Sex and the Written Word

I’ve been pondering why it’s so hard to write about sex. I don’t mean smut or the silly stuff of romance novels. I’m talking about sex in literary fiction. It’s not easy to do. Writers have been challenged by this topic for a long time. And they’ve mostly failed in writing convincing literary sex scenes in their stories. It’s so bad that there’s an annual literary award for worst sex scene:

…and some of today’s most established writers have either been nominated or received this accolade, including John Updike, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe and Philip Kerr.


There’s nothing pretty about sex. It’s a raw human act encoded in our genetic make-up for procreation. The fact that it happens to feel so damn good is just a great bonus. So why are so many writers trying to find an ‘artistic’ way of describing sex? Or alternative names for a penis or a vagina? Or metaphors for the actual act of intercourse?

Our genitals have anatomical names- a penis is a penis and a vagina is a vagina. That’s all one needs to use when referring to these reproductive organs. There are no names out there to make them prettier nor metaphors to represent them. As for intercourse, ‘to make love’ is ‘to make love’, and ‘to fuck’ is, well, ‘to fuck’. That’s that.

Perhaps it would be best if writers didn’t try too hard on writing their sex scenes. We all (more or less) have our own experiences of sex and in most cultures or societies, talking about sex (or what goes on in our private lives) is taboo. We keep these things to ourselves unfortunately. Thus, when we read a sex scene, the writer needs to draw us in, to make us overcome our own bounderies or experiences (or lack of) so as to imagine what the writer wants us to imagine.

There is a lot of literature which is full of dark, twisted or outright revolting (this is subjective of course) sex. And sex scenes are only overkill when the writer is going to exaggerate beyond that which is possible (unless it’s humor). But really, other than that, there isn’t much which isn’t plausible. One need only glance at the pornographic world to validate this statement.

Tell it like it is

The fact that we can be jolted out of a story in a book by a badly written sex scene in an otherwise brilliant book, emphasizes that the problem isn’t the plausibility, but the way writers execute these scenes. The words they labour over to write down a sex scene is where it usually goes wrong. All a reader needs to know is why the characters are having sex, and if it’s bordering on anything other than the norm, then the reader needs to know why this is, as well. That’s it. There’s no need to romanticize sex. Romance is a feeling and sex is an act.

Writers can be as ‘artistic’ as they want when it comes to romance. Isn’t that what poetry is all about? But sex… just tell it like it is. Most of us have sexual organs, urges and desires. Readers will rely on their own experiences and fantasies when reading a sex scene unless the writer unfolds the scene quickly and clearly to allow them a ‘visual’ representation of the words. When writers choose to be pretentious about sex, a reader’s usually thinking: “Come on! Who says ‘His man seed shot out of his male member’?”

And that reader has a valid point. How hard is it to write: ‘He came’? I assure you, anyone who’s ever had sex knows what the writer means. When it comes to writing sex, this writer thinks: Simple is best.


One thought on “Sex and the Written Word

  1. Great article, simple is best I guess:) But then again, I guess some writers try to position sex as a great cathartic event which is so so important for the rest of the story. Or it is the reason everything falls apart in a naturalistic sense. Or whatever function it has in the rest of the story.

    You are reducing sex to the physical act. But there are so much more things you could reduce to the physical, including romance, in which you do allow writers to be artistic… Help me out, I am confused here!

    Though I admit talking about man seed shooting out of male members is a little over the top…

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