Writing the Sex Scene in Non-Erotic Works (A Balticon 56 panel)

Notes from the titular panel at Balticon 2022.

The panelists were: Luis Carlos Barrangán, Christi Meierz, Javier Valderrama Fontecilla, Chris Lester, with Mary Turzillo as moderator.

The description was as follows: The good, the bad, and the bumping uglies. Writing a compelling sex scene that moves the plot forward without turning your work into erotica is a balancing act. Where you fade to black depends on your audience and your own writing style. Let’s talk about words and phrases used to describe human, or alien, sex organs and how to depict “the act” in your writing.

Sex scenes can run the gamut from fade-to-black as soon as they reach for a kiss to explicit move-by-move erotica. But, when you’re writing a story that’s not erotica, deciding where to draw the line can be a challenge.

In most societies, sex is defined as either divine or profane, or, situationally both, and religions often seek to define how and when it should occur. Because sex is power, so religions can’t ignore it, it’s often a near-competitor. How many nations have risen and fallen due to religion? How many have risen and fallen due to love — or lust?

Why might you want to include sex scenes?

  • Sex can be fun
  • Sex can be interesting
  • It’s a thing that many people do
  • For love
  • For lust
  • Showing a part of life
  • To demonstrate the intimacy level between characters
    • can show emotional walls breaking down — or going up
    • demonstrate a couple reconnecting — or disconnecting

How to decide if or when to fade-to-black

For those of you not familiar with the euphemism, ‘fade-to-black’ refers to the movies or tv shows where they show a couple reaching for each other, and then the screen literally fades to black, and you pick up the next morning — or whenever. It’s when sex is implied, but not shown.

You can fade-to-black when they reach out for that first kiss, when the clothes come off, when the underthings come off, after foreplay, or never.

All you need to consider are:

  • what you’re comfortable writing
  • what serves the needs of the plot
  • how this forwards the plot or emotional arch of the characters

What makes a sex scene bad?

  • Using terms that read oddly in the language you’re writing in (unless it makes sense for the character)
    • textbook anatomy terms (in English)
    • absurd, medicalized, or obscene euphemisms
  • Using metaphors that take some parsing to sort out, or distract from the scene
  • When the sex doesn’t make sense in the context of the book or characters
  • A lack of consent
  • Lack of emotional content — sex that doesn’t move the story or character forward
  • Body parts not actually being or working as described

What makes a sex scene good?

Do note that sexual activity can be done in person, or via letters, texts, the phone, or video calls. The primary takeaways are to:

  • Build the tension — it doesn’t even need to be explicit
  • Focus on the emotional and sensual reactions rather than the physical logistics

Unique sex scenes and motivations from books

I didn’t get the titles for these

  • The main character absorbed incubus powers, becoming a succubus. Besides their internal struggle of wanting to return to their human existence or embracing their new status, they also end up with two partners of different sexes and has sex with partner A, who has (with consent) shape-shifted into the form of partner B (who isn’t there).
  • A world with empaths, where their intimacy leads to tighter connections than those who aren’t empaths
  • A world where people merge when they touch — you can walk through someone and share their physical sensations and memories. Many fear sex for fear of exchanging organs.
  • Genitalia that moves from person to person

Media recommendations

  • Our Share of the Night by Mariana Enriquez – shows love, beauty, and horror
  • The Incubus series by A. H. Lee – shows a male/male/female triad relationship and uses sex scenes to advance character conflicts/etc.
  • The Knight and the Necromancer by A.H. Lee has a male/male romance.
  • K. J. Charles writes mostly historical queer romance, some paranormal. Smut, skulduggery, and swashbuckling may occur.
  • XenoGenesis trilogy by Octavia Butler explores the complex themes of gender and species. While not explicit, it includes aliens with 3 genders, who can have sex with humans. And the third gender makes any encounter more connected, and if reproducing, can merge genetics from all involved.
  • Crash by J. G. Ballard explores car-crash fetishism
  • Titane, a french film, explores body horror as a murderer has sex with and becomes pregnant by a car.
  • Kristan Higgins — demonstrates how tension can be sexy, without being explicit

How explicit do you like your books? Do you fade to black sooner when it’s your own writing?

Are there any books or tips you’d like to add?

6 Comments

  1. Good post, Morgan, very interesting. The most titillating (🙂) movie scene I ever saw, goes back a ways. It was in a 1980s movie called “The Big Easy” (set in New Orleans) and starred Dennis Quaid and Ellen Barkin. For about the first half of the film, the flirting and sexual tension between them is palpable. When they finally do make it to bed, here is what got me to fever pitch… She is wearing a tight skirt and stockings with a garter belt. They’re on their knees in bed, still clothed, when his hand (zoom closely in on it) gently touches her stocking near the top, and slowly (confidently!) inches ever upward towards the promised land. Slowwwwly, that’s the ticket! Also: less is more. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092654/

    Liked by 1 person

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