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  • Writer's pictureAmelia


My youngest child is like Sherlock Holmes.

No, bear with me: I'm not bragging, and this isn't some hilarious observation about children always catching you when you try to eat the Secret Chocolate, either.

I eat my chocolate out in the open, because it is mine, and I can.

The thing is, Sherlock Holmes famously claimed not to retain any information that he did not consider useful. "Depend upon it," he said, in the helpfully out-of copyright A Study In Scarlet; "there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."

If Doyle felt this was a sign of intelligence, I can only assume that he would consider my youngest to be a genius of the highest order. Any information that is not either interesting or useful is immediately discarded. Often before I've finished explaining it.

Which is a roundabout way of saying that we've done Sex Ed three times already, and I think I'm going to have to go over it again, if I want to have a chance of making things stick.

It was bad enough with my eldest.

She, at least, didn't need to go over the material again. No, she wanted to learn. Which was something of a problem as, when I got up to make myself a cup of tea, leaving her with the big, friendly, highly-recommended book I had bought to assist in our discussion, she, at the tender age of four, decided to read ahead.

I returned to a horrified, traumatised ball of tears. Naturally, then, I attempted to soothe her concerns with a hug. Her father, coming in upon this scene of tragedy, did likewise.

This was a mistake.

I cannot tell you exactly what the book had said to put her in this state, because that section is now covered over with a large, plain white sticker on which I have written, in plain and simple English, with no euphemisms or evasions, exactly what goes where, and why*.

I can’t say exactly what demon lurks beneath my biro-inscribed seal of peelable doom, but I know that, roughly, it had informed my darling child that babies were made when two people hugged a lot.

So you can see why cuddles really weren’t the best plan.

And nor was that book.

She’s ok now, I promise. She’s thirteen, and she knows all the whats, wheres, whys and hows, including, possibly, some I’ve never heard of.

Anyway, my point is that when the books we’re meant to use to learn about sex have so much trouble just saying the words, it’s no wonder we have such weird attitudes to sex in general, let alone sex in books that aren’t mealy mouthed, pearl-clutching textbooks.

Books with sex in — instructional guides aside — fall into two categories.

Four books lying, though you can't easily tell from the image, on a bed. The books are The Handmaid's Tale in its original paperback, showing a picture of a high wall and a woman in a shapeless red dress and white, concealing cap; A very battered copy of Georgette Heyer's Cotillion, showing a brunette woman in a yellow dress, dancing with a dark-haired, dark-coated man, while a blonde woman in pink plays the piano, against a lilac background; my own book, The Vicar Man, with part of the cover image covered by the other books, but showing parts of portraits of a blond man and a dark haired woman under the title, and a horned head outlined against the sky above it; and Gail Carriger's Defy Or Defend, showing a blonde woman in dark clothing staring calmly out at the viewer, against a background of green wallpaper. Ostensibly these are here to illustrate the different ways in which we view different books, but mostly I just get a guilty thrill out of seeing my book included. The duvet on which the books recline is black and not perfectly smoothed out.
Some of these books are not like the others

First you have the Worthy books: the works of high literature.

Sex, in these books, is often uncomfortable, or disgusting, or under duress. It may be suffocating or unfulfilling, or frightening, or hint at the barbaric nature of one or both of the participants. It will almost never be simply enjoyable, unless that enjoyment is attained after a long struggle, with one or more characters battling back from the edge that their previous, unhappy encounters had brought them to.

Sometimes, just for a change, a character will start out being sexually fulfilled, in which case either that fulfilment will be snatched away in order to allow them to suffer better, or it will turn out that their partner was a terrible person of some sort, and any pleasure will thus be retroactively annulled.

Sex in these books almost always means something.

And it’s rarely anything good.

Then you have the Unworthy books.

This bracket contains pornography, erotica — which is to say, porn with more words in — and romance.

I honestly don’t think that the sexual content of romance is what makes people sneer at it.

Romances have always been looked down on: first, when the word just meant an adventure story, for not being High Literature — whatever that is — then for being cheap and soppy, and now for being tawdry or titillating or whatever other words people feel like tutting over.

I hadn’t even realised that people associated romance with sex until very recently, because I’d never read anything racier** than Georgette Heyer, and while she certainly acknowledged that sex existed, and that probably her heroes quite enjoyed it now and then, she never put it on the page. Not even behind an ellipsis.

Which means, by the way, that for some time, when I’ve talked about the place of romance in the shelves of fiction, I’ve been talking about one thing, but people have been hearing something else. With a lot less clothes in.

I’m not sure the difference really matters, mind you: the story is still there, and presumably the enjoyment is the same, so what does it matter whether the characters are enjoying a sparkling battle of wits in the crowded streets of Bath, or enjoying something else entirely in a crowded bubble-bath?

Ultimately it feels as if the sexual content is just the latest reason to sneer at something we were always expected to sneer at anyway.

Romance, after all, achieves nothing. Or at least, nothing except the liberation of the mind from the day to day trammels of unexciting life, granting the freedom to dream, to explore, to ask “What if?” and to receive an answer, to envision a new and better world in which sometimes, just sometimes, after all the dross and misery have been swept away, the endings might be happy. You know: like books do.

Porn probably has a roughly similar effect, come to think of it, at least so far as the happy endings go.

Anyway, whatever their content or their projected audience — and of course everyone knows that romance is only for girls, while porn is consumed exclusively by thirteen-year-old boys behind their parents’ backs — these books are firmly lodged in the general consciousness as Unworthy.

They are in society’s bad books, and that makes them bad books.

There is a third kind of book, a sort of Schrödinger’s book, that manages to be both Worthy and Unworthy at once.

These are the Very Special Episode books. The Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret’s and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruits. The books that deal, either as a main theme, or as an adjunct to the plot, with sex, or sexual awakening as an issue, rather than as an activity.

Whether these are Worthy or Unworthy generally comes down to the reader or, as these are often aimed at teenagers, to the reader’s parents, the reader’s teachers, and anyone else who happens to be Thinking Of The Children when that particular book hits the news. They can be banned as scurrilous filth, and lauded to the skies at the exact same time and in a ridiculously small area of space.

Sometimes these books don’t even have any actual sex in. But they have same-sex couples, who talk about their feelings and hold hands or even kiss, and nobody dies; and everybody knows that that’s basically the same thing.

My point is, we’re stupid about sex.

And some people are stupid about same-sex relationships, but that’s another blog.

Personally I don’t mind sex scenes when I’m reading, as long as they’re relevant. Which sounds reasonable, I think, except that the same goes for flower-arranging scenes, or deep-sea-diving scenes, or overcoming-the-villain’s-might-for-my-strength-is-as-the-strength-of-ten-because-my-heart-is-pure scenes, and no one ever feels the need to say anything like that about them.

I mean, if a writer puts a scene into a book, they probably think that scene is somehow relevant to the book, so why do I feel the need to comment on the sex scenes in particular? What makes a sex-scene seem less relevant than a scene in which the protagonist drinks a nice cup of tea?

It’s probably because we expect sex to be concealed.

It is in daily life, after all, we draw a discreet veil, or we speak in hushed voices. We avoid mentioning it around children, partly because we consider the subject too burdensome for their precious little minds, and partly, let’s be honest, because we’re afraid they’ll repeat what we said, only louder, and then everyone will know we’re the awful sort of people who would talk about that sort of thing around children.

Worse, they might snigger.

Sniggering is the other option, for books that mention sex, but that don’t have enough in to deserve a clear place in either the Worthy or the Unworthy box.

If a book is funny, then it can mention sex with a clear conscience. And, helpfully, sex is intrinsically funny, so a book that only mentions it occasionally is very nearly a funny book by default.

I mean, sex is funny: look at a naked human body, a real, naked human body, not a sculpture, or an airbrushed photograph, or a lovingly worked and shaded sketch. Human bodies are ridiculous. They flop, and they flap, and they have unexpected poky bits. Naturally then, when more than one naked human is trying to occupy the same space, the results should, from an outside point of view, be hilarious.

But I don’t think that’s the only reason the very mention of sex, outside of a sexual context, makes us giggle. I think we laugh, ultimately, because we shouldn’t. And because we shouldn’t, we know we should.

Sorry, that didn’t make it any clearer did it.

I mean that we laugh for approximately the same reason that we’ve been mispronouncing “Uranus” for over twenty years. We laugh because the very subject is taboo, which makes us feel uncomfortable, and daring, and startled all at once. We laugh with the bravado of a six-year-old saying “Bum,” and, once we’ve started laughing, we can’t stop. The very fact that we laughed proves that the thing is funny, and so we laugh again, the next time, and the next, until even the slightest hint of body parts can be enough to raise a titter.

And of course, because we laugh at it, because we know that we’re laughing because we shouldn’t, the whole sense of the taboo is reinforced. If we were meant to do it, it wouldn’t be funny.

Which is probably a good part of why people are so uncomfortable talking about sex in the first place. Or the second, or third place, I suppose, since it’s come round a few times by now.

Which is why I try to teach my kids about sex before they know they should be scandalised, before it can become funny. Which is why I’m going to have to go over the whole thing yet again to make it stick. And, come to think of it, why my eldest child was traumatised by a book that was so uncomfortable about the very basic mechanics of the very thing it was meant to be describing, that it rambled about hugs when all it needed to say was “Insert tab A into slot B and jiggle it about a bit.”

Anyway, this was all a rambling way of saying that, yes, my book, might sometimes allude to sex a bit, and no, it’s not as much as some romances do, or even, when you think about it, as much as you might expect from a book whose main plot is “Woman tries to save man’s life via very inexpert seduction” but I don’t think that makes it more or less worthy than any other book. I don’t even think it’s what makes it funny: I have one actual sex joke, I think, and I’m not going to tell you what it is because it’s almost at the very end of the book and if I don’t tell you then you will have to buy my book to find out and thus I shall make money out of a particularly rubbish pun that I wasn’t entirely sure I even wanted to include.

I think it’s just a book, which, as books do, contains a variety of things, some of which may or may not be sex. And I don’t see that that’s anything to make a fuss about.

*No, I didn’t list every possible permutation of whats and wheres: just the ones required to make a baby.

Because she was four.

Besides, there wasn’t that much room on the sticker

** Why did they call such books racy anyway? Is it the same reason they used to call some girls fast?

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