Graphic Writing: Sex
Writing sex is a struggle for many writers, but the trick is to not cause yourself stress by overthinking it. Often sex scenes are either too descriptive or feel separate from either the plot, the reader, or both. This guide is designed to help make writing sex a less stressful task, resulting in scenes that are not cringe-worthy, but instead sensual and immersive.
This essay contains graphic descriptions of sex.
As with any difficult topics, writing good sex means you need confidence in your ability as a writer and what you are putting on the page. You do not have be explicit, nor do you need to write erotica or porn, but even subtle sex scenes require a level of self-belief to deliver successfully.
It is of utmost importance that you do not use the wrong words when writing sex, as they will stand out from the rest of your writing. First and foremost, let’s start with organs. Everyone has them; there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The bits that do the sexing are definitely not the first thing you should think about when writing a scene involving sex, but how to describe them causes the most anxiety in writers attempting such a scene for the first time, so in the interests of removing unnecessary stress we will tackle them first.
It seems ‘penis’ is the thing people fret about the most. Call it what it is: a penis. It’s not a mighty length, or a throbbing missile, or a serpentine elongation. It’s a cock, or a prick, or for those who are a little more sensitive to those kinds of words, an erection. Use the words your characters would use, in the world they exist in. Even in high fantasy, where the men wear loincloths and carry a broadsword, it would still have a simple slang name. You don’t need to substitute normal words for some ridiculous allegory or use awful adjectives. There is no need for metaphors of rockets explosively launching, or elevators climbing, or soldiers standing to attention. It gets hard. It stands up. It points.
Next on the panic list is always ‘vagina’ and for some reason, although the penis causes the most worry, the vagina gets the worst names: love tunnel, slithering cavern, palpitating orifice. None of that is sexy, nor is it particularly pleasant. As before, use the words your characters would use. You can be somewhat gentle with this; or, for the more daring, you can go to the far end of the vocabulary. If your characters would use those words, so should you. None of those terrible similes; just call it something simple and move on.
The Duc first of all lay hands on her buttocks, knelt, brought a finger to the anus and lightly titillated its rim, seized up the clitoris this amiable child had already had in considerable growth, and sucked it. The people of Languedoc are high-spirited, they say, and Augustine proved them right; fire leapt into her pretty eyes, she sighed and panted and moaned, her thighs rose mechanically, and the Duc was pleased to sip a gush of young fuck which in all likelihood had never flowed before.
The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade
There are numerous passages from the 120 Days of Sodom that illustrate the use of conventional, common words of the time for sexual organs and acts, but most are considerably more extreme and perverse than this one. There is a strong, consistent style throughout the book, however, including the use of the word ‘fuck’ as a synonym for ‘cum’ and a lack of hesitation when using words, phrases, topics, and descriptions that even today are still shocking and provocative.
I’d like to point out that you can sometimes get away with not using any names for organs at all; you just focus on the act rather than the details. Just because you can say, doesn’t mean you have to. Sometimes, less is more.
Then they made O get up and were on the verge of untying her, probably in order to attach her to some pole or wall, when someone protested that he wanted to take her first, right there on the spot. So they made her kneel down again, this time with her bust on an ottoman, her hands still tied behind her, with her hips higher than her torso. Then one of the men, holding her with both his hands on her hips, plunged into her belly. He yielded to a second. The third wanted to force his way into the narrower passage and, driving hard, made her scream. When he let her go, sobbing and befouled by tears beneath her blindfold, she slipped to the floor, only to feel someone’s knees against her face, and she realised that her mouth was not to be spared. Finally they let her go, a captive clothed in tawdry finery, lying on her back in front of the fire. She could hear glasses being filled and the sound of the men drinking, and the scraping of chair. They put some more wood on the fire. All of a sudden they removed her blindfold. The large room, the walls of which were lined with bookcases, was dimly lit by a single wall lamp and by the light of the fire, which was beginning to burn more brightly. Two of the men were standing and smoking. Another was seated, a riding crop on his knees, and the one leaning over her fondling her breast was her lover. All four of them had taken her, and she had not been able to distinguish him from the others.
Story of O by Pauline Reage
What happens in this scene is very clear, yet the wording is vague. Going back over the passage, there is no mention of organs or, in fact, anything particularly graphic at all, but the scene still feels difficult to read due to the combination of choices of usually innocent wording and their context.
Rather than dwelling on whether the symbolism is right for the moment, consider the way the prose fits together. Use words that would appear innocent, or be graphic, but either way do not shy away from saying what you want to say.
The main criticism with sex scenes, particularly in romance or erotic novels, is how mind-blowingly amazing the sex always is, but this isn’t always the case in real life. As a writer, you work hard to ensure your characters’ dialogue and actions are realistic, so why not do the same with sex? Even if you are writing fantasy or sci-fi, or something more surreal or bizarre, there are still rules that you write to within the world and just like everything else, sex must adhere to them.
And this time the sharp ecstasy of her own passion did not overcome her; she lay with her ends inert on his striving body, and do what she might, her spirit seemed to look on from the top of her head, and the butting of his haunches seemed ridiculous to her, and the sort of anxiety of his penis to come to its little evacuating crisis seemed farcical. Yes, this was love, this ridiculous bouncing of the buttocks, and the wilting of the poor, insignificant, moist little penis. This was the divine love! After all, the moderns were right when they felt contempt for the performance; for it was a performance. It was quite true, as some poets said, that the God who created man must have had a sinister sense of humour, creating him a reasonable being, yet forcing him to take this ridiculous posture, and driving him with blind craving for this ridiculous performance.
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D H Lawrence
Constance experiences a lot of sex in Lawrence’s novel, but not all of it is good. This scene involves sex that is uncomfortable, dispassionate, and in all intents and purposes, ridiculous. This is bad sex written well. There isn’t paragraphs of grinding and thrusting, nor any outlandish imagery, but instead a mocking of the act as it disappoints and it is all over too quickly. Yet, even the good sex within the book mostly lasts for no more words than this passage, often much less, regardless of the passage of time. Lawrence did not indulge the reader with voracious description, but instead gave just enough to be incredibly clear about the facts, but still too much for the morals of the era.
Whether the sex you are writing about is good or bad, you still need to consider how it affects the participants. As well as directing the scene, a writer must consider the emotional impact of the actions included and ask the ever-present question in all writing: ‘How do they feel?’
They fell together, folded toward each other, and then she leaned back, arching, shored on her back-braced arms, and she let him pace the occasion. At some point she opened her eyes and saw him watching her, measuring her progress, and he looked a little isolated and wan and she pulled his head down to her and sucked salt from his tongue and heard the sort of breast-slap, the splash of upper bodies and the banging bed. Then it was a matter of close concentration. She listened for something inside the bloodrush and she spun his hips and felt electric and desperate and finally home free and she looked at his eyes stung shut and his mouth stretched so tight it seemed taped at the corners, upper lip pressed white against his teeth, and she felt a kind of hanged man’s coming when he came, the jumped body and stiffened limbs, and she ran a hand through his hair – be nicer if we did it more often.
Underworld by Don DeLillo
DeLillo focuses both on the act and the mind, following the physical movements of one party and the emotional journey of the other. This juxtaposition allows for both a clear description of what is happening and a sense of context as to the relationship of the couple and their level of intimacy.
By moving past the physical and into the emotional, and maintaining a sense of realism, sex can become more than titillation, developing into key moments within a plot to reveal characters, backgrounds, and motivations.
Poor pacing is often a cause of bad sex scenes; but this can be fixed by focusing on the building tension instead of the logistics. When you have sex in real life there is a heat between you and the other person, a build-up, so why isn’t it on the page?
Inside the back room, the woman has crawled out from underneath the man. Now fuck me like a dog, she tells him. She grips a pillow in her fists and he breathes behind her, hot air down her back which is starting to sweat and slip on his stomach. She doesn’t want him to see her face because it is blowing up inside, red and furious, and she’s grimacing at the pale white wall which is cool when she puts her hand on it to help her push back into him, get his dick to fill up her body until there’s nothing left of her inside: just dick.
Quiet Please by Aimee Bender
Bender draws out the fury of the moment through her choice of pacing. The second half of this paragraph is a single sentence, with reasoning devolving as the protagonist loses herself within the sex that she is partaking. This is a fast and vivid sexual encounter, and the pacing of the scene reflects this.
You can comfortably spend longer on the build-up than the actual sex itself. Just like in a good horror story, the excitement is in the approach. When you read a really terrifying book, it’s never because of the monster jumping out, or the killer committing murder; it is scary because of the build-up. If you know the monster is there, somewhere, lurking in the dark, or you are aware of the killer following a potential victim, stalking them, watching them, you drift into that moment and experience the base-level emotions that the characters feel. Arousal, like fear, is an instinctual response that can be tapped into by a well-written scene.
I groped for him, as though I were blind. ‘Renny, please, please—’ My lips touched his.
And he was kissing me again, and slipping the shorty nightgown over my head. His strong and gentle hands began to stroke me, his hands, his lips, his tongue.
Gentle. Not frightening. Knowing what he was doing. I felt my nipples rise, and it startled me.
‘Shhh,’ Renny whispered. ‘Shhh, it’s all right, don’t worry, just relax and listen to your body.’
He was slow, rhythmic, gentle, moving down my body, down …
and I was nothing but my body
there was a sharp brief pain
and then a sweet spasm went through me
and I seemed to rise into the air
no more pain
just the sweetness
and then Renny, panting
I pressed him hard against me.
A House Like a Lotus by Madeleine D’Engle
D’Engle uses poetic language and structure, adding in line breaks to slow the pace of the scene. Despite being only a few words, this scene lasts a long time as each line break indicates a pause. Shorter and longer phrases on each line introduce a feeling of ebbing and flowing, and in a very visual way this extract represents the nature of the sex being had.
As with any sense of action, the pacing needs to reflect the scene. Long sentences, stretched out words, and creative use of language can give a strong sense of a scene without reverting to writing porn. Sex is as much about what you don’t say as what you do, and between the lines the reader will follow what you are saying. The question you need to ask is, are you writing sex for a purpose or just to write sex?
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.