The Hardest Scene in Fiction: The Sex Scene
If you told me a year ago that I would be an expert on sex scenes in 2021, I would have quit my job before they fired me.
Sex scenes are notoriously difficult to pull off. You can’t get away with much telling. You have to consider the setting. Character feelings. How to show those feelings through action.
Sex scenes are very difficult to write because everything else is stripped away and all you’ve got to work with are the characters and the emotions. There’s nowhere to hide. But that’s also what makes them so powerful. (Nash 2011)
They’re also personal. Horror writers sometimes write about their greatest fears to make the story terrifying. The best scenes are written when the writer is channeling their own emotions. And sex scenes? Well.
Well-written sex scenes are where fiction shimmers. They are a world of opportunity for story-building and if you write adult fiction, you should have this skill in your utility belt. Game of Thrones is often credited with creating “sexposition,” but writers have tapped into this narrative device for centuries. The word was coined because of Game of Thrones, but the concept has been around.
Badly written sex scenes, however, will kill a book. Fortunately, while what makes a good sex scene is rapidly progressing, what makes a bad one is relatively static.
It can mean the start (or the end) of something, and set into motion a series of events. It’s a fact of life, just like birth and death, violence and love — none of which we shy away from when we write, so why is it different? Why should sex be metaphorical and ultimately glossed over, when it’s acceptable to create a vivid description of someone being shot in the face? (Scheuerer 2017)
And a lot of advice out there is outdated. Sex scenes are evolving quickly as time goes on. We are in the middle of a sexual revolution in how we discuss sex and gender. This isn’t just related to sex scenes. The APA updated its style guide in 2019, and one of the most significant changes was the addition of gender-inclusive language guidelines. When editing sex scenes for clients, many of the notes I add wouldn’t have been notes even five years ago.
So few words and so much to describe
When learning how to write sex scenes, I ran into the issue of language. There aren’t many good words to describe sex. The history of the English language is fairly sex-negative, so most sex terms are either ridiculous or medicalized. We consider many words for vagina offensive and terms for penis funny.
And arousal? The only term most of us are familiar with is “horny.”
If you look up books on writing sex scenes like I did when I was first commissioned to write a romance novella, one of the first books that came up was Thinking Like a Romance Writer by Dahlia Evans.
This book has several good words to use, but many of them are also outdated. Derriere is a word suggested for butt, and that really doesn’t work in romance written today. “Secret garden” for vagina is… no. Don’t use that. As an editor, I cross these words out and replace them with simpler terms. They can be distracting.
50 Shades had an important impact on romance and that making terms such as “secret place” seem ridiculous by 2021 standards. In fact, 50 Shades had such a profound impact on romance that I needed to draft another article just to cover it all. I’ve found Naughty Words for Nice Writers by Cara Bristol. to be a bit more helpful by today’s standards. I use both of the aforementioned books when editing sex scenes.
But really, the words you use depends on the mood of the scene. Like any other scene, word choice is critical. If you’re writing, let’s say, a rough sex scene in a mafia romance, flowery language is going to be out of place. If you’re writing a Victorian-era secret romance, then maybe you can get away with “secret garden.”
When thinking about what words to use, don’t think. Just write. You can think more when editing.
Look up what sex feels like for people with genitalia different from you.
This was how I learned sex scenes. And as an editor, I can tell you that a lack of research on this can be a sex scene’s greatest weakness. It’s usually where writers stay on the safe side.
I have zero idea what having a penis feels like. So if I need to write from the penis-having character’s perspective, I rely on research. I’m lucky and have a partner who doesn’t mind me asking oddly specific questions.
But if you don’t have a partner willing to answer your invasive questions in the middle of a workday, Google “What men or women feel during sex,” you’ll get several results. Unfortunately, cissexist language is the best way to get results here since that’s usually how the question is phrased.
But this goes beyond sensation. This extends to common anxieties and emotions.
Make sure movements are realistic.
One of the oddest images I’ve ever had from reading is when a cis woman character was placed on a countertop and then “lifted her hips as an invitation.” I imagined her in bridge pose on a counter. It logistically makes little sense.
I’ve also used my partner to figure out movement in a scene by very unsexily giving stage directions. (“Okay, now put me on the table and stand like this. Hmm. No, I don’t think that description will work. Is this a position you’d be able to stay in? Yeah, I know the pizza’s ready but we’re finishing this.”)
Blocking a sex scene is important because this is where you decide the level of explicit you’re going to write. This is where you can adjust details and remove them. Less movement means less explicit content. More means more you need to describe.
Sex scenes are so easy to mess up on when it comes to movement. And when you’re first writing, don’t worry as much. But when editing, read closely and make sure no one suddenly developed two mouths in different places or turned their head 180 degrees. (unless that was intentional. I don’t judge.)
Lose the Cissexism
Cissexism assumes a penis is always required for sex. It also either fetishizes or runs in fear from trans sexuality. It assumes there must always be shame. It assumes trans people always want “the surgery.” It mystifies or excludes trans characters.
If transphobia exists in the world you’re writing in, it is normal for there to be some nervousness. But if you’re a cis writer, tread carefully here. Do research until you’re not sure. The reason I say this is you’re already too confident and you need to know you can get it wrong.
This post isn’t about the choices your characters make, what they do or say, or how they treat each other. It is about the choices you make as a writer — your narrative choices, how you choose to tell a story that includes trans and/or non-binary characters. In particular, how big picture narrative choices impact the sex scenes in your story. (West 2016a)
Don’t deny a trans character sexuality because you don’t want to do the work. But don’t be a beacon of representation either. Write it like you would another sex scene.
And this goes beyond just the sex scenes. This goes into how the relationship between the characters works. If the other character is cis, don’t have them
If they are a mysterious character, don’t have it linked to their gender. Don’t have the relationship form out of shame or mistreatment. Cis writers often write about cis characters learning to accept trans characters which is an easy hole to fall into.
The truth is cissexism is just bad writing, and it is what constricts sex scenes to a predictable formula. And this includes relationships between cis characters. The formula for a sex scene has historically meant penetration being the MAIN event. It doesn’t have to be. You can have sex scenes where neither character climaxes. Breaking the constraints of cissexism opens a new arsenal of ideas.
Don’t force yourself
Sex scenes are challenging, but if you can write a great sex scene, you can write just about anything. So I highly recommend writing them for practice. But don’t confuse “explicit” with “good.”
Don’t push yourself to write something so descriptive you’re uncomfortable. There are incredible sex scenes out there with little detail. What always matters is the story and if the scene adds to it.
One of the best writing tips I’ve been given is, “If the scene doesn’t progress the story or character (s), it doesn’t matter,” and the same applies to sex scenes. Don’t force a sex scene into your novel just to have one. You can have a good sex scene about bad sex (this is actually the first chapter of my novel. Haha).
And that is the first mistake new writers make when writing sex scenes. Forcing them. They are objectively difficult scenes, but the impulse new writers have to treat them differently than any other scene accounts for 90% of the difficulty.
There are other difficult scenes in fiction: war scenes, beginnings, endings, transition scenes, murder scenes, etc. And what a writer sees as a difficult scene is going to vary! Personally, I find travel scenes difficult, and it doesn’t help that two-thirds of my damn novel are a road trip! Sex scenes aren’t special!
If you take one piece of advice from this article, take “Don’t make sex scenes more than they are.” Don’t treat them as separate from the story, and trust me, they won’t be as hard as your characters are. (Did anyone expect me to not end this with a sex joke?)
American Psychological Association. “Gender.” APA Style, 2019, apastyle.apa.org/style-grammar-guidelines/bias-free-language/gender.
Baczak, Alexa. “All Except One.” Alexa Baczak, www.alexabaczak.com/crocodile. Accessed 6 Apr. 2021.
Bristol, Cara. Naughty Words for Nice Writers: A Romance Novel Thesaurus. Cara Bristol, 2015.
Ellis-Petersen, Hannah. “Fifty Shades of Grey: The Series That Tied Publishing up in Knots.” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2018, www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/18/fifty-shades-of-grey-the-series-that-tied-publishing-up-in-knots.
Evans, Dahlia. Thinking Like A Romance Writer: The Sensual Writer’s Sourcebook of Words and Phrases. 1st ed., CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.
Nash, Jennie. “The Making of a Novel: 7 Rules for Writing Sex Scenes.” HuffPost, 25 May 2011, www.huffpost.com/entry/the-making-of-a-novel-7-r_b_695024.
Scheuerer, Helen. “On Writing And Editing Sex Scenes In Fiction.” Writer’s Edit, 27 Apr. 2017, writersedit.com/fiction-writing/writing-editing-sex-scenes-fiction.
West, Xan. “Writing Sex Scenes With Less Cissexism, Pt 1: Between Characters.” Kink Praxis, 17 Dec. 2016, xanwest.wordpress.com/2016/10/30/writing-sex-scenes-with-less-cissexism-pt-1-betweeen-characters.
— -. “Writing Sex Scenes With Less Cissexism, Pt 2: Story Level Trans-Exclusion.” Kink Praxis, 16 Nov. 2016, xanwest.wordpress.com/2016/11/15/writing-sex-scenes-with-less-cissexism-pt-2-story-level-trans-exclusion.
Wikipedia contributors. “Sexposition.” Wikipedia, 24 Dec. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexposition.
Yin, Karen. “Gender, Sex + Sexuality.” Conscious Style Guide, 4 Apr. 2021, consciousstyleguide.com/gender-sex-sexuality.