Writing about writing about sex

Agatha Christie didn’t do it, nor did Conan Doyle, and DL Sayers only wrote about the results – I’m talking about writing sex into crime novels. I think it may be relatively unusual. 

However, I have recently read two thrillers – by Louise Doughty & by  SJ Watson – which have included a fair amount of sex. Both have had older female characters in stable, happy marriages, having affairs. One was written by a woman, the other by a man. Both have depicted the female character wanting and having sex which is a little rough and/or takes place in less than salubrious settings. 

I must own up to a prejudice against men writing about women enjoying rough sex. I have a suspicion that the male writer is merely detailing what he hopes a woman would want because he himself fantasises about it. 

This prejudice stems, at least partly, from an experience I had several years ago. I joined a writers’ group where I was living at the time in West London. It was held in the afternoon so was attended by mostly retired people and I was the youngest there by at least two decades. As with most writers’ groups, the idea was to share work and receive critical feedback. It was the lack of any real attempt at the latter which meant I didn’t stay long. However, I went for a good few weeks. 

The other members were mostly women, though there were a few men. One of these, I will call him Clive, was a friendly sort, polite, always conservatively dressed. The other participants kept saying to me, oh wait ‘til you hear some of Clive’s work, he writes brilliant thrillers. I did begin to see Clive as something of a cockerel surrounded by clucking hens, but tried to remain open-minded. 

When he did come to share his writing, I was open mouthed. His work was full of violent sex, the violence all being towards women, which had little if anything to do with the very thin and derivative plot. I’m afraid even the rather nice cake and tea which followed each meeting couldn’t persuade me to keep returning to hear more of Clive’s output. Playwright, Alan Ayckbourn was right when he identified writers’ groups as fertile ground for observing the more challenging sides of human nature.

I think it’s incredibly difficult to write a sex scene which doesn’t have the reader cringing or rapidly turning the page. Some very distinguished authors have been awarded the annual Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award. 

I have tried to write a sex scene for The Art of Survival, my next novel in the crime series I am creating. I am unsure whether to keep it in. The point for the plot of keeping it in would be to explore a developing relationship (which could be done in other ways), as well as show how difficult it is to approach a healthy relationship when all the character has known thus far is unhealthy ones. 

Hats off to SJ Watson and Louise Doughty for managing to create sex scenes which did not turn me off their respective novels. It’s not easy and not for the feint hearted. What do you think, should writers dive in between the sheets with our characters, or decorously leave them to it, closing the door as we do so?



10 thoughts on “Writing about writing about sex

  1. Kara Jorgensen

    I’m struggling with the same thing you are. My current series follows two couples (one straight, one gay), and I am always wondering if I should integrate sex scenes into my stories. On some level, I want to because I have never done it before and it is a challenge to me. On the other hand, I don’t want to put it in there just because I can. My second book has some intimate moments, but it has never gone all the way.

    1. Kate Evans Post author

      Thanks for this. I guess in the end the story will reveal what it needs? The sex scene I’m ruminating over is hetero, I wrote a lesbian sex scene in my first novel which I thought pretty tame but was informed the other day was rather shocking!

      1. Kara Jorgensen

        I never know whether to take shocking as good or bad. Thus far, no one has commented on my intimate m/m romantic moments. I would tend to think that the story will reveal whether it needs a sex scene. Sometimes things just happen. Plus, there’s always editing.

  2. Ryan Edel

    Thank you for this post – I’ve gotten this sense from a couple writing workshops, but I’ve never really been able to really put it into words. I’ve always had trouble even starting sex scenes, let alone writing them, and I hate it when I’m told that I “need” a sex scene to liven up a story I’m working on. But I think the worst workshop experience for me was having to read about a black female character who “enjoyed” being dominated. Three of us in the class really criticized this, pointing out that the character didn’t appear to have any agency in this “exploration” of sexual boundaries, but the author responded that this was his field of research, so he “understood” what he was writing about better than we did.

    I wish I knew a way to tell when the sex is “enough” rather than “too much” or just poorly done. In the one sex scene I wrote for that same workshop, I tried to kind of respond to the issues I saw in my classmate’s work, but my own attempt ended up really clumsy and not that realistic…so it is hard. I’m tempted to just call it quits, to go with the “behind closed doors” approach seen in so many successful books. Except that sexual relations reveal such an intimate side to personality – entirely leaving it out might leave some stories incomplete, maybe?

    Again, nice article.

    1. Kate Evans Post author

      Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I don’t think a story necessarily needs a sex scene to enliven it, more sex scenes should be about characterisation or plot. Good writing can make anything lively! As a writer, workshops are useful, however, in the end you have to learn to trust your own gut about your own creations.

  3. Nikki Copleston

    I think any sex scene written ‘for the sake of it’ will fail – you’ll be faking it and it’ll show. If your story needs a sex scene, you’ll know. ‘The Strange death of Fiona Griffiths’ has a great erotic relationship between Fiona (a detective working undercover) and the man she’s been sent to investigate. Subtle but sexy. Worth checking out.

  4. Lani

    There was a writers group I attended that was the “old man’s club” (needless to say, I didn’t last long) and there was this guy, let’s call him Stu (his real name), who wrote sci-fi with women characters that were straight out of his fantasy (possibly virginal) mind. So, I understand your writers group experience…good stuff, or should I say, cringe-worthy.

    Sex scenes are horribly challenging to pull off, so I get your hesitation. I’d ask trust-worthy friends to tell you if the scene/s work or not. And so much of this is up to the taste of the reader, don’t you think? Less is more, in my opinion, lest it lean towards the comedic side. But what do I know? Hmmm. Maybe some comedic relief in the sex scene? Regardless, have fun 🙂

    1. Kate Evans Post author

      Thanks Lani. The draft has been out to my critical readers and none of them came back cringe-faced! I can’t write comedy, at least not intentionally.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s