Writing About Sex

A comparison of erotica with sex scenes in mainstream fiction.

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I write BDSM erotica under another name, and even make a bit of money at it. If you aim to earn from your writing that’s probably the simplest way to begin. I even had a couple of my mucky stories featured on a podcast that has 7 million listeners – no, honestly, don’t make a fuss, it’s not a big deal, I’m definitely not writing this essay just so I can boast. But I have never ever even tried to write a sex scene in a mainstream, vanilla writing project. Until last week.

It was scary. They give out awards for bad writing about sex, you know, and if you’re feeling despondent about your own literary output, a browse of the recipients’ work should somewhat reassure. If you write something lousy about staring at a tree you’re unlikely to get it noticed, still less be publicly pilloried in the press: a bad shag, all swooning and swelling, mounds and minge, could get your prose immortalised, for all the wrong reasons.

But my book had got to a place where the two characters simply had to have sex with each other. Anything else would have been disingenuous. I didn’t want to abandon my heroine, Henry James style, at the critical moment, and dash off to another scene, letting it happen without me there to record it. No, I had to grit my teeth and get on with it. Appropriately. Sometimes writing is like sex: you just have to pull funny faces, pretend you’re having a good time and get through anyhow.

So I sat down to write the damn thing, feeling absurdly self-conscious and inept.

I fudged it a bit. I made it funny, bad sex. The woman was awkward, vain, sarcastic and self-deprecating; the man a pig, and any resemblance to actual characters was of course completely deliberate: nothing like revenge best served bitter cold in a terrible, passive aggressive shag scene. Here’s the key difference between writing erotica and writing about sex in a mainstream work: in the latter case the sex isn’t there primarily or even partly to titillate: it’s to advance the plot, tell us something about the characters, or at least be engrossing and entertaining. So I tried to do all of that. I didn’t try to make it horny too, because that seemed impossibly difficult, and I’m a lazy coward.

Here’s an extract from my piece. I don’t offer it up as an example of good practise: I’ve no idea if it’s any good at all. It’s my first effort to solve the problem, that’s all.

There was a perfectly comfy sofa, but I realised it had to be the floor. This wasn’t a cushioned, comfy sort of fuck, you see. Neither of us would get any kind of consolation from it. I distanced myself from the act by imagining what his camera would see. I would, at least, look comparatively thin next to his beefy thighs. His cock was circumcised, which made wanking tricky; disappointingly small, slightly pointy. I climbed on top to hide it from myself. He didn’t like that, pushed me off, got me underneath; yanked my hair aside to bite my neck, hard.

“Don’t!” I was too old to wear polo necks for weeks to hide ill-thought through love bites. He smiled, pressed his elbow into my windpipe, making me gag, then slapped me again.

It seems extraordinary, but my chief emotion was embarrassment. A sense of awkwardness. Where do you look, when you’re fucking someone new? Into their eyes? Seemed a bit cringey, at least after several minutes of it, and he seemed to be having some trouble coming.

At no point was the sex in my sex scene successful. At no point did the characters inhabit their own bodies. They kept up a drawling, removed, distant, ironic post-modern commentary on the dreary copulation taking place before their eyes. I feel this may be a bit of a cheat on my part. My sex scene was sour, sticky, embarrassing, silent, because anything thrilling and life-affirming would have embarrassed me. I should jolly well force myself to do it properly one day, to see if I can. But then everything I write is about horrible things happening to people. Some fulfilling romantic sex would completely kill that vibe. I don’t write romantic sex in my erotica either. People have a rotten time. I find that easier to write, and it sells, though Lord knows that’s no mark of quality.

I wonder whether there are many mainstream novels that have genuinely erotic sex scenes in them. There must be some, surely? Jean M Auel, I seem to recall, impressed and informed me during my teenage years; but usually I tend to read Victorian novels where flashes of ankle pass for racy. D H Lawrence’s vulgar anatomical musings definitely don’t count. Erica Jong? Henry Miller? Colette? Do write and tell me about anything else genuinely, grippingly rude you’ve come across in a mainstream novel, as it were, for nothing’s coming to me.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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