Sex scenes can be scary to write. We live in a strange sort of pop culture that delights in sharing details, details, details, and this is fine up until the point when a description is suddenly branded Too Much Information. The reader enjoys an open and frank conversation about whatever, when suddenly the writer turns the corner into something that’s just a little too personal.
The scary part is that we, as writers, never quite know where that turn is. It’s not marked with signposts. One reader might switch off at the first mention of bodily fluid, while a different reader will devour descriptions of the most depraved and degrading acts, only to be turned off by something that most readers accept as just part of the modern written sex scene – heaving bosoms or a quivering member.
So, I suppose, like so much writing, the first rule is write to please yourself.
Personally, I tend to deal with sex scenes in the same sense that Juliet McKenna outlines the best way to deal with an attacker: run away, if you can. (See her blog post “A Martial Arts Perspective on ‘Why Women Smile at Men who Attack Us.’”)
But sometimes you just can’t run away. Sex changes a relationship, and secrets are often revealed in the intimacy of the moment, secrets that never see the light outside the bedroom.
Or maybe you are just having fun writing a seduction and don’t want to stop and close the bedroom door. Lucky you!
The second rule is rely on your experience and imagination, and try not to just re-filter second-hand experiences you’ve read about. Want some examples of bad sex scenes? There’s always The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award. You can find it here, but they want you to sign up for emails, so you may have to read the page through a blue shade and around the sign-up box. Still, it may be worth it. The winner was quoted in The Atlantic Online here, and The Atlantic complains that it isn’t bad sex writing, per se, just bad writing period.
I think this is an important point: writing matters, whether the topic is sex or conflict or hair or long-lost sisters. We may snigger more at bad sex writing, but bad writing is bad writing.
The Literary Review link contains at least one example of some so-called bad sex writing that I like – a short passage by Erica Jong that has a woman comparing her lover’s discovery process to “Adam just discovering Eve’s pussy”. There’s something innocent and eternal about that comparison.
And here, The Times Literary Supplement discusses some books that get it right and wrong. It does get a bit sniffy about genre, but there’s a terribly funny passage from “The Princess and the Penis” by Joanna Walsh which is worth seeing for clever wordplay.
TLS may get sniffy about genre, but the point is taken: sexy writing must move the story forward and/or tell us more about the characters we’re sharing our adventure with. It must illustrate some sort of human truth. If we can do that with a light touch, with humor and care and love, then we’re doing quite well.
I think the third rule to writing good sex scenes is to put away the censor; put away the voice that sounds like your mom gasping in shock; put away the literary critic in your head, and just write it. Then re-write it until the writer inside you is satisfied with the result.
And if, even after locking those critical voices in your mental attic, you still can’t write it, close the bedroom door gently and run away! Not every sex scene needs to be displayed to the reader. Trust yourself, and write it your way.