The Importance of Writing Sex Scenes

Posted: May 4, 2015 in Critical Hit
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing quite a bit of fanfiction, and enjoying myself immensely in the process. Prior to getting sucked into the Supernatural fandom, it’s something I hadn’t done since high school, when I and my friends would collaboratively build elaborate Zelda fics and I’d make myself blush by writing Final Fantasy VIII stories where Squall and Quistis kissed. As such, and while I’d incorporated the occasional sex scene into my original fiction – first as a teen, and then as an adult – I didn’t have much experience with literary smut beyond the little I’d read. Given the regularity with which both fanfiction and romance are denigrated, therefore – and despite the fact that I think such denigration is bullshit – I fell into the trap of thinking that graphic sex would be easy to write. I mean, how hard could it be?

Very, is the answer, and now that I’ve produced some 350,000 words of smut and smut-adjacent prose, I can state quite categorically that doing so has made me a much better writer.

Here’s why:

As anyone who’s ever attempted one can attest, action sequences are among the trickiest types of writing to do well. Especially when it comes to a close-combat fight scene, there’s a real art to getting it right. At the level of raw bodily mechanics, you have to properly choreograph what’s happening such that both you and the audience can imagine it clearly, but without the prose style becoming either so detached or clinical that you lose momentum. By the same token, you’re essentially describing a series of related or identical actions taking place in quick succession, which impacts on your language choices. Ideally, you want to walk a fine line between repetition and simile, switching focus between intimate detail, like how it feels to land a blow, and the bigger picture of what’s going on – the setting, the time, the context. And then, of course, there’s the emotional component: why are the characters fighting? What are the stakes? How does everything that’s happened before this point influence their actions? What’s the dynamic of the exchange? Are the combatants evenly matched, or is there a disparity? How is it going to end?

There’s a lot going on, is what I’m saying, and if you get it wrong, you run the risk of throwing your audience out of the story.

And every single one of those factors applies to sex scenes, too.

Bad or mediocre sex scenes, like bad or mediocre action scenes, are ubiquitous precisely because there’s so much involved in doing them well. Even – or especially, rather – when you’re writing from the focussed point of view of a single character, it’s important to remember that the other participant/s have their own motivations: that they aren’t just passive sexual objects. Sex is communication, connection, negotiation, and how and why your characters go about having it will say a lot about them. Though I often find the slashfic obsession with who tops vs. who bottoms to be needlessly reductive and objectifying, given that women – who are the genre’s predominant writers and readers – are so frequently assumed to be sexually passive and uncritically portrayed as such, it’s easy to see the appeal of a setting where the sexual roles of familiar characters are instead argued on a case by case basis. It’s a lesson to bear in mind regardless of the gender/s involved in any sexual scene you’re writing: how someone behaves out of the bedroom doesn’t necessarily dictate their preferences within it, and in terms of furthering emotional characterisation, that’s a rich vein seldom tapped in other genres.

By the same token, and as I’ve angrily noted before, it’s often assumed that positive, consensual sex scenes serve a strictly pornographic function, such that, unless you’re actively trying to titillate your audience, the only sex that ought to appear in other genres is bad sex, or sexual assault, or rape. The logic here is maddening: that only violent, unpleasant or non-consensual sexual encounters can have such a transformative, narratively relevant effect on the characters that you’re justified in showing them in detail, rather than simply fading to black or leaving it up to the reader’s imagination. Not only does this completely elide the possibility that the details of good sex might be similarly relevant, but as an approach, it tends overwhelmingly to have sexist consequences: that is, if women are assumed to be the primary victims and men the primary perpetrators of sexual violence, and if this is the only type of sex we think is worth describing, then we end up reinforcing exactly the same toxic gender dynamics such scenes might ostensibly mean to criticise.

Let me put this as bluntly as I can: if you feel comfortable including rape, sexual assault, bad sex or sex that only one party enjoys in your stories, but aren’t similarly willing to write positive, consensual sex scenes, too, because you think they’re too porny or irrelevant, then you’re a hypocrite. Which isn’t to say that every book that includes assault needs to include consensual sex, too: that’s far too restrictive a mandate. Rather, I mean it as a general writing principle: to the extent that you’re willing to include sexual content at all, it makes no sense – and is, I’d argue, actively problematic – to restrict yourself to purely negative depictions across the board. Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what? Literature is meant to make us feel things, and I see no reason bar a culturally ingrained sense of puritan shame that arousal should be considered a less valid, worthy response to evoke than fear, or grief, or horror.

Learning to write sex scenes has involved a steep but deeply beneficial learning curve. Unlike in the case of action sequences, there’s a level of self-consciousness that has to be shed in order to write them, and a unique level of cringeworthy ridiculousness that’s risked by getting them wrong. But I’d far rather read more books across all genres that at least attempt to write a variety of positive, communicative sex scenes that sometimes miss the mark than continue to live in a world where sexual pleasure – and especially female pleasure – is considered more taboo and less narratively relevant than graphic torture and rape.

  1. VirginAmanda says:

    I enjoy writing about it, I just don’t like doing it lol!

  2. caramckee says:

    Thank you for this post. The stories I love writing always seem to involve sex, but I always feel uncomfortable about it. You’ve helped me think it through and realise that although I know certain things happen at certain points, I’ve not fully understood why. Now I get to have a long heart to heart with one of my favourite characters to find out (and I suspect changes will be in the offing). Thanks again.

  3. sharrukin says:

    I will admit, there’s a lot about the portrayal of sex in fan-fiction I don’t get, and I say that after having written a number of sex scenes in a dozen or more fan-fiction stories.

    Mostly I aim for *fun* sex scenes. If I can write a scene that portrays happy sex between major characters, full of sincere affection and clumsiness and odd bits of conversation and plenty of character development along with the racy bits, then I count that a success.

  4. […] Foz Meadows has an article about The Importance of Writing Sex Scenes and things to consider when writing them. I particularly like her comments about the way scenes […]

  5. bluestgirl says:

    I’m so glad you posted this here, too, so I can tell you how much I love this. I think sex may be the most impossible thing to write, which is why I’m so compelled to keep trying.

  6. Gehayi says:

    I’m a freelance editor. I often edit books that have sex scenes, and I almost always end up either bored or upset by them.

    I get bored because almost every scene that I read is the same. See if you recognize it:

    1) Close-mouthed Kissing;
    2) Open-mouthed kissing, usually with some description like “our tongues wrestled for dominance”;
    3) Neck/throat/shoulders biting and licking;
    4) Nipple-sucking or nipple-biting, usually with the word “suckling” involved (since suckling is breast-feeding a child, this always pulls me right out of the scene; I would not want to think about nursing my sexual partner as if he, she or they were an infant);
    5) Kissing/licking down the stomach while the person to whom this is being done gets impatient;
    6) Blowjob (usually while the person getting the blowjob tells themselves not to look down at the one giving it because that’s too erotic)
    7) Blowjob/deep throating/no gag reflex results in massive mutual orgasm which happens almost simultaneously;
    8) At least two paragraphs where the couple lies on the soaked bed post-orgasm while one of the partners tells you how loved they feel and how rapturous it all was.

    If the author really, really wants to sell me on the idea that these two are truly, madly, deeply in love, the following will happen:

    9) The more assertive partner will start getting aroused again, and instead of overtly asking if the other person wants to fuck, will just start doing so;
    10) The other partner will be tired but will go along with it anyway;
    11) There will be vaginal or anal penetration, which will probably be described as “exquisitely painful” or “pain and pleasure mingling irresistibly”;
    12) Whoever is being penetrated will love this sensation and will be “carried to new heights of ecstasy”, while the narrative will point out that they could have missed this sensation simply by saying that they were tired.
    13) A second mutual orgasm, which will be described in terms of breaking, shattering, exploding, or some other form of immediate destruction;
    14) After both of them murmur their love for each other, the penetrated partner blacks out or falls asleep. Or both.

    If the writer is trying to be daring, they will include one or more of the following, but rarely as many as three:

    a) Spankings;
    b) Tying wrists:
    c) Blindfolding;
    d) Mention of a riding crop (which will deliver two blows before being completely forgotten);
    e) 69.

    The formula rarely varies.

    It’s funny, but I see more fanfics than published books where the writers deal with overt vs. assumed consent (showing why you shouldn’t assume), trying to accommodate a lover’s kinks and not having it work out, a person who’s shy and quiet in other aspects of their life being dominant as hell in bed (and vice versa), couples being affectionate and comfortable and humorous outside of the bedroom, couples that genuinely seem to like each other, even if they don’t agree on everything.

    I’ve also noticed that the more in love a couple is supposed to be, the more sex they have–as if the amount and frequency of sex in some way indicate the amount and depth of affection. Which is a weird way of thinking. I look at a couple that screws all the time, and I don’t think, “Wow, they must love each other.” I think, “Wow, they must love to fuck.”

  7. Kaja says:

    This is a great post! I never thought about fight scenes and sex scenes as being inherently very similar (which is silly of me because I read lots of epic fantasy – where the fights happen – and romance – where the sex happens). I completely agree with your point on consensual, pleasurable sex being seen as smut only – why do writers think rape is a good plot device?
    I also really enjoyed Gehayi’s comment. So much anger there! 😀

  8. […] Foz Meadows says it’s important to write sex scenes. […]

  9. […] domination.”). Jim Hines discusses cliches of rape and its aftermath at Apex. Foz Meadows says there’s a double standard that rape scenes can be important plot points while consensual sex […]

  10. Ani J. Sharmin says:

    Very much agree with this post. I dearly hope that there are positive, communicative sex scenes in stories to challenge the negative scenes that are included in so much abundance. I also hope for more content that will portray same-sex and queer couples positively and humanely.

  11. Alasdair says:

    Yup. As they say, ‘this’.

    Thinking more in terms of visual media than literature, I feel that sexual violence or unenjoyable sex is considered more appropriate for viewers than happy consensual sex, and is possibly depicted more often. You could explain that by saying happiness is boring for drama, while dramatic stories often involve bad things happening to people; but it’s probably more the reasoning noted here that happy sex, particularly when depicted visually, is too uncomfortably close to pornography.

    Whatever the reason, there’s no real excuse for including sex scenes but having almost all of them be unpleasant, nonconsensual or otherwise abusive. I’m thinking of one high-profile TV show in particular here.

  12. […] Sex is About Character. I once read an article that said a good sex scene should show character, not just bodies moving. Here’s a good example. David’s a virgin, self-conscious about it, and a little nervous when the first time comes with Meg. She’s more experienced, not at all bothered by David’s lack of know-how. She leads him to bed, and takes the initiative steering him. A good time is had by both. It takes several pages, but that’s because it’s important to the story, to the characters, to their relationship (at her blog, Foz Meadows discusses the importance of consensual sex scenes). […]

  13. Lissa says:

    “Sex in all its forms can serve a narrative purpose, and if it also happens to be titillating sometimes, then so what?”

    A thought: anything can be titillation. Internet rule 36 – “if you’ve thought of it, then there’s somebody out there with a fetish for it.” If you find a large enough audience, then even the most banal or most disgusting scenes in your work will have at least one person fapping to those scenes.

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