Thursday, 25 March 2010

More sex please, we're writers

Why writers need more sex.
Two pieces of advice I've heard about writing sex scenes:
1. Leave it behind the door, what is inferred is better than what is described
2. Literary sex cannot be titillating or arouse, because if it does it's pornography
Neither of these views I'm particularly comfortable with, and here's why.
Leaving it behind the door
When I'm avoiding writing a scene, it's usually because I'm scared because I don't feel I can do justice to it. I've learned that this is exactly the moment when I should be rolling up my sleeves and dealing with it. Not producing a sex-scene because it's hard to write would be like not writing a huge payoff scene because you can't quite imagine what the protagonist would actually do/say when confronted with the truth. It's no excuse.
Sex should be treated like anything else you're writing about, if you don't know enough about it, you're probably not going to write about it convincingly. If you're going to write about forensic pathology, you need to know about it. Same with sex – let's get researching.
Literary sex cannot be titillating
I think the idea behind this advice is probably meant to mean that if the sex is just there to titillate, it doesn't belong in literary fiction – but even with this qualification I'm not convinced. You'd write an action sequence to exhilarate, a love scene to move, so why not a sex scene to arouse? Is it because it's just sex we're talking about?
Any scene, sex or otherwise, should reside within the overall structure of the novel for a reason. If the dramatic demands of the story require a sex-scene, it should be included, and if the story demands it, why not make it sexy?
I'd love to hear what other people have to say about this.


  1. This is an awesome post. Thanks for tackling such a touchy topic. When I started writing I was very uncomfortable with the idea of writing a sex scene, even though I've very rarely felt uncomfortable reading one. But members of my writer's group pushed me to add one to my first book because ... well, it was actually a significant part of the story. It was an important part of the plot (even though the story isn't a romance) and I was amazed to learn that my readers liked my character a lot more after the scene. I hope I handled the scene well--it was a very difficult one to write, because it deals with someone who was molested as a child learning to be a healthy adult in a romantic relationship.

    Whew! Sorry this is so long. You really got the wheels turning in my head with this post.

  2. I've always agreed with this premise and write sex scenes into my stories because humans are sexual animals, and if the characters in my novels never partake of the pleasures of sex, they come off as flat and unreal. Besides that, the feelings elicited in the reader by a good sex scene are pretty powerful, and rival those of any other emotion-driven event. The sex cannot be gratuitous, however, and must advance and improve the story, or the work does begin to sound like mere pornography.

  3. I too have blogged about this subject, and reached a rather different conclusion:

  4. Interesting post & comments. I have just written the foreplay scene to a young womans first sexual encounter, but I left the sex scene out choosing to let the reader imagine it as it's not crucial to the plot. now you have me thinking, have I done the wrong thing. I'm going to leave it for a few days and then revisit it, to see whether the sex scene would enhance the chapter or not.

  5. know how I feel about sex in books! I don't follow them into the bathroom, but I certainly follow them into the bedroom - but then, my book is about God, sex and farming - the more of each of them the better! And I'm interested in writing what's "icky" - in challenging what sex is in books - why it's either fireworks or rape but rarely just - normal sex or bad sex. I think it's about the language you use, not the bits that you choose, that makes it feel like porn.

  6. For my adult novel I wanted to create a lot of tension in a relationship but couldn't have convincingly written the slurpy detail. My agent said it was actually a very sexy book but handled with great restraint.

    Each book has to find its own way, and each writer does too, according to what they find comfortable. Comfort is a key word here; I've seen a lot of scenes - in literary novels - that have got rather anatomical and it's clear the writer was rather self-conscious about it. That false note is jarring by itself and can make the reader feel uncomfortable too.

    Great discussion, James!

  7. Lexi, that "writing about sex is like writing about eating food" comparison is hilarious! But I don't think that describing sex always needs to be luridly detailed. I think there is a middle ground between closing the door and turning on a (literary) video camera, and I think more writers should seek to hit that middle ground.

  8. Portia - yes this one of the points I wanted to make, don't avoid sex because it's sex - it is after all a big part of peoples' lifes and character make-up, and therefore should be perfect material for writers, if used appropriately

    Lexi - well, at least your talking about it, different writers and different stories need to handle it in different ways I think - I just don't think it should always be avoided, just because it's sex.

    David - seems like we're on completely the same wave-length.

    Hemmie - you write that scene girl - if nothing else, you'll discover more about your characters, even if you end up leaving the scene out.

    Peg - totally agree, you can have a badly written sex scene just like you can have any other badly written scene - it's not the content that makes a scene poor - that's really the point I was trying to make.

    Roz - yep, me too - I've read some appalling literary sex scenes - you're right, a writer should be comfortable (or learn to get comfortable) or else avoid it.

    CKHB - yes, there has to be subtlety, and that's where the artistic choice comes in for the writer, the choice you make somewhere between the abstract and the explicit. Without explicit, we wouldn't have had JG Ballard's Crash, but of course, that isn't appropriate for all writers/stories.

  9. YES YES YES! Sex is a part of our lives, and if writers are supposed to be trying to capture life, then why would you pass over sex? Writing talks about eating, breathing, sometimes even pooping, but passes over the most interesting essential? Puh-lease.