Sex, Sex Scenes, and More Sex

zebadiah nightThere’s a big gaping hole in the way sex is handled in books and in the movies.  It’s either puritanical, where the bedroom door closes and the audience whispers, “Hey, Lemme in!  I paid fifteen bucks! At least show me somebody’s ass.” Or…the writer or cinematographer says, “Okay—you wanna see sex?  I’ll show you SEX!”  Big bodacious, groaning, thrusting, grunting sex, stocking legs wrapped around hairy backs, big tits squished against hairy chests, and a quick flash of somebody’s wiener or pussy.  The woman has to have that progressive series of groans made popular by Meg Ryan in, When Harry Met Sally…while she’s sitting in a restaurant with Billy Crystal…showing him how women fake it.

Porn movies really don’t do it for me very much and it seems like most movie sex is just a thinly disguised rape.  There’s a whole universe of really cool, fun, sexy sex in between. So the big question is: Why is it so difficult to find a good sex scene?

(Spoiler alert:  The actual answer is, it’s harder than you think to write a good sex scene.  You need an emotional build-up for a truly sexy scene and that takes time and a whole lot of effort.)

About a month ago, Pam and I wandered into this discussion.  It began with, “What’s the best sex scene you’ve ever read or watched?”

What’s interesting, is that there was a perfect continuity with what we found to be titillating or at least well-done, and it didn’t require  purple wieners or doors closing on us.

Pam likes the actor, Timothy Olyphant, particularly in his current role as Raylan Givens in the series, Justified, so I knew some scene of his was waiting in the wings.  It came, and so did Raylan in a scene where his ex-wife shows up in his shabby apartment, wordlessly slips off her wedding ring and then slips off her clothes.  No word is spoken in the whole scene, no tight shots of breasts or backsides, and it’s mostly film noir, which is to say, you’re never quite sure what you’re seeing because it’s so dark.  The scene barely lasts two minutes…but it’s good.  The question is: Why?

Well, Timothy Olyphant is a really good physical specimen, as is Natalie Zea, but it isn’t that.  There’s no rape, you can rule that out, and what’s unusual is these two characters were married for years.  What made it exciting and sexy was the emotional tension that had been designed into the scene.  It was a seduction of Raylan by Winona, albeit a noiseless and quick seduction.  Raylan never knew what hit him, and that’s a good part of what made it work.

There are some scenes in the movies, Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons, (which are basically two versions of the same plot) and again, it’s not so much what you see as what is playing out on the screen.  An honest-to-goodness seduction is taking place and I think with that single word, we return to what it’s all about.

From a writer’s point of view, sex scenes are like minefields.  One wrong step and BOOM, you’re stuck in a cliché, where there are transparent panties and ripped t-shirts, or you fade to black and wuss-out entirely.  It’s difficult, it really is.

The first serious manuscript I ever wrote, I discovered sex scenes, and like a teenager, I managed to fit one in every chapter or two.  The secretary enters the philosophy professor’s office and…guess what.  My exuberance was brought to my attention and I left the sex out of the rest of the book.  It was flawed.  I probably would have been better off throwing wild sex chapters in anytime anyone sneezed.  It seems to have worked for Fifty Shades of Grey.  Not knocking that book, it’s good.  But it’s also gratuitous if you think about it.

Which brings us circuitously back to the crux of the conundrum.  Why is it so hard to write a good sex scene?  What’s up?  What do we really want to read…see?

I think the answer lies within ourselves.  There’s the logic side of our minds and the kind loving side.  The logical-and-kind side would say the best sex scene should be between two happily married people who get along and love each other very much.  You just don’t see that scene in a movie…ever, and there’s a reason.  Two words:  No tension.

The film makers understand this, but for the most part, their solution is to peg the meter to the opposite side of the scale.  When a man rapes a woman, there are all kinds of tension…problem solved.  Problem solved?  Not really, though it’s a crutch that is used over and over.  Rape scenes aren’t really about sex so much as control and usually some form of perversion or sadism.

Seduction, on the other hand, can appear rape-like sometimes, but there’s consent, an interplay, a competition, and that’s where the real tension and sexuality take place.  Rape is a violent and cheaply faked replacement for the real thing.

There is a scene in Dangerous Liaisons which comes to mind, in which John Malkovich has tricked the young beautiful maid into giving him the key to her room.  He enters and begins the psychological seduction.  She threatens to scream, but he has thought of that… She has already given him her key and he can ruin her position in the mansion.  To up the ante, he promises that he will leave her room, all she has to do is kiss him passionately.  She kisses him.  He counters that there wasn’t any passion.  She kisses him again, more lusciously.  He repeats the complaint…just one passionate kiss, and I’ll leave.  And so she kisses him hard and passionately and with abandon…as Malkovich gently lowers her to the bed.  This looks like a rape, but it isn’t.  It’s a seduction.

Seductions are more powerful but they’re harder to write.  It’s just a lot easier to have the characters ripping off clothes.

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