Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene

By posted at 6:00 am on June 15, 2016 16


Literature about sex, no matter who has written it, is almost always terrible, and everybody knows it. This is widely known and acknowledged — even on this very site, by both the great Sonya Chung and Julia Fierro. We’re all so tuned into its legendary badness that even relatively minor offenses in the realm of sex writing annoy us far more than other writerly transgressions. An imperfect depiction of sex is far worse for some reason than an inept description of someone entering a room or having a marital spat or whatever other things a book might get wrong without anyone disapproving quite so mercilessly.

There is sufficient scorn for bad sex writing that the Literary Review famously awards an annual prize for it. Though “prize” seems like a funny term for becoming the object of public ridicule and mockery. It’s a missing component of the human brain, the ability to recognize one’s own completely botched attempts at writing about penetration, blow jobs, and the rest of it. Most writers, one must assume, push themselves away from their desks at the end of their earnest writing sessions and think to themselves, Job well done. Only to discover a few months or years later that they have gone and humiliated themselves, at least according to a bunch of smug bastards on the other side of the ocean.

Which isn’t to say I’m not in sympathy with the smug bastards. In writing my own book full of sex, there was almost no one I could turn to for inspiration. 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.” There weren’t even movies and TV shows I felt had handled it the way I wanted to see it done. You know what movies and TV shows are really brilliant at capturing? Bad sex. They’re great at doing awkward, depressing, uncomfortable sex scenes where everyone is sort of strangled in the sheets, and the women are keeping their breasts covered, and everyone is obviously faking their orgasms and not getting what they want. And you know that the movie is probably about a breakup that hasn’t happened yet but soon will.

coverThe other thing that movies and TV shows are good at nailing down is the kind of phonily intense sex scene in which the involved parties are grabbing fistfuls of hair and grunting and slamming each other around because their passion, their chemistry, is so overpowering it can’t be softened by courtesy, affection, or fear of causing actual physical harm. Often, the players in these scenes remain largely clothed, too ravenous for one another’s genitals to waste time undressing. They merely make a path towards penetration, him through his fly, her with underwear stretched between her thighs or, better yet, ripped and lying in tatters nearby. This type of sex scene is perhaps best exemplified by a sequence in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in which the two (needless to say, gorgeous) leads have a ferocious and impassioned sexual encounter on a wooden staircase — quite possibly the worst place on the planet to have sex. The only version of this scene I could find on YouTube is dubbed in another language, but the familiarity of such brutal fucking transcends language, and should be familiar to anyone who sees it.

Though my own sex scenes weren’t written with titillation in mind, if I had to choose a point of inspiration for them, a certain kind of amateur pornography comes closest, the kind where you actually believe they’ve forgotten the camera is there, and the effect is that of a documentary. Or maybe even hidden camera porn, where one guy seems to know they’re being recorded, but the other fellow seems not to know. And they experience a kind of typical sex exchange that feels true somehow. Even thought it’s not, of course, true at all, and might in fact be so deceptive as to be unethical and/or illegal. The ordinariness of their interaction is what is so striking. Stripped of performance and professional lighting, moments like these can never be accused of the most common pitfalls of bad sex writing: pretension, mushiness, cornball romance, those absurd oh-yeah-you-like-that-don’t-you, uh-huh-you-know-I-do-big-daddy exchanges.

While I am somewhat in sympathy with the smug bastards calling out the writers who do it badly, I experience an even greater depth of fellow feeling for those who have tried to get it right and failed. Because it’s really hard getting it right, if it can be done at all. Everyone knows what sex is like, and we all know that, almost always, something’s off in the way it’s described on the page. How seldom it is truly captured — the physical sensation, the feelings, the smells. Yes, there are smells! Tasteful writers don’t mention them, but they’re there, and they can fill a room. And this — gentility — is perhaps the worst offense of all when writing about sex. How can you take me there if the word “loins” is used even once? How can you take me there if you won’t admit that there are smells? And pubic hairs that must occasionally be plucked from the tip of your tongue or hocked up discreetly in the shower sometime later.

I’m no different than anyone else who has waded into this treacherous territory. I’m quite happy with my sex scenes. I think they’re just terrific, actually. I think they’re right in their frankness, in their zooming in and zooming out. In the smells they attempt to conjure and fan out at readers from the page, however subtly. I think they capture something real and true. But we all know what the odds say about the likelihood of their success. Take the Magic Eight Ball in hand, give it a shake, and ask the question. Wait a moment for the answer to bob up through inky, blue waters and flatten against the window. “Outlook not so good.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

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16 Responses to “Let’s Not Get It On: The Indefensible Sex Scene”

  1. Dirty Shanks
    at 10:34 am on June 15, 2016

    I remember thinking that the sex scene in Atonement is surprisingly good. McEwan has a scientist’s eye for detail, and a certain amount of clinical dispassion seems to lend itself to writing about sex well.

  2. steven augustine
    at 11:37 am on June 17, 2016

    [A sex scene from my latest book. Scenario in this excerpt: a 57-year-old man and a 62-year-old woman are having an affair. Style: Realism is overrated and humour is absolutely necessary]


    “You don’t look a day over fifty. ”

    He had a genuinely dreamy look on his face. Delighted to have discovered that his sense of her flavor (smoked salmon with a chocolate top note), the first time he saw her, was accurate.

    I met her on a Tuesday, he wanted to sing.

    Her body was soft and youthfully hot at his side, burning his arm at the point of contact, the lull before starting. She climbed on top with her palms pressed flat on his chest until she shifted her weight into a locked position back around his hips, an alignment of their bones, rocking with a concerned smile. Her hair flowed down and spread as a frozen waterfall, mingling straight white lines with the curved black hairs on his broad black chest. This is Art, he was thinking. If I die now I’ll die happy. Also, if I come. She was a talker and they conversed for the duration.

    “I just wanted to make sure…”

    “That I’m adequately warned? I assumed you were a young-looking forty-something.”

    Which was a little bit of a lie. A gallant lie. He considered himself a gallant liar. He’d assumed she was fifty. He cupped her tiny breasts and supported her torso as she lifted her arms behind her head and doubled-down where they connected in the equestrienne rhythm of a trot. He felt the lines and swirls and adjustments and inversions of her selfishly sucking interior; he felt her write and erase and re-write those epigrams along the length of his dick. He felt she was inscribing Kahlil Gibran on the shaft of his dick like devotional script on a gleaming onyx pillar in a Moslem temple. “Every time I look at you I spontaneously generate a mental thirty-page list of all the things I think we should do together. For example a crime spree.”

    “A crime spree, yes. Shoplifting Bibles. My God, I have to say it, I love a big cock, it’s not politically correct but it’s true. Little cocks are such a disappointment. You train yourself to have a neutral facial expression at the moment of the unveiling, just in case. So when I saw yours I wanted to cheer. I wanted to high-five you.”

    “I have a theory. Unlike breast size, penis size is a functional matter. A penis is a kind of plug and the size of the plug in regard to the size of the socket is definitely relevant to the effectiveness of the plug. Does that sound too technical?”

    “Do you love my tiny tits?”

    “I love your tiny tits. Do you love your tiny tits?”

    “I love my tiny tits.”

    “I love your tiny tits. I usually don’t talk while I’m fucking. It feels like singing and eating soup at the same time. This talking while fucking thing is very new to me.”

    “Do you love it? Be honest.”

    “Because it’s you, yes. I love it. Normally, I prefer to disengage my brain and just…”

    “Go to it. Just fuck, yes. Which works if the male is in charge of the fucking. If the woman gives herself over to the male’s lead, which is traditional in dance. But why?”

    “Yes, why? Of course you’re right. Obviously. I never thought of it that way before. So talking during fucking is your way of leading?”

    “Maybe not my way of leading but my way of making sure you’re not leading, yes. Maybe. Does it feel as good, fucking with your mind turned on, as fucking your old way, like an animal, feels? Without thinking?”

    “Yes. Better. But maybe because it’s you.”

    “You don’t miss your grunts?”

    “My grunts and my moans and my sighs. No, I don’t miss my repertoire of barnyard noises, but don’t ask me to discuss Nietzsche’s theory of eternal return while I’m fucking you. That’s an erection killer.”

    “And we don’t want to kill this erection. Not yet.”

    “No we don’t. Not yet. It will die in the end, though. As it always does.”

    “Poor phoenix. But this poor phoenix dies in an explosion of liquid instead of fire. Would you like me to swallow your semen?”

    “No, I prefer it this way, with your mouth free to speak.”

    “You’re unusual.”

    “I want your mouth to speak while your body swallows my semen.”

    “We forgot to discuss STDs.”

    “There’s still time.”

    “You go first.”

    “I usually wear a condom.”

    “I usually demand one.”

    While they were fucking, they were also dying. As we all are.

    “This is what I wanted. Your mouth speaking and your body swallowing my semen. My semen will live longer in your uterus than it would in your stomach. I want my semen to have a fighting chance. And I like looking up at your face. I like the way your hair flows down and I like the way you bounce. Don’t go back to your husband. Stay with me forever. We can live here together. We can make it work.”


    “Grow old with me.”

    “I’m already old. Sixty-two isn’t old?”

    “You’re in great shape. You have the body of a twenty-year-old. Grow old with me. Grow older.”

    “I will in any case.”

    “With me. I’m serious.”

    “Yes, I know you think you are. But you don’t want me, you want what my husband has. You want a family. You’re that age now. A man becomes a certain age. You regret not having children. Old enough to regret never having kids but young enough to correct the error: the magic of being a man. Find a younger woman and get her pregnant. Forty? Fifty would be the limit. Get her while her tits are ripe. And bring this new trick that I’ve taught you to your love life. Encourage the lucky girl to talk her head off in bed. She’ll want to fuck all the time if you let her talk in bed. Trust me. You’ll be happy with her forever and she’ll be happy with your nice big talking cock.”

    An hour later, he was trying to paint a picture of her and she was trying to write a story about him. He couldn’t remember whose idea the empathy-building exercise had been but it was fun. He’d never realized, before, how difficult her simple-seeming paintings were to do. He painted her with a word balloon coming out of her mouth and his penis like a bulbous microphone and her disposable bike in the air like a Chagall painting and showed it to her. Just a crude cartoon. He was embarrassed.

    “Stop making me laugh. I’m trying to write something moving and real and serious about you! I need it to be a masterpiece so I can feel I really gave you something today.”

    She stared at her laptop. The blue light on her face was eerie. He could easily see the beautiful ghost she would make one day.

    He went to take a piss and saw that her vagina had left a pale sheath drying on his dick, a flaking coating of crystalline snake-skin and he was careful to preserve it if possible, to not shake it all off when he stuffed himself back in his pants. He’d touched a finger to a flake on the head and lifted the flake to his tongue and closed his eyes as though it were a tab of acid, the LSD called Love. She was right there, Claudia Chang, still, in the other room, lifting her hair in a utilitarian top knot and then lacing up her faux-Victorian boots and he was already dreaming of her. He couldn’t imagine falling any harder.

    The capacity to fall in love this hard, this foolishly, over and over again, despite experience, he was thinking.

    It’s a gift.

  3. h. fleur
    at 11:57 am on June 17, 2016

    Seconded. The library scene in Atonement was brilliant.

  4. Anon
    at 2:06 pm on June 17, 2016

    Great sex scene in Jesus’ Son between Crudup and Hunter.

    My nom was worst sex writer is Paul Auster, who, despite his obvious brilliance, continues to write sex scenes between old men who are invalids and beautiful blonde women in which the men are still studs in spit of their infirmaries. This tic of his is why I will never cop to him being one of my favorites writers. He is still way too invested in his virility for me to take him seriously.

  5. Heather Curran
    at 4:32 am on June 18, 2016

    Like taking a shit, let’s leave sex scenes out of novels. Allude to sex, but don’t write it. I end up just saying “yucko”. Having said that, I am reading The Seed Collector’s by Scarlett Thomas and she (so far) writes, alludes, to sex rather well because she is funny as hell about it.

  6. steven augustine
    at 5:05 am on June 18, 2016

    “Like taking a shit, let’s leave sex scenes out of novels.”

    Don’t know what kind of sex you’re familiar with, HC (laugh) but I’d compare sex to another natural necessity (and aestheticized pleasure) such as *eating*… and why should there be a prohibition against portraying it or a tendency to freight its portrayal with mystical (or grandiose) nature metaphors that obscure, rather than reveal, its essence? Sex is always a dialogue (though it’s not always an articulate, imaginative or friendly one) and dialogues are natural to the novel.

  7. Steve "Gravy" Garvy
    at 12:03 pm on June 18, 2016

    “Like taking a shit, let’s leave sex scenes out of novels. Allude to sex, but don’t write it. I end up just saying “yucko”. Having said that, I am reading The Seed Collector’s by Scarlett Thomas and she (so far) writes, alludes, to sex rather well because she is funny as hell about it.”

    Tastefully withdrawing before the sex occurs is the usual tack, and it works pretty well. That said, I’m all for sex scenes if the author is good at writing them and if the scene is germane to the overall narrative. In the same sense, I’m not even opposed to a good (it better be really good) taking a shit scene–Joyce’s scene with Bloom in the outhouse is one of the best in Ulysses.

  8. Heather Curran
    at 12:23 am on June 19, 2016

    Oh man! Page 68 of Scarlett Thomas’s The Seed Collectors: “He shits in the spare toilet before joining her”. The rest of the paragraph is pretty funny, so Scarlett gets a pass. Steve Garvey, no doubt Joyce got it right but the fact that you’ve read Ulysses shows you are way out of my league, I just can’t get through it. Steve Augustine, I will read anything you write because you are smart and funny and you make me laugh.

    God I can’t believe a guy just took a shit in the book I am reading!

    Oh one more thing, men who write from the female POV, must we always have our period by page 5? We truly do not think about, other than “fuck, again?” And then we sigh. And sometimes book off sick. And stay in bed with tea and a novel. Ok maybe that’s just me.

  9. steven augustine
    at 1:08 am on June 19, 2016

    “God I can’t believe a guy just took a shit in the book I am reading!”

    You must admit, Heather: the timing was perfect!

  10. Heather Curran
    at 8:32 am on June 19, 2016

    My throbbing loins and I couldn’t believe it Steven! I might even call it serendipity but that is usually meant for something good. Ok later, I have to go pull a pubic hair from my mouth. Gross, yes?

  11. steven augustine
    at 11:13 am on June 19, 2016

    Human, all too human, Heather!

  12. Moe Murph
    at 2:07 pm on June 20, 2016

    @Heather Curran

    There’s a little bit of Aunt Flow, her troubles, and her great blessings, back in my comment to Jacob Lambert’s very intriguing “A Fictional Oral History of the Photograph I found in an Old Carl Hiassen Paperback.” (May 27, 2016). Just couldn’t resist pointing you to it. Someone called my comment “atmospheric” which covers a lot of ground. (There are more mute people in the photo who need a story, what do you say, Heather? Anybody? : ) )

    (Come to think of it, Joyce’s Molly Brown commented on this topic on June 16, 1904!)

    Moe Murph
    All Too Human

  13. Moe Murph
    at 2:09 pm on June 20, 2016

    Correction: “Molly Bloom” (Malaprop Alert!)

  14. Heather Curran
    at 2:40 pm on June 20, 2016

    I shall look it up Maureen, just a little busy putting my filter back in. Oh and Anon, agree re Paul Auster, same for Ian McEwan; incest is never sexy. Like ever.

  15. steven augustine
    at 1:16 am on June 21, 2016


    Debbie Reynolds as Molly Bloom? I’d pay to see that, yes

  16. Tom Cousineau
    at 10:30 pm on August 4, 2016

    The unchallenged master is Samuel Beckett — especially inWATT, MOLLOY, MALONE DIES.

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