Writing Sex Scenes
Are You Writing Erotica? Or Are You Writing Porn?
An essay from a couple of years ago. I thought it worth posting because “seventh-grade porn” now dominates the literary marketplace—so it’s important to acknowledge the differences between that, and Erotica (which I admire).
No less a person than a Justice of the Supreme Court has said that a definition of “pornography” was a task outside his reach: Justice Potter Stewart simply saying that he knew pornography “when he saw it”.
But I’m always prepared to help out with issues like this. The issue is easy to resolve: when you examine the 3 fundamental differences between what we know as Erotica and what we know as Porn.
1) Literary Porn has no characters in it. The participants are even seldom named beyond the labels of their easily-recognized “types”: the Hapless Pizza Boy, the Leering Plumber, the Slutty Schoolgirl, the Bored Housewife.
No backstory. No character arc. No motivation, really, other than one of the most fundamental chemical desires in human nature.
The genre is anonymous characters pursuing a mechanical/chemical encounter in a timeless place: without past or future, without legacy or consequences.
So — since most emotion in a story comes from character — what emotion are we possibly supposed to feel?
The obvious answer is: not much. We are asked to imagine machinery interacting: Tab A inserted into Slot B. There is a natural sense of excitement reading about it ... but not much else. On the other hand ... in order for something to be Erotic it must be grounded in character, and in time.
There has to be a something “before” — the literary shorthand for this is “backstory” — so, when the story arrives at what is hoped to be the “breathless” intimate encounter, there is an emotional payoff. If we take it for granted that Character = Emotion, then the emotional reaction to well-drawn characters intensifies as you create an encounter where so much about they feel about each other is going to be revealed.
Physical intimacy between characters brings us into a high-stakes landscape of complex emotion: what I would call Erotic.
2) In Porn, everyone is willing.
In that imagined universe: everyone is interested, excited, and happy to “jump in” — just looking for an excuse to go wild (although some narratives feature some token reluctance at first).
This is one of the reasons that men enjoy the genre: since it seems to reinforce the idea that — given the right circumstances — women are just as eager as men to “get busy”. Just as interested. Just as reckless. Just as willing to experiment.
All it takes is just a minute’s worth of persuasion, and “no” inevitably changes over to “yes”.
The Porn mandate that “no” doesn’t actually mean “no” has had an influence on world culture that has yet to be calculated — since it encourages men to believe that women do not know their own minds when it comes to sex.
Porn says that women are confused. This, in turn, confuses men, because — once we leave PornWorld — “no” still does mean “no” — and refusal isn’t just a negotiating tactic.
When we turn to the Erotic we find that willingness is almost always a matter for debate: since nothing about the encounter is really guaranteed, and the characters often face emotional conflict. They are typically filled with doubt and misgivings: “Should I pursue this? What happens if I do? What happens if I don’t?”
They may face social pressures preventing them from being as free as they would like. They may be tempted to begin relationships expressly forbidden by religion, or custom, or law.
Erotica offers a whole landscape of agreement, and disagreement: with the intent that (once again) the reader feels emotional tension. For erotic characters, heaven — or hell — could be just around the corner, since there is a price for self-control ... and another price for self-indulgence.
3) In Porn, everyone is able. The sexually inexperienced somehow summon remarkable skills and sophistication: even those new to the game know exactly how to play it.
There is never any hint of physical problems. Everything goes forward like a well-oiled machine: without a hiccup.
No limpness. No dryness. No monthly cycles. No chafing. No rashes. No soreness. No misdirection.
Just as we've seen with everything else, so far, everything can be perfect when you are not writing about reality.
It's a relief, sometimes, to turn to Erotica: where possible disaster always seems to be right around the corner — and you finally have the possibility for humor (Porn is notable for always being intensely solemn).
Erotica presents the possibility that some people are just not as good at sex as others — and that affection is sometimes called upon to cure differences in sexual satisfaction between partners.
Pure Porn has a place in the writer’s toolbox: just the same as anything else.
Imagine, for example, male and female soldiers having a hot “session” on the eve of a big battle. That kind of scene would be painted in sharp colors — with some blunt language — because there’s no emotional nuance to be explored. The characters are facing possible death the next day — and so are eager to make the most of a temporary lapse in self-control.
And there are probably a few more relevant examples.
But I think that any writer should recognize that — when it comes to Porn — there's only so much that the written word can do.
The “visual” reigns supreme. Porn video is one of the biggest media industries in the world for a reason: the reason being that it’s difficult for the “word” to ever be as powerful as a moving image (with audio).
It is only in the realm of the Erotic that the written word can still reign supreme.