Sex and the Single Writer
Written by
Meg Bortin
April 2014
Written by
Meg Bortin
April 2014

Here's something funny. The cover quote on Erica Jong's groundbreaking Fear of Flying calls it "the most uninhibited, delicious, erotic novel a woman ever wrote." That was in 1974 and the praise came from John Updike.

Fast forward thirty-four years to when Updike - no stranger to erotic writing – won a Lifetime Achievement Award for bad sex in fiction. The Literary Review, which bestowed the dubious distinction, said in 2008 that Updike had received four consecutive nominations for passages from The Witches of Eastwick. Phrases sited included the following (and if you're offended by porn-ish writing, please don't read on):

"She had gagged, and moved him outside her lips, rubbing his spurting glans across her cheeks and chin." (This is a minisample. For the full passage, click here.)

Few would say that Updike, who won the Pulitzer for Fiction twice, is a lousy writer. And yet, in at least this instance, he failed when writing about sex. And he is hardly alone. Other recipients of the Bad Sex in Fiction award include Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Nancy Huston.

So the question arises: Why is it so hard to write about sex?

I had to grapple with this question when writing Desperate to Be a Housewife. It's the story of a young woman coming of age at a time when the sexual revolution was in full flower.

The writing was going along well when suddenly, in the third chapter, I found myself describing my heroine's encounter with a sexy East European graduate student. I wanted to make it true to life, and the scene was hot – so hot that I had to quit writing and go get some air, three days in a row! And there was more sex to come.

When I showed the first draft to a friend, herself a writer, she cringed.

"Be careful when writing sex scenes," she warned me. "The sex needs to move the story forward. If it amounts to 'insert tab A into slot B', you're on the wrong track."

On the other hand, she added, if one waxes too flowery or romantic, "there's always the danger of being compared to a Harlequin when writing about sex and relationships."

So there we are, the double bind. If the sex is too graphic, it will be viewed as porn or simply trashy. If it's coy, the work risks being classed as romance fiction.

Maybe this is why many literary writers fall back on the old Hollywood solution – a long kiss and a fade-out, leaving what follows to the reader's imagination. They hint at sex without actually describing it.

As I set out to revise my first draft, I decided that this solution would not be right for my book. My heroine's sexual encounters are key to the narrative as she tried to figure out what counts most in life – is it love or freedom, or a combination of the two? These are questions that affected an entire generation, and the tremors they caused are still reshaping the sexual landscape today.

Kiss-and-fade-out wouldn't cut it in the story of an era where women were exploring the new possibilities that had opened for them on many fronts, including sexuality. I wanted my readers not just to imagine what happened, but to feel it. To feel the longing, the flood of desire, the power that drove women – once the pill made it possible – to experience the pleasure offered by their bodies. With all the risks that entailed.

But how to achieve the "uninhibited, delicious, erotic" writing for which Updike praised Erica Jong without qualifying for the bad sex awards?

There is no easy answer to this question. But here are some thoughts.

First, the sex needs to advance the plot. If it's a gratuitous scene, cut it out. Second, it doesn't have to be serious. Humor can play as much a role on the page as it often does in bed. Third, what happens during sex – and before and after – can illuminate aspects of character. If a protagonist evolves as a result of the experience, the scene is crucial.

As a society, we tend to compartmentalize sex. It's in a private world, not to be spoken about. But as authors, we need to challenge ourselves to break through those boundaries.

When I've read from my book at readings around Paris, people often ask about the sex scenes. Were they hard to write? And why include them?

Why write about sex? That's an easy question, and I always give the same answer.

Because it's part of life.

Do you agree?

Meg Bortin is the author of Desperate to Be a Housewife, a memoir about a young woman who leaves America, moves to Paris, becomes a reporter and goes on to Fleet Street and Gorbachev's Russia. Her misadventures with men play out against a backdrop of world-changing events as she pursues her quest for a story with a happy ending. You can read more about Meg and her book on her web site.

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  • Meg Bortin

    Well there is actually one woman-with-woman sex scene in my book, although my heroine, Mona Venture, learns through that encounter that she is sexually hetero. It was a fun scene to write and apparently is not too shocking, judging from reader reaction. I don't think it makes much difference whether the sex is between a man and a woman, two women, or two men (or a threesome, oneself with oneself, etc.). The main thing is to convey the power of the moment in a way that is meaningful to the reader. Quite a challenge!

  • Jeanne Nicholas

    Great article Meg.  I have found in many genres of lesbian literature (more than romance) there is almost always a sex scene, since a primary purpose for the genre to exist is two women having a relationship.  However, that said, the sex scenes vary as usual.  The fade out option happens as I’m sure some writers have difficulty determining how to write who is doing what without confusing the reader.  However, more adventurous writers in this niche have tackled the issue by adding humor or having a very delicious scene where nothing too descriptive is added.  Writers leave out the really descriptive body parts from the equation by saying something like "she shivered at the touch" without really saying where she was touched.  Or something like "the warm kiss touched her sensitive skin with an electric sizzle..."  I do remember some earlier works where some writers took the reader into another dream world when the sex was happening.   For example, ‘as they began to explore each other Katie left her housewife life behind and rode the wild mustang pony across the empty plain growing bolder and stronger as her heart beat kept time with the pounding hooves’.  I mean that sounds awful here out of the blue but it’s been done many times by many authors.  As well, I have read more graphic abrupt sex where the author wanted to show urgency but not take the reader into porn.  This was done by vocalizing more during the sex and ragged breathing and gasps of pleasure.  I didn’t find it porn level because again they kept the body part details to a minimum and just let the imagination fill in the blanks.

  • Meg Bortin

    Vivienne and Kristin, many thanks for your input. Just to clarify, writing the sex scenes was fun. It was editing them that I found to be tricky. But in the end, I think the scenes worked out fine - especially since none of the people portrayed have complained! In fact, I plan to return to that theme in a future post. How to write about friends without ruffling their feathers - and still be true to the story.

  • Vivienne Diane Neal

    Meg, I feel your pain. At first it was difficult for me to write sex scenes, and I am by no means a prude but because my mother proofreads my work. I am over that now. LOL - My stories involve sex but not graphic or sexually explicit scenes. I like to think that the acts are more sensual rather than in your face hard-core sex. There is a site, that give erotic descriptive for various acts, which I use when writing sex scenes. Nevertheless, if sex is part of the story then go for it; don't hold back. My stories are not considered romance, except for one short story, and come under the category of crimes, hoaxes and deception where characters use sex, love and romance to deceive people. Continued success in your writings.

  • es, indeed, hard to write about and AWFUL to read when done poorly! I personally tend to like the Hollywood fade out, or the humourous approach, when dealing with these issues myself. I haven’t revisted her work for years but in my memory Judy Blume always had great success writing pretty graphic sex scenes but keeping it real and palatable. Great topic.

  • Meg Bortin

    Thanks for all the comments, and good to know that I am not alone in struggling with this aspect of writing. Betsy, 'the high wire between corny and porny' - love it! Liz, I, too, read many sexy passages before doing the rewrite of my own work. Very helpful - both in terms of what works and what doesn't work. Caroline, your book sounds interesting. I think we want to know as much as possible about the widow and the new boyfriend! Susan, I think you express the aim very well when you talk about trying to capture what made it so special and exhilarating. This is the challenge. Good luck to all. And by the way, my next book will (most likely) not have any sex scenes...

  • Great post, Meg.  I wrestled with this in my novel as well.  I kept telling my critique group that I was walking the high wire between "corny and porny".  Sexuality, and really sensuality was essential to my story, so I knew I couldn't do the kiss-and-fade cop out.  When I read your suggestions about the context, humor, and that the sex must move the story forward, I see that I instinctively did a few things right (though I wish I'd had your guidance BEFORE my struggle). 

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    I think the genre can dictate the heat and intensity of the encounters. Reader expectations vary for the same reason. But you hit it. Don't add it unless it advances the plot, and tweak the heat level based on the role it plays in the story arc. As far as writing it, I surround myself with the least five open books of my favorite scenes within my genre with the desired heat level. The key is balancing the emotional & physical inside the narrative, action, and internal monologue.

  • Caroline Gerardo

    Meg I'm struggling with this. Current Work in Progress Female Heroine in a Thriller/ Dystopian story. She is a widow with a new "boyfriend" - How much is too much? Fade out isn't going to work in each situation. Cutting the personal encounters takes away the humanity- just as your reporter might be all business without a heart.

  • Susan Holck

    I am confronting a similar problem in my memoir about my relationship with my husband who, after we have been separated for five years, has a massive brain hemorrhage, and I go back to take care of him. I am including the story of our courtship, and since sex was a very important part of our relationship -- it was what drove the relationship forward at the beginning -- it feels wrong to skip over that aspect. On the other hand, this is not a book of erotica. I find humor is often helpful, as you point out. Also, reflections back on good sex and anticipation of sex are important parts of a sexual relationship. I try to remember how sex with my husband was unique, different from sex with other men. I try to capture what made it so special and exhilarating. I find the anatomical descriptions less convincing than the emotional ones. Or, at least, the emotional details need to be there, too.