How Not to Write About Sex

Dear readers of TSL’s sex column,          

Writers often talk about how difficult it is to create a
good sex scene. Drawing up sex can be so difficult that there’s even an award
for “Bad Sex in Fiction” published every year by The Literary Review, and the list of writers who’ve received this
prestigious designation includes literary heavyweights like Philip Roth and
Norman Mailer. John Updike, a Pulitzer and
PEN/Faulkner winner, was even given Bad Sex’s Lifetime Achievement Award in
2008, the poor guy.

But still, there’s the entire genre of romance potboilers
where the whole point is to talk about sex with the target audience, an ostensible
type of “bored housewife,” which has led to the genre’s catchy nickname: “mommy porn.” Seriously, though, have you ever actually read a sex scene in 50 Shades
of Grey
? Shit is absolutely ridiculous. One of my favorite internal
monologues from the first-person narrator: “Suddenly, he sits up and tugs my
panties off and throws them on the floor. Pulling off his boxer briefs, his
erection springs free. Holy cow! … He kneels up and pulls a
condom onto his considerable length. Oh no … Will it? How?” Holy
cow indeed, E.L. James. Holy cow indeed.

So what actually makes a successful sex scene? Hemingway
aside, certainly it can’t be the simple “going through the motions routine”: “He took off her shirt she took off his their bodies
pressed together and they both looked good naked they took their pants off and
he put his penis inside her vagina.” There has to be more to a saucy passage
than the dirty that is in fact going down, but with any luck the literary
quality can land somewhere between old Papa and Christian Grey, no?

Perhaps the only successful sex scene is the one about
unsuccessful sex. Think of any of the at least semi-realistic scenes that you
come across in pop culture. Aren’t most of them from coming-of-age stories,
like in a John Hughes movie where the younger brother wants to bang his older
sister’s friend—and, through some crazy system of events, lands in a position
to do so before he gets too scared and somehow escapes? 

Or, for a more
millennial reference, think of the scene in 2007’s Superbad, where Michael Cera’s character is finally about to have
sex with the much sought-after Becca, but she’s far too drunk and vomits on him.
The whole thing is a disaster and the sex itself doesn’t occur, unless we
assume that Becca succumbs to Michael’s boyish wiles at some time in the
near future (which would be totally understandable). The point is, a lot of the
most iconic moments from the pop culture sex scene canon are really effing
awkward by design. After all, the easiest sex scene to write is the one that
doesn’t actually happen. 

But don’t we as the audience feel a little bit cheated by
this bitter irony that the characters we love are bad in bed? It kind of ruins
the idea of hypothetically fucking your favorite actor, doesn’t it? Isn’t the
bad sex trope a sort of deus ex machina,
just a lazy way out?

Granted there are some shows and movies that are at least
trying to really go for it on the sex scene front. We have to commend Game of Thrones for giving it a shot,
even if incest isn’t your “thing” or you agree with Butters from South Park
that the production team should just skip the floppy wieners and get to the
dragons already.

But all in all, we probably just need more practice
with sex scenes at any given level of censorship. For a long time, you couldn’t
even have couples in the same bed on TV for Chrissakes. We’ll get there
eventually, but in the hope of catalyzing sex history, we at TSL’s sex column
are issuing a call for your best sex scene, using whatever structure (prose,
poetry, script) you feel is appropriate.

 Email us your submissions at

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