Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene

June 15, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 20 4 min read

Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it. This is widely known and acknowledged — even on this very site, by both the great Sonya Chung and Julia Fierro. We’re all so tuned into its legendary badness that even relatively minor offenses in the realm of sex writing annoy us far more than other writerly transgressions. An imperfect depiction of sex is far worse for some reason than an inept description of someone entering a room or having a marital spat or whatever other things a book might get wrong without anyone disapproving quite so mercilessly.

There is sufficient scorn for bad sex writing that the Literary Review famously awards an annual prize for it. Though “prize” seems like a funny term for becoming the object of public ridicule and mockery. It’s a missing component of the human brain, the ability to recognize one’s own completely botched attempts at writing about penetration, blow jobs, and the rest of it. Most writers, one must assume, push themselves away from their desks at the end of their earnest writing sessions and think to themselves, Job well done. Only to discover a few months or years later that they have gone and humiliated themselves, at least according to a bunch of smug bastards on the other side of the ocean.

Which isn’t to say I’m not in sympathy with the smug bastards. In writing my own book full of sex, there was almost no one I could turn to for inspiration. There wasn’t a single book I looked to and thought, “What I’m trying to do is write sex like she did or like he did.” There weren’t even movies and TV shows I felt had handled it the way I wanted to see it done. You know what movies and TV shows are really brilliant at capturing? Bad sex. They’re great at doing awkward, depressing, uncomfortable sex scenes where everyone is sort of strangled in the sheets, and the women are keeping their breasts covered, and everyone is obviously faking their orgasms and not getting what they want. And you know that the movie is probably about a breakup that hasn’t happened yet but soon will.

coverThe other thing that movies and TV shows are good at nailing down is the kind of phonily intense sex scene in which the involved parties are grabbing fistfuls of hair and grunting and slamming each other around because their passion, their chemistry, is so overpowering it can’t be softened by courtesy, affection, or fear of causing actual physical harm. Often, the players in these scenes remain largely clothed, too ravenous for one another’s genitals to waste time undressing. They merely make a path towards penetration, him through his fly, her with underwear stretched between her thighs or, better yet, ripped and lying in tatters nearby. This type of sex scene is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in which the two (needless to say, gorgeous) leads have a ferocious and impassioned sexual encounter on a wooden staircase — quite possibly the worst place on the planet to have sex. The only version of this scene I could find on YouTube is dubbed in another language, but the familiarity of such brutal fucking transcends language, and should be familiar to anyone who sees it.

Though my own sex scenes weren’t written with titillation in mind, if I had to choose a point of inspiration for them, a certain kind of amateur pornography comes closest, the kind where you actually believe they’ve forgotten the camera is there, and the effect is that of a documentary. Or maybe even hidden camera porn, where one guy seems to know they’re being recorded, but the other fellow seems not to know. And they experience a kind of typical sex exchange that feels true somehow. Even thought it’s not, of course, true at all, and might in fact be so deceptive as to be unethical and/or illegal. The ordinariness of their interaction is what is so striking. Stripped of performance and professional lighting, moments like these can never be accused of the most common pitfalls of bad sex writing: pretension, mushiness, cornball romance, those absurd oh-yeah-you-like-that-don’t-you, uh-huh-you-know-I-do-big-daddy exchanges.

While I am somewhat in sympathy with the smug bastards calling out the writers who do it badly, I experience an even greater depth of fellow feeling for those who have tried to get it right and failed. Because it’s really hard getting it right, if it can be done at all. Everyone knows what sex is like, and we all know that, almost always, something’s off in the way it’s described on the page. How seldom it is truly captured — the physical sensation, the feelings, the smells. Yes, there are smells! Tasteful writers don’t mention them, but they’re there, and they can fill a room. And this — gentility — is perhaps the worst offense of all when writing about sex. How can you take me there if the word “loins” is used even once? How can you take me there if you won’t admit that there are smells? And pubic hairs that must occasionally be plucked from the tip of your tongue or hocked up discreetly in the shower sometime later.

I’m no different than anyone else who has waded into this treacherous territory. I’m quite happy with my sex scenes. I think they’re just terrific, actually. I think they’re right in their frankness, in their zooming in and zooming out. In the smells they attempt to conjure and fan out at readers from the page, however subtly. I think they capture something real and true. But we all know what the odds say about the likelihood of their success. Take the Magic Eight Ball in hand, give it a shake, and ask the question. Wait a moment for the answer to bob up through inky, blue waters and flatten against the window. “Outlook not so good.”

has written about books for many places. His first novel, Arcade, is out now.


  1. I remember thinking that the sex scene in Atonement is surprisingly good. McEwan has a scientist’s eye for detail, and a certain amount of clinical dispassion seems to lend itself to writing about sex well.

  2. Great sex scene in Jesus’ Son between Crudup and Hunter.

    My nom was worst sex writer is Paul Auster, who, despite his obvious brilliance, continues to write sex scenes between old men who are invalids and beautiful blonde women in which the men are still studs in spit of their infirmaries. This tic of his is why I will never cop to him being one of my favorites writers. He is still way too invested in his virility for me to take him seriously.

  3. Like taking a shit, let’s leave sex scenes out of novels. Allude to sex, but don’t write it. I end up just saying “yucko”. Having said that, I am reading The Seed Collector’s by Scarlett Thomas and she (so far) writes, alludes, to sex rather well because she is funny as hell about it.

  4. “Like taking a shit, let’s leave sex scenes out of novels.”

    Don’t know what kind of sex you’re familiar with, HC (laugh) but I’d compare sex to another natural necessity (and aestheticized pleasure) such as *eating*… and why should there be a prohibition against portraying it or a tendency to freight its portrayal with mystical (or grandiose) nature metaphors that obscure, rather than reveal, its essence? Sex is always a dialogue (though it’s not always an articulate, imaginative or friendly one) and dialogues are natural to the novel.

  5. “Like taking a shit, let’s leave sex scenes out of novels. Allude to sex, but don’t write it. I end up just saying “yucko”. Having said that, I am reading The Seed Collector’s by Scarlett Thomas and she (so far) writes, alludes, to sex rather well because she is funny as hell about it.”

    Tastefully withdrawing before the sex occurs is the usual tack, and it works pretty well. That said, I’m all for sex scenes if the author is good at writing them and if the scene is germane to the overall narrative. In the same sense, I’m not even opposed to a good (it better be really good) taking a shit scene–Joyce’s scene with Bloom in the outhouse is one of the best in Ulysses.

  6. Oh man! Page 68 of Scarlett Thomas’s The Seed Collectors: “He shits in the spare toilet before joining her”. The rest of the paragraph is pretty funny, so Scarlett gets a pass. Steve Garvey, no doubt Joyce got it right but the fact that you’ve read Ulysses shows you are way out of my league, I just can’t get through it. Steve Augustine, I will read anything you write because you are smart and funny and you make me laugh.

    God I can’t believe a guy just took a shit in the book I am reading!

    Oh one more thing, men who write from the female POV, must we always have our period by page 5? We truly do not think about, other than “fuck, again?” And then we sigh. And sometimes book off sick. And stay in bed with tea and a novel. Ok maybe that’s just me.

  7. My throbbing loins and I couldn’t believe it Steven! I might even call it serendipity but that is usually meant for something good. Ok later, I have to go pull a pubic hair from my mouth. Gross, yes?

  8. @Heather Curran

    There’s a little bit of Aunt Flow, her troubles, and her great blessings, back in my comment to Jacob Lambert’s very intriguing “A Fictional Oral History of the Photograph I found in an Old Carl Hiassen Paperback.” (May 27, 2016). Just couldn’t resist pointing you to it. Someone called my comment “atmospheric” which covers a lot of ground. (There are more mute people in the photo who need a story, what do you say, Heather? Anybody? : ) )

    (Come to think of it, Joyce’s Molly Brown commented on this topic on June 16, 1904!)

    Moe Murph
    All Too Human

  9. I shall look it up Maureen, just a little busy putting my filter back in. Oh and Anon, agree re Paul Auster, same for Ian McEwan; incest is never sexy. Like ever.

  10. ‘There wasn’t a single book I looked to and thought, “What I’m trying to do is write sex like she did or like he did.”’ So, you’ve never read a Romance novel?

  11. Drew, a LOT of writers’ve successfully written passing to great sex scenes. They just tend to be women in genres that get ignored in literary articles.

    This observation brought to you by @therippedbodice

  12. You obviously have not been reading fanfiction. Some of the best sex scenes I’ve ever read have been the result of fanfiction authors who have envisioned these scenes over and over for different stories involving the same pairings. Some are terrible, of course, but I’m hard pressed to find a scene written in a novel that’s written as well and with as much feeling.

    Also, I choked on my morning Rockstar when you mentioned hocking up pubic hair in the shower. Thanks for that. lol

  13. Wow. There’s an entire genre of books with spectacular sex scenes. Read a romance.

  14. This is the type of sexist drivel that gives literary publications a bad name. There’s an entire genre with fabulous sex scenes. The problem is they are written by and for women.

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