Some Fundamental Principles for Writing Great Sex
Rebecca Sacks on the Craft Behind the Intimacy
The most consistent compliment I get on my novel is that the sex is great. It’s praise I enjoy, although I am certainly not an erotic writer. My first novel—City of a Thousand Gates, newly out in paperback—comprises entwined storylines of life in the West Bank; it is political, violent, and sincere. But the characters do sleep with each other.
Conversely, the most consistent criticism I hear is that the sex is too “graphic,” a response that shocks me given that by far the most disturbing material to write (and I had imagined, to read) were the scenes of brutal violence by both civilians and the state. Writing consensual sex, by contrast, is almost a break for me—playful even when it’s intense. If I do write it well, it’s probably because I keep a few principles in mind:
Sex is an act of communication.
Nothing more, nothing less. Sex has the potential for profound intimacy, yes, and betrayal, sure, but it has no intrinsic value—good or bad. When I am mentally preparing to write a sex scene, I remind myself that despite the cultural connotations built around sex, there is nothing inherently scandalous about the act, no matter the reception that sex eventually gets with readers. It is an act of communication between partners; perhaps most acutely, it is an act of communication with ourselves. Garth Greenwell’s writing is especially instructive to me in that he conveys sex as a meaning-making act.
Readers resist the presence of an author performing.
Why are badly-written sex scenes so embarrassing? It’s undeniable. I remember this from my days as an MFA student. Everyone fumbles in their writing, but bad sex writing is especially excruciating to get through. My theory is that when sex writing fails, it’s because the author forgets about the characters and is instead attempting to communicate directly with the readers: trying to titillate, impress, or scandalize us. Isn’t this sexy? The way her back is arching—isn’t it a hot image? Or, Isn’t this impressive? Look how nonchalantly I write about fucking! Or, Can you tell I’ve had lots of good sex? Hmm? Can you? In my experience as a reader, I resist an author’s attempt to control my response to writing—this is a form of sentimentality, in my opinion. As a writer, when I find myself imagining a reader getting turned on by the sex I am writing, I stop myself. I close my eyes. I re-enter the scene from the point of view of the character. Forget the reader. Forget turning them on or off, forget that Goodreads exists, forget it all. So much of writing, for me, is putting myself aside and writing from the deepest possible inside I can access of a character.
My novel contains dozens of points of view, but the most demanding, exciting, and sexual one to write was by far Vera. An absolute wrecking ball of a twenty-something who came to Israel from Germany to try and cut it as a journalist, Vera is vicious and intense. She get off on telling other women about her casual sex, almost as if the sex becomes more real to her in an act of narration. So with Vera, her experience of sex actually is a kind of performance (not for the reader, but for her listener in the story). Naturally, this brutal exterior guards a tender, hurt interior. It was in writing a scene of Vera masturbating that I began to get at her desperation and loneliness in sex—how it is almost something she does to herself through the men she seeks out:
She rolls over on to her stomach to touch herself this way, likes how her face mashes into the pillow. [Amir is] here, she tells herself, he’s here and he’s too big for the room. He’s filling the doorway. He’s on top of her. With her free hand, she slips two fingers into her mouth, lets herself imagine they are his. It’s something he used to do, and she remembers that he was, actually, fairly gentle in the way he pressed his fingers into her mouth. Part of her always wished he would go too far, gag his fingers down, down her throat, down, his hand disappearing into her, his arm, until he himself slid completely inside her. Come inside me and replace me. It’s late and she’s hot under the covers. Her roommate isn’t home, but even as Vera gets close she doesn’t let herself cry out. It’s an old habit dating back to her first furious rubbings as a child, so young she couldn’t name what she was doing, only knew it was forbidden, her own body, forbidden to her.
It was interesting, perhaps even a little scary, to find that the more I wrote Vera in moments of pleasure, the more I found her erotic life was tied to traumatic events of her youth.
Let the mind wander.
We are constantly reading ourselves through memory and anticipation. Sex is no exception. (If this piece has any refrain, it’s that sex should not be cordoned off as a “different” kind of writing.) It rings false if a character is completely engrossed in the present moment when they are with a lover. What memories are coming up from when? What do they want to feel? What are they afraid they won’t feel? Where might their mind wander?
Consider this scene between the American, Jewish woman Emily and her Israeli husband, Ido. There are several chapters in the book devoted to their marriage and new baby; this one is in Emily’s point of view, as the couple attempts to reconnect by renting a rural cottage for the weekend while his parents babysit the baby. She’s giving her husband head on the floor of the rental kitchen:
She’s kneeling over him, balancing her weight on one hand and then another. The floor is hard, and just the faintest bit sticky. He is lying with his head at an awkward angle against the fridge so that he can watch her suck him off, he’s tucking her hair behind her ears, he’s gently touching the back of her head, but not pressing her down onto his dick, not Ido. The first time he came on her face—in that cold, damp Jerusalem apartment he lived in as an art student—he was so sweet and apologetic and she played along, sitting cross-legged on the bed, sitting still, letting him run back and forth to the bathroom for tissues to gingerly blot the stuff off her lips, her nose, as if his tenderness repaired something, created the necessary safety to make what they had done—this filthy thing, apparently—okay, meaning, permissible. But it was all okay. So few things actually disgust or scare her. Emily knew this long before her baby threw up in her actual mouth.
He’s at the point where he barely has any words left, just sucking air in at intervals. “Baby.” Then, “Fuck.” His eyes are closed; his head rolls against the fridge. He’s trying to bear it. Every time her head bobs up, she eases a little more to the right, eventually finding a position from which she can catch a glimpse of the frying pan to see if the mushrooms and garlic are burning, if there is smoke. It’s a small kitchen, kind of cramped, but the kitchen island—a butcher’s block on wheels—does give a decent amount of counter space. She puts the weight on her left hand, her breasts sore where her arm presses into her own chest. Her eyes are leaky and nose runny, the slick of them is accumulating. She goes far enough to gag on him, and he says, “Please, baby,” and she knows he means about using her hands the way he likes, so she does. It’s a motion not unlike grinding pepper. He taught her to do this.
The oral sex here is, funnily enough, an act of communication: a history of shared gestures and intimacy. Emily’s thoughts are permitted to wander into her shared past with Ido, their daughter, even their dinner. And why not! Sex happens within the fabric of our lives, and that fabric might include burning mushrooms.
It helps to be a lesbian writing straight people.
The sex in my novel is straight: cis, heterosexual people having sex. When I wrote it, I myself was living as a cis, straight woman. In the years between finishing the book and its publication, I came to understand I am a nonbinary lesbian. Why does this matter? Well, first I want anyone reading this to know that I’m on the market, gay, and write good sex. But beyond that, I do wonder if being queer—albeit without knowing it—was present in my ability to inhabit a variety a roles and expressions as I wrote sex from various points of view.
Power is present.
No individual can be reduced to their position in systems of power, nor can those positions be suspended, e.g., I am not a symbol for my whiteness, and yet I cannot separate myself from my whiteness. To me, this means that when I write characters having sex, I remain conscious of their relationships to structural power and how these relationships might be heightened, inverted, denied, or referenced in their sex. Thinking through a character’s relationship to power helps me access a hidden source of their desires. (As a writer, I’m always hoping I’ll get so deep inside a character that I learn a secret about they that they themselves do not know.)
By way of example, I’m going to return to the character of Emily. She is a white, American Jew living in Israel; she is straight; she is married to an Israeli man. Emily thinks of herself as liberal, without doing much interrogation of what that label means aside from a vague sense that racism (which she has never herself experienced) is bad. And yet, she enjoys feeling special; she enjoys being a white Jew in Israel, which is to say, hegemonic.
In sex, Emily enjoys subtle gestures of domination from Ido. (For example, asking him to whisper, “You’re mine” in her ear when he’s on top of her.) She presses on dynamics she does not fully articulate to herself, regarding what it means to be Jewish in Israel, and what it means to be a woman in a straight relationship. She enlists Ido to play out this dilemma with her. For his part, Ido is aware of the role he has been enlisted to, and is not sure he can live up to it.
A good sex scene can be bad sex written well.
Some of the best dialogue involves a failure of communication. Similarly, I think messy, imperfect sex acts—when desires do not align, when someone’s fantasy of the situation outpaces the reality, when you don’t use enough lube, when your partner fumbles at dirty talk, when someone orgasms too fast or not at all—are often more interesting that ones of perfect alignment. I’ve learned a lot from reading Mary Gaitskill in this regard.
I’m on a quest to make anal mainstream (following in the footsteps of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum and Maggie Nelson), and so later in the book we have Emily and Ido attempting anal. Their first try sucks:
She was expecting it to hurt, so it did. We receive what we’re prepared to receive, she knows that, but couldn’t help it. She was afraid. Her muscles clenched up before he was even halfway in “Aud?” said Ido softly in her ear. “Ou sh’ze coev mi di?” His whisper was heavy, wet, shuddering with effort. Almost always, their sex comes down to this: two languages, two people reverting to two mother tongues.
“No more,” she said, elbowing him off her. “Get off me.” Then she rolled into a ball and waited for the soreness to pass.
Sex, always, is a mess. The boundaries between people are tested; they fall away. We reveal more than we mean to and less than we can say. And after, we dream.
Rebecca Sacks’ novel City of a Thousand Gates is available now via Harper Perennial.