Exactly how much sex would would most publishers allow to be in a today's novel? Does it vary from publisher to a publisher? I'm not talking about romance novels where apparently everything goes. I think explicit scenes could be cut if needed by a publisher, because I don't think they can advance the storyline in most cases.

But say, for example, that a thug character in a crime novel goes on to solicit services of a prostitute - how much detail can go into the act to be considered publishable?

10 Answers 10


Honestly, outside of romance novels, things like this are best left to the reader's imagination. There are exceptions (a traumatic rape being one that I can think of, and even then you would want to focus on the emotions rather than the actions), but for the most part, the scene will come out better having left it vague than being explicit.

I know this doesn't answer your question as to how much different publishers allow, but as far as the actual content of your writing, it will be stronger if you only hint at it than if you go over the sexual acts in great detail.

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    +1 The opening chapters of Disclosure has a good example. Crichton had to add enough detail so that readers wouldn't immediately dismiss the case as "Right. . . a woman raped a man." as many of the supporting characters did. – mootinator Nov 21 '10 at 1:38
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    StrixVaria: I agree with your answer, but am often surprised by the high levels of explicit sex that makes it into mainstream fiction. – JMC Nov 23 '10 at 4:10
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    "Things like this are best left to the reader's imagination." Why, exactly? What is your reason for believing this? – Ethan Dec 17 '10 at 18:40
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    Saying too much is just saying too much, Ethan. Among other things, sex is taboo for a lot of people. Putting in enough so that whomever wants to think about it can do it, and little enough that whomever might find overt writing about sex can safely dismiss the scene is the balance. The sexual act is the taboo, though, so you can always talk about the feelings... feelings are not taboo in any culture I know... unless we're living in star trek, I mean... – iajrz Apr 21 '11 at 13:12
  • @iajrz breaking taboos is (or was?) a favorite pastime for quite lot of writers ;-) Not to mention the "wasn't a taboo back then" scenario. – Jürgen A. Erhard May 11 '11 at 21:46

Why not just write the story the way the story needs to be written, and then worry (if at all) about if it's palatable to some hypothetical publisher?

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    This is the answer, yet it's the second-lowest rated response (as I write this). Except I would say write the story the way it needs to be written, and leave it at that. Skip the worrying. – Ethan Dec 17 '10 at 17:41
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    Thanks. The worrying ("if at all") is when you do want to sell it, but then the publisher (or rather, his editor) will tell you if they want something changed. – Jürgen A. Erhard Dec 17 '10 at 22:08
  • Absolutely, this is the correct answer. – Lynn Beighley Apr 19 '11 at 22:38
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    This is something that will vary based on the reader. Some may be offended by your content, but if they are, then they were not your intended audience. – Steven Drennon Jul 22 '11 at 4:32
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    Of course it's helpful, and far more helpful than a one-size-fits-all answer. Sex may be included in a story merely to titillate, but it may also advance the story itself and the writer's vision. If the OP was asking merely about the maximum acceptable level of titillation, the OP didn't specify that-- and there is no limit on the amount or type of sexual content that may be included in a work and still qualify as art, by one definition or another. See "Hogg", by Samuel R. Delany, for an example of content that would be repugnant to many readers in both explicitness and subject matter. – Iucounu Dec 28 '12 at 10:21

For specific publishers, you can use:

  • What they say in their guidelines
  • Look at the level of sex (or profanity, or violence, say) in other titles from that publisher

For the general case, it depends on the novel. If you take Chuck Palahniuk's Choke as an example, you can have lots of descriptions of (often weird) sex - and it's definitely not a romance novel. But the characters are recovering (or not!) sex addicts, so in this case having details fit with the characters.


How much detail can go into the act to be considered publishable?

How much of the detail is relevant to the plot? If the answer is all of it you probably have a romance novel. If you can cut the whole thing out and have the same novel, it probably isn't necessary.

  • this is the right answer - if a detailed description of the sex act taking place is integral to the story, then it needs to be there. If it's just in there to arouse the reader, then yeah, it's romance novel material, but if it's there to push the plot forward, then you're fine. – matt lohkamp Apr 23 '11 at 0:09
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    No, this is not the right answer-- it's actually backwards in some particulars. If the detail is relevant to the story in some way (which it may be even if not integral to the plot proper) it may well not be a romance novel, i.e. a thin plot rigged to be plugged with bits of titillation, which are often capable of being mixed-and-matched. – Iucounu Dec 28 '12 at 10:25

It's all about the story, my friend. The level of detail in your sex scenes doesn't matter. Just write the scenes how you need to write them.

The story is the only thing that matters.


Taking your example:

But say, for example, that a thug character in a crime novel goes on to solicit services of a prostitute - how much detail can go into the act to be considered publishable?

I would expect the important parts for story development would be the initial solicitation and the aftermath of the sexual act (the payoff, the brushoff, the sendoff) rather than the actual sex unless there is something revealing about the manner in which the thug goes about it that develops the thug character or the plot. End a chapter at the door and start another when they are getting dressed.

  • Right, but that's a big "unless". In "Frankie and Johnny", for example, Johnny solicits a prostitute for hot spoon-on-spoon action. :) – Iucounu Dec 28 '12 at 10:27

I would also add to the advice above ; most unpublished or unsigned authors send their manuscripts to agents trying to get taken on. One agent will not baulk at heavily graphic sex while another will consider it crass or gauche. The same is true of publishing houses. By making the novel extremely graphic you risk marginalizing yourself especially unless the rest of the elements of your novel from characterisation to originality are excellent.

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    Definitely, it all depends on the story. A raunchy vivid sex scene can dominate the feel of an entire novel, which is successful if that's the point, but for your story, as far as you have described, seems like the scene is less important than that. – Adam Caverhill Apr 19 '11 at 19:38

There are many factors to this question. Does the sex enhance the novel? If it does, most likely it will be kept. If it doesn't, it'll be up to each individual publisher. Some don't mind explicit scenes, others would rather not have them. It's also going to depend on the genre of the book and who you're targeting. If you're writing YA, Middle Grade or Children's books, it'll be nixed right off the bat. While sex may occur in these books, it is 99% of the time fade-to-black. Similarly, if you're targeting old ladies or heavily religious people, it'll most likely get nixed. If you're targeting adults, however, you have much more leeway.

Your best bet is to check each publisher's submission guidelines. If their guidelines don't mention anything or are unclear, don't hesitate to send them an email and ask. 99% of the time they won't have any problems answering questions from authors who are considering their house. And as far as I know, unless the book is extremely heavy on sex, they most likely won't reject it just for that. If they do have a problem with explicit scenes, they'll work with you on that in the editing phase of things.

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    Old ladies don't like reading about sex? News to me. – TRiG Sep 13 '11 at 14:57
  • Depending on the publisher (and the country), you might get away with light descriptions of sex scenes in YA books, if it's important to the plot. A book aimed at 14 year olds from a Belgian youth author opened with a 15 year old soliciting from another 15 year old in the school toilets. the softcore nature (basically heavy petting), short descriptions (more text about the price haggling than the act itself) and relevance to the main plot (about the slow corruption of the main character) meant it was acceptable for the publisher, and apparently the jury of the 2 awards the book won. – Nzall May 28 '14 at 19:05

It's a hard question to answer, it will vary based on your genre. Young teen fiction, probably none or very vague scenes left mostly up to the imagination, there have been many answers to this effect already though.

Are you asking for the maximum amount? Well it varies, with adult fiction as much as is necessary but there's a reasonable ceiling to this.

As far as your circumstance goes I would say it depends on how important it is to the story. Is it necessary to say how the sex went down between the thug and the prostitute or is it enough that he went to a prostitute. In the second case, gloss over details, in the first case I can still recommend vagueness, but if your story calls for explicit sex then that is what you have to write.

It all comes down to the story and what you want to achieve with this scene.


If you want to put it in there, then put it in there. Writing is an art form, its YOUR work- I'm not happy with people giving answers about "well only if the actual details are integral to your plot... if you put sex in it then it must be a romance novel anyway...". You can't create boundaries like this for somebody else's work, healthy suggestions are okay but asserting that certain aspects of someones work may be unneccessary in terms of their own "plot" is confusing to me. It's subjective, if it's part of your vision for your writing then leave it in- don't censor yourself, your work, to fit the mould of some imaginary publisher. Your main concern should be your own integrity as a writer (and don't spit at me with that SHOW DON'T TELL b.s.- its thrown around too much and it reeks).

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