Monday, May 11, 2015

Writing Fictional Sex: Ten Considerations

"Whoa whoa whoa. Let's talk about this sex stuff a little before we go and have it all over the place..."

1) People are rarely good at something they do for the first time. This includes sex, roller-skating, oral sex, putting on a condom, and driving a car.

2) Adults have more privacy and space than teenagers. Once an adult clocks out of work, they are free to do whatever. Waste time. Watch TV. Masturbate. Go out for a drink and meet someone they like and go back to that person's home and have sex. For a teenager to live like that, there has to be some very special circumstances and most of them would indicate neglect. Even after school, teenagers have sports and jobs and other extra-curricular activities. Some teenagers must help raise the younger children in the family. Most teenagers' time is not their own and their space is usually occupied by others. Sleeping with someone all night in a bed involves some masterful planning and strategy on the part of a teenager. Adults writing teenaged sex must slough off years of their own sexual experiences, because the circumstances of even one's early 20's are markedly different than when you lived with your family and went to high school.

3) Birth control issues are different now with the Affordable Care Act. Wondering what issues teenagers would face in their part of the United States? Go Sex Etc's site to find out state-specific information on things like birth control availability, LGBTQ issues, emergency contraception, age of consent and more.

4) Masturbation is sex that is generally free of negative consequences. Yet adults and young adults rarely discuss it. This should change for the good of all of us. I have never heard anyone give me a good reason for why teenagers should not masturbate. I'm all ears, of course. But mainly I only hear deafening silence on this topic.

5) How your characters feel about their bodies is a big part of writing about them in sexual contexts. If you don't know what their bodies look like, or where they are vulnerable physically, what parts worry them, what parts they like, whether they touch themselves, how they move through the world, how they label their particular body parts, then you will be at a great disadvantage in describing them in sexual situations...

6)...because though Sex Is A Universal Experience, it is also a very Particular and Specific One for every individual. We devolve into cliche and stereotype when we don't understand the particulars of our characters' physicality. We rely on other sex scenes we've read or deploy images we've seen in movies and television instead of imagining more deeply what our characters might do. Which is really a shame, because that particularity is the draw for reading about sex.

7) Though Sex Is Universal, it's also secret. That's why it's so fascinating to us. We want to see this secret behavior that we don't get to see. We all do it in our own ways, so we only really have access to our own experiences. People might cite porn, but porn is not authentic sex: those people are paid to be there and it's all scripted, managed, & edited. In fiction, we can have access to the bodies and the minds of others during sex. Quite a tall order. And an honor to write it.

8) Sexuality isn't contingent on other people. A character can be sexually inactive with other people but still have a sexual life. It's a layer to consider, no matter what your characters do and where your story goes. Attractions. Lack of attractions. Dealing with romantic overtures. Wanting to be desired. Wondering about others' bodies. This is the dense imaginative material inside the adolescent brain. Coming of age has such an intrinsic sexual aspect, even if your story never deals with nudity or kissing.

9) Sex, like death, can be full of grief and humor. 

10) Awkward sex, in its realness, can also be a huge turn-on for readers. At least it is for me. The more seamless a scene is, the less real, and the less my imagination hooks into it.


  1. Yes! I love this list! Sex is one of my favorite things to talk about and I think we need better depictions of it in media. I would also add that people's religious beliefs and general beliefs about sex are a layer writers often neglect. Is there guilt attached to what they do? Fear of divine consequences? Belief that if the sex is good, the couple is fated for each other?

  2. "people's religious beliefs and general beliefs about sex are a layer writers often neglect. Is there guilt attached to what they do? Fear of divine consequences? Belief that if the sex is good, the couple is fated for each other?"

    Spot-on concerns! Ones romance novels often skate over, too, bc it's pretty unsexy to think about how God's disapproving of yr naked shenanigans when yr in the moment!

    Also, that trope: "If Sex Is Good, It's A Sign" is a big one people use a lot and I think it's because it contains a lot of truth. Sex is good when you're comfortable and have trust...which is something that comes from being with a person that is right for you, too.

    (Of course, it could be you playing out old dysfunctional storylines as well, which is the danger of that trope...)