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Goldsmiths' Official Student Magazine

Why is sex so much more difficult to get right on paper?

December 3, 2013
Writer_Alisa Vakkila Alisa Vakkila explores the difficulty writers face when trying to articulate the experience of sex. Sexual desires belong to all human kind. Writers are no exception. They have sex, love sex and know about sex just as much as anyone else. However, most writers feel less confident writing sex scenes than anything else.…

Writer_Alisa Vakkila

  • Alisa Vakkila explores the difficulty writers face when trying to articulate the experience of sex.

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Sexual desires belong to all human kind. Writers are no exception. They have sex, love sex and know about sex just as much as anyone else. However, most writers feel less confident writing sex scenes than anything else. It takes a lot of courage to write about sex, as the writer’s vulnerability is increased to a whole new level; it opens doors to private places that might not be completely clear even to the writer. Everyone can write about sex. However, too often this is achieved by the simple use of adjectives, adverbs and the element of surprise, resulting in something resembling low-quality porn. Readers often find themselves amused or confused, rather than stimulated. Well written, arousing sex scenes that could be categorised as literature are what I’m talking about when I say: ‘sex is hard to write’.

One of the reasons why I believe many writers struggle with sex scenes is the vocabulary. How do you write about a vagina without sounding comical, clinical or vulgar? How about the clitoris, bum, penis, foreskin, and breasts? With all of the implications that different sexual words and their euphemisms carry, it’s easy to get stuck.

The diction is not the only issue to overcome. An easy way to push your readers to the edge of madness is to begin every sentence with ‘then’, ‘after that’, or ‘soon I felt’. The literary value and eroticism seem to vanish when a story becomes a report. The same applies to when the story revolves around sex. Unless you’re writing porn, sex should be a part of the storyline rather than the storyline being hidden underneath sex.

Thinking of good examples of sex and seduction from the literature that I have read takes me back to older and more descriptive books, such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. It is the loyalty to drama and romance that I feel makes these novels suitable for passionate sex scenes. Most modern literary novels that deal with sex are not written to arouse the reader with orgasmic scenes of mind-blowing pleasure between rebellious lovers, but instead to minimize the glory around sex and in turn emphasise a casual tone.

If you watch movies, the most arousing sex scenes often do not show actual sex but depict sexual tension and intimacy. Literary sex should be seen for what it is: words on paper that attempt to portray the experience of a sexual experience. When it comes to writing about sex, there is no need for it to be explicit and literal. Maybe less is more? I could be wrong, but whether descriptive or casual, the tone of the writing alone can engage the reader sensually. The tone that’s born between the lines and created by everything: syntax, diction, setting, characters… Maybe that is where the secret to putting sex on paper lies.