‘What will my mother say?’: The lowdown on sex scenes in fiction – Toni Jordan
By Toni Jordan
On the surface, it would seem that we fiction writers operate from a position of relative safety when it comes to exposing our foibles and issues. We invent people, after all. Fictional people. They may be nice people or horrid ones; they may have psychological baggage and damage and various weirdnesses, but they’re not us. They’re never us. We’re not memoirists, mining ourselves and our lives. We keep it all at arm’s-length.♥
And yet, one of the most common questions I’m asked in writing courses and at festivals is about sex. (Not actual sex. I’m not Dr Ruth.) Emerging writers ask me: Do I need to have sex scenes in my manuscript? How do you write good sex? And, perhaps most importantly, they ask: What will my mother say?
First: do I need to have sex scenes in my manuscript?
Maha Erwin addressed this last year in this terrific piece, but here’s my take on it. No, you certainly don’t need to have sex scenes. Of course not. You need to write the kind of manuscript that only you can write; you should never force yourself to write like someone else. If you like sex scenes, and it’s the right thing for your manuscript, put them in. If they’re not, don’t.
There’s a but, though.
I find it helpful to think of sex as not just a particular type of act between particular characters, quarantined away from the rest of their behaviour in the story. I like to think of sex itself as actually one end of a continuum of intimacy of human connection, at the other end of which might be, say, eyes meeting, or holding someone’s hand, or touching someone’s arm. These kinds of human connection might not be ‘sexual’: they might be between two non-romantic friends, or a parent and child, or two people of different ages. But I think that almost every story (unless, perhaps, you’re writing Robinson Crusoe or Alien) is made stronger by a physical connection between characters.
Naturally some of these moments of intimacy will be romantic. But I think ‘sex scenes’ is an unhelpful label to the fiction writer. There’s a better question than ‘Should I have a sex scene?’ and I think it’s this: ‘In my depiction of physical intimacy, how far should I go?’ The answer might be not very far at all, or it might be all the way. Either is fine, but I don’t think it’s a black-and-white, digital question. Like most things to do with writing fiction, I think it’s more helpful to think (ahem) in shades of grey.
How do I write good sex scenes?
First, I think, emerging writers need to understand that the sex itself doesn’t have to be good. (Although of course, it can be.) Sex scenes that are written for the sole purpose of turning the reader on are called ‘pornography’. That’s not what most people are writing. (Although if you are, of course, good luck to you.)
At their best, sex scenes are like dialogue scenes: they are character in action. They enable the writer, without telling or awkward exposition, to show characters as they truly are. (And that’s the whole point of the plot: to manoeuvre the characters into situations where they reveal who they truly are.) Perhaps a particular character is good at sex (or, at least, good at sex with that particular other person.) Or perhaps they’re not so good. Or maybe they’re shy, or awkward, or embarrassed or premature or greedy or adventurous or devil-may-care or lazy or giving or gentle or rough or soulful or nostalgic or cuddly or… I could go on. But what matters in the sex scene is not the technical, forensic detail of how everyone gets their rocks off. What matters is who they are, as a character. Try to find something that your character does in a situation that only they would do. Something that represents who they are. That thing will be the key to the scene, and frequently, the key to the character themselves.
And finally: What will my mother think?
Maybe she’ll love it. Maybe she’ll hate it.
One thing I do know is this: whether you include a sex scene or not, people will make moral judgements about your work. They will love it because it has that scene in it where the main characters shrinks the throw-cushions in the washing machine, or they will hate it because of that exact same scene. They will loathe your depiction of some character because it’s unflattering to whichever gender/ethnicity/profession/sexual preference that character is, or they’ll love it because it’s a specific, non-cliched depiction that treats that character like any other.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had complaint letters or bad reviews from psychologists, psychiatrists, Jehovah’s witnesses, victims of crime (for my lack of sensitivity in a crime story), a woman who lives in the suburbs (because, apparently, suburbanites don’t come off well in my books), and anti-abortion activists and pro-choice activists (for the same book). Not everyone will approve of your work. This isn’t easy to accept, I know, but actually it’s freeing. Iris Murdoch once said: “A bad review is even less important than whether it is raining in Patagonia.” (Or so the internet tells me.) My advice is: thank people for their comments, then get back to writing your next work.
That’s harder, of course, when the bad review comes from your mother. You could, of course, use a pseudonym, but where’s the fun in that? My feeling is this: it’s better to take the risk and write the scene you want to write. Maybe Mum will be shocked, but maybe she’ll be the one to shock you.
Toni Jordan is the author of the international best-seller Addition (2008), which was a Richard and Judy Bookclub pick and was longlisted for the Miles Franklin award. Fall Girl (2010) was published internationally and Nine Days (2012) was awarded Best Fiction at the 2012 Indie Awards, was shortlisted for the ABIA Best General Fiction award and was named in Kirkus Review’s top 10 Historical Novels of 2013. Her latest novel is Our Tiny, Useless Hearts (2016). Toni has been widely published in newspapers and magazines.