What makes a great sex scene in fiction? I checked in with readers, authors, and editors to find what gets readers’ engines revving in romance and erotica. I’ll confess that what I was expecting was different than what I found…and in the best way possible. Body positivity at every shape and size was a much more prevalent theme than Fabio-like physiques. We talked about alpha males, but we also talked about toxic masculinity. The importance of individuals of all gender identities being represented as swoonworthy romantic leads was another hot topic. I’m excited to share my findings with you. Hopefully, you’ll find them just as pleasantly surprising as I did. There’s also a chance you might blush.
Readers Weigh In On What Makes a Good Sex Scene
Mara from Books Like Whoa was of two minds about what makes a good sex scene. When in the mood for something smutty and over the top, she reaches for authors like Jessa Kane that know how to keep it campy. When she’s reading something more serious, the sex should be more about character and relationship development than the act itself. “I’m expecting that the characters won’t be at the same place in their relationship at the end of the scene than they were at the beginning. It doesn’t have to be that every single sex scene is ‘Oh my god, I’m in love with you.’ It could be that the character thinks, ‘I learned something about who you are, something about how I feel about you, or something about myself’. In a really well written sex scene, that’s what’s happening.”
Bree Hill from Falling for Romance likes it when an author — and the couple — really work for it. “Unless I’m reading a romance novella where things happen really fast, I prefer the build up to the steamier scenes to be a bit slower. I think that’s a misconception the romance genre has, that by three pages in you have sex on the page.” I’m with Bree on this. Call me sentimental, but I love a slow burn.
Building Sexual Tension
When I asked Bree about the nonsexual exchanges that help her buy into a couple’s chemistry, she emphasized nonverbal communication. “Affectionate gazing, grabbing a hand to hold, a smile…when a good nonverbal happens, it’s so sweet to see the passage of something that doesn’t need to be said. I just love it!”
She took the words right out of my mouth. Sure, the sex scenes in Bridgerton were hot. Ultimately, though, it was the stolen glances that made me believe the frenemies-turned-lovers burned for each other.
Authors are clearly onto us when it comes to our desire to see progressively steamier exchanges. Danielle Allen said, “I keep it spicy by making the reader want it to happen as badly as the characters want it to happen. I tease it out, focusing on the connection between the characters and building the sexual tension. When the moment happens, I detail the experience so the reader can feel as though they are right there with them.”
Getting in the Mood (to Write a Sex Scene)
Danielle Allen isn’t playing around when she talks about building tension. Her contemporary romance novels like Work Song are the evidence. When I asked her how she gets into the right headspace to write her steamy scenes, she shared her secret. “I set the mood with my favorite scented candles and a specific playlist for that particular book. Each couple has their own vibe so the music is different depending on the couple and the situation.”
Take note, aspiring authors. Break out Smooth Operator by Sade, Closer by Nine Inch Nails, or whatever helps you get your freak on. I’m dying to see Danielle’s playlists.
Heat Levels in Romance
In the romance genre, there’s something for everyone. There are so many degrees of sexy that some publishers will even let you sort their offerings by heat level.
That said, there’s still an expectation of sex on the page that’s not fade to black for some readers. “The lack of a sex scene implies a level of squeamishness about human sexuality that often goes along with an authorial attitude I don’t love,” Mara said. “It’s not really the sex scene itself I want to be there. It’s that the lack of a sex scene makes me think a book might not work for me.”
Bree was of a similar mind. “There tends to be this idea that women should be shameful about enjoying sex. Romance novels definitely give the middle finger to that! I love seeing women characters’ desires being fulfilled, love seeing them being pleasured. That’s what makes a good sex scene to me, seeing the woman on page being taken care of sexually.”
“Sometimes I get into the more over the top euphemisms in sex scenes. They can be funny. If they’re intended with seriousness, if there are a lot of glistening caves and turgid rods, that’s a no from me,” shared Mara.
If you’ve spent any time on the Erotica Authors subreddit, you’ll know this is something that can cause new erotica authors anxiety. Finding ways to describe someone’s bits that aren’t offensive, clinical, or repetitive takes more skill than most realize. Don’t believe me? Think about every synonym you know for penis and vagina. (If you’re like me, maybe you’re recalling the sex ed scene from Varsity Blues.) How many of them would make you roll your eyes or flash back to middle school?
Crafting Compelling Scenes and Characters
At the end of the day, there are only so many ways two people (or more!) can have sex. Curious about how authors keep it interesting, I reached out to bestselling author Jenika Snow. With hundreds of books under her belt, I knew she’d have thoughts on how to keep things from getting repetitive.
Luckily, she was willing to dish. “It’s important (for me) to shape the actual scene and act of the couple being together physically so it’s unique to them and their experience. How would a particular hero touch the heroine? In one book he may be a little rough around the edges, a little more aggressive in his passion. In another book he’s got a softer side, is more gentle. That’s how I ensure each sex scene can be fresh for each story.”
I asked Jenika to tell me about the appeal of alpha males since they feature prominently in her work. “As humans we have that natural desire to be taken care of, almost like an instinct,” she said. “I love a hero who takes care of his heroine but still knows when to give her space. A good portion of romance readers probably like the same type of alpha; the kind that take charge of a situation, are physically dominating, maybe a bit arrogant, but have this gentle side they only bring out for the leading lady. In the end they always take care of the heroine because anything else is going against their very grain.”
Sizzling LGBTQIA+ Sex Scenes
Alpha males aren’t for everyone, so I checked in with Anna Stone about how she keeps things spicy for readers. Her sexy lesbian romance novels like Tangled Vows are full of strong and sensual women who know how to keep things interesting.
She shared, “In the sex scenes I write, I like to explore a variety of themes and kinks. Even the most vanilla of sex scenes can be spiced up with a little power play, or the introduction of props. Using objects from the surrounding environment, or even the environment itself, is one of my favorite ways to do this. In terms of my actual writing, I like to keep things hot by focusing not just on descriptions, but dialogue, emotions, sensations, reactions. Mixing all those elements together in creative ways can really turn up the heat on an otherwise unremarkable sex scene.”
Did that pique your curiosity? Good! Add her Irresistibly Bound series to your Amazon cart. Like, now.
Wanting to know more, I asked Anna to share her thoughts on writing LGBTQIA+ romance and erotica. One of the things she emphasized was the wealth diversity within the community. “…even within a specific niche like women who love women, there are gay women, bisexual or pansexual women, femme women, butch women, women of color, women with disabilities, and so on. Good representation recognizes that there is no one way to be gay, or bi, or trans, and that people are more than just their gender identity or sexual orientation.”
She also talked about the wide variety of possibilities and preferences that play out during sex scenes. “…when it comes to women who love women, some like to take on strict top or bottom roles in bed, some are more flexible, and others eschew those kinds of roles altogether. Some women like to use strap-ons and other toys with their partners, but many don’t. Some enjoy penetrative sex, while some don’t. In fact, the idea that non-penetrative sex is just as valid as penetrative sex is important not only for good LGBTQ+ representation but the representation of sexuality in general.”
Curating Erotica Anthologies
Rachel Kramer Bussel is an expert on what makes a good sex scene. Why? She serves as a freelance erotica anthology editor and mines through heaps of submissions to bring readers the best of the best. Her latest collection of steamy stories is Best Women’s Erotica Of The Year Volume 6.
In romance novels, the author has a lot more time and space to build the chemistry between two people than their peers do that write erotic shorts. I was curious about what an author could do to make an editor buy into a couple’s sexual tension from page one.
“This is definitely a challenge,” Rachel shared. “I would say making sure every word and anecdote plays a role in the story and is building the connection between the characters…I tell students and clients — why now? Why this person? What’s so special about this particular moment in a sex scene? You can work backwards from that and answer those why questions throughout the story so the reader feels they truly got to know the [characters], albeit briefly.”
As for what makes a story stand out from the rest? “When I’m putting together an anthology I’m mainly looking for variety, so different tenses and points of view, different settings, diverse characters regarding sexuality, race, age, location, profession, as well as different types of settings, plots, and approaches to storytelling and that the authors themselves are diverse.”
She also looks for different types of personalities. “I receive many stories about someone who is on the whole inexperienced in some way and goes on to experience a sexual act or live out a fantasy for the first time. I enjoy those stories but am always looking for characters who are perhaps older or simply more experienced who are looking for a way to push their own boundaries or get out of a rut or try something new when they feel they’ve done it all.”
Let’s Talk Consent
Consent is sexy, and for a good sex scene, a nonnegotiable. Regardless, including it on page without it feeling like an author is checking off a box on their to do list can be tricky.
“It’s hard to do explorations of consent in contemporary and historical romance because the real world is complicated,” Mara pointed out. “When you get to historical romance, you get into intrinsic and legally forced power dynamics that are hard to make sexy.” That’s why she finds consent particularly interesting in speculative genres of romance. The world building those stories offer allows couples to explore their sexuality without the patriarchal conventions of our world.
That said, Mara still had recommendations for historical romance authors that do consent particularly well. Courtney Milan was one. Mara swears A Kiss for Midwinter has the sexiest birth control use that you’ll find in romance. Why? It shows the hero understands the importance of a woman’s agency both in and out of the bedroom. It was important to him that she not only consent to the act, but have a say in what would happen to her body afterward.
Realistic Sex vs. Fantasy Sex
Fiction often ignores the logistics that come with real sex. Clean up, condom disposal, and peeing after the act to dodge a UTI aren’t particularly sexy. “Who wants to be bothered by the mundane realities of real human bodies?” Mara asked.
Regardless, there are times it makes sense to incorporate those moments. Mara noted that in the forthcoming historical romance To Love and to Loathe, author Martha Waters has the hero pull out and handle subsequent cleanup. The lovers weren’t married, so those details were important to the plot. A pregnancy would have been scandalous for their time period.
Jenika Snow approached the idea of reality verses fantasy from another direction. “I could picture a scene that I wanted to put in a book. In my mind it seemed like it was perfect — feasible physically — but I realized (after reviews or suggestions by peers, or just reading it again after it had been out for years), that in reality not everything can be done. Sometimes letting your imagination go wild isn’t always the right path.”
If you’ve ever hurt yourself attempting bedroom acrobatics, I’m sure you can relate.
Disability Representation in Romance and Erotica
Chloe Liese was a longtime reader of romance before she started writing it. The predictability of certain beats and tropes was a comfort to her. After a point, though, she began to worry that she had burnt out on the genre. The novel Archer’s Voice by Mia Sheridan changed all of that.
Archer, a character who was mute because of an accident, and Bree, the daughter of a deaf man, communicated through signing. “I was so deeply moved by this story. I saw this thing I’d been looking for in romance — the two love interests seeing each other in a really fundamental way that’s missing in a lot of the romance I was reading. After, I started combing through books trying to find people who had illnesses, mental health struggles, and disabilities. Then I read the Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, and that’s how I realized I was autistic. That was obviously very emotional because I was recognizing all these things about myself, but it was such a positive first exposure to identifying because of how she wrote it.” After receiving her diagnosis, Chloe realized that she didn’t just want to keep reading inclusive fiction. She wanted to write it.
Chloe wrote He’s a Brute after researching how we desexualize people with disabilities. She discovered a group of people online that were pushed out of the BDSM scene when their spinal conditions changed their mobility. Others were either afraid to hurt them, or they felt they weren’t seen as sexual anymore. “I wrote a character with a spinal injury who is in a dominant/submissive relationship. I had a ton of fun writing about consent and showing their power dynamics being different outside of the bedroom.”
Sex Scenes and Disability Representation
I was curious about what good disability representation would look like during sex scenes, so I asked Chloe about her thoughts.
“A sex scene with good disability rep is going to make space for and prioritize clear communication. With disability comes a sense of vulnerability and the need to be seen, understood, and safe.” In her novel Always Only You, this plays out when Ren checks in with his partner (who is autistic and has Rheumatoid arthritis) about how things feel. They have enough emotional comfort built up that it’s safe for Frankie to be honest in her responses.
Chloe also pointed out that while disability may inform a character’s sexual intimacy, their every word and action doesn’t solely revolve around disability. She cited Talia Hibbert’s novel Get a Life, Chloe Brown as an example. “There’s a time when Chloe has a patch for her pain and it affects how she orgasms. That’s great, that should be there, but there are other times when they’re having great sex and that’s okay! We’re not like, ‘But she has Fibromyalgia!‘ The intimacy should represent the real nuance and shades of how disability bares itself out.”
Pushing Back on the Patriarchy
Chloe shared, “I’ve had people ask me why I write underrepresented experiences. People are overdue to see themselves reflected in art. This highly narrow heteronormative, cis, white, patriarchal scheme has completely dripped down into everything.” Clearly, fiction is no exception.
“Art expresses where we are in a moment and art takes us forward. Let’s not make it a stretch that a woman with curves and dimples can be loved, or that an autistic man can find his happily ever after. I don’t want that to be a stretch because it isn’t. It’s a very empowering, beautiful gift when we write inclusive, nuanced, diverse stories that show people being desired for who they are, not in spite of it.”
Honoring Diverse Identities
I’ve been thinking about how a character’s identity can be honored (and not fetishized) during sex scenes. While good representation is important throughout a story’s arc, sex scenes can be particularly difficult. I checked in with authors about their thoughts on the matter.
Danielle Allen shared, “The first step is to check yourself to make sure you aren’t fetishizing people in real life. Those who may unconsciously fetishize others in their day-to-day life are likely to do that in their storytelling. So I would suggest analyzing one’s own thoughts and opinions before embarking on the story. Self-awareness is everything.”
Anna Stone also chimed in. “Throw all stereotypes out the window. Most stereotypes about LGBTQ+ people and sex are inaccurate and often harmful. Avoid applying heteronormative sexual practices to sex scenes involving LGBTQ+ characters. For example, trying to assign traditional ‘male’ and ‘female’ roles to queer characters during sex, or focusing only on penetrative sex, are common mistakes authors make because they try to approach sex scenes with LGBTQ+ characters through a heteronormative lens. Instead, authors should research what authentic sex between LGBTQ+ people looks like by consuming works by and for people who are of the specific identity they’re writing about. There’s a ton of amazing romance and erotica out there by authors across the entire LGBTQ+ spectrum that serve as great examples of real sex between people of diverse sexualities and gender identities.”
Anna also pointed out that each character is more than just one facet of their identity. “Our experiences shape our actions and desires, so creating fully fleshed-out characters, with real wants and needs, will make any sex scene feel more authentic.”
Sex Scenes and Sensitivity Readers
Rachel Kramer Bussel shared, “I don’t know biographical details about all my authors, but I do my best to include primarily own voices stories regarding marginalized identities. Authors are welcome but not obligated to mention if their story is an own voices one in their cover letters. If authors have a beta reader or author friend who shares an identity with their character who’s willing to read (or trade critiques of) their story, that could be a way to get a take on whether your story is fetishizing any of its character’s identities.”
Chloe Liese brought in a sensitivity reader to evaluate the autism representation in Always Only You even though she is autistic. “I’m going to have my own internalized ableism. I’m going to have my own things that I haven’t unpacked,” she explained. “Even when it’s my own experience, it’s so important that it’s corroborated by sensitivity readers and own voices reviewers.”
Diversity in Erotica Anthologies
For Rachel Kramer Bussel, curating diverse anthologies is important. “I’ve only started being more conscious of elements of inclusion in the last ten or so years. That’s my mistake. In my very earliest anthologies from when I was starting out, I was thinking about varied sex acts but not diverse authors or characters. Now, I’m much more conscious of that need and try to do as much outreach as possible to authors of color, both individually and communities of authors. I tag the Twitter account @writersofcolor, who often share my calls, and reach out to authors whose work I’ve enjoyed about possibly submitting to my anthologies and spreading the word.”
“Regarding sexuality,” she says, “some of my anthologies have more of a range of sexual orientation than others, depending on the types of stories that come in. I choose stories based primarily on plot and characterization and uniqueness, and do my best to ensure I have a wide range to choose from so that I can select both stories I think will truly impress, surprise and arouse readers, and that include a wide range of character types.”
What makes a good sex scene? The verdict seems to be communication and a healthy dose of feminism. (As a reader I’d also add a lack of excessive adverbs, but that’s just my two cents.)