Storyville: Writing About Sex

WARNING: This column will talk about sex in a graphic and frank way—so if you are underage or easily offended, please do not continue reading.


Sex is an important part of any adult life. It’s a way to connect with the people we love, it’s a way to tap into our animalistic and more base desires, and it’s a way to live out fantasies in the privacy of our own bedrooms. But how do you write about sex? What makes a good sex scene? How much is too much, and what’s the difference between a standard sex scene, erotica and pornography? Let’s talk about sex, baby.

EROTICA, PORNOGRAPHY AND EVERYTHING IN-BETWEEN

To me, the difference between what you’d call erotica, pornography and everything else—well, they really aren’t that great. Like with anything else we write about, sex scenes are designed to provoke an emotional and physical response. And the expected response to written sex is usually arousal. That’s not always the case, of course, and we’ll get into some of the secondary reasons to write a sex scene, but for the most part when we write about sex to arouse.

For men, keep it simple. So no throbbing manhood or spear of salvation—or whatever flowery or weird phrase you’re trying to incorporate into your writing. It just doesn’t work.

I haven’t read a ton of pornography, but the writing I have glanced at seems to have one goal in mind—to get you off. It’s the same with adult films. Sure, there are adult movies “for women” that have stories, art direction, better lighting and actual plots, but for the most part, pornography is the graphic depiction of sex acts. It’s the same in books as it is in the movies. Typically, the language is simple, focused on what’s happening in an almost play-by-play manner, and the story is secondary.

Erotica is the flowery cousin to pornography, with graphic sex acts depicted in a language that is elevated. There is certainly good erotica out there-- well-written stories with plots and characters-- but for many people the “purple prose” is overdone, and the realistic nature can be almost laughable. Heaving bosoms and turgid erections can be anything but sexy.

What separates the sex scenes that I write, and the kind of writing that I enjoy reading, is the fact that the sex is not the entire story. You are not reading Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis for a hot shower scene; it’s just one moment in time, one aspect of a life fully lived. In my opinion, for a sex scene to work, there needs to be a fully realized world built around it. We are not reduced to our body parts—we are complicated people with needs and desires. We are damaged and we are pure. We are complex in our fetishes—and our orgasms are some of the most vulnerable and yet expressive moments of our lives. Done right, sex is intense, and it should be the same in your writing.

BODY PARTS

I just wanted to get this out of the way early. I think that there are only a handful of ways to refer to our body parts, and it is my opinion that you should probably just stick to the ones I’m listing. If you write bizarro fiction and want to use some sort of strange name or go for a laugh, that’s different.

For men, keep it simple. I think I’ve only ever used the words penis, dick and cock. Anything else just seems strange, and to be honest, makes me laugh. So no throbbing manhood or spear of salvation—or whatever flowery or weird phrase you’re trying to incorporate into your writing. It just doesn’t work.

For women, likewise, keep it simple. Breast or breasts are probably the most common words used, but I’ve also seen tits work in the right setting. “Honey, I love your tits. Them titties are the reason I keep working so hard.” To me, tits can often sound harsh coming from a male POV, but coming from a woman’s POV it can work. “He ran his tongue over my flushed tits and gently bit down on my nipple.” Something like that might work.

That only leaves the complicated and mystical female nether regions. See, sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? I try to avoid naming this famed portal of pleasure because, again, from a male POV it can sound aggressive. But the obvious choices are vagina, pussy and cunt. Vagina always feels clinical to me and cunt is such a harsh word. If I have to name it, the word I choose is pussy. Just consider who is saying what and how they’re saying it. “When I think of your pussy I get hard,” he breathed into the phone. Seems to work. I will also allow that what a woman says, the female POV—well, they can get away with just about anything. It almost always works for me, a healthy, straight male. “Get on your knees and eat my pussy,” she barked, cracking the whip over my head. Works for me, yeah?  Keep it simple and let your other strengths shine through—characters, body sensations, motivations, settings, and tension.

FOCUS ON THE SENSES

In order to not sound like pornography, focus on the senses. Slow the moment down and think about every possible sensation. Is this couple doing it in an alley or in a bedroom that took hours to set up? Candles melting down, lingerie carefully selected, the sheets soft and inviting? Does her perfume smell like sandalwood, patchouli, oranges, or vanilla? Is her lipstick smeared, her mouth a combination of bourbon and cigarettes? Is there sweat, saliva, whatever musk or salty goodness you want to mention? What does her skin feel like, soft and supple, or slick and glossy? You’ll work in the things the reader needs to see, obviously. What the room looks like, the clothing (or lack of clothing) that your couple is wearing-- bring them all into play. It’s so much sexier to put your reader in that moment, and talk about what’s happening, every touch, every squeeze, every slick finger and taut muscle. And don’t forget the sounds. There is so much more than “Oh, baby.” The words they say, how they say them, it can change everything. I have a scene in my upcoming book Disintegration where the dominatrix is on top (of course) riding the unnamed protagonist, and the climax of the scene (pun intended) is her screaming “Punch me in the face when I come.”

Do whatever makes you happy, just don’t tease your audience and lead them up to the bedroom door only to shut it and skip the scene.

CARING ABOUT THE CHARACTERS

I’ve said this before, but think about your characters and whether or not we like them or hate them. Do we want to see people get rewarded or punished, and how does that affect the sex scene? Does the quiet, buttoned up librarian type remain demure and submissive in bed, or is that the place where she lets go? If we see her working hard, trying to provide for her sick mother, doing everything right and yet the world still works against her, what happens when she has a few too many drinks? Does she take a man home that suddenly becomes her slave or does she put herself in a situation where things get out of control, where she gets taken advantage of, one more jerk abusing her? We want the heroes to win and the villains to fail, and it’s the same way in the bedroom.

USING YOUR OWN LIFE

Sure, what other way are we going to write about these things? And if your own sex life is less than exciting, pick up a book or movie and study. Not necessarily pornography (although you can learn a lot that way too), but powerful stories that happen to have great sex scenes. 9 1/2 Weeks is a great example of a film that explores sex, or maybe Secretary, based on the work of Mary Gaitskill.  Whatever works for you, use it. If you’ve had a threesome, use it. If you’re into BDSM, write about it. Straight vanilla sex can be exciting too, but what else is there? Masturbation, voyeurism, exhibitionism, whatever interests you. Tap into that hot model you dated back in college and then embellish in the areas that never happened. Do whatever you can to make it realistic, use whatever memories you still have. Does the idea of this embarrass you? Can I tell you a secret? People are going to think you did all of this stuff anyway. If you write a sex scene with anal sex and hot candle wax, people are going to think you did it. So, get over it, and just make it work.

IS THERE SUCH A THING AS TOO LITTLE?

On the flip side of that coin, maybe you don’t want a lot of sex in your short story or novel? Well, then what the hell are you doing reading this? Just kidding. Lots of famous authors have trouble writing sex scenes, or just don’t like graphic sex in their work. Stephen King is one name that comes to mind. Do whatever makes you happy, just don’t tease your audience and lead them up to the bedroom door only to shut it and skip the scene.

IN CONCLUSION

Experiment with your sex scenes and see what works for you. For some authors, those moments in the story or novel, they’re expected, and we’re disappointed if we don’t get some heat. For other authors, it’s less important. Figure out how to slow down the moments and focus on the senses. And in the same way that you would seduce a person in the real world—seduce your readers as well. If you are true to your characters, and can get us to care about them, the moment they start taking off their clothes, the tension should intensify, and the reaction of your readers should be visceral.


Nerve.com is a great place for tasteful (and not so tasteful) stories that aren’t afraid to include sex. Here are two great examples: Monica Drake, and the aforementioned Mary Gaitskill. Check out Monica Drake's story, “One Night” and Mary Gaitskill's “Secretary," which was later adapted into an excellent independent film starring James Spader and Maggie Gyllenhaal. While you all probably know about Monica and Clown Girl, if you haven't heard of Mary Gaitskill, be sure to pick up Bad Behavior, linked below.


TO SEND A QUESTION TO RICHARD, drop him a line at Richard@litreactor.com. Who knows, it could be his next column.

Image of Clown Girl: A Novel
Author: Monica Drake
Price: $12.24
Publisher: Hawthorne Books (2007)
Binding: Paperback, 336 pages
Image of Bad Behavior: Stories
Author: Mary Gaitskill
Price: $8.98
Publisher: Simon & Schuster (2009)
Binding: Paperback, 224 pages
Richard Thomas

Column by Richard Thomas

Richard Thomas is the award-winning author of seven books: three novels—Disintegration and Breaker (Random House Alibi), and Transubstantiate (Otherworld Publications); three short story collections—Staring Into the Abyss (Kraken Press), Herniated Roots (Snubnose Press), and Tribulations (Cemetery Dance); as well as one novella in The Soul Standard (Dzanc Books). With over 100 stories published, his credits include Cemetery Dance, PANK, storySouth, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Qualia Nous, Chiral Mad 2 & 3, and Shivers VI (with Stephen King and Peter Straub). He has won contests at ChiZine and One Buck Horror, and has received five Pushcart Prize nominations to date. He is also the editor of four anthologies: The New Black and Exigencies (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. He has been nominated for the Bram Stoker, Shirley Jackson, and Thriller awards. In his spare time he is a columnist at LitReactor and Editor-in-Chief at Gamut Magazine. His agent is Paula Munier at Talcott Notch. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com.

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Comments

Stephanie Bonjack's picture
Stephanie Bonjack from Boulder, CO is reading Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith September 5, 2012 - 1:25pm

Richard, this is great. You never really appreciate a well-written sex scene until you read a bad one. For example: any scene meant to be sexy that uses the word "womb." Just don't do it. Ever.

Renee Miller's picture
Renee Miller from Tweed, Ontario is reading The Wolf Gift September 5, 2012 - 1:57pm

Great article. I don't know why, but "cunt" always makes me cringe. I even have trouble typing it. I blame my mother.

I laughed at this part:

People are going to think you did all of this stuff anyway.

Because you're absolutely right. Unless the writer gets it completely wrong. Then they'll never believe you've done it at all.

Anyway, I think it's fun to keep readers wondering which bits I pulled from real life and which scenes involve activities I just like to think about a lot.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 5, 2012 - 2:26pm

thanks, ladies. it's tricky, and every author has their own style, but it's something that's hard to ignore in the real world, yeah?

Stacy Kear's picture
Stacy Kear from Bucyrus, Ohio lives in New Jersey is reading The Art of War September 5, 2012 - 3:27pm

Thanks Richard, perfect timing. Just posted a story heavy with sex that I need to edit. Sex seems to creep into most things I write. I use cock, only thing that really works for me. (see, creeps right in there) ;-) 

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. September 5, 2012 - 3:52pm

Penis, dick, cock.  Vagina, pussy, cunt.  Got it.  

(I love lists of threes)

 

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 5, 2012 - 5:07pm

awesome, stacy. hope these suggestions help.

lol, bryan. or, just don't call them anything, and talk about how it FEELS.

right?

oh yeah.

Bekanator's picture
Bekanator from Kamloops, British Columbia is reading Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter September 5, 2012 - 9:27pm

I find most of the sex scenes I find "sexy" are the ones ridden with sexual tension that's based on power exchange. And it's not so much about abuse, but more about personal transgressions. That's what made Secretary so hot. Both parties got some kind of satisfaction out of the sex, and the sex itself both added to their own personal analysis.

I try to do it with my fiction. I think I'm on the right track.

Also, I didn't know that Secretary was based on a book of short stories though, so I'll definitely be checking out Bad Behaviour on my Kindle tonight.

 

Joan Defers's picture
Joan Defers from United States September 5, 2012 - 9:29pm

What? You do not want to hear about manmeat scuttling across a molluscesque landscape, seeking anguished, sticky release?

;-)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 6, 2012 - 7:57am

@joan - yuck. on so many levels.

@bek - excellent point, the tension of a power struggle, right? tops/bottoms, doms/submissives, we all play roles and sometimes those roles shift. how do you offer yourself up, allow the handcuffs to go on, or knife play to come into your bedroom? even the simple act of trusting somebody to perform the most basic of acts on you, it's all about trust. it's about who has control, and even relinquishing that control can be a gift of power. thanks for chiming in. you're definitely on the right track. and for sure pick up Bad Behavior.

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list September 6, 2012 - 3:54pm

The advice here is excellent and sums up what I expect from writers, as a reader. Not sure which is more annoying, sex scenes that promise a pay off and then fade to black before anything happens or poorly written sex scenes that are just awkward. I think every story I've written has at least one sex scene in it and I don't even write in the erotica or romance genres (people may disagree on that though). The concept of sex and sexuality, the act itself, and the dynamic it creates between sexual partners is highly intriguing. I love reading about sex as much as I enjoy writing about it and I'm not sure what that says about me, haha.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies September 6, 2012 - 8:34pm

thanks, sammy. and i appreciate you chiming in. above and beyond the heat and tension, what happens between characters AFTER the sex, right? it can change a dynamic, and it can elevate or release tension. so much can happen. 

connect25's picture
connect25 June 22, 2014 - 8:03pm

sex is very sacrament

to learn this is for grow up

and knowledge to understand deeply

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Teri Skultety's picture
Teri Skultety July 17, 2014 - 2:00am

I just want to say that I still think that this is a great article.

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies July 20, 2014 - 12:59pm

thanks, teri!

Teri Skultety's picture
Teri Skultety July 25, 2014 - 2:33am

You're welcome.

Daniel Wiklander's picture
Daniel Wiklander January 11, 2015 - 4:51pm

I've been thinking about this a lot, since I feel very awkward writing sex scenes. Does it really have to be in the book? Maybe not, Catch 22 as I recall only has one brief mention of Yossarian in bed with the colonel's wife but no explicit stuff. Still a great book. 

There's this writer of crime fiction, Leif GW Persson, very popular in his native country of Sweden, who skips the bedroom stuff altogether - but instead describes a number of delicious dinners the way others would describe sex :)

Richard's picture
Richard from St. Louis is reading various anthologies January 11, 2015 - 5:00pm

no, of course not, you don't have to write sex if you don't want to. but if you DO WANT TO, that's what this column is all about, how to make it work. and i will say that it's important to master tension of all kinds, and physical, tactile sensations, with sex, sexuality, passion, lust, all just being one small part of who we are as human beings. i think there will be instances in your stories where it may be crucial to be sexual, in some ways, in order for the characters, the situations to be believable. how much his always up to you.