Essays & Opinion

Sex in fiction: What we shouldn’t write when we write about sex

Your sex scene doesn’t have to include every position featured in the Kamasutra. Photography by Roberta Cortese.

Frenzied penises, bulbous salutations, bulging trousers, howling, groans, sighs, minty-flavoured tongues, awkward positions and spasming muscles: these all things you would expect to find in some of the winning entries of the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

Since its debut in 1993, the #BadSex award has been a somewhat light-hearted – with quasi elements of seriousness – spectacle. First created to highlight those authors who have “produced an outstandingly bad scene of sexual description in an otherwise good novel”, the award nonetheless also stresses an important purpose: “to draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory, or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction, and to discourage them”.

The awards have increasingly grown in status and are an ever more eagerly anticipated literary event. We’ve previously compiled extracts of all the winning entries (which can be found here), and reviewing these certainly helps us identify those “outstandingly bad” sex scenes the folk at the Literary Review seek to discourage. Consider, for instance, last year’s winning entry from 2015 – from Morrissey’s The List of the Lost:

“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”

While this account of full figured copulation may not get the pulse racing in the way the author initially hoped, and may even (gasp! Shock! Surprise! Never!) cause some readers to snicker and giggle in amusement; is simply highlighting perceived examples of “bad sex” enough to stamp out cases of these scenes in fiction? It seems more thorough analysis is needed in order to help identify just what it is about these scenes, such as Morrissey’s, which should be avoided by writers – and what authors can do to avoid adding their name to the growing list of Bad Sex in Fiction award winners.

It is, of course, well known that one of the toughest tasks facing writers is to write well and honestly about human sexual relations. It is, after all, technically difficult to convey passion in a way that does not end up sounding either absurd, cringe worthy, or strangely perfunctory and clinical.

Perhaps a problem here is that, in writing about a subject that is still – for whatever reason – vaguely taboo, authors sometimes have a tendency to forget one of the first rules of writing: to “show”, rather than “tell”.

Indeed, it may be more important for writers to focus on the emotional aspect of any sexual encounter between characters, more so than the physical aspect. The physical side of things may be important, but the emotional side may be even more so – especially if there’s a connection between sex and identity.

Often, it seems as though writers have a tendency to forget this rule, and instead begin to overthink their sex scenes. This can see awkward similes begin to invade the text, as with 2001’s Bad Sex award winner Christopher Hart’s Rescue Me, in which sex is likened to a Ranulph Fiennes Antarctic expedition:

“Her hand is moving away from my knee and heading north. Heading unnervingly and with a steely will towards the pole. And, like Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Pamela will not easily be discouraged. I try twitching, and then shaking my leg, but to no avail. At last, disastrously, I try squeezing her hand painfully between my bony thighs, but this only serves to inflame her ardour the more. Ever northward moves her hand, while she smiles languorously at my right ear. And when she reaches the north pole, I think in wonder and terror….she will surely want to pitch her tent.”

Such similes are again on show in 2005’s winning entry – Winkler, by Giles Coren – in which a character ejaculates “in thick stripes on her chest. Like Zorro.”

And this tendency to overthink things can also make it seem as though writers are sometimes reaching for a thesaurus, when they would be better off reaching for a simpler alternative to better convey their intended meaning. As such we have Tom Wolfe’s character in I am Charlotte Simmons exploring a character’s “otorhinolayngological caverns” (if you have no idea about what otorhinolaryngological means, then join the club! But a quick google search will tell you it relates to a medical practice involving the ear, nose, and throat – so we’ll leave you to decipher just what Wolfe was trying to get at in his description of sex, there).

One of the clearest results of writing in such a way is that any frisson that should be conveyed during the scene is lost: so instead of sincerity, the writing distances both themselves and the reader from the scene being described.

Part of this may come down to a lack of confidence – which may seem strange considering some of the authors who have won the award are literary titans who have won some of the biggest prizes in literature. Yet, as erotic romance writer Lily Harlem has said, “A lot of writers aren’t confident enough to write about what’s actually happening. They talk about other things like stars exploding above them, rather than talking about how it actually feels and the emotions. You need to get into the heads of characters for realistic emotion, and dialogue as well is importance – people very rarely have sex in silence.”

It is perhaps this lack of confidence which can also see many writers begin to rely heavily on cliché and euphemisms. Again, this might seem strange considering the calibre of the Bad Sex in Fiction Award recipients. Yet writing about a character’s throbbing “manhood” or “bulging trousers”, accompanied by “screams of passion” or “gasps and sighs” will do to the writing what clichés and euphemisms do to any other scene – which is to make the writing feel awkward, tired, limited and unoriginal.

These are important points to make, because the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is not about bad sex; but rather, about bad prose. In an article for the Financial Times, Jonathan Beckman, senior editor of the Literary Reviewexplains:

“’Bad’ refers to the quality of the writing rather than the nature of intercourse. Unsuccessful, unpleasurable or abortive sex does not qualify per se; nor does kinky, brutal or unwanted sex, however unpalatable that may be.”

So, if you find yourself in the midst of writing a sex scene, and you start thinking it could be improved by using as many adjectives, similes and metaphors as possible to describe “eager manhoods” and women crying out “making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren” (thank you to 1997’s winner Nicholas Royle’s The Matter of the Heart for that one), just take a moment to step back from your writing and think about the way you’re approaching your description of sex.

Sometimes, changing your approach to the way you’re describing the scene at hand may pay dividends. However, perhaps the most important question to ask – beyond whether you should copy a writer of Phillip Kerr’s calibre and opt to use a word like “gnomon” to describe the male sex organ (quick answer to that question: you shouldn’t) – is whether the sex scene you are writing is absolutely necessary.

This is because good and effective sex scenes should be integral to the story you’re trying to tell. They must advance the narrative and/or character development in a meaningful way, and if they fail to do so, they will look out of place. It’s important to remember that one of the reasons the Bad Sex in Fiction Award was originally founded was in response to a seeming trend among publishers who would insist an author or writer include at least one sex scene in their story – regardless to its relevance to the plot or story – simply reasoning that “sex sells”.

Such logic is a poor excuse for the inclusion of any written action if it is irrelevant to the plot of a novel. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “every sentence must do one of two things – reveal character or advance the action”. Therefore, if your sex scene fails to do either of these, the best way forward may be to hit the ‘delete’ button, roll up your sleeves, and start afresh – perhaps leaving the scene out entirely. This is not to discourage authors from writing about sex; it is about encouraging them to write well.


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