Writing about S-E-X (omg Mum please don’t read this)

10 minute read
Author: Jo

Hi. Uh. How’s it going? Cool. So. You wanna pay attention for a second ’cause we need to have a chat. No you’ve not done anything wrong. It’s just, you know, a little one-on-one time, just talking about, um, you know, personal relationships. You know, like sex and that, no big deal. Ha. Hahahaaa. Haaaa. CHRIST THIS IS AWKWARD.

Gif of Eleanor from The Good Place making a cringe face

So look. You might have a sex scene in your story. You might have something a bit sexy that isn’t full sex. You might have characters who are imagining a bit of the ol’ sideways shuffle. Whatever it is, there’s no easier bit to fuck up than the sex bit. The Literary Review even runs an award dedicated solely to celebrating the worst of literary sex, and the Guardian has an entire Bad Sex section on its website complete with requisite puns.

I mean, check these Bad Sex Award-winning beauties:

“My prick was a plank stuck to her stomach. With a swerve of her hips, she turned me over and I was on top of her. She opened her legs, pulled up her dress and, holding my hips over her, pushed my prick against her opening. I was her plaything, which she moved around. Our sexes were ready, poised in expectation, barely touching each other: ballet dancers hovering en pointe.”

Erri De Luca, The Day Before Happiness 

Ummm, okay, Erri. You do you.

“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”

Morrissey, List of the Lost

Dear God, Morrissey, just no. Have you ever seen an actual human being?

“Having got rid of it, there was an aftermath of sorrow in which he needed to be alone; but there was no getting rid of her. ‘Call me Sukie,’ she said, having read his mind. ‘I sucked your cock.’

‘You sure did. Thanks. Wow.’”

John Updike,The Widows of Eastwick 


You get the idea. Heaving bosoms, steaming trains, rocket ships, barrel-rolling breasts (seriously, someone give Morrissey a biology book or something) etc and so on. It’s all cringey nonsense really, so here are our top 10 X-rated tips for writing about the down and dirty.

#1: Less is more

Alluding to sexy times is way more sexy than laying it out like a buffet. Unless you’re Mills and Booning it up, no one wants to see your literary genitals. And really, isn’t the lead up the best bit anyway? All that tension and tingling and the feeling of ‘omg is this really gonna happen?’ that really cranks up the… <heavy breathing> … anticipation? Once you start trying to describe the actual PROCESS then it all kinda goes, well, a bit limp. The best sex scenes are the ones the reader creates inside their head (like a ‘choose your own adventure’ book) – give ’em just enough prompting to get in the mood and then leave them to fill in the raunchy details.

Gif of Frank N Furter from the Rocky Horror Picture Show saying "anticipation"

 #2: Mind your metaphors

We’re still not entirely sure what the fuck is going on in Morrissey’s sex scene, and the juxtaposition of plank-penis and graceful ballet in the De Luca piece is just plain confusing. Writers will apparently go to great lengths to NOT describe sex, and instead choose a variety of weird and sometimes wholly unsuitable metaphors, analogies and imagery to get their point across. Or not, as the case may be. Look, sometimes it works. Sometimes you do feel like a bow string about to snap, or as if you’re spiralling off into zero gravity, or whatever else you do with your sexy bits. Just make sure your comparisons make some sort of sense, yah? What seems seductive and sexy your head can easily fall flat (or sound ridonkulous) when it’s down on the page…

#3: Know your limits (and reader expectations)

While under normal circumstances we’d say don’t worry too much about your target audience while you’re writing, when it comes to sex, it’s worth considering whether it’s genuinely suitable for your story and the kind of people who might end up reading it. Eg: You probably don’t wanna get too gratuitously explicit if you’re writing for the younger end of YA, and if you’re dabbling in memoir you may want to think about the feelings (and litigious nature) of any real life people you’re including in your romping chronicles… On the flipside, you also need to make sure you’re measuring up to your readers’ expectations in terms of fulfilling their sexy needs. If you’re writing a story with a strong romantic element, or have been building up a buttload of sexual tension between two characters, you kinda owe your readers some sort of payoff. [ALL PUNS INTENDED FOREVER AND ALWAYS]

#4: Give the scene a purpose beyond the boinking

Have you asked yourself WHY your peeps doing the doity deed and HOW this carnal act develop your plot? Is it an impulsive decision they’re gonna regret later? A moment of closeness and respite from the terrible situation they’re in? A way of gaining power/control/status? Or does it reveal something about their backstory (like omfg Gregory has the same ballsack birthmark as Jeffrey – they must be TWINS!)? As with every scene you write, make sure it serves a purpose – beyond the joy of describing wieners and va-jay-jays. the context is all.

Gif looking through Mrs Robinson's leg while Dustin Hoffman shakes his head and says, "Mrs Robinson, you're trying to seduce me."

#5: Make it realistic 

Think, for a moment, of all the ridiculous sex scenes you’ve seen in TV and film where everything is choreographed perfectly and no one ever stops to complain about the condom, or suddenly gets thigh cramp and has to change position, or feels suuuper insecure about their stomach rolls, or needs to fart half way through, or freaks out when the cat jumps onto the bed and starts watching judgementally. Real sex can be pretty awkward – particularly between two people who have never had sex with each other before. There’s a whole load of learning to be done, son. There’s talking, and pauses, and negotiation, and cooperation, and no matter how into it you are, there’s always some kind of inane inner monologue going on. Use realistic details to add a lil’ depth to your characters and show how they cope with the final, terrifying frontier of sexy-times.

#6: Add a dose of humour

Look. Naked humans are funny-lookin’ creatures. Sex does not always (if ever) go smoothly. There’s giggling. There’s self-consciousness. There’s cringe-worthy pillow talk. There are misunderstandings and weird wrestling manoeuvres and ‘oh, sorry, was that your butt’ moments. Seriously, if you haven’t laughed (or wanted to laugh) during sex then you’re straight up LYING. And if the thought of writing about the beast with two backs makes you go ‘uuurrrghhhh’ then use squeamishness to your advantage and make it a comic scene instead.

Image of a drawing from a medieval manuscript depicting a naked man hooking his arm under his knee and picking his nose.
Is this… is this not how you do it?

#7: Be responsible

Ok, for serious now. If you’re gonna write about sex you are morally obligated to think about the consequences. Yes, sex is fun and great and awesome but not-so-good sexual experiences can have a huge affect on a person’s outlook and subsequent relationships. There’s always the risk of pregnancy, STDs, agonising regret, and long-lasting psychological hang-ups. And if the sex in your story is not consensual, you’d better have a DAMN good reason for it, and you better be dedicating some DAMN good words to dealing with the repercussions. If you’re going to create a fictional victim, you have to take full responsibility for their story. Let’s say it together, loud and clear: Sexual abuse and rape are NOT plot devices. Now say it again. Write it down. And be a responsible writer.

#8: Choose your language carefully

Okay, let’s talk linguistics. Not all erotica is equal. You need to find the most appropriate sex-words to use for your story, for your narrative voice, and for your characters. Are they ‘fucking’ or ‘making love’? Does your protag have an embarrassing nickname for her ‘front bottom’ (shudder) or does she stop to point out ‘actually, technically, that’s not my vagina, it’s my vulva’? Would he say ‘cock’ or ‘dick’ or ‘Mr John Thomas’? Do you reaaaaally want to venture into the world of erotic euphemism (throbbing member, anyone?) and can you do it without sounding ridiculous? Maybe you want to sound ridiculous. In which case, whip out your fun-baps and your purple-headed python and go to town.

#9: Consider POV

Who’s in the hot seat, as it were? And is your sex scene written in a way that reflects perspective and point of view? If you’re writing in first person or close third, for example, what’s going on in your character’s head while they’re gettin’ jiggy? How do their innermost thoughts at this crucial juicy moment help to develop their character and provide new insights into their situation? Or, if you’re writing from a more omniscient perspective, think about which details you want to focus on (ew, not like that – well, actually, exactly like that) and how they’re significant to your plot.

Image of a classical painting depicting a woman with her dress pulled down to expose her breasts. A man is kissing her nipple. She is turning towards the viewer with a less than impressed look on her face.
Wow. Yes. This is just fine. Good job, darling. Keep doing… that.

#10: Don’t be shy. Or do. Whatever.

Okay, it’s time to talk about the REAL reason you’re uncomfortable writing a sex scene: the fact that someone might actually read it. Like, your MUM. And they’ll start to have sex-related thoughts about you like: “Ohhh, okay, that explains a lot…” or “Hmm, I never imagined they’d be so kinky!” and ‘Ew ew ewwwww! My eyes! My eyes! Will I never feel clean again?” Well, sorry, honeybun – if sex is an integral part of your plot, you’re just gonna have to be a grown up and suck it up. Or stick it in. Or whichever pun works best. Your mum will get over it. It’s not like she’s never had sex before (YES REALLY). But if the thought of writing even the most vanilla of sex scenes makes you pull this face:

Gif of a woman cringing

Then… you know, you don’t have to do it. Plenty of books are completely devoid of sex or romance and are still totally awesome. I mean, life isn’t just about getting your end away, is it? Gosh. Get your mind out of the gutter and write a nice argument or describe a tree or something.

Image of two trees positioned together so it looks like one of them is sticking something, er, woody into the back end the other.
Wait, maybe not that one.

And breathe… We’re done.

Phew. If you made it this far, go have a nice cold shower. Actually, hold off on the shower, ‘cause we have one last sexy treat for you and you might need the shower afterwards if you get what we’re heavily hinting at wink-wink-nudge-nudge-lock-the-door-and-get-the-lotion. To balance up the monstrous examples at the beginning, we’ve got some GOOD* examples of sex in fiction for you, here, here and here.

[*Well, each to their own. Some of these still made us cringe. Some were pretty good. Anaïs Nin is always a good option if all else fails, aside from that super-creepy incestuous paedo one. Don’t judge us on that.]

Okay, we’re done now. So glad we had this little talk. SO glad this is over now. As you were. May you all have wonderful sex, fictional and/or otherwise.

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