A friend challenged me to write a sex scene a few days ago. After three hours’ work, it turned out to be about 1,500 words. To put this in perspective, if I’ve hit my stride, I can do that in under an hour. Suffice it to say, I did not hit my stride, only a series of sticking points.
I took the three-part psychology of sexuality course series at my university. I seek out journal articles on sexual behaviors, and A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam’s book-length analysis of what the internet and web searches might reveal about human desire, captured my attention from the outset. None of this makes me an expert, but I can’t cite total ignorance as an excuse when it turns out that I—like most people—sometimes struggle to talk about sex.
And if talking about it is tricky, writing it is somehow harder. The selection of books with titles amounting to How to Write Sex, Even if the Prospect Makes You Whimper speaks to the fact that I’m not unique in struggling with this.
Sex is a funny thing to approach as a writer—trying to tap into the animalistic nature of lust while maintaining the higher brain state that allows you to spell words like “tongue” and “opalescent”—and maybe that disconnect is part of what makes me freeze up. Still, I think there’s more to it.
Perhaps it’s the nature of writing—the fear that people will read our stories and see us in the characters, so that when we write a sex scene, we’re seemingly recounting our own bedroom exploits. What will Aunt Betsy think when our heroine has premarital sex with a coworker? What will our coworkers think? Should we send out a mass disclaimer before the story sees the light of day?
I have a piece being published in the upcoming issue of Stories That Aren’t Autobiographical. Just an FYI, I’m not sleeping with my best friend’s brother. I don’t know anything about that position. In fact, I contracted those scenes out to someone else. I haven’t even read them.
Please don’t judge me,
Your Writer Friend
Perhaps it’s that fear of judgment, of being seen as authors of smut rather than serious fiction. Will people think we’re no better than the director who includes gratuitous 3D explosions?
With that, perhaps it’s the fear of hyperbole or tastelessness—the same thing that makes it difficult to write about violence. How can we write about such extremes of the human experience in a way that captures the power without being either comical or offensive—or both? How can we give the detail needed to portray the scene without straying into graphic overindulgence?
I suspect it’s a combination of these fears, along with what seems to be that near-universal hesitance to discuss such matters with anyone except those closest to us—if even them.
In a previous post, I talked some about the Ideal Reader, that one person you write to so that you aren’t floundering around trying to connect with everyone who might stumble upon your story. My friend’s assignment wasn’t easy, but it got easier when I returned to that idea. I didn’t have to write something I could share with my professors and relatives and the stranger at the table next to mine in Starbucks; I only had to write something I could share with my Ideal Reader.
So I did. It was just an exercise, but they say the first time is the hardest, so maybe when it comes up in a larger project, it will be a little less painful.