Last week, I was writing a sex scene. It’s a therapeutic activity given my current life circumstances. My protag had, through a variety of totally believable events, been chosen for a reality show dream date with an idolized rock star from her youth, someone who still exuded the hot raw energy that had fueled her fantasies — and, by default, caused her to date many idiots — through adolescence and early adulthood. There he was, a man who turned out to be a really interesting guy, with a depth no one could’ve suspected. They stood in the entrance to his hotel suite, his lips and warmth breath on her neck bringing back feelings she hadn’t had since before her decades-long, rotten marriage and nasty divorce. (No this isn’t autobiographical.)
And, then, for some reason, she couldn’t go through with it, couldn’t have steamy monkey sex with a man she really wanted.
“What the hell?” I muttered, flabbergasted at this turn of events.
What was the matter with her? What was the matter with me? Had I turned into a total prude? Granted, the sex scenes I’d written in the past always hinted at lovemaking rather than describing play-by-plays. But was I now incapable of giving my protag the release she needed?
Ah . . . there she continued to stand, trembling and totally confused.
Didn’t she know it would be the best thing for everyone for her to just let go and get to the damn climax?
The poor thing leaned against the wall, her heart breaking with desire, embarrassment . . . and disappointment at her own inability to surrender.
Then the rock star did something so unexpected, my protag — and I — were caught off guard. The man who’d had to fight off groupies for most of his life, who’d had relationships with supermodels and megastars, buttoned my heroine’s blouse back up and accepted her in that moment right where she was. No pressure. No anger or frustration. He simply held her and witnessed her feeling what she needed to feel — without judgment or condescension.
And that, my friends, ultimately turned her on more than anything else possibly could.
Of course, after I finished writing the scene — and drinking a scotch and smoking a cigarette — I started thinking about the nature of sex scenes in books and movies.
What personal and societal expectations are we setting up with all of these idealized depictions of women falling into men’s arms and being totally fulfilled as if every man is a fabulous lover and every woman is capable of turning off her damn mind? As if one sense takes over so completely we forget the discomforts, awkward positions (ouch!), the weird smells, odd noises. . . . and, often, our self-consciousness.
I’m thinking about all of this too because I recently saw Orgasm, Inc. (watch the trailer — watch the whole darn film!) and — just as important — I have two adolescent daughters. ‘Nuff said.
But back to the sex scene . . .
Although my protag eventually made love with her date that night; the sex scene wasn’t about sex at all.
It was about acceptance.
So here are my questions for today:
Do you read sex scenes or go to movies for them? If so, what do you want out of them?
Can sex scenes not be about sex . . . and still be called “sex scenes?”
Can they still satisfy?
I look forward to reading your answers.
Hi, Pari. In general, I want sex scenes to follow through on expectations set up by the rest of the movie or book. Some stories don't set sex up to be a climactic event or turning point. In other stories, sex is a climax even if it doesn't result in orgasm.
I think most readers accept sex with a positive aura in fiction because fiction is to some extent an escape from life; expectations are set up and met one way or the other, lines between good and evil are clearer, and maybe the sex is better.
Sex scenes don't necessarily have to be about the sex. They're still called sex scenes because they include sex, but arguably any scene that's part of a narrative (story) should be about more than what's taking place on the surface. Characters may be saying or doing one thing, but a subtext is moving forward at the same time.
Scenes satisfy me when they serve the larger story being told. If they don't serve the story, they should be reworked or cut.
I'd submit that, unless you're writing porn, the sex scene ALWAYS needs to be about something else. Acceptance, a milestone in the characters' relationship, a complication in the plot, whatever.
Beautiful summation. And I agree about the subtext in all scenes.
I think your point about setting up expectations is wonderful too because that works so well with the subtext idea — at least in the scene I'm talking about in this novel I'm writing — and it makes sense.
"I think most readers accept sex with a positive aura in fiction because fiction is to some extent an escape from life; expectations are set up and met one way or the other, lines between good and evil are clearer, and maybe the sex is better."
Yep . . . I think so.
Perhaps that's the piece that I was missing when I wrote this blog. Maybe that's the whole point. Thanks for chiming in this morn.
I agree with JD, the sex scene is always about something else and if it just naturally turns into two bodies meeting, well, good for the characters. I don't read or watch movies for the sex scenes but if they arise out of character motivation and don't seem forced then I say to the writer, go for it.
Pari, our minds must run along the same track. I was just arguing with a character about the very scenario you posted about (tho probably not the *same* couple). Like your couple, mine handled it the same way – so must be something in the air or the water.
Pari, what an interesting question.
Generally, if the sex scenes are just about inserting Part A into Part B, etc., I'm not interested. (Not that I wasn't at other points in my life, though.) Now I prefer to read a skillfully written scene of sexual tension when it advances the plot or character development, or when it informs the reader of character motivation.
To each her own, but good writing is always still just that: good writing, no matter whether you're setting up a conflict or describing a new position. 🙂
Sex is easy–it's just mechanics and nerve endings.
Intimacy is difficult and it's the struggle for–and the acceptance of– that intimacy that makes the tension and its eventual release (one hopes) so satisfying.
The poet Rumi says love is in the longing, and I can't argue with him.
Pari, for me it's what Karen said. Sexual tension driving the plot is more interesting than reading, or watching, a roll in the hay. I think it's what makes CASTLE work. I don't watch the show too often, so I've no idea if he's had his evil way with Beckett, or she with him. (We're a season or so behind, here in Germany.) But I'd guess if they ever got married it'd be the end of the show.
I think I agree with Gerald's essential point, which is that a sex scene must meet whatever expectations the author has set up for the reader beforehand. If everything leading up to the scene suggests the sex will not only occur, but be hot and heavy, then the author has to pay off accordingly. Conversely, if nothing approaching steamy monkey sex has been so much as hinted at prior, breaking out with such a scene makes no sense, and throws the reader for a loop.
My attitude is, whatever happens or fails to happen in the fictional bedroom in question, it has to feel like a result of something your CHARACTERS have decided to do and not YOU. Too many sex scenes either pull back or go full throttle for no apparent reason other than that the author clearly wanted it that way, which is the worst kind of intrusion into the reading experience possible.
But this is tricky stuff. Ultimately, what we're asking an author to do is remove the personal from the most personal human experience there is.
I tend to skip sex scenes. Not just because they're predominantly M/F, which isn't my thing, but because in general, they don't do much besides get steamy, and steamy sells. But the scene you described, Pari, which is about acceptance and not heaving and thrusting, that's the sort of thing I would read because it serves a purpose beyond raising the temperature. Once the point's made, how the mechanics play out is incidental, although I do admire the scenes where things go a bit wrong: "Ow, you're on my hair!" and "Elbow! In the ribs! Hold it!". But that's perhaps just me!
Your scene, Pari, turned out to be far more erotic than an ordinary sex scene. I agree whole heartedly with the other bloggers. Sex scenes in well written books are about the movement in the relationship, certainly not about mechanics.
I'm in line with the rest of the commenters. In fact, I'd say your scene in which the rock star buttons up the heroine's blouse is a turn on all by itself! That's what I like. The suspense. The beginnings of intimacy. The emotions. You know the saying, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar? Well…if a sex scene is just a sex scene I'm skipping over it, and I may even set the book aside altogether. The problem with sex scenes that are just sex scenes is that they most often feel like authorial intrusions. They take me right out of the story.
I do read and go to movies hoping for great sex scenes. They don't happen that often. A LOT of romance writers can write good sex (that is, scenes that do the job of turning on the reader enough to go looking for their SO) – but the plots are usually lacking. Thriller writers generally write better plots but leave a lot to be desired in the bedroom (or alley) scenes. It's a wonderful thing when the plot and the sex converge. The sex being thematic is essential, as far as I'm concerned, but so is simple chemistry, which a lot of authors don't seem to know how to create.
Interesting post, as always. I agree with JD – the sex scene has to do something to move the characters and the story forward, not stall them for half a dozen pages of sweaty grappling.
And as for sex scenes sans sex still satisfying (wow, that's a lot of alliteration) intimacy can be enormously affecting and sensual without necessarily having to go the whole hog.
I like Julia Spencer Flemming's brand of sexual tension…that's a nice driver in a book and for me, I love to see that in a book or a movie. With sex, there's almost more action in the anticipation than there is in the act, because once you get to the act, it becomes somewhat predictable. This is evident when we write an entire chapter of buttons coming undone and then redone but skip over the explict sex. Sex — or rather getting to sex — is a great source of conflict always and it is ever present underneath everything else. Guys are always sizing up women (or other guys) and women suprisingly to some are doing something similar. Nice electrical undercurrent to use to keep the story bubbling.
Great post, Pari. And very funny re the cigarette and scotch!
As others have said, I think the readers' expectations set the scene. And that can even be with genre. For example, people reading werewolf/vampire books (but NOT YA) would generally expect quite a lot of sex. But I think it's hard for the authors to sustain that level of erotica over a series.
Hey, another thing…I had a sex scene in one of my books and I felt weird knowing my parents, my mother-in-law, etc. would be reading it! Anyone else?
I'll be responding to this post and your comments later in the week; right now work is insane and I can't even concentrate enough to type this sentence w/o five typos.
Yes, I'm with you–writing a sex scene and realizing your relatives and in-laws may read it feels very, very weird.
Especially when your father is one of your betas. And he comments on that scene. Even if he's only pointing out a typo, it's fundamentally . . . not quite right.
Great sex is like perfect love: Where's the conflict?
Bad sex is the great lost opportunity of fiction–and yet it's one thing most writers no doubt have at least a working familiarity with.
And "Protag" — who ever came up with that word? Is it really so hard to type or pronounce the remaining two syllables? Sounds like a male enhancement drug:
PROTAG — If Your Villain isn't vanquished after four hours, see a doctor.
My three rules for sex scenes:
1. Always tack into the wind.
2. If peanut butter is involved, go with creamy.
3. If you don't point at mine, I won't laugh at yours.
That's it, I'm working a bad sex scene into my latest manuscript. Could be the comic relief I was looking for.
"I. Always tack into the wind."
Erm … ?
Just came back for a bit of a look-see. It appears the conversation went on quite well w/o me? Bad sex scenes for comic relief? Creamy?
I don't know if I'm in the minority because I didn't want to be influenced by other comments, but for me sex is not an event but a series of stolen moments; a shared laugh, an accidental brush of body parts, a mentally enjoyable conversation and then a climax. I feel that sex scenes are set up to disappoint women and men. They are portrayed as an explosion of passion, tongues forced into each other's mouths, clothes ripped off and then mad passionate sex. But real sex, not one night stands, is all about the connection between two people and your main character wasn't some fly by groupie. She got it right!! And so did the guy. Of course, there are those times when you do experience the explosive need to get busy right now, but those are rare moments, unless you are some hormonal teenager.
I can't wait to read the other comments and thanks for asking a thought provoking question.