Or, The Catch-22 of Writing Sex Scenes
Writing sex scenes is harder than you might think.
Let me qualify that statement: writing good sex scenes is harder than you think. I don’t mean “scenes of good sex” but “good scenes of sex”–yes, there is a difference, and, yes, a sex scene can be good even though the sex in it is not.
What do I consider a good sex scene? A bedroom rumpus that is:
1. Hot – a sex scene is only successful if it makes my lady parts react.
2. Based on characters involved – sex scenes can very easily become tedious–after all, there are not that many different ways to do it, and if you’re an adult with an active sex life you’ve probably done most of them already. Literally the only thing that can be unique about a sex scene (except for the first few times you read them, when you’re 12 and sneaking your mom’s romance novels) is the specific experience of those specific characters.
3. Honest – “Inspired” might be another word for what I mean here. I have found in my own writing that the only times sex scenes work when I read them back later is if they are based in one of my actual fantasies. Usually written when I am in the midst of creating the fantasy–written on an inspiration.
Which creates the catch-22 of writing (and then publishing) sex scenes: either you write a bad sex scene and have to suffer the embarrassment of having published it, or you write a good one and have to suffer the embarrassment of publicly sharing one of your most private fantasies.
I am not talking about shame here–I don’t feel ashamed of my sexuality–but simply the desire all of us have to keep some experiences private. I don’t need my co-workers looking at me and knowing what gets me hot when I masturbate or the details-changed-to-protect-privacy version of a great bout of sex I had with my husband (last week’s How I Met Your Mother episode got into that, with Marshall and Lily having no stories to tell that aren’t about each other and thus TMI for their friends).
Conversely, I have the human urge to share experiences and the writer’s rejection of limiting what I share only to certain “acceptable” aspects of my life. Writing should be one of the only forums in which a person can operate away from the Satrean “bad faith” and simply be honest. That honesty makes you feel vulnerable and exposed. It is also what draws readers in and makes your words and your story resonate.
So why not, as an author, simply skip writing the sex scenes in the book, as many veteran romance fans will say that they do when reading? Because omitting that experience (in cases where the characters have sex in the story–I’m not talking about romance novels where the love is unconsummated until after the final page) is equally in bad faith with offering a fake experience. If the point of romance novels is to explore love, the process of falling into it and the experience of it in all its shapes and forms and colors, then to omit the sexual experience from that narrative is to imply that sex is not a part of loving.
I am not saying it’s the only part, but it certainly is a part. For example, the first time I felt from my now-husband the sort of tender cherishing that comes only from love was during sex…when we were making love one last time before he went away for a summer, maybe six months into our relationship. The other times we’d had sex we’d had sex; that night we were making love. Nine years later I still remember that night, and that feeling between us as a promise we made long before we said the words “I love you” to one another. If we had not had that particular sex with one another, perhaps we wouldn’t have had enough to hold onto during a summer apart. So there’s a piece of direct experience from my life that says sex matters in courtship and love. Therefore, if I am writing about the full scope of falling in love, for those characters who have sex in the part of their story I am telling, then I am going to share their experiences because the sex informs the story.
And if I’m writing the sex at all, then I am writing it honestly.
In my view there is nothing in between writing honest sex and writing in bad faith sex that, by virtue of its inauthenticity and careful construction, fails to accomplish the one thing a sex scene should accomplish: to make the reader feel engaged by the experience of the characters as if it were their own experience.
In the end, I would be less embarrassed at sharing my honest experience of the world than either propagating cultural myths about female sexuality or writing such bad sex scenes that everyone who reads it thinks “Well, no wonder she writes romance novels: the poor woman obviously doesn’t get what she needs at home.”
As an addendum: If you really want to know how bad bad sex in romance novels can get, I direct you to the Tumblr whose name says it all–Twatspert. Fair warning: There be dragons.