In my sophomore year at NYU, I was writing a feature screenplay that required two types of scenes that I had never written before – the fight sequence and the sex scene. Since I had less experience in the former, I decided to tackle it first (ha) and get it over with. The fight sequence turned out to be incredibly detailed. It was different, interesting and moved the story forward. I proudly brought it into class that week and we did a read-through of the scene. My predominantly red-blooded, action-movie-loving, male classmates really got into it. They physically reenacted the scenes and asked me if personal experience inspired any of it. I shared the story of the one fight I had ever been in: at thirteen, a girl slapped me across the face with a spoonful of ice cream to impress the boy she liked. Long story short, I won the fight and we were banned from our local Häagen-Dazs.
Armed with the confidence that my classmates had given me, I returned home to write what I thought was the easier half of the ordeal – the sex scene. After typing hours worth of blush-worthy, shuddery scenarios and being overly conscious that my classmates may associate what I wrote with my personal experience (or try to reenact it), I ultimately rejected it all and opted to have my characters simply enter a bedroom and shut the door. I know… I totally wussed out. I rationalized that implication and cliché was the way to go. A screenwriter or even a playwright writes with the knowledge that their work will be seen. If your actors are hot enough, who cares that the sex is clichéd?
So what does sex look like as a novelist? And what is this pressure to make sex scenes appear realistic and original? It’s not like the author has the stress of turning over to his or her reader and asking, “Was it good for you?” and getting an, “Oh, it was… fine.” They do however, have the stress of being nominated for an award that I never knew existed: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. Harsh stuff.
Let’s face it – a truly satisfying sex scene is as challenging to achieve in writing as it is in real life. Keeping it run-of-the-mill might get the job done but having it be a little, um, “too freaky” can be misconstrued as a necessity to quell what has become the boredom of the act itself. Take Philip Roth’s Bad Sex in Fiction-nominated “green dildo” scene, for instance. Unlike porn/erotica writers, a novelist has the pressure of making this sex scene “mean something.” On top (ha) of that, the novelist must consider keeping this scene in the same voice and on par with the rest of the novel despite it being about a topic that usually renders the human mind useless for however long it lasts. Strangely enough, it’s the latter half of the challenge that usually lands these poor writers a nomination. The Literary Review cites Roth’s desire to give the sex scene any more insight than a sex scene can stand to give on its own the reason behind his nod for Bad Sex in Fiction. The award has been described as a way to “draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it.” But then golly, you say – if you know how challenging it is to write a sex scene, then why would you challenge and risk discouraging the authors of these already-written sex scenes? After all, anyone who’s ever taken a glance at a romance novel can sympathize with the author’s struggle of finding as many synonyms as possible for an aroused penis (that’s how we get gems like, “throbbing member”).
Though Sex and the City was one of the prime offenders in the overly-creative-synonyms-for-phallus game, the show was also revolutionary in how we discuss and ultimately write about sex. Regardless of what one thinks of the show, Sex and the City deserves serious props for putting it all out on there. Bar the often nauseating puns and double entendres, the dialogue was frank in its recollection of the good, the bad and the awkward. It was straightforward and didn’t try to be something more than it was and most importantly, it was relatively nonjudgmental.
Most of us have learned by now that good sex = nonjudgmental sex. Having an award that exists in pointing out bad sex in fiction may risk making bad sex even worse. Of course, a writer should be conscious of how their work is perceived if they hope to turn profit from what they publish, but being too self-conscious also comes through in one’s writing. We all know that the one thing worse than a person who’s bad at sex is a person who is painfully aware of just how bad at sex he or she is. That being said, there are some pretty unforgivably bad passages of bad sex out there and despite my desire to create a non-judgmental environment for these writers to sexually explore, there is a greater need to get it right in writing sex than having sex because of the sheer number of people ultimately involved (cue orgy jokes). There is exhibitionism and permanence involved in writing sex. A novelist writes for his or her reader’s and whether it’s good or bad, it can be revisited without the mental edits one might make if the sex was only documented in memory. Until your book gets picked up for a movie deal, you better hope your sex scene stands on its own without attractive A-listers strippin’ for ya.