I’ve come to this conclusion: sex scenes are so difficult to write because sex is the opposite of words. It is visceral and complex and a form of vulnerability that goes beyond what we can speak, even to ourselves.
There’s a lot of fantastic advice about how to write a sex scene – how to use it to forward character and the dramatic arc of your story. But what interests me is the language we can use to come close – and somehow never close enough – to a human experience of the act.
If words can never accurately pin down what sex is, then I’m interested in what can happen between words. If you bring two contrary words together, the reading mind will try to find meaning in their pairing – and will create something wholly new in the process. In A Lady’s Lessons in Scandal, Meredith Duran strings together words to describe her hero, when he begins kissing his heroine: Hot and desperate and gluttonous and hesitant and uncertain and tentative as a boy with his first woman: this moment, this simple bedding, was turning into something strange. For me, it’s the word “gluttonous”, seemingly out of place, that evokes a real human feeling. The same feeling couldn’t be described head-on, because it isn’t concrete.
Language can also be used as touch. The sounds words make – even the shapes letters make on a page – can be used to reach out to a reader and seduce them into a certain frame of mind. Fragments of one word attached, bright and surprising, to another.
I want to be clear that I’m not talking about euphemism. I’m a big believer in calling a body part by its name.
The best example I can give of the kind of language I’m trying to describe is the poem Epithalamion by Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I'm not a huge reader of poems, but this one grabbed me. It goes beyond an overabundance of words – pours words out until they sit in dense clusters of meaning and images that create something altogether new. A sensory world arrived at by the mind.
I encourage you to read the poem – out loud if you dare – and let yourself feel how, beyond language, there is a free, fierce, movement-filled world. If you take the words at face-value many of them are nonsense. Taken together they come close to something that is entirely beyond words.
Hark, hearer, hear what I do; lend a thought now, make believe
We are leafwhelmed somewhere with the hood
Of some branchy bunchy bushybowered wood,
Southern dene or Lancashire clough or Devon cleave,
That leans along the loins of hills, where a candycoloured,
where a gluegold-brown
Marbled river, boisterously beautiful, between
Roots and rocks is danced and dandled, all in froth and
We are there, when we hear a shout
That the hanging honeysuck, the dogeared hazels in the cover
Makes dither, makes hover
And the riot of a rout
Of, it must be, boys from the town
Bathing: it is summer's sovereign good.
By there comes a listless stranger: beckoned by the noise
He drops towards the river: unseen
Sees the bevy of them, how the boys
With dare and with downdolphinry and bellbright bodies
Are earthworld, airworld, waterworld thorough hurled, all by
turn and turn about.
This garland of their gambols flashes in his breast
Into such a sudden zest
Of summertime joys
That he hies to a pool neighbouring; sees it is the best
There; sweetest, freshest, shadowiest;
Fairyland; silk-beech, scrolled ash, packed sycamore, wild
wychelm, hornbeam fretty overstood
By. Rafts and rafts of flake-leaves light, dealt so, painted on
Hang as still as hawk or hawkmoth, as the stars or as the angels
Like the thing that never knew the earth, never off roots
Rose. Here he feasts: lovely all is! No more: offwith - down he
His bleached both and woolwoven wear:
Careless these in coloured wisp
All lie tumbled-to; then with loop-locks
Forward falling, forehead frowning, lips crisp
Over finger-teasing task, his twiny boots
Fast he opens, last he offwrings
Till walk the world he can with bare his feet
And come where lies a coffer, burly of all blocks
Build of chancequarried, selfquained rocks
And the water warbles over into, filleted with glassy grassy
quicksilvery shives and shoots
And with heavenfallen freshness down from moorland still
Dark or daylight on and on. Here he will then, here he will the
Flinty kindcold element let break across his limbs
Long. Where we leave him, froliclavish, while he looks about him, laughs,
Enough now; since the sacred matter that I mean
I should be wronging longer leaving it to float
Upon this only gambolling and echoing-of-earth note -
What is...the delightful dene?
Wedlock. What is water? Spousal love...
Father, mother, brothers sisters, friends
Into fairy trees, wild flowers, wood ferns
Ranked around the bower...