When I was about seven, I heard the word fuck at school. When I got home and asked my father what it meant, he said, “It means making love.” Then he told me not to ask any more questions. Within a few days, a picture book was left out for me. Peter Mayle’s “Where Did I Come From?” features two pudgy characters who have sex under a colorful quilt. The man looks like a pink Pillsbury Doughboy. I remember thinking that everything about the book was utterly bizarre, but the unsaid rule was that I would read it and wouldn’t ask questions. I learned that sex should be kept secret.
As an adult, I write memoir, and I’ve written and published sex-related essays (some of them in this very magazine). My mother said to me, about stories I’ve told, “But I never told anyone about that.” And my answer to her was always the same: “Now you don’t have to, because I’m telling everyone.” Hiding my sex life would mean leaving out a large part of my lived experience.
Because talking about sex was taboo in my family, as it is in many families, I realized early on that if I wanted to include sex scenes in my stories, or write about sex head on, it had to be good writing, a way to contend with my mother’s voice, the one saying, “It makes me feel physically ill to read about you and these men.” I have thought a lot about this, and here are some tricks I’ve come up with to get you over the hump to writing sex.
1. Exploit the Messiness
Don’t simplify the emotional intent behind your sex scenes. Maybe your narrator wants to feel loved or make someone fall in love with her. Maybe she wants to manipulate her partner or have an adventure or defy her parents or make sure that her husband finally leaves her for good. Or maybe she’s trying to recapture marital intimacy, as in Sue Fagalde Lick’s heartbreaking but funny essay, “No Matter How Much It Hurts,” about an unexpected vacation from Alzheimer’s. This essay explores the messy emotions within the act itself. The narrator feels giddiness and sentimentality, anxiety and gratitude, emotional and physical pain, and finally love and loss. This essay works because it’s so emotionally honest. In a similar way, B. Pietras’s essay, “Secret Museums,” renders its power from the conflicting emotions of desire—the way secrecy and shame create friendship and intimacy.
The concept of sex, and not just the act itself, can be problematized in emotional ways ways as well. Anne Visser Ney’s “Summers of Urchins and Love” does just this by taking a broader view and weaving together biology and evolution, sexual intimacy and reproduction, and finally the loss of a child, showing how human nature is just one thread in the fabric of all nature, all life.
2. Talk the Right Kind of Dirty
How would the characters in your piece (including your narrator) have described what was going on as it was happening? If the narrator was saying (or even thinking), “Fuck me harder,” and you write it as Make love to me, you have missed the mark. I’ve heard people say there are no good ways to describe sex and genitalia, but actually, there are lots of ways —everything from edgy, colloquial slang to scientific jargon to poetic image and metaphor. The language must reflect the tone, so if you’re talking about porn and adolescent boys, as in “Secret Museums,” words like tea bagging and hard nipples are the right words.
And if you are writing about unromantic sex, maybe what’s needed are the clinical terms or even the disembodiment of your own body parts, using the instead of my, as in the breasts, the thighs, the cunt. Did that last word make you uncomfortable? If you’re going to write sex, you’ll have to get over that and allow yourself the full repertoire of sex diction. There are no synonyms; each situation calls for the correct word, and that word could very well be cunt.
If the terminology still makes you uncomfortable, try exploring it the way Michal Leibowitz does in her meta-sex essay, “Body Language.” By repeating the sexual words that have made her uncomfortable throughout her life, and in the essay, she comes to own and even refigure these troubling words. As writers, we must be able to own every word—or at least take them out on loan. Use the words that suit the tone of the piece, and understand that this might mean quieting your inner voice or the voice of your mother. Be brave and unapologetic.
3. Break Stereotypes
One of the reasons stereotype and cliché are bad for writing is because they are mostly untrue. Just as I have never seen it rain cats and dogs, I haven’t been in the presence of an actual red-hot throbbing member. (Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t think so.) Make a list of all the words you would normally associate with sex. Then try writing a sex scene without using any of these “sex” words. Make another list, of words you would never associate with sex, and use those words in your sex scene instead. Even if you are writing about vanilla sex, your language should be fresh and surprising.
As we’ve heard, everything is about sex—except sex, which is about power. Try not to reinforce traditional power dynamics in your writing. We see stereotypical representations of sex everywhere in popular culture, including my childhood picture book. Here’s the text that accompanies the picture of the couple beneath the colorful quilt: “The man wants to get as close to the woman as he can, because he’s feeling very loving to her. And to get really close the best thing he can do is lie on top of her and put his penis inside her, into her vagina.” The woman is the recipient of male desire: she is the object to his subject, the vessel he must fill with his own need. How does the woman feel? We cannot know because we only get the man’s perspective.
Thankfully, real-life sex is a lot more interesting than my childhood book made it out to be. And if only I had had a mother like Steph Auteri’s narrator in the essay “When They Start Asking Questions,” I would have learned much sooner that there’s so much more to that boring, sexist, and heterosexist story. Our essays about sex should reflect just how interesting sex can be. People act as sexual surrogates. Women have sex with women, and men have sex with men. And very often, people have sex with themselves, or with the newest vibrating gizmo. Or, maybe, the most interesting sex happens not between humans at all, but between sea urchins or houseflies.
4. Sometimes Less Is More
Write the sex scene in all its fleshy detail, but in revision, ask yourself this: does it serve the piece? Maybe, as in so many of the essays here, sex is the story. But it’s always a good idea to ask whether the sex scenes move the story forward in some important way. Often, what is left out can be sexier and more interesting than what remains. Bette Davis says, “I often think that a slightly exposed shoulder emerging from a long satin nightgown packs more sex than two naked bodies in bed.” If you trim your explicit sex scene down to the exposed shoulder, the ghost of those naked people will remain on the page. In “Skin Hunger,” Anne Royan writes, “his finger touches my shoulder to slide the strap of my dress aside.” The actual sex happens between paragraphs, the white space becoming the metaphor for what has happened between the sheets.
A digression—an internal monologue, flashback, flashforward, or metaphor—can also imply a sex scene. Anton Chekhov does this in the short story “The Lady with the Dog.” An omniscient narrator takes us into the mind of Gurov, a philanderer, as he compares Anna to the other women he has seduced. It becomes obvious a few sentences later, through Anna’s action and dialogue, that while we were in his mind, the couple had been at it. She cries and tells him he won’t respect her now. Then Gurov takes that famous bite of watermelon, a metaphor for what has just happened.
A literary allusion can also take the place of graphic sex, as it does in Amy Botula’s “Past Compensation.” She alludes to James Joyce’s character Molly Bloom, who roughly corresponds to Homer’s Penelope. Both Penelope and Molly Bloom wait for their men, though, of course, Penelope remains faithful while Molly does not. Yet Joyce’s Ulysses ends with Molly Bloom’s stream-of-conscious soliloquy; the woman gets the final say. The very last word is Yes with a capital Y, which is important to the novel, as it is to Botula. (Fittingly, it’s also a motif in Anne Royan’s cautionary tale about infidelity, “Skin Hunger.”)
5. In Place of Sex
Novelist Elizabeth Bowen writes, “Nothing can happen nowhere. The locale of the happening always colors the happening, and often, to a degree, shapes it.” The physical world is as important as the physical act. Use the senses of the world to convey the physicality of sex in an original way. Let setting do the work of implication: the hotel room that rents by the hour, a flower-strewn meadow, a gay-bar bathroom stall, the marriage bed. In Anne Visser Ney’s “Summers of Urchins and Love,” the physical world—the couch in the family home and the old house near Delaware Bay—tells us everything we need to know about the nature of the sexual acts.
A friend once told me she had sex behind the curtain in the balcony at the symphony, just as the concert ended and people were leaving. When I asked her if the music turned her on, she laughed and said, “Oh no, that wasn’t it. We were always trying to one-up each other in terms of who could come up with the most unusual place to have sex. We were very competitive.” In this case, the symphony balcony is the most important part of the scene, the way it reveals the personalities of the adventurous characters and the power struggle between them. The place can become a metaphor for the act itself: sonata, adagio, minuet, rondo. The end of a symphony is sometimes described as rollicking, which also seems apropos. And with that, I wish you a rollicking time writing great sex, figuring out not only where you came from, but where you are going.