Sex is hard, in real life as in writing. We all have our hang-ups, so it’s difficult to craft realistic sex scenes without coming across as hokey or banal. Many writers avoid it all together, which is a shame, because sex is so pivotal to our actual lives, and it can be so useful in fiction.
Consider my favorite erotic passage of all time. It’s from Beloved by Toni Morrison:
[A]mong the things her fingers clutched were husk and cornsilk hair. How loose the silk. How jailed down the juice…What he did remember was parting the hair to get to the tip, the edge of his fingernail just under, so as not to graze a single kernel. The pulling down of the tight sheath, the ripping sound always convinced her it hurt…No matter what all your teeth and wet fingers anticipated, there was no accounting for the way that simple joy could shake you. How loose the silk. How loose and fine and free.
And that was about corn (ostensibly). It wasn’t about corn, obviously. It was about sex. But let’s break this hot, juicy excerpt down to get at how it’s accomplishing the sizzle without being corny (I’m sorry, I had to).
First off, there’s no mention of genitals, and this is fairly important, so a good first rule is…
1. Don’t Mention Specific Sex Acts or Anatomy
Trust me. We are primed for thinking about sex, and we generally know how it’s done. We don’t need you to tell us that he put his member in her girl-cave and did some thrusting. In fact, let’s just collectively agree to stop using “thrusting” in our sex scenes. Instead, how about this:
He put his hand there. It went like this. And this. (And this.) She breathed in, out. Her breath caught in her throat and she held it in for what felt like forever. She let it out, her breath. She felt her whole self leaving with that one breath, and then—. She returned.
Okay, I’m not going for great art here (I just made it up right now, for one, and this is a blog, not a novel), but it certainly conveys that something steamy is happening without mentioning any genitalia or even using lame metaphors to explain what is going on (remember that Toni Morrison never said that sex was like shucking corn—the sex was 100% implied). We technically have no idea what is happening in my example either, but does it matter? Not really. Our heart rates are up. We’re imagining something, and that’s what counts. We’re there.
2. Be Vague
This is probably one of the only times it’s good to be ambiguous in writing, because it’s almost universally good to be generous to the reader. Except with sex. That doesn’t mean gloss over the scene, just find a way to talk about it that’s not actually talking about it.
The alternative would be to describe what is going on, and that might read somewhat like this from Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, which was nominated for a 2014 Literary Review, Bad Sex in Fiction award:
Shiro’s were small, but her nipples were as hard as tiny round pebbles. Their pubic hair was as wet as a rain forest. Their breath mingled with his, becoming one, like currents from far away, secretly overlapping at the dark bottom of the sea.
Pubic hair is never sexy when it’s called “pubic hair,” but it’s almost worse to call it a “rainforest.” Or what about novelist Wilbur Smith’s nomination for that same award, from Desert God:
[Her hair] did not cover her breasts which thrust their way through it like living creatures. They were perfect rounds, white as mare’s milk and tipped with ruby nipples that puckered as my gaze passed over them.
Let’s also agree that the word “nipples” (and “thrust”—again) rarely reads as sexy and ditch it as well (also, "puckered"), unless goofy sex is what you’re going for, which leads me to my next point.
3. Do Depict Sex as it Actually Is (Awkwardness and All)
Not all the sex that we have is mind-blowing, so perhaps your writing should reflect this. If you’re feeling awkward about writing a sex scene, try writing an awkward sex scene. It might actually be good. It might be funny, which is okay if that’s your intent. Sex can be hilarious (think Amy Schumer). It reveals our weaknesses, which is great for character development. Not all sex has to be steamy, though it doesn’t have to be corny either to register as uncomfortable.
That’s it. Be realistic, avoid simile and metaphor, and don’t use terms you’d find in a sex education textbook (or on Urban Dictionary). If you are still hot for even more sex-writing tips, check out this joyously comprehensive article on the topic by Steve Almond.
Now, do it.
Write on, friends, and happy endings.