Am I The Only Writer Who Struggles With Sex Scenes?

Let me open with two confessions: 1) When I reach a sex scene in a novel I’m reading, I usually skip past it. 2) When writing fiction myself, I usually find some way to avoid writing a sex scene, even though such a scene can often be important to the plot.

love-1706572_1280There. I said it.

I don’t think of myself as a prude. Frankly, I blame childhood conditioning. As readers of my literary travel memoir know, my mother was an aspiring romance novelist when I was a teenager. I was happy to read her prose, but not so happy when I hit the sex scenes. It’s a bit disturbing to enter the erotic mind of one’s mother when one is just figuring out one’s own sexuality. (Shudder.)

It also seems that some writers will throw in a sex scene simply for the scintillation, or because it’s part of a well-established genre formula. When I watched the Netflix series Altered Carbon, I thought that was the case in a scene in which the protagonist sleeps with the wife of the murder suspect. It seemed very hardboiled detective tripe, like a Dashiell Hammett novel. I’m now reading the novel that series was based on, however, and I’m impressed by how author Richard Morgan used the scene to give the reader valuable insights on this futuristic culture, from organically produced stimulants to the psychological impacts of living hundreds of years. It was also erotic, but more importantly it helped drive the plot and reader understanding.

motorcycleThus my WIP, an urban fantasy novel in which the first draft is technically 2/3 of the way done, except I keep going back and rewriting earlier scenes. I believe I’m about to do that again. There are two points in the draft so far where a sex scene would have been a natural plot element, but I blipped by them, implying some activity (or not) without showing it. Aren’t we supposed to show, not tell? Morgan’s writing, and that of others, has me realizing I need to let go of that traumatized fifteen year old and write the scenes the WIP’s plot is clearly calling for.

Wish me luck. (Shudder.)

21 thoughts on “Am I The Only Writer Who Struggles With Sex Scenes?

  1. pjreece

    Exactly — where one shudders, there one is obliged to go. Si? Myself, I had a heck of a time with the sex scene in my YA novel, “Roxy.” I felt utterly insecure, especially because I’m writing from the p.o.v. of a 17-year-old girl. Every draft of the scene I sent off to a female friend for comment and editing. It must have worked all right, because I don’t feel embarrassed by it. No one has accused me of cultural/gender appropriation. But, like you, Patrick, i’m not looking forward to the next time I must (shudderingly) go there.

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  2. I’m glad that you wrote this. I have to admit that I’ve been too embarrassed to talk about my insecurities when it comes to writing a sex scene. I wish you luck, although I doubt that you need it. Just trust in your abilities. You can do this. 🙃

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  3. I never had trouble but I think it’s because I let the characters tell their story their way. My Dana series is so ungodly raunchy that it’s awful sometimes but the sex scenes aren’t really about sex but about something else. My quieter stories avoid graphic sex altogether and only have discrete fade-outs because the emotional climate around sex is far more important than what the characters do in bed. I’m glad you liked the book Altered Carbon because I hated the show and stopped watching early. I didn’t like the characters, for one thing. Good post.

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    1. So your approach makes sense; the extent to which there are scenes or how graphic they are is organic to the story, which is character-driven. How interesting that you have different works that differ so dramatically. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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  4. I think I will always disagree with the notion that one “must” write anything. Often I think the most effective prose is that which can merely suggest a thing without ever actually needing to spell it out. Readers are smart. They know what is going to happen and what happens behind a closed bedroom door once you, the author have clearly spelled out what is to come. Psychological thrillers work because of what is hinted at and suggested rather than what actually happens. Why does this need to be different for other things? Tension of any stripe is how you approach a revelation and not always in the revelation itself. Just my two cents.

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    1. Thanks for this insight, Stephanie. I agree that any time you get into a “must” situation you’re already off track, because ultimately what the author puts there is what “must” be there. (One thing I learned in my MFA program is the importance of beign willing to leave things out, with the point that a reader can’t miss what they don’t see or know was once there before revisions.)

      The second scene I wish to address has a hard fadeout; you see the characters before, and then after, with a scene cut. It’s an emotional turning point for the protagonist, however, so I’m thinking we need to stay with his thoughts, although there won’t be much need to be graphic about it.

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      1. My writing mentor has told me many times that often what is most powerful about writing is what is not written over what is. So yes, I totally agree with your comment “the importance of being willing to leave things out” because the reader won’t miss what they can’t see. In your case though, I totally understand if your story requires the scene as essential. Good luck finding that balance!

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  5. Behind the Story

    My problem is similar to the one you had when reading your mom’s romance novels. The protagonist in my WIP has fertility problems. Sex and the hoped-for results are integral to the story. She and her husband not only have sex. They think and talk about it a lot. I have three children and three grandchildren. Even without them, I don’t think I would write graphic sex scenes, but I do feel nervous when I think about them reading the scenes I’ve written.

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    1. Ah yes, I can see why sex is critical in your story, which sounds compelling.

      As for being nervous of my kids or others reading what I put in my WIP, well, nothing I write in fiction could possibly be harder to share than some of what I revealed in my memoir! So all good there. 🙂

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  6. I get it. In the novel I am working on, the sex scenes are between humans who are just discovering sexual interaction. It is challenging to say enough but not sound like a Harlquin Romance. So far so good, though with the feedback I have gotten from those editing friends I have. Do it. It will be cathartic for that younger you.

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  7. talesofawannaberedhead

    I write about sex in my blog and in all honesty it was HARD to start getting graphic, but as you say it really sets the scene and can be the best part of the writing so I just threw myself into it and now go full XXX haha

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    1. Thanks for visiting and your comment! As I check out your blog and social media, I see one approach you’re taking to it is through remaining largely anonymous, so I imagine that helps. Good luck with your creative project!

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      1. talesofawannaberedhead

        Yes you are right! Annonyminity was not an easy choice for me, but I eventually decided I wanted to be judged not for who I was, but for what I say, images of me obviously accompany me but I like the mystery. Sending my luck back your way !

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  8. My problem with sex scenes are that they normally arnt realistic or achievable. I get the element of fantasy. However there is something a lot more real reading something when you know it really does happen like that.
    Also many people may feel self conscious talking about sex, because the media still portray sex as a taboo subject. When it really shouldn’t be. If people talked about sex more, maybe more people would feel comfortable experimenting and finding what truly makes them happy in the bedroom.

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