How to write a “good” bad sex scene: the ins and outs of erotic fiction

It’s thought that men are worse than women at writing sex scenes because they’re afraid of being nominated for the Bad Sex Award.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Women are better at writing sex scenes than men, and it’s thought that this is because men are afraid of being nominated for the Bad Sex Award. The fear of winning it puts them off so much, they write badly. The novelist Sarah Hall counted scores of “he took her from behinds” in men’s novels when she judged the Booker prize.

Men also might be shy to bare their fantasies, resulting in flat or portentous language, while women, for myriad reasons political, social and psychological, have always relied more upon a fantasy life, so are better at it.

But the unfair thing about the Bad Sex Award, say the writers at I’ll Show You Mine, a symposium of sex writing held in a medieval hall in Norwich, is that many of the nominated scenes were supposed to be bad in the first place – such as those in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which once made the longlist – exploring characters via their physical disconnect, blunders and repressions.

I didn’t know there was such a thing as a “good” bad sex scene so I attended a seminar on how to write one. It was led by the novelist VC Lancaster, who flicked us a sideways glance: “You know I write about aliens, right?” Lancaster works in the tradition of inhuman romance, which entered mainstream discourse with Marian Engel’s Bear, the 1976 Canadian classic about a lonely librarian who takes off to a log cabin in Ontario, covers her nether regions in honey, and invites a grizzly to eat it off (the book is dedicated to her therapist).

As teaching material, Lancaster selected two scenes of historical fiction. The first was An Ill-Made Match by Alice Coldbreath, in which a frigid Lady suffers for 93 lines beneath a Lord on their wedding night (“Now he had lowered his head and was covering her bosom with soft kisses. Was that even normal?”). The second was Cecilia Grant’s A Lady Awakened, in which a childless heiress pays a rake to impregnate her (“ ‘Turn over,’ he said, his voice already thick. Her eyes flew open. ‘I did not authorise anything out of the ordinary,’ she said, her words shrill with alarm.”)

So, why are these good bad sex scenes – that is, enjoyed by the reader even if the protagonist is having a bad time? Because lurking at the foundation of both is an idealised version of sex: the man is doing all the work while the woman does nothing. And, while it’s not clear from those short extracts, the man also adores the woman – even while she hates him.

Good sex scenes have complex psychological foundations but you still need a big dose of biology. For years I’ve been trying to track down the tiny novella No Paradise But  Pleasure, by Anna Lieff Saxby, which I bought from a charity shop at 15 and which once came free on the front of New Woman. A perfect erotic novel in my memory, no sex writing has ever matched it.

Its hero was John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester – dissolute, filthy, entirely syphilitic in real life but sweetly devoted in the book. Its heroine was Caroline, a provincial but experimental lady-in-waiting without much of an inner life. Its setting – the court of Charles II – allowed for endless orgies with women called Moll and lesbian trysts in side chambers. And underpinned by love, it let rip on the anatomical stuff, being full of veins and fluids and none of those euphemisms (“there was a wave building inside her”) that people use because they’re embarrassed, and win the Bad Sex Award for.

Pippa Roscoe is a Mills & Boon author: her latest book is Conquering His Virgin Queen (writers aren’t allowed to choose their own titles – there’d be too many clashes given that it publishes eight a month). She says things have changed since #MeToo. The driver behind many romances – arrogant man takes virgin with “punishing kisses” – doesn’t quite cut it now. Sex writers are in new territory, balancing “consent” against the eternal appeal of submission. Maybe that’s why interspecies romance is a growing genre – it gets around the problems.

Or does it? I’ve just ordered Bear off Amazon and now I’m wondering. What if the bear didn’t want it? He couldn’t exactly say no. 

Next week: Tracey Thorn

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's features editor.