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Making Sex Make Sense
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I am currently working with a private student, and yesterday, we stumbled into a dangerous patch of sex scene.  Here is what I handed her, and I thought those of you putting your characters together in similar ways might find the following interesting. 

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Love is the heart’s desire for a pain-killer; a tearful plea for a great big epidural. Yes, that’s it: love is the only anesthesia that actually works. And so people with broken hearts are really those who are just coming to, and if you’ve ever seen someone come out of general anesthesia you know that if looks a lot like the beginnings of a broken heart—Jonathan Hull

Let me give you some phrases from a book a student gave me a while back, The Romance Writers' Phrase Book.

Her body ached for his touch.

His gaze roved and lazily appraised her

He stoked a gently growing fire

She felt a ripple of excitement.

Gently, he eased her down onto the bed.

His hands slid across her silken belly.

His ardor was surprisingly, touchingly, restrained.

His tongue tantalized the buds which had swollen to their fullest.

And the climax:

She shattered into a million glowing stars.

You get the idea. Sex has as many clichés as anything else, regardless of who is having it. I've read quite a bit of gay fiction, and it can verge into sexual cliché as fast as any story. So here are some ideas about writing about sex.

There has to be a reason for your characters to be having sex. Your characters shouldn't have sex just because you want them to. Sex, like any action, should be tied to bigger issues or the overall structure. If you are writing about sex in a poem, the sex should be connected to image and idea. Of course, it can be really fun to write about sex. Sometimes, my characters have more fun than I do. And, historically, writing about sex is not a freedom we’ve had for a very long time. Think of all the trouble poor D.H. Lawrence got into with Lady Chatterley’s Lover just eighty years ago!

But the sex your characters are having must inform at least one or more of the following: character (growth/change), theme (awakenings, initiation, etc), plot (tension), tone, mood, setting. Sex is good for setting up betrayal, confrontation, loss, separation, transformation. Though we are relatively new to the freedom of writing about sex, we are no longer at a point in writing history that we are going to make a splash by simply writing about it--everyone, at this point, has had heterosexual sex between the pages (more about variations in a bit). Thanks to Henry Miller and Erica Jong, we can use sex more as a plot and character devise rather than just writing bold description. So we have to consider how sex is helping the story.

Most of what I’ve said is in reference to heterosexual sex. Before the Stonewall riot in 1969 in Greenwich Village, gay relationships and gay sex had not been mainstreamed in our culture, popular or otherwise. Some of the writing about gay relationships that followed Stonewall and the beginning of the gay rights movement harkens back to a time earlier in the century when writers simply wanted to put sex on the page as a statement, without thought to other aspects of the story or poem. In that respect, the writing was revolutionary. Sure, we’d had veiled accounts of gay and lesbian relationships, but we hadn’t been able to really see into the lives of gay people. Even in more recent books, we often see authors either treading too heavily or fearing to tread on particular subjects. For instance, in Michael Cunningham’s 1990 novel A Home at the End of the World, there is a character dying of AIDS, and the disease is never mentioned by name.  Which, to me, is odd—was odd then and now. While this may be a conscious choice, I find it an interesting one, perhaps made by editors who did not want the novel to be an “AIDS” story.

In the past ten years, gay/lesbian fiction has been moved into the mainstream (A Home at the End of the World was long ago adapted into a film starring Colin Ferrell), and it is my guess that it will go through the evolutionary process sex scene-wise that other fiction has.

Unless you are writing a romance (and even then, I think that genre is rising above trite, overused expressions), avoid clichés at all time: The pulsing, the heaving, the turgid, tumescent this and that, the swelling breasts (do breasts actually swell?), the exploding into a million stars. One of my early fiction teachers said to avoid bodily fluids at all costs. So think about omitting dripping, gushing, unless, of course, it adds somehow to the story.

If you are writing erotica, then you need to read some. Start with the Story of O by Pauline Reage and then try some women who write in the genre: Susan Johnson, Emma Holly, Robin Schone. Pick up a copy of The Best American Erotica, Best Gay Erotica, or the Best Lesbian Erotica of any year. In erotica, the purpose is to excite the reader but the characters need to be developed enough so that the reader can believe in the sex and thus become aroused. If we get glimpses (and sometimes, all we get are glimpses of such, so busy are our characters with each other and sometimes, by themselves!) of complex and believable emotion and psychology and development, the coupling between characters will bring much greater satisfaction. If we believe in the time and place and themes of the story, the sex will only more powerful.And, of course, sex does not have to be the act of sex. It can be the view of one character by another. It can be sensual. (Think of the longing glance John Book gives to his Amish amorata in Witness as he watches her bathe).  So, we don't necessarily have to put them in action. We can allude to sex, fade to black, and let imagination do the rest, though I think modern audiences want and can handle some physicality between characters or in a speaker’s vision. The bottom line is that writing about sex well involves the same rules that good writing involves. Freshness, quality of the image, invocation of the senses, lack of cliché, usefulness to the plot and story. Follow those rules, and you'll be fine.

AN EXERCISE

For this exercise, we are going to play with love and sex clichés. First, I want you to list all the love and sex clichés that you can think of. Below, I’ll give you a few that one of my creative writing classes came up with one semester:

fell into his arms.

thrusting, throbbing, heart pounding, melting

takes my breath away

 took her in his arms

burning lips

tender loins (try, first to imagine what loins actually are?)
 gazed into his eyes

Tumbled into love (or the sack or bed)

“I’ve wanted this for so long.” 

“I want to make love to you all night long.”
Our hearts became one

After you write your own, much more exhaustive list, I want you to try to write a scene without any of your personal or known sex/love clichés. This might be easier to do when writing the scene with two characters you already know—that way, you can use their personalities and characteristics when creating the scene.

Perhaps I took a page out of A.S. Byatt’s book (I find her realistic sex scenes just amazing) but here is what I wrote when I did the above exercise.

Margaret sat on top of Jim—as always—tiredly because it had been a long day and her knees were sore from standing behind the counter at Rite Aid.

“I’m not going to move. I’m too tired,” she said. “I just can’t move a muscle.

Jim stared up at her. “Well, I don’t know if that will work very well.”

Margaret sighed. “I really don’t care. Try a violent fantasy or something.”

She shifted and felt him deflate slightly inside her.

“Well,” he said. “Okay. Close your eyes.”

“Right. So you can pretend I’m someone else.” She looked down at him, but he’d closed his eyes and was already moving under her.

She didn’t close her eyes. Instead, Margaret stared over the bed and out the window. It was almost night, a small eyebrow of blue-gray on the horizon.

Jim’s hips moved faster, faster, and by instinct, she knew he was done. He opened his eyes.

“What did you think about?” she asked.

"I’m not going to tell.”

“Oh, come on.”

“Nope. You don’t want to play, you don’t get the answers.”

“Oh,” she said, dismounting Jim, getting off the bed, and walking into the bathroom. “Who cares?”

Your scene does not to be as likewise lifeless and depressing, but do try to keep out all the clichés.

ANOTHER EXERCISE

First I want you to read this poem by Steve Kowit. This poem is a poem written in the manner of another poet, Vikatanitamba. Notice how we don’t get the details of the sexual encounter, which is always a good way to avoid cliché.

When He Pressed His Lips

When he pressed his lips to my mouth
the knot fell open of itself.
When he pressed them to my throat
the dress slipped to my feet.
So much I know—but
when his lips touched my breast
everything, I swear,
down to his very name,
became so much confused
that I am still
dear friends,
unable to recount
(as much as I would care to)
what delights
were next bestowed upon me
and by whom.

after Vikatanitamba

Now, I want you to write a poem like this. For the sake of the exercise, you will begin with a line that starts “When (he or she) verb.” Like Kowit above, you can start this poem with “When he pressed his . . . “ or “When she pressed her . . . .” In this poem, try to do what Kowit did. Begin to show the physical action—steering clear of cliché but imbuing it with sensuality and sexuality—but then, somehow, turn away from it and leave us with an emotional reaction.