Monday Musings: Writing about sex is not easy

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by Scott Bury

Writing about sex is not easy

sexy It should be. It should be the easiest thing in the world to write about.

Maybe the headline should be: “Writing well about sex is not easy.” If you’re not careful, it’s easy to slip into pornographic depictions of sexual positions, moans and gasps and twitching body parts.

I try to write truthfully, to show readers what I and my characters think and feel in every situation. I try to be original by examining the naked basis of every movement, sensation and intention. Then I have to edit to make sure I’m not over-writing it. Readers are smart; they can figure things out.

Getting into the swing

To prepare for writing my erotic satire, One Shade of Red, I thought I should see how other writers wrote about sex. Not just writers of erotica, because I wanted OSOR to be about sex and other things, too. I turned to an anthology, a compendium of excerpts of the “best erotic writing in modern fiction” called The Good Parts, edited by J.H. Blair.

Among the writers sampled in this anthology are Don DeLillo, described as “a stylist without peer”; Amanda Filipacchi: “uniquely original”; and the “unique voice” of EL Doctorow.

All well known, all excellent writers. But their work all reads as if … as if it were edited by the same person.

Part of the genius of writers like Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike and William Styron, part of Philip Roth’s breakthrough was their ability to depict the most intimate, sensual and human activity honestly, recognizably and enjoyably. Their ability to write descriptions that we can all agree with. Yes, exactly.

And yet, all these serious writers, the cream of the literati, take a similar approach to writing about sex. They often employ a breathless stream of linked, long sentences, and somehow avoid naming the most important body parts involved. Here’s a typical example from Steven Erickson’s “ARC d’X”:

For a moment he was confused, wondering where she was in the dark, until he realized she was on the bed that he stood alongside. Lying at its edge, she unbuttoned his pants and freed him and put him in her mouth. …

Erickson’s stringing of clauses echoes EL Doctorow’s sex scene in Billy Bathgate:

We lay in the dark cellar of dust and ash, and I was passive and on my back and Rebecca lay on top of me and cleaved herself on me letting herself down with a long intake of her breath which I felt as a cool flute of air on my neck, and slowly awkwardly she learned her rhythm upon me as I was patient to allow her to do so.

It seems that the accepted way to describe sexual act in “serious” fiction (as opposed to porn) is either to link those breathless clauses like Doctorow, or just to hint at it, like Joyce Carol Oates in Last Days:

Now she felt the kiss deepen, and a feathery-light sensation ran through her body, her belly, her loins, a sensation familiar enough but always in a way new, and reassuring, and impersonal; and in another second or two the tenor of the kiss would change and become more serious: the man would part her lips, his tongue would prod at hers, his teeth grind lightly against hers, they would still be smiling but the kiss would have become serious, and Marianne’s plans for the rest of day — was this Saturday? — might have to be substantially altered.

Or like Joan Mellen in Natural Tendencies: “she opened herself to him” and Susanna Moore in The Whiteness of Bones: “He opened her gently.”

Using frank language tends to get one relegated to the “erotica” or “porn” categories. But aside from any prurient interest (none of us have that, right?), just from the style, I prefer a writer who can deal honestly with the one subject that unites all of humanity.

Charity Parkerson is an independent author who has written erotica as well as paranormal fiction and stories that are just plain about people. Here’s an example of her writing about sex honestly and openly — I’m just putting a small sample here to preserve this blog’s PG rating:

He moved a step closer, and she allowed her knees to fall open. Running a hand over the smooth planes of her belly, she made a downward descent. She kept her eyes locked on his as she brushed her finger over her own core. Her eyes fell closed on a moan. She never heard him move, but her hand was pushed away as he licked a path through her curls. Taylor’s mind froze at the feel of his strong tongue. By the time her mind thawed enough to recognize that he was no fantasy, his tongue was being replaced by a much larger organ, and she felt herself being stretched wide. She let out a small squeak as she realized this was indeed a real man [not a fantasy-ed] but he covered her mouth with his own, swallowing the sound.

To me, calling a vagina “herself” seems childish, prudish, embarrassed — as if the writer wanted to be explicit but just didn’t have the guts.

That’s why I will write honestly about sex, and try to put the intentions, sensations and movements into as clear terms as I can.

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Comments

  1. I tackled this topic on my blog. Because I write mystery but with romance, my sole venture into the “full monty” Stolen in Paradise, still gets a one-star about every 5 reviews due to “graphic” sex scenes that really, consist of one extra paragraph or so and naming of parts.
    What I’ve learned: mystery readers don’t want the full monty.
    Romance readers, however DO! but there’s all sorts from Amish sweets to bondage erotica. Proper labeling is super important or readers get MAD.
    So genre and labeling is most is important.
    Here’s my post. The discussions in the comments are totally worth reading!
    http://tobyneal.net/2011/11/22/avoid-the-moist-turgid-pole-for-hotter-scenes/

    • I chafe against the boundaries of genres, and applaud any writer who dares breach them. But then again: know your audience, right?

      Still, the resistance to honest depictions of sex point to our culture’s simultaneous aversion and fascination with sex. I hope that someday, it’ll be normalized. I think we’re slowly getting there.

  2. Very interestingly written post, Scott!. I have come across some scenes where it’s a sex scene that’s depicted however there is no feeling to it, simply because the author was not ‘courageous’ to write it well. Anyways, nice post!

  3. I put this on my website because it is something I always wanted to tackle. I write but not about sex. I read though …a lot. And while I am not in the erotic or romance genre so to speak, I have read some very good although vivid love scenes written well and some written to where I was cringing. This helps to explain it. I thought it would be easy but I guess it is based on your experience a bit too. But it is also about what you want to convey to the reader. Great job.

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