Writing Sex

Today’s post at Write On Sisters:

For a few heart-stopping moments, I considered leaving this post blank because writing sex is difficult. Seasoned writers I know avoid it like the plague. I thought maybe I’d toss in a few photos instead: one of Bigfoot and/or the Yeti; possibly a couple of anatomical drawings from a medical textbook; a quote or two from D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, Anais Nin and Georges Bataille. Pass the buck, so to speak.

But then I got all responsible, and Robin reminded me that it’s Valentine’s Day on Friday, so I stopped wringing my hands and stared the beast down. It’s simple really: some things are harder to write well than others. Comedy, for one, relies on timing and a host of other factors to avoid falling flat. Horror can also be tough to do well because badly paced blood and gore will achieve the opposite of the writer’s intention: a roll of the eyes rather than a shiver; a giggle instead of a shriek. Badly written sex will make both writer and reader cringe, and while it’s possible to track down and burn all copies of your embarrassing book three years after it hits the stores, the World Wide Web holds onto everything with a death grip.

Let’s ask the question–what’s a book without a good romp between its covers? (Possibly better, but that’s not what this is about. No. This is about sex, something we all do, have done or hope to do, and ignoring it is almost as bad as telling our children that some long-beaked bird or the UPS dropped them off on the welcome mat.)

Sex can be many things: gratuitous, pornographic, sensual, hysterical, mean and dirty, shameful, erotic…it’s endless, all the adjectives I can think of…and it’s often the biggest elephant in the room. Why? We aren’t nearly as shy when we write about food, a close friend of sex.

I have a couple of theories.

  1. Because sex has to lug around a legacy of shame, like pooping, farting, and burping, only worse. It’s messy and what, you’re going to argue with me?
  2. Because a lot of the time when we have sex, we’re naked, and naked=vulnerable. Vulnerable=assailable and assailable=dead. Understandably, we don’t want to be dead.
  3. Too much pleasure is bad for the soul. Yes, well, tell that to the Romans–look what happened to them. Imagine how uncontrollable we’d be if we all just went out and had sex all the time. No one would do any work. Nature has found ways to deal with this: dogs come into heat, elephants musth, fish…whatever. Human beings are another story, and the only way to control our urges is to weigh them down with morality–all the stuff that makes us fearful and guilty and ashamed. And here we arrive back at #1.

We must grapple with and overcome all that if we’re to write about sex. Here are a few approaches that just might do the trick:

  • Consider your language. The words we associate with sex are often the first stumbling block. Personally, I always thought that a penis sounded like something bred in a Petri dish. You had to handle it with care and pick it up with tweezers. Vagina isn’t much better, having connotations of some kind of saw toothed animal trap. Unfortunate imagery doesn’t make for a salivating tingle, unless you’re Freddy or Jason. But it’s not all bad news. There are any number of synonyms, sadly, many of them almost as icky. It’s hard to take a va-jay-jay seriously (although it’s a lot friendlier), or a dong. Cocks are meant to crow and sometimes it’s a stretch to imagine they’re good at anything else. (If you’re cringing, imagine how I feel.) There are better ones, but I’ve about reached my sharing limit. Here’s an exercise: Find as many crude, rude and disgusting words as you can–nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs–and write them down, over and over again, then read them, over and over again. Somewhere along the line, they’ll lose their connotations and become just words, and as writers we’re wordsmiths. We understand things like context, character, voice, and tone, and once we strip our words of their baggage, we can use them with the deftness our readers expect of us.
  • Consider your reader. Say what you like, scold and berate me if you must, but men and women are different. Most online porn targets males, and heaven help a young girl whose first boyfriend is raised on it. Since I’m not going to turn this into a rant at how porn objectifies and subjugates women (and men too), let me just say that most often the hammer and nail approach is not your best option. I’m a fan of subtlety, and I trust my reader’s imagination. Stimulation doesn’t have to be ‘in your face.’ There can be more sex and eroticism in what is inferred than what is stipulated. I don’t mean an embarrassed shuffle around something you’re trying to avoid, because readers will pick that up too. I mean creative use of imagery and language. Sex is everywhere. It’s in the way a honeybee approaches a group of petals, and the way they open up for him, in the way a cat rubs up against a sleek pair of ankles, and in the contact between the palm of a hand and a hip. One of the sexiest scenes I ever saw was in Mountains of the Moon, when Patrick Bergen inhales cigar smoke, blows it through his mouth into a glass of cognac, and inhales it again through his nostrils. (Okay, so each to her own.) Tenderness is sexy. Look for it in strange, unlikely places. Just don’t forget to work.
  • Consider your characters. They may know nothing or everything about sex. They may need it hard and quick, or slow and shy.They may struggle to come to terms with it. Don’t take them somewhere they don’t want to go, unless that’s your specific intention as a writer, and odds are, that will be painful. Gratuitous sex in a novel is worse that a bad joke.

When crafting sex, the writer’s challenge lies in his/her ability to create mood. Sex should show up if it must, and if it’s as integral to a character’s development as all the other elements and experiences the author considers in crafting a novel. Erotic writers have more of a platform than ever before, thanks to the pioneering efforts of those who refuse to flinch or turn away, including the greats I’ve mentioned above. And the numbers indicate that readers are ready for it. Be brave, be strong, experiment. Be sexy.

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