Sex Scenes: The greatest betrayer of author gender



Outside of the Romance genre, the publishing industry is kinder to male authors. That’s just objective and observable fact. Author Catherine Nichols even did an experiment to demonstrate it—she took the same manuscript and pitched to the same agents, but used a different name. The unsurprising result: the male moniker was more than eight times more likely to get an agent interested. ‘He’ even got three responses before re-opening of business hours; pitches sent under her own name usually didn’t get a response, at all. Irrespective of the agent’s own gender.

So, sometimes a female novelist writing in a ‘masculine’ genre—which is pretty much anything outside of Romance novels or recipe books—will use a different name to get a leg in. These aren’t always blatant gender disguisers (like Mary Ann Evans writing as George Eliot), but may be the use of initials rather than full names (eg. thriller writer J.F. Penn). Or, if they don’t like the look of that, they may choose a unisex name (eg. suspense writer Alex Kava).

It gives the author a fighting chance against established industry bias, without having to go full cloak and dagger.

But love scenes can give away the game. Unsurprisingly, I often see this transgression in self-published work. (I imagine it’s rarer in traditional publishing because a literary agent or publisher wouldn’t allow it past the door in such state of dress.)

Spot the difference:

“Her skin tingled as he traced his finger lightly across her collarbone, through the thin fabric of her shirt. Her heart thumped harder, and her lips parted in a silent gasp as his fingers deftly unfastened her top button. Then the one below it. Her shirt added to the taunt as it fell open, slowly, its smooth fabric stroking her skin, almost as softly as he was…”  [Continues over two or three pages.]


“His silence spoke more than an answer would have. He only looked at her, then crossed the room in measured steps.

He was more deliberate than she had expected. He took the time to look at everything. At all of her. She liked that. In any other moment, he was aware of all his surroundings. But until he lay next to her in sated stillness, long after the sun had dipped below the sill, he didn’t look at the clock once. She liked that more.”

Generally, women write sex scenes with generous detail. In contrast, men only allude to the event. It happened, so no point ignoring the fact, but it’s not essential to plot movement or character development, so they don’t waste words. Or…pages. Generic Male Author gets a sex scene satisfied within a couple of paragraphs, and then gets on with the action—the crime-solving kind.

I’ve seen readers comment that they felt tricked by unisex gambit. If a reader wants vicarious voyeurism, they go to Romance, or Erotic Fiction. If they go to Action or Thriller, it’s because they want something else. In cases I’ve observed, readers have assumed, by the author name, that the writer was male (probably the intent), thus was unlikely to have embellished lyrical love scenes, which the readers wanted to avoid. So when they hit a verbose love scene amidst the action and mystery, they stalled. They weren’t expecting it. After Googling the author, they found that yes, the name was in fact attached to a woman.

“If I’d known that,” one reader said, “I wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place. I wish I hadn’t.”

Of course, such an attitude is why a female writer may choose a unisex name to begin with. No readers are found, or sales made, if a book is never picked up in the first place. But now the author has a disgruntled reader who feels deliberately deceived, and has no qualms of telling other people about the disappointment.

What to do, what to do?

Maybe nothing. After all, some female authors really are named Alex, or Hayden, or Charlie, and they have as much freedom as any other person to see their name on the cover of their work, whatever its genre. And of course, nothing pleases everybody. And readers are critical. Which I know because I am one. (All writers are.) So, maybe such responses just need to be written off as a bad debt.

Unless the author was concertedly trying to blend into one of the non-Romance genres. Then they have a problem. Verbosity isn’t innately bad (my distaste for it is a personal proclivity), but it needs to be appropriate to the objective. If a novel is marketed as a Mystery/Action, why spend only two pages rushing through suspect interviews, protagonist suspicions, and discoveries, to then dedicate three pages to a couple sharing tactile body space? Is the plot’s objective to win and to woo the investigator? Or is it to find out who left the body in the toolshed?

If you’re a novel reader yourself, what do you look for, in choosing something to read? What do you tend to avoid? Do you consciously consider author gender in your selection?


(3) Comments

  • Deborah Makarios
    29 Jul 2016

    If there’s one thing I can’t stand in a mystery novel (my favourite genre), it’s blethering on about the detective’s relationships – unless that’s somehow related to the plot.
    Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy Sayers is an exception, possibly because the story is partly about the awkwardness of having a detective story plunk itself down in the middle of your relationship.

    Yes, people have relationships (and some of them even involve sex), but they also eat and go to the toilet, and no one feels they have to call the story to a halt to include all those details.

    I don’t write sex scenes myself, but no doubt my voice is recognizably female anyway (it happened to the Brontës). It could be fun to experiment with that…

    • Eve
      31 Jul 2016

      Were the Bells involuntarily outed as the Brontës, by feminine narration? I found this quote from the Norton edition of Wuthering Heights: “Averse to personal publicity, we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because — without at that time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called ‘feminine’ — we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice…”

      The double negative turned my brain inside out though, so I can’t determine what it’s saying. Because the presence of “without” doesn’t necessarily inverse the meaning of the sentence had the word been absent. The statement enclosed in dashes could also be saying the Brontës wrote like men, but were not aware of it…

      My head hurts.

  • Deborah Makarios
    01 Aug 2016

    They do seem to be suggesting that their writings weren’t terribly feminine – or rather that they didn’t know they weren’t – but I remember hearing that one of the early reviews of one of their books (can’t remember which!) said that regardless of the name, the book had clearly been written by a woman. But perhaps they were being recognizably female without being acceptably ‘feminine’.
    Now my head’s starting to hurt!

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