How do you write about sex when you’re writing about sex


My undergraduate writing classes were the kind where you sat around a big table and savaged your classmates’ fragile sense of self-worth so much that it usually took a good two beers and shots of whiskey afterwards to tap down nausea.

At the time I was working on a novel–you had to have something like one hundred pages of something to graduate so I just kept going. Anyway, it had a lot of sex in it and I soon found that if I presented only the sex scenes, I wouldn’t be ripped apart as much. I haven’t read them in a long while and I can’t imagine they were great, considering how little sex I had at the time. However, after reading each scene aloud,  men who would not even consider me before suddenly began finding me worthy enough to walk me to their apartments.

I’ve written sex scenes since then but not as often as with the stories about Clare and her friend. Clare is one very sexual girl. To not go there would be unjust to her. This time, though, they’re not offering me easy protection, especially since I’m realizing how hard they are to write.

First of all, Clare’s been having sex since she was thirteen but she hasn’t encountered much out of the relatively ordinary, nor is she looking to just yet. Which means a threesome would take a lot for her to do. There may be one ahead, maybe she sleeps with women, maybe she gets into S&M. I’ll admit, I’ve thought about the possibilities because it would be fun to write and who’s to stop me? A little kink might be just the ticket for increase reader-engagement (as it was for undergraduates). But that’s not Clare now.

Second, it’s astonishing how laborious it is to choreograph these scenes. How is she with someone? Whom does what to whom, who responds in which way? You’re always writing with these considerations in mind but it’s heightened during sex because you’re working within such a tight and potent lens (the only other situation I can think of is a death scene, which seems about right). I’m trying to keep the focus on what is really important–which is why Clare is having sex at all.

And third–does sex really happen at this moment in the story? What is revealed about her and how does it push the narrative along. Most important, within the vast scheme of whatever I’m trying to say with this encounter, does it matter? Does Clare having sex have anything to add to the story’s purpose of even existing? If it doesn’t, then she doesn’t, and I fail.

There’s nothing really original about all this but it is the current struggle. Clare and a man pick each other up. She takes him to a place that is special to her–a church, no less (it’s been abandoned). Their time together revives her, allows her to continue her real life. Whether they come together again is open-ended but one way or another it’s meaningful to her.

The Beauty of the Sacred World

clares painting 2

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pat willard

Grew up in Philadelphia. Live in Brooklyn. Written four books best described as about memory and cultural history, food and some pretty good recipes. Works in progress may be viewed at

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