Updated: Aug 26
Don’t judge me, but I watch a lot of content on streaming services. Max, AppleTV+, Netflix. And I mean A LOT. Unlike movies, which I rarely watch, because the Hollywood-industrial complex is over-oriented towards teenagers in growth markets like China and India. Streaming services, conversely, target the subscriber, often a head-of-household with more grown-up tastes.
It strikes me, just from my experience, that those grown-up tastes are accommodating if not actually encouraging more graphic and extreme sexual and violent content. And, weirdly enough, I haven’t seen anyone complaining, at least not in the US.
Netflix tapped the Korean production market with ‘Squid Game’ (which briefly held the Netflix record for the most watched TV season ever) and then ‘Hellbound’ (which immediately dethroned ‘Squid Game’ in terms of viewership). On the violence equivalent of the Scoville Scale (used for the heat of chili peppers) the most extreme level of violence I would generally encounter was at the level of a Jalapeño at 2,500 units. Yep, pretty spicy. I’m not going to even attempt to summarize the violence of these two shows, the indiscriminate splattering of human bodies. I’ll just say it’s more of a Ghost Pepper at 855,000 units. If you haven’t watched these, bite down on that Ghost Pepper!
I see an equivalent elevation in sexual content, led by the streaming service Max (formerly HBO Max) with ‘Euphoria’, ‘The Idol’ (both directed by the notoriously edgy Sam Levinson), ‘Genera+ion’, ‘Adult Material’, ‘Girls’. Euphoria (its first season was in 2019) was especially graphic, although it felt well integrated into the drama, with palpable verisimilitude. Which, in some ways, made it all the harder to digest. And, crucially, this isn’t porn; it’s drama with radically amped up sexual content.
And I expect further amping up, as content creators ratchet up the, er, thrills. We already had ‘White Lotus’ (Netflix) drop a rimming scene into an otherwise fairly vanilla drama.
So what does this mean for us as creative writers? While we may not want to include violent and sexual content, the latitude exists. ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ opened a lot of doors and was a huge commercial success. But books are a different medium from TV and streaming, and it’s notoriously difficult to write realistic sex scenes (trust me, I’ve read some that defy human physiology, even psyche). Though I’ve not heard writers complain so much about the difficulties of writing extreme violence.
Ultimately, if you choose to include sexual and violent content in your novel, or even center your novel on those, write it brilliantly and go for it. Have it support the drama, the stakes of your main characters, and make it real. For writing sex scenes, I suggest (cheekily) a lot of practice!
If you’re going to open your story with sex or violence, we welcome your submission of the first 600 words of your story for a free review by Effigy Press. Or you could always send us just your sex scene; you don’t want to, as they say, be doing it all wrong.
Or send a violent extract of your story our way; we’ll be fine, we’ve already watched ‘Squid Game.’