The Sex Scene In Stephen King's 'IT'
When I pitched the idea for this column, I was told it was cool so long as I kept it classy. After I found my monocle, which had fallen out of my eye due to my wide-eyed, shocked expression (“ME?! How could I be NOT classy?!”), I started thinking about how to tackle the topic.
With IT coming to theaters, readers and non-readers alike are becoming aware of a piece missing from the movie. I’m talking, of course, about the sex scene. The one that’s (not incorrectly) referred to as a “child orgy in the sewer.”
Before you throw away this column in disgust (by trashing your computer, which I don’t recommend as a show of disgust as it’s expensive, though it DOES demonstrate a high level of commitment), allow me to be clear about my purpose: share some context, theories, and what King has to say about it.
Because while I’ve seen and read a lot of articles that ask questions about this scene, questions like “Isn’t that weird?” or “Isn’t that gross?” I haven’t seen a lot of folks asking other questions. My questions. Which are:
A: Why does this exist? and
B: Does the scene do what Stephen King wanted it to do?”
What is it?
Here are the basics. Spoilers from here forward (although you can skip to the final section if you're curious about whether or not you should read IT):
The Losers (a group of kids at this point in the book) go into the sewers and confront Pennywise/It. The Losers all have abilities that combine and make them good candidates to defeat Pennywise, sort of a prophecy-meets-Voltron sort of deal. After they take on Pennywise and are trying to exit the labyrinthian sewers, Eddie, the group’s guide, starts losing his preternatural navigation abilities. And the group starts falling apart. And somehow, Bev, the group’s sole female character, figures that by having sex with all the boys in the group, one at a time, down there in the sewer, they will somehow strengthen their bond, regain their abilities, and exit the sewer.
She is 100% correct, and that’s exactly what happens.
Why does this scene exist? Here’s what Stephen King has to say about it:
I wasn't really thinking of the sexual aspect of it. The book dealt with childhood and adulthood—1958 and Grown Ups. The grown ups don't remember their childhood. None of us remember what we did as children—we think we do, but we don't remember it as it really happened. Intuitively, the Losers knew they had to be together again. The sexual act connected childhood and adulthood. It's another version of the glass tunnel that connects the children's library and the adult library. Times have changed since I wrote that scene and there is now more sensitivity to those issues.
What do I buy and not buy about this, personally?
Let’s start with the idea that we don’t really remember childhood. I buy that. For myself, but also in Stephen King’s case. King, as a child, witnessed a friend be struck and killed by a train, and he blocked out the memory of the event almost entirely.
We don’t remember childhood as well as we think? That, I buy.
What about the idea of times and sensitivities changing since King wrote IT?
The New York Times reviewed the book in 1986:
''It'' is not only the unknown monstrosity hiding beneath the city of Derry; ''It'' is also excrement, the dark, the unconscious, the sex act, and everything else that is frightening or inconceivable to children.
This is the only mention of sex in an 800+ word review, and although the reviewer didn’t love the book, the sex scene isn’t really mentioned other than the above quote, and even in that case we can't differentiate it from the other sexual situations in the book. It doesn’t seem to be a big deal for the reviewer.
Library Journal’s 1986 review didn’t mention the scene at all.
It’s tough to say that NO reviews from 1986 mentioned the sex scene as a problematic aspect of the book. Between the movie adaptations and the book’s title, it’s difficult to prove definitively that this critique didn't exist at the time. But, swap to current times, and it’s virtually impossible to find a review that fails to mention the scene. Even if there was mention of it in 1986, it wasn’t the massive deal that it is in reviews today.
While I don’t always buy the “changing times” argument...the little I found from 1986 does kinda agree with King. Which is to say, I doubt that children having sex with each other was no big thing in the 80’s, but maybe a horror novelist putting a sex scene between fictional kids deep into an overly long book wasn’t the thing it is today.
I also buy that Stephen King wasn’t thinking of it sexually. The reason being, as sex scenes go, as Stephen King goes, it’s not what I would call graphic, highly descriptive, or drawn out. It’s not designed to titillate. I'd describe it as fairly mechanical.
What I DON’T buy so much is that it never crossed King’s mind that OTHER people would take it that way, and I’m sort of surprised that nobody who proofed the book questioned the scene.
Overall, I buy Stephen King’s explanation. I buy that he wrote the sex scene for specific, narrative-driven reasons. I buy the idea that it serves a purpose. I buy that, at the time the book was written, Stephen King thought this was the best way to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish.
As a summary, I don't think King's explanation is a bunch of horseshit.
But the portions I believe only explain WHY the scene was written. Not whether or not it worked.
Does the scene work narratively?
From this point forward we're going to be pretty subjective. Obviously I can't say, in an objective way, whether or not something "works."
Does the sex scene work within the narrative? For me, yes and no.
Yes, once I read King's explanation of it, I got it.
No, because I had to read outside the text to understand what was going on.
I’m not an expert when it comes to literary critique, and I think it’s possible for more astute readers to understand the connection King was building with the sex scene. But it’s not easy, and the taboo nature of the material makes it difficult and unpleasant to really think about or discuss.
If you dig into the book, de- and reconstruct the story, and if you look at it from a thematic perspective, the scene does make more sense. If you read IT as a book about the things we fear being the things that become our strengths, or as proffering the idea that confronting our fears is the only way to move from childhood to adulthood, then it makes a certain sense that sex is a necessary component of the book. Sex and intimacy are things many of us fear, but they can be sources of great strength. Moving from childhood to adulthood is frightening, and if there's a definitive line in the sand that separates adults from children, for a lot of folks, that line is sexual.
I think that’s what King was going for. But the connection there could have been stronger. The scene would have been a little easier on the stomach if all of this had been spelled out a bit more. I’m not one who often says something could be dumbed down, but if this scene had been dumbed down, it would’ve been easier to understand why it was happening when it was happening and in the way it was happening.
And that’s the real flaw of it. It’s hard to read it and still feel inside the book. It’s hard to read it without wondering whether it should be there or if the same work could have been done differently. And as soon as you’re wondering that in the middle of reading a story, some of the narrative spell has been broken.
I guess what I’m saying is that this works on a theoretical level, but I didn't get there as a reader. But that's me. Author Grady Hendrix, in a series of Stephen King re-reads, gets there and then some. He's clearly smarter, more thoughtful, more successful, and probably handsomer than I am. I'd like to think that popular opinion is somewhere between Hendrix's (smart) and mine (dum-dum). Which means that the narrative success is a mixed bag.
Does the scene work outside the narrative?
I think, yes, in a few big ways, this scene does accomplish something outside the narrative.
One thing IT does is shatter some of the illusions we have about the 50’s, illusions we as readers bring with us. This book presents a different 50’s America. Yes, you could sling a fishing pole over your shoulder and head down to the creek. But on the way you might have your stomach slashed by a kid with a switchblade. The sex scene definitely goes against what I think about when I hear the theme song for Happy Days.
Second, the book is about taboo, and the way that taboo things permeate our lives, are always there and only sometimes visible. The sex scene in particular functions to bring the taboo, the ickiness, outside of the book and into real life. If you’re reading this scene, you feel like you’re seeing something you’re not supposed to be seeing. I can’t imagine reading this on a plane without looking around to make sure that nobody else was looking down at my pages.
As an adult, it’s pretty much impossible to read the scene and not start cringing. Because you’re an adult. You know how wrong this is. It’s your role to prevent things like this from happening, step in when you see something remotely this bad happening.
Even if you don't think of the kids or the book as real on any level, you can't help but think, "Damn, Stephen King. I don't know if this is such a good idea." Even if the sex scene itself isn't taboo to you because it's not real, it's taboo and possibly dangerous because someone created it, committed it to paper, and you're here holding it in your hands.
IT is not a book that allows a reader to be passive. Readers are forced to establish a line, what's taboo and what isn't. To me, a moral line is crossed in the sex scene. However, getting to that scene forces me to reevaluate. Apparently I'm fine with a kid having his arm torn off his body in the opening of this book. With serious spousal abuse. With repeated, graphic murder. With a boy forcing sex acts on another boy, and with a monster taking the form of a "leper" and offering a child oral sex. But this is the line.
In these ways, yes, the content of the book does confront the reader in real life, outside the narrative. It does work inasmuch as it demonstrates that things that feel just plain wrong are all around us all the time. IT, the book itself, exists as a taboo object, even for people who know very little about it and have never read it. And this has a lot to do with the sex scene.
Is it totally out of step with the rest of the book?
For me? No.
Something very akin to the sex scene happens at least two other times in the book. By that I mean, we are presented with a scenario where something that's generally positive is possible because of something terribly, horribly negative.
We have the scene where George Bradley and members of the Bradley Gang, notorious robbers and murderers, are stopped. This is positive. However, they're stopped by regular folks arming themselves and shooting members of the gang. The shooting is not a last resort or done clean. It's a filthy affair that involves trapping the gang and opening fire, resulting in something that sounds like the opening scene of Robocop. This is negative.
We have the scene where some big business folks get their comeuppance for business practices that result in unsafe conditions for workers. This is good. The comeuppance comes in the form of these men being hacked to death by an axe wielder in a crowded bar where nobody lifts a finger to help them. This is bad.
And we have the scene where a group of kids, hopelessly lost in a sewer, figure their way out of the sewer and create a connection that allows them, unlike all the other adults in Derry, to remember Pennywise as adults. This is good. They accomplish this by having sex with each other. This is bad.
It's both literal and figurative, the way things work in IT: You might be able to do something good, but in order to do it, you're going to have to make your way through the sewer. It's a disturbing and depressing message, and it's a message I don't love. But it's consistent.
The sex scene certainly stood out because of the degree to which it's taboo, and because it demonstrates, more than anything else, a problem that could have been solved in a different, less vile way. However, that seems to be a theme of the book. The Bradley Gang could have been stopped with a lesser degree of violence if the townspeople had been less bloodthirsty. The evil businessmen could have been thwarted without someone picking up an axe.
I'd like to think there was a different way for The Losers to get out of the sewer, but I can't say the method they chose was "off-message."
Does the scene work today?
Literary criticism goes through phases, and as it goes through phases some things stick and others tend to fade away as new things come into mainstream criticism. Today, it’s common practice to look at the way gender and sexuality are treated in a book and evaluate that, and this can be one of the more important aspects when a piece of pop culture is critiqued.
I think it’s tough to have a book today where this sex scene goes down the way it does and not have it come under heavy criticism. The critiques of Bev being used, of female sexuality not really being understood in the story, and of having the sole important female character be most useful in a sexual situation, all of these are critiques that would not be ignored today. Most modern critics would find the sex scene problematic. The question wouldn't be about whether or not the sex scene is problematic. It would be about whether or not it's problematic enough to ruin the entirety of the book. For better or worse, the discussion of this huge, 1100-page tome would be overshadowed by the discussion of this one scene.
I'm not weighing in on this being a bad or good thing. I'm simply saying that I think this is a fact of modern criticism. The sex scene doesn't work today. I thoroughly believe that if this book were written today, this scene would be rewritten if not omitted entirely.
Is the scene the make or break?
I wish the scene wasn't in the book, or that it was different. I'm not going to rewrite the scene because I think Stephen King kicks ass, and me suggesting tweaks seems like me backseat driving during the Moon landing. Totally unqualified, totally unhelpful, totally stupid.
It comes down to the individual. Some people won't hate it, perhaps even feel it fits with the book. Some people will hate it, but like the book in spite of it. Some people will find it intolerable, and the book will be ruined for them because of it.
The only way I can think to end this whole thing, as the writer of this column and someone who recently read IT, is to pass on my thoughts for the two groups on the ends of the spectrum, as outlined above and one final time below.
If you're someone for whom the very idea of this is/was disgusting to the point that you're getting upset, if this column or its premise was upsetting, then I wouldn't read the book. I'd skip it. King has a lot of great books. As do a lot of other writers. I don't think you're making a bad choice by skipping something that's guaranteed to push your buttons. Plus, the scene happens so late in the book, you've invested so much time by then, that you'll feel resentment. I feel safe in saying that resentment is not a feeling intended by the book, nor is it a feeling that you should have when you finish any book.
If you're someone for whom the book was good, or the idea of the sex scene doesn't extinguish your desire to read IT, then I'd say go forth and read. Discover for yourself. It's okay. I don't think reading IT will transform you into a monster, and I don't think liking the book makes you one either. It's a very WTF moment in what is otherwise a really good read.
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