Men, Sex, SFF

July 13th, 2006

Constance writes, of Steve Barnes: For one thing, he’s one of the very few SF male writers with the ability to write romance-sex scenes without turning ludicrous!

Her comment got me to wondering:
Can male sff writers write good romance sex scenes? If so, why? If not, why not? Be persuasive.

25 Responses to “Men, Sex, SFF”

  1. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 13 Jul 2006 at 6:15 am

    I think this is a subset of “Can male sff writers do good characterization.”

    Speaking as a male sff writer who has written romance and/or sex scenes, and had readers (and more than half of those women) tell him they thought those scenes were hot, I’ll do my best to tackle this, starting with an anecdote/brag: At eighteen, I joined my first writer’s group. Among many scenes I wrote were romance and even some amount of sex. These got high marks from the other writers in the group, including (and especially) the women, nevermind the fact that I was still a virgin and started dating late. Meanwhile, there was a guy in the group in his mid-thirties who was writing romance and sex scenes that were…well, to be polite, I’ll just say “unbelievable, and not in the good way.” Moreover, I assumed that he’d probably had sex, so it wasn’t as if experience was the problem, especially since the teen virgin was writing better ones.

    Stepping back from the self-back-patting and onto the mechanics, what I’d realized at seventeen was that if you were going to write a story, you just had to get into the characters’ heads, let them react like real people and what happens happens. A virgin can write about sex the same way a person can write a character of the opposite gender–imagine it, fill in the gaps with what you’ve seen, heard or can guess, and don’t worry about getting something wrong because you have a whole world of primary sources who can correct you.

    Good romance and hot sex are a matter of good characterization, and good characterization is a matter of paying attention, imagining and guessing. I’d say women are better at it on the whole because they’re more trained for it and women’s society holds that skills package in higher esteem. Men? Not so much, but those who have been paying attention have a slight edge in that most boys are raised in women’s society before entering men’s society and have that to draw on if they bother to remember, whereas it’s far less common for girls to be exposed to unvarnished men’s culture.

    But anyway, back to the romance and sex. Part of anything being ludicrous is getting the characterization wrong, but since there are at least two people in every romance and/or sex scene, generally speaking, I think it’s also very possible that the ludicrous books are being undercounted on the women’s end. That is to say, women are very good at spotting male authors whose female characters are all boys with breasts or hos from the ho-factory, but as a male reader, I have to say I’ve lost count of the number of women authors whose male characters, including the love interest, are all some variety of incompetent, evil, or more frequently, both, as is illustrated in the common female romance plot “Ditch the Demon Lover and Curl Up with the Cuddly Nebbish.” There’s some nice wish fulfillment there for female readers, admittedly, but it pretty much leaves me cold.

    Of course, the subject of all this was whether male writers can write good sex scenes. Some can and do, but a large number don’t. There’s a higher percentage of women who can write good romance and sex, but not as high as you might think, and certainly not across the board.

  2. Lois Tiltonon 13 Jul 2006 at 10:55 am

    I know a woman who writes lite gay porn, and as she has had some success in this market, she must be striking the right note with males.

  3. Jorrie Spenceron 13 Jul 2006 at 11:32 am

    I have to say I’ve lost count of the number of women authors whose male characters, including the love interest, are all some variety of incompetent, evil, or more frequently, both, as is illustrated in the common female romance plot “Ditch the Demon Lover and Curl Up with the Cuddly Nebbish.” There’s some nice wish fulfillment there for female readers, admittedly, but it pretty much leaves me cold.

    This is common in sff or romance? I haven’t run across much of it myself.

    I do agree that characterization is key when it comes to sex scenes.

  4. makoiyion 13 Jul 2006 at 11:35 am

    Folk often say to me, why do you write male mcs when you are a woman? Shouldn’t you be writing good, strong, female characters?

    My answer to that is, I have three sons, the damned dogs and cats are male, the horses I get on with best are male, and I’ve been surrounded by testosterone for years. The other answer is, that I like to read a male perspective so I write in it.

    Writing sex scenes. Mine tend to be a bit sugary. Not because I’m a hopeless romantic or a prude, but personally I don’t want to read near porn. I’m not afraid to say the word nipples or the word that begins with a c, but I don’t like reading it. I stopped reading GRR’s books for that very reason.

    Yet, the current trend is erotica – paranormal romance – with ‘hot’ sex scenes. Hot doesn’t necessarily translate to porn, but it’s not something I am comfortable writing. And I think that’s the key to whatever gender is writing sex scenes. If you are uncomfortable doing it, don’t, and far too many folk will throw in a sex scene just because they feel they should not because it is necessary to advance the plot.

    So I really don’t think it’s a matter of gender as to whether one can write a ‘good’ sex scene.

    :Whistles innocently since she opened her latest novel with a sex scene.:

  5. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 13 Jul 2006 at 2:05 pm

    Writing from other perspectives can be a lot of fun. I remember back in college when my girlfriend snuck me into the secret campus online lesbian forum, which was having a call for lesbian poetry. So I invented a persona and made up a lesbian poem for posting. A couple years later, I was at a party and started reciting the poem, then was confronted by the hostess who demanded to know how I’d learned that poem, since it was one of the cherished poems of the secret lesbian site. I then admitted I was the author, she blinked, and then went to a terminal and demanded that I recite the full text for her to enter in, because the board had crashed a couple years before and there were a whole bunch of women trying to remember the poem.

  6. makoiyion 13 Jul 2006 at 3:47 pm

    In a way, this whole ‘issue’ goes back to the fairly light-hearted flooding of female written stories to supposedly male orientated magazines and whether or not one can tell who is actually writing what. There are lots of guys who write under male pseudonyms who write good romance. We’re more likely to remember the bad ones, especially if they are a well-known name.

    Is it wish-fulfilment to write from the opposite gender’s pov? I wondered that about my own writing, whether I was writing how I wished a man would be, but my characters aren’t Mary-sues. I wouldn’t dream of acting/doing half of what they get up to.

    The point of this mumble is though, since we all put at least a bit of ourselves into our characters and stories, perhaps when it comes to the sex scene some us are just too shy or worry subconsciously that other folk will interpret it as something the author would do and not the characters? Just a thought.

  7. Katharine Kerron 13 Jul 2006 at 4:39 pm

    I once got into a discussion on a related theme with a number of published male SF writers (over on the GEnie board) about female characters in general. It began by the men complaining that some feminist SF writers produced the kind of male characters that Kevin describes in his first post above. So I poointed out that the women in the male equivalent were unbelievable as well, and that in fact many women in literary works were just as bad, Hemingway being my primary example. Where are the real women, I wondered, esp. when it came to sex.

    The male writers replied that in their case, it wasn’t lack of competence in characterization. They -wanted- their women to be that way, so they wrote the women they wanted. And how is this different from the female writers you were bashing? I asked. Why, those women are incompetent was the answer; they don’t portray real men.

    Yeah, uh-huh, I see . . .

  8. Constance Ashon 13 Jul 2006 at 5:52 pm

    Um, if you read again what I said, I didn’t say anything about men not being able to write convincing female characters, or women not being able to write convincing male characters, or anything about writing convincing scenes from the pov of male or female.

    What I wrote was (as a compliment to Steve Barnes), “For one thing, he’s one of the very few SF male writers with the ability to write romance-sex scenes without turning ludicrous!”

    This is a very different thing. The example I used of ludricous (which is what ‘unconvincing’ in that area turns into) was Sheridan and Delenn’s clinches in Babylon-5. I don’t think anyone thinks that DeLenn wasn’t a convincing character of an alien, turning partially human, female. She was a marvelous character through most of the series. I didn’t personally care for Sheridan’s actor — to show how strong he was he would yell, which was pretty stock. Which may well be why, when he and DeLenn supposedly had romantic and / or bed scenes, I just couldn’t go there. It was embarrassing. It didn’t work. I didn’t believe it. It all starts in the head, and for writers, with characterization.

    However, with Dr. Stephen Franklin on the same series, when he woke up with the very short-lived (cue “Principal Character’s Kiss of Death” theme) girlfriend, you believed they had a hot night. There was a level of comfort there with the character and the sitch that just was missing with Sheridan and DeLenn.

    I suppose the most famous example of the male sf/f writer doing ludicrous sex scenes is Newt Gingrich and his co-author, William R. Forstchen.

    And as Mitch mentioned above (below?) there’s the great stuff in Heinlein ….

    Love, C,

  9. makoiyion 13 Jul 2006 at 6:03 pm

    Yes, I realize what you said, but that sparked the whole thought processes of writing in general. Why men think a sex scene should be a certain way and women think differently – some of the time. It’s an inescapable fact that people are drawn to sex, men and women alike, but I was looking at deeper reasons why some people can write a scene and some can’t. The pov issue was a by the by, but it all tied into the subject for me. And, as Katherine said and I mentioned above, it does, to a certain extent seem to be wish-fulfilment in some cases. So when a scene is written badly, is that pure embarrassment at having to write it at all? Are those particular authors holding back, afraid to delve deeper (pun intended)?

  10. Kevin Andrew Murphyon 13 Jul 2006 at 7:11 pm


    I didn’t see that old GEnie discussion, or at least don’t recall it, but I don’t agree with that double standard, and I think that goes for a lot of other men as well.

    That said, if you’re writing wish fulfillment or spank-books for either sex, there’s a certain amount of cardboard stiffener for all your protagonist’s foils. It would be a dull Bond novel, for example, if Honey Bush does anything more complex than be the bad-girl-turned-good, and by the same token, I know that the novels with the pink-and-lavender covers at the supermarket checkout were not written for me. But all these characters, male and female, are more stock characters in a melodrama than believable personages.

    However, in the SFF field, we’ve thankfully got a mixed readership, and it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face to do this sort of characterization, whether it springs from being unable or simply being unwilling. And it’s not as if this is something new. Here’s Twain’s rule #10:

    They require that the author shall make the reader feel a deep interest in the personages of his tale and in their fate; and that he shall make the reader love the good people in the tale and hate the bad ones. But the reader of the “Deerslayer” tale dislikes the good people in it, is indifferent to the others, and wishes they would all get drowned together.

    Contrast that with what Cory Doctorow just had to say about Alanya to Alanya:

    This is not a subtle book. I don’t think that there’s a single sympathetic major male character in it — even the anarcho-syndicalist boyfriend of one of the activists dismisses her feminism as divisive “identity politics.” But then again, subtlety is hardly the point of political, dystopian science fiction.

    Admittedly, this is being marketed as feminist science fiction, but still…

    I think I’ll just go with Twain in calling it bad and leave it at that. And yes, that goes for Hemingway too.

  11. Mark Tiedemannon 13 Jul 2006 at 8:09 pm

    Once upon a time, I recall a Clarion gripe session about this wherein the difference was reduced to the following:

    Men are usually (often only) interested in the mechanics of sex.

    Women write about feelings.

    Let me hasten to add that this cliche was trashed during the same session, but then we all started thinking about the sex scenes we’d read and the ones we’d written/were writing, and damn if there didn’t seem to be a certain amount of validity to this.

    So it then becomes two more questions:

    One, who does better mechanics and

    Two, who does better feelings?

    Again, there’s little meaningful conclusions to be drawn from any of this because exceptions to any superlative description can be found. It ends up seeming to be a question of how much weight is given one or the other, but then neither is valid determinative if the truth isn’t told in both cases, and that’s the difficult part of writing sex scenes, because…

    In my opinion

    writing about sex truthfully feels more revealing than other subjects and it is possible that we–male and female–duck the awkward parts by hiding behind the aspect we feel most comfortable with.

    But–and here I have no firm opinion, only a notion–it may be that this is the area of private fantasy where the desire to actually have the fantasy as opposed to the reality competes successfully with our ability to be honest on the page.


  12. Constance Ashon 13 Jul 2006 at 8:25 pm

    That’s funny re the Twain objection to Cooper’s characters, since the apocrypha is that Cooper began his writing career through objection to the characters and dialog of Jane Austen.

    Cooper may not have written realistic characters in some ways, but he certainly created archtypes of New World literature.

    Hemingway now, well he single-fingeredly (that’s how he typed, when he typed) did more harm to the fiction of the 20th century in this nation than all the rest of your bete noirs put together. We’re just recovering, but not yet, not quite, and never completely.

    In my opinion, of course, only.

    Love, C.

  13. Constance Ashon 13 Jul 2006 at 8:30 pm

    Does that really apply — men vs women, feelings vs. mechanics? Is this really helpful in terms of understanding genre?

    Because with character as the driving force, it all must be in play.

    Look at, for instance, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. an art editor in France, detailing her sexual life. She is both, so very much both. Some of the very best sexual writing I’ve encountered.

    Mostly, in my opinion, it’s generally not very good in this field, but it has improved to significant degree in the last 10 – 15 years.

    My opinion only! 

    Love, C.

  14. Lois Tiltonon 13 Jul 2006 at 8:37 pm

    wrt men writing women as they wish they were, in porn, I see just the same thing in romance: wish-fulfillment men, as opposed to real ones. And in romance, unlike real life, the woman does succeed in reforming the man, when he comes with imperfections.

  15. Constance Ashon 13 Jul 2006 at 10:11 pm

    Kevin — btw, thanks for the link to the review — I did notice the infamously derided apostrophe exists in the series title when I clicked on the link to the amazon site from the review. I really admire Timmi’s work — one wonders if she is being sarcastic … o, nevermind!

    More to the point in sf/f what sexual encounters have you all found that feel right to you? There are a fair number in Jacquelyn Carey’s Kushieltrilogy.

    There are others, certainly, but am too tired to think of them — and we just returned from a 90 minute walk along the river.

    Love, C.

  16. Lois Tiltonon 13 Jul 2006 at 10:31 pm

    Yes, thanks for the boingboing link.

    I have to think that this serves as a Cautionary Tale for authors thinking of self-publishing, that it may deprive you of a necessary objectively critical eye.

  17. makoiyion 14 Jul 2006 at 11:28 am

    More to the point in sf/f what sexual encounters have you all found that feel right to you? There are a fair number in Jacquelyn Carey’s Kushieltrilogy.”

    Mikhyel and Temorii from ‘Dance of the Rings’ J.S.Fancher is one example I can think of the ‘kind’ of sex scene I would rather read personally, that touches on feelings rather than bodily parts.

    I quote from the Prelude of ‘Ring of Destiny’ Jane S. Fancher:

    Fingertips extend. Iridescent motes ripple and flow, coalesce as skin touches skin, flare as fingers intwine.

  18. Muneravenon 14 Jul 2006 at 2:04 pm

    I’ve often heard it said that writers who belong to any subcultural group within a dominant culture have a leg up on writing from a perspective that is not their own because they have grown up having to understand both their group and the dominant group. So, for example, a gay person grows up having to understand both straight cultural norms and gay cultural norms. An African-American absorbs both White culture and Black culture. A woman understands some of how men think and also how women think. The group that is most crippled in understanding others is always the dominant group because they are not forced by living in a culture to always see things through two lenses, so to speak. In America it is White men who have traditionally had the least pressure on them to see the world from more than one perspective.

    If you accept that idea, the fact that many male writers DO understand perspectives other than their own, and so so with great sensitivity and creativity, is actually remarkable.

  19. Constance Ashon 14 Jul 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Muneraven said:

    If you accept that idea, the fact that many male writers DO understand perspectives other than their own, and so so with great sensitivity and creativity, is actually remarkable.

    So true. Which might say something as well as to why Steve Barne’s romantic-sexual encounters are effective ….

    Have never read Fancher, alas.

    The bit makoiyi quoted is reminiscent of the wiccan circle experience created by Tara and Willow in Buffy, season 4’s “Who Are You?” ep.

    Love, C.

  20. Kate Elliotton 15 Jul 2006 at 2:50 am

    Mark, I think you’re right that writing about sex and sexual feelings can seem very revealing. Perhaps that’s one reason why it’s easier to lapse into distancing cliches, or unrealistic fantasies.

  21. Mark Tiedemannon 15 Jul 2006 at 9:31 am

    Following up briefly on the “revealing” aspect of writing sex scenes, I just remembered one of the “lectures” we received from Delany having to do with dialogue.

    “Dialogue on the page is a wholly artificial thing…people do NOT talk like that. What you do is imitate or suggest the way these people MIGHT converse in a very idealized way.”

    He explained that transcriptions of conversations are extremely chaotic, often remarkably dull, and horribly non-grammatical. You hear this and think “Of course” because you sort of realized this all along, and to a certain degree, everything that happens on the page is an idealized or distilled version of what might actually happen.

    Given that, we come to sex, and realize that very much the same kind of redacting is going on. I think, though, a lot of writers–male, female, straight, bi, or gay–forget or don’t quite realize that sex is another form of dialogue. A conversation is going on there, an exchange…intercourse, in all its meanings.

    Keeping that in mind, the aspects that get idealized and end up actually on the page, can either convey that essential nature of what’s going on, or tell how much of that essence is being missed.

  22. Lois Tiltonon 15 Jul 2006 at 10:22 am

    I think you have to idealize sex scenes to produce the desired effect, because in real life, as Dr Johnson said, “The expense is damnable, the position is ridiculous, and the pleasure fleeting.”

  23. Muneravenon 15 Jul 2006 at 11:22 am

    Apparently Dr. Johnson said: “The expense is damnable, the position is ridiculous, and the pleasure fleeting.”

    Oh dear. He must have been doing it wrong.


  24. Constance Ashon 16 Jul 2006 at 5:10 pm

    Muneraven said: Oh dear. He must have been doing it wrong.

    So true! 

    Love, C.

  25. MLRon 18 Jul 2006 at 9:18 am

    As a reader of the genre, what I’ve noticed more than male/female differences in writing sex are male/female differences in writing emotion.

    I’m often left feeling emotionally distant from works written by males. The characters may express (and note in others) anger, fear, and even sadness, but it seems all too often they put emotions aside and just get on with the “job.”

    I contrast that with what seems to me to be a female approach of the characters being aware of the emotional lives of the other characters. For example, as the POV character makes decisions in a scene, they are aware of character B becoming upset and know that there is an argument in the offing, because B has said they can’t stand for this to happen again, even though B has not said a word in the scene. There is an outward interaction going on and a more hidden emotional interaction that is pervasive in the work. I see this approach to storytelling most often in female authors’ stories.

    Thus for me, one key difference between male and female authors’ sex scenes may well be the emotional distance or connection I’ve already established with the characters, as well as the emotional depth of the scene as written.

    Having said that, I really dislike generalizations, so there are, of course, exceptions to be expected.

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