Books and sexuality

Bad Sex in Fiction award: How to write your romp and still ensure you don’t win it

Advice for budding writers who wants to write about sex but are worried they’ll end up in awards such as this.

The annual Bad Sex in Fiction award is enough to put any writer off writing a sex scene. This year’s examples are as cringeworthy as those of previous years. It’s not that the authors aren’t trying to get it right; a good sex scene is just very difficult to write. Writers often find themselves caught between the cloying pages of a Harlequin romance and the thrust and grind of porn.

It’s what lies between these that’s so difficult to capture – those nuanced moments that are funny or silly or tender or playful and deeply personal to the couple involved. But how can those moments translate into well written scenes?

American Christopher Bolland took the honours this year for a paragraph in his novel The Destroyers in which his protagonist compares his genitals to a billiard rack:

“She covers her breasts with her swimsuit. The rest of her remains so delectably exposed. The skin along her arms and shoulders are different shades of tan like water stains in a bathtub. Her face and vagina are competing for my attention, so I glance down at the billiard rack of my penis and testicles.”

Judges commented that: “They were left unsure as to how many testicles the character in question has.”

Bolland apart, many of the examples in this year’s shortlist might also cause a few laughs – but there’s something surprisingly “right” about many of them. Sex lends itself to hyperbole, especially those first awkward, hyperventilating moments with someone you really lust after. Real life men and women fall into the exact trap the nominated writers have fallen into. We are dazzled, hungry, we behave unlike ourselves. The moment is electric. We are open in all possible ways to new experience. We are nervous, vulnerable, romantic. We blather about stars and moss and philosophy. Therein lies the problem. Just attempting to describe this very human experience guarantees bad prose.

Examples of bad writing in awards such as this are always highly subjective. I actually thought that some of the scenes were quite clever. Take the example from War Cry by Wilbur Smith (with David Churchill). A man on a beach, places his coat on the ground and his girlfriend lies on it:

“‘Christ!’ he muttered, placing himself on top of her. ‘It’s bloody cold. I might get frostbite on my cock.’
She gave a low purring laugh. ‘Silly man. Why don’t you put it somewhere hot?’”

This, I would argue, is realistic sex – as anyone who has had sex on a beach or in a park or the backseat of a car would attest. Sex outdoors is always uncomfortable and the man is quite right to be worried about frostbite. What makes the scene well-wrought for me is the wit of his companion. Good on her for steering his thoughts away from the chill. It’s funny and sexy and the woman is demonstrating female sexual agency. What’s wrong with that?

Lie back and think of Kierkegaard

There are pros and cons to all the other examples, too. Thinking of Socrates or Kierkegaard at a heightened moment might seem sexually inappropriate, but why not? These might be the common thoughts of one of those bearded philosophers you run into in philosophy departments in universities where such places still exist. He’s probably got a mug that says “Philosophers do it better” or “I think therefore I come.” That makes the scene and the inner musings appropriate to character – something we’re always advising emerging writers to do along with “show, don’t tell”.

The awards also don’t take account of the role sex scenes such as these play in adolescent sexual development. As a teenager, I was enthralled by DH Lawrence’s sexual beings – especially in the likes of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love. I also learned a lot from Grace Metalious’s novel, Peyton Place. As far as sex scenes go, both writers managed to blur the lines between good and bad sex. Today, I’d describe their sex as so bad its good. There’s something silly and fragile and exciting and educational in it – and it was especially useful in the days before more open social attitudes.

A few, er, tips

So what advice would I give to a budding writer who wants to write about sex but is worried they’ll end up in awards such as this?

First, choose how you want to choreograph your scene. If you don’t feel comfortable about it and it doesn’t come naturally, draw a curtain on the scene and move on to the next day. And if you want to write openly and honestly, go down the path of realism. Why be afraid to call the body parts by their real names? Metaphors and similes have a place but they may leave you open to ridicule.

Remember, humour is good. Good sex is often funny. Humour also offers the reader a lot of a character. Powerful men and women may be decidedly unassertive in their sexual relationships. There’s a lot of comic potential in pet names and hidden peccadilloes.

Sex is also all kinds of other things that don’t always have a lot to do with the sex itself. Great tenderness is shown between people who haven’t seen one another for a long time or who have finally escaped from a squalling child. Relationships surprise and delight, whatever our sexual preferences or partners, and through sexual attraction we see how much we all just want to be loved or just sexually fulfilled, educated, amused.

As Jarett Kobek says in The Future Won’t Be Long:

“We made love and we had sex and we had sex and we made love. But reader, again, I implore. Mistake me not. I am not your Pollyanna, I am not your sweet princess. We fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked.”

And with that, Charlotte Bronte, eat your heart out.

Catherine Cole, Professor in Creative Writing, Liverpool John Moores University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.