Got Bad Sex?

My mother and SBTB reader Susan were kind enough to send me a link to info on the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction prize. From fantasizing about foot surgeons to sex with glassy-eyed sheep with fine lashes (shouldn’t every heroine have fine lashes?!) this contest is the Bulwer-Lytton of sex scenes. Susan’s reaction: “ye, gods, and they have the NERVE to go on and on about purple prose in ROMANCE?” Amen to that!

Shouldn’t there be a romance novel’s bad sex scenes contest? Have y’all read any sex scenes that were just absolute howlers this year, in a new or recently-published book? Perhaps we need to make this a year-end event – Smart Bitches, Bad Sex contest. Not that we’re having bad sex. Smart Bitches never have bad sex!

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  1. 1

    As far as I’m concerned, forgettable sex is bad sex, and unfortunately certain over-used descriptions will often signal impending amnesia. It doesn’t matter if the couple eventually do it upside-down over a desk suspended from a chandelier while a chorus of belly-dancing satyrs in fishnets and leopard-print thongs cheer them on with up-tempo renditions of Barry White’s greatest hits, if the author has cunningly inserted certain hackneyed phrases into the scene too early I will instantly assume that it’s indistinguishable from the three other similar scenes I’ve read in the last fortnight (or these days, earlier in the book) and skim over it. This might mean that I’ve missed many a magic moment, alas, but I think not.

    To be fair to the satyrs, by unmemorable sex I really mean the kind that feels as if it’s written by rote, as in “insert tab A into slot B and orgasm, and orgasm again, now together, and again. Now get married, you’re done.” Just like I will usually pick up and read a book with an unusual premise simply because I love to see if an author can make it work, I will usually give credit points to a writer who seems to strive for a certain originality even if the execution is less-than-graceful.

    Come to think of it, I don’t really mean originality but rather a sense of freshness or genuine engagement. There is a limit to how many ways a couple can do it and remain believable or even ambulatory, and frankly I think some books now seem to include a requisite “kinky” scene where the characters seem to display about the same level of genuine enthusiasm as your average East German porn film extra.

    Sex usually works for me if it has some kind of emotional impact. This can make even the most bog-standard missionary action seem fresh and new. The beauty is in the detail. I still remember a reading a scene where the hero simply reached out and held the heroine’s hand while they were making love. The writing made it very clear that this wasn’t about being dominant (for a change) and this detail created a feeling of very real tenderness at that moment.

    But this is about bad sex. And I must admit that when a particular detail or effort at originality strikes the wrong chord, it can send me into fits of giggles or just leave me completely bemused. Of course in this case it’s often a matter of different strokes (twenty hard and firm vs. some gentle tickling with a velvet whip) for different folks. But I find a really skilled writer will carry me through reading something I’d be uncertain about if it was spelled out to me at the outset.

    So as far as my reading goes, a truly dodgy metaphor like that bread comparison will usually break the spell. The other big no-no I’ve come across recently is the use of silly euphemisms, particularly those words from an “alien” language. It’s just wrong. Why do characters whose presumably alien vocabulary is given in English suddenly revert to alien-speak for just those words? Besides the fact that these words usually associate themselves with other completely random bits of vocabulary in my mind (musical instruments, bits of clothing that sort of thing), it’s weird, and I can’t decide if it’s a certain kind of prudishness at work or something else.

    Do these words really refer to the organs I’m used to seeing on hominid life-forms, or are these “special” names for “special” organs? Does this mean ickiness will ensue in the form of spikes, gills or wriggling tentacles where none should be? It must be difficult to write about sex when one reader’s hardness is another’s erect c*ck, to say nothing of the trickiness of naming female genitalia, but as far as I’m concerned this ranks as a double helping of throbbing love muscle with a side order of honeypots. And if the slimy sucker-covered tentacles do actually emerge I’m running screaming to my nearest copy of “Anne of Green Gables” until I recover.

    (Sorry… long comment on my part, SBSarah, but you’ve picked on a pet peeve. Confession time: even though my tastes have evolved, I started reading romance as a teenager largely for the sex.)

  2. 2
    E.D'Trix says:

    Unfortunately, the majority of the really horrendous sex scenes I see are from unpubbed author submissions, so I cannot share. Suffice it to say…there is some truly TRULY awful stuff out there.

    Man meat and gravy awful.

  3. 3
    Robyn says:

    You aren’t supposed to howl with laughter during a sex scene, are you? Michelle Reid’s The Brazilian’s Blackmailed Bride talked about the heroine scoring her nails into his “thundering breastplate.”

    I kid you not. I entered the phrase into the romance euphemisms on my blog. So much more evocative than man-titty, don’t you think? Although Candy pointed out that “thundering breastplate” makes him sound like he’s got heartburn.

  4. 4
    E.D'Trix says:

    Now Robyn, you HAVE to post the whole scene (or at least a few paragraphs) from whence that reference came! Thundering breastplate is so…so original…*snortle!*

  5. 5
    SB Sarah says:

    Will a thundering breastplate protect the world from my son’s thundering roses? Can I find one online?

  6. 6
    Candy says:

    EAP: Amen! Sing it, sister. Romance provides this fascinating dichotomy: on one hand, out of all the different mainstream fiction genres, it’s the only one that tackles sex and sexuality on a regular basis. On the other hand: the attitude towards sex and sexuality is oftentimes conflicted and prudish, which is reflected in the language.

    But on the third hand (yes, yes, I’m Vishnu-like with the limbs today): most cultures have onflicted attitudes towards sex, and we can hardly expect its popular to reflect anything less.

    E.D’Trix: after reading that excerpt you posted about the uterus-swimming salmon, I don’t ever, ever doubt you when you say you’ve read some truly bad sex scenes. I’m just grateful that after extensive therapy, I’m finally able to eat salmon nigiri without turning green.

    Robyn: HELL. YES. I forgot about the thundering breastplate. Poor guy. Somebody give him some Tums already, before it turns into a case of thundering roses.

  7. 7
    Jami says:

    I recently read a book where the heroine licks the hero’s armpit. It described the hair and everything. I think I was more repulsed than if she’d given him a rimjob.

    I’m with EAP – I call a cock a cock (or a dick, which lots of editors make writers take out because allegedly readers hate that word), a pussy a pussy, and fucking fucking.  Although my CP had to take most of the fuck’s out of her book (an erotic romance), because again, readers allegedly don’t like it. Which I find very confusing, since the editor had no issues with the dildo wielding scene.  So apparently readers have no problem with giant plastic toys being shoved in lurrve caves, as long as the heroine doesn’t ask the hero to fuck her. 
    Weird. E.D’Trix, perhaps you can shed some light?

  8. 8

    I think some of those literary writers would benefit from an RWA workshop or two on crafting good sex scenes. 

    And yes, I think they have a lot of nerve calling our prose purple.

  9. 9
    Amy E says:

    Hmm… I use “fuck” in my erotic romances, and haven’t been asked to take it out yet.  Then again, there’s, what, roughly a billion and three ER publishers out there nowadays?  I’ve only had contact with 3, so I’m no expert.

    And oh, I cringe to remember my first “serious” attempt at a sex scene.  My heroine had twin globes of softness upon her chest, and it just deteriorated from there.

  10. 10
    Gabriele says:

    Ouch, EvilAuntiePeril, don’t get me started on East German porn. Those and the Schwarzer Kanal (black channel, an agenda against everything West German in such an overdone, polemic way it was funny) were the stuff West Germans watched for the laughs.

    BTW When they searched Honecker’s house, they found a stack of those porn thingie videos. ;-)

  11. 11
    Stef says:

    I think a good sex scene is like a sofa.  Don’t ask me to explain what I want – I’ll know it when I see it.  And I’ll damn sure know what I don’t want when I see it.

    I have to bow out of this one, however, because any snarky comments I might make would guarantee immediate death by lightning bolt.  Why?  Because I suck the Big One when it comes to writing sex scenes.  If I had the nerve to criticize someone else’s….it’d be Instant Death Karma.

    The only one I ever wrote that I kinda liked was not sexy so much as funny.  And those romance readers, they’re so picky about how characters do the nasty – the ed said nobody wants to laugh at a sex scene.  I said why the hell not?  I do it all the time.  She didn’t buy the book – tho I’m still not sure if it was because of the sex scene, or because Flipside bit it.  I’d like to believe it’s because Flipside bit it.  But then, I’d also like to believe all politicians are ethical.

  12. 12
    Robyn says:

    E. D’Trix, it went like this- “Eager, needy, her fingers made familiar contact with the whorls of dark hair covering his thundering breastplate, curling, then scoring into his flesh to make him shudder with pleasure…”

    I remember asking myself if hubby wanted me to buy Sally Hansen’s Hard As Nails fingernail strengthener. But there’s that word WHORLS again. That word just sounds wrong.

  13. 13
    Keziah Hill says:

    Oh God! I’ve been trawling this site for a few days but had to say something after nearly spilling my glass of wine on the key board laughing! Thundering breast plate! Sounds like and angry cooked chook!

  14. 14
    runswithscissors says:

    Shouldn’t there be a romance novels bad sex scenes content?

    Funnily enough, I was thinking about this the other day on my way to work.  The paper I was reading on the train had excerpts from some of the entries for the Bad Sex in Fiction prize … the one that really cracked me up was Giles Coren’s effort, in which the hero left his, um, mark, all over the heroine’s torso, ‘like Zorro’. 

    Some of the writers (mostly men!) on the longlist could, without question, learn a lot from the romance genre on how to write sex scenes that are sexy and not just icky.

    Nonetheless, I have also read some pretty bad sex scenes in romance novels this year … and the one that sticks out in my mind (from an author I usually love) was in Judith McNaught’s Someone to watch over me … I seem to remember the heroine being referred to as a violin, and the hero was going to play her … and then the musical metaphor just got a bit out of hand – gave me the giggles as opposed to making me melt inside!

  15. 15

    Ahhh… Gabrielle, E. German porn is both hilarious and quite reassuring if you have body image problems. Although it may put you off the opposite sex and emotionally scar you for life if you see it too young. I’d never heard that about Honecker, so thanks for that lovely tit-bit.

    And I totally agree with Stef. What’s wrong with funny in sex? Sex is funny – all those awkward limbs and silly noises. And shared humour is very very sexy. To me it implies an emotional connection beyond immediate lust. Although admittedly the more sensitive individual will carefully time their laughter to ensure that it in no way implies a connection with their partner’s physical characteristics or lack thereof. (oops… it wasn’t that, really, promise, soooo sorry. oh well, no, never mind, let’s just have a cuppa and watch the telly.)

    As for descriptive language, I’ve read enough purple prose that it takes a great deal of mewling, thrashing, dewy flesh, creamy softness and velvety hardness to make me flinch. When it’s written by rote I see a few key phrases, think “oh, they’re having sex” and then go into soft focus reading mode unless something leaps out at me. Unfortunately it’s not usually a gem of a phrase in such cases, but a howler. Often it’s novelty vocabulary (verges, paps, nubbins anything with “root”) and over-extended or bizarre metaphors like E.D’Trix’s fish or the male member being described as “large and brown as a loaf”. Come to think of it, are food metaphors are ever resoundingly successful in sex scenes?

    It’s as if some writers feel they have to describe details of a sex scene in order to be believable, and yet (in romance) must remain coy about the words. All the while, many will also strive to be distinctive. It’s actually a fine line to walk, because unlike real life, a writer can’t ask every reader “How’s this?”, “What about if I do that?” Often I think that less might be more. SEP wrote a scene which was mainly a list of words (lick… lap… lappity-lap…), and my imagination was right there filling in the gaps just fine.

    But for me, loaves and fishes aside, a really successful scene is one where I truly believe that the characters are the same ones I’ve been reading about all along. In other words, that the innocent convent-reared Regency maiden hasn’t been suddenly possessed by frenzied aliens from Planet Libido for no apparent reason other than the contractually-obliged doggy-style hot monkey lovin’ in chapter 10… Oh wait, was that a plot device I just spotted?

  16. 16
    E.D'Trix says:

    Jami—

    RE: Acceptable Words in erotic romance, it is so open to interpretation. The one word that I personally want to see banned from all books (not just erotic romance, although I think it is likely found way more often in those) is tits. I just find something so ‘drunken-college-frat-boy’ about it. And any hero who says “Baby, you have magnificent tits”? BLERGH.

    Obviously, it is also a question of context. If there is a scene where a boozed up dude hollers “show us your tits!” I am not gonna want that changed. If totally fits the scene.

    As far as words like dick, cock, cunt, pussy, fuck—well, um, if it is erotic romance, then several of those words should be used. Yes, I have had some of my authors refuse to use the graphic words (most often cunt and pussy) feeling that they are demeaning and degrading to women. I often wonder why they are writing erotic romance.

    IMO, as much as erotic romance is about empowering and reclaiming female fantasies, desire and sexuality, it is also about reclaiming the words. Yes, I AM a smart bitch! Yes, I do have a madnificent pussy, TYVM.

    Where I get a bit squicked out (and yes, this is likely a big ol’ contradiction) is when the writing and language descend into hardcore porn territory. Overuse of the word “dick” can result in a really trashy feel, really quickly, IMO, so I tend to ask authors to use it sparingly, although I certainly don’t ban it.

    I have and will ban words like “jizz” cause, come on! Cum/Come/Semen/etc. okay, fine, but jizz? Not Romantic. And Romance has to be at least 50% of the makeup of erotic romance. At least by my definition.

    Hope this helps a bit. I think as with anything, there is a portion of the editing population whom power corrupts. They tend to morph into the editing gestapo and lay down “laws” that may in actuality not apply. Unfortunate, but there ya go! I like to think that I am willing to negotiate on most anything (note the *most*, LOL), but then, I like happy working relationships, not ones based on intimidation and rules, rules, rules.

  17. 17
    Candy says:

    Parts of this conversation remind me of that Bloodhound Gang song, “Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo,” which has some of the funniest euphemisms of you-know-whats going into you-know-wheres I’ve ever read.

    Here be the lyrics:

    Vulcanize the whoopee stick
    In the ham wallet

    Cattle prod the oyster ditch
    With the lap rocket

    Batter dip the cranny ax
    In the gut locker

    Retrofit the pudding hatch
    Ooh la la
    With the boink swatter

    If I get you in the loop when I make a point to be straight with you then
    In lieu of the innuendo in the end know my intent though
    I brazillian wax poetic so pathetically
    I don’t wanna beat around the bush

    Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo
    Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo

    Marinate the nether rod
    In the squish mitten

    Power drill the yippee bog
    With the dude piston

    Pressure wash the quiver bone
    In the bitch wrinkle

    Cannonball the fiddle cove
    Ooh la la
    With the pork steeple

    If I get you in the loop when I make a point to be straight with you then
    In lieu of the innuendo in the end know my intent though
    I brazillian wax poetic so pathetically
    I don’t wanna beat around the bush

    Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo
    Foxtrot Uniform Charlie Kilo

    Put the you know what in the you know where
    Put the you know what in the you know where
    Put the you know what in the you know where
    Put the you know what in the you know where pronto

  18. 18
    E.D'Trix says:

    Oh dear lord. That is quite possibly the most repulsively awesome song ever. Bitch wrinkle???

  19. 19
    Candy says:

    My personal favorite is “squish mitten.”

  20. 20
    SB Sarah says:

    You are so right about “jizz” and “tits.” Hate both words, unless someone is being deliberately juvenile and then I just crack up. But holy damn hell that is NOT sex. Jizz?! Sounds like someone is trying to create a stucco-faux finish on the walls with, um, too much lovin’. Ew.

    And the best euphamism I’ve ever heard: spearing the hairy donut.

  21. 21
    E.D'Trix says:

    Best phrase I ever heard at a conference session?

    One-eyed, purple-headed, custard-chucker.

  22. 22

    How ‘bout parting the hairy beef curtains?

    And I have a sneaking fondness for the purple-headed warrior of yore, largely because I suspect many men, deep-down, really think of it that way.

  23. 23
    Jami says:

    CUSTARD CHUCKER???!!!  I can’t even… I mean…

    was that something someone had actually written?  Or was he/she purposely trying to come up with a ridiculous phrase?

    Oh, and my personal favorite phrase of all time is “her loins melted like hot wax.”

  24. 24
    E.D'Trix says:

    Well, I have had to discourage many of my authors from anthropomorphising their characters genitals. A lot of “winking cocks” and “weeping pussies”. Although seriously, the weeping pussy is so prevalent in erotic romance, that I only discourage the most egregious instances. I read a book once where the pussy SOBBED. WTF? Thank god it wasn’t one of mine. I laughed for a good five minutes over that one.

    Just recently I had to gently remind on of my authors that no, a pussy did not weep with sorrow, so she might want to rephrase a bit. What’s next? Chuckling scrotum? Worried sphincter? Pouty nipples? Oh wait, that is already commonly used. SIGH.

  25. 25
    SB Sarah says:

    *splutters coffee all over self, which is fine because I am also coated with a fine sheen of baby formula*

    With some of the descriptions for anal sex, the sphincter should indeed be worried.

  26. 26

    “custard chucker”…

    Which reminds me, what is it with the copious amounts of fluid (ahem, “seed”) that is shot out into a welcoming womb with the force and velocity of fire retardant from a highly pressurised hose? And often boiling hot, as well? Imagine the consequences if the hero’s lower pelvic muscles weren’t rock-hard walls of steel and he lost control of the entire apparatus like the puny kid with a big fire hose in cartoons…

  27. 27
    E.D'Trix says:

    John gazed down at Jane’s beautiful ass, chuckling as he examined the furrowed little brow of her worried sphincter. “Don’t worry little fella, you’ll luurve this…”

    As his one-eyed, purple-headed custard chucker began to wedge its way into her dark nethermeats, her ass gasped in shock and then opened in a soundless scream.

    “You’ll like this a whole lot…” John gritted as his chuckling scrotum swung in to enjoy the show.

  28. 28
    Candy says:

    The sobbing pussy is still making me giggle. I imagine one bawling so hard its uvula is showing and going “boo-hoo-hoooo!”

  29. 29
    Candy says:

    EAP and E.D’trix: you’re KILLING me.

    And yeah, what is it with the steaming-hot high-pressure streams of love sauce being emitted all over Romancelandia?

    One of Katherine Kingsley’s romances had a hero coming so hard, he felt as if his guts were being torn out.

    Ow.

  30. 30
    SB Sarah says:

    Oh my gosh, I’m going to wake Freebird I’m laughing so hard.

    Sobbing? Weeping? What’s next, drooling pussy?

    “Her meat curtains drooled like a root-canal patient after too much novocaine?”

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