Is There Such Thing as Bad Sex?

Most authors are happy to be recognized for their work, but how honored would you be if your book got picked as numero uno for the annual literary award – Bad Sex in Fiction?

A London magazine founded in 1979, Literary Review, has recognized “Bad Sex in Fiction” every year since the prize was initiated in 1993. While there are countless examples of great sex in fiction, especially in some of the best adult films found on sites like full tube xxx, literature seems to have more of a hit and miss relationship with sex. And the “winner” in 2010 was Author Rowan Somerville for the use of disturbing insect imagery in his novel “The Shape of Her.” Judges for the annual prize noted many animal references throughout the book, but they were especially impressed by his passage “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he ****** himself into her.”
Somerville, who was born in Britain but now lives in Ireland, took his victory in good humor, saying, “there is nothing more English than bad sex.” And he was honored to be shortlisted alongside American writer, Jonathan Franzen, who was nominated for passages within the best-selling book – “Freedom.” Prior winners include many literary heavyweights, such as Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and the late John Updike, who was awarded a lifetime achievement for Bad Sex prize in 2008. Maybe these authors should have researched more by using the services of a london escort, where there really is no such thing as bad sex.
(What’s worse than winning the annual prize for Bad Sex? Try the lifetime achievement award.)

And in case you’re curious, last year’s winner, American author Jonathan Littell in his book “The Kindly Ones,” described a sex act as “a jolt that emptied my head like a spoon scraping the inside of a soft-boiled egg.” If you and your partner incorporated products from sites like Babestation Play sex toys I don’t think you or your partner would be feeling like your heads are being scraped out like a soft-boiled egg.

So reading about this award, I had to ask myself. Are the judges selected for their literary expertise or are they an authority on bad sex? (And if they have earned both distinctions, maybe they should quit reading during sex.)

And if, as an author, you’re no good at writing bad sex, should you be upset? Being rejected for a prize like this, isn’t that a good thing? This award could shed a whole new light on the time-honored author phrase – a good rejection.

Keeping in mind that this is a public forum, please use your own good judgment in replying, but I’d love to hear from you. Do recognitions like this make you want to buy the book to see what all the fuss is about? Or have you ever written a sexy passage that didn’t make your own edit process because even YOU were disgusted?


21 thoughts on “Is There Such Thing as Bad Sex?

  1. We may be a public forum, but we serve at our own pleasure and may say whatever we like, as can our visitors. We are a non-censorship site.

    And now a word from our sponsor.

  2. I may get whacked for writing this, but count me among those who have never read anything but poorly written sex scenes. For me, it’s only a matter of how poor.

    I mean to disrespect to anyone here. In fact, if John Updike – an author known for his extraordinary descriptive talents – can earn a lifetime achievement award for writing bad sex scenes, how likely is it that others will excel in this realm?

    In my reading experience, 95% of authors who write sex scenes should not. And no one (yes, I mean not one author I have read) has ever written a love scene that captured its wondrous and beautiful qualities because those qualities are, by their very nature, ineffable. In my view, the best sex scenes are subtle, off-camera renderings.

    Now, I realize some will simply label these comments as prudish. Perhaps so, but that sort of dismissive response has some leaks in it. The fact is, if someone could write a believable sex and/or love scene, I’d be all for it. I just haven’t seen it done in anything close to a credible manner.

    I know several crime and thriller writers who always include sex scenes in their work — a few in particular (all of them males) talk so much about this aspect of their work that I can only believe they consider themselves mavens on this topic. The irony is, those scenes (to me) read like something a hormonal 13-year-old boy might write.

    I’m probably in the minority on this topic, but I react in one of three ways to explicitly rendered sex scenes: usually I shrug, sometimes I giggle, and occasionally I cringe.

  3. Hey John–Maybe the censorship is in ME. They say to write like your parents are dead. And I had to read a passage of mine aloud with my parents in the room once. Thankfully they sat behind me, but I let it rip and they joked about it later. My reading wasn’t a sex scene, it was merely the way my guy talked and how he thought about women. And my mom actually told a bookseller that she loved my books once she got by the parts she had to duct tape together.

    Despite my parent’s view, I still write what I want and how I see my story unfolding. But it cracks me up when I hear their reaction. Makes me think I’m adopted.

  4. Hey there, Phillip–Thanks for comment. Writing these scenes is always a challenge, but in my opinion they should be about something else besides the physical. The underlying context of a love scene is more important than getting the body parts right. If all the scene is about is the sex, I think many readers tend to skim. But if there’s something at stake between the characters and the act means more than just something to do between chases, then it can add to the development of the characters.

    I wrote one scene where a woman comes to a man in the middle of the night to his hotel room. It was a natural expectation that they would make love, but she was so emotionally not ready because of her abused past that I couldn’t betray what she’d become. I had him sense that in her and what happened in that hotel room was much more intimate than if they had made love. I want readers to feel something from a scene like that.

    And I can see why authors might write a raw scene that makes the reader feel like a voyeur. In my opinion, it’s about the emotion of a scene and making the reader feel something beyond reading words.

  5. as the ‘winning’ author of the above ‘prize’. I would say that it is weak to avoid sex if it is integral to your novel. My novel was about sex,trauma and love – the lepidopterist in context had meaning I wont bore you with here. Take anything out of context -particularly sex and it can become risible. I’m suprised someone clearly well read like Mr miller has not encountered good sex in fiction…but the shrug,giggle,cringe may have its origens somewhere other than the text.

    anyway good luck to you all…rowan

  6. Jordan, I realize I am out of step with novelists — pros like you who know far more than I about storytelling and their writing craft. Also, I suspect I’m out of sync with most readers, who eagerly buy books in which sex scenes comprise a vital story element.

    I agree with you: sex scenes should be about something other than the physical and should reveal some important aspect of the characters. Too often, though, the physical description distracts me from the author’s purpose. This may be a very idiosyncratic reaction on my part, or perhaps other readers my feel as I do. I really don’t know.

  7. Hey Rowan–Thanks for stopping by and I really appreciate your take. Your book sounded good after I’d looked it up on Amazon so I bought it. The plot sounded interesting and I’m always interested in different ways to express the emotions I’m trying to convey.

  8. Phillip–I like to challene myself all the time and pick ways to do that with every book. One of my sex scenes in my debut book was more of an act of violence. It was how I wanted to portray a dark character and how he treated women–one woman in particular.

    I wanted that scene to be a juxtaposition of what my bad guy and good guy valued, so I had two very different sex scenes portrayed within a few chapters of each other.

    But I didnt want that more violent scene to be about the sex, just the violence of it. So I wrote it without mentioning the usual body parts and chose words that were action descriptive instead. After reading that scene, some readers told me how steamy it was, but when I said I hadnt used the usual body parts, they had to reread it. (I used arms, legs and the word nipple once) Those readers had filled in “the gaps” in their minds and never missed the actual words. I thought that was interesting.

    And Phillip–I don’t think it’s you being out of step with anything. There’s room for all sorts of books out there. The books on my personal reading shelves are not consistently one type of book. I’m very eclectic in what I like to read. And I think writing is about connecting with readers on a more emotional basis, however you choose to do that.

  9. I can’t think of a single occasion where a sex scene felt organic to a work of suspense fiction, whether on the page or on the screen. I have never written a sex scene into one of my books, but not because I’m afraid of them–well, okay, maybe a little–but because I don’t know where I’d fit in, no pun intended.

    I write on a very small canvas, in which people are going a million miles an hour to fix a crisis that invariably has a very short fuse. It seems oddly irresponsible to the mission for the good guy to say, essentially, “The hostages can wait. Let’s do it.”

    John Gilstrap

  10. Hey there John–You bring up a very good point. Not all books are great thrillers like yours though. Some books, like the book that was “awarded” this “prize,” may be about the character’s personal journey through life, like a coming of age novel where the character learns a life lesson where sex is part of the equation. (I haven’t read Rowan’s book yet.)

    For me, I create the characters and the plot, then if I can add more conflict because of any relationship the characters have between them, then I complicate things if it makes sense. This usually is more about sexual tension than the act itself, although every book is different for me. And like you, if my plot is so fast paced that it doesnt make sense to add a scene like that, then I don’t do it. But a good example of sex as an integral part of a thrilling suspenseful plot is the movie “Fatal Attraction.” If you took out the sex,or the hint of it, the story wouldnt have been so intense. It’s all about portraying the dark side of human nature.

    Author Karen Rose said in a workshop that if you can delete the entire romance or relationship from the story line and the book no longer makes sense, then you have the right balance. You have to put the characters in more danger or further complicate the obstacles they face BECAUSE they want to be together. Punish them for the feelings they have for each other. I thought that was a great way to look at it, if you chose to put a tension filled relationship into your story.

    And if you choose to write sex into a book, since when hasn’t sex complicated things in real life? It just does. So it’s a devise you can add to your book that can add a certain type of depth or complication into the mix. It’s not about forcing a sex scene into a fast-paced novel, it’s about making that kind of scene work for you to add a different dimension to your plot, if you choose to do it.

  11. I write sex from contexts and imagery based upon the theme of the scene and characters. For the antagonist it could be like a praying mantis scratching and clawing it’s way to bliss only to have its head bit off at the end. But for the good guys its like a steam locomotive chugging a constant uphill rhythm with the ride of the valkyries playing in the background then piercing the sky like a 767 doing loop de loops then firing high power projectiles from a howitzer and then becoming an aircraft carrier that giggles when tickled by a giant feather held by it’s crew that consists entirely of the girls in the 7th floor accounting dept. Ooh La La, ChaChing….go accountant-chick go!

    Oh my…I’m all flustered…I hope that wasn’t too pornographic.

  12. Okay John–I had to admit that I laughed when I read your last comment. But if it wasn’t intended to be even a little bit funny, mea culpa.

    I can hadly wait until I meet the rest of you bloggers over a beverage at the next conference so I can know your humor. I’m working at a disadvantge.

  13. “I can hardly wait until I meet the rest of you bloggers over a beverage at the next conference so I can know your humor.”

    Come to ThrillerFest VI, Jordan. Miller’s buying.

    The problem with sex scenes in books (and movies) is that everyone already knows how it works. There’s no mystery to it. I would rather leave it to the reader’s imagination and spend my time as a writer taking them to other places they’ve never been before. That’s why I read and write thrillers.

  14. Re: Joe Moore

    “The problem with sex scenes in books (and movies) is that everyone already knows how it works. There’s no mystery to it.”

    I remember an episode of Boston Legal where Denny Crane talks about the best sex he ever had. It was with a one-legged prostitute.

    That line definitely got me thinking in spite of myself. It added a creative element to the routine that was refreshing and interesting.

    So, building on what you said, perhaps the problem is that writers are trying too hard to accomplish a very difficult and ultimately unattainable goal. Instead of trying to write the freshest most fantastic sex scene – and ending up with something worthy of the above-mentioned award – they should remember that sex is not the exclusive domain of the young horny teenager.

  15. Oh, I laughed when I saw that award. Genius- we need that here.

    After getting through three books with little more than a chaste kiss (mainly for the reasons Gilstrap indicated), I ended up with not one but two sex scenes in KIDNAP & RANSOM. There were a few places where of necessity the plot slowed down and the characters were forced to pause. And in the first, two characters are separating, possibly for the last time- so there’s a very sad scene depicting the last time they make love.
    The flip side of that is the other scene…but I won’t give more detail than that. Let’s just say it’s fairly naughty, but important to advancing the plot.
    I agree, you can only incorporate sex if it feels natural. But then, that’s a good rule for real life, too.

  16. >>I remember an episode of Boston Legal where Denny Crane talks about the best sex he ever had. It was with a one-legged prostitute.<<

    OMG, I can just hear him saying this. Love Denny.

    Wonderfully said, Daniel. And maybe that is what Rowan was trying to do, find a clever way of changing up the typical prose of a scene like that and attach imagery that evokes more than just sex. The line that won him the prize was actually very funny and descriptive. Some readers might be taken aback by it, but isn’t that always the case. Not every reader gets an author’s work.

    And Michelle–I laughed when I saw this award too. If an author can describe sex that way, it makes me want to buy his book to see how he does with the prose & his characterization.

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