One of the most difficult things to write in fiction is sex. The trouble is that it’s so difficult to get right in tone and description, this difficulty is often added to by some writers commenting disparagingly about the use of sex in fiction. While sex isn’t a necessary part of being a whole person it can be very important to some people/characters, it means different things to different people, and there’s an abundance of different approaches to sex.
Personally, I think a lot of the issues about depicting sex in fiction stem from poor depictions in a lot of novels, literary fiction is one that often gets a lot of stick for this. Often the primary problem is a combination of poor description and the removal of emotion, an objective sex scene is a sex scene that’s already lost its way. This doesn’t mean we can’t write characters having awkward or unsatisfying sex, of course we can, but if it’s awkward and unsatisfying then characters feel that awkwardness and dissatisfaction. They don’t objectively think ‘Hm, well, that’s only getting a three out of ten’, they feel disappointed or some other emotion relating to their experience.
Just because there is a lot of poor writing about sex doesn’t mean that all writing about sex is poor. We can look at it as another tool in our fiction writing armoury because, if we choose to use it, it can tell us a lot about characters and their relationship. It can range from the aforementioned disappointment, to enjoyment, to a deep-seated emotional connection and a multitude of things between. As soon as we focus on what the people involved feel we can find our scenes drastically improve.
Another common issue is detail. The amount of detail we include can depend on the type of novel we’re writing, for instance we may assume an erotic novel will have more detail than a literary fiction book because erotica is more focused on the sexual element. However, there’s a difference between having a lot of detail and writing sex like the characters are assembling an IKEA flat-pack.
Just because we’re writing a sex scene doesn’t mean we have to say exactly what’s happening in every moment. Even in erotica you’re unlikely to find a description of minute detail, this is because the more minute detail we put in the more it can distract from the emotion. Ask yourself what’s more interesting, a description of exactly what a ridged condom feels like or a description of a character’s emotion in the moment? I’m sure it’s a lovely condom and all but what do they feel about the person wearing it?
Maybe the sex in the scene isn’t what some people would consider ‘romantic’, but note here that people’s ideas about this are different, but the characters are going to feel something about it. Maybe it’s not romantic but it’s eager and hungry, or it’s two people searching for a connection, or it’s a hunt for pleasure, or it’s just fun. Whatever it is there’s emotion related to it.
Sex is as much a part of showing who a character is, their relationships, and their emotional life as any other element of characterisation and shouldn’t be undervalued. Having said that it shouldn’t be overvalued, some characters have no interest in sex, some have no sexual desire, some are repulsed, and a number of other elements. We shouldn’t shoehorn sex in, it should depend on the character and what we’re comfortable writing.