As requested, this week I'm going to dedicate my blog to talking about how sex, eroticism, and sensuality can be used with purpose in role-playing games and novels. I'm not going to talk about the WODMMO specifically (for once), but I am going to adopt a slightly more friendly tone on the matter than I have in the past. (That was also a condition of my speaking on this topic.)
To kick off, I should say that I've recently been re-reading one of my favorite fantasy series of all time - the DragonLance Chronicles (annotated version!). There are several "edgy" scenes in this original trilogy, mostly involved the half-elven leader of the Companions, Tanis Half-Elven. His notorious love triangle with the elf maid Lauralanthalasa and the all-too-experienced human warrior Kitiara uth Matar has become one of the favorite subjects of fan discussion since the books were originally published in the 1980s. Goldmoon and Riverwind, a barbarian cleric and fighter, respectively, also get married and, so we are led to believe, spend all their pent-up sexual frustration throughout the second book. (Celibacy before marriage apparently being a big thing in Que-Shu culture.)
Sex, like any other aspect of a plot, novel, movie, or role-playing setting, can be used as a tool. I've often disregarded its impact on a story because it is a tool wielded with fumbling and unsubtle hands. Sex and eroticism have been used to shock audiences, jumble their sensibilities, reveal important character traits (mostly character flaws), and occassionally to serve as a moral lesson or metaphor. In too many cases, however, "a sexual metaphor" simply turns into explicit sex with no metaphorical aspects, which is usually why I disdain it in otherwise "normal" fiction. Sex in and of itself does little to further the plot; in fact, sex alone usually only diminishes and detracts from the plot, as it effectively pauses the storyline in favor of some titillating side-show. That's fine if the work is already dedicated to sex, where sexual conquest is the main action of the plot, but it is generally not the focus of most fiction.
Therefore, I would like to bring some of the lessons about sex we learn from the DragonLance series into play, and combine then with the idea that sex is used as a means to an end, not simply the end itself. The authors of DragonLance usually chose to perform what they call a "boot scene", which basically means "fade to black", and the next thing we see are the characters putting on their boots. (The same exact kind of scene we saw at the end of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.) This trope is apparently at least as old as Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, from which the authors take the inspiration for this kind of scene. The authors take this trope another step further, however, and add in moral messages that encompass the sexual aspects of their novel and add depth to both the characters involved and to the lessons they wish the book to teach. As a general rule of thumb, it seems to be that the more explicit sex is, the less it contributes to the work as a whole.
Continuing with the example of Tanis Half-Elven, his relationship with Lauralanthalasa and Kitiara is used to represent the dichotomy of his human and elven natures - the fast-paced, hot-blooded human half, and his patient, sensual elven half. Aside from the many interesting pscyological developments Tanis goes through, his relationships with Lauralanthalasa and Kitiara serve to make the characters more "alive" to the reader, and as a way to reveal personality traits without making those personality traits explicit. Kitiara, for example, expects sex from Tanis, and uses her body as a tool to attain further power. This draws her as a sensual, ambitious, and mercenary character, more used to taking what she wants than waiting for it. She also acts as the foil to Tanis' wishy-washy character, showing the benefits of being decisive and aggressive. Lauralanthalasa, on the other hand, represents the virtues of chastity, patience, self-sacrifice, and forgiveness. Sort of needless to say, Tanis ends up with Lauralanthalasa, because he's one of the good guys. (Spoiler alert, but if you didn't see it coming, you really need to read more.)
The point of this relationship, along with its accompanying sex, is that it has more to it than what it appears to have on the surface. Sex is equivalent to any other tool the author can use to deepen a text and give it feeling. Even when sex isn't on-screen or made explicit, the fact that it happened and how the characters deal with its consequences says a great deal, as I just mentioned above. However, at the same time, sex can't be the only tool an author uses to move the characters or the plot along. Sex doesn't make a very good, lasting motivation, as it is too easily fulfilled. (ESPECIALLY in fiction - that's probably what helps to make it fictional.) As a metaphor, sex most often stands in for power relationships, male/female relationships, the expression of psychological imbalances, and as a way to see how characters deal with stress-inducing situations. In order for sex to be useful, it has to have a deeper level that can be examined after the reader is finished examining just what was stuck where.
I could point you to many novels that incorporate sex in this manner, but it's probably better if you find them on your own. Like any other aspect of a text, sex has to be able to speak to the reader personally, and to have some sort of connection with their own life in order to make an impact. Sex has the benefit of being one of the more versatile weapons in an author's armory, but unless it is wielded with some sort of care and finesse, it only leaves half-hewn confusion in its wake. Without any deeper meaning to them, sex, tropes, character traits, symbols, metaphors, parallels, and morals really just become "throwaway" material that nobody remembers after they've finished reading or playing. Sex has the added benefit of making people sit up and pay attention, especially if it is more "out-there" than the audience is used to seeing. Used judicously, sex, eroticism, and sensuality can bring a whole new series of levels to a novel or an RPG that it might have otherwise lacked, and used to teach lessons and give messages that may have otherwise been skimmed over. However, I still caution all authors, writers, players, and storytellers out there to remember that sex alone is just sex.