Going All the Way: The Challenges of Editing Sex Scenes

Many novelists dream of winning a Pulitzer Prize or a National Book Award. However, if they aren’t careful about how they depict the more intimate scenes in their work, they could end up receiving a much more embarrassing accolade: Literary Review‘s Bad Sex in Fiction Award. According to this article on the Literary Review website, the award aims “to draw attention to poorly written or redundant passages of sexual description in otherwise decent novels.” Since its inception in 1993, this shameful distinction has been bestowed upon a number of renowned writers—including Tom Wolfe, Jonathan Littell, and David Guterson—in recognition of “floridly descriptive prose, a reliance on hyperbole, anatomical confusion, and euphemism” in their sex scenes. Last December, Literary Review announced that James Frey had won the 2018 contest with his novel Katerina. (While the prize-winning scenes from this novel most certainly will not be quoted in this post, brave readers can get a taste of them here.)

The Bad Sex in Fiction Award teaches us several things: first, many novels contain profoundly cringeworthy sex scenes; second, even great writers often flounder when they try to write about sex; and finally, there are plenty of editors who (perhaps begrudgingly, or perhaps because they too are at a loss for how to approach this subject) are letting these giggle-inducing scenes sneak through to publication. This state of affairs might lead us to wonder, Why is it so hard to write about sex? And, more importantly, what can editors do to help?

One of the reasons it’s so challenging to write (and edit) sex scenes is that the subject of sex is likely to provoke self-consciousness in writers, editors, and readers alike. As this essay explains, sex is still somewhat taboo for many people, and this leads authors to distance themselves from the subject by obscuring their characters’ erotic antics beneath layers of metaphor and detached description. This is how we end up with awkward euphemisms that garner unwanted laughs from readers. If the author is detached from a scene, the reader will be too.

Another tricky thing about sex scenes is that they’re treated differently depending on the genre. Romance readers are going to feel shortchanged if a long-anticipated bedroom scene coyly fades to black before the action happens; meanwhile, readers of a slow-paced, introspective literary work are going to be taken aback if they turn the page and suddenly encounter an over-the-top description of writhing bodies and ecstatic moaning. The nature of sex scenes and the amount of detail given must fit the genre, the story, and the characters—problems arise when the tone of a sex scene doesn’t match that of the rest of the work. It is therefore important for editors to thoroughly research the conventions of relevant genres and to always keep in mind one of the main requirements of good fiction: that each and every scene must advance the development of the characters and the story.

When tackling these kinds of scenes, editors also have to remember that sex can be a sensitive subject. Authors may feel self-conscious and vulnerable when they write about sex, so when something in a sex scene is amiss, editors should take special care to broach the subject in a diplomatic way. Depictions of sex can also raise sensitivity issues that editors need to be aware of. For example, scenes involving heterosexual encounters can potentially feed into harmful gender stereotypes, while sex scenes between LGBTQ+ characters can sometimes be problematic when written by authors who lack a well-rounded understanding of such relationships. Interracial sex scenes may veer toward racial fetishization if not approached thoughtfully, and themes of consent and sexual violence also need to be handled with serious care. Flagging sensitivity issues and suggesting possible fixes should be a priority in every editorial project, and scenes involving sexuality often require particular attention.

Although sex can be an intimidating subject for writers as well as editors, there is hope: as this post shows, sex in fiction has been done quite well on many occasions. As always, the most important things for editors to remember are to be tactful and to prioritize the needs of the story and the reader. With these principles in mind, editors can work together with writers to craft sex scenes that will keep readers engaged (and won’t make them giggle).

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