You know those times when I can come off as a pretentious arty idiot? There's one near the end of this blog. I'll give you warning before it happens.
Why are we scared of sex scenes?
Okay, sure, there are writers out there who don't shy away. I'm sure even as you read this, you can think of enough examples to shoot me down in flames. But I think I'm on solid enough ground when I say that many of us -including me, originally- shy away from writing sex scenes.
I wonder why this is. I've been wondering for a while now. And I've asked people. Online, on ello and facebook. In person, at the bar at Bouchercon.
We're crime writers. We like to write about some of the darkest, most challenging moments in the human experience. We write violence. Death. Misery. Blood. Guts.
Sometimes, if we want to appear edgy or cool, we write drugs. We pretend to get all transgressive and do things that chalenge the reader.
But write a simple, fun, exciting or emotional sex scene? Hooo boy we can't run away quick enough.
Some of the writers I've spoken to say it's fear; fear that readers might think we're writing about ourselves. Well, firstly, who cares? We're writers. There is a bit of us in everything we write. Secondly, if I'm willing to write about some old guy being beaten to death with a stick, without worrying that the reader might assume I've gone and done that for research, then why the hell should I be worried they'll think they're reading about my own kinky sex habits?
I worked hard at avoiding sex in my work for a long time. My protagonist in Old Gold get's down to it twice during the story, and I went out of my way to avoid having to really write any sex. Here, I'll quote some of it at you;
"It was easy and functional, and we both seemed to enjoy it. It was sober sex, something I'm not used to. We smiled as we went. We didn't make too many mistakes."I'm doing a lot of heavy lifting there to avoid dealing with any actual sex, and when I read it back, that heavy lifting is all I can see. I can see the nerves, the awkwardness of a first-time writer trying hard not to be laughed at.
But what single moment can we find in any story (any lifetime) that reveals more about a character than while they're naked with someone else and trying really hard to get off? When do we see anyone in a more emotional, honest or vulnerable state? Or, alternatively, if the scene shows that they still have their guard up, that they're still playing games, then that says more about them than just about any other scene. Sure, we can say violence reveals character, that trauma or high-stress reveals character, but why rely on those moments when there is something simple, easy and relateable that we can get to with far less plot mechanics?
A second answer that has come up in my conversations has been the reader. Maybe we'll turn away the reader by throwing in some sex scenes. Sure. Maybe. People's tastes vary, and every book you ever write will lose somebody. I've written about violence, racism, politics, drug use, grief, death; somewhere in there I've probably found things that have made a reader put the book down. On the individual level, that's absolutely fine. But on a larger level, if we're worried that en masse readers can handle death, violence and brutality, but baulk at a little sex, then there's maybe a deeper conversation we need to be having there.
My second book Runaway Town features no sex at all, though the plot features sexual assaults related to us through memories, so I still think I made the right call there. By the time of Lost City, I was well aware that I had the fear of the scene. And my approach to writing is that if I'm scared to write something, then I have to write it. So Lost City opens on a sex scene.
Fear is good. We need to use it. Channel it. Fear tells us what we need to write next, not what we need to avoid.
Which brings me to the other point that writers have made; The bad sex awards. More than one writer has mentioned to me that they don't want their work to show up on the list. Yeah. Fine. There's a chance it might. But you know what? There's a chance all of your work might suck. Everytime we sit down in front of the blank page, we are jumping off into the unknown. (Warning, pretentious wanky bit) But what kind of artist backs away from doing something for fear of being laughed at?
Remember that time Sandra Bullock turned up to collect her Razzy in person? Too right. Fucking own it. We can fail at all of this, but we should embrace that.
If writing is about any two things, it's about trying to fake a sense of emotional honesty and about doing something that brings with it the real possibillity of failure. If you know exactly how to write your next project, I would suggest it's time to find a new project. Find the one you might fail at. Find the thing you're scared of. And you won't find a single, simple, human act that relates emotional honesty better than a sex scene.
As with violence, it is often true of sex: the less said, the better. Too many sex scenes turn into inventories of acts and body parts. Frankly, I liked the description you used as an example. It told us what we needed to know about the act without slowing things down. Just as I would not give an extended, detailed description of a violent act--no more than is necessary to plant what I want in the reader's imagination--I see no need to do more than get the idea I want across with sex. Point the reader's imagination in the right direction and let them go. They'll always do a better job of it than we can.
Well, yes, it's fear. Sex is us at our most intimate, our most vulnerable. And it's something we actually do, unlike all the violence and blood and guts in fiction which most of us never really encounter first hand.
So, yes, it can be a good way to develop character but it's tricky.
It's like long scenes with characters talking about sports - sure, they might develop the characters but only for some readers.
Still, it's just as bad to awkwardly avoid a sex scene as it is to awkwardly describe one.
I think the bad sex awards are a big factor, but I also think any sex scene is going to strike someone or other as the worst ever written. As you say, you can either let it get to you, or you can own it. And because my main series character is a prostitute named Diana Andrews, I have no choice but to own it.
I think some of my sex scenes come across as mechanical, but Diana's profession gives me some cover. It's hooker sex. It's usually mechanical, but there are intriguing exceptions.
One reason I depict her working is to avoid looking like a sitcom in which people with no visible means of support live enviable lives. Another reason is to show how she has acquired her understanding of human nature.
Maybe a little off topic, but I ended up at a short story panel at Bouchercon and the question came up, what is outside your comfort zone as far as writing or something like that. And one panelist said, well, I guess I'm a little afraid to tackle rape. And then another panelist said, I've written about rape, and I don't really think there is any topic that I've felt to uncomfortable to write about. But it was interesting that the first speaker was a man and the second was the only woman on the panel.
Fantastic post, Jay.
I like to skim the actual sex act (I think in general our imagination can be sexier than anything we read) but I definitely like to touch on the emotions surrounding desire and the act itself. It is a great way to really make our character relatable, I think.
As I said, my only fear is that I can't describe it as well as someone can imagine it.
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