I sometimes conduct writing workshops. One of the most interesting and blush-inducing is the one I give about writing sex and intimacy.
Sex and intimacy arent the same things, of course. You can have sex that's not very intimate and you can have non-sexual intimacy that's full of sensuality, and/or filled with affection and platonic love.
Sex scenes for character and plot development
The role of sex and intimacy in storytelling alters depending on the type of book and purpose of the scene, too. Scenes of emotional and physical intimacy appear in all kinds of fiction, not just in romance and erotica. I've had writers ask how to know whether to put an intimate scene into a story, so this is what I generally suggest as a guideline:
- Does the scene advance your knowledge of the individual characters?
- Does the scene advance your knowledge of the relationship between the characters?
- Does the scene advance elements of the plot?
- Do one or more characters have secrets they’re keeping? Will these come out here?
- Is this the setup for a betrayal, or a closer bond?
- Do the characters actually mean each other harm? (And do they change their mind about that in the course of the scene)
- Are they forming new alliances?
- Are they changing their emotional response?
- Is someone's true character being revealed? (Sadism, violence; or tenderness and kindness?)
Explicit sex scenes can be fun to read, and sexy as hell. There’s no reason not to use them, and you don’t have to be very explicit if you’d rather not. What serves the story that you’re telling?
Every time I run a workshop on this topic, I get asked about writing sex scenes for two men when I am not myself a gay man.
I have a couple of answers for this one.
The first is that the notion of 'write what you know' is flawed. It's often interpreted in very narrow ways, as though 'what you know' is limited to only exactly a narrow definition of your own direct experience. Nobody can get through life only having understanding and empathy only for people exactly like them. We use empathy and our experience to understand what life and love is like for people who are not exactly like us.
Looked at another way: I've written crime stories, thrillers, fantasy sagas and urban horror. But I haven’t committed any murders. I haven’t been a vampire. Or a man. Or a witch. Or a mother. Or a rock star. I've written about those people, though.
What we write is not necessarily who we are. Instead, we tap into our knowledge of human nature, and our experiences of the world. We tap into our empathy and our imagination, and combine it with what we learn and understand. We listen to those who share their experiences that different from our own. We extrapolate. We understand that everyone is human, and look for both that shared human experience and for the unique experiences that make other people not us.
And as for the mechanics – as I often say: The human body is full of sensitive parts. Take two of them, make at least one of them slippery, rub them together (with full consent) - and somebody is bound to be having a good time.
Of course the other important thing about writing sexual and intimate experiences that aren't your own is to read about them. Not just erotic stories, but health articles and personal accounts to better understand both the mechanics and the range of emotional responses with different types of sex and intimacy.
Some of these resources might be considered Not Safe For Work, so perhaps check who's behind you before you click.
- Psychology Today wrote a terrific piece about Rimming - the Curious Couples' Guide to Oral and Anal Play
- A video of strangers meeting and kissing for the first time is strangely touching. If you're writing first kisses, and it's been a while since your last one, it's a beguiling and informative resource.
- Dr Susan O'Grady's article on the importance non-sexual touching for good sex
- Kate McCombs is a health educator who writes (and gives workshops on) empathy and sex positivity.
- I've also written about the Writing Sex and Intimacy for the Queensland Writers' Centre magazine [PDF]
Non-sexual intimacy is a rich topic worthy of research as well, especially as some readers/writers interpret Sherlock Holmes as asexual. This doesn't mean he can't fall in love and have some good lovin' interludes with his doctor. Some great articles I've read include:
- The Thinking Aro's article on nonsexual intimacy
- Ysabetwordsmith's five part post on all kinds of intimacy that's nonsexual (just in case you want more ideas)
Feel free to share any interesting resources you have too!