How to Write a Sex Scene

28 Oct
David Gordon's new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, "Man-Boob Summer," was published in The Paris Review.

David Gordon’s new story collection, White Tiger on Snow Mountain, features sex, murder, ghosts, and frauds. Its opening story, “Man-Boob Summer,” was published in The Paris Review.

Every year, the British journal Literary Review announces its Bad Sex in Fiction Award for the year’s worst sex writing in a novel. This year’s winning passages are, as usual, notable for both their physiological specificity (areolae) and vagueness (hole) and their awkward use of metaphor and simile (“the hard pearls of her nipples, like tiny secrets”). The authors of these prizes are not unknown; this year’s list contains two of the best-known and most respected writers in the English-speaking world, Philip Roth and John Banville.

Such passages can lead to despair: if even good writers write bad sex scenes, what chance do the rest of us have? One solution is to find good writing about sex, such as can be found in David Gordon’s new story collection White Tiger on Snow Mountain. The sex scenes manage to be both erotic (or not, depending on the situation) and literary. The first story in the collection, “Man-Boob Summer,” appeared in The Paris Review, and you can read it here.

How the Story Works

The work necessary to make a sex scene believable often begins before the scene takes place. One way to set up the scene is by setting up the possibility of sex. Sometimes this can be literal; for instance, Mary Gaitskill’s story “A Romantic Weekend” establishes very early on that the characters are taking a weekend getaway to have sex (and a particular kind of sex). Other times, the setup is more subtle. For example, “Man-Boob Summer” is about a down-and-out writer who spends time at his apartment complex’s swimming pool. He watches the swimmers and, quite naturally, notices their bodies.

At first, the descriptions of the swimmers have no hint of sexuality. For example, here is a “blond and stocky” woman:

“thighs were scored with the plastic pattern of her chair.”

Here is her son:

“blond and wan, and no matter what he was doing—floating in the man’s arms and practice-kicking, jumping into the pool, eating a cookie—he screeched incessantly in this high, petulant squeal that set my teeth on edge.”

And finally, there was the woman’s husband, whose body inspired the story’s title:

“there he was, rising from the pool, mustache drooping, water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank, and I saw it, one flat male breast and one pendulous female breast.”

In short, Gordon uses the family to create a standard of beauty for this particular place, and then he introduces a character who breaks that standard. Notice the difference in this description of a lifeguard:

In fact, her legs were long and slender, and they kept folding and unfolding, rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.

This difference in appearance—the difference in the details that the man notices—drives his behavior. He begins to flirt:

“Hey,” I asked, “do you think if you had to, you could really lift me out of the pool? You’re kind of little. Don’t they have some kind of height requirement?”

She stuck her tongue out at me. “Try it and see.”

At this point, the story has focused our attention on the lifeguard’s body, especially her legs, and created a kind of sexual momentum. We’re not surprised when the sex scene arrives:

We undressed quickly, peeling off her shoulder straps and slipping her suit down her legs, pulling off my T-shirt and trunks. She climbed onto my lap, and we jostled a bit until I was inside her, and then we just sat there like that for a while, mouths together, chest to chest, not moving, except for our breath. She stopped kissing me and spit in her hand, then reached down in between us, making a serious face. Then she began to move against me, and grip me harder, and I took her in my arms and pushed her onto her back as her breathing raced and she put her nails into my chest and I brushed back the hair from her eyes. Later, after it was over, we both lay on my towel and she smoked. Again, it was silent, but this time the quiet felt uneasy, and when I tried to put my arm around her, she shrugged me off.

Notice how quickly the scene happens and how little their bodies are described. We’ve already seen the bodies, and so now the focus can be on the sex itself, on movement: peeling, slipping, climbing, jostling, breathing, kissing, spitting, moving, gripping, pushing, brushing. This focus on movement is important because a) it avoids forced, eroticized descriptions of body parts and b) it allows the sex to take place in only four sentences. Finally, the movement uses commonplace verbs and not clichéd, sexual verbs like thrusting or throbbing.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s set up and write a sex scene using “Man-Boob Summer” by David Gordon as a model:

  1. Establish a standard of beauty. In stories, as in life, sex usually starts with noticing someone and finding them attractive. This person may or not be classically beautiful. What’s more important is that he or she stand out from the other people in the room (as Flight of the Concords made clear). So, start by describing the other people in the room. The descriptions should carry some sexual charge: neutral, negative, or positive. The setting matters. At a community pool, as in Gordon’s story, regular people are almost naked and looking like real, almost-naked people. At a public function (work, party, church), people are generally dressed to look their best. At certain kinds of parties (night clubs), people are dressed to accentuate their sexual appeal. Therefore, your standard of beauty ought to reflect the setting. The standard also raises or lowers the bar for the person who breaks the standard: it’s easier to be the best-looking person in the room in some places than others. Regardless of the standard, show the bodies in close, physical detail.
  2. Break that standard. Make someone stand out, either because everyone finds them more beautiful or because one person finds them more attractive. Again, focus on close, physical detail. However, it’s not enough to say that so-and-so has a better butt or better legs or a prettier face. You need to sensualize the descriptions. It’s the difference between “water streaming through his body hair like rushes along a sandbank” and legs “rubbing against each other like cats in the warmth of the sun.” Focus on movement, but unlike the action of sex, you’re focusing on more subtle movements. Imagine that your narrator or character is trying not to look at someone but every time he or she moves, the narrator’s eye is drawn back to him/her. What small, perhaps unconscious movements attract the eye?
  3. Act on the attraction. In other words, flirt. If sex is going to take place, then an initial encounter must happen first. If the encounter is successful (i.e. if the attention is desired by both people), then the words become as sexualized as the movement: “She stuck her tongue out at me. ‘Try it and see.'”
  4. Write the sex scene. If the previous passages do their work, the reader believes that the characters will have sex. Therefore, very little setup is needed. We don’t need to see the bodies in great detail. We don’t need to see the foreplay. In other words, the scene can happen quickly and consist primarily of sex (action) rather than looking. So, write sentences that are active, rather than static. Use verbs that you’d normally use in any scene, not verbs that have become sexualized by pornography. Keep the prose flowing. Avoid abrupt stops of punctuation (unless they mimic the action of the sex). Get to the end of the sex since what happens afterward will tell us a great deal about how to understand what just happened: “this time the quiet felt uneasy.”

When you read “Man-Boob Summer,” you’ll see that even though the story is about two characters who have sex, most of the story is setting up the sex and then showing what comes after. In other words, the most important parts of a sex scene are not the actual sex but everything else around it.

Good luck!

4 Responses to “How to Write a Sex Scene”

  1. Paula Cappa October 29, 2014 at 8:02 p10 #

    This was really helpful. Thanks for being so clear and direct.

    • ganesh June 27, 2015 at 8:02 p06 #

      Hi this is ganesh 9011864875

  2. michaelnoll1 October 29, 2014 at 8:02 p10 #

    Thanks, Paula!


  1. An Interview with David Gordon | Read to Write Stories - October 30, 2014

    […] To read his story “Man-Boob Summer” and an exercise on writing sex scenes, click here. […]

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