Steamy Sex or Chaste Love on the Pages? It’s All About Perspective by Adria J. Cimino
What’s the one writing prize I really don’t want to get? The Bad Sex in Fiction award, offered every year by Britain’s Literary Review “for the most egregious passage of sexual description in a work of fiction.”
It’s not like I’ve yet been in extreme danger of receiving this honor. My sex scenes are not of the anatomical and bodice-ripping sort. I don’t even write in genres such as romance.
I write contemporary fiction, with some works a bit more in the literary fiction realm than others. But that doesn’t put me out of the danger zone. If anything, now that I think about it, I’m right in the bull’s eye. My stories focus on relationships, and many are romantic relationships. In order to properly build these relationships, sex has to make its grand entrance at one point or another.
Yet, I don’t want readers remembering my novels for the sex scenes themselves, but instead for the feelings brought about by my words. Hmm, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. When I first started writing, I saw sex scenes in two manners: The graphic, steamy, and descriptive with words like “glistening skin” and “rough hands” or the chaste/nonexistent that I found in my favorite 19th century classics. And these aren’t always genre specific, with steamy in romance novels and chaste in classics. I’ve found steamy sex scenes as well as rather chaste love scenes in many sorts of books, including literary fiction.
Years ago, in my earliest drafts (which thankfully will remain out of the public eye) I leaned toward the chaste—and it resulted in an emptiness, a missing piece of the story. I added more description, but description for the sake of description resulted in a scene that was… awkward! And this clunky scene would stand out, just screaming for the Bad Sex in Fiction award.
Could there possibly be another way? I didn’t want to write about hard muscles and heaving breasts, yet I didn’t want to send my characters to bed with a kiss on the cheek either. And I didn’t want a “stock sex scene” that would make its appearance in every one of my books. So what did I want? Like all other aspects of my characters’ lives, I wanted their sex lives to be believable and to reflect their identities. This meant I wouldn’t be writing one sex scene over and over again in each of my novels. Instead, as with every other aspect of writing, the sex scene would have to be an original creation each time around.
So I experimented, read the words of other writers and did a lot of thinking. We, who have struggled with writing the sex scene, have let it take on too big of a role. We’ve pushed it into the forefront, yet we don’t really want to talk/write about it. Not surprisingly, this reflects the attitude about sex that we often see in the world around us.
And then I found the key: This moment in our literary life should be no different than any other. Writing a sex scene should be like writing how the character would approach any other activity in life.
I had to remain in the mind of my protagonist and direct things from that point. Would she be focused on the scent of her partner, or on the feeling of his skin against hers or would she be more interested in the words he whispered in her ear? Once I had the answers to those sorts of questions, I was ready to write something meaningful rather than to simply pour my sexual vocabulary onto the page.
I realized that, when keeping this in mind, steamy and chaste scenes both can work—as long as they fit the personality of the characters. After all, it’s the characters’ scene—not mine.
Today, I no longer approach sex scenes with trepidation. I no longer fear the Bad Sex in Fiction award. My characters have celebrated their sexual awakening.
Adria J. Cimino is the author of novels Paris, Rue des Martyrs and Close to Destiny and is co-founder of indie publishing house Velvet Morning Press. She also is a contributor to short story anthology That’s Paris. Prior to jumping into the publishing world full time, she spent more than a decade as a journalist at news organizations including The AP and Bloomberg News. In addition to writing fiction and discovering new authors, Adria writes about her real-life adventures in her blog “Adria in Paris.” You also may learn more about Adria and her work by visiting her website at or following her on Twitter.
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