This summer Clare O’Donohue and I held a two-person panel about Writing Sex Scenes at the Mystery Writers of America tent. It was essentially a conversation in which we shared opinions and read the nasty bits from a few famous novels, as well as our own. I don’t think it was recorded, and I can’t speak for Clare, but here’s my contribution to the discussion.
I decided to do the grunt work on this, so to speak, and research a few well-known novels with sex scenes in them. I picked Women In Love by DH Lawrence, Tropic Of Capricorn by Henry Miller, Delta Of Venus by Anais Nin, Clea, one of the books in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and, of course, Fifty Shades Of Grey by EL James. I also took a look at Paper Lanterns, a short story collection by Stuart Dybek. I thought this was appropriate because Stuart is on almost every book panel in Chicago this summer.
The first thing I noticed from my reading is that sex scenes can be categorized with these three classifications: Sensual, Functional, and Combination.
Sensual sex scenes are those that try to manipulate the readers’ state of mind by using imagery that appeals to the senses and symbols that are sexually implicit. In most of these the mood is established and then—boom—it’s suddenly the next morning.
Functional sex scenes are just that. They describe the action—insert Tab A into Slot B.
Combination sex scenes try to establish mood and then describe the action.
Another way to classify sex scenes is by those that name body parts, either clinically or with slang, and those that use euphemisms—e.g. she grasped his throbbing member.
My own writing tends toward the Sensual model. There are two reasons for this. First, readers tend to attach their own habits and prejudices to the characters they’re reading about. We might be doing the same basic things in bed, but we do them slightly differently. Second, I infuse a lot of my own personality into my characters. I’m not sure I want my readers to know what I’m like in bed, unless, of course, I was writing a comedy.
Fifty Shades is a book that fits both the Functional and Euphemistic categories. It’s the kind of book that men in the 1940s and 50s would have sent three dollars to a company in Van Nuys, California for a copy to be delivered in a plain brown wrapper, but it’s been such a huge success that I’m obviously mistaken about what constitutes an interesting sex scene. Here’s a sample from the novel I’m currently working on. It’s pretty typical of the way I write.
They cut through the park to the bike path so they could see the lake while they walked. The sun was down, but the moon was up, and McKinney watched the ripple of its reflection on the water. The reflection appeared to follow them as they walked. Nina put on her sweater and took McKinney’s hand in hers. McKinney noted that there was strength behind the softness of her hand. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, and she squeezed back, and then a sort of sexual energy passed between them. McKinney had known on that first night he kissed her that, sooner or later, they would wind up in bed together. Some part of him knew her now, or rather, anticipated her—the feel of the soft hairs at the base of her spine, the taste of salt just above her collarbone, the warmth of her exhalation on his ear. He sensed these things about her. He needed to know them.
They walked without speaking for a bit. A cool breeze blew in off the lake, and a light shower fell on them from a sky that had been clear moments before. Nina pulled herself into the crook of his arm, and they hurried back, ducking into a short tunnel. The air in the tunnel was dense and mildewy. The moon had passed behind a cloud, but they could see the glow of the streetlights at the other end of the tunnel. They kissed for a while, and her fragrance, all the smells that defined her, filled his senses. She took one of his hands from her waist and put it on her breast. He felt her nipple, firm under his palm and, with his other hand, pulled her tight against him. The sound of footsteps along the walk robbed them of the moment. Almost in a whisper, Nina said, “I know this takes away some of the spontaneity, but would you…I mean, if you’d like to…can you spend the night?”
McKinney raised her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles. “You’re sure?”
She nodded. “Let’s walk back to the El.”
“The hell with the El,” he said, leading her out of the tunnel, “Let’s take a cab.”