Let’s Talk About Sex Scenes In Fiction, Baby

Every so often, someone from The Millions tweets out an article that ran in 2016, “Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene.” The latest iteration of this Twitter baiting took it a step further and drew the attention of the Romance community. The author asserts that with regard to sex writing in literature “[…] it’s really hard getting it right, if it can be done at all.” If?

I would like to pause to commend romance writers. Every time a lady climaxes from hot, feminist, consensual sex in a romance novel, a mythological creature (let’s call it a sexy unicorn) is created. It is elusive and lives shelved in a land far away from literary fiction, and is therefore not likely to be discovered by Very Important White Male Writers.

Bad sex scenes are an easy target, a not-so-hot hot take from the literary world. And real talk: yes, there are terrrrrrrrrible sex scenes out there, in romance, and in other genres. From the annals of literary fiction, Romance Powerhouse/Queen of Everything Beverly Jenkins retweeted screenshots of Jonathan Franzen’s, um, sexy (?) writing.

Y’all, I’m going to be honest:  it only gets worse after warm autonomous rabbit underpants. I’ll let you seek that out on Twitter. Jezebel did a wonderful round-up of sexy (?) quotes from Franzen’s Freedom, those that leave us scratching our heads or howling with laughter.

And this week, romance author Lauren Hunsaker called out The Millions article by creating a list of fantastic, successful sex scenes in romance novels.

Why *Do* People Hate Sex Scenes?

Sex scenes get a bad rap, and there’s good reason for some of the complaints. There are entire awards devoted to the worst-of-the-worst sex scenes in fiction. When it’s possible to do something poorly, there exists a stratification of badness. But when the badness becomes the rule rather than an exception, then we have a problem. And a big part of the problem comes in the erasure of women’s writing.

Which is not to say that women don’t write bad sex scenes. Rather, some of the most successful sex scenes come from the romance genre, a genre generally accepted to be written by, for, and about women.

Those Who Cannot Do, Come Up With a Different Plot

After I started writing romance, I had dinner with some old friends from MFA school, where we trained to be literary fiction writers. We knew all the jokes about writing sex scenes (groan, awful, yuck) and also the advice on how to do it (Steve Almond’s essay is still one of my favorites). One of them asked something along the lines of, “Eesh, have you tried to write a sex scene yet?”

Because I’m writing romance now, and sex will likely follow, and how, HOW am I to do it well? The author of the article on The Millions sums up the general theory re: writing sex scenes quite succinctly in the first sentence of his piece: “Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it.”

But here’s the thing: despite that old education that sex scenes are a drag to write, there is an entire corner of the literary world where the truth universally acknowledged is that sex scenes are important and valuable and good. It’s just that it’s literature usually written by and about women, where sex is pleasurable for women and consent is hot.

And so when my friend asked me whether I had tried to write a sex scene yet, I found myself—for the first time—citing examples of fantastic sex scenes that I had learned from, in Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient, in Tessa Dare’s The Duchess Deal, in Sarah MacLean’s One Good Earl Deserves a LoverI didn’t dismiss sex scenes as too hard. It’s not a sexy unicorn; it’s possible, and it’s awesome.

When A Cigar Is More Than a Cigar

Whether this disconnect between good sex scenes and the romance genre is merely an extension of genre snobbery or an issue of gender equality in publishing, there’s a clear gap between what I know as a romance reader and what is asserted in this article about sex scenes in fiction.

I live in a golden age of fantastic romance novels that are smart, feminist, sexually woke, culturally relevant, and hot. I adore Jasmine Guillory and Sarah MacLean and Alisha Rai and Alyssa Cole and Tessa Dare, and it’s because the sex scenes they write are graceful and weighty and accomplish something beyond orgasm: they earn their keep in the story.

Jasmine Guillory did a great interview in The Atlantic about how she came to writing romance and where her books fall—particularly with regard to consent and how partners end up together—within the context of the #metoo movement. A.J. Christopher talked to Cosmo about how the #metoo movement made her examine the ways that she writes dating and sexual encounters, and whether that’s responsible when the stories about dating, and about sex, that arise out of that movement paint such a disparate picture than the ones she tells in her novels.

These articles are worth checking out, but they point me to a larger point here: perhaps when considering the quality of a sex scene, we should focus less on how to describe nipples or appendages, how to tackle the choreography of sex positions, or what to do about the gross physicalities (fluid, hair, etc.), and focus instead on what a sex scene can do.

Because I’ll tell you: when I hear an author talk about their deep self-examination in writing sex scenes that focus on women receiving pleasure, that make consent priority one, that’s a lot more interesting to me than hearing a writer lament that, in writing his own book about sex, “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.’”

If only he had asked us. Because the thing is, there are ample places to find good sex, but you’ll have to shop in the romance section. You’ll have to deal with a story of a smart, ambitious woman finding an HEA with a compatible, interesting partner. Many have tried, and yes, some have failed, but there are heroes to be found in the romance section, if only one would look.

For more on sexy writing in romance, check out 3 Tips For Great (Fictional) Sex; 7 of the Sexiest Books We’ve Ever Read; Why Not Romance Novels? Showing Respect for the Romance Genre

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