Sex in writing: where do you draw the line?

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Parental Advisory: This subject is unavoidably adult, but I have included nothing gratuitous or obscene. I aim to be frank but discreet. Those old enough to benefit from the rest of this blog are old enough to read this post.

Without it, none of us would be here. It causes people to do crazy things, like throw away huge amounts of money, make idiots of themselves, occasionally kill other people, and of course, get married and have children. So can writers completely ignore sex? Obviously, no. The subject is going to come up. Not always, but sometimes. And anyway, we’re writers! We’re daring! We’re edgy! We push the limits of polite society!

But you wouldn’t show up to a book signing in a bikini.

In fact, you would consider it beneath you to do so. Why? Because although sex sells, there are a variety of words for people who sell it, and none of them are complimentary. Think about that. At what point does it become nothing but literary pornography? It doesn’t take writing talent to “turn on” readers. The crudest sentence (both technically and socially crude) can arouse anyone.

But sex isn’t just physical; it’s emotional, psychological, spiritual even.

And therein lies the key. The emotional side—that sacred bond shared between two people—that’s what you want to capture. But despite the great power of fiction, it has its limitations: while it is extremely easy to arouse your readers, it is extremely difficult to forge an emotional connection with them. One is a mechanical, hormonal reaction. The other is spiritual. You can try to use the mechanical to access the spiritual, but in this case, (be honest) it will only serve as a distraction. The physical side takes off—and blinds all other feeling. The moment you arouse your reader is the moment you cease to be relevant to their soul.

So what are we supposed to do?

Focus on the emotion. If you have to mention something physical, start with a kiss, a caress here or there, but focus on what that kiss means to your characters. What are they saying to each other in that kiss? Is the kiss a lie, or the truest thing they have ever expressed? What does it mean? Why is it important?

There is no need to go into great detail about where hands and legs and whatever else is; you will only undercut your attempts to connect, just as a guy would undercut his attempts to get a girl’s phone number if he kept making lewd suggestions to her, no matter how poetic his conversation was in between.  It’s the difference between lust and love; both are powerful, but only one means anything. So write about it, if you insist (assuming, of course, you are not writing a children’s book). But treat it as the sacred, private thing it is.

After all, you want your readers to respect you in the morning.

 —

You may have noticed I didn’t even mention erotica; this is chiefly because I deny its legitimacy as literature. I doubt any erotica writers would be hanging around this blog, but in case one happens to come across this post, well, I’m not going to apologize. And if I did, the word would be dripping with sarcasm.

 I welcome discussion in the comments – but please be sure it conforms to the parental advisory above.

About Stephanie Orges

Stephanie is an award-winning copywriter, aspiring novelist, and barely passable ukulele player. Here, she offers writing prompts, tips, and moderate-to-deep philosophical discussions. You can also find her on and Pinterest.
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29 Comments

  1. Frankly, you make sex out like it’s always something touchy feely, but really it depends on the characters and what it is your writing. Maybe this would be true if you were writing romance, but even then it’s not always the case.

    If you have someone that is engaging in sex for the sole purpose, maybe as a one night stand, then you would give less focus on emotion and more on the act. You also have to take into account the fact that every writer has something different that they are trying to do with their work. It’s like painting. Some people will use water colors and paint scenery or romantic scenes, while others prefer acrylic and like to portray darker more cynical scenes.

    And I have to say, you’re tone in this is kind of condescending. Like your way is -the- way. (Excuse the dashes there. I still haven’t figured out if there’s a button on these replies for italics.)
    Now I’m not saying I’m the best thing ever when it comes to writing. I’m always growing and getting better. But as a writer, I’m able to do a balance of all things, romantic scenes and ones that are not so much. Just because you prefer one way, doesn’t make the others wrong.

    And really, could you stick your nose any higher in the air? Erotica is just as legitimate an art as any other form of writing. It takes talent to write just like any other short stories. You have to string actions, dialogue, and feeling together in a way that gets your point across but also draws in the reader. Not everyone is capable of doing that, sure, but I don’t see how that same logic can’t be applied to any other forms of writing.

    • You’re right in that sometimes it is a one night stand, sometimes the characters do take it lightly (whether they should or not) – but what’s the point of the scene? If it is to move the story forward in some way, than there is still something more important than the act – and detailed physical description is still going to distract from everything else. If the only point of the scene is to arouse, than it is erotica, and it is a different argument.

      As to sounding like my way is the way; this is a blog, and blogs are generally understood to be more opinionated than impartial. Think of it as an opinion editorial, not a press release.

      Finally, as to erotica, I go back to what I said earlier. It doesn’t have to be well-written to arouse. It is a cheap thrill, just as pictures of scantily clad (or unclad) women are cheap thrills. Just as going to a book signing in a bikini is a cheap thrill. People tend to idolize writing as indisputably intellectual. But just because it is made of words doesn’t mean it is smart, or enlightening, or beneficial. As I understand it (perhaps I am wrong), the whole purpose behind erotica is arousal. If that is what a reader is looking for, that’s their business, but it seems flippant, to me, to give it equal consideration with genres that are concerned with more than just physical pleasure (which is pretty much every other genre).

      Twinkies are only “food” in the strictest sense, in that they are edible, but most people would consider it ridiculous, or even unfair, to compare a twinkie with a freshly-baked sponge cake filled with Bavarian creme (do people put Bavarian creme in sponge cakes? I don’t know, but I hope you get my point).

      And if I seem to look down on writers of erotica, please understand I don’t see the people as being beneath me; I see the genre as being beneath them. Writing talent is a gift, and can be very powerful, and those who have it should use it more conscientiously. They have the ability to give more; and I expect them to.

  2. As I’ve grown (older?), I’ve found I avoid reading the writers whose work is known for sex scenes. As a young adult, these things were fine, but now as a woman in mid 50’s, I realize I’ve been there and done that and I don’t need or want outside influence to get me back there. My partner and I do that well on our own. I found myself reading your point here and realized the last book I read dealt with romance and emotions with just a kiss. I found myself wondering if I was going to have to “skip ahead” to avoid reading “juicy” details that bore me to tears. I continued on (with relief) as the writer explored the emotions of the kiss and the romance rather than the details of sex. How refreshing for me.

    I’m no prude, but I don’t like to read sex anymore. I like to know how the folks experience and digest their emotions. I enjoy allowing the writer to build the characters into solid performers and human beings for me rather than sexual beings. I don’t want to know about that part of their lives any more than I would want to peek into the sex lives of my parents (back in the day). Yes, I want to know what drives them, but once they “get there” I don’t need to “see” the performance.

    Excellent advice from my perspective.

    • I think it’s always risky putting sex scenes in a novel because, if you have too many, or have them in the wrong place, then they pull attention away from the plot.

      Personally, I have no problems with erotica – however, if you try and mix sex with substance (instead of heading from one sex scene to another in the shortest time possible) then, in most cases, the reader is going to notice the sex more than your carefully crafted plot or characters. It becomes a book where people flick through the ‘boring’ parts you spent so many hours working on in order to get to the sex scenes.

      I think this may be in part because, once your hero & heroine have sex with each other, anything that happens afterwards has a tendency to feel like padding. Sure, they could have sex with each other and then fall in love – though that tends to be more of a plot line for erotica, or have sex with each other and then decide they can marry (almost always in a historical novel) – which is often dis-satisfying because you can’t help thinking if they really loved each other and were worthy of each other they wouldn’t have risked the other’s reputation in a time when they were condemning the woman (and it’s nearly always the woman) to a lifetime of prostitution and/or disgrace.

      If your characters are going to have sex before the end of the novel then there needs to be a good reason. An experience that is lacking something which shows them that the person they slept with is the wrong person, getting hurt by someone which makes them defensive towards romance & provides conflict when the real hero/heroine turns up, a world where casual sex is acceptable or normal and the sex serves as part of the world-building flavour & so on.

      A novel where the hero & heroine meet up, reluctantly give in to their physical passion for each other and then gradually fall in love is nearly always going to wind up pretty much wasting any plot that goes along with the sex. It can’t help but do so, we’re hard-wired to respond to sex, it’s one of our basic instincts & trying to take in what surrounds the sex is like trying to listen to someone speak while someone else is chanting loudly “La, la, la, I’m not listening!”.

    • Good points! It’s really good hearing it from your perspective – thank you.

  3. I think the existance of a sex scene (or several, for that matter) always comes back to what you’re trying to do in a story. Sex for sex’s sake is boring, or gratuitous. It’s the same as putting gore for gore’s sake, or violence for violence’s sake, or, hell, romance for romance’s sake.

    It needs to be integral to the overall storyline. I believe it’s fine to have a sex scene, but again, it’s got to do a lot more heavy lifting than the usual throbbing and pulsating and heaving that we typically get. A sex scene should illustrate more about the two people (that’ assuming it’s only between two people) engaging in it, and it should show something that you couldn’t get any other way.

    As a Creative Writing teacher, I’ve had my share of budding erotica writers. Okay, that’s fine, and the purpose of the story at that point is the sex. I just always found them more of an exercise in adjectives and all the work goes into the actual sex scenes with very little thought to the connective scenes prior to and after them. That’s MY problem with erotica.

  4. Good post, Stephanie, I agree with your thoughts on this topic.

  5. I think, for me as a writer and as a reader, the “less is more” rule applies to sex scenes. The perfect sentence will speak more to me than pages of he-did-what-to-whom.

    The anticipation holds more interest than the act itself. I’ve read some juicy novels, and I’m always so surprised how completely bored I get as soon as the sex gets descriptive and drawn out.

  6. I agree that erotica is not an art form. It is an entertainment form based on a cookie-cutter approach to writing. However, I think it is dangerous to apply cookie-cutter rules on this topic to literature. When there is good reason from an artistic standpoint to explicitly describe sexual activities, one should not shy away from it in a cookie-cutter approach. I like that sense that a good artist tells me about what it’s like to live, and this is part of living.

    • It is part of living, yes, but if you want to accomplish anything else in the same scene, you can’t go into the physical details. As Zelah points out above, it’s too distracting. I can’t think of any artistic reason to be sexually explicit. …But maybe that’s just me. Thanks for your thoughts!

  7. Hi Stephanie. This post seemed to appeared after I had written my InMon prompt response. Am I just being paranoid? ;o) I had mild references to sex in my response. I tried to make it about the feelings of what the characters were going through rather than their lustful wants. Was I off the mark?

    I am just playing around with different scenarios. Hopefully, I didn’t go too far.

    Thank you for a great post. Very insightful, especially for a newbie.

  8. I’ve been following this discussion with fascination. I’ll admit, when I first read the post, I felt suitably chastened. I write sex scenes in my books, and I enjoy reading well-written ones. As a writer, I felt accused of being a cheap hack with no taste, incapable of holding my audience unless I draw them in with smut. And the implication is that as a reader, I lack the intellectual capacity to concentrate on the story itself if my depraved attention is diverted to a sex scene.

    But I find your point of view interesting, and after reflection, I’m over the sting. I’ve never laboured under the delusion that I’m crafting literary classics. Judging by the popularity of the authors I read, there’s a market for my type of reading/writing.

    All this made me think about a book I read recently. It’s set in the gambling culture of Las Vegas, a prime opportunity for explicit sex. Instead, the author dealt with the sex scenes in a couple of lines, completely G-rated. No gasping or throbbing.

    And to tell the truth, I was surprised. In fact, I stopped in the story and went back to re-read that part, thinking, “Wait, what…? Did they just…?” I wasn’t expecting to have to guess what they were doing. More evidence of my depravity, I guess. 🙂

    From a purely commercial standpoint, sex sells. Does stooping to commercialism sully the purity of the art? Is it a bad thing to want to sell books? Don’t we all choose the audience we write for? Is selling to one type of audience “better” or more valid than selling to another?

    I’d be inclined to say that an author who isn’t comfortable writing sex scenes probably shouldn’t try. Nothing ejects a reader from the story more effectively than awkwardly-written sex. But for writers and readers who are comfortable with it (and expect it), is it really that bad? If you’re writing about gritty, imperfect characters who are driven by their desires, are explicit sex scenes still jarring?

    Looking forward to the discussion – thanks for an excellent blog!

    • As mentioned in my previous comment, I think that if you’re writing regular fiction rather than erotica then the sex should exist to enhance the plot and our knowledge of the characters.

      So, if a character is driven by their desires like you suggest, then the way they approach sex and the way that is described should teach us about that. However, if they wind up having several sexual encounters and we don’t learn anything new about them (or they about themselves) in the process then it may start being detrimental to the book.

      (P.S. My previous statement still stands about everything that happens after the hero & heroine have sex with each other seeming like padding if you’re not careful!)

      • Sex tends to be all-consuming when it comes to literature, I guess. If it is prominent enough to be noticeable (in the detailed, physical sense), it drowns out everything else.

    • You raise some good questions. Ultimately, I still feel it’s distracting – not because any reader lacks intellectual capacity, but because of the way we’re wired.

      It’s not a bad thing to want to sell books – obviously, the more you sell, the more you can keep writing – but if selling is your only motivation, you may want to re-examine your priorities (I don’t mean “you” personally; I mean “you” as in anyone). What is the purpose of commercialism? Does it improve the world, or make it worse, or do nothing at all? Fiction is powerful, and if it serves no purpose, it’s a sad waste of talent. At the end of the day, I think the question to ask is this: does the book make the reader a better person, or at the very least, does it make their day a little better? Whether or not a sex scene does either of those things will ultimately come down to a moral question (i.e., arousal may temporarily lift someone’s mood, but in the long run, is it beneficial or detrimental?), but that’s a bit beyond the scope of this blog.

      Thanks for jumping in with your thoughts, Diane! You seem to be able to see things from both sides, and that is priceless. : )

  9. In order to really reply to this topic, I’d have to write an extensive article of my own, I fear. I agree with some of what you say, but tend to go farther. Fact is, I think, one’s opinion on this issue is entirely dependent on one’s worldview. I am a biblical Christian, and thus have an entirely different view of the purpose and intended beauty of sex than a non-believer. I believe that if all writers, even non-Christian ones, followed the Bible’s advice with regards to the use of vulgar language, vulgar ideas, and the evocation of lust, that their writing would greatly improve morally and artistically. However, I cannot expect someone who does not accept the Bible as God’s truth to agree with me on this matter. I avoid books with explicit or near-explicit sex scenes whenever I know of them, but have occasionally stumbled across some and always found them detrimental (see my review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana). Still, my thoughts on this issue need much more clarification before I make a public argument. After all, should explicit sex be treated differently from explicit violence? I do not like the latter, but on instinct (culturally influenced, no doubt) tend to tolerate it much more than the former. But I’m not sure there is a good reason why that should be.

    The word “prude” means different things to different people, and I don’t usually find it a useful descriptor. Literally, I find, it means “honorable woman” and came to mean “an honorable person genuinely concerned with proper conduct” or something thereabouts (quick Google search, ho!). I am quite happy to be called this. But nowadays the term has many grossly negative connotations, usually coming down to “a person who hates sex.” Which cannot accurately describe a Christian who shares God’s viewpoint, considering there is likely no more beautiful book concerning sexual love than the Song of Solomon in the Bible. It is truly erotic and wonderful, but does not arouse. The speakers in the poem long frankly for each others’ bodies, and yet not for their bodies’ sake. Anyway, this comment is already about 10x as long as I intended. Sometime I will have to write my own article on this topic. Meanwhile, I thank you for initiating a discussion.

    • I agree with you completely. But because my readers have mixed worldviews, I wanted to offer an argument that wasn’t based on religion. Few would listen if I only said “it’s wrong,” and the ones who would listen would already agree with me, anyway. I think all God’s laws are practical as well as moral and I wanted to point out the practical side.

      I look forward to reading more of your thoughts on the subject. Especially the sex vs. violence issue. I think we are less tolerant of explicit sex because sex is sacred, and meant to be kept private, whereas violence is a public issue, which should be dealt with publicly. ??? I don’t know exactly, just some preliminary thoughts.

  10. First off, I want to thank you for your article. This is something that has lain heavy on my mind for some time now. You see, I have always found explicit, and casual sex scenes in literature very distracting and damaging to the work as a whole. There are only a few times when I have found it used to a purpose, and even then I find it jarring. So, as far as how much needs to be “on screen” so to speak, I entirely agree with you.

    Here is what I am struggling with, though. As a Christian, where should I draw the lines in my work? Explicit sex, and voyeurism are no-brainers… I do not want to read them, I do not intend to write them. However, human experience is as much a concern of Christians (if not more so) than other people, and human experience includes complexities. If Christians leave the exploration of those complexities to others, then any insight Christianity has in those areas will be lost on readers of fiction.
    Casual sex abounds in present-day fiction, often representing the societal assumption that the only consequences are possible safety risks and jealousies. Then there is the flip side, the characters whose morals and or love draw them to wise and right behavior in their sexuality. There is a derth of the last kind, which naturally makes me want to write of them and their struggles and complexity (for it is too often assumed that they are not complex!). But there is another sort too, more often neglected. Those who heed their moral compass, but slip. What of them? Maybe I have not read enough current literature, but I have not encountered such for a long time.
    So my struggle as a Christian and a writer of fiction is this: first, should I deal with the subject of sex out of wedlock? Two, how do I write such with sympathy while not watering-down the morality (or lack thereof) of the issue?
    Perhaps the answers will come as I continue to write. I hope so. I am maturing as a writer the more I do it, and the older I get, but at times I get the feeling that what I want to write is beyond my skill.

    In any case, thank you, again, for giving me food for thought.

    • I think it depends on the age you’re writing for. We obviously have to be more careful what we write for kids, while it’s probably a good idea to start addressing these issues in teen fiction–that’s where it’s needed most, I imagine. Yeah, I think in those cases it’s fine, even necessary to deal with issue like promiscuity, etc. The Bible talks about prostitutes and prostitution plenty, for instance, without getting explicit. How to be sympathetic without watering down the morality is just a matter of including the consequences. Acknowledge the natural feelings that stir up temptation, acknowledge how easy it is to fall, and then when the character does fall, don’t preach–but don’t pull punches when it comes to the consequences. Even if the girl doesn’t end up pregnant, even if the boy isn’t disowned by his parents, there are emotional consequences that most kids probably aren’t aware of and that many adults don’t even acknowledge. We shouldn’t just say it was wrong (in fact, we shouldn’t say that at all; that’s “telling”), we should SHOW it was wrong by how it hurt them. That way it’s not preaching; it’s an honest acknowledgement of the truth.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      • Oh, I hope, one day, to be skilled enough to write for children, but I have a long way to go.
        Aye, I aim never to preach in my stories (and as for showing rather than telling, I am improving, if slowly… gaaaaah for exposition!). I do not like being preached to, or manipulated by other writers, and therefore I should avoid preaching or manipulating with my own work.
        Conveying truth only by showing can be tricky, though, as a writer must accept that readers will bring their own perspective to anything written. Therefore the line I must walk (or write, I suppose) is a delicate one, clear enough in the truth of a situation without taking a figurative mallet to my poor reader’s head. That delicate line is so intimidating… moreso in this case than in most, because opinions on sex and sexuality vary so widely.
        Added to that, I write fantasy fiction, which can add all sorts of complications if I am not careful.

  11. Indeed. And I find this as true for me as for others, I fear. This as well: “there are none so blind as those who will not see, nor so deaf as those who will not hear.”

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