Writing Sex Scenes (and: worst and best sex scenes?)

Jeff VanderMeer • March 10th, 2009 @ 3:18 pm • Writing Tips

NOTE: IF UNDER 18 OR EASILY OFFENDED, DON’T READ ANY OF THIS. REPEAT: GO. AWAY. NOW.

Might as well resign myself to the fact I’m going to be working on Finch 24-7 and taking little breaks, so I will be touching base here from time to time as warranted…

I’ve been thinking about sex scenes because Finch has two such scenes, both explicit. They’re important because they help define the relationship between two characters.

But the fact is, writing sex scenes is a little like writing about characters having lunch–not inherently dramatic. You could say that this is true of any kind of scene, but sex scenes have an additional danger: they have the potential to throw off the balance of the story or novel because the reader’s interest in and reaction to them is disproportionate to their importance in the context of the narrative.

Whether you’re writing an explicit or more subtle sex scene, you first need to make sure you have a reason for including it. Then it’s best to keep six things in mind:

(1) Get the choreography right. Basically, you can’t have someone on their stomach in one sentence and then on their back in the very next sentence unless the reader gets some transitional clue. You can’t have bodies interacting in ways where you can’t clearly understand the ebb and flow of the physical acts occurring. So, in a sense, like any scene, you have to have at least a rough idea of sequencing. Otherwise, unintentionally laughable effects are bound to occur. Keep in mind, too, that in the context of a sex scene the choreography is always going to tell the reader something about the relationship between the participants. Stilted, awkward sex is certainly a tell of some kind. Playfulness is another indicator.

(2) Get the physicality right. Um, sex is a very physical act, engaging all five senses. You don’t want to overdo that aspect, but if you don’t include that physical element, your scene is going to read like two stick figures are getting it on.

(3) Don’t use offensive or stupid terms. Several words leap to mind that are either offensive or stupid in the context of a sex scene. You should know what they are, and I’m not going to repeat them here. Just be aware of your terminology, because if you make a mistake or use something inappropriate to the context, your sex scene will either turn people off or annoy them. Terminology should not bring the reader out of the story.

(4) Beware of metaphor and simile. I would suggest using metaphor and simile sparingly in sex scenes. Such devices can get you into even more trouble than inappropriate terminology. Use of comparisons to avoid being explicit or to add drama can land you in much more trouble, and contribute to appearing on the laughed-at end of the sex writing spectrum.

(5) Don’t use web pornography as your research. Received ideas are generally bad. Received sex in our increasingly porn-centric world isn’t the kind of research you want invading your scene. As ever, you are looking to portray individual, specific moments that pertain to the specific characters you’ve created at a particular time in their lives. (Also remember that web pornography tends to be male-dominated and increasingly reflects male power trips, which also limits its usefulness to your story or novel.)

(6) Keep it brief. I have to go back to the meal analogy, no matter how much giggling I hear from the peanut gallery. Would you show a character eating a meal over five or six pages? Probably not. Keeping sex scenes brief tends to get rid of a certain repetition that sets in–a real snooze-fest, at least in fiction. Brevity also protects you against magnifying your mistakes. If writing sex scenes is not your thing but you have to attempt it, at least the reader will only have to endure four paragraphs of your catastrophe, not four pages.

No rule about writing is written in stone, but I think these six points might be of use.

What sex scenes in fiction have you found particularly good or particularly bad?

50 Responses to “Writing Sex Scenes (and: worst and best sex scenes?)”

  1. Eric Rosenfield says:

    The worst sex scene I’ve ever read may be the one found in Charlie Stross’ Singularity Sky

  2. Elizabeth Cota says:

    I’m not sure that we are supposed to name names here, but since I approved of every sex scene in the book, I think mentioning Shannon K. Butcher’s name is okay. The book is “No Control”, and I think of a few of her scenes when you mention using all of the senses.

    Out of context, thinking of nostril’s flaring sounds a little strange, but in context it worked very well. Again, another potentially cliche “in the shower to confuse listening devices” scene used the potential lack of privacy and the need for silence to increase the intensity of all the other sensations. Seeing his boots inside the shower and imagining that discomfort frays the edges of the moment. Feeling cold tiles and hot water…

    I think Jacqueline Carey is the best I have ever read, though, at choosing just the right degree of detail. Describing any of it wouldn’t do it justice.

  3. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I think the rule of protective hierarchies applies here. Which is to say, Salman Rushdie is impervious to your scorn but Joe/Josephine Midlist who may have a blog in the community and be active online…perhaps we don’t have to ruin that person’s day…

    Jeff

  4. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    And that’s a good point–the context of the setting!

    jeff

  5. Bill Ectric says:

    I like the sex scene in Wake Up, Sir! by Jonathan Ames. The story builds playfully up to that scene, and Ames somehow makes it passionate and cute at the same time.

  6. J M McDermott says:

    Sex scenes, to me, are just a different kind of action scene, and face many of the problems that come up during action scenes. Is the “action” plausible? Do the movements between “rivals” gel? Does the escalation inside the context lead to… *cough* for lack of a better term, narrative climax? Is the length appropriate to the fiction form? (The only thing worse than a tediously long sex scene is a tediously long action scene…)

    Also, I see long form fiction as a gesture of tension and release, Action Scenes and Sex Scenes are generally tension release scenes, where the elements of tension cross wires and re-form in new shapes. Thus, they’re only as good as the tension build-up prior. And, if they are tension builders, they are only as good or useful as the line of tension that they carry.

    Who does it poorly? Worst sex scene I ever read was in Umberto Ecco’s “In the Name of the Rose”. Nothing else even comes close to being that bad, that I’ve read. Even cheesy sex scenes have a kind of humor to the author’s foibles. Eco’s sex scene was straight ahead and ruinously bad. He’s lucky I finished the book after considering stopping a few times in the sex scene.

    Who does it well? I recently read Palimpsest, and found it excellent in many ways, including how Valente handled writing so very, very many sex scenes in one book, each different and original and true to the humans in the fictive room, that also managed to move the narrative forward.

  7. Zak Jarvis says:

    I snuck sideways into writing by starting with smut (porn, erotica — I refuse to make a distinction because the politics of that terminology piss me off too much, and so I always refer to my own stuff with the most pejorative term). The most interesting thing I’ve learned is that the author’s fear of revealing too much by writing sex is nothing compared to the reader’s obliviousness to what they reveal in commenting about your sex scenes.

    As for language, I’d say no words are off the table. It depends on character and tone. It’s easy for me to imagine making anything work. However, ‘work’ and ‘work for lots of readers’ don’t overlap as much as my writer-brain wants them to.

    Your point about balance is extremely useful though, and something I hadn’t considered as much as I should’ve. It’s tricky though, because beta-readers (in my experience) bring extremely variable ideas of what is too much and not enough.

    Amusingly, Imajica had both some excellent sex scenes and some badly perfunctory ones, but it’s been years since I read it so I can’t pinpoint them.

  8. Luke Jackson says:

    The semenical work in the field is probably literary auteur Bill O’Reilly’s masterpiece of smut, Those Who Trespass:

    “Ashley was now wearing only brief white panties. She had signaled her desire by removing her shirt and skirt, and by leaning back on the couch. She closed her eyes, concentrating on nothing but Shannon’s tongue and lips. He gently teased her by licking the areas around her most sensitive erogenous zone. Then he slipped her panties down her legs and, within seconds, his tongue was inside her, moving rapidly.”

    I’m thinking lizards.

  9. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    This is great stuff.

    JM–are you saying you think action scenes have the same emotional undertones as sex scenes? I don’t usually find that to be true. This is interesting to me because I wouldn’t think to approach action scenes and sex scenes the same way. Well, maybe this is because my action scenes tend to include several people and my sex scenes thus far only two. I also tend to cut and frame action scenes and sex scenes in a different way. Curious for any follow-up.

    Zak–thanks for that insight. Yeah–I can certainly see that in the right context, any terminology would work, of course. The context in which I usually write a sex scene is fantastical–i.e., the setting is surreal or fantastical, and so although the scenes aren’t stylized, there’s also not much to recommend slang of the type we’re talking about. What do you find most commonly revealed by reader reactions, if you don’t mind me asking.

    Jeff

  10. Magess says:

    I’ve edited some romance novels where #1 was an issue. It’s a problem when I have to do gymnastics to try to determine if there’s any way what the author wrote is physically possible. So… yeah, following a logical flow of movement -and telling the reader about it- is a good plan. :)

    Terms is a tough one because there are so few good ones. You either end up with something vulgar, overly euphemistic, or medical, any of which can seem astoundingly out of place and make you laugh when you shouldn’t. I don’t know that any terms in any of those categories would be wrong to use out of hand, but could certainly be misplaced in a particular instance. Perhaps it’s easier to avoid naming parts as much as possible and aim more for action and sense description?

    I wonder what using slash for web research would result in in terms of only finding male-oriented content, since most slash is written by women. But about men. But not something they have direct experience of. *ponder*

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Fascinating, Magess. Re #1–yeah, it’s obvious but it’s also the main problem I find in most fiction: writers who don’t bother to do the hard work necessary to map things out.

    Jeff

  12. Zak Jarvis says:

    Jeff, some of the most telling examples of reader reactions for me have been private, alas. However, the comments over here fall very squarely into the area of what I’m talking about and I don’t have to violate anyone’s privacy to share!

    I find choosing the right vocabulary for a fantastic setting can be a real pain in the butt. I end up doing etymology lookups on all kinds of common words, and making matters even more fun is that if you try and use language by era you run into problems where words that were common and non-offensive 300 years ago are now either incomprehensible or giant oppropbrium bombs.

    Thus far my solution is to either write close enough to a character’s head that I can use their vocabulary (which is really the easiest way of doing it) or just hew down the middle and use standard anglo-saxon vocabulary. Some readers are going to get thrown out by it, but with the stuff I tend to write the language I’m using is going to be the lesser problem.

    Personally, I’m still feeling my way around developing my own voice, so this is probably more mutable for me than writers who’re heavily inflected. My voice still tends to be very influenced by setting, and I’m in the midst of grappling with the whole ‘novel begs for tight limited 3rd’ thing.

  13. Larry says:

    I wonder if a corollary could be added to your points noting that even if all parts are hummin’ (pun intended?), there still will be those to whom any such scenes are going to drag. One of those “taste” things, where some don’t care much for action/adventure stuff (I rarely can stomach such flicks, but the sight of blood doesn’t bother me) because they like for stories to focus on other matters. Most sex scenes leave me indifferent, perhaps in part because of what’s transpiring around the sex scenes. Since her novel was already mentioned, I think my own preferences for quick, muted sex scenes muted by enjoyment of Palimpsest. I appreciated the language, the way the stories unfolded, the possible meanings, but I was ultimately left cold because I just didn’t relate at the time to all the physical intimacy that was going on.

    I guess it was a case of an author doing so many “right” things in creating such scenes, only to have a reader whose temperament at the time wasn’t suitable for processing those scenes in an enjoyable fashion.

  14. J M McDermott says:

    Every action scene is different, as is every sex scene. None contain a pure either/or of emotions.

    The two most basic emotions we have are terror and ecstasy. They’re the turing machine binary that builds all the other emotions we claim and name. Down there, way down there, the craft is a movement of arms and legs, grunts and sweating, beating hearts, all racing towards an end where the physical is run down to an emptiness.

    Loving and hating are not so dissimilar, as the cliches always like to remind us. The undercurrent of both strong emotions is a passion that drives the motion of the bones and skin. That passionate motion moves towards orgasm, or towards death.

    The cinematography of the lenses are different, yes. The actual mechanics? Not so much.

    Sleep or die, it’s all the same to me.

    Perhaps I am a boring lover, or a violent one.

    (Reading Magess’ post: TERMS as well! How many times can you write “Gun” or “Knife” or “Thermonucleur Poking Stick” before it gets old. Bad fight scenes mingle bad metaphors, or overuse the same words… The scenes are so similar as to be the same thing to me. Just put vaseline on the lens, or scrape it all off.)

  15. Gary A. Brown says:

    Call me a prude if you must, but I don’t really care for sex scenes AT ALL in my fiction. To me, erotic arousal is not what I’m reading to find. If a scene actually turns me, it makes me to put down the book and take care of other business. And if the scene is bad, then it detracts from the overall story. The best you can do, in my opinion, is dance around it.

    That being said, the scene in Water For Elephants wasn’t that bad. It felt right and didn’t get into anything really explicit.

  16. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Well, this isn’t a call for everyone to start putting sex scenes in their fiction.

    Jeff

  17. J M McDermott says:

    I don’t think authors need to put sex scenes in their fiction. That’s what fan fiction is for.

  18. Larry says:

    True, sex scenes aren’t needed, but I suppose if I were ever to write a novel based on my experiences as a teacher, putting in a sex scene or two might make it a bit “edgy.” Not that I would ever do this…or even write such a novel, mind you, but rather am just thinking about how “sex sells” is pervasive these days.

  19. Marty Stephenson says:

    The scene in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather where Sonny has a quickie during the wedding stands out for some reason, like it said a lot about Sonny, yet it seemed graphic to me but not overly done. Gene Wolfe wrote a scene in one of Book of the New Sun novels (I forget which atm) where Severian and Dorcas are in a rowboat and her dress gets hiked up so that he sees “the little yellow chick…” (I paraphrase) and that’s all he ‘showed’, in fact I think the scene ends there, but it was enough. Those two scenes have stuck in my head over the years. The scene with less, Wolfe’s scene, is rather haunting, more is less with me, I guess.

  20. jere7my says:

    I’m (finally) reading Dhalgren, and I’d nominate Delany for the grand mastership of the SFnal sex scene. His sex scenes can go on for six pages — I was reading one on the bus a few days ago, and spent all twenty minutes of the ride home wondering if the sniffy guy jammed against my shoulder thought I was reading a big ol’ book o’ porn — but I never feel they interrupt the unfurling of his characters. Dhalgren has a sort of a trundling immediacy to its pacing, with blurry scene boundaries and backhanded revelations, so he can just slide into a sex scene without pausing the throughline he’s working; I’m not sure that would work in a more bluntly structured book.

    My first published stories were porn, and the writers’ guidelines were very specific — must have X sex scenes, the first one beginning within the first Y pages, &c. It made for challenges if you wanted to do anything else at all in the story. (And I sure know what you mean about choreography; I used to get brain aches keeping the bits —and the pronouns — straight.) But having done the squelchy close-focus stuff makes it easier, I think, to pull back and imply the details in a non-porn sex scene.

    Brevity also protects you against magnifying your mistakes.

    That’s one of Gene Wolfe’s guidelines for writing, too — “If you can’t make it good, at least make it short.” :)

  21. Marty Stephenson says:

    lol..I meant less is more..lol, I’m tired…

  22. Martin says:

    Several words leap to mind that are either offensive or stupid in the context of a sex scene. You should know what they are, and I’m not going to repeat them here.

    I’ve no idea what they are, can you give me a clue?

    For me the best writer of sex scenes is James Salter.

  23. Martin says:

    Oh, and there is a very good one in ‘Believe Me’ by Ali Smith, collected in The Whole Story and Other Stories.

  24. L. says:

    Out of curiosity I read Charlaine Harris Dead until dark. It turned out to be all about vampiresex and blood and bitemarks… and really badly decribed too, on top of it. In one of the pages they’re in the rainy forest, in the mud having sex and it’s just hilarious! This ruined the whole story, easily. No more Charlaine Harris for me-ever.

    Good sexscenes then? Well, I kind of like the briefly described scenes in Perdido Street Station by China Miéville and the more explicit scenes in Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.

  25. L. says:

    Out of curiosity I read Charlaine Harris Dead until dark. It turned out to be all about vampiresex and blood and bitemarks… and really badly decribed too, on top of it. In one of the pages they’re in the rainy forest, in the mud having sex and it’s just hilarious! This ruined the whole story, easily. No more Charlaine Harris for me-ever.

    Good sexscenes then? Well, I kind of like the briefly described scenes in Perdido Street Station by China Miéville and the more explicit scenes in Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.
    Sorry, forgot to add great post! Can’t wait to see your next post!

  26. J. T. Glover says:

    I’m currently reading Catherynne M. Valente’s Palimpsest and am, thus far, struck by how good the sex scenes are. None linger overlong, all do what they’re supposed to, and none have moved into the laughable. Given what she’s had to say about it in her blog, and some of the buzz, I’m mildly surprised that the sex scenes don’t last any longer–but it winds up a better book for being less voyeuristic.

    Apropos of L.’s comment above, I will never forget the sex-in-the-mud scene from Billy Bathgate. Like a lot of supposedly realist fiction, it was a very interesting representation of reality that struck me as far enough over the top that it really was more a simulacrum of reality than a representation.

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  28. Bill Ectric says:

    I remember a panel of clergymen interviewing Steven Spielburg about Schindler’s List on television, for some reason, and one of them asked Spieldberg why he chose to include a sex scene. The implication was that this guy would like to recommend Schindler’s List to his congregation if only there was no sex.

    I’m paraphrasing here, but Spielberg answered that he wanted to show Schindler as a human and part of being human is having sex, or that the portrait would have been incomplete without that facet of Schindler’s life.

    Does anyone agree or disagree with that?

    Also, J.M. I really like your statement that both action scenes and sex scenes are gestures of tension and release, “Thus, they’re only as good as the tension build-up prior. And, if they are tension builders, they are only as good or useful as the line of tension that they carry.” That is helpful.

  29. Seth Merlo says:

    I think I’d agree with that, so long as the scene isn’t contrived or forced in any way. Like anything, it has to grow naturally from the story.

    Which reminds of Peter Hamilton’s sex scenes in The Reality Dysfunction, which I’ve mentioned in another post. Those, to me, felt very much like #5, which is why I ended up putting the book down. Just gratuitous and (mostly) from a position of male power. Sex scenes that felt more like the author indulging a fantasy than being required by the story.

    One thing I can’t stand in either film or literature is the ‘perfect sex scene’ where both parties totally sync with each other, both enjoy the most perfect climax (often at the same time), and clothes come off with astonishing ease. Very unrealistic and idealised version of sex which clearly indicates that these directors and authors have never attempted to undo a bra or stuck around just after the climax. I’m not saying sex can’t be like that, or shouldn’t be like that, but there’s always a danger when you idealise something.

    I honestly can’t think of any good scenes at the moment. Except that L’s suggestion of Perdido Street Station reminded me that I thought the scenes between Isaac and Lin were very good. The awkwardness of their situation is probably closer to reality than a lot of people would be willing to admit.

  30. Elspeth says:

    I have found that the sex scenes in the entire Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey to be very organic in nature. Of course, she sets it out from the start that sex, in particular priests in service to the Angel Naamah, is going to be a part of the story. It’s not the most important part, as this is a story about the intrigue and politics that take place in a Sovereign nation, but that sex is going to be a part of those same politics and intrigues. She also keeps it as short as she can, with the main focus on the fact that Phedre, the MC, is there for a purpose, whether it’s to gain information, or to fund her freedom from her bonds.

    The worst ones, and I can’t think of an example right off the bat, are the ones that follow none of the rules. I remember reading a “romance” novel when I was young, and one single sex scene went on for twelve pages. TWELVE PAGES! Even at the tender age of puberty, when the hormones were going wild, that didn’t interest me one bit. When I read a romance novel, I want the relationship. And yes, that may mean sex will be involved, but it’s organic, and happens in the story the same way it happens between me and my fiance in real life.

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  32. Carroll says:

    I’d argue the Umberto Eco one (The Name of the Rose). I mean, he’s a young monk who’s never had sex in his life. Of course he’s going to be quoting Latin and thinking in terms of what he’s read in the Songs of Solomon and every other religious-sex text. The scene is congruous with the cadence of the rest of the book. Makes it a very weird sex-scene, but it’s intentional.

  33. J M McDermott says:

    Carroll, I would suggest that “a young monk who’s never had sex in his life” is exactly why it shouldn’t have all those annoying quotations and thoughts and thinking.

    It’s like your first fight in life will not be a ponderous meditation on the meaning of fights in your moral code. Your first fight scene internal monologue would be something along the lines of “WTF!? Wait… What’s happening? Oh… I’m fighting! Right! I’m losing! I would rather be winning! I’m scared! Take that!”

    Even told in retrospect, it loses a lot of the urgency and realism that is achieved elsewhere in the book. The tension of the tale falters in excessive releasing.

  34. Zak Jarvis says:

    I’ve been continuing to think about this, and especially the part about reader comment being more revealing than what was written.

    It’s pretty simple. The writer is not automatically writing ‘what works for them’ in a sex scene. A well written sex scene serves a lot of purposes. Like J.M. says, it’s tension and release. As others have said, it reveals character, it can reveal plot. It can underline theme. It can create a mood, which is really vital to the basic trance-state of reading. In short, a writer in control of their writing is not just putting a scene in that’s intended to be foreplay for the reader. And yet, from a reader’s perspective, more often than not that’s how it’s taken. The reader’s response to a sex scene, much more often than not, is going to be related quite directly to was that sexy to me. That’s just automatically a great deal more revealing than the kind of sex scenes in a story or book. Unless, of course, the writer has built up a body of work that involves characters sniffing discarded items or lovingly caressing collected piles of toenail clippings. That starts looking kind of indicative of personal preference.

    The short version is: that fallacy (whose name is completely evading me at the moment) where readers assume the author is peachy-keen on a thing because it is included versus the reader judging the work based on how it affected them. It’s paradoxically easier for the author to hide than the reader.

  35. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    This is all pretty interesting. I’ve also been thinking about this idea of release, and frankly many action and sex scenes in fiction I don’t think actually end in release–on the page. Which is to say, you can cut a scene to *imply* that in the reader’s mind. But this idea of release also applies to a lot of different situations in fiction. You’re always trying to provide the pay-off, whether it’s now or later. Sometimes a whole novel is about delay for a release at the end. In a sense. But I still don’t like equating action scenes and sex scenes.

    I like the comment above about it all, of course, being situational. When I set out the six things above, it was of course like a baseline of how to proceed. Deviations are of course encouraged, in any aspect of fiction. I personally came up with those six early on in my career when I considered sex scenes to not be one of my strong suits. I also thought my dialogue was pretty indifferent and came up with rules for that. In both cases, the idea was to limit the repercussions of the weakness until I was able to turn it into a strength.

    Anyway, fascinating discussion. And I appreciate it being so thoughtful. You put out a topic like this and you wonder what the level of discourse is gonna be.

    JeffV

  36. J M McDermott says:

    Evil Monkey never showed his grinning, yellow teeth.

    Guess he was too busy doing to be talking.

  37. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Ha!

  38. Edith says:

    Lois Bujold’s Sharing Knife books have some discreet sex scenes which I think worked quite well. They served a purpose and weren’t for mere titillation.

    Elspeth, I used to read romances and 12 pages for a sex scene isn’t outrageous. Lotta describing to do after all ;-). In that particular genre, I think Loretta Chase, Jennifer Cruisie, and Linda Howard do reasonable sex scenes. In a good romance the sex scenes work because we’re invested in the characters and the sex is to further our understanding of the developing relationship. And, yeah, for some, to get their rocks off ;-).

    And there are lots of romances without sex. Regencies and Inspirational come to mind immediately. They cater to some older women and xtians.

    In F/SF, I’d definitely say that less is more when describing sex scenes.

  39. Cora says:

    Echoing what others have said, any sex scene should arise organically from the story and serve some purpose besides filling pages. If a sex scene is just there, because the author thought it was time to include one or because the publisher/line demands X sex scenes per book, it’s likely a bad one.

    Though IMO the main problem with sex scenes are not the truly bad ones, because those at least provide amusement value, but the generic ones that sound like they were cut and pasted from “Writing sex scenes for Dummies”. There’s absolutely nothing to distinguish those sex scenes from a hundred others you have read, nothing specific to the characters or the scene in question. I sometimes suspect that the authors responsible for these generic sex scenes don’t feel comfortable writing them, but feel that they have to because their genre/publisher requires it. Romance novels tend to suffer particularly from the generic sex scene syndrome, because almost all romance novels require sex scenes these days, even if some authors don’t feel comfortable with them.

    Good sex scenes:

    Rachel Caine has a very good one in Ill Wind, the first book of her Weather Warden series, involving two characters who are not precisely human.

    SF writer Linnea Sinclair generally writes good sex scenes as well, which is something of a rarity in the SF genre.

    The sex scenes in the early books of J.D. Robb’s In Death series reveal a lot about the characters who are two very troubled people with trust issues. Both are child abuse survivors, one of whom was also sexually abused. I’m not sure whether the series still needs quite so many sex scenes after thirty books or so, but the first ones used sex scenes to reveal character very well. I’m not quite so happy with the sex scenes Robb writes in her Nora Roberts persona, because they tend to be more generic.

    The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale features a wonderfully realized sex scene between two virgins. The young man is a survivor of child sexual abuse and views all sexual activity as “dirty” and “wrong”, the woman is so naive she literally has no idea what is going on. It’s a historical romance and my main problem with that subgenre is that it all too often ignores historical realities and attitudes towards sexuality in favour of sexual gymnastics that are completely unrealistic for the time period. Kinsale’s scene fits perfectly into the sexual repression of the Victorian era.

    And now the bad:

    The worst sex scene I ever read was in a reissue of Demon Rumm, an approximately twenty year old romance novel by Sandra Brown (who is a mega-bestseller these days, so I don’t think complaining about a badly written 20-year-old book is going to harm her). The books was bad in general, with an obnoxious male character who kept on pushing himself on a woman who wasn’t interested and a big secret that turned out to be very pedestrian indeed. And the sex scene was afflicted with some of the worst purple prose I’ve ever seen. My favourite was the male character wanting to “bury his throbbing shaft in the fist of her feminity”. My initial thought, “Uhm, why don’t you use fist of masculinity and leave the lady alone?”

    There is one prominent SF author who shall remain nameless whose sex scenes always make me wonder whether he ever had sex in his life.

    There also was an SF romance by an author who shall also remain nameless which wasted a whopping seventeen pages of a rather slight book on a marathon sex scene, which involves the two protagonists – imprisoned by the villain and about to be executed in the morning – engaging in a marathon sex scene which involves smearing each other with the juice of the fresh fruit their jailers had kindly provided for them (in a world where fresh fruit are exceedingly rare and precious). The sex scene wasn’t the only problem with the book, the worldbuilding was weak and the whole thing felt very claustrophobic, because it mostly focussed on two people locked in a cell. Oh yes and the poor male protagonist suffered from a case of constant erection, which must have been very uncomfortable indeed.

    Finally, my biggest pet peeve with sex scenes is lack of condom use. I accept a missing condom if the novel is historical fiction, SF, where birth control and STD issues may well have been solved, or fantasy where the rules of the real world do not apply. But in any sex scene in any novel set in the real world after approx. 1985, there had better be a condom or a very good explanation for its absence. And if one partner is a time traveler, alien, werewolf, vampire, demon, etc… the condom issue should at least be addressed. Stacia Kane does this very well and with very few words in Personal Demons.

    Outside SFF

  40. Cora says:

    Echoing what Edith said just above, Jennifer Crusie and Linda Howard generally write good sex scenes, though I have issues with the power dynamics in some of Howard’s older novels.

    Indeed, the climactic sex scene in Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me involves bondage, playing with chocolate cream doughnuts and several people barging in on the couple about to consume its longing for each other and it still manages to be intentionally rather than unintentionally funny.

  41. Gary A. Brown says:

    JeffV wrote: Well, this isn’t a call for everyone to start putting sex scenes in their fiction.

    And I’m not trying to force anyone to conform to my preference for fiction. I’m just letting it be known that there are those like me who dislike “sex scenes” in fiction, not because we are morally conservative pricks, but because we just don’t tie that relate that aspect to art. I like my porn and my art separate, and I realize this is purely a matter of taste.

    On the other hand, I tend to include all kinds of content that makes readers uncomfortable. For instance, I did a short piece designed as a suicide not/confessional by a guy who was depressed, but found that kiddie porn helped him out of the dark downward spiral. (Eventually, he goes on to reveal that kiddie porn is part of a puzzle that has helped him unlock immortality, and wishes to test how impervious he is to bullets.) However, the way in which I approach the topic is not to give any choreography for the pedophilia (… I mean, how repulsive would that be?), but to allow the mind of the reader to fill in what it will. And I think this is why so many people hated the piece. Which doesn’t say much for my potential sales… but it says a lot for the power of “dancing around” the scenes, because the concepts are what further the story, in my opinion. Not the details.

    Though, let it be known that I think you advice is GREAT for anyone who wants to write sex scenes. I just still probably don’t want to read them. $:-}>

  42. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Oh, sure, Gary. I wasn’t meaning to sound like you were trying to make people conform. Problem with being in a hurry and posting a comment.

    Jeff

  43. L. says:

    Off topic:
    now I noticed that someone been spamming you and used my name up there, embarrassing. I meant the stuff about Miéville, Ellis and Harris though.

    *going back to the-busy-student-mode*

  44. Get Off « Everything Is Nice says:

    [...] a comment » Jeff Vandermeer sets out his six rules for writing sex scenes. I am stumped by rule three though: (3) Don’t use offensive or stupid [...]

  45. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    A really bad example pointed out by GV: http://vandonovan.livejournal.com/1088311.html

  46. (Dianne) Fox Writes » Wednesday Round-up (a day late) says:

    [...] Jeff Vandermeer talks about writing sex scenes. [...]

  47. Neddal says:

    Harry Crews has a great one in his essay “The Car”. There’s “Crash”, which is essentially one long sex scene. Henry Miller stuff… ‘Course it’s all context.

  48. Carmelo Censky says:

    yahoo camgirls here to have fun. With so many different sites out there try out this one.Live

  49. Writing love/sex scenes – some thoughts | Procrastin8or's World of Words says:

    [...] fiction writer Jeff Vandermeer discussed this in a blog post several years ago. There is some practical advice here and I have to agree with everything he says. As one of the [...]

  50. procrastin8or says:

    I know I’m very late to the party here but in Jean M. Auel’s Earth’s Children series we see a microcosm of the very best and very worst of sex scenes. In the second book of the series (Valley of Horses), the sexual tension is in itself incredibly erotic. When the two main characters finally get to do the deed, it carries you along in their experience of the act.

    In the latter books, the sexual aerobics descend into absurdity, are prone to exaggeration with some pretty awful narrative.

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