Explicit Sex Scenes and the Work of Stories

By Sunny Moraine

The origins of this piece lie in an annoyed Twitter thread I posted, in response to a tweet (possibly joking, I don’t know) to the effect of “movies shouldn’t have sex scenes in them, we’re past that now”.

The origins of my annoyance go back a lot further.

I’ve been writing explicit sex pretty much since I began writing. Like many of us, I got my start in fanfiction, and while fanfiction’s reputation for being heavily smut-focused isn’t entirely deserved, it isn’t entirely undeserved, either. Which is rather the point, because given that I started out writing a lot of explicit sex, I learned quite early just how much story-work one can do with a well-written sex scene. Especially a very explicit one, without a judicious fade-to-black or Vaseline on the camera lens.

I want to be clear about something: I am not claiming ultimate authority over what a “good” sex scene consists of. Sex scenes, like sex itself, are highly subjective and personal, and different people will find that different things resonate.

That said, my opinion is that a good sex scene is usually sexy, and one of the best ways to be sexy is to go deep into not only the physical descriptions of what’s happening, but also what’s going through these characters’ heads as they’re doing the sex.

Which is one of the places where we get into the work explicit sex can do in a story, and in a way really no other kind of scene can manage in precisely this way. Like I said, sex is intensely personal. So these characters: what do they want out of this intimacy? What’s the nature of this connection, and how do they feel about it? How do they feel about this person(s), and how might that be changing? How is what they’re doing affecting their feelings about themself, as a person inhabiting a body? What do they hope for? What do they fear? What in their past has led them to this moment? What does it mean for their future?

Not all of those questions have to be answered, and I’m not saying long stretches of introspection are necessarily great at that point. But an explicit sex scene opens up a vast range of opportunities for exploring these questions, if one wants to.

Why explicit, then? Again, this is just me, but I find that the connection—or lack thereof—between mind and body/mind-body and world is at its most dramatic in these scenes, and one of the best ways to engage with that is to get into the details of what these bodies are doing with each other. Textures, tastes, smells, sounds, light, shapes, motion, and color, whatever senses and observations are available and seem best to use. All of these potentially have many layers of meaning—and are, let me note, chances to do interesting stuff with prose if one is so inclined.

These opportunities aren’t even confined to pure character development. I mentioned the connection between mind-body and world; sex and what it consists of is also overwhelmingly a cultural construction, and I don’t only mean in terms of gender, although gender shades everything else. What kinds of sex are considered “normal”? What’s considered deviant? What falls into the category of the taboo, and why? Is the taboo exciting? Frightening? Both? Are certain kinds of sex considered obligatory or expected? What does some form of marriage/legal connection have to do with it, if any? What’s up with procreation, if procreation comes into it at all—and if it doesn’t, that’s important too. That’s worldbuilding, and it’s worldbuilding of the fullest kind. As I said, you don’t have to dig into all of it, but the opportunities are there.

This is why I tend to bristle when people talk about explicit sex scenes being somehow intrinsically “gratuitous.” Not liking explicit sex in one’s media is perfectly valid, as is being made uncomfortable by it, but that doesn’t mean those scenes never have any reason for being there.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that I also bristle at the notion that sex scenes always have to be doing some specific job. I said above that in my opinion, a good sex scene will touch on (ha) one or more of these things simply as a matter of course, but a good sex scene is also sexy—unless it isn’t meant to be—and it can be there just to be sexy. It doesn’t really have to justify its presence beyond that. We often consider “being sexy” somehow a superfluous purpose that distracts from the real business of writing, and I think we ought to consider whether that’s fair (spoiler alert: I don’t believe it is) and where that notion might actually be coming from.

Stories don’t necessarily need to have explicit sex in them, no. But the ones that do are no poorer for it, and can be substantially richer.

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and Clarkesworld, among other places. Their debut short fiction collection Singing With All My Skin and Bone is available from Undertow Publications. In addition, they are the creator, writer, and narrator of the Gone podcast, a serial horror-drama. They live near Washington, DC, in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband.

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