How (Not) to Write a Sex Scene

The nominees for Literary Review's annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award have been announced. The Bad Sex in Fiction award was established in 1993 by the magazine's then editor, Auberon Waugh, in order to "draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it."

The 2011 shortlist includes some big names: Haruki Murakami, nominated for 1Q84, Stephen King for 11.22.63, James Frey for The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, and Chris Adrian for The Great Night, among others. Previous nominees include Jonathan Franzen, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Tom Wolfe, Joyce Carol Oates, and Philip Roth, who -- surprisingly -- has only been nominated once. John Updike holds the distinction of possessing the sole Lifetime Achievement award.

Literary Review has begun posting excerpts from the nominated works on Twitter. Recent posts include "Now he realised that he was inside her, ejaculating toward her uterus" (from Haruki Murakami's 1Q84) and "at the end she began to gasp 'oh dear, oh my dear, oh my dear dear god, oh sugar!'" (from Stephen King's 11.22.63).

The award is about bad prose, not bad sex (although the two are certainly not mutually exclusive). In a recent article for the Financial Times, Jonathan Beckman, senior editor of Literary Review, explains:

"'[B]ad' refers to the quality of the writing rather than the nature of intercourse. Unsuccessful, unpleasurable or abortive sex does not qualify per se; nor does kinky, brutal or unwanted sex, however unpalatable that may be."

An incredible number of literary heavyweights have been insulted with spots on the Bad Sex shortlist over the course of the past 19 years. Which begs the question: Has sufficient attention been paid to the art of writing sex scenes? Are authors unaware of the wealth of writing tips to be gleaned from Cosmopolitan's monthly Red Hot Reads?

I suspect not. With this in mind, I would like to offer the following advice to writers who want to craft good sex scenes:

"Penis" is not a sexy word. Use "member" instead. Or "package." Or, better yet, use both. Said members should be described in terms of length and rigidity. You should take care to include the word "throbbing" at least once. The appropriate female euphemism is "mound."

All participants must orgasm. Preferably simultaneously. And preferably multiple times. You are encouraged to use words typically associated with liquids when describing orgasms. A few strong examples from stories published in Cosmopolitan: "When he thrust, an unexpected pleasure rippled through her" (Karen Rose, "Scream For Me"); "Tiny waves of pleasure were still undulating through her body" (Eden Bradley, "Forbidden Fruit"); "She cried out his name as tremors rippled throughout her body. It was like an explosion of pleasure inside her, and she gasped at the sensation" (Christie Ridgway, "Must Love Mistletoe"). I also recommend "tsunami," "flood," "hail," and "waterfall."

The more metaphors, the better. If you use enough metaphors, your prose can become as powerful as an earthquake that registers an 8 on the Richter scale. Similarly, I recommend using as many adjectives as possible. You would be well served to keep a thesaurus nearby when writing and consult it regularly.

With the help of these tips, you, too, can write a sex scene that's worthy of distinction.


Jonathan Beckman acknowledges, "It is easy to dismiss the Literary Review Bad Sex Award as manifesting a peculiarly English attitude to sex that is both prurient and prudish."

Indeed, in a recent article for The Guardian, Honour Bayes describes the award in precisely these terms:

"The Literary Review looks down from its lofty position and gets ready to name and shame the author responsible for the worst sex scene of the year. But who are we [the British] really to judge?"

Hayes transitions into a criticism of the dearth of sexiness in British theater, contending that "sexiness is most real on stage when it is unaffected."

The same is true of fiction. Bayes misses the point of the Bad Sex Award, and, further, her criticism of British theater in fact parallels the ideology behind the award. Good sex writing, Beckman explains, is "clear, precise and...generally unobtrusive and undemonstrative." This is the kind of writing that Literary Review hopes to encourage.

Submissions for additional nominees for this year's award are still being accepted, but my bet's on Chris Adrian's The Great Night, which includes:

"...he rolled himself on her and off her and poked her now from the front and now from the back and now from the side" and "not actually knowing if it would be triumph or defeat until he came, standing, with both hands thrown high up over his head and his lady lifted to the stars on his impossibly stiff, impossibly eloquent cock. He came and came and came and fell backward."