(This post contains some graphic language. Please be advised.)
When it comes to sex, everyone’s got an opinion. How often should it happen? How soon? What constitutes good foreplay? And what about toys?
I think about all of these questions a lot. Maybe too much. Not in my own life—or even in yours. I’m concerned about fictional characters getting it on. And I can hear your sigh of relief from here. Yes, you are officially off the hook and don’t need to tell me when you last got lucky.
Now I’ll admit that I am no sex expert but I love to ask other people what they think on this subject. At the last literary conference that I went to, I posed a few of the above questions to other authors and was surprised by how eager folks were to answer. I’m not saying that we writers have dirty minds but…there is some convincing evidence.
After a few fun conversations, some of us decided we should have a panel at the next year’s conference to discuss this further. Here’s where you come in. You are officially invited to the Golden Crown Literary Conference (GCLS) in Pittsburgh this coming July. Actually, you don’t need an invitation but now you have one. You can come as a reader, author or voyeur—and you don’t even have to tell me if you’re a top or a bottom. But you should totally come to the panel about sex. Why? Because if you’re still reading, you, my friend, like it when it things get steamy.
Below is a little taste of what *some* authors talk about when we think no one else is paying attention. To hear the rest of our secrets, you’ll have come to the GCLS conference. Writers love meeting readers—and hearing from them. If you can’t come to the conference, feel free to send us a note!
Do you ever worry about going too far in the sex scenes you write?
Rae Magdon: All the time. Everyone has different likes and dislikes, as well as their own personal boundaries. Most of these come from our unique life experiences. What’s super hot to one person might squick, or even trigger, someone else. Speaking of which, I want to bring back the word ‘squick’. It started in fanfiction communities, and it’s a great term for a sex scene that crossed your own personal boundaries. I like squick because it doesn’t cast blame or shame on the writer for having different preferences than the reader. Another reason I love fanfiction, and the sex scenes that come from the fandom community, is tagging. Archive Of Our Own, the most popular website for fanfiction (especially queer fanfiction), uses ‘tags’ to describe exactly what happens in every story. For example, if biting or bondage are triggers for a reader, they can look at the tags of a story and see if they’re present in a fic or not. It’s a great tool for readers to find things they like and helps them avoid things they don’t like. I wish there were some way for commercial original fiction to make use of tags as well, because I think they would increase marketability, and also prevent negative reviews from people who didn’t get what they expected when purchasing a book.
Nell Stark: Before I wrote my most recent novel, The Princess Deception(2018), this concern had never come up for me. Most of the sex scenes in my erotic short fiction are on the “tamer” side, which is also the case for my contemporary romance novels. The paranormal romance series I wrote with my wife does include some “harder” elements, but not by much. For the first sex scene in The Princess Deception, however, I felt compelled to explore a power dynamic between the characters. I’d venture to guess that most first sex scenes in contemporary romances don’t include safe words, but this one does. It made sense for both characters and advanced the plot in important ways, and I was pleased with how it came out. While I was somewhat concerned about my readers’ reactions, I’ve thankfully only received positive feedback. I enjoyed taking off my metaphorical kid gloves as I wrote that scene, and I’m considering leaving them off.
Rachel Gold: Yes! Especially since I write Young Adult novels! But also, I know it’s crucial for young lesbian, bi, queer and trans kids to get more realistic portrayals of relationships and sex than they’re seeing on TV and in porn—so I want to have a reasonable amount of sex in my books for older teens. Teens need to know that there are a lot of ways to enjoy being sexual that are physically and emotionally safe (and not heteronormative). And they need to know how to talk about sex and consent and the emotions that can come up when being sexual with other people. Plus, they really need to see people of a variety of genders, sizes, races, ethnicities, cultures, abilities, etc., enjoying relationships that include sexuality in them.
Jaime Clevenger: For sure I worry about how far to take a sex scene in a romance. This is less about how the reader is going to respond and more about my characters. Whatever the characters do, from passionate kissing all the way to fisting, I need the scene to fit with their personality as well as the level of the relationship. Most of the time, the pivotal sex scene is happening early on in their relationship—not years later—and what happens is likely not too adventurous. The adventure is getting to know the other person and finding out how you click. That said, sometimes a character is going to be awkward the first time they get naked and I might make them a little braver than they’d probably be in reality just because it is fiction and I can help them out. One of the reasons I like to write erotica as well as romance is because I can go further in those sex scenes. I don’t hold back from letting characters use toys for instance and I don’t stop the scene if a character gets a little more dominant. Erotica gives us space to explore what might not work in a relationship but makes us hot as hell anyway. In some ways, erotica is a license to let go of inhibitions as a writer. If the two characters aren’t together at the end of the night, it can still be a success.
Do you ever get turned on by what you write?
Nell Stark: Forme, writing sex is both an emotional and physical experience. If a sex scene I’m writing isn’t turning me on, I know it isn’t any good. The same is true if the scene isn’t somehow “moving” me emotionally. Those emotions don’t have to involve love, but they do have to be strong and woven intentionally into the scene.
Rae Magdon: The answer is, sometimes. I write a lot of sex scenes, so in some ways, it’s a job, and I’ve become accustomed to it. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy the work, because I take a lot of pride in what I do, and the act of writing or editing is usually enjoyable no matter what kind of scene I’m working on. That being said, if a certain scene has that spark (usually some kind of conflict between the characters outside the sex scene), I can definitely get turned on by my own work. This is especially true if I’m collaborating. Some of what are, in my opinion, my best sex scenes were written with another author, switching off every 500-1000 words, or when I shared sneak peeks with my friends in exchange for enthusiasm and encouragement.
Jaime Clevenger: If I reread a sex scene that I’ve written and I’m bored or skimming, I know that I need to rewrite it. I need to be into what’s happening or a reader will wish I’d faded to black and skip the page. But that’s not to say I’m always aroused. Not every sex scene is inherently sexy. Sometimes it’s awkward and that can still be important and move the plot as well as develop a character. But if the sex is supposed to be good and I’m not thinking sexy thoughts or wishing I had a toy at my desk, chances are there’s a problem that I need to fix.
Rachel Gold: Assuming the scene isn’t meant to be super awkward, it’s ideal for me to be a little turned on in the early drafts because then I know I’m getting the experience of the narrator right and it gives the scene good energy. If the narrator isn’t turned on, then I have some real questions about why these characters are having sex in the first place. In edits I’m focused on details, mechanics and making sure the scene is doing the work I need it to.
Are there rules you follow in writing sex in a romance versus erotica?
Jaime Clevenger: Early on I was told that sex scenes in romance had to be vanilla—and specifically no toys were allowed. For a while I followed that rule. I’m moving away from it more and more in my writing now because I’m not sure why that rule existed in the first place. But I do feel that you have to make the sex fit with the character arc in a romance in a way that you do not need to do in an erotica story. Characters in erotica often diverge from their usual routine. They may do something that isn’t in their best interest long term or that makes them less likeable overall (cheat on their partner for instance). We forgive those erotica characters because we all like a little thrill but fitting that type of sex into a romance is tricky. Our romance heroines do deserve hot sex, however. What I try to remember when I’m writing a sex scene in romance is to focus on emotion—push their boundaries and satisfy them on an emotional as well as physical level.
Rachel Gold: My general rules for writing sex scenes are: the scene has to do as much work as any other scene (or more) in terms of advancing the plot and developing characters. The parts of the sex act that appear on the page also need reveal aspects of the characters to the reader. I do think that’s more of a romance perspective—because in romance, whether YA or for older readers—sex scenes should contribute to the romance plot. They don’t need to advance it, they can complicate it or torpedo it to build suspense, but they should be mindful of the romance. I believe the primary goal of erotica is to arouse readers. Good erotica also has engaging character arcs and a fun or interesting plot—and these arearousing when coupled with great sex scenes—but the sex scenes are more for arousing readers and can do less work in terms of character or plot (but not zero).
Nell Stark: I’ve not yet written an erotica novel (only erotic short stories), so I’ll be answering this question through that lens. In most ways, my process for writing sex in a romance is identical to my process for writing sex in an erotic short. The motivating questions are the same: Who are these people? Why do they want to become intimate? What do they desire and fear about that intimacy? How will they express themselves through sex? How will the act of sex transform their relationship to each other? For me, the primary difference between sex in a romance novel versus sex in an erotic short story is that the novel gives me the time and space to develop the characters, whereas my space is compressed in an erotic short. Because emotional depth in a sex scene is so important to me, I always try to interlace character development with the erotic action.
Rae Magdon: I think the rules are the same, and the biggest rule is, the sex scene has to go somewhere. One important purpose of a sex scene is definitely to arouse and excite the reader, but there needs to be a deeper purpose as well. The characters should come to a deeper understanding of themselves, or even undergo a miniature character arc, throughout the scene. Maybe the POV character starts off the scene depressed, and sex with their partner brings them peace and happiness. Maybe the POV character starts off happy, but the kind of sex they’re having opens a door to a problem they’re dealing with in their life. Sex scenes can even be a great way for characters to work through problems and feelings (fear, self-loathing, lack of confidence). Either way, in romance or erotica, the POV character should end the sex scene in a different emotional place than they began. That’s the difference between good erotica and bad erotica, and it holds just as true for romance.
Are there words that turn you off?
Rachel Gold: If an author says “wet folds” more than twice, I start to laugh. I tend to be sensitive to repeat phrases and cliches. I love it when an author takes the time to find new ways to describe the same old body parts and experiences. Also, on my turn off list: skin color described as food especially when there’s a white character who is not being described as food. I find it really hard to get through (and will stop if I’m not beta reading) scenes with characters of color whose skin color is described multiple times and white characters whose skin color is never mentioned, or scenes where everyone’s skin color is mentioned so much it’s fetishy. I’m sick of “long, slender fingers.” Let’s have more finger diversity! Also, major points for body diversity and for great descriptions of sex with disability.
Rae Magdon: Vagina, and penis when applicable, are the main words I don’t like. Clinical terms are great outside of sex scenes (we should teach our kids that vagina and vulva are not shameful words), but in a sex scene, it ruins the vibe. I like to ‘write around’ specific words for our parts with descriptors like ‘hot’ and ‘wet’ and that can be effective, but sometimes you just have to pick one, for clarity’s sake. Pussy and clit are my main go-tos. ‘Cunt’ gets a sharp, negative reaction from me, but I occasionally use it in hardcore BDSM or degradation scenes, where it adds to the intensity. I use it sparingly, in carefully chosen moments, precisely because I don’t always like it. For sex scenes involving strap-ons, especially high-tech, futuristic ones, I just use cock. That’s my go-to word, along with ‘shaft’.
Jaime Clevenger: I get turned off by anything that sounds too clinical so I try to avoid using medical terms or pretty much anything Latin unless it’s a joke. But as a reader, I get distracted if writers use overly creative words as well (just call a clit a clit, you know?). After writing a lot of sex scenes, I’ve realized that it can be even hotter to avoid the word entirely. Imagine someone between your legs… We all know where we want to be licked, right? It took me a while to realize that fewer play-by-plays makes for a sexier scene. For me, skipping specifics can feel a little bit like edging—you worry the whole time that it might not be as satisfying but then someone orgasms and you realize your work is done.
Nell Stark: I know it’s common to refer to sex scenes—especially particularly explicit ones—as “dirty.” I struggle with that word. This might be in part because I was raised in a conservative Christian household. I was taught early-on that sex outside of marriage, including homosexuality of any kind, was “fornication” and therefore “dirty.” I believed it until I was nineteen years old, when the pastor of the church in my college town challenged my perspective during a youth group meeting. Two years later, I came out to him as a lesbian. “Dirty” isn’t sexy to me. Sacred is sexy. I don’t mean to imply that all sex must be spiritual and profound, all the time. A good hard fuck isn’t required to have some extra significance—though it certainly might. To get perhaps a little too intellectual and esoteric about this: I refuse to believe that the physical is subordinate to the spiritual. In that way, I’m a staunch monist. Spirit and flesh are one, and accordingly, desire has a spiritual dimension. If someone calls me “dirty” or says/implies that what I’m doing is “dirty,” the guilt I’ve worked so hard to conquer creeps back into the forefront of my mind. For me, enthusiastic and enjoyable sex has nothing to do with dirt. When I see that word in print during a scene, I cringe a bit. But it’s a very common word, and I’m usually able to brush it off with ease. Pun intended! This will sound nerdy, but the power of language is astonishing. That one person’s safe word can be another person’s trigger demonstrates the complexity of human psychology and the tension inherent in any attempt at communication. For me, as both a storyteller and an English professor, that tension is productive. If every word meant the same thing to every person, we’d have a hive mind, and there would be no more use for narrative. So, while some words rub me the wrong way, I have no problem pushing through my gut reaction so long as they are not being maliciously used as an attack.