Keeping your book out of the Bad Sex in Fiction Awards

“My whole practical thesis around the craft of writing a sex scene is this: it is exactly the same as any other scene. Our isolation of sex from other kinds of scenes is not indicative of sex’s difference, but the difference in our relationship to sex. It is our reluctance to name things, the shame we’ve been taught, our fraught compulsion to enact a theater of types. It is indicative of the lack of imagination that centuries of patriarchy and white supremacy has wrought on us.” – Melissa Febos in Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative

Among other things, Febos thinks sex scenes should advance the plot. Writers tend to forget that everything in their novels and stories is supposed to advance the plot directly or indirectly. If they haven’t forgotten this, they forget it when they try to write a sex scene.

According to NY Book Editors, “When you write sex scenes, it’s gonna get raw. There are arms, legs, emotions, sweat, and nipples. If that made you squirm, you’re not ready.”

Apparently, a lot of aspiring writers aren’t ready.

Febos suggests that writers can unlearn all of their incorrect ideas about sex scenes just as they can unlearn other bad habits (such as writing in passive voice). I like this way of looking at it. The problem is, most of the typical bad habits aspiring writers are fraught with are covered in writing books and (usually) bad sex scenes isn’t in the table of contents.

As a reader, I’ve found that some of the best sex scenes in novels not only advance the plot, but leave you thinking, “Gosh, I didn’t know you could do that.” So, perhaps we should add that good sex scenes should be educational. But don’t take notes: if you do, the next time you’re making love, you don’t want your partner to say, “OMG, we’re doing page 43 in Malcolm R. Campbell’s novel The Gigolo Blues.

Let’s forget I said that and suggest we’ve gone past the days when all sex scenes are allowed to sound the same (a common joke about sex scenes in romance novels years ago) and write something that could only appear in the story and with the characters a writer’s working on right now. If the scene sounds like something you read on page 43 of any novel, the author has a problem.

The problem might be a long list of inhibitions that are more advanced than, “What if mom reads this.” NY Book Editors says, “Come back after you’ve eaten some nachos, downed a beer, and thrown modesty out of the way.” They do make some good points, though I think they’ll be hard to put into practice without therapy, a lof practice (with sex or writing), or considering some of the deeper reasons why these scenes are a continuing problem.

Febos’ book might be a good place to start. But first, here’s an excerpt with some ideas worth pondering. If the excerpt makes you squirm, you probably need the book–or a good hypnotist.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the four-book Florida Folk Magic Series. If you want the entire series, you can find it bound together in one Kindle volume at a savings.