The Problem with Sex Scenes

Sex sells. Sex makes the world go ’round. If you don’t believe me, talk to any young man in any culture, and you’ll find that he’s preoccupied with sex whether he admits it or not. It’s no accident that the world’s oldest profession involves sex or that the VCR, DVD, and Internet really took off due to pornography. It’s part of our primitive core that we just can’t shake.

I grew up in the deep South. It’s the only place in America where a couple can deny the existence of sex as they drag their six kids into church on Sundays. We didn’t talk about it, yet teenage pregnancy was more prevalent than in other parts of the country. My own mother tried to convince me of the existence of the stork well past the point that such a story has any feasible plausibility. Needless to say, the “If we don’t talk about it, they won’t know about it” approach didn’t work.

Luckily, I escaped the morbid obsession with shame and denial and developed a healthy attitude about sex. It’s something to be enjoyed – responsibly, of course. Despite my more open attitude, I hate writing sex scenes in my novels. I find most sex scenes in books to be unrealistic or trite. The ones I have written never seem to have the same texture that I imagine in my head. Maybe my upbringing is coming back to haunt me, or maybe I’ve seen too many movies where sex is idealized.

Take the classic movie, Top Gun for example. The sex scene between Tom Cruise and Kelly McGillis, in my opinion, remains one of the best ever put on the screen. A lot of that has to do with the chemistry between the actors as it does in real life, but I can’t imagine that it was written the way it was acted. In fact, if I were to read the scene from the script, I’m almost certain I would roll my eyes and cringe half way through because writing sex scenes is difficult, and let’s be real, true-life sex is never like that scene where everything moves smoothly and a ballad from Berlin plays in the background.

One thing I try to do when I have to write a sex scene is imagine it playing out on the big screen and writing only about the essential visual elements of the scene. The reader’s mind will fill in the blanks – in fact, depending on the mind, it may end up better than it’s written. Otherwise, I mostly avoid writing about sex. I’d rather leave it as implied or cut out at a key moment before the characters get to the point of sex. That works most of the time, but it’s not always the best approach.

In one of my books, the protagonist is a full-on jerk and a misogynist who uses one of his female friends for sex. Many of their interactions revolve around their inexplicable sexual relationship. It’s hard to convey what’s going through his mind if I always cut out when he has a scene with the woman, so I had to write several sex scenes without making the book sound like a cheesy porno. Reading back through it on the subsequent edits, I feel I achieved the right balance. Nevertheless, the sex scenes don’t make me think of Top Gun.

 

Sex may make the world go ’round, but it’s a delicate balance when writing about it, especially when trying to make the scenes realistic and believable. I tend to avoid them, but sometimes, the essence of the story requires it.

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