“I don’t think sex can be accurately portrayed. The sensation and the emotions are…beyond language. If you only describe the mechanics, the effect is either clinical or pornographic, and if you try to describe intimacy instead, you wind up with abstractions. The only sex you could describe fairly well is bad sex.”
—a character in Alice Elliot Dark’s The Gloaming
As the annually bestowed Bad Sex Award might suggest, even “important” writers lose their minds and sense of good taste when it comes to writing about sex.
The matter of “good sex scenes” is problematic. We all know bad sex when we see it (or have it, right?), good sex is way more subjective. Good appears to be far more dependent upon the reader’s experience and opinions, and more importantly context.
Is the scene being written supposed to be arousing? Erotic? Highly charged? Or is it supposed to be part of the flow of the story, and not stick out? Is it the character’s first time?
What you don’t want is a jump in the tone that’s going “Hey, sex scene here!” You’re writing something intentionally erotic, or you’re writing something intentionally part of a non-erotic story and you want it to feel like it’s embedded in the story the same as any other action you describe.
Thus I offer up a handful of examples. The first two deal with someone’s first time, and have a kind of believable awkwardness to them. One (courtesy of author Joe Gangemi) is found in Robertson Davies’ novel, The Manticore, and is about the young narrator’s “learning” encounter with an older woman; the second is in Judith Freeman’s Red Water, and is about a young English bride’s first sex with her older husband. There’s something downright creepy and discomfiting about this latter scene–once more supporting the argument that the sex scene quite often is doing something more than just portraying sex.
This past spring for my workshop at Swarthmore I asked a half dozen authors to submit what they felt were good sex scenes. Here’s the short list I got back:
- The terrifying couch scene in Lolita.
The sex-in-the-cornfield scene in Beloved.
The library scene in Atonement.
(clearly there’s a connection between one-word book titles and good sex)
In the territory of erotic fiction, romance and erotica author Victoria Janssen recommended:
- Emma Holly: Strange Attractions, Cooking Up a Storm, Menage.
- Kate Pearce: Simply Sinful, which includes some bisexual characters as well.
Janssen further recommends the now defunct “Best American Erotica” collections.
Jennifer Stevenson, who has written some fine comic erotica (Trash Sex Magic, The Brass Bed, The Bearskin Rug) replied: “All the best sex scenes in fiction are in romance fiction.” Her recommendations were:
- The sex scene toward the end of Flowers from the Storm by Laura Kinsale.
- The foreplay scene with the banker & the debutante at the Alaska gold fields toward the final third of I Do, I Do, I Do by Maggie Osborne.
- The first sex scene (on the dock by the river) in Welcome to Temptation by Jennifer Crusie.
- The sex scene toward the end of The Velvet Chair between Virgil and Griffy, by Jennifer Stevenson herself.
Finally, at the feminist science fiction convention Wiscon some years back, author (and former publisher of Clean Sheets Press, an erotic imprint) Mary Anne Mohanraj once answered the hairy question, “What’s the difference between pornography and erotica?” this way: “I’ve written and published porn and I’ve written and published erotica and as near as I can figure, the difference is, porn pays ten times better.”
I’m not about to try and top that.
GREGORY FROST is a writer of best-selling fantasy, science fiction, and thrillers. His latest work is the YA-crossover duology Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet, voted one of the best fantasy novels of the year by the American Library Association, was a finalist for the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2009. His current short fiction appears in Full Moon City, an anthology of werewolf tales (Simon & Schuster); in the YA anthology The Beastly Bride edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (Viking), and in the Lovecraftian anthology Chtulhu Reigns (DAW Books). He says he knows good sex when he sees it…which probably means he likes to watch.