fb
How Should Christian Authors Depict Sex?

November 12, 2018

Editor’s Note: This article is the final installment in our five-part series on how to portray tricky subjects in Christian fiction. To learn why we did this series and how we’ve approached these topics, read our introductory post.

 

“One day we two were reading for delight about how love had mastered Lancelot; we were alone and innocent and felt no cause to fear. And as we read, at times we went pale, as we caught each other’s glance, but we were conquered by one point alone.

 

“For when we read that the much-longed-for-smile accepted such a gentle lover’s kiss, this man, whom nothing will divide from me, trembled to place his lips upon my mouth… That day we did not read another page.”

 

Weighty implications are contained in the last words (“we did not read another page”) of Paolo and Francesca’s adulterous relationship in Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Like many medieval writers, Dante had few qualms with addressing sexual relationships in his work—though his beliefs about illicit acts are clearer than most (setting your story in hell helps).

 

Of all the topics we’ve covered in our tricky subjects series, sex may be the most controversial. Yet, in the ongoing aftermath of the sexual revolution, sex is possibly the most relevant subject of the four in our current culture.

 

That’s why we need to get it right as Christian storytellers. In a world where the gods of sexual pleasure pose strong opposition to Christianity, we need Christian storytellers who are ready to write about sexuality appropriately and biblically.

 

The only question is how.

 

Today I want to outline seven principles to consider when incorporating sex into our stories.

 

(Note to our younger readers: This article will not be graphic or crass, but it will be frank about sex in fiction. Exercise wisdom as you assess if you’re mature enough to continue reading.)

 

1. Sex Is Good

Though this may seem obvious, sometimes a conspicuous truth can be overlooked. And since sex is an outlier in our discussions the past five weeks, our intentions might be misinterpreted.

 

The previous subjects in this series were negative. Darkness is a reflection of a twisted society in rebellion against God; violence may be necessary at times but nonetheless is a repercussion of a world still waiting for peace; and swearing is violence in words. None of these were present in Edenic paradise.

 

But sex was.

 

Why point this out? When sex is lumped into the same category as darkness, violence, and swearing in fiction, classifying it as negative becomes easy. While inappropriate depictions of sex (in vogue at this moment in history) are undeniably bad, if sex is truly a positive aspect of creation, appropriate depictions of it can be good.

 

Such depictions, of course, do have unique dangers. Unlike other tricky subjects, sex is not evil, but it does have more power to tempt readers.

 

To understand how to appropriately depict sex in storytelling, however, we must start with this foundation: no matter how people misuse it, sex is part of God’s design.

 

2. Readers Need Stories that Depict Sex Appropriately

For the past forty to fifty years, our culture has openly rejected biblical principles governing sexuality. This is one of the biggest hurdles for unbelievers to cross when evaluating Christianity, and sex presents a major temptation for believers as well.

 

However, we can’t expect to fully solve the problem by writing nonfiction books that explain why the biblical worldview on sex brings the most long-term happiness and success for individuals and communities. Why? Because people usually spurn biblical teaching due to desires rather than beliefs. The desire for sexual pleasure runs deep, and if people are to resist it, they need changed mindsets and perspectives. They need works aimed at their minds and hearts.

 

This is the advantage of storytelling.

 

Great stories impact individuals and cultures by emotional appeals that embody beliefs in narrative form and powerfully show readers truth. Our culture needs stories like Randy Alcorn’s Dominion, which examines premarital and teenage sex, or Francine River’s Mark of the Lion, which explores biblical truth amid a sexually depraved society. We need stories that don’t shy away from sex because of its dangers but that steer our thoughts in the right direction—believers and unbelievers alike.

 

Past Christian storytellers didn’t have an aversion to sex. In Edmund Spenser’s The Fairy Queene, the protagonist forfeits a “perfect” virgin bride for an adulteress and spends considerable time with her before he regrets his actions and realizes his need for deliverance. Sexual and adulterous affairs intersperse Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (the definitive work of Arthurian legends). Chaucer and Boccaccio constantly deal with such matter in Canterbury Tales and The Decameron (though they don’t always handle it appropriately). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Tolkien, focuses on the protagonist nearly being dragged into adultery. And we haven’t even touched Shakespeare yet.

 

Christian authors of previous eras didn’t treat sex as taboo because Scripture doesn’t shun it. This doesn’t mean every Christian author must write about sex. Much of the human experience doesn’t involve sex, and our culture needs reminded of that as well. However, sex is a valid topic for Christian storytellers to tackle.

 

3. We Must Know Our Audience

If we feel called to delve into sex in our stories (and not everyone is), how should we depict it? Pinpointing our target audience is crucial when undertaking any tricky subject, but it’s perhaps most applicable for this one.

 

I’m not talking about the fact that we shouldn’t write stories about sex for children, but that a huge spectrum exists within YA and adult audiences. Though most teens can handle appropriate conversations about sex (I regularly discuss sex and chastity with my ninth and eleventh grade English students), the information a ninth grader can absorb and process will be different than the threshold for a forty-year-old married couple.

 

Interestingly, children in ancient Israel weren’t allowed to read Song of Solomon until a certain age (at least according to claims)—not because the book contained anything wrong, but because even good literature may not be suitable for all ages. When writing about sex, we need to consider how much our readers can or should handle.

 

4. Remember the Seventh Commandment

As I mentioned in my first principle, though sex is not evil, it qualifies as a tricky subject because it has a strong ability to cause readers to lust if depicted indiscreetly. Knowing how to thread this needle is difficult and requires wisdom, but here are two sub-principles to keep in mind:

 

1. We are responsible for depicting sexual matters appropriately. Christ warned His disciples that one should tie a millstone to his neck and throw himself into the sea rather than cause a “little one” to sin. “Little one” refers to His disciples (our brothers and sisters in Christ), not just children. The dozens of minute decisions we make as storytellers must be for the goal of cultivating an understanding of reality, not sexual gratification.

 

Christian authors need to be especially cautious with lustful point-of-view characters who have the potential to engage readers in the protagonist’s pursuit of sin. A series by a well-known Christian fantasy author ostensibly promoted chastity with a protagonist who waited until marriage to lose his virginity. However, the protagonist didn’t easily follow this course and frequently lusted after various women. This was depicted so extremely that I struggled to read the story without being pulled into his sinful thoughts.

 

2. However, we are not responsible for the sins of our readers. Some people will use anything as an excuse to lust. Some men will lust for a woman no matter how conservatively she’s dressed. The same applies to stories. We are accountable to God for our own sins, but not for the sins others choose to commit—even if they blame our work. We pray for God’s guidance and strive to portray actions as appropriately as we can. But when we’ve fulfilled that burden, how readers respond is up to them.

 

5. Don’t Avoid Writing about Sexual Sin

If storytelling is to mimic reality and “accurately reveal the brokenness of the world,” not all of the protagonists in Christian fiction should be virgins.

 

Protagonists aren’t supposed to be perfect role models for readers to emulate (that honor belongs to Christ). They’re supposed to be flawed characters in need of God’s grace and redemption. This pertains to sexual ethics along with “regular” ethics.

 

Don’t be afraid of writing about protagonists who sin sexually—even horrendously. Look at Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Samson, David, and Solomon. We do need Josephs who stand strong and remind readers that resistance is always possible. But we also need Davids who reassure readers that even if they fall into horrible patterns of sin, God’s grace can overcome.

 

Three works that do this well are The Last Disciple by Sigmund Brouwer, Fairy Queene by Edmund Spenser, and The Echoes from the Edge series by Bryan Davis (which is a useful example of how to cover sexuality for Christian teens). All three feature protagonists who sin—whether by engaging in premarital sex or making immoral marriage choices—and are offered God’s grace.

 

Of course, this principle applies to antagonists as well as protagonists. If we have the courage to show protagonists who sexually sin, we shouldn’t hesitate to show antagonists who do the same. But since the former comes easier for Christian writers, I’m focusing on it here. The protagonists-are-virgins/antagonists-are-harlots dichotomy doesn’t accurately represent reality and God’s grace toward sinners.

 

6. Portray Immorality as Sin

Some writers may take the advice I’ve given so far as license to flaunt sexual sin on every page, and in the name of “being realistic,” lure readers toward debauchery and portray sexual sin simply because it exists.

 

That’s why this sixth principle is so crucial.

 

We must portray sexual sin as wrong, not merely something that happens. We aren’t truly revealing the depravity and brokenness of the world if we’re not casting it in a negative light.

 

Some might argue that realism is sufficient justification for such portrayals. But is iniquity devoid of consequences realistic? As Christians, we understand that the consequences for sin—especially sexual sin—are severe (see the book of Proverbs). If we’re omitting those consequences, we’re not portraying reality faithfully.

 

Our goal as storytellers is to help readers view the world correctly. This doesn’t mean we must always denounce sin (stories have word limits and we can’t fully depict all sins with their consequences). But the more we focus on certain aspects of reality, the stronger this duty becomes.

 

7. When Portraying Sex, Less Is More

Significantly, when the Bible records a sexual act, it either describes it briefly (“Adam knew his wife Eve”) or poetically (Song of Solomon). This is partially due to the Bible’s literary style (tending toward brevity without much detail), and to be clear, the poetry of Song of Solomon is more vivid in the original Hebrew text than most English translations. Though Scripture is more explicit than is the norm in Christian fiction, it’s nowhere near as graphic as secular novels.

 

When you peruse classics like Epic of Gilgamesh, The Aeneid, Faust, The Fairy Queene, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Brave New World, you’ll notice they’re full of sexual scenarios (which surprises some of my students’ parents). Yet I believe all those examples do it appropriately because, like Scripture, they depict the act for a purpose and don’t lusciously dwell on it. Not only is this a more virtuous approach, it’s a more literary approach. Giving readers all the details and eschewing subtlety is lazy writing.

 

Because the Bible describes sex, I don’t believe that doing so as a writer is necessarily wrong. As a rule of thumb, however, I’d propose that intimacy should either be described briefly or, if lingered upon, poetically.

 

Staff Perspectives

“But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Jesus views thoughts as seriously as actions. And real people (thus realistic characters) have lustful thoughts.

 

Personally, I’m likely to set down a book that’s filled with inner, lustful monologue. When authors let their characters get away with lustful thoughts, it’s frustrating and distracting. Since lust begins inwardly, characters often don’t confront the problem. I feel that showing the reality of lust only has a purpose if we can expose it as a grievous sin.

 

One way is to use the character’s conscience to convict and urge him to stop harboring lustful thoughts. But if he refuses to listen, his thoughts will eventually become immoral words and actions. At this point a mentor may warn the character that his thoughts and behavior will lead him to serious consequences if he doesn’t turn from them.

 

Even then, we need to consider our target audience and ourselves. Writing or reading about lust can create an emotional roller coaster of disruptive thoughts. Thus, if you feel called to address this issue, be extra cautious and pray before attempting it.

 

–Rolena Hatfield, Outreach Manager

 

No conversation about sex would be complete without touching on the topic of marriage. As Josiah said, sex is good within the boundaries God set for it: the union between a man and a woman for life. Though immorality must be treated as sin, we can’t focus on fornication and adultery and avoid ever demonstrating the rewards of God’s design for marriage.

 

Now, this does not mean we ought to be graphic or sensual about the portrayal of sex, whether it’s a sin in a character’s life or a husband cherishing his wife. Subtext and implication can go a long way. But don’t get so caught up in the perversion of a good act that you neglect to show the virtuous side.

 

Also, remember that marriage is about much more than sex. Marriage is two people committing to love each other for life, sacrificing personal desires for a spouse, and working together as a unit to forward God’s will, raise a family, and help and support each other. Yes, sex is a part of that. But marriage has many other attributes.

 

–Hope Ann, Newsletter Manager

 

Charting New Paths

For myself as a storyteller, sex is the hardest topic to navigate.

 

But it’s also one that needs addressed in our current society.

 

We live in a culture that’s largely abandoned biblical teachings in this area. That provides a golden opportunity. We have the chance to advocate a biblical ethic so that readers viscerally experience its value.

 

Perspectives will vary on what strategy is best and which books do or don’t cross the line of appropriateness. But even though we all might set different barriers, the principle remains. Our culture needs to understand why biblical teachings on sexuality give us true happiness and freedom.

 

Let’s show that to them.

 

With this, our series on tricky subjects in fiction is complete. However, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you believe about depicting sexuality in stories, and how do you grapple with this in your writing? Share your perspective in the comments!

49 Comments

  1. Theresa Play

    When my family does American history in high school one of the books on our reading list is Christy. Before we are allowed to read it my mom sits us down for what we have named the “Christy Talk” because of some themes that go on in it. She says almost the same thing that this post does, and the book delves into these subjects like it’s supposed to.
    I think as Christians we have almost made sex a taboo subject. Almost like it’s never a good thing. Christy actually mentions that at one point. It talks about sex within marriage as a beautiful thing, but also touches on the sinful side of it too.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Haven’t read the book, but it does sound like a good example of this! The Aeneid was the book that occasionally served that purpose for my family in high school.

  2. Christianna Hellwig

    Thank you for this. A hard topic which I believe you handled quite well. I especially liked the point you made about portraying it as sin. I have gotten rather upset at several fiction authors who have portrayed extra-marital sex as all sunshine and lollipops, when, from everything I’ve read or heard from real people who have done it in real life, after the momentary pleasure has passed, it’s anything but roses and butterflies. So thanks for making that a point. Also, it made me happy when you used Spenser’s Faerie Queene as an illustration. It’s one of my all time favorite works of literature and I do agree that Spenser handled the wrongful sex part quite well.

    Oh, one final note, this is going to sound really petty, but I think perhaps where you referenced the verse about the millstone, it doesn’t say that people who cause little ones to stumble should commit suicide by drowning, rather, that it is better to drown yourself than that you should cause one of these little ones to stumble. I know that was a little thing to pick on, but I think it makes the severity more powerful, anyhow; wouldn’t you agree? 🙂
    Alright, I’ll leave the soapbox for somebody else now. Thanks again.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      The Fairy Queene is a difficult book for me to read thanks to Spencer’s writing style, but it is quite rewarding and I really like a lot of the imagery in it! I’ve only read book one, however, and am not familiar with the rest of it.

      Mmm–this is why I should be careful about referencing verses from memory only without re-checking the actual text. 😛 Thanks for pointing this out; I’ll fix that.

  3. Charis @ CHARIS RAE

    Thank you, Josiah! This is a fabulous article. In our current media, sex is this fantasied, pleasurable thing with no consequences, boundaries, or responsibility. When in real life, that’s not the case at all. Like you said, it’s important to be real about these subjects. Love is a beautiful, wonderful thing created by God in the right context, but it has consequences and sacrifices, and it’s something our media often leaves out.

    Thank you to all of the writers for this wonderful series! It’s been so helpful for me. 🙂

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Charis! I agree with everything you said and am glad that you’ve found this series helpful. 🙂

  4. Kate Flournoy

    Great finale for a great series. Thank you all so much for being willing to go out on a limb and tackle these controversial subjects.

    I feel like when the argument for ‘realism’ is used, the perspective isn’t always quite complete. For instance, I could write a story where the bad guys win, the good guys become bad guys or die horrible deaths, and the masses of the people rise up and acclaim evil with one voice, and call it realistic. Most people would be bound to agree with me, even if somewhat reluctantly— we see this too often in the world. How can we dispute the realism of it?
    This is where the incomplete perspective is. At the risk of sounding terribly obvious, realism is whatever is real. Not whatever is PHYSICAL, but whatever is /real/. As Christians, the most real things we believe in aren’t the ones that happen on this earth or necessarily even the ones we can see with anything but spiritual eyes.
    True realism is the marriage of physical with spiritual and finite with infinite; the war between them and the impact they have on each other. If you neglect one side of the picture because it requires faith and therefor must be ‘unrealistic’, you’re being more fantastical than reality actually is.
    Rant over. 😛

    Sex isn’t an issue I’ve tackled heavily in my work. I think at some point I may touch on it more (it’s not something I feel specifically called to focus on at the moment) but we’ll see. I doubt I’ll ever feel the need to have explicit material onscreen. The most explicit I’ve gotten to date came from a half-crazy harlot my protagonist met at the door of a tavern in a strange country who begged him to take her with him. I deliberated a long time whether to keep that scene or not, but eventually decided I needed it to develop the culture of that place and foreshadow pivotal events in the protagonist’s life that were about to happen— specifically because of the attitude that culture had towards marriage and sexuality.

    A different story that I haven’t written yet may call for more of that kind of material. The priesthood in it is based in some ways off Babylonian religious rites, where prostitution was almost considered a moral duty. I’m still praying about that one. 😛

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Mmm–that’s a really good point regarding realism. Reality is never as clear-cut or as decisive in who’s awarded the victory as we’d like it to be. Thanks for sharing that!

      Yeah. Babylonian views on sex and prostitution are rather extreme. I have to get into some of that when teaching the Epic of Gilgamesh in 9th grade but skirt over a fair bit of what they actually did. With them, I mostly focus on the similarity between how Babylonians view sex as the mark of a civilized man and how our culture today largely views it as a mark of being an adult. It looks ridiculous when they claim it, but we unfortunately aren’t that much different from them in that regard.
      I can see how depicting their views on prostitution would be difficult. I’ve appreciated the way Francine Rivers dealt with some similar issues in the ancient world in Mark of the Lion. At the end of the day, though, I think a lot of prayer is key for dealing with this issue (along with all the other issues). Definitely an area where we need wise guidance to tackle these subjects.

    • Kate Flournoy

      I haven’t studied the Babylonian religion extensively (don’t really plan on it 😛 ) but I remember that mindset from the overview in our history course, and that along with several other necessary story details kinda just carried over. I could probably cut it out at this point and find some other way to make things work, but basing fantasy religions on real world ones is something that’s always worked tremendously for me. I’m not sure I /should/ cut something like that out, since it was obviously a result of their religious mindset. I guess we get back to the realism question here. XD

  5. Victoria

    This has given me so much to think about in regards to my writing. As a new and slightly inexperienced writer, this whole series has been thought-provoking. I am so glad that you guys can do this for us and I have really enjoyed all these posts. The next time I write I will know so much more.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Victoria! I’m glad to hear that this has helped. 🙂

  6. Brian Stansell

    Such a timely subject. Thank you for addressing it. Sometimes in the pursuit of moral, uplifting, God-honoring fiction, we forget to portray the entrapments and snares that beset our characters’ journey.
    Redemption from sin was not so easily purchased. The horror, the mental anguish, the brutality of the torture device used and the humiliating nature of being stripped naked and nailed to a pole and cross-beam gets lost on us if we only hold the sanitized, Sunday School view of focusing only on the nice things.
    God did not remove the blinders of sin, placed on us by the fallen one, only to have us put rose-colored glasses back on. The Light of the World shines deep into the darkest of places, and with the full-on assault of the enemy waging war on the traditional family of a father, mother, and children in a loving, nurturing, relationship, it is the allure of selfishness and sexual sin that so often breaks this down and erodes our culture’s traditional values away from the constancy of biblical life principles that, if followed and empowered, will lead us to the abundant life promised.
    As a culture, we are in an identity crisis. We do not know who we are really. Our mainstream media tries to offer us identity through race, creed, sexuality, national origin, political affiliation, our tastes in food, our style in clothing, our sports team affiliation, etc. None of these offer us personhood, intrinsic value, or meaning. Only our identity in Christ, and our value as ones lovingly pursued through time and ransomed and rescued does that.
    Sexuality is, by its very nature, an act of intimacy. If properly experienced within a mutually loving and respectful marriage, it is an act of affirmation and acceptance, with the capacity for mutual vulnerability to be expressed and cherished. It is reserved, by the Giver of Life, for a special relationship built upon the promise of lifelong commitment. It is best expressed when the male and the female experience it together upon a foundation of mutual respect for each other. This gift of God’s design according to His intention allows the two complementary souls to experience a physical dimension of oneness, that mirrors the spiritual approximation of Oneness the Lover of our Soul desires to share with us through intimate fellowship.
    When the world treats this as just a recreational experiment with pleasure, they take away the sacredness of God’s gift and make it common. They fail to recognize the expression of its power to be life-affirming and personally satisfying to the full dimensionality of the created human being: body, soul, and spirit. They severe it from its completeness, relegating it to the sensual flesh only. In that, sex becomes only an “act” and is reduced to a dismemberment of sorts.
    Men and women experience this sexual intimacy according to their uniqueness. A woman not only makes herself physically vulnerable but emotionally vulnerable in her expression. She seeks acceptance and love, by her surrender. The man seeks adoration and respect, and her yielding to him shows she places him in a relationship of trust and prominence and exclusivity.
    It is no accident that the Scripture tells Husbands the following:
    [Eph 5:25 KJV] 25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
    [Col 3:19 KJV] 19 Husbands, love [your] wives, and be not bitter against them.
    Peter writes also to a man’s natural inclination to others he respects, to give the same to his wife:
    [1Pe 3:7-8 NLT] 7 In the same way, you husbands must give honor to your wives. Treat your wife with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God’s gift of new life. Treat her as you should so your prayers will not be hindered. 8 Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude.

    Men value respect naturally but have to give love deliberately. This is why the command is given them to take deliberate action towards their wives in obedience to God’s Word. Peter’s admonition to the husband to be “tenderhearted” is to “love” their wives.
    By the same token, women, if they are not traumatized, often find it much easier to give love to someone else, but may have to choose to give respect as a deliberate expression.
    This is why Peter writes:
    [1Pe 3:1-2 NLT] 1 In the same way, you wives must accept the authority of your husbands. Then, even if some refuse to obey the Good News, your godly lives will speak to them without any words. They will be won over 2 by observing your pure and reverent lives.
    He is essentially saying for them to give them respect because he and God both know that a man seeks the affirmation and trust of his wife. He cannot lead as she may want him to if he doubts himself and his confidence is shattered by his wife, his intimate partner. He craves her praise and trust, in the same way, she craves his love and tenderness.
    Enjoying physical intimacy according to God’s design is a beautiful communication between two souls joining in a common bond of mutual trust. His waiting for her intimacy says, “I want your personhood and not just your body.” I honor your intimacy and vulnerability and will champion it and guard it with my commitment before God, your family and you, even against my own selfish desire. I place your needs before my own. To him, her reserve of her body, says to him, “I am giving you exclusivity to my body and my emotional vulnerability, and my trust that you will protect my reputation, my privacy, and my need to find honor in the one I give these private treasures to. I entrust these to you, my love, you have my confidence.”
    In this beauty, sex becomes as it is intended to be, not just physical pleasure by communication and expression meeting a host of needs designed into our beings.
    So much is lost, if these truths are avoided and not communicated in story.
    Thank you again for addressing this topic.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing all of these thoughts, Brian! I appreciated your point about how sex rightly understood has more to do with the full person and not just a body. It’s one of the many things our culture tends to miss regarding this topic. We’re more than animals driven by physical desires, and we misunderstand sex if we view it in that way.

    • Serenity

      Thank you Brian. These are ALL very poignant thoughts, and I definitely agree about the identity crisis we as a people are experiencing. As a girl working to honor the Lord, it is definitely a challenge to portray sex and other sins as what they are – hurt to God, other people, and ourselves, without going into a full gospel preachy section. I love how in this comment you really addressed things where theyre at.
      Thanks for sharing. (=

  7. Ariel Ashira

    Thank you, Josiah! This series has been very helpful and enlightening!
    God created sex between a man and a woman, and it is a beautiful thing as long as it is done within God’s design. After all, if there was no sex in the world, none of us would be here.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Ariel! I’m glad you’ve found this series helpful. 🙂 And yes–we certainly need sex for the propagation of the human race!

  8. Noah Litle

    Great article. Thanks for broaching these tricky subjects.

    I agree with Hope Ann. It’s just as important to show the good as it is to show the bad.

    Echoes From The Edge series is one of my favorites. It’s called Time Echoes now, though.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Ah yes–I forgot about the rebrand. I still cling to the original covers and names. 😉

  9. Eden Anderson

    When I heard that ya’ll were going to write an article on how Christian writers should portray sex in fiction, I’ll admit that I was slightly sceptical…but wow, this was amazing Josiah! Thanks so much!
    I especially appreciated how you brought out the importance of portraying sexual immorality as a sin in our writing. But that brings me to a question:
    How do you portray sexual immorality correctly in a fantasy world? And how can you add the elements of grace and redemption in a world where God doesn’t exist? (Sorry, that’s actually two questions.😛)
    My MC in my fantasy WIP grew up on the streets and in prison. He lives in a country that’s culture is very corrupted and sexual immorality is rampant, so, obviously, he is affected by this. As a young teen he engaged himself in sexually immoral relationships and I am struggling on how to portray his sin and the way its affected him in a way that’s honest and redemptive. How do you portray sex and sexual sin in a God honoring way in fantasy, where God and His grace don’t even exist?

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Eden! I’m glad we were able to exceed your expectations with this topic. 🙂

      I think that you can readily show the natural consequences of sexual immorality without a Christian framework. There are plenty of non-religious studies and books out there, after all, which show the costs of promiscuous lifestyles. I’m not sure if there’s a way to show grace/redemption without Christianity, though. For a “virtuous pagan,” moral improvement is possible, but redemption isn’t. If I were writing that kind of book, I would personally choose to focus on showing the costs of sexual sin and the benefits of living rightly, but I would avoid dealing with the issue of grace & redemption since I think you can’t answer those issues truthfully without the Gospel and the cross.

    • Eden Anderson

      Thanks for replying! Those are some very helpful thoughts! Yes, the only true hope that can ever be found is in Jesus Christ…and anything found outside of Him is a false hope. So true.

      I think the biggest reason for my struggle with this is because I’m so new to the fantasy genre. I tend to write more contemporary and historical fiction, so I’m still learning my way around this great, big world of fantasy fiction. It’s turning out to be both a scary and exciting experience. (I’ve learned that it’s a huge thing on here…EVERYBODY writes it! 😛 But I guess that means I’ve come to right place to learn.)

      Thanks again for putting out this series. All the articles were very helpful and I’ve learned a lot! My appreciation and respect for Story Embers and the standards and views it upholds has definitely grown. Please keep on giving us these type of articles…we young writers need them!

  10. F.C. Tait

    This has been a great and inspiring series, and this article in particular is very well written and thought-out. Thanks so much!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, F.C.! I’m glad you’ve found this series helpful.

  11. Laura Cook

    This article is so cogent, articulate, and insightful. Thank you for sharing your well-reasoned, Biblical analysis of such a complex topic. I will certainly be coming back to read this again!

    Reply
    • Laura Cook

      And having read the comments now, I see I basically said the same as the comment preceding mine… I’ll claim “great minds” if you will! 🙂

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Laura! I’m glad to hear you’ve found this helpful. 🙂 And yes, haha, it does look like both of you were thinking along similar trains of thought!

  12. David Keener

    Wow.
    Just wow.

    This whole tricky topics series has been incredibly helpful and insightful for me. But I think this is the one topic I never expected to see touched upon, and I’d also say it’s helped me more than the previous parts of the series combined.

    I’ve been one of the people that largely classifies sex as taboo. But I can see now, that this is not at all the case. We desperately need Christian writers who portray sex in a manner honoring God, to battle the thousands of secular novels out there, that glorify immorality, and even to combat all the nominally Christian fictions that either make it a taboo subject or present it in a secular way.

    May God grant all of us with wisdom and prudence as we write, with this, and all the other articles in this series, in mind.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Amen!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      This comment made my day. I’m really glad to hear this article was able to help you think through this issue. 🙂

  13. Laura VanArendonk Baugh

    Thank you for tackling such a potentially controversial topic. You have some fantastic points about needing to show sex as a positive and God-ordained concept, often in contrast to damaging sub-cultural messages.

    I think this must be the first time I’ve ever seen the inclusion of more details called “lazy writing.” 🙂 As a bit of a devil’s advocate, I will point out that it’s MUCH easier to just write “they closed the door” than to write an effective and emotional scene. That doesn’t mean a story necessarily needs details; to be good writing, each scene must serve the story, and if it doesn’t advance plot or character, it’s not necessary. But a scene which does include necessary detail is not bad or lazy writing.

    I love that you included that we are not responsible for all readers’ sin. We should not knowingly entice to sin, absolutely true, but the idea that the author is at fault if even one person might even think about sex or violence or a bad word or whatever after reading has been taken too seriously in some circles, and it can only result in bland story without character faults, without conflict, and without redemption. Thank you for expressing your more nuanced view.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Hey Laura! Thanks for commenting. I enjoyed getting the chance to meet you at Realm Makers and really enjoyed reading the Songweaver’s Vow afterwards. 🙂

      I would agree that including necessary details is not bad or lazy writing. I was more thinking of an approach that seeks to give as many details as possible rather than an approach that picks the details which best advance the story when I made that comment. The big question in my mind would be what constitutes a necessary detail and what constitutes an unnecessary detail, and that’s where probably each writer will draw the line differently.

      One of the challenges about writing these kinds of scenes IMO is that good writing often is meant to deliver an vicarious emotional experience through the characters. Yet, I don’t know if we really want readers to experience sexual scenes with the POV character in the same way we would other types of scenes, so it’s a hard line to thread. This difficulty alone certainly doesn’t inherently preclude such scenes (I agree with you that ending the scene short is easier and easy doesn’t always mean better), but it does present hard challenges to work through. I’d be interested in hearing more about how you approach this in your own writing.

      Anyways, thanks again for sharing your thoughts! Since you’ve tackled this kind of material before in your writing, I appreciate hearing your perspective.

  14. Maddie Morrow

    Great conclusion to an excellent series.

    This is something I dealt with a lot last year when one of my female MC’s was forced into prostitution.
    There was no way to just pretend she was this nice happy virgin, but most of what I had to actually deal with was the emotional turmoil of the abuse, and then her trying to navigate how to deal with a man who she did actually care for without letting her past influence it. Everything else happened off screen.

    I’m so glad you mentioned here that sex isn’t actually bad in itself. In the context of marriage the way God planned it, it’s actually good. I absolutely agree that even if a couple is married we still don’t need to portray all the intimate details on the page, but so many times when I read Christian romance, that is geared toward adults specifically, most of the “romantic tension” is all about how this married couple is avoiding sex or feel guilty about it. That drives me nuts, especially as a married woman, because those kind of books act like sex is just a necessary evil in order to co to use the human race, and within marriage that’s not even close to what it is.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Mmm; good thoughts. Didn’t realize that kind of mindset popped up in Christian romance novels. Wonder if it stems from the old Medieval thoughts concerning sex or something else.

  15. Michelle

    I have read, and on occasion, do read books that contain sexually explicit scenes. There was a period of my life when erotica was my preferred genre. And many of the novels I read were outstanding writing! That being said, I interpreted the statement that classified those scenes in Christian novels as ‘lazy writing,’ had nothing to do with the skill or abilities of the authors writing in and for those specific genres. It has everything to do with WHY the Christian writer felt their story needed such scenes, and wondering if they kept in mind how that inclusion might adversely affect their reader and / or their personal testimony.

    I am not afraid to take on difficult topics, and it would have been easy to include explicit content in my books. Especially Saving Detroit, which is about a young man who is sold into a sex trafficking ring. There are several scenes that fade out at the very last minute. My goal was to focus on the emotional and spiritual effects such an ordeal had on the young man. I did not need to include the physical descriptions of what happened to him, because with my goal in mind, doing so would have lessened the impact. Mostly because – knowing my audience – they would have been overly shocked by the ACT and missed the EMOTION.

    This is the context of the articles: to address and offer suggestions as to how Christian authors can or should portray certain topics, including sex, in their stories, and help Christian writers accurately and unflinchingly address these topics in our stories without compromising our values.

    And, there is a second part to this conversation…

    Our commitment to being authentic and relevant while maintaining Biblical standards also calls into question the definition of ‘explicit.’ For some Christian readers, any description of a deep kiss crosses a line. For others, reading content found in mainstream adult romance is perfectly acceptable. This is why articles like this are so important and valuable. It opens a discussion and gives a guide that helps us think through the question, “How much is too much?”

    In my opinion, ‘lazy writing’ is going along with the non-Christian world when we are called to write and think differently. It is our faith that requires us to think and write differently. We should be writing in such a way that nothing we put in front of our readers, Christian or not, would be displeasing to our God. It doesn’t mean our skills are any better, we simply have a different standard we are held to when it comes to content. That requires us to avoid the ‘easy’ way out.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      To clarify my meaning behind “lazy writing,” I partially had the effects on the reader in view, but also had literariness in mind–which had less to do with commenting on the author’s skill, and more to do with the fact that Christian literary tradition for the past couple millennia has been to cover the subject of sex without going into the graphic details of depiction. I perhaps could have clarified that better in the original article, but that was what I was going for.

      I agree with you on the importance of focusing on the emotional aftermath and appreciate hearing about how you’ve sought to navigate this path as well in your writing! And I do agree with you on what separates Christian from non-Christian authors. We aren’t necessarily more skilled than them, but we are called to different standards. 🙂

  16. Loretta Livingstone

    Interesting thoughts. I’m a Christian but my novels are not written with a Christian audience in mind although I write what is considered by most (not all) readers who like ‘clean’ fiction to be within their parameters. I do have some characters using mild swear words (definitely not the F bomb or anything I consider distasteful) as medieval knights who say botheration would have little credibility. However, I did just have to write my first scenes with sex in them without betraying my own principles or upsetting those readers who have enjoyed books 1 and 2 in my series. I’ve tried to show the love without going into too many physical details, but I didn’t want to just ‘close the door’ as the story involves a young woman who is learning that the enjoyment of love is possible having survived a disastrous first marriage. It’s been challenging. I hope I’ve succeeded in remaining true to myself, avoiding being coy, and not offending my readers. Only time will tell, but I believe I’ve succeeded.
    Because it’s such a sensitive subject, your article has been an encouragement to me. It’s good to know that going beyond the bedroom door can be done in an acceptable manner.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Loretta! I appreciated reading your experience with tackling this yourself. It’s a difficult line to navigate when writing such scenes! Glad to hear this encouraged you. 🙂

  17. Katie Briggs

    Awesome article! Yes, please, let’s tackle the topic of sex honestly, biblically, and carefully (always aiming to build each other up) in our writing. The media is overwhelmed by depictions of sexual relationships which are almost always untrue to reality and devoid of consequences. If appropriate for our stories, let’s cut through the fog of lies and serve up truth–encouragement for those walking God’s way, wisdom that living a pure life bears the best fruit for those who may not know there is a better path, and hope that, with God, you can have victory over these mistakes. Thank you, Josiah. You all at Story Embers are quite brave to tackle these “Tricky Subjects!”

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Katie! I agree with everything you said there and am glad to hear you enjoyed this series. 🙂

  18. Bella D.

    Wow, thank you all!

    This series ended with a bow and flourish that was really hard for me to miss… I’m going to be sharing it with all my friends, and am hoping it will challenge them the same way it challenged me.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Bella! I’m glad to hear this series was able to challenge you. 🙂

  19. ESJohnson

    Wow, Josiah, this was amazing! It especially helped because 1) I was planning to read Mark of the Lion and it’s nice to know I got a heads-up first–I’ll still read it though, and 2) I’m actually writing about David myself, and so I technically breathed a sigh of relief when I read this and realized that I was doing everything you were recommending. (Granted, I’m still a fade-to-black kind of person, but I’m not going to skirt around the subject, or, like you said, there will be no book. Only paper. Blank, tasteless, paper. 😉)
    Timely article. Bravo!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks ES! Glad you found this article to be helpful and timely. 🙂

  20. Sarah

    Thank you for this series. I’ve read and reread it. My series revolves around an ancient character who’s a prince. He’s been a soldier many time throughout history and has the mouth of most soldiers. When he comes to Christ, he continues to wrestle with his words. I handle it mostly the way your post on that suggests. The harder thing to write will be once he becomes king, the pressure and privileges of his position lure him to take his eyes off God. He falls into an adulterous relationship even though he deeply loves his wife. As you can probably guess, my muse is King David. I can’t wait to write the story, but I know many Christians will judge me for doing so, ironically.

    What has surprised me even more recently is how much Christians want characters divided into neat categories. Good guys rarely sin and bad guys never look good in the beginning. That really messes readers up!

    I do wonder how you handle it when writers say they shouldn’t write anything that causes a brother to stumble referring to Romans 14? I get this often with a character who drinks. You’ve referred to that a little in this series. Is there a place where it’s delved into more?

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Great thoughts! Those sound like great themes to tackle, and I definitely agree that neat categories doesn’t produce great fiction.

      Regarding your question, we tackled some aspects of that question in the first post in the series, but I can share a bit more of my thoughts on that matter here. I think it’s important to remember that Romans 14 is talking about the context of personal relationships–likely a situation where two people are at a feast with meat offered to idols, the one without qualms dives right in (and possibly urges his brother to do so as well), and so the one with qualms eats with him and thus stumbles. A somewhat-analagous situation today may be breaking out the wine at home when you have a guest who doesn’t drink because they used to have an alcohol addiction–it’s not a wise or loving idea!

      Some relevant applications from this to fiction writing would be that I won’t give a book with swearing in it to someone I know is easily bothered by that stuff–or a book dealing with sexual themes that may be fine for some readers but would likely cause the specific friend I’m with to stumble. I don’t think it applies to writing for a large audience though because if that were the case, it would be hard to write about anything. Everyone has unique temptations–some are tempted by the emotional allure of a romance, some are tempted by the darkness of a villain, some are tempted toward discontentment because of what they read–and I don’t think an author is responsible for that when writing to a wider audience.

      As a result, one application from this may be for authors to include content warnings if they know their specific audience is likely to dislike it (I’ve seen a couple Christian authors do this when they write for more conservative audiences). However, if an author is writing for the general market or a wider audience, I don’t personally believe this is strictly necessary. If you’re giving your book to people you know won’t like characters drinking, you may want to mention that. However, I don’t personally believe Romans 14 means you shouldn’t include it for that reason, since I understand Romans 14 as being set in the context of personal relationships.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Article Categories

Enjoying This Article? Get the Full Series!

 You can download the entire Tricky Subjects for Christian Storytellers series in e-book form for free!

 Learn how to wisely handle subjects like violence, language, and sex as a writer.

Congratulations! Redirecting you to the eBook in one moment...

Pin It on Pinterest