without blushing (too much)
I’m not going to tell you how to write about sex in this post. Instead, this is an account of how I finally came to grips with the problem. As sex is extremely personal, it’s impossible to be prescriptive. However, it did occur to me that a frank account of how I overcame my own reluctance to write about sex might be helpful. Failing that, at least this ought to raise a chuckle or two.
Catholics can’t write about sex (or can they?)
It would be easy to blame my initial coyness on my Catholic upbringing. I mean, unless they’re condemning it, Catholics don’t talk – let alone write – about sex, right? This may well once have been correct, but during my adolescence nothing could have been further from the truth. When I grew up, progressives in the Church were attempting to be open about matters in the bedroom. While it was a very awkward conversation, at least they were trying to have it, bless them! I have one particularly vivid memory of the parents of one poor kid telling us about how they used the rhythm method during a school assembly! Though thankfully this was not a practical demonstration, the talk was delivered with graphs and frequent references to ovulation. Needless to say, said child never lived this down!
Unfortunately for me, my own mother was part of the vanguard of this movement. As a Catholic marriage advisory councilor, she owned an extensive collection of books about sex all paid for by the Church. During my awkward teenage years whenever a friend came to visit, “Doctor Ruth’s Guide to Good Sex” seemed to always be on prominent display. Not only that, but ever since I can remember, mum has been keen to dispel any misassumptions me and my siblings might have about matters in the bedroom. We, on the other hand, were not so keen to have these little chats!
And yet for all this laudable openness, the party line was always that, while sex for pleasure (without condoms of course) was all well and good, the act itself should never happen outside of marriage. This message obviously wasn’t getting through very clearly as all the girls in my Catholic school were desperate to prove they weren’t virgins. They absolutely were, by the way, but neither they nor I ever owned up to this sorry state of affairs.
As I mentioned earlier, it would be easy to pin my squeamishness about writing about sex on my Catholic upbringing. But I feel like that would be a cop out. I can’t really pin down where it comes from, but it’s definitely there. Luckily, or by subconscious design, this wasn’t an issue when I began writing fiction. My first novel had a love affair between two teenage characters that didn’t get any steamier than a furtive smooch. By the time I got to the second, I’d evolved a little by adding a more passionate, drunken kissing scene. However, you could hardly call that progress, as one of the characters conveniently passed out before things could get too heavy!
My moment of reckoning came with the novel I’m currently putting the finishing touches to. While it’s also a suspense, The Fakes is essentially a love story between two characters who have to end up in bed together as quickly as possible. Knowing this, I got them into bed and… Yes, I’m ashamed to say that I pulled the literary equivalent of the train barreling into a tunnel, leaving the reader hanging after a passionate kiss in a hotel, then jumping ahead to cigarettes in bed with naked bodies safely obscured under clean sheets.
If it wasn’t for my excellent critique partner, I would have left things there. Luckily for me, she flung that scene back in my face demanding to know where the sex was.
“This is romance. Readers are looking forward to this. You can’t just fob them off!” she insisted.
Suitably chastened, I went back to my manuscript and wrote a sex scene in a daze, grasping at the most overused euphemisms available. My critique partner, needless to say, was not impressed. And looking back, if they hadn’t been so cliched, these passages might well have been suitable candidates for the Guardian Bad Sex writing award. While many guffawed at the expense of Morrissey’s frenzied descriptions, at least “clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation” shows some originality!
The language of sex has often been filtered through the male gaze, with an emphasis on the visual instead of the tactile. So it was no surprise that I was regurgitating exactly this sort of language. There was also the problem of idealized sex. Sex is messy and awkward, especially the first time, and this needs acknowledging. One of my favourite sex scenes is in Working Girl where Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford have a hilarious amount of trouble getting their clothes off. Despite the humour, it was this touch of realism that made the scene feel realistic.
In my novel, the love interest is Japanese. Bathing before sex is considered common courtesy in Japan. As a foreigner, my heroine was woefully ignorant of this fact. Writing the ensuing awkward conversation was one of the ways I made the scene come to life.
Still trying to write about sex, but find yourself stuck? I’d recommend learning from the one of the masters. Anaïs Nin’s “The Delta of Venus” is a collection of short erotic stories that should be perfect for getting any writer in the mood. While I’m not advocating you rip it off entirely, at least these stories are written squarely from a female perspective. Seeing as women consume more literature than men these days, shouldn’t we be doing our level best to appeal to their appetites?
Writing about sex well is extremely important if you’re writing romance. If you’re writing in this genre and need a professional to cast an eye over your manuscript, do get in touch. All prospective clients receive a free sample edit which allows them to get a sense of my editing style with no obligation to proceed. Once I’ve completed the edit, I will provide you with a quote.