Is it possible to write a good sex scene?
Several writers, including Tom Scocca, Jeet Heer and Anne Thériault, posed this question on Twitter this week. The Bad Sex in Fiction Awards, distributed by the Literary Review, surface it pretty much annually, and it’s a reasonable question. Some of our most acclaimed authors, along with James Frey, have committed terrible sex to the page over the years, and who could be writing better sex than these applauded men? Gentlemen like Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe were the masters of the literary craft; if sex writing could be mastered, surely they would be the ones to have done so.
Stop laughing, I’m serious.
Translating the sweaty, adrenaline-fueled ecstasy of sexual congress into dry, pruney, black-and-white prose poses certain distinctive challenges. Sexual arousal could not be further from the state of mind in which one typically reads a work of fiction: It’s a physical rush, there’s moisture and quivering and a form of acute sensitivity that has little to do with words or even coherent thoughts. It can also rely on very specific tastes; one woman’s Channing Tatum is another woman’s, well, Channing Tatum. (Channing Tatum is not for me.)
Sex, above all, is cliché. Most adults have it, in fact have it many times, and the basic acts and parts vary little. How many times can you describe a woman’s nipples hardening before the word “nipple” starts to seem anti-sexual somehow?
Given these obstacles, trying to put a reader into such a scene is likely to fail; having failed to become erotic, sex tends to seem ludicrous.
But as someone who has read more than her share of on-page sexual romps in recent years, I have grown skeptical of this idea that all sex writing is doomed to badness. When I read a bodice-ripping passage in a Tessa Dare novel, I don’t cringe at the awkward, labored prose.
Here’s a pretty standard Dare passage, from her 2018 novel The Governess Game:
He took her in strong, fierce strokes with an intensity that thrilled her. Even the gruff, desperate sounds he made were deliciously arousing. When he growled crude profanity in her ear, a naughty sense of excitement shot through her veins. Yet the wilder he grew, the safer she felt. His need for her was so palpable, so raw. As though he would die before he let her go.
Basic, yes. By presenting the passage out of context, I’m also excising all the build-up, the foreplay that might make it actually titillating. It’s not doing anything particularly unexpected in this moment. I would argue, however, that like a good movie sex scene, it’s doing what works: clearly describing a sexual encounter that many readers might want to have.
The best romance novelists excel at this, and the teasing lead-up can make the culminating encounters feel explosive to read; tastes differ, but romance writers Dare, Sarah MacLean and Helen Hoang wrote some of my personal favorite sex scenes of the year.
Then again, a sex scene needn’t be titillating to be well done. When I read a merman-human coitus passage in Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, I might cringe, but only as much as Broder seems to intend me to.
A beautiful look came across his face: flushed cheeks, glazed eyes, lips wet and full. He looked intoxicated, and I felt so proud to be the one intoxicating him. Or was it simply being in a pussy, a wet pussy ― not dry-wet from seawater, but wet with secretions ― that made him look so drunk? Could it be anyone’s pussy? I wanted to believe it was me and that he felt about my pussy like I felt about his cock: amazed, because of who it belonged to.
There’s a semi-seriousness about Broder’s sex scenes that enthralls me; we’re so close to the very real arousal of the narrator, and yet her blunt analysis of the situation is contextually hilarious. It’s a type of sex scene that acknowledges the powerful emotions that can come along with fucking, but also the goofy mechanics of it; it juxtaposes the florid romantic fantasies we have about sex with the banality of the act itself.
Literary novels can also be simply erotic, if they care to be. This spring, I interviewed debut novelist Jordy Rosenberg about his book Confessions of the Fox, a historical novel about legendary jailbreak Jack Sheppard ― in Rosenberg’s telling, a trans man. Jack’s romance with Bess Khan, a sex worker, is one of the central threads of the novel, and Rosenberg didn’t shy away from the physical elements of their love. In our conversation, he recalled the challenges of depicting sexual encounters between a trans character and a female character of color ethically, an additional pressure to add to the already immense difficulty of writing good sex.
But the resulting sex scenes struck me as incredibly erotic, because they honored the vulnerability and care and, honestly, grossness of true passion:
Periodic’lly he dropped his face to her Armpits ― stuffed himself nose-deep ― sucking hard as if air ― real air ― only inhered in the Nooks of her body. He held, toyed with, drenched himself in her Quim…. [H]e loved the Scent, the taste most all. Sweet marshmallow and warm breath, Saltwater threaded with Violet. All these bouquets ― and more ― and more ― He touched her between her thighs until she shiver’d magnificently in his arms.
People who want each other’s bodies want to smell each other and get each other’s fluids on each other and do weird shit; it’s not clinical and it’s not just the word “cum” over and over again and it’s not slurping casually on a gobstopper or whatever.
Notice anything about all the passages I’ve cited? These are not written by straight cis bros. From the way these conversations often unfold, it’s as if good sex writing doesn’t count unless it’s written by a Jonathan Safran Foer or a Haruki Murakami (neither of whom, to my knowledge, has ever written any).
Women and queer people have been successfully figuring out how to write lingerie-meltingly hot erotica for years, and it’s hiding in plain sight. When erotic fan fiction or romance novels become topics of public conversation, the tone is broadly mocking ― “ew, those gross horny fangirls, those warped librarian fetishists,” etc. What that lens obscures is that lots of people are reading sex scenes that they enjoy very much. “Fifty Shades” aside, that many readers can’t be completely wrong.