As a Sex Educator, What I Wish Every Author Knew about Writing Sex in Scenes
Sex. S-E-X. Sex.
I’m pretty sure a file cabinet in your head popped open and everything you don’t want to come out did. That’s because we lock down our ideas and notions about sex. In the US, this is understandable. Shame and embarrassment rear its head. It’s how we’ve been raised to think, act, and experience ourselves sexually.
Mostly we’ve learned sex is negative, a topic not to be discussed, and is dismissed in our everyday world. But every day you could make a choice to do something different. Maybe today, you’ll choose to learn an alternative way to consider sex in scenes.
Writing sex in scenes could grow you as a fiction writer and a person. That can happen with an information paradigm shift. Here are five areas to help you shift your thinking.
Language is important in sex, on a macro and micro level.
At the macro level, I use the phrase sex in scenes versus sex scenes. This takes away the heteronormative slant of penis-vagina intercourse. It opens the stage for diversity. In people, in choices, in activities. It takes sex out of one box and helps you have more choices in your character development. Sex is not a one-size-fits-all. It’s nuanced and person-specific and complex like the character you’re building.
I hear authors say sex language in the scene, the micro level, trips “them” up. You are the architect creating and constructing a character, their language of sex is based on who they are not who you are.
If you are creating a world and a detailed understanding of your characters, I’d like you to get your character bible out. Now go to the place where you have sex history for your characters. Did you find it? One page. One sentence. One word.
This is important because just like a characters’ personality, motivations, desires are housed in a character bible their history with sex is defining and would aid you there. Use sex as a part of the character you’ve not used before. This makes them truly a holistic character. We learn about them, their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual components through sex. And let me add, it’s not all about negative things that people experience. Our progression of becoming a sexual being can be normative. But the history gives you information to create human connection and human closeness that readers crave.
Factually Accurate and Fictionally Realistic
Are you factually accurate and fictionally realistic with the words you’ve created to tell the characters’ story? I think writers forget or might not realize they are teachers. They may not have signed up for it, but it happens. When I’ve asked students or therapy clients how they learned about sex, reading novels is a frequent answer.
Just because you’re writing fiction doesn’t mean you shy away from accuracy. Nothing pulls me out of a story quicker than inaccurate information. Condom use. Consent. How the body responds in sex. Yes, I’m always the teacher in that regard. How can you write it better? Give us the facts through the characters' revelations.
Meaning of Sex
Sex is personal. Sex is individual. Sex is based on interactions with self and others. When you are constructing a scene with sex, why is the person choosing to be sexual? What are you revealing? I had a supervisor who always made us answer why a person wanted to have sex. He believed our culture set us up for sex to be a multi-purpose cleaner. Angry. Sex. Happy. Sex. Anxious. Sex. Lonely. Sex. You continue the list.
Why people engage in sexual events is absolutely related to where they are in their world. So, when you create scenes, what emotion is in the forefront with the physical in the background? Do you move them back and forth, working together to provide the tension for the reader? This could make your scene sizzle. When you realize it’s the emotional exchange readers crave, then the physical context is the embodiment of it. They work together for the reader to be in the moment with the character having the experience.
Get clear on your context, your meaning of sex. Use that character’s sex history for conflict and micro-tension. But use it with intention.
My editor’s voice rings in my head. “Hm. Is that the author talking or the character?” The minute I hear that I know I slipped. But here’s the good news, edit and revise.
As in providing therapy and education, I’ve had to get out of my own way. I confront assumptions and biases from all directions. But I do it because I want to be good at what I do. I feel the same way about writing fiction.
We all write stuff we’ve not done before. Don’t worry, research can give you information. Be reassured there is room for you in the scene. Even if you’ve not participated in the activity you are creating, you’ve probably experienced the emotion and feeling that is the meaning of the scene. That is the “YOU” available to write the scene.
If you jump into this sexual paradigm shift, expect to do the following.
- Practice new sex languages.
- Recognize that sex molds and shapes us. Use it to develop your characters.
- If you write, you teach. Decide how.
- Identify why your character is choosing to be sexual. Use the reason with emotion and wrap it around the physical event, like a cocoon.
- Work with yourself to eliminate author intrusion.