X is for Xenophilia
“I’m not ‘your’ anything. Just because I slept with you once doesn’t mean I belong to you.”
“You slept in my camp. That means you belong to me. You have been mine from the day—” He stopped there, then rolled his eyes and heaved a hard sigh. “Fine. How many times do humans mate before the woman considers herself conquered?”
She stared at him for a long time before she was finally able to say, “That’s not how it works with us,” biting off each word and spitting it like a bullet.
“More pity for you,” he said with a careless shrug of his spines, “because that’s how it works with us.” –The Last Hour of Gann
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Sex with this particular man was never going to be normal or comfortable or completely free of that awkward “you’re stabbing me with your shell” whisper, but it was still amazing, mind-expanding, world-defining sex. Not because of what he did, but because of who he was, and knowing that anything he did do was solely because he wanted to please her. –Cottonwood
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For those of my readers unfamiliar with the legendary Phil Foglio, xenophilia is a love (philos) of foreigners or strangers (xenos). At one time, I suppose that meant people from another country, but as our world has grown smaller, our idea of what is really strange has pushed outward. When the old gypsy tells the xenophiliac to expect a tall, dark and handsome stranger to enter her life, her expectations may differ slightly from the norm.
Yes, today’s article is about how to approach strange sex in sci-fi and fantasy. It’s about damn time, huh?
As I’ve said before, I have long held the opinion that people are people, no matter what they look like, and it’s perfectly natural for people who fall in love to want to have sex. In that regard, I have no squick threshold. None. I don’t care if he’s got fur, scales, horns, wings, chitin, four legs, no legs, tentacles or hooves—if we’re in love, it can only be beautiful.
Not everyone feels that way and that’s fine. But some people who clearly don’t feel that way also write paranormal romances and that’s just baffling to me. Centaurs become human, demons turn gentle, and the shifters always shift. Listen, if your shifter uncontrollably turns into a tiger every time he loses his temper, but stays human for the sex, what does that say about his passion for the heroine?
I’m a bottom-line kind of person and the bottom line for me is this: My readers bought a paranormal book. I have to trust that they want to read about some paranormals. If I weird them out when I take it to the bedroom, I might lose some readers, but that has to be okay. My books aren’t for everyone. Nobody’s books are for everyone. All I can do is tell my story as honestly as I can, and with me that means a sex scene that may include the phrase, “His powerful tendrils coiled around her thighs, lifting and supporting her while his delicate manipulator digits cupped her face.”
Don’t hide your character’s inhuman qualities, embrace them! Let your reader feel the chill of your vampire’s cold kiss, the scrape of your gargoyle’s rough hands, the tender squelch of your starsquid’s pseudopod. Read Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson for some inspiring peeks into how weird sex can get right here on Earth and see what you can tweak in your alien’s technique. Yes, there’s a risk of squick, but you can’t hide these things without hiding a part of your character. Sex isn’t supposed to be comfortable, it’s supposed to be intimate. It exposes what it embraces. And when you do it right, it transcends. And that’s what we’re all going for, in books and in life—that transcendent moment that joins flesh, in whatever form it takes, to the soul.
So now that we’re all set to write a hot human/non-human sex scene, let’s slow down and consider a few things. Sex involving aliens/shifters/dragons/whatever is not like sex between two (or more. I don’t judge) humans. Here on Earth, we know where all the pieces are and how to fit them together. Sex, despite its many flavors and variations, is fairly straightforward. Non-humans can complicate things in any number of ways, such as:
Not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place. I’m one of those obnoxious pudding-soft science types who doesn’t have a problem with an Earth-like alien planet producing an essentially humanoid alien, but there are other ways to go. I read a book once in which the alien hero kept his reproductive apparatus in the palms of his hands. As a priest sworn to celibacy, he went gloved throughout the story, but it was obvious he was falling in love with the human heroine. At the end of the book, as she stood on the landing dock with her ship behind her, ready to fly away forever, she looked him in the eye and held out her hand. He took his glove off and shook it. It was sex; he knew it; she knew it; no one else knew it, but it wasn’t anyone else’s business. The scene remains one of the most emotionally powerful alien sex scenes I’ve ever read. No, not everyone keeps their genitals in the same place, but sex does not begin and end with the genitals. Just as with any sex scene, focus on the emotional side first, the physical side second, and let it go where it wants to go.
Every culture has its own idea of what’s acceptable and taboo regarding sex. Even with a strong mutual attraction, the likelihood of misinterpreting one another’s signals is high. What’s fun and flirty for one might seem shockingly kinky to the other; one party may view sex as a form of ritual between mortal souls and the gods while the other views it as an expression of love between two people; one person’s booty call could be an alien’s act of marriage—the dramatic possibilities are truly endless.
Maintain an element of danger. When writing a predatory relationship (human/vampire, human/werewolf), keep the other-ness of the predator extremely visible in sex scenes. Resist mightily the urge to humanize (and tenderize) the monster for sex. Constantly call-back to their true natures. Vampire sex will be sensual and perhaps a bit menacing, with a lot of “his teeth scraped over her skin” and comments about how she tastes, as well as that he is cool to the touch and how “she lay her head down over his chest, where his heart would be if it were beating”. Werewolf sex will have less foreplay and more rutting around, with an emphasis on smells and tastes and his breath on the back of her neck.
Use all five senses, or more where appropriate. How does his skin taste? How does her hair smell? There are only so many words that can be used in the mechanics of sex, so mix up the qualifiers. The hero who slides his hand roughly up the heroine’s thigh provokes a very different emotional response from the reader than the hero who slides his hand softly up that same thigh. And when your supernormal character is psychic, there is a whole new dimension to sex. Can he only hear her thoughts or can he feel her feelings as well? Would sex be unsettlingly primal? More cerebral? More intimate or passionate? With telepaths, all the usual physical chemistry takes a back seat, since there are no secrets and no lies.
Take it to a new level. As a general rule, there should be only one sex scene in bed. After that, make use of the couch, the shower, the wall, the kitchen table, the maple tree in your neighbor’s yard, the tall fence around the rhino enclosure at the zoo, whatever. Change positions. Explore power plays. Get jiggy with it. And when writing about spiritual sex (tantric or religious sexuality), understand that it is far different from the usual physical experience. Whether you celebrate God with orgasm or achieve transcendence through ritual positions or increase inner power by way of meditative non-climax, spiritual sex is not about the two (or more) people having it, but about what the act symbolizes. If possible, give it a go yourself so that you can understand the experience. Your significant other probably won’t mind helping you with your research.
Keep it in character. If the first sex scene was from the non-human’s POV, try writing the next one from the human’s. The same mechanics can seem fresh with a different perspective. Use the character’s vocabulary, feel his or her excitement and tension. Is there still a fear of harm, a lack of trust? Really use physical differences, don’t ignore them. Sex should always be character-specific and meaningful to your story. If you can change the names and stick the same scene in another book, there’s something really wrong with your character development.
Sex can have unexpected consequences. And no, I’m not just talking about babies. When one’s reproductive parts are fashioned after two different designs, it’s important to remember that these things weren’t meant to go together and there might be some discomfort. Even if there’s no physical conflict, there might be a social stigma attached to the relationship, especially if there are children.
Above all, remember to pace your sex scenes appropriately within the book. Shorter stories require a quicker lead into the action while longer works benefit from more sexual tension and character development. In an average length novel (around 75k to 90k words), the rule of thumb is three sex scenes for a romance, five or six for erotic romance and seven or eight for straight-up erotica. Do not try to force sex into every chapter. Even erotica can have gratuitous sex…I learned that the hard way. Keep in mind also that whether erotica or romance, every scene should still move the plot forward. The hottest scene in the whole book can still be gratuitous if it does nothing but interrupt the book with sex. I learned that the hard way too.