Bad Sex Blues
Novelist, story writer & critic explores the art of writing good sex scenes
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers, and editors around the world.
In a recent Lit Mag News weekend conversation, many of us noted the almost total absence of sex scenes in literary magazines, both today and over years of reading. What could be the cause? I think the answer is simple and complex at the same time, and that it goes beyond submissions guidelines specifying No Erotica.
Many and perhaps even most writers avoid writing those scenes because they're either embarrassed, try too hard to avoid clichés and fail, or they just forget they're writing about real people, not stick figures in porn.
I didn’t realize there was so much bad sex writing out there until I started book reviewing in the mid-1990s for the Detroit Free Press where my portfolio included literary, commercial and genre fiction. I was eventually also given my own monthly mystery review column. Though there’s an annual prize given in England to bad sex writing—The Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction Award—I hadn’t previously paid much attention to the problem. But as the books arrived at my door by the box load, I began to realize that a lot of writers, even good ones, were sexually inadequate. On the page, that is.
Time after time I’d find myself reading an involving story of one kind or another and suddenly there would be a sex scene that made me wince or even laugh. When a bad novelist had a loving wife in a happy, long-term marriage spread her legs “shamelessly wide” for her husband, I wasn’t surprised since the book was a mess anyway. Of course the author had to needlessly jazz up the scene even though he’d previously made it clear that shame or the lack of shame didn’t really apply in their life together. What surprised me, though, was that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes. Whether it was lack of practice in this particular aspect of their craft, or embarrassment or even being too turned on to have enough objectivity, I couldn’t say.
But I did start to notice trends in bad sex writing and I still see these problems cropping up.
What surprised me, though, was that writers I admired and enjoyed seemed to fall apart when it came to writing sex scenes.
Many authors don’t seem to understand that timing is just as important in fictional sex as in real sex. If a sex scene is introduced, where does it fit in the arc of the story? Does it move the plot along, or does it slow it down? Does it take the reader deeper into the characters and story or is it distracting? Not enough authors ask themselves when’s the best place for a sex scene or even if it’s organic to the work or not.
A confession: even though I’ve gotten compliments on the sex scenes in my short story collection Dancing on Tisha B’Av and in my novel Winter Eyes, I goofed in an early version of my novel The German Money by putting a sex scene early in chapter one. I thought it illuminated the inner state of my narrator, but a writer friend—bless her!—correctly pointed out that it would distract readers from the character’s dark musings about his very dysfunctional family. As soon as she said it, I knew she was right, and I moved the scene several chapters along and used it as a flashback.
A more serious problem than timing and appropriateness in sex scenes is that two people who’ve been fully individualized characters before the scene fade away and become little more than a grab bag of primary or secondary sex characteristics. We end up reading about parts having sex, rather than people. Some writers are perhaps so determined to be forthright that they forget they’re writing about human beings who have feelings aside from lust or passion. Sex means something more than just itself, or at least it is something more than just itself. And even if it’s “meaningless” sex, then that should be clear in the scene, however it’s narrated.
Here’s a segment of a problematic sex scene from Unfinished Business, a mystery by Barbara Seranella featuring Munch Mancini, an independent woman car mechanic who solves crimes in Los Angeles. The author has certainly timed it well because Munch’s boyfriend Garret wants to convince Munch to move in with him, and so the sex is meant to persuade her that he’s right.
With his lips still on hers, he unzipped her dress, and worked her breasts out of her bra. She succumbed to the sensations, groaning as he took one of her nipples in his mouth, a shiver shooting through her body. . . . For long moments, they coupled with a slow, delicious rhythm that had them both making small moans of pleasure. Then gradually the tempo increased. With only half an ear, she heard the bed frame pound the wall. She arched her back and cried out in orgasm, expecting him to follow. Instead, he flipped her over and dragged her to the edge of the bed, somehow finding the strength to stand there. Their bodies slapped together wetly, and still he wasn’t finished. She grabbed fists of sheet, trembling with exhaustion.
Up to this point in the book, you’re with Munch Mancini, but in the sex scene she vanishes as a person and you mostly get body parts, generic sex writing, and vagueness (“sensations,” “shiver”). There’s also that odd “half an ear” to think about, and in context it makes no sense because her foster daughter is next door. Wouldn’t she be listening with more than half an ear, and perhaps even trying not to make so much noise?
The main problem, however, in a scene that’s weak but not abysmal, is that the woman at its center is not really the center; the actions are, instead of her feelings and perceptions. And if Garret is really so desperate to make her want to live with him, there should be more of a sense of that in the scene—does he say anything, what is she reading in his face and the way he touches her? He’s vigorous and strong, but that doesn’t tell us enough.
The main problem…in a scene that’s weak but not abysmal, is that the woman at its center is not really the center; the actions are, instead of her feelings and perceptions.
Perhaps most annoying for me in a sex scene that doesn’t quite work is trouble with point of view or diction, though many readers might not even notice these problems. If the scene or book is told through one character’s point of view, whether third person or first person, why switch it? And why switch it in a sex scene?
"With one hand he cupped my breast which strained suddenly against his hand. He squeezed it gently, feeling the nipple pressing sharply into his palm, while his other hand snaked down my body and slid between my thighs."
That's a passage from Jasmine Trade by Denise Hamilton, another mystery set in L.A., this time featuring a journalist. You’ll notice that the point of view needlessly switches for just a few words from the woman to the man in the middle of the second sentence. More perplexing is the breast with a mind, or at least muscles, of its own as it “strains.” The scene culminates in what you can only call a spasm of bad writing:
He moved against me, as inevitable as the tide, looming above me like a dark angel, his movements smooth and sure. Then he eased slowly onto his back, grabbed my hips and drew me onto him. Now it was I looming above him. He moved me back and forth, finding the rhythm, until we moved together inside it. Then the world exploded in light and sound and I thrashed and gasped for air like a floundering fish and collapsed atop him, sobbing in emotion and wonder.
This passage is loaded with problems. The language is flat and colorless, when it’s not almost ridiculous, with its double “looming” for instance and the narrator’s indecision. Is the lover a tide or an angel? “Now it was I” doesn’t fit the voice, sounds too fake-elevated. Worst of all is the utterly clichéd explosion right out of a 1950s movie, followed by the graceless and silly fish simile, and then the vague “emotion.”
So what’s an example of a good sex scene or good sex writing? One of my favorites is in Mary Gordon’s novel Spending about the complex love affair between an artist and her patron. What happens physically is a frame for what’s going on emotionally.
He put his head between my legs, nuzzling at first. His beard was a little rough on the insides of my thighs. Then with his lips, then his tongue, he struck fire. I had to cry out in astonishment, in gratitude at being touched in that right place. Somehow, it always makes me grateful when a man finds the right place, maybe because when I was young so many of them kept finding the wrong place, or a series of wrong places, or no place at all. That strange feeling: gratitude and hunger. My hunger was being teased. It felt like a punishment.
The writing is simple but elegant and evocative, using repetition of “place” for dramatic impact. It takes us right into the narrator’s emotional experience and even her sexual history. Gordon develops these feelings with subtlety and poetry through the rest of the scene, which plays on the theme of anticipation and hunger. You never lose sight in this scene that there are whole people involved, and there’s no disjunction between the sex scene and the rest of the book—the narrator is fully present. And the last line in this passage is a lovely twist.
Back in the late 1980s when I was discussing the stories in my first book with the editor in the long process of revision, he observed that some of the stories felt unfinished because I didn’t describe what happened sexually. He thought I was making a mistake by not letting readers know in more detail about a character’s first time, or how another character broke a personal or cultural taboo. “Sex is a source of information,” he said. “How people have sex can say a great deal about who they are and what kind of relationship they’re in.”
He was right, and badly-written sex scenes tell you less about the characters and more about the author’s inability to fully and effectively imagine this other side of the character’s life. They can break the reader’s concentration or focus and even invite ridicule.
Here's an exercise: write a scene in which at least one of the characters is having sex of some kind for the very first time. Focus on what the character is experiencing emotionally. What do these moments and feelings mean to that character? Try to keep your focus there no matter how much or how little of the sex itself is described.
It's very possible that more lit mags would publish more sex scenes if writers submitted work that is polished and not crude, work that makes it very clear the people in the scene are exactly that: full human beings who are more than the sum of their body parts.
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