Sex in Novels: The Good, The Bad, and The Icky

Ah, sexy Sunday. That’s a thing, right? If not, it should be. What a perfect day to talk about sex. Or is that inappropriate, talking sex on a day that is spent in church? I’m not a good judge of these things. God’s got a list pretty long when it comes to me: stole pen from church, used Lord’s name in vain 213,239 times (sorry God), and ate the last cookie and lied about it. The list goes on, and there are some items I’d rather not talk about, but I digress.

Today we are discussing sex scenes. If you are the kind who skips those, or who vets books before you buy them to be sure there is no sex, this post may not be for you. For the rest of us, I open with a question (that I hope you will answer in a reply!): When it comes to sex scenes in a novel, what do you like? Do you skip them entirely, or only read the first one and then skip all the rest? What book(s) handle sex the best? Do you like the dirty details, or do you prefer generalizations?

Okay, that was more than one question. Being both an author and an avid reader, I am curious what you think. I know what I like and what I don’t. Sex, like my men, should be a little rough around the edges, gritty, and not too sweet or touchy-feely. I enjoy a good sex scene, but unless I pick up an erotic novel, I would rather not have too much sex in my story. Also, I like to wait. My favorite authors build that tension and milk it as much as possible.

Sex is extremely subjective.

Where am I going with this? Well, there are some guidelines that writers can follow, regardless of personal taste to ensure that sex scenes don’t lose their audience.

Your sex scenes should be pivotal to the plot.fullsizerender-1

In an ideal world, sex scenes will either further the tension between the characters and cause new problems, or they will serve to release some tension or be a part of the resolution. Sex comes with baggage, yes? Use this to your advantage as a writer. Consider what new can of worms this added level of intimacy can open. If you are using the sex to provide some relief for your characters, I still encourage you to consider the complexities surrounding what your characters are doing and the ramifications later on. Perhaps the peace is temporary and in the aftermath, once the tension returns, your characters will now, have to figure out how to navigate through the waters of their changed relationship.

For Example, In Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things, as the main character is preparing to depart for a new planet for several months, his wife wants to make love. Their lovemaking is less than stellar, and his performance haunts him as he tries to navigate through his loneliness. This sex scene begins a resonance of the disconnect between the main character and his wife.

Sex for the sake of sex only works if you are writing Erotica, and even then, the story is more compelling if each scene is critical to the plot. Even in Romance, the sex should serve a purpose in your writing. Make it do as much for your story as possible.

Sex is about life.

fullsizerenderHow each character approaches sex says a lot about them. Every sex scene is an opportunity to reveal humanity, to show what it means to be alive, to feel, and to think. Don’t squander this opportunity. Be sure to consider the themes running through your book and interweave them in this part of your narrative.

Examine Sylvia Plath’s sex scene in The Bell Jar. This scene explores what it means to be a woman in a patriarchal society. It is yet one more way the main character can take control of her life and her being and continue finding balance.

Naked time is the perfect time to deepen your characterization.

People are vulnerable during sex. Use this moment to reveal more about your character. Consider everything that comes into play during sex: preferences, personal beliefs, past lovers, upbringing, political leanings, social norms, and sexual violence. Sex is an incredibly complex act. Milk it to help your reader better understand the characters. fullsizerender-2

In Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace, he explores many of these complexities. The book reveals the deeper, underlying issues and emotions brought to the table during sex. If you are looking for ideas on how to use sex as a literary device, this is a book worth reading and studying.

Keep the voice consistent.

Consider the character/pov voice of your narrative. How would your character think or feel about sex? What words would they choose? Would they be embarrassed? How experienced are they? Your voice should reflect all of these things. If your character is inexperienced, you probably shouldn’t narrate the scene like it is a pornography.

In The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner not only turns erotic tropes on their head, but she also keeps the narrative voice so consistent that the scenes blend seamlessly into the rest of the story, sweeping us along.

fullsizerender-3Avoid clichés and keep it real.

We know that every man is not huge, nor do they need to be for sex to be enjoyable. Nor is it realistic for most of us women to have an orgasm only from having our nipples played with a la 50 Shades of Grey. Focus on what your characters are feeling and the sensations they experience and you won’t have to resort to these cliches, especially if you have followed the rules above.

One of my favorite reads is The Good Mother by Sue Miller. The sex is grounded in reality, and the main character finds that her sexual pleasure depends, to a great extent, on her desire and willingness to engage and participate and find what she wants and needs.

The biggest thing that keeps me reading a sex scene is what it reveals about the characters. Half the time, a poorly written sex scene does not hold my attention because it seems to be something separate from the main story. When this occurs, the author has missed a golden opportunity to milk his or her prose for all they are worth. Make your sex scenes do as much as possible for your WIP, just like you do with everything else.img_1314

A huge shout out to The Open Book, in Bend, Oregon, for providing me with these lovely photos of some fantastic vintage porn novels they got in.

Also, while we are talking sex, check out How Not to Fall, by Emily Foster (Emily Nagoski), who spends her days guiding people to better sex through science. Check out her website:

I am excited to read her book, which she describes as, “basically fanfic of the entire romance genre – using the playset of tropes and heroes and heroines and best friends to construct a story that delivers what an erotic romance is supposed to deliver: characters you like, having hot sex while they sort out their emotional shit and eventually live happily ever after. Pro-woman, pro-sex, pro-pleasure. Hope.”