How To Write a Sex Scene
Writing prose that feels erotic rather than clinical is harder than it sounds. Plus, an excerpt from Allegra Huston's debut novel "Say My Name," which goes on sale today.
“Penis” isn’t sexy. “Vagina” isn’t sexy. Put the two of them together, and in the real world it’s at least supposed to be sexy—but on the page we haven’t even started.
When writing a sex scene, you don’t want to be clinical. At least, not if the scene is supposed to be hot. So that’s really the first question: what kind of sex scene do you want to write?
It could be disastrous sex, as in Ian McEwan’s brilliant novel On Chesil Beach. It could be obsessive, ravenous, maniacal, kinky, twisted, dutiful, psychopathic, adventurous, reckless—or all of the above. It could be about power, anxiety, desperation, revenge, insecurity, reconciliation, terror, boredom, blind lust—or all of the above. Or it could—very rarely—just be about love and tenderness.
If it’s about nothing more than sex, we might as well just look to bonobo chimpanzees, which have a lot more sex than we do. Still, there are mechanics. We need to know what’s going where, and how. And for that, we need words for body parts.
They just don’t have to be the same old body parts. The divot inside the collarbone, the last few vertebrae of the spine, the arch of the foot, the hollow of the knee or elbow. Even stretch marks: I borrowed a friend’s; they look like the marks of a panther’s claws. The way your breasts feel when buoyed up by water. Veins like secret pathways leading into the body’s depths. The way muscles tense and shudder. Nerves firing one by one, or tingling with internal fireworks. That patch of smooth skin between a man’s legs, so mysteriously blank to a woman’s fingers. The ridges and hollows inside a woman’s body, so responsive to a lover who takes the time to discover them.
I knew from the moment I first conceived of Say My Name that it would be a sexy novel. Sex is at the center of it: sex between an older woman and a younger man. I didn’t want to hide the sex between paragraphs, between clothes starting to come off and “Afterward,” like prudes hiding the dirty deed between sheets.
Sex is one of the great motivating factors of life on earth. Yet in the past, women writers couldn’t describe it frankly without being considered “loose.” (Some didn’t mind, but they lived in Paris.) Men didn’t dare write good sex out of fear that they might out themselves as being not very good at it. And thus the mark of quality literature became, not great sex scenes, but scenes of morose men drinking in bars.
The extract that follows was actually the first scene I wrote for Say My Name. I imagined I was Eve: unsure, reckless, amazed that she’s desired. She’s high up, above her normal life—if you’ve ever made love on a mountaintop, you know the added bliss of being closer to the sky. There’s danger: she’s risking everything on which she relies to feel secure. There’s no boundary between action and sensation, because it doesn’t matter what goes where; what matters is what Eve feels when that goes there. In great sex, the body is the self. And when things turn dark later in the story, the body is a traitor, at war with the self.
Good sex on the page, as in life, is always a bit of a challenge. You have to go all in, throw caution and embarrassment to the winds. Most of all, you have to be present, alive to every nerve in your body—and that includes the optic nerve. Describe the mechanics if you want, as long as someone (you in a mirror, or someone else) is watching. How does that feel?
When they emerge from the elevator, he leads her down a scruffy corridor to a door marked “Fire Exit.” He pushes a horizontal bar to open it. Concrete stairs lead up to another door at the top.
“Close your eyes.”
Eve hears the click of the bar being pressed, and the squeak of hinges. She feels a faint breeze on her face. Micajah takes her hand lightly.
“Watch the step.”
Eve feels with her foot: it’s just a high lintel. She steps across it.
“Keep them closed, okay?”
Micajah lets go of her hand. Behind her the door creaks closed. She hears the long rasp of a zipper, things being pulled from the backpack.
“You can open them now.”
They are on a wide expanse of roof, punctuated by little towers that enclose the various vents and chimneys of the building. The rooftop itself is paved with terracotta tiles. It’s the tallest building in the vicinity; all around them, the sky is a haze of pink.
Micajah squats next to a spread-out blanket. On it are a couple of miniature alcohol bottles, two conical glasses, and a rather battered cocktail shaker.
“I hope you like martinis.”
“I haven’t had a martini in years.” As soon as the words are out of her mouth, Eve regrets them. The decade since she’s drunk a martini makes her feel old. Even worse is the thought that martinis are what older people drink, and that must be why he is making her one.
“Retro chic,” he says. “Actually, it’s just because I’m showing off. I won an award for my martini when I was bartending in Berlin a while back. I brought a bottle of white wine too, if you’d like that better.”
“I’ll stick with the martini,” she says. “It goes with the sunset.”
“Lemon or olive?” he asks, holding up two ziplock bags.
“Both,” she says.
“Live wild,” he says, bending over the drinks. His shirt has come untucked and Eve longs to tuck it back in, to feel the knobs of his spine, the vertical ridges of muscle flanking it.
He hands her a glass. She takes a small sip. Alcohol will only dull her senses, which are on fire.
He leads her to the crenellated parapet that rings the roof. She knows the architectural style: Strawberry Hill Gothic, which was used in New York only occasionally, about a century after it was popular in England. She’s been studying classic English gardens for a project at the Trenton country club. Her mind races to those houses: Strawberry Hill, Cholmondeley Castle. Small square windowpanes. Banks of lavender. Ranunculus. Agapanthus. She distracts herself with the complicated words, steady things to hold on to.
“Blows your mind, if you let it.”
His voice brings her back. She’s never considered wonder to be her choice before. Okay, she thinks: I’ll let it. Right here, right now, I am on a rooftop with a crazily handsome young man who is holding my hand and showing me the view of Central Park as if he is Arthur and this is his kingdom.
Eve stares out at the expanse, a thousand colors of saturated green after a rainy spring. The sprawl of the Metropolitan Museum. The vast amounts of time and effort and imagination and ingenuity that created this city. The largesse that placed an enormous public park at its heart.
“Thank you for bringing me here,” she says.
He sets his glass down on the parapet. It is a sign which, despite the decades since a man has flirted with her, she can read perfectly. This is the time to run away, she thinks, to call it a mistake, to race back to home and safety. If I don’t, home will never feel safe again.
Then that’s the way it will be, she decides. Recklessness is giving her a rush more thrilling than anything she’s ever felt. And there’s a certainty about it, a total lack of fear.
She sets her own glass down on the next crenellation over. Those glasses had better not fall, she thinks. They could kill someone.
Micajah’s mouth meets hers. His lips are soft and strong, pressing hers open then pulling away, an invitation to her mouth to push back against his. Instead, she draws back.
“You’re young enough to be my son,” she says.
He covers her mouth again, his tongue reaching just the tip of hers, caressing her and then withdrawing, seeming to pull her tongue back along with his. She thinks: I am inside him. She has never thought that before, kissing a man. It feels delicious to follow him so closely. Her instincts flow with an ease she never knew was in her. The lead and the follow of their kissing is seamless. She feels their breath merge, the air flowing between them warmed by their bodies. He is breathing me in, she thinks. I am breathing him in. His DNA is in my veins.
His thumbs stroke her wide cheekbones, his fingers tangle in her hair, finding the edges of her ears, the tender spot where jaw meets neck, the soft indentation underneath her chin. Suddenly his lips leave hers and she feels them on the plate of bone in the center of her forehead, pressing it smooth, then tracing down the ridge of her nose, her upper lip, and dropping a chain of kisses around her mouth. She imagines a circlet of pearls that his kisses have left on her face.
She has never felt anything like this before. His lips, his tongue, his fingers, are caressing the fibers of her mind.
The stone is warm against her back, through the thin cotton of her shirt. She leans against it, freeing more of her energy to kiss him, to concentrate on the sensations of him kissing her. What am I doing? she thinks. I am kissing this boy, this man, and soon I will be...fucking him? She’s only ever used that word to swear with—and even then, not very often. She and Larry didn’t fuck: nothing so gleeful and direct. They “had sex”—though not recently, not for years. When they were first married, less impersonally, they “made love”—though Eve had always felt rather uncomfortable with that phrase too. Did they really make anything together? They made a child, of course, but it was a long time between the making and the evidence of it. On that night, and every other night, Larry would climax and roll away, averting his eyes. Nothing remained that was made.
So, then, she thinks, slashing thoughts of Larry adrift, we will fuck. Maybe. It sounds good. She thinks, This should not be happening. This is not my world. But it is: his tongue is running down the cords of her neck, digging into the hollows of her collarbones. His hands are moving up under her shirt, searching for bare skin.
She trails her hand down his ribcage and back behind her, to push away from the wall and press up into him. She feels an edge, a corner—above it, empty space. The gap between the crenellations. A three-foot-wide shelf of stone.
She edges to the left, settles herself against the edge of the parapet, half sitting, and raises one knee, resting her foot against the wall. Her bent leg presses on the outside of his thigh. She puts her hands on his hips, feels the bones beneath the denim, and pulls him toward her. He stops.
Her heart flips. I don’t know what I’m doing, she thinks.
I’ve gone too far.
He draws back just far enough that she can focus on his face, see its oval shape, the tousled dark hair, those beautiful lips, dark brows shadowing green eyes like mossy pools lit by rays of sun. His eyes search hers. Here I go, she thinks, and feels herself slipping in.
He picks her up and sets her on the wall. “Eve,” he says. Her name sounds different in his voice, firm and definite.
That is who I am, she thinks. Eve. The Eve who is here, hearing her name. From the mouth of this man who is about to fuck me. Under the sun and the wide sky, on a roof overlooking New York City.
She lets her sandals drop and curls the arches of her feet over the muscles of his calves.
His hands are under her skirt now, fingers tracing the lace edges of her underwear across the ridges of the tendons, then further down, further in. His thumbs press on her: a question. The energy inside her body jumps toward him.
“Yes,” she says.
The lowering sun is warm on her face, glinting on the top of his dark head. She presses her hands against the parapet to lift her weight as he draws her underwear down, and gives quick silent thanks to Macy’s for putting such high-end underwear on sale. She buries her gaze in the dark forest of his hair as she feels the fabric brush over her knees, across the bony points of her ankles, along the tops of her feet. Gone.
As he straightens up, he grins mischievously. The feeling of her own smile makes her think of running on the beach with Allan when he was four, chasing the waves.
“You are beautiful,” he says.
“So are you.”
“I’m young,” he says, dismissing it. “That’s all.”
His hands are under her shirt again. He presses on the lowest rib, then the one above it, moving from the outside to the center, then away, up and out to the far edge of the next rib. She longs to lean back and lie open to his hands, to let him play music on her, but there is nothing behind her: only the gap between the crenellations, thin air, thirty stories above the ground. She hooks her hands tight on his shoulders.
“You’re safe,” he says. “I’ve got you.”
He wraps one long arm around her back, cradling her, and with the other hand strokes her inner thigh, caressing it open. She closes her eyes and feels him touching her, finding how they fit together.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “I won’t let go.”
Her head is full of sparks, all conscious thought disjointed. The vertigo of the empty air behind her, though she can’t see it; the blaze of him etching a path of fire inside her, the granite hard against her tailbone, the lean muscles of his shoulders moving under her grip, his hand cupping her breast, thumb on her nipple. I’m holding on for dear life, she thinks. If I let go, he will fuck me so hard I will fall and die.
He stops moving, buried deep inside her. “Look, Eve,” he says. “Look where we are.”
She knows it’s there, the sheer drop behind her, but seeing it—the treetops, the cars, the horse-drawn carriages—and feeling Micajah’s arms holding her above the precipice sends a rush of blood to her head so fierce it makes her vision swim. She looks up, to the distant skyscrapers of Midtown gleaming pink against the indigo sky. She wonders if there’s anyone behind those windows watching them—admiring them, envying them.
He starts moving again, faster, branding the blaze of pleasure deeper into her. Her whole body is concentrated in that furrow, the intensity unbearable, until she cries out and it dissolves into a new delicious heat flooding through her, out to her hips, her legs, up to her heart, her breasts, her throat, the cavities of her face. She shudders in his arms. He runs his finger up her spine.
Eventually she opens her eyes, finds his. “What about you?”
“What about me?” he says lightly.
“But . . . Are you sure?”
“But what?” he says. He smooths her eyes closed and kisses her eyelids. “Fun, right?”
What can she say? Yes, it’s fun, it’s beyond fun, it’s not fun at all. It’s crazy serious. Her body tenses up, even while the honey of orgasm flows through her.
She drops down from the parapet and slips on her sandals. He sees her eyes go to her underwear, lying on the gritty surface of the roof. He shakes it clean and holds it for her.
“I can’t do this,” she says, stepping into her underwear, allowing him to pull it up into place.
“I know,” he says.
And again she sees that look in his eyes that dissolves the space between them.