This is my second post in response to E.L.James’ ‘Grey’, though the first one was more of a consideration of the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise. What actually got the ball rolling on both these posts was this Buzzfeed article which picked out some of the awkward and just odd bits of ‘Grey’ and the sex scenes.
Again, I’m not bashing the author, but for an erotic novel, the sex in ‘Fifty Shades’ isn’t actually all that good. Christian, for someone who is supposed to have been a sub and is a Dom (two roles which require self-discipline and control), has absolutely no restraint and lasts about three thrusts. He is also magically ready to go again in 30 seconds…
So having read the Buzzfeed article, and really getting an extraordinary amount of giggles out of it (his penis is sentient for goodness’ sake!), my morbid curiosity was piqued. Despite my issues with the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise, I wanted to read ‘Grey’. I wanted to see Christian from his perspective and, as someone who has written male POV sex scenes, read someone else’s scenes. As an author, it is important to read, especially if there is a similarity between your work.
It took me less than a day to read the 500+ page thing and every moment, for me, was torture and not the fun kind. Christian Grey is an arsehole of the highest order. And the sex? Clichéd, stereotypical and just, well, beige. It got really samey, really quickly and it makes men look like jerks when it comes to sex, and if that’s what you’re going for, fair enough. Some men are arseholes when it comes to sex. However, that’s not my only issue. It doesn’t feel like a man’s perspective and I understand why that happened. It is difficult enough to write an ordinary scene from different perspectives, and different gendered perspectives, so how is it possible, as a woman, to write how sex feels for a man?
‘Cruelty’ has quite a lot of sex and three scenes which are exclusively from the male perspective. And men who have read them have told me that those scenes feel real, like I knew exactly what they experience during sex. So I have written this blog to tell you what I did, which seemed to have paid off. Admittedly, the sex I write is sex between men and women, so this is not a definitive list of sex for a woman writing sex from a male perspective. I’m also writing this advice for writing consensual sex. (This blog also assumes that there are only two genders, as defined by biological sex. This has been done for efficiency and because, as of yet, I have not written scenes which go beyond traditional gender definitions, so I hope no one is offended by this or feels I am ignoring alternative genders/sexualities.)
Tip One: ask a man
I am not recommending you grab a clipboard, a copy of the Karma Sutra and accost men in the street about what they like about sex.
I mean ask a man in your life. If you’ve got a husband/boyfriend, ask him what he likes and what it feels like. Ask an ex, a friend you’re close to or if all else fails, go to the Internet. There are literally thousands of places (not all of them pornographic) where you can discuss this kind of stuff from the safety of anonymity, which is helpful for those of you who find that kind of face to face conversation embarrassing.
I’m not going to lie; it was kind of difficult to coax this out of my husband because he went ‘I dunno. It’s nice. I like it.’ Eye roll. I need detail man. It’s embarrassing to speak about sex, about what turns you on and off, and what stuff feels like, partly because sex, and rightly so, is supposed to be intimate and intensely private. But nothing is sexier than open communication, so get relaxed and possibly get naked. If you’re in a relationship and want to write an erotic scene (and boys this goes for you too) talking during sex, putting words to the sensation is not only good for your writing but good for your sex life. (This blog is a bargain. Writing tips and life advice all in one place)
Tip Two: Read
Read sex scenes. Ones written by women and by men. Good ones and bad ones. They don’t all have to be graphic to be effective. Jim Butcher, author of ‘The Dresden Files’ does write some highly erotic scenes which rarely progress beyond foreplay, but which capture the male experience of the beginning of sex. Anne Rice’s ‘Servant of the Bones’, the queen of writing whole novels from the male perspective, has a great male POV sex scene. Bad ones are useful too because you can find things that don’t work and then avoid using them.
Tip Three: call a spade a spade (or call a penis a penis)
Eugh. Euphemisms. Vom. Female authors appear to have this weird desire to call a penis anything but a penis, and a vagina anything other than a vagina. Here is a list of my top 10 unacceptable penis metaphors: manhood, staff, trousersnake, pole, rod, bayonet, Johnson, codger, todger and (my personal favourite) weapon. (If it’s a weapon, it’s dangerous, it could harm you and it kind of spoils the sexy vibe you’re going for.) It’s a PENIS! If you can’t call genitalia by their correct medical terminology, you clearly can’t handle writing a sex scene yet. (I would say the same for female genitals. It’s a vagina. Call it one!)
It’s an embarrassment thing again and I get that. Penises are funny and a man finds it very difficult to hide it when he gets aroused. His penis just stands up, sometimes for no good reason. It’s not kind to laugh but we do when we’re embarrassed. How do you get over this embarrassment? Simple. Stand in your living room, close your eyes and bellow the words ‘PENIS’ and ‘VAGINA’ over and over again until they are no longer funny words but just ordinary ones…
Sorry. All right. Genitalia are always going to be funny, especially the penis because as Billy Connelly says the scrotum does look like it’s made from leftover elbow skin, but you can’t shy away from using the correct names. But how do you avoid being repetitive? ‘Cock’ and ‘dick’ are acceptable alternatives, mostly because it’s how most of the men I know refer to their penis. You don’t have to refer to the whole organ either; you talk about his shaft and the head separately. You can be coy and say ‘He groaned as she took hold of him’ for example. You can point out he’s hard, describe how the material of his clothing is drawn tight. Use the word erection. ‘Hard length’ can be used, sparingly. This where the reading of sex scenes helps you to find alternative ways of saying penis.
When it comes to the vagina, the euphemisms are just as bad. Don’t call it a flower. It is not the 1990s and you are not Monica from ‘Friends’. Liquid centre? Really? Is she a Lindor chocolate? Women get wet, men get hard. Deal with it. Ban the word ‘moist’. Just in general; from sex, from food, from any situation that you’d like to be a pleasurable one. ‘Moist’ is not a pleasant word. Don’t refer to female arousal as ‘juicy’ either, especially from a man’s perspective. Gross. Now sex should be fun, even in fiction, so there is room for laughter and the giggles but if you’re going for an intense, deeply passionate scene, an adult male should be able to handle himself without the need for euphemisms and adolescent silliness. Acceptable terms for female sexual organs: vagina, vulva, labia, lips, clitoris, clit, nub, bud. I would avoid calling the clit a ‘button’ unless, like Joanne Hall in ‘The Art of Forgetting,’ someone is explaining to an inexperienced man how to please a woman. ‘Pussy’ is acceptable, depending on the age of your characters and the type of sex being had; it doesn’t fit slow, passionate love-making but does fit if your woman’s being tipped over a desk for a quicky.
Tip Four: genitals should not be sentient
Unless you’re writing science fiction, and that is what you’ve intended. If so, carry on. I wish you, and your sentient genitals, happy trails. I know I said I wasn’t going to bash E.L. James but this drove me absolutely bloody mad when I was reading ‘Grey’. The lines ‘My cock concurs’ or ‘My cock agrees’ happen so often I had to wonder if Christian had had a meltdown and believed that his penis could talk to him. Cocks twitch, they throb, they harden, they lengthen, they stir (as in they wake up, not as in with a spoon) cocks do many things but they do not have thought. They cannot concur because they are not able to, even if some men give their appendages nicknames and refer to them in the third person. More life advice here: boys, it just isn’t sexy. Don’t do it.
It is difficult, as a woman, to describe how a penis moves and reacts, and how a man reacts when it is touched or stimulated, and I know what James is aiming for: that primal, physical, purely animal need to screw, where one cannot see beyond the desires of the flesh, where you just want to bed the object of your fancy and nothing else matters. That doesn’t mean you use adjectives like ‘concur’. This where asking a man, or the Internet (though here you are wandering into porno territory), is helpful. If you are in a hetero-normative relationship when writing, pay attention to how your man reacts when you touch him, not just below the belt either. Look out for his facial expressions, listen to the noises he makes, the way he arches his back or shifts his hips. Ask him what feels good.
Tip Five: watch your verbs and adjectives and vary the type of sex.
Sex is an action scene but you need to decide on the type of action each sex scene is going to be. A slow and steady scene will need a completely different set of verbs and adjectives to a hard and fast shag. So decide what you want the scene to be and choose your vocabulary appropriately.
It is important to vary the type of sex that is being had. Believe it or not, men aren’t satisfied with the same fare all the time (shock and horror). Just like us ladies, they can be in the mood for slow one day and hard and fast the next. If you want people to buy into your erotica, your men cannot have two-dimensional sexual needs. (Get laid, grunt, make sandwich.)
Tip Six: use the senses
Especially during foreplay. Men like that too, so don’t cut it out. It is incredibly patronising to any audience to assume that the connection of genitals is the only thing someone is focusing on during sex. How does he feel when he sees her naked? What does her skin and hair feel and smell like? Think about the touch of fingers on his skin, the way her lips (wherever they kiss) make him feel. Add little jolts and shocks of pleasure, make him gasp as she teases him. What noises does she make and how does he respond to her? Think about her taste and scent and what they do to him. Sex is a multi-sensory act so use those senses. Fully immerse him in the experience and you’ll immerse your audience.
Tip Seven: the climax (hurray!)
So you’re about to reach the big finish; how do men actually finish? Exploding happens quite a lot (I am guilty of this one.) So does bucking, stiffening, shooting and rushing according to a lot of sex scenes. I have to thank my husband for his input here because I don’t have a penis, so I don’t know how it feels.
‘The first thing to be aware of is that, just like with a girl, there is a building up to orgasm. It’s like this pressure that shifts and changes throughout and, of course, that feeling is different in her hand than how it is in her mouth or her vagina. Let’s assume your man is already hard. The head of his penis is the most sensitive at any point and can be manipulated in a number of ways. If he has a foreskin, your female character can bring it halfway up or all the way up which will elicit different responses from him. The longer the sex goes on, the more sensitive the penis becomes, so longer and slower strokes will have the same effect later on as short and fast strokes had at the beginning. The pressure begins at the base of the shaft, moving upwards and builds and builds. As it does so, you are overwhelmed with the need to kiss, touch, taste her, to tell her how good everything feels. Every sense is filled with her (Aside: do you see why I married this man?) The pressure builds to a point where you just want to go as fast as you can but also make it last as long as possible. It is a glorious torture.
‘There is the misconception that men just come in one big go, whereas women have waves of orgasm. Although the typical female orgasm does last much longer, men don’t just shoot and then finish. There is the initial burst and then a few little aftershocks or pulses. There is a reason why a champagne bottle popping its cork and overflowing is used a euphemism for male orgasm. The best adjective to describe it? ‘Building’ or ‘rising’ in the initial stages and ‘rush’ works quite well to describe the sensation of actually coming, but that limits you just to the groin. Just like with women, it’s a whole body experience: your back stiffens, your hips lock, your toes curl. Make sure you don’t just write about the penis. It’s boring.’
Tip Eight: show the afterglow or aftermath
Clearly, this depends on the type of sex you’ve decided on but sometimes what comes after is just as important as the actual sex. The desire for intimacy is not a female only desire so if you’ve written a love scene as opposed to a sex scene, show how good he feels with her resting in his arms, make him articulate it. You can have him just withdraw and walk away if there is no emotional connection but still show his physical reaction: the catching of breath etc. Nobody just switches straight off from sex so don’t do it.
Other bits and pieces:
Does there have to be conversation during sex? No. It entirely depends on your characters, if that fits them or what mood they’re in when they are having sex. A few groans and ‘oh Gods’ may be all you need for that scene.
Does the sex have to be graphic to be good? No. You don’t have to go into incredible levels of detail for sex. You can be coy or just hint at things. You don’t even have to write the whole scene. But if you do decide to be explicit, you walk a fine line. You have to give enough detail to be titillating but too much is a little gross and gauche. This where your editor can help.
What about safe sex? Would a man stopping to put on a condom spoil the flow? Hell, no. Safe sex is sexy. You can easily make it part of the seduction. Of course, this is if you’re doing a modern sex scene. You can put prophylactics from previous eras in if you like but make sure you do your research.
I hope this blog has been useful for you. Before I sign off, some good books to read for sex from the male POV: Joanne Hall ‘The Art of Forgetting’ and ‘The Art of Forgetting: Nomad’ (these books are also great for sex from a non hetero-normative perspective) Jim Butcher ‘The Dresden Files’ (there are a lot of these and not all of them have sex but they do have male arousal which can be difficult to articulate) and Anne Rice ‘The Servant of the Bones.’
Until next time.