To Write or Not Write That Sex Scene

Why not fade to black and leave it all to the imagination?

The reader’s imagination is a great thing and shouldn’t be underestimated.

The comments on yesterday’s post made me think about several issues when deciding whether or not to write a sex scene. I’m no expert at writing such things, so this is mostly thinking out loud.

There are all these categories! Porn, soft porn, erotica, romance… Some people may argue that some of of these categories are the same. That may depend on if you think any a picture of a naked lady is always porn that should be hidden in the back of a closet or if it is sometimes art that should be displayed in a gallery.

Strictly speaking I’m not writing a romance. The genre of romance requires the happily ever after ending. So if you want your book to be in that romance section of the book store, you must have a the-couple-gets-together ending. I don’t have that kind of ending.

And I’m not writing a book, but a short story. Still—-there is no happy ending.

Even if I keep the sex scene in the story, I don’t think it qualifies as porn. Porn doesn’t give two fig leafs about relationships and complex emotions. My story is—-or I hope it is—-about my main character’s conflicted feelings.

I don’t think my story qualifies as erotica either. And what, might you ask, is the difference between erotica and porn? I found this interesting perspective here. Since my main character is male and I never say what is going on the minds of either the girlfriend or the other woman, the story doesn’t seem to meet the basic criteria for erotica.

And well, good golly, that’s not what I’m trying to write!

But if you write a sex scene are you automatically in one of these categories? I shouldn’t think so. I hope not.

I find it odd that people who have no hesitation in writing violence—-using various instruments used to puddle brains on the floor—-become squeamish about writing a sex scene. Sex is at least a normal part of life. Most people are going to have sex. Not that many people (one hopes) are going to butcher their neighbors. Of course, it is probably just such familiarity that makes the subject difficult.

Of course, we’ve all heard—-and any glance at advertising will tell you—-sex sells. This isn’t enough of an argument to include a sex scene, unless selling is all you’re interested in. First, there are people who don’t want to read stories with sex scenes. Second, nothing should be in a story that doesn’t reveal character or move the plot.

Well, how a character thinks and feels about sex reveals character, and whether or not the character has sex probably does move the plot.

But in the story I’ve been working on, can the intimate relations between the characters be off-stage?

The tension in the story starts with will he or won’t he cheat on his girlfriend? And I really want the reader to sympathize with my main character. I may loathe the likes of David Vitter and John Edwards (the list is long there, but we don’t have time for that), but I also don’t think every person who cheats is an automatic sleaze. That’s too simplistic. If I’ve done my job, you might think the character an idiot, but you might feel kind of sorry for him.

And I don’t want the reader to think the main character has left his moral conflict at the door.

To up the tension in the story, the main character may very well be caught. Sure, the girlfriend could catch him by finding a letter, lipstick on his collar, or text message, but let’s be honest, that just doesn’t have the immediate drama of being caught in flagrante delicto. I’m not saying he is caught. (spoilers!) But he might be.

And what I would really like if I could pull it off is to create a conflict for the reader—-to want him to get away with what he’s doing but not want him to hurt his very nice girlfriend, to want him to get what he wants but to feel bad for rooting for him.

This isn’t going to be a story for people who live in a black and white universe.

This brings me to a conversation I had with coworkers last week. It was a conversation that got a tad bit out of hand, and it started with the question: what is sex? Trying to come up with an answer led to more questions such as is oral sex sex or is rape sex. I am so not trying to answer those questions here (we didn’t really answer them at work either–thank goodness), but it seems that if you’re going to consider whether or not to write a sex scene, you ought to be clear about what you mean and what that might encompass.

This sure is an awful lot of rambling on for a story that may not even be any good. But at least you’ll know a lot of thought went into it.

Your thoughts would be appreciated!

13 thoughts on “To Write or Not Write That Sex Scene

  1. I’m not a prude, but gratuitous sex – just for the sales figures – is a turn off … like characters falling into bed (or onto the table or floor!) every couple of pages. However, I would think in a romance, you must have some on-page sex. I also think you can write it with feeling and flair instead of crude four-letters words. I think a lot of sexual tension is good too. I’m an old-movie watcher – remember the scene in TO CATCH A THIEF when Cary Grant and Grace Kelly were on the couch and the fireworks started to go off … you didn’t see them doing much, but you sure could imagine it.

    1. I love old movies. The romance in them so often feels more real than a dozen romances in movies today. In Casablanca and The Philadelphia Story no one ever even directly mentions sex. Although for the censors they couldn’t, but I think they’re better for it. Sometimes the freedom to do what you want (write what you want) doesn’t lead to better storytelling.

      1. We were watching a documentary the other night about the early years of television, focusing specifically on science fiction: Twilight Zone, Lost in Space, etc.

        In one segment, Nichelle Nichols — who played Communications Officer Uhura on the original Star Trek series — recalled an episode in which the script called for Captain Kirk to kiss Uhura. This wouldn’t have been a big deal except that Uhura was black. Sponsors who heard about it went crazy and called in the producers, who stormed the set and overrode Gene Roddenberry’s and the director’s decision to include the shot, which had already been completed. So they had to reshoot the moment in a way which just showed Kirk hugging her. Satisfied, they left the set.

        Unbeknownst to them, William Shatner — determined to be true to the characters and the moment — had intentionally ruined the shot. When they filmed it, he looked up during the hug, straight at the camera… cross-eyed. It was too late to shoot it a 3rd time so they had to use the take with the kiss.

        Loved that.

        (Not a movie, of course, but your mentioning old movies made me think of it.)

  2. I think you should write what you are comfortable with and allow your creativity to just flow. I also struggled with this in my book but then I did include a number of sex scenes purely because that was the basis of the relationship. I’ve created enough tension in the scenes but ensured there was enough left for the imagination.

  3. Vaughn Roycroft

    It’s funny but I never hesitated to write sex into my story. I worried much more about how graphic my violence should be. As you point out, sex should be a much more natural, beautiful, desirable act than, say, decapitating someone with a broadsword in battle. Both battle and sex happen in my historic fantasy setting, a lot. The question of what to include for me is a few simple criteria: One, does it impact the character'(s’) development or the story outcome or both. Two, will it enhance the story in a meaningful way, or be a distraction. I don’t put them in to titillate, but most sex scenes, if done properly, should evoke feelings in the reader–in most cases I want them to be turned on, or I’m not doing my job. But having said that, in reference to Karen’s point, I have never considered that these scenes will enhance my ability to sell the book. (I sometimes fear the contrary will be true, but I can’t worry about that if I’m staying true to the work.)
    Funny, but using the criteria above I chose to skip writing a sex scene between two secondary characters, only refering to it after the fact. A few of my beta readers brought it up, saying I should’ve written it. My wife even told me she felt cheated. The subject came up a a dinner party with two other beta readers there, and everyone agreed. I went back and added it. My critiquing editor (WU’s own Cathy Yardley) singled the added scene out in her remarks as one of the most effectly written scenes in the book. Go figure. 🙂
    I say stick with your gut and follow your heart, Marta. Sounds to me like it’ll be perfectly appropriate to the story. The hardest part will be doing it from the male perspective, but I’m confident you can pull it off.

    1. Like I said over at WU, I think gender definitely plays a role. I know, I know that some men have trouble writing sex scenes, but a woman writing one has different issues. Sounds like you’ve got a good sense of what you’re doing and why.

      Oh yeah, I didn’t even get into the whole writing-a-sex-scene-from-the-opposite-gender-point-of-view thing. I don’t know why I think this is a good idea! Well, I don’t think I’d write if I wasn’t also challenging myself and learning something. Maybe I’m foolish for thinking I can write from a male perspective, but seems like I should try. I’m generally terrified of what I’m doing, but at the same time I hate the idea of playing it safe.

      I play safe in real life. That isn’t what fiction is for!

      1. Vaughn Roycroft

        I agree with you about how women and men view, and are viewed, regarding sexual issues.

        Steven Pressfield says that fear is a great indicator that we’re onto something good. Opening ourselves to our potential is frightening. Fear is Resistance’s ultimate tool, so you know when it rears its ugly head you’re headed in the right direction. I was thinking back on writing my very first sex scene, and there was a tremendous amount of fear (five or six years ago). The response I’ve gotten from readers has lessened it, but it’s still there. I already told you about my fear of writing it from a woman’s POV. It’s done and I like it. I also stayed with the woman’s POV on the birthing scene I told you about–just for the challenge. 🙂 I guess I’ll soon see what women think of it.

        Love your last two lines! I’m going to quote you on those (full credit to you, of course). 😀 Thanks for starting an interesting conversation today, Marta!

  4. I’ve read books full of sex that were just mainstream books, not erotica. I guess it just depends on how you treat the sex. If titillation is the point of the story, it’s erotica.

    I agree with Andrea, in that you should write what you’re comfortable with. I experimented writing erotica when I was editing it, and my discomfort showed in the writing. Practice makes it easier to write sex scenes, both reading and writing them. For me, reading about the sex act in detail isn’t necessary most of the time.

    1. Sherri, you and I so often seem on the same wavelength.

      On the one hand, writing what is comfortable is reasonable and smart. On the other hand, writing what is uncomfortable is stretching and challenging. And how do we get comfortable unless we do something for the first, then second, then…time? Well, just like you say—–practice makes it easier.

      Hmmm. The devil is in the details in this, I think.

  5. There are two questions here, and I’m not 100% sure I know which one you’re struggling with more:

    (1) whether or not to include the scene(s) in question, on the page; and

    (2) if you do include it, how do you go about it?

    I like Vaughn’s advice about question #1: go with your gut and your heart. In particular, I’d ignore questions about genre (is it porn? romance? erotica?) and just make the decision on the basis of what the story and the characters need. “It’s genre X!” — or, haha, “It’s genre triple-X!” — is a declaration to be made by someone (maybe you, maybe an agent or editor) once the work is done. I guess if you’re writing for an underage audience you can’t duck the question entirely; but if it’s adult fiction, I wouldn’t worry any more about the genre at this point than I’d worry that some inexplicable event in the story might cause it to be labeled fantasy, SF, or magic realism.

    Question #2 was the one I thought you were asking yesterday and that was more or less the one I commented on then. Again, though, regardless of specific tactic or device, I’d just go with your gut: write it out as quickly as you can and turn to the next scene before you start second-guessing yourself. If on later re-reading you get nervous, you’ll have to decide if the reader or the moralist inside you is responding. If the former, you’ve got your regular writer’s work to do; if the latter, I’d just suggest sanity-checking the passage with a couple-three other people you trust, weighing their responses against yours, and coming to some kind of conclusion. (It’s kinda like questions about whether or not to include “disguised” real people in fiction, or whether to write about politics or religion, or…)

    You really will be okay. I’m sure I’m not the only reader who trusts your instincts (even if you don’t!).

  6. Yes, I should leave the labels to someone else. I guess I wanted to show I didn’t thoughtlessly write the story I’m working on. But other folks can label as they please.

    Oh, yeah. Asking people to read the story for me… :-/ (Is that the emoticon for consternation?)

    As for my instincts, I can’t say I second guess them. More like tenth guess them.

    1. I should’ve thought more carefully… of course you left SECOND guesses in the dust years ago. 🙂

      (That’s a legit emoticon, I think. May be a good thing that WordPress didn’t try to turn it into a real icon!)

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