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Let’s talk about sex

January 9, 2011

I know that some people speak adamantly against sex scenes in fiction, and that some believe that they should definitely be there at any given opportunity – the more graphic, the better. Join me as I ponder fictional sex in a fairly PG rated, if perhaps slightly controversial, post.

Personally, I don’t think there is an answer to the question of whether it is a good idea to write (graphic) sex scenes. It would be like asking whether it’s a good idea to describe the protagonist physically or whether it’s a good idea to reveal who the murderer is in the first chapter. It completely depends on what kind of writer you are and what you are writing.
If you are writing a children’s book, then no. If you are writing a novel in which there are detailed descriptions of everything your protagonist does and he has a sexual relationship to someone, it would seem odd to me not to mention it at all.

Some of my stories don’t have any sex. It can be because the characters in it don’t have it, or because it’s really just not relevant to the plot or the characters’ development.
Some stories have sex, but only implied, mentioned in the passing. One first person narrator commented that he and his partner “shifted to an even more intimate position”, and that is how sexually explicit that story ever gets. – It is there, but he doesn’t talk about it.
Other stories do have sex. Sometimes lots of it and explicitly. I recently wrote a story which had very much to do with sexual development and orientation, and it would have felt odd to exclude those scenes. If sex is important, I feel that I have to put it in the story. Otherwise I would feel like saying, “Right, so my protagonist has this hobby, and he goes and indulges in it several times throughout the story, but I’ll gloss it over and not mention that.” Yes, some of my protagonists undeniably have to go to the loo sometimes too, and I generally don’t write about that, but if something of significance actually happened there, I would (it has happened). If they had an epiphany while zippering up or they were particularly interested in the act of using a lavatory, I definitely would include it.
For me, it’s like with most other things in fiction: Is there a reason (plot or character development related) for including a sex scene? Then by all means, go for it. If not, then don’t. I don’t want to put in (or read) a sex scene as a filler chapter. If it’s there, I expect there is a point.

Then, of course, there’s the whole discussion of how to write sex. Some people will give you a set of rules, but I will (once more) claim that it really depends on what you want to achieve.
I’ve tried a few approaches. I’ve done the implied sort of loving sex – the “no genitals named” way. I’ve done the frank, realistic sex complete with unattractive noises or positions. I’ve even written rape. They each need to be handled in their own way. If I am writing about sexual abuse, I am not going to be flattering about it. It shouldn’t be pleasant to write or read. If I’m writing about two people who love each other, I am not going to be clinical and technical about it, but let their emotions take control of the narrative. If I’m writing a comedy, the intimate moments should probably be funny or awkward.
The bottom line is, for me, that sex scenes are like any other scenes. They need to be handled as part of the story they are in.

– Any thoughts? Do you avoid writing explicit content? Do the books you read have sex scenes? Any good (or bad) examples of adult intimacy that you have come across lately?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2011 4:01 pm

    Reading, writing, or watching graphic sex scenes doesn’t interest me. Same for graphic violence and torture.

    It’s not how I want to spend my time.


    • January 10, 2011 10:46 am

      I feel that sometimes I have to deal with adult subjects in my writings. But they definitely have to have a point.
      Thanks for commenting!


  2. January 9, 2011 4:36 pm

    Funny, I planned to have my next topic on my own blog be about sex scenes. But I was going to write it as a humorous (I hope) “how not to write sex scenes.”

    My first novel didn’t call for any sex, so I didn’t include any sex. My second novel had a lot of sexual references, but again, the story would’ve taken a clumsy detour with an actual sex scene. I’m writing my third novel now, and I’m about to write a torture-rape-murder scene (something I never thought I’d do). A few chapters after that, I’ll write sex scenes with an alcoholic sex addict. I’m feeling fairly comfortable with the tasks so far, except I still don’t know how to name body parts without it sounding (to me, at least) like cheap erotica or a medical book. I think I’ll re-read some sex scenes in other novels . .

    Mind if I include a link in my post back to this post? 🙂


    • January 10, 2011 10:52 am

      I’m looking forward to reading your take on it! – By all means, please include a link. I’d be flattered. 🙂
      “Clumsy detour” is a good expression for it. That’s exactly how I feel if I include sex in the wrong story. My last novel only had implications, whereas the one before that was rather graphic because it needed to be.
      As for naming body parts, I usually go with my narrator/protagonist’s vocabulary. Or avoid them as much as possible. If someone “touches him” in a sexual context, the reader often gets where.


      • January 10, 2011 3:26 pm

        Thanks for the tips! Makes sense to use the vocabulary of the narrator / protagonist. I think what I’ll do is get the characters into position (as in a game of Twister), then bring out the action verbs. lol

        My “how not to write sex scenes” post goes up Saturday. I’ll include a link to this post for the “now here’s how to write them” counterpart. 🙂


      • January 10, 2011 7:25 pm

        Hmm, can’t seem to reply to your reply, CM, so I’ll reply to my own.
        Oh, the Twister thing made me laugh. It will made for interesting … positions, I’m sure.
        I’ll definitely check out your post. And I’m glad to be among the “how tos”. 😀


  3. Judson permalink
    January 9, 2011 5:08 pm

    I suppose the word (perhaps) over used word, “gratutitous” still covers it for me. A prime example in my opinion is the otherwise exremely enjoyable novel “Pillars of the Earth” by Ken LaFollette.


    • January 10, 2011 10:54 am

      I can honestly say that I have never used “gratuitous”. Thanks for the commenting and the reference!


  4. January 9, 2011 7:56 pm

    I have no problem with sex scenes when they serve a purpose in furthering the story or adding depth. Even graphic depictions are necessary sometimes, as in the case of the abuse scenario mentioned above.

    That said, I am terrible about writing them. I nodded at CMStewart’s comment because I tend to swing too far toward the technical or the euphemistic, and maybe that’s because the act itself isn’t useful to the story. I’ve established the attraction between my characters, hooked them up, and we all know what happens next. Their interactions afterward are interesting, so I can skip to that. I have exactly one scene where a more graphic approach works, and that’s a date rape scene. Things are bad, things are dynamic, and we *do* need to see what happens next because it’s not predictable.

    Good post. Lots to think about. Helped me define why I’m not having a lot of success with the happy sex scenes.


  5. January 9, 2011 8:01 pm

    P.S. – Film Critic Roger Ebert did a wonderful blog post on effective and moving use of love scenes. It focuses on cinema, but I found it useful for writing, too.


    • January 10, 2011 12:46 pm

      I really like what you said about the act itself not being useful to the story – that’s exactly where I wouldn’t write out a sex scene. It’s a good idea to stick to “afterwards” and the characters feelings/thoughts about the whole ting in that case.
      The date rape scene probably isn’t going to be pleasant to write, but I would probably write it too – especially if it’s not predictable. Sometimes small glimpses in the memory if the victim can be effective, I think, if it’s not necessary to write it all.
      Thank you for the link! I think he has someexcellent points!
      – And I’m very glad you liked the post!


  6. January 9, 2011 8:39 pm

    I spent a good part of last year reading about how to write sex scenes, when to write sex scenes, and also a lot of erotic romances. What I learned is that I don’t write erotica or romances, and even if two of my characters are in a sexual relationship, I don’t have to show exactly what they’re doing in bed. Another thing I learned is that it doesn’t take long to become very, very bored with explicit sex scenes when I’m reading. They don’t turn me on, even at their best, so any book that seems to be written just for that reason is going to turn me off completely.


    • January 10, 2011 1:13 pm

      Good point. If sex scenes are solely there to turn on people (other than the people in the sex scenes), it is erotica or in some cases perhaps bordering on pornography. I’ll admit that I have written a few sex scenes with no real purpose to the plot or character development, but they were tests (one of them in a language I had never written anything remotely intimate in before) to see if I could do a certain style or genre and will never be published.
      Thank you for your thoughts!


  7. January 10, 2011 1:50 am

    I’ve never had reason to write out an entire a sex scene, though I’ve used implication. My characters are usually focused on other things like fighting for their lives, lol.


    • January 10, 2011 1:15 pm

      Well, no reason to write them if there isn’t a reason. Haha, I see what you mean. Incidentally I’ve had sex and a protagonist fighting for his life in the same scene once, but usually it is either one or the other.
      Thank you for visiting! I’ll check out your blog. 🙂


  8. Wist permalink
    January 11, 2011 2:53 am

    I think it can be just as easy to disappoint your readers in reverse by leaving an expected sex scene out. Expected being the entire novel aimed at a mature audience was started by their love for each other which evolved over the course of the entire story only to reach the end where you put the book down not knowing what the author was thinking in leaving it out altogether. The more painful version to this would be where a lame and impossible excuse is slapped down in a few lines near the end of the story to why the main characters never had sex. It doesn’t matter to me whether its graphic or subtle, leaving it out at the wrong times can send a book flying against the wall. If your writing has violence and describes in medically accurate detail the pain being dished out, then I tend to expect that same level of detail given to its sex scenes. This is where anime almost always tends to win when they put sex into their manga and movies. If you read the forums on this you won’t find many posts of disappointment. Fruits Basket? Subtle works. Ninja Scroll? Blindfolding your kids wont save them from the graphic-everything here. But being led on then cheated of it entirely is not cool.


    • January 11, 2011 9:13 am

      Thank you for your comment!
      I think you are absolutely right about the level of details. The story in which I have been most sexually explicit is also the one with most details as to violence/injuries and physical descriptions. In another story, most of it took place inside the protagonist’s head, and it would have been odd to do really graphic sex scenes (yet there were some, implied, because it helped convey the nature of the relationship he was in).


    • January 11, 2011 12:56 pm

      Wow, I havent’seen Ninja Scroll in years, lol.


  9. Karina Gyldenkaerne permalink
    January 23, 2011 5:07 pm

    I am all for sex scenes, implied and explicit, when they feel natural within the story.
    I do think that one problem with sex scenes is, that they tend to draw a lot of attention to themselves. If I think of books I’ve read with sex in them, I vividly remember those scenes, quite often much more than other parts more essential to the storyline.
    Just 1-3 pages of sex take up a lot more space than that in the readers mind.


    • January 23, 2011 7:28 pm

      I think that’s a pretty good point, actually. We do tend to remember scenes that stand out, and apparently sex does that.



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