature my books may cause some squirming. Sadly, not because vulnerable people are hurt or abused, but because leading man & 17th century hunk Matthew (ditto my medieval knight Adam de Guirande) loves his time-travelling wife Alex to bits (As Adam loves his lady wife Kit, who is more than delighted at not being a time-traveller) and makes sure he shows her just how much he worships her in bed—and out of it.
People who write (and read) about love and romance and add sex into the mixture are often dismissed as being writers (or readers) of smut—usually by peeps who have never read the books in question. Smut, dear peeps, is not something we should want to read (or write) Smut is a derogatory term, usually used by smirking individuals who believe things like love and sex are mundane. I guess they are. But they are also a major component in the lives of most of us, whether it be because we are fortunate enough to have both love and heat in our lives or because we’re hoping to find it.

I don’t write smut. I don’t write “dirty” books. I don’t even think I write books with ADULT CONTENT. I write books about love, about people willing to do what it takes to save their loved ones from whatever predicament they may find themselves in. Some call that romance. If so, I am a proud writer (and reader) of romance. And yes, some romance books definitely qualify for that ADULT CONTENT label. But so do many, many crime novels and thrillers – oh, right, I forgot: ADULT CONTENT has nothing to do with depictions of human cruelty (unless it is sexual in nature). What can I say? It’s a strange and sad world when sex scenes have people tying themselves up in knots while they won’t bat an eye at a vivid description of violence. Very, very strange, IMO!

18 thoughts on “Adult content, anyone?”

  1. Superb article Anna! I’ve had readers (is a person who rejects a book because it has adult sex in it really a _reader_?) refuse to read my novel about Queen Emma because I dared depict her as becoming married (with the marriage consummated) at 12/13 year old … this was the 11th century, 1002, for goodness sake! Marriage for 12-14 year old girls was normal – crikey, many of them were old (or dead) by their early 20s! Rape was also common in the past, women were the spoils of war, men had no conscience about rape then (many do not even now!) so to shy away from these ‘facts’ of history in novels can make a nonsense of trying to capture that feel of authenticity. But that’s where the difference between writing sensitively v writing to tittilate comes in doesn’t it?
    I describe my nautical series as ‘adult content’ because it has adult content – which includes scenes of sex, violence, rape, murder and the ‘f’ word. But then, I am writing about _pirates_ for goodness sake!
    Let’s look at the other side of this though… I have a (between consenting adults in a relationship) sexually explicit scene in the first of my series. A 12 year old boy read it and asked his teacher if she thought it was OK for him to read an adult book with such scenes (this scene.) “How does it make you feel while reading it?’ she asked. ‘I felt a bit embarrassed’ the boy replied, ‘but it didn’t seem dirty or bad. The two people loved each other and wanted to show they loved each other. I guess that’s what sex should be like between grown-ups who have deep feelings for each other?’
    ‘So do you think you should read on?’ the teacher asked.
    The boy thought a short while then answered, ‘Yes. Bad things and good things happen in real life. How do we, as kids, get to learn what is bad or good? Reading about adult things in the context of good fiction is helpful. When I grow up I want to make sure that sex is a good, loving experience. Just like this scene was in this book.’
    I never expected my novel to be used as a sex-education tool, but there you go!
    I also think that this indifference to violence is far more dangerous than not reading a book because of relationship sex! Although I guess modern-day is no different to the past. Violence now is on the movie or TV screen, previously it was at the Roman Games, the bear bating, the cock fighting, the torture chambers, the vile and vicious executions – all outlets for an audience to gawp at. The same as some people gawp now at horror and violence.
    As authors we _do_ put our characters through extremes – surviving physical/mental nightmares is what makes them heroes, but again, as with sex, there is a difference between writing violence realistically/in context or having it there for the sake of it, and often written/portrayed way ‘over-the-top’.
    Frankly, give me a good, loving sex scene in a novel rather than an over-indulged tasteless scene of unnecessary (and unrealistic) extreme violence.
    Keep doing what you’re doing Anna. You do it well.

  2. Dear Anna,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have a couple comments if I may.
    You observe that sexually explicit depictions are referred to as ‘Adult content’. This has a lot to do with Amazon being a US company, thus carrying puritan – arguably hypocritical – undertones as well as censuring and even prosecution exposure.
    Social censure on sexual scenes or even genitals is actually not new. In contrast to ancient traditions – e.g. Greek, Roman, Persian, Indian, Asian iconography, modern times in the West as well as beyond have imposed restraint on acceptable representations.
    Not only has the death penalty been carried out until recently in all western countries, but executions were conducted in the open, and actually much sought after. In addition, sophisticated torture practices were often associated with the execution. Hence social sensitivity to such demonstrations has possibly increased in recent times. However, US sensitivities do not match European ones, as the continued death penalty routine (and its shameless broadcasting), as well as the Guantanamo disgrace abundantly demonstrate.
    As to the potential for an astonishing tolerance to harsh treatment, just think of the way bulls in the arena survive cruels blows and wounds inflicted by their torturers. Let me quote an observation by Dr. Jean-Dominique Larrey, military surgeon with the French expeditionary corps in Egypt (1800). A Kurdish insurgent by name of Sulayman el-Halaby had assassinated General Jean-Baptiste Kléber in Cairo. He was sentenced to have his hands burned out prior to being put to the pal. Larrey observed:
    “Le courage et le sang froid avec lequel Sulayman se laissa brûler la main droite et empaler étonnent l’homme sensible, et prouvent combien la ferme volonté de l’individu influe sur les sensations physiques. Il vécut environ quatre heures, au milieu des plus cruelles souffrances, sans faire entendre une seule plainte…”
    [ The courage and composure exhibited by Sulayman were remarkable, and pay credit to his determination in the face of extreme suffering. He actually survived four hours without screaming out in pain… ]
    Jean-Dominique Larrey (in ‘Mémoires’, ca. 1820)
    Let me finish with a couple quotations and illustrations to support my contribution.
    “Les femmes rougissent d’entendre nommer ce qu’elles ne craignent aucunement à faire.”
    [ Women are ashamed to hear about the very same actions they would nonetheless assume wholeheartedly. ]
    “Non pudeat dicere, quod non pudet sentire”
    [ Let no man be ashamed to speak what he is not ashamed to think. ]
    Michel de Montaigne (in ‘Essais’, ca. 1560)
    Kind regards. GVD

    1. a thought-provoking post (et je souffre avec le pauvre Suleyman) Yes, you are right: cruelty has been turned to spectacle throughout human history. Unfortunately.

  3. Having just published a romance novel containing sexual scenes, I very much enjoyed your article.
    My book ‘Sweeter Than Wine’ is labelled ‘Adult’ but that was more to do with the digital platforms carrying the novel than any hard and fast definition of mine. I completely agree with you about gratuitous violence and that, over the past few years, we have become increasingly hardened to it both in our literature and on our screens.
    Sexual relatonships, whether accompanied by ‘love’ or mere ‘enjoyment’ are an important and necessary part of being alive and human and a writer need make no apology for including them in a work of fiction. I do believe however that there is more than one way of portraying them – by concentrating on the characters’ feelings, or, by the use (over-use) of sexual vocabulary, this being the norm, it seems, in so-called erotic fiction.
    I like to think I have managed to succeed in the former method by avoiding the latter, as I believe -recalling some of your work which I have read – you have done.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment – and I totally agree re the various methods to depict a sex scene. I once heard Diana Gabaldon speak about this and she suggested every sex scene should be depicted through at least three senses – qualifies as some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received. But I am with you: a good sex scene is so much more about the emotions of the people involved than the actual physical activity

  4. Excellent article, Anna! One question could be “When does a child become an adult” – in mental rather than legal terms. Kids today (!) are far more knowledgeable about sex than I was at their age even if they have not experienced it. But the real question is the one of violence. You may (or may not) remember the old Hollywood adage that, if there is to be a ‘romantic’ scene in a film, then the male had to keep one foot on the floor throughout. Either that, or the bedroom door would have to close on the couple. And all this could have taken place just prior to, or after, the same man had pumped six bullets into some poor unsuspecting soul. Or the baddie … although there was rarely a drop of blood and if there was it was bright crimson paint! Sam Peckinpah broke that mould in The Wild Bunch when he introduced the ‘blood bags’ under the clothing simulating the effects of a gunshot wound. Of course the graphics have gone far beyond that today as they have with ‘scenes of a sexual nature’. ‘Action’ films have far more violence than sex, and the latter is often implied rather than shown. however, you are an author and need to describe scenes of either nature because you need the reader to ‘see’ them. In the eras in which you write, the sword or other type of blade were the weapons of the day and these weapons did slice people into pieces and therefore you need to describe these wounds. Like sex, they were a fact of life in those times. Now, call me a prude, but I don’t like scenes of excessive violence or wild rampant sex (I speak as a reader, you understand) and I think the operative word is ‘excessive’ – not that either case would stop me continue to read a good book. It is as it is. Or, just as much to the point, it was as it was ……

  5. I had to stop reading a book recently because of an agonizing description of over-the-top violence. It’s a highly rated book with many positive reviews, but I couldn’t stomach it. I set it aside, had some nightmares, and knew I would never pick it up again. It didn’t matter that this was the catalyst that would turn the MC into a good guy. I was sickened. I have never had to stop reading a book because of a sex scene!

  6. Nothing wrong with writing well about mundane things. We all know highly rated writers aren’t beyong penning godawful sex scenes. Perhaps they too should invest some time in writing decent ones if they bother to do at all.

  7. This double standard has always bothered me. There is nothing wrong with a steamy sex scene! It’s natural and, as long as it’s consensual, a good thing. Not so with violence. Of course, there are stories where violence is necessary, but it doesn’t need to be over-the-top or dragged out for pages. Loving detail of torture…yuck. I do not need that in my mind.
    I’d much rather see ADULT CONTENT on books with graphic violence than sex.
    For what it’s worth…you write excellent sex scenes. :)

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