It happened recently that I stumbled across a forum discussing some books. And one reader, while giving a particular book a favourable rating, said that the sex scenes weren't really necessary. And someone else chimed in and said that she tended to skip over those sections as well. And another pointed out that, in his opinion, they weren't necessary at all and why did authors clutter up the pages with them!
I think that if erotic romance has taught me anything, it's how important the sex scenes are in a book. They might not give away a deep dark plot secret (or maybe they might), but they certainly give a very good insight into the characters involved. In fact, for scenes that are so explicit, so naked, so provocative, the message they send can be very subtle indeed.
Who takes their pleasure first, for example? If all you do with a novel is read one scene where the man pounds the woman into the mattress and then falls asleep, that tells you a lot about him and his character, doesn't it? You can almost imagine how he dresses, what he does when he comes home, and who his priorities revolve around. Depending on how his partner reacts to such treatment, that tells you a lot about her too, and the dynamics of their relationship.
When do the clothes come off? If they're still on by the end of the scene, we could be talking deception (one of the characters has a physical mark or flaw that s/he wants to hide) or impatience (they can't wait to get their hands on each other!). How did the characters feel about that? Guilty, in which case we can surmise that such behaviour is not usually indulged by that person? Excited, so the character may be a bit staid, but is coming to the realisation that there's more to life that crown and country?
What if one of the male characters says all the right things in public and then behaves atrociously towards his partner in the bedroom? Well, we can obviously draw the conclusion that the man is a duplicitous scoundrel, regardless of how much he may have crowed about supporting several charities in the preceding chapters. In essence, stripping the clothes from a character also strips away the masks s/he usually wears in society. Add another person -- or two! -- to the mix and it provides the writer with an opportunity to delve into the character's strengths and weaknesses from a different perspective, helping to round her/him out.
So, to me, sex scenes serve to add another extremely important dimension to the book's characters. And -- and here's the interesting thing -- the characters don't have to say a single word in order to convey any of this. By their actions alone, we are able to add a few more pieces to the puzzle of their personalities. I think that's what's so attractive, and also so challenging, to me when I write sex scenes. They are hard to do (no pun intended!). In fact, I hate writing them, especially when I get caught up in the mechanics of it and wonder how many different ways I can say 'penis' or 'vagina'. But, I also appreciate the challenge of trying to translate a character's personality into their behaviour during sex. Because, in that way, I hope I'm adding a little more depth to the person .... but you're never going to see it if you never read it.