How To Write Sex Scenes: The 12-Step Program

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john-wesley-nail-police-226x300Every single time I go to a party, or, at least, like once every fifty parties, someone will approach me and say, “You sure do write about sex a lot, Steve. Any advice?”

I usually tell them that I don’t write about sex, I write about desire and heartbreak and I can’t believe someone as intelligent-looking as him/her would reduce my art to lurid gymnastics. Then I ask for money.

This never works.

Thus, in the general interest of preventing more bad sex writing from entering the cultural jetstream and absolutely free of charge, I offer my 12-Step Program for Writing Incredibly Hot Sex Scenes:

Step 1

Never compare a woman’s nipples to:

a) Cherries
b) Cherry pies
c) Pencil erasers
d) Frankenstein bolts

Nipples are tricky. They come in all shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumbshit comparisons. (Note: I am guilty of the last.)

Step 2john-wesley-mexican-movie

Never, ever use the words “penis” or “vagina”

There is no surer way to kill the erotic buzz than to use these terms, which call to mind –my mind, at least- health classes (in the best instance) and (in the worst instance) venereal disease.

As a rule, in fact, there is often no reason at all to name the genitals. Consider the following sentence:

“She wet her palm with her tongue and reached for my penis.”

Now consider this alternative:

“She wet her palm with her tongue and reached for me.”

Is there any real doubt as to where this particular horndoggle is reaching?

Step 3

Resist the temptation to use genital euphemisms, unless you are trying to be funny

No: Tunnel of Love, Candy Shop, Secret Garden, Pleasure Gate
Equally No: Flesh Kabob, Manmeat, Tube Steak, Magic Wand
Especially No: Hairy Taco, Sperm Puppet
I could go on, but only for my own amusement.

Step 4

Then again, sometimes sex is funny

And if you ever saw a videotape of yourself in action, you’d agree. What an absurd arrangement. Don’t be afraid to portray these comic aspects. If one of your characters, in a dire moment of passion, hits a note that sounds eerily like Celine Dion, duly note this. If another can’t stay hard, allow him to use a ponytail holder for an improvised cock ring. And later on, if his daughter comes home and picks up his ponytail holder from his bedside table and starts absently chewing at the thing, well, so be it.

Step 5

Real people do not talk in porn clichés

They do not say: “Give it to me, big boy.”
They do not say: “Suck it baby. That’s right, all the way down.”
They do not say: “Yes, deeper, harder deeper! Oh baby, oh Christ yes!”
At least, they do not say these things to me.
Most of the time, real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as “I think I’m losing circulation” and “I’ve got a cramp in my foot” and “Oh, sorry!” and “Did you come already? God damn it!”

Step 6

Use all the senses

The cool thing about sex –aside from it’s being, uh, sex- is that it engages all five senses. So don’t ignore the more subtle cues. Give us the scents and the tastes and the sounds of the act. And stay away from the obvious ones. By which I mean that I’d take a sweet, embarrassed pussyfart over a shuddering moan any day.

You may quote me.

Step 7

Don’t obsess over the rude parts

Sex is inherently over the top. Just telling the reader that two (or more) people are balling will automatically direct us toward the genitals. It is your job, as an author, to direct us elsewhere, to the more inimitable secrets of the naked body. Give us the reddened stubble in the crease of a debutante’s groin, or the minute trembling of a banker’s underlip.

Step 8

Stop actually having sex

This is very important. Remember that the sexiest thing about sex is really desire, which is just a fancy word for not getting laid.

Step 9

It takes a long time to make a woman come

I speak here from experience. So please don’t try to sell us on the notion that a man can enter a woman, elicit a shuddering moan or two, and bring her off. No sale. In fact, I’d steer clear of announcing orgasms at all. Rarely, in my experience, do men or women announce their orgasms. They simply have them. Their bodies are taken up by sensation and heaved about in various ways. Describe the heaving.

Step 10

It is okay to get aroused by our own sex scenes

In fact, it’s pretty much required. Remember, the intent of any effective scene is to evoke in the reader the feeling state of your characters, including the aroused states. And you’re not likely to accomplish this unless you, yourself, are feeling the same delicious tremors. You should be imagining what you’re writing and –whether with one hand or two- transcribing the details.

Step 11

Contrary to popular belief, people think during sex

The body does its happy labor during sex, but the mind works overtime. And just what do people think about? Laundry. Bioterrorism. Old lovers. Sex isn’t just the physical process. The thoughts that accompany the act are just as significant (more so, actually) than the gymnastics.

Step 12

If you ain’t prepared to rock, don’t roll

If you don’t feel comfortable writing about sex, then don’t. By this, I mean writing about sex as it actually exists, in the real world, as an ecstatic, terrifying, and, above all, deeply emotional process. Real sex is compelling to read about because the participants are so vulnerable. When the time comes to get naked, we are all terribly excited and frightened and hopeful and doubtful, usually at the same time. You mustn’t abandon your characters in their time of need. You mustn’t make of them naked playthings with rubbery parts. You must love them, wholly and without shame, as they go about their human calling. Because we’ve already got a name for sex without the emotional content: It’s called pornography.

Bonus step!

Step 13

Read the Song of Songs

The Song of Songs, for those of you who haven’t read the Bible in a while, is a long erotic poem that somehow got smuggled into the Old Testament. It is the single most instructive document you can read if you want to learn how to write effectively about the nature of physical love.

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art by John Wesley

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This is a Rumpus Reprint and was published originally in (Not That You Asked).


Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →