How To Write a Sex Scene

My first published piece of fiction was a short story that ran in Playboy. It appeared in the magazine’s February 1991 issue — according to the headline on the cover, this was THE SEXIEST LINGERIE ISSUE EVER — and its title was “My Life with Joanne Christiansen.” It’s really more like a play than a short story, because it’s entirely dialogue, a conversation between two young guys. One of them predicts the future of the other, telling him that he’ll meet and marry a sexy woman but the relationship will end in disaster. Playboy paid me three thousand dollars for the story, and I thought it was somewhat distinctive (there aren’t many short stories written in the future tense), but it lacked one of the elements you’d expect to see in a men’s magazine: It had no graphic sex scenes. Although the young guys talk about sex, it’s strictly for comic effect.

There are no sex scenes in my first three novels either. Because my books are nonstop-action thrillers, it’s difficult to insert a moment of quiet intimacy. My characters hardly have a minute to catch their breath, much less shed their clothes, and if by some miracle they happen to get an hour or two of free time they’re usually too frantic/desperate/terrified to get it on. My first novel included a scene in a strip club — an establishment near Fort Benning called The Night Maneuvers Lounge — but the chapter is more sordid than sexy.

But sex plays a bigger role in my latest novel, The Furies, which will go on sale this Tuesday. The sex scene in the second chapter is the novel’s formative incident, the event that triggers everything that will happen afterward. Actually, it’s a scene of unfinished sex, a case of coitus interruptus, the interruption in this case being a barrage of gunfire outside the lovers’ hotel room. The couple must then flee across the continent, running and hiding and shooting for hundreds of pages before they get another opportunity to shag.

So now that I’ve written a couple of sex scenes I can pretend to be an authority on them. The trick to writing them is the same trick that applies to all writing: you have to avoid clichés. With sex, though, the clichés are more difficult to avoid because there are so damn many of them. At one end of the spectrum you have the “Letters to Penthouse” clichés, the salacious phrases and metaphors that peppered those oh-so-realistic tales of dorm-room orgies and dalliances with deliverymen. (“I’m just an ordinary Joe, and I never thought such a crazy thing could ever happen to me, but last night when my shift was almost over…”) And at the other end you have the flowery romance-novel clichés, full of heavy breathing and sudden surges of warmth to the loins.

It’s incredibly rare to find a writer who can describe sex well. John Updike is one of the best in this regard. I’ll never forget the scene in Rabbit, Run where Harry Angstrom has sex with Ruth Leonard. I don’t remember the exact wording, but while Harry is marveling over the sensation of being inside Ruth’s vagina he pictures the inside of a ballet slipper. It’s the kind of observation that makes you think: Yes, that’s exactly right.

The sex scenes in The Furies are nowhere near as good as Updike’s, and I was nervous about how the first readers would react to them. To my astonishment and delight, one early reader said the sex scene near the end of the book was “surprisingly dirty.” When I heard this reaction I thought, That’s great! I was aiming for dirty! But then I went back to the book and reread the scene and concluded that this particular critic was dead wrong. Dirty? Are you kidding? If I’d written this scene as a Letter to Penthouse, the editors would’ve laughed in my face. It’s so tame it could probably run in Reader’s Digest. If anything, the scene veers a little too close to the romance-novel clichés. The lovers are outside, and the moonlight is shining on their bodies.

But I kept mulling over that reader’s comment. I take all criticisms very seriously. I may not agree with them, but I try to at least figure out where the readers are coming from. And I started to wonder whether the impression of “dirtiness” came from my choice of words for certain body parts. In particular, two words: ERECTION and CLITORIS.

It would be difficult to describe any sex act without mentioning at least one of these two parts. And in my opinion, ERECTION and CLITORIS are perfectly good words for them, certainly better than a lot of other terms and euphemisms I’ve heard. But perhaps I’m missing something. Does it upset people to see these words in print? Does it make them uncomfortable?

Because sex is such a big part of pop culture these days, it’s hard to believe that these words still have the power to shock. As an experiment, I’m going to repeat them a dozen times: ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS ERECTION CLITORIS

Okay, that was fun. Not as much fun as sex, mind you, but still pretty good.

9 thoughts on “How To Write a Sex Scene

  1. The old “create insensitivity by deluge” tactic. Works every time. Say a word often enough and you forget the meaning.

    My reaction to this turns out to be more of a reminder to buy the book “Lolita”. I still haven’t read the damn thing and it’s on the list of 100 books that must be read.

    As far as reading sex scenes, I like the lead-up but don’t need the graphics. I prefer my own fantasies over others.

  2. Years ago, on a long drive, I listened to Ken Follett’s “Lie Down with Lions.” He’s got a steamy sex scene in it. I thought it was really well done. Too well done. That scene had just started as I came into town and pulled up to a stop light. Suddenly, I was extremely embarrassed even though I knew the people around me couldn’t hear what I was hearing. That light took an eternity to turn green!

  3. Mark, Phillip Jose Farmer’s IMAGE OF THE BEAST contains a number of darkly erotic images that are simultaneously erotic and disturbing. My copy — which includes BLOWN, the sequel — has remained with me through three marriages, two divorces, and numerous residential moves, planned and otherwise. That said, it’s most definitely not for everybody. I’m not even sure, after forty-odd years, if it’s for me.

  4. Myself, I just stick with insinuation in sex scenes…then the door closes, the lights go out, etc.

    Cuz if I get deeper, then I start to wonder. And when I start to wonder experimentation comes into play. Then I call my wife to the room and….suddenly too tired to write.

    Yeah, sexual hints are good enough for me…I can’t afford more kids.

  5. If I wanted to stir tension in the reader, I wouldn’t think of using clitoris or erection, too clinical for me. I like to reference the parts with taut muscles or pulsing warmth between her thighs type thing.

  6. I was taught that a lot of writers forget how much opportunity for character revelation exists in a sex scene, especially the before and after, e.g., if the couple shag and then the guy rolls over or leaves, rather than staying behind to cuddle, what do those things say about the guy and/or their relationship?

    I have two sex scenes in my novel: both are between married couples; one is funny and extremely explicit in many ways – never uses erection or clitoris, however, but does use ‘tongue’ – and received a standing ovation at the BC Festival of the Arts, plus requests from people who missed it at the readings for a special reading on the library steps over lunch the next day – 50 people came to the special reading – blew me away!); and the other is sad because the woman in the scene was abused as a child and has “bedroom” problems as a result. I like the contrast between the two, i.e., a ‘normal’ woman’s response to sex compared with an adult survivor’s response.

    I don’t think the next will have any sex scenes, but the characters might demand them, so we’ll have to see. There might be a few hints and closed doors, however.

    Strange – I think ‘erection’ and ‘clitoris’ are quite clinical, too, but I don’t think ‘tongue’ is, yet, in the context, it’s just as explicit as clitoris would be. Go figure.

  7. I’m coming late into this discussion but I can’t pass it up. I write love scenes for my romance novels. These have been called “steamy sexy scenes that are so hot you will need a fan and a mint julep drink to cool off.” Now I don’t write erotica, and that’s where I believe the clinical terms belong. While I describe the physical mating, my focus is on the couple’s emotional reactions. Naming clinical body parts for me is a turn-off. The sensuality, the responsiveness, these things have more import in my stories. I get the job done, but in a love-making way rather than a clinical sex scene.

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