This article is adapted from a version which first appeared on the Comely Bank Publishing website in 2017.
Two things are already possible: either you’ve clicked away in disgust, or you’re about to read avidly!
Sometimes it seems that a modern novel isn’t complete without a sex scene, sometimes quite a few. Writers seem to feel pressured into including some quite graphic details, often with disastrous consequences. The physiology and mechanics of the act itself are rarely critical to the plot; the key feature is the nature of the relationship between the characters. Is it tender? Is it mutually consensual? Is it part of a permanent coupling or merely a one-night stand?
Personally, I think a good sex scene should have two key components. First, the reader should be able to relate to the event – a seventeen-orgasm bonk is just a joke. I think the scenes are actually sexier where the individuals are themselves more ordinary – an extension of the Brief Encounter idea, where the very ordinariness of the Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard characters is what makes it work. The reader wants to relate to every part of the book. Athletic male six-packs and female catwalk figures don’t quite do it.
The second aspect of a good sex scene is that less is more. Alfred Hitchcock always maintained that the human mind was more afraid of what it could imagine than what it actually saw; I think the same applies to sex. Let the reader fill in the blanks for themselves – in any case, who are you, the author, to presume that you’re the expert?
Finally, two related questions for you, the reader, to ponder.
I’ve met authors who’ve passionately argued that a woman can’t possibly write from a male point of view, and vice versa. I’m not sure if that’s true or not. What I am slightly aware of – and this just my sense – is that it feels more acceptable for a woman to write explicitly about sex, including all the nuts and bolts, than it is for men. If so, I wonder if that’s a statement of society’s implicit greater sexualisation of women? One thing’s for sure: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award* is routinely won by male writers, sometimes even from an all-male short list.
Secondly, a woman I know has written a series of LGBT novels featuring the sexual awakening of a gay man and his relationships with others (as well as the non-physical relationships with women around him). The author is a happily married woman, and I have to assume that she has no personal experience herself.
I found my writing friend’s handling of the scenes to be both tender and appropriate – perhaps precisely because she had to leave so much to the reader’s imagination. Is it easier for straight writers to write LBGT fiction about the other gender?
*Don’t ignore this link – the writing is cringeworthy but the judges’ comments are hilarious.