Sex scenes in fiction

Good authors too, who once knew better words

Now only use four letter words to write prose

Anything goes

Cole Porter

“Dude, that sex scene you’re planning for your suspense adventure thriller. Where Mike, your hero, makes his move with that beautiful Japanese lotus, Kitty, and takes her to his hotel room and … . “

“You mean the one in chapter four, right after she …”

“Yeah that’s the only one; the hot, fiery scene where you go to town, you stun your readers and really show your mettle as a writer.”

“What’s up with that?”

“Do yourself a big favor and leave it out.”

“Why?”

“It is not necessary. It does not advance the plot or improve the story.”

“But it’s the best …”

“Trust me. Leave it out and forget about it.”

I think it’s good advice, but it’s often rejected by many fiction writers. Even well-known, highly qualified and respected authors have fallen into the trap of the sex scene. In my opinion, unless you are writing about the genres of erotica and romance, intimate sex scenes are best left out. Poorly written, as they often are, vivid sex scenes can end a great novel.

In erotic works, highly descriptive sex scenes are de rigueur; the reader waits for them. That’s what gender is all about. Romance novel writers tend not to go as far, they are more restrained, sailing as close to the wind as good taste allows. But in both cases, the love scenes should be well written and most of the time they are not. Writing believable and exciting sex scenes is a specialized skill few writers have. But, unfortunately, the temptations to enter this quagmire, the cemetery of so much good writing, are many and for some authors irresistible.

For so long it was impossible. In Britain, the Obscene Publications Act ensured that that and other countries, such as the United States, had similar draconian laws. But, in London in November 1960, an Old Bailey jury found the publisher, Penguin Books, the defendant in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover obscenity trial and the floodgates were thrown open. The writers pushed the envelope against the stronghold of the Puritans and “defenders of decency” and finally prevailed. Now they could write whatever they wanted, publishers could publish it, and buyers could buy and read it. So it was. And so it is. Anything goes.

But we really are better. Despite the strict censorship that constrained them, writers such as Hemingway, Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, and so many others produced beautiful books. Would your works have enhanced with scenes of explicit sex? Would The Great Gatsby be a better novel if Fitzgerald had included a hot scene with Jay Gatsby fucking Daisy Buchanan? Would A Farewell to Arms be better if Hemingway had added an intimate scene with Frederic Henry making love to Catherine Barkley? It takes much more than the freedom to write pages full of “F..k you, motherf … er” or descriptions of sexual intimacy that would put a Mumbai brothel mamasan to shame, to produce an exceptional novel.

But sex sells, I hear you say. For sure YES. And isn’t having sex what people do? Yes, there is no question about it. And I think it’s fair to say that there is nothing wrong with your protagonist kissing a beautiful woman if the story is reinforced by her. Some suspense thrillers have intense sexual passion at their core. It was this that sparked classics like James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. But knowing how much to describe and how much to leave to the reader’s imagination is where the difficulty lies.

That consummate writer and cool guy, Elmore Leonard handled sex deftly in his novels, without intruding too much and often omitting it. And, given the spirit of the times of his time, Ian Fleming handled it well too. We know that James Bond made out with Vesper Lynd, Tatiana Romanova, Kissy Suzuki, Tiffany Case, Pussy Galore, and others, but it happened in the reader’s imagination. Only once, if I remember correctly, Fleming took us into the bedroom. It was with Vesper Lynd, but he did it rightly; The story advanced as Vesper was a KGB agent, a double agent.

Sex, the most intimate human act, usually takes place in the privacy of a bedroom without witnesses. Writers must show their respect and keep it that way. But if an author is feeling driven, it will be much easier to handle if he writes in the first person because the narrator is also an actor in the scenes. However, writing in the third person is problematic. Following the lovers through the bedroom door, the narrator intrudes, becomes a peeper, a peeper who watches the action in bed and takes notes. I think it is better to take the lovers to the bedroom door, have them kiss and hug and then go away and leave everything to the reader.

So do I practice what I preach? Of course. I will go so far and no more, mainly out of respect for the reader. Watching a movie is a passive activity. Reading a novel is an active activity. The reader’s imagination is involved, and I think they should be encouraged to use it and thus enjoy the reading experience more. If the writer does it for him by describing a love scene in detail, the reader may not like the way it unfolds. Letting the reader imagine the scene however they want is a much smarter move.

This is my opinion about it. In an age of total license, without a restrictive hand, a writer becomes his own censor. You have to judge how far to go. As long as it isn’t gratuitous, a well-written and appropriate love scene can enhance a story. An inappropriate, highly descriptive one will do the opposite. But why risk it? If it is not essential to the plot, the writer should err on the side of caution and omit it. The last thing a writer wants is to make a fool of himself and become a Bad Sex award contender.

Once a year, the British magazine Literary Review presents its annual Bad Sex in Fiction award. And some of the prose that earns this dubious honor is hilarious. Ben Okri was the 2014 winner. Okri won the Booker Prize in 1991 and has received, among other awards, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction; awards I’m sure you’re proud of. But she didn’t have the guts to take her medicine and attend the Literary Review ceremony and accept her Bad Sex award. Instead, the insufferable diva issued a short and less-than-ecstatic statement: “A writer writes what he writes, and that’s it.” But here for your edification and enjoyment is your winning piece:

When his hand brushed her nipple, he flipped a switch and she lit up. He touched her belly, and his hand seemed to burn her. He lavished indirect touches on her body, and bittersweet sensations flooded her brain. She became aware of places in her that could only have been hidden there by a god with a sense of humor.

“Drifting on warm currents, no longer of this world, she realized that he was sliding into her. He loved her with sweetness and strength, caressing her neck, praising her face with his hands, until she broke and a low and rhythmic beat began. I regret … The universe was in her and with each movement it was unfolding towards her. Somewhere in the night a lost rocket exploded “.

Isn’t that something? It took a bit of effort to create that hilarious nonsense. I’m glad I didn’t write it.

No less writer than Norman Mailer won his Bad Sex Award in 2007 for a silly sex scene in his novel: Castle in the Woods. And poor John Updike received the Bad Sex Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. It is undoubtedly the most feared and undesirable award in English literature and any self-respecting writer should avoid it like a poisoned chalice.

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