There’s been some hoo-ha lately over the sex scenes in the Starz drama OUTLANDER, based on the popular series of books by Diana Gabaldan. Seems the sex comes to us via the sensibilities of the protagonist, Claire, who is–as her name might suggest–a woman.
Let’s get right down to it. Sex on cable is often fantasy sex. You can see provocative body parts of Hollywood-beautiful individuals, usually well-oiled and lovingly lit. This is certainly true of OUTLANDER, the same way it is true of, say, GAME OF THRONES, which is written by a man. So why all the fuss?
Well, for one thing, Clare isn’t just there to satisfy the man, she enjoys herself. But so do the willing lines of strumpets in GoT–or at least, they pretend they do, if they know what’s good for them.
But in the OUTLANDER books(which, by the way, are great), as in virtually every book I’ve read that has steamy sex scenes written by women, there is one major difference: the sex, for better or worse, is all about relationship.
I write mysteries and thrillers, so I’ll admit that there are many fine thrillers out there now that are written by enlightened men, and have strong, intelligent, brave female characters. Robert Langdon, of DA VINCI CODE fame, couldn’t get along without one. These women are, not surprisingly, gorgeous to a fault. And after our heroes are through racing along the razor’s edge between life and death, they will inevitably act on the fact that they find each other incredibly attractive. They’ll fall into bed, both willingly, as equals. And, next book, our hero will have hit the reset button, and do it again with another incredibly smart, remarkably lithe female companion.
In other words, men’s fantasy sex seems to include a gorgeously unavailable, yet (just for you!) willing partner who is also, for some reason, just passing through.
In women’s fantasy sex, the men are also built, gorgeously unavailable, yet (just for you!) headlong in love, and…willing to talk. A lot.
I’m not saying that Clare’s first lovemaking with Jamie in OUTLANDER quite matched my favorite girl-fantasy conversation of all time. That was from TWILIGHT, in which Edward Cullen actually says something to the effect of, “If I have sex with you, it would be so powerful that I would likely kill you. So let’s just talk. What’s your favorite color?” On a “Yeah, right” scale of 1 to 10, that definitely comes in at a 15.
In the book of OUTLANDER, Claire and Jamie, who’ve been circling each other with interest, are suddenly forced to marry to save her from the Redcoats, and to save him from the lonely life of a man on the run. It’s vitally important they fulfill the letter of the law and consummate their marriage, and the group of “witnesses” gather below their room to make certain they do just that. So, they get married, repair to their room…and start talking. In time, for hours. In book talk, pages (and pages) of exposition. Of course, once they jump each other bones (finally!!) they pretty much can’t stop. This scene in the book always earned a 12 on that “Yeah, right” scale of 1 to 10. I was doubtful that even the talented Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, was going to be able to pull off that much of a female fantasy and make it seem realistic. He kind of did. He added a “you’re joking, right?” laugh as they started into the clinch, and then Claire pulled away and said, “Tell me about your family.” Which is apparently the Scottish clan version of “what’s your favorite color?”
Even in 50 SHADES OF GREY, which featured lots of sex written by a woman (though women of the world seemed startlingly unaware that Romantic Times Book Review has reviewed actual, well-written erotica for decades) the entire point was that our heroine was willing to play along with Christian Grey’s sexual proclivities because, unlike his long line of former submissive partners, she was able to LURE HIM INTO A RELATIONSHIP. Not just sex. A RELATIONSHIP for which he was willing to face his demons and maybe even occasionally MAKE LOVE instead of just have sex.
I’m not saying that female writers don’t enjoy writing hot things about their male protagonists, and even some pretty heavy duty s & m. OUTLANDER’s Jamie Fraser is a prime example, because there are thousands of pages already written about him, and inside the first book ALONE, he is shot, stabbed, beaten, spanked (and these by his friends and family), has his shoulder dislocated, is whipped (multiple times and nearly to death), tortured, and brutalized. He shows his manly virtue by shooting, stabbing and fist-fighting legions of Redcoats, deserters, and drunken MacKenzies. Which makes him manly enough to admit to Claire that he’s a virgin at the beginning of their (lengthy) wedding night. Yet he’s such a fantasy-NICE GUY that I was almost relieved when he finally stood up to Claire when she is sulkingly withholding sex.
So, using an admittedly small sample of female-written sexuality (although including in the background sex scenes in my latest mystery THESE VIOLENT DELIGHTS, in which an actress is torn between her co-star and her director, and in the most recent Eden Thrillers, especially TREASURE OF EDEN, which has the infamous cave scene, and PLAGUES OF EDEN, in which our Army chaplain heroine must choose between the secret agent she just married and the philanthropist rock star who burns for her), here is what I conclude.
When women write sex scenes that are meant to be violent and harrowing, they are just that. Especially because the reader often experiences them from inside the mind of the female.
But, when a female author writes sex scenes in which the female protagonist is a willing participant, while the sex itself can be as hot and creative as possible, it is in the context of RELATIONSHIP. And there is often a lot of TALK to get them there. While male heroes can pretty much be turned on by the sight of a naked woman, a female protagonist has to be fully on board. Her mind has to be engaged. And it helps if the man finds her SO FREAKING ATTRACTIVE because of WHO SHE IS that he can’t help himself–but he DOES, DAMMIT–barely–until she gives the nod.
If that’s causing a big hoo-ha on television these days, well, it’s about time.