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Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

Let's Talk About Sex BabyOne of the songs I remember from my yoof, booming around the nightclubs that I’d sneak off to on a school night, had a line “Let’s talk about sex, baby…” I can’t remember the rest of it, or who it was by, but I do remember the tune.  Of course, I could simply Google it and find out the rest of the words, who it sung by, who produced it, where it charted…all the details that Google can throw up in a matter of seconds.

But a) I can’t really be bothered and b) it doesn’t matter.  It’s just a track I remember from being young and one which comes back to haunt me now, as I battle my way through the sex scenes in my novel.

Look, I’m not a prude.  I have a particularly smutty sense of humour that can get me in trouble in the wrong setting.  I have to remind myself there are certain situations where cackling at an innocent double entendre or faux pas is definitely NOT ON.  And I love Sarah Millican, a softly-spoken, Northern comedienne who delights in shocking her audience with a bit of filth.  But all my liberal, broad-mindedness floats out of the window when it comes to sitting down and writing a naughty bit in my book.

Then, when it becomes unavoidable for the characters to get it on, I get all Puritan and repressed.  Oh no, there can’t be any nudity then, he can’t put his hand there, she can’t surprise him by doing that.  It’s almost as though my laptop screen becomes a mirror and I can’t look at myself, attempting to write this stuff.

As readers of other posts will know, my novel is about an affair between an older woman and a younger man.  There’s also an inverted-kind-of-historical-back-story to their relationship, where an older man and younger woman also have an illicit affair, about a hundred years before.  Both relationships require a representation of the physicality of their union.  The physical stuff just has to happen.  I know that.  But I struggled to write it, at least to begin with.

I think I also felt the pressure of other, brilliant writers, getting it wrong.  Every year the Literary Review gives out a “Bad Sex” award to the writer of the worst sex scene published that year.  Some pretty big names have won – Sebastian Faulks, John Updike.  When I set about writing my own sex scene(s), I quaked in my boots, thinking if these titans of fiction can’t get it right, what hope have I got?

The only way I could force myself to just get on with it was to read over some stand-out scenes I remember from books I’ve loved.  Sebastian Faulks may have won the Bad Sex Award in 1998 for “Charlotte Gray”, but the scene in “Birdsong” between Stephen and Isabelle is stunning.  Likewise the smattering of sex described in “The Time Traveller’s Wife” by Audrey Niffenegger is well done.  Then there’s the half-consummated scene in “Snow Falling on Cedars” by David Guterson, which is delicately and gorgeously written.

I had a most enjoyable hour reading those passages again and it did make me feel more comfortable about writing my own.  Besides the obvious, the scenes from these novels shared a certain delicacy and beauty in writing.  The acts they described are not unusual, not brazen, not littered with references to S&M and other adventurous pursuits.  Instead, the writers focused on the emotional sensations and how they connected to the sensations experienced in the body.  And, as all good agony aunts tell us, that’s what makes for good sex – an emotional as well as physical connection.

So, I told myself to not be such a wimp and made myself write the sex scene in my novel.  I’m sure my cheeks still burned and I will always be grateful to a good friend who agreed to give it a read over and check for cringe-worthiness.  Once the writing cherry was popped, it was easier to write the next scene when the plot warranted it.  And then I threw in a third, just for good measure.

Let’s talk about sex? Been there, done that.

Have you ever had to write a sex scene?  What process worked best for you?

About Rebecca Burns

Rebecca Burns - writer of short stories.

Debut collection, "Catching the Barramundi", published by Odyssey Books in 2012 and longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award in 2013. Rebecca was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2011 and profiled as part of the University of Leicester's "Grassroutes" project, which is funded by the Arts Council and showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in Leicestershire.

Read a sample and download "Catching the Barramundi" at Amazon.

To read more of Rebecca's work, visit her web site found on the link below.

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  • Andrew Williams October 24, 2013, 11:19 pm

    Sex scenes can often go one of two ways – either you collapse into a sweaty heap of innuendo and crudity, ending up with a farce, or you raid the thesaurus for as many alternative words for genitals as you can and end up with a clinical description begging to be narrated by David Attenborough. Sex by itself actually looks, sounds and really is very silly. This is why the best written ones are those with an emotional connection… and, sometimes, removing the sex entirely and only writing the emotion can improve it.

    • Rebecca Burns November 5, 2013, 11:55 am

      Andrew, you’ve just described why writing an effective and moving sex scene is so difficult.

      Whether a story even requires one (or several) depends on the plot, the narrative flow, the portrayal of the characters, besides a host of other conditions. Yes, effective hints can work just as well as more detailed descriptions (think of the passion contained in some of Carol Shield’s beautiful prose, which only skim the surface of love scenes), but sometimes a scene is required. I suppose it’s the same in films – would “Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks be quite the same without the passion between Stephen and Isabelle?

      It’s an interesting debate. Whatever the writer’s decision, I think it is essential that they capture the emotional connection between the characters, in order for the scene to be believable and moving.