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Writers on Writing

How to Write a Sex Scene

Photo of Rebecca Schiff

Rebecca Schiff


Think about the worst sex you’ve ever had. There’s probably a story there, or at least a detail you can use. Use it.

Blow jobs are funnier than vaginal intercourse. Hand jobs are funnier than blow jobs. Masturbation is funniest of all. Don’t be afraid of the solo sex scene. This is the sex scene most of us know best. Once you master onanism, it will be time to try a twosome, a threesome, then an orgy. Your orgy needs lots of dialogue, dialogue unrelated to the proceedings at hand. Where is the orgy taking place? Who are the participants? What are their roles in the community? Are they civic leaders? Godmothers?

Avoid candles, scented lubes, and the word “throb.” Avoid the words “member,” “bosom,” “butt,” and “splay.” You should probably skip the word “tight.” If you wind up arousing the reader, that’s okay, but it’s not your number one goal. Your number one goal is to make the reader feel deeply uncomfortable reading your book in public. Your number two goal is to get your book banned in high school libraries. Politicians will brandish your book during debates and say taxpayer money shouldn’t pay for such filth. You’ll make good enemies and you’ll make great friends. Librarians will defend you. Bruce Springsteen will be on your side.

But what if I’m not filthy enough? you think. What if Bruce Springsteen is busy? Most sex scenes are read and forgotten. Readers go on with their lives. You’re competing with the entire internet. You’re competing with sex itself. Wouldn’t people rather be watching porn or doing it than reading about doing it? Why does anyone still read at all? They read because you have something to tell them about what you know about blow jobs. What you know may resonate with what they know, and then the two of you, writer and reader, will connect. It’s sexy, connecting. You don’t need to be naked to do it. You don’t need social media. You don’t even need to write a sex scene, just whatever kind of scene interests and excites you. Maybe you want to write about bird watching, or parallel parking, or escalators. Nicholson Baker has written three great books about sex and one equally great book about office supplies. Read them. Read Philip Roth, Rick Moody, Mary Gaitskill, and Matthew Klam. Read Erica Jong. Read James Salter and Sam Lipsyte. Read Leonard Michaels. Read Joyce. For these writers, sex is dirty, complex, embarrassing, more earthbound than transcendent, but the writing is ecstatic, joyful, shameless, as good as any body touching body, as good as the best sex.

Don’t write your sex scenes dutifully or rush through them on your way to the serious or “real” writing. Stay a while. Explore sex with curiosity, with humor, sadness, irreverence, compassion, and empathy. At least try. Writing about sex can be as much of a failure as sex itself. Embrace that failure. Or as Diane Williams writes in her story “Stand”: “As a matter of fact, I couldn’t get his penis to do anything… It hung like a mop or it had a life of its own. How it came up in the first place, I don’t know. He couldn’t get my vagina—I wanted to say—to utter a word.”

About the Author

Rebecca Schiff

Rebecca Schiff’s short stories have appeared in Electric Literature, Fence, Guernica, n+1, and The American Reader. Her debut collection, The Bed Moved, was published by Knopf in Spring 2016. Rebecca holds an MFA from Columbia University, and is the recipient of a Henfield Award and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She lives in Brooklyn.