One of the most daunting things for a writer can be writing a sex scene. Writing about sex is something many writers avoid or manage through implication or omission; and sometimes that’s fine, sometimes that works best with the fabric of the novel. But sex is a huge part of life and while we may not want gratuitous sex in our novel – we are not writing erotica – sex may be integral and therefore hard to avoid. So why do we avoid writing about sex? I would suggest there are several compelling reasons:
- we don’t want readers to take the book for something it’s not – in my experience it takes only the odd sex scene for certain readers to do a nudge, nudge, wink, wink, or quote page numbers at you, which can feel very demeaning
- embarrassment – we think of all the people we know who will read it – our families, children, friends, our mothers!
- readers will assume because we are writing about sex, however deviant it might be, that we have been there and done that or perhaps want to – assumptions which are often crude and untrue.
- the language for writing about sex is tricky. What words do we use? The naming of parts – genitalia – can give us a real headache or should I say – ball ache?
We don’t seem to mind writing about every awful thing from say, the horrible death of a child, to violent, abusive relationships, cruel assassinations, prostitution etc but we shy away from writing a sex scene.
Barbara Kingsolver in Writers On Writing – Collected Essays from The New York Times says:
‘Great sex is more rare in art than life because it’s harder to do. To write about sex at all, we must first face down the polite pretence that it doesn’t matter to us and acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, nothing could matter more. In the quiet of our writing rooms we have to corral the beast and find a way to tell of its terror and its beauty. We must own up to its gravity. We must also accept an uncomfortable intimacy with our readers in the admission that, yes, we’ve both done this. We must warn our mothers before the book comes out…’
When my novel The Orchid House came out – it’s a novel in part about sexual obsession – my mother was no longer alive but I warned my father who likes to read everything I write. I simply said, ‘there’s a lot of sex in it dad, so you might not want to read it.’ I gave the same warning to my children.
When I first sent The Orchid House to my agent her response was ‘the sex is great, put more in it, the French do …’ So I did, but ultimately that felt wrong and when the book came back into my hands – after what was a close call with a big publisher – I made sure the writing about sex was as I’d originally intended.
So we know the territory of writing a sex scene but how to do it?
Firstly when writing about sex I think you have to decide to throw caution to the wind and forget your blushes,then:
- don’t deal in clichés especially when it comes to genitalia, penetration and orgasm – no throbbing members, or crashing waves.
- remember sex is much more than this final act,
- choose your language carefully, but be specific.
- Make it unique, come at it from what Natalie Goldberg describes as ‘across the shore…’ not necessarily head on – come at from eating a melon, swimming naked, from silk, from chocolate, use what is sensual.
- think of the body as your landscape,
- write freely with no self-censorship go for it, then see where you arrive, you can always edit it later
- write as if no one is ever going to read it then have the courage to use it
- read ‘A Big Topic :Eroticism’ Natalie Goldberg – Writing Down the Bones
‘Eroticism is a big word. If you are nervous look around the room. Begin with something small and concrete – your teacup in its saucer, the thin slice of apple, an Oreo cookie crumb on your red lips…’ N Goldberg