‘Often, she would go to a dinner party with ten young men or more, and would lie with each one, in turn. And when she had reduced them all to a state of physical exhaustion, she would then copulate with their thirty or so servants, but, even then, her lust was unsatisfied.’
No, not an extract from the latest mummy-porn, but an account written in the sixth century AD, by the historian, Procopius, describing the antics of the Empress Theodora. But, although, sex-scenes have a long history, they’re fiendishly difficult to write. For one thing, there just isn’t the vocabulary. Most of the words seem either too crude or too clinical – hard porn, on the one hand; biology text-book on the other. We don’t even have a suitable word for the sex-act itself. ‘Intercourse’ is too formal; ‘sleep with’ seems wrong for a brief session, with no actual sleep¬ing; ‘make love’ pre-supposes love; ‘screw’ is just plain vulgar; and ‘bonk’ more suited to the Daily Mirror. Perhaps we need more words for sex, like the Arabs, who have several hundred different words for camels, or the Eskimos, who have at least thirty for snow.
There are, of course, hundreds of slang words, including over 600 for the penis, but ‘tummy-banana’, ‘tickle-tail’ and ‘blue-veined piccolo’ are definitely more comic than erotic. Even the Kama Sutra doesn’t help. Calling the penis a Heavenly Dragon Pillar, or the vagina an Open Peony Blossom would jar in most modern fiction!
In my new novel, An Enormous Yes, I tried to get round this problem by having the protagonist, Maria, reflect on her own unease with all the anatomical words. She’s lived most of her life with her devout and prudish mother, for whom even words like ‘bottom’ and ‘breasts’ are taboo. So when Maria finally strikes out on her own and embarks on an affair, she feels a thrill of mingled shock and delight when she hears her artist-lover, Felix, refer unblushingly to his ‘cock’. And still more of a thrill when she watches that ‘cock’ stiffen in what she sees as glistening insolence.
This is the first sex-scene in the book and I deliberately chose Felix’s studio as its setting, with his dramatic paintings ranged around the ramshackle bed, and the smell of Jessop and white spirit lingering in the air. One of the reasons some sex-scenes fail to ignite is that they take place in a limbo, some vague and unspecified place, lacking vivid detail. We writers need to use all our different senses – sight, smell, sound, taste – and try to experience our characters’ sensations through our own skin and soul and nerve-endings.
So, later in the book, when Felix makes love to Maria on the remote Northumbrian Moors, I tried to convey to the reader how this would actually feel: the tingle of the breeze against their skin; the springy prickle of heather above the hardness of the ground; the plaintive cry of plovers; the faint, peaty smell of earth and still fainter whiff of sheep. This, I hope, adds truth to the encounter – and truth is an important concept when it comes to writing about sex. Yet too much truth can be hazardous, if we dwell merely on the smells, sweat and secretions of the sex act, and fail to give our prose some of the power and thrust of sex itself.
I tried to do this in my sex-scene on the Moors by using the imagery of Whitsuntide – the rushing wind, the tongues of fire, the sense of stupefaction – because the encounter takes place on Whit Sunday. I often fuse religious and sexual elements in this way, to add a sense of transcendence, of going beyond one’s usual boundaries. In my first book, Absinthe for Elevenses, the protagonist always makes love to church music, claiming sex is a sacred activity that gives us a taste of the eternal.
But this brings me to another problem with sex-scenes: the risk of offending the reader. Religious people might find such passages blasphemous, and some readers hate sex-scenes altogether. The reason I write them, however, is that I’m interested in the enormous range of human emotions the sex-act can include – not simply love or lust, but fear, greed, resentment, embarrassment, masochism, even contempt. I always try to remember that, besides the couple’s thrashing bodies, there are two disparate and complex minds.
Some sex-scenes fail because they’re just too blissful to be plausible. In The Thorn Birds, for example, the Catholic priest, Father Ralph, proves an ace lover in his very first sexual encounter, despite having being celibate all his life. This struck me as so unlikely that, in my own novel, After Purple, in which Thea seduces a Franciscan friar, I made their coupling a frustrating, two-second fiasco. The poor embarrassed friar even forgets to take off his green nylon socks!
I often include such bad sex in my novels – men who can’t get it up; women faking orgasms; couples experiencing intense loneliness, despite being physically coupled – because these things are common in real life. Indeed, Maria herself feels a sense of extreme isolation, when, later in An Enormous Yes, her sex with Felix is fuelled not by passion, but by ferocious animal fury. And although she and Felix climax simultaneously, she then starts sobbing uncontrollably, appalled by her own extremes of emotion.
However, there are times when I deliberately ditch realism for romanticism – for example, when Felix and Maria are alone at midnight on a moonlit Cornish beach. Elated by their new happiness, they race towards the sea, tear off their clothes and plunge into the icy water. ‘Come off it!’ jeered a friend. ‘They’d freeze to death.’ But I wanted to make it a passionate encounter, with Maria revelling in two simultaneous lovers: ‘the icy grope and tingle of the sea, and Felix’s scorching bush-fire of an embrace.’
OK, it’s over-the-top, but that only goes to prove my point – whether we err on the side of stale and tepid cliché, or of disgracefully purple prose, sex-scenes are notoriously difficult to write!