Why to Write a Sex Scene

[content warning: sex]

[spoiler warning: The Client List, Fingersmith, The Handmaiden, May December]

This isn’t a blog post about how to write a sex scene. I haven’t written many of them, unless you include erotica, and in erotica the whole purpose of writing and reading is different. Here, I’m talking about sex scenes that exist within novels, though I think you can apply the principles more broadly to any medium, and will probably be talking about some examples that stick out to me from television or movies.

The Hemingway school of thought is that every single word of every sentence should have clear purpose, and if there is no clear purpose, it should be cut. If you’ve read any of my megaword web serials, or even just know that I write them, you might be surprised that I subscribe to this philosophy. I subscribe to it in a way that a Christian might only go to church on Easter and Christmas, but I do subscribe to it. Prune the language! Pare things down! Shorten the prose! Show only the tip of the iceberg! Tell the truth in such a way that you tell more than the truth!

(Again, this is preaching something that I don’t really practice, even if it’s something that I keep in mind while writing and editing. Please do not go looking at any of my megaword webserials and ask why I did not cut or prune specific sections, I have no defense.)

So a sex scene, like any scene, should have a point. There should be something worthwhile about it to the reader.


I think this is what most people think of when they think of a sex scene: the kind that are designed for people to get sexual enjoyment from more than anything else. Even outside of direct “sex scenes”, you get this all over the place, from a leering camera to women (and sometimes men) having their bodies available to the nominal camera. Sometimes this is motivated by characters, but often it’s not, it’s just a description or visual meant for sexual interest.

There is a certain percent of the audience for whom this does not work. I tend to think it’s a fairly large part, but it’s difficult to know. Obviously there are people who are aro/ace and not going to get anything from the scene, or people whose sexuality doesn’t line up with the people in the scene. Then there are people who are sex repulsed in some way, either naturally or as conditioning during their upbringing. And finally, you have the people who might be a good fit but just aren’t horny that day.

There’s a meme that must have some truth to it where people will look at pornography, and then, after release, be disgusted by whatever was on their screen and close the tab immediately. The weaker version of that is that it becomes simply uninteresting, bodies pressing into bodies, pointless flesh. It’s like looking at pictures of food after you’ve had a big meal, or the way you can wander through a grocery store when not hungry and have nothing look good to you. If you’re aiming at the average reader, I think that’s what you have to worry about if the scene is pure titillation.

I would generally avoid pure prurient interest, at least unless the entire work were like that (e.g. a work of erotica). You lose different sections of the audience for different reasons, but you lose a lot of them, if the only point is for the reader/viewer to get off on it.

There’s a scene in the 2016 South Korean film The Handmaiden where the two lesbians have sex with each other, and while I loved all the building romance, the tension of them questioning each other, and the uncertainty, the actual sex scene felt like it was way too long, as though we were learning nothing about these characters any more, just seeing them have sex because the editor/director thought that’s what we wanted to see. It didn’t work for me. Implication would have been better. I actually found it so jarring that I bought the book it was based on, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters, and read it to get some sense of whether this was an adaptational change, particularly because The Handmaiden had a male director and Waters is herself a lesbian. The book never leered, and if it expected to titillate (which it did), it expected that the sex scenes could stretch themselves out in the reader’s head.

Character, Relationships, and Authenticity

In my seminal review of The Client List, a 2010 show about a massage parlor, I got pretty upset about them not showing any handjobs. Irate, even. The reason for this is that it was important for the character, and the audience got left in the dark.

(Heh, seminal.)

In the classic fade-to-black scene, you make it clear that two characters are going to fuck, then you end on a good line or slowly pan away or have the camera recede into the distance or engage in some heavy-handed metaphor. Once that’s done, you show two people laying side by side in bed, or just move on to them having breakfast the next morning. I’m using cinematic language here, but I often think of writing in cinematic language, so deal with it.

I think the main thing you miss here is a communication of character and any impact on them from that time they’re having sex together. I don’t necessarily need a blow-by-blow, but in a novel where we’re bothering to linger on a sex scene at all, even a fade-to-black, I do want some sense of how it went. If it went fine, great, you can show me the two happy, relaxed lovers making doe-eyes at each other in the morning, feeling frisson at each other’s presence.

You know, one of the things that Hemingway said was that you should only show the tip of the iceberg, but you should have the whole iceberg sitting there beneath the surface. Something major you’ve omitted will give the story weight, while something omitted because you couldn’t be assed to think about it is worthless. I think if you’re not going to write a sex scene, this is really important: have an understanding of how it went. Then when writing, include just the tip.

But if you want to show things, then the reason you should show them is because it’s important, revelatory for those characters, and you should think about what’s going through their heads. It should reveal something to us about them.

Imagine, if you can, a scene between two people who have come together under unique circumstances. He’s a rogue and a scoundrel, she’s a secret princess. They’ve been traveling together, and have fallen in love, but it’s a flame they’re circling, nothing spoken out loud. They’re a day out from the castle they’ve been traveling to, and both know that it might be their last night together. For a little bit it seems as though they’re just going to sleep in their bedrolls, but then she sucks up the courage and goes over to him, straddling him and then kissing him full on the lips.

This is where you fade to black.

But if you don’t fade to black, you can get a lot more. This is their first time together. Are they going to go all the way? Probably, yeah. Is she going to stay in control, seeing it through to the end? What does this mean to them? Do they talk to each other, or is this done in total silence or animalistic noises, as though they’re afraid to break the spell? Is he tender or forceful? Who is the first to remove their clothes? What is their reaction to seeing the other naked, if they even get fully naked? Maybe there was that scene a few chapters ago where she saw him bathing in a stream, and a scene a few chapters before that where he averted his eyes when she got dressed onto to see a bit of her soft skin in the reflection of a window. We can pay that off here, the way their relationship to each other is evolving and changing. And when they do have sex, what is it like for them? Is it simple and easy, awkward and fumbling? Brief? Disappointing? Everything they dreamed and more?

A sex scene like that is a chance to do a lot of payoffs and reveals and just generally explore your characters at their rawest and most vulnerable, going through the moment of change, discovery, and exploration.

I certainly don’t think that you need to show every sex scene, or really, any sex scene. But this sort of thing is, I think, why they’re sometimes worth writing, even if some segment of the population isn’t going to like it no matter how much time and effort you put into making sure that it’s just the tip.

Accepting that sex is a Thing That Happens which has its own mechanics and emotions and story beats and whatever else is, to me, a path toward making characters feel more real and authentic. Even if you don’t actually write it all out, which you shouldn’t unless it serves a purpose, thinking about it rather than just having it be a gap is good writing praxis.

One of my favorite recent sex scenes was in the movie May December, which … is a complicated movie to summarize, but is about a man who has missed much of his childhood and lives under the thumb of a woman who committed statutory rape with him when he was a teenager. The movie takes place years after all that happened, when he’s an adult with children of his own (by the woman who abused him, now his wife), and an actress comes to town to research what had happened in preparation for making a movie about it (as it was a national scandal twenty years prior). The actress is a terrible person, while the man is sheltered, and they end up having sex from such contrasting places. For her, it’s a thrill of transgression, something to spice up her life, plus this sick fantasy she’s been nursing while reading about the scandal. For him, it’s independence, liberation, and reclaiming his own sexuality. He comes quickly. The spell is broken for her, and maybe more importantly, the fantasy gets stripped back a little bit, because this is also a symbol of his inexperience and naivete.

This scene does not work with a fade-to-black. It doesn’t work if it’s just implication, or something these characters talk about obliquely after the fact. It needs to be there, and is one of the most important scenes in the film. And that’s what makes it a good sex scene.

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Why to Write a Sex Scene

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