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Writing sex
In which the author offers 10 guiding principles to the would-be pornographers among you

Every single time I go to a party, or, at least, like, once every 50 parties, someone will approach and say, "Hey Steve, you sure do write about sex a lot. Any advice?"

I usually tell him or her that I donít write about sex, that I write about desire and heartbreak and that I canít believe someone as intelligent-seeming as he or she would reduce my art to lurid gymnastics. Then I ask for money.

This is rarely effective.

So Iím just going to go whole hog and ó in honor of the spring that should be arriving any month now ó set down my 10 Rules For Writing Real Classy Sex Scenes.

1) Stop having sex.

This is very important. Remember that the sexiest thing about sex is really desire, which is just a fancy word for not getting laid.

2) Never compare a womanís nipples to:

a) Cherries.

b) Cherry pits.

c) Pencil erasers.

d) Frankensteinís bolts.

Nipples are tricky. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and shades. They do not, as a rule, look like much of anything, aside from nipples. So resist making dumb-shit comparisons.

3) Never, ever use the words "penis" or "vagina."

There is no surer way to kill the erotic buzz than to use these terms, which call to mind ó to my mind, at least ó health class (in the best instance) and (in the worst instance) venereal disease.

As a rule, in fact, there is often no reason at all to name the genitals. Consider the following sentence:

"She poured sesame oil onto her palm and reached for my penis."

Now consider this alternative:

"She poured sesame oil onto her palm and reached for me."

Is there any real doubt as to where this particular horndoggle is reaching?

I rest my wok.

3(a) Resist the temptation to use genital euphemisms (unless you are trying to be funny).

No: tunnel of love, candy shop, secret garden, pleasure gate, bearded clam.

Equally no: mule, flesh kabob, magic wand, shaft of manhood.

I could go on, but only for my own amusement.

4) Then again, sometimes sex is funny.

And if you ever saw a videotape of yourself in action, I bet youíd agree. An absurd arrangement. So donít be afraid to portray its comic aspects. If one of your characters, at the height of passion, screams her fatherís name, note this. If another canít stay hard, allow him to use a ponytail holder for an improvised cock ring. And later on, if his daughter comes home and demands to know where her ponytail holder is, well, so be it.

5) Donít forget the foreplay.

It took me a few years to realize this (okay, 20) but the lead-in is often better than the actual humping part. So donít make the traditional XXX mistake. Donít cut from a flirtatious discussion to a gag-defying fellatio. Tease the reader a little. Let the drama of the seduction prime us for the action.

5a) It takes a long time to make a woman come.

I speak here from experience. So please, donít try to sell us on the notion that a man can enter a woman, elicit a shuddering moan or two, and bring her off. No sale. In fact, Iíd steer clear of announcing orgasms at all. Rarely, in my experience, do men or women announce their orgasms. They simply have them. Their bodies are taken by sensation and tossed about in various ways. Best to describe the tossing.

6) Fluid is fun.

Look, sex is sticky. Thereís no way around this. If you want to represent the truth of the acts, you will likely be required to pay homage to the resultant wetnesses. And Iím not just talking about semen or vaginal fluid. Iím also talking sweat and saliva, which I consider to be the perfume of lovers, as well as whatever one chooses as a lubricant (sesame oil?).

7) Real people do not talk in porn clichés.

They do not say: "Give it to me, big boy."

They do not say: "Suck it, baby. Thatís right, all the way down."

They do not say: "Yes, deeper, harder, deeper! Oh, baby, oh, Christ, yes!"

At least, they do not say these things to me.

Most of the time, real people say all kinds of weird, funny things during sex, such as, "I think Iím losing circulation" and "Iíve got a cramp in my foot" and "Oh, sorry!" and "Did you come already? Goddamn it!"

8) Donít obsess over the rude parts.

Sex is inherently over the top. Just telling the reader that two (or more) people are getting down will automatically direct us toward the genitals. It is your job, as an author, to direct us elsewhere, to the more inimitable secrets of the naked body. Give us the indentations on the small of a womanís back, or the minute trembling of a manís hands. And remember that sometimes the secrets of the human body are funny-looking. Again, I am speaking from experience.

9) Use all the senses.

The cool thing about sex ó aside from its being, uh, sex ó is that it engages all five of our human senses. So donít ignore the more subtle cues. Give us the scents and the tastes and the sounds of the act. And stay away from the obvious ones. By which I mean that Iíd take a sweet, embarrassed pussyfart over a shuddering moan any day.

You can quote me on that.

10) It is okay to get aroused by your own sex scenes.

In fact, itís pretty much required. Remember, part of the intent of a good sex scene is to arouse the reader. And youíre not likely to do that unless you, yourself, are feeling the same delicious tremors. You should be envisioning what youíre writing and ó whether with one hand or two ó transcribing these visions in detail.

This is a list of basics, but there is one other incredibly important rule, which, if followed scrupulously, will not only land you on the bestseller list, but will dramatically improve your sex life and give you orgasms of an intensity and duration you never imagined possible.

Youíll have to pay for that one.

You want it? Steve Almond can be reached at


Issue Date: April 25 - May 1, 2003
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