Writing sex: Who’s your horny reader?

by Jennifer Stevenson

I frequently host a “road show” at science fiction conventions called  “Smut & Nothing But” where half a dozen authors read aloud explicit sex scenes from science fiction, fantasy, romance, and erotica.  There are only two rules: 1) it’s gotta be consensual and 2) somebody gets off.  We always pack the room.

The first year we ran Smut at Wiscon, the feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin, I was a leetle apprehensive.  When we started the introductions, someone in the audience raised her hand (oo! call on me! call on me!) and asked “Excuse me, can you tell me the difference between porn and erotica?”

Me! Ooo, me! Call on me!

I thought, We’re doomed! We’ll never get around to reading.

Mary Anne Mohanraj saved the day.  MAM founded Clean Sheets, an online erotica magazine, so her credentials were impeccable.  She replied, “Well, I’ve written and published porn, and I’ve written and published erotica, and as near as I can figure, porn sells ten times better.”

There was a long silence.

You could see light bulbs going on all over the room.

In the gap created by that silence, we got on with our sex scene readings.

I was deeply grateful for that silence, because I had an agenda … well, at least I had pages and pages of naughty bits to read … but I sometimes wonder what would have been said if we hadn’t proceeded as planned.

My personal light bulb went like this:

o  “Porn” is for men, “erotica” is for women.  (Oh, how many unfounded assumptions are in that statement!)

o  Men buy more porn than women buy erotica.  (Fifty shades of I didn’t quite catch that?)

o  Therefore, it’s all about the money.

That was my butt-ignorant takeaway.  I’d love to hear what all y’all’s light bulbs are.

Moving right along, how does this apply to writing sex?

It’s about market.  Who’s your reader?

Ten years ago I would have said, “Um, a woman?”

Good start.  Now, is she is the “Laura Kinsale sex scene fan” or the “Melissa Craig sex scene fan”?

I have read the big sex scene from Laura Kinsale’s Flowers From The Storm at many a Smut & Nothing But, to the satisfaction of all.  It’s a classic of its kind.  It’s the only sex scene in the book, and it takes place at the end, after the wedding, after “the relationship question” has been happily answered.  It has everything: romantic scene setting, “relationship conversation,” hero’s mushy thoughts about the gleam of firelight on her hair, plenty of naughty bits, the works.  It’s thirty pages long.

Reader, you really earn your orgasm on that one.

At the other end of the spectrum we have my friend Melissa Craig, whose first novel Plentiful Package rocketed to number two on Amazon’s Best New Erotica list in its first week.  Mel’s work has forced me to redefine my understanding of porn vs. erotica.  I now split the hair like this:

Porn:

*ding dong*  “Fed Ex delivery, ma’am.”

“Come right in.  Let’s have sex!”

Erotica:

*ding dong* “Fed Ex delivery, ma’am.”

“It’s you! You’re still hot after all this time! Let’s have sex!”

Mel uses language I always associated with porn, and in the bluntest way.  Laura Kinsale doesn’t leave much to the imagination, but she does it … poetically.  Maybe I could say that one author makes you wait for your satisfaction and the other author doesn’t.

But both of them get me really, really hot.  This, I believe, is because they both report the emotions and physical sensations of their characters with vividness and enthusiasm.  They have very different voices, but both those voices are yelling for more.  And, therefore, so am I.

I guess my sex scenes fall somewhere in the middle, but leaning toward Kinsale–lots more story, more euphemism–oh hell, I can say it.  Melissa Craig’s characters just bang.  They love it, they’re good at it, they don’t wait around.  Kinsale’s characters have to unpeel a lot before they can make love.

I do have a leaning toward bang, however.  I’ll never forget my disappointment in Dorothy Dunnett’s description of the only sex between Francis Crawford of Lymond and that skinny chick he married. I believe the phrase that made that book hit the wall was “caught like stars in the deluge.”  That’s IT? (I remember screaming).  I love those books, but, man.

I seem to have gotten derailed.

Your audience is someone like you.  She, or he, reads to get hot.  If you want to write for her, read the six hottest keeper books on your shelf, and then grade them–who did sex the best for you?

If you’re too chicken to think like that, write something just for yourself.  Promise yourself no one will ever see it.  But cross your fingers.

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Hey, book two of Slacker Demons is now out! It’s Raining Angels and Demons

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About Jennifer Stevenson

Jennifer is rereleasing The Brass Bed series in 2013 as Hinky Chicago. Try the first one, The Hinky Brass Bed. Jennifer is easy to find on Facebook.
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10 Responses to Writing sex: Who’s your horny reader?

  1. I guess I don’t quite grasp the porn/erotica difference either. I do make a difference between erotic romance and erotica – the first one I want a well-developed romantic storyline with scorching sex scenes and the second one I just want the development from one sex scene to the next to be halfways believable – it’s all good as long as it gets me hot.

  2. Cara M says:

    I like my sex scenes to be funny, dirty, and push boundaries. Once it gets repetitive, it’s boring. And honestly, if there isn’t any character development, I won’t find it hot. It doesn’t have to be deep, brilliant character development. But there has to be people involved, otherwise you might as well be describing raking the lawn. It’s just action. Action without meaning is deadly dull.

    For me, porn is visual, erotica is written, but that’s when talking about other people’s work, because erotica is also a more polite term. When referring to my own, it’s pr0n. If I yawn while someone’s reading it aloud, it is neither porn nor erotica, it’s just ‘a sex scene’ completely neutered of effectiveness.

  3. I have a simple definition: If I like it, it’s erotica. If I don’t, it’s porn. That probably means I include boring erotica under porn. It’s a subjective definition and I wouldn’t want to impose it on anyone else.

    Generally, I find implied scenes turn me on more than explicit ones. I don’t mean flowery euphemisms, but scenes where a look or a touch or a word tells us what’s about to happen — or what ought to happen. My imagination is good enough to take it from there. My favorite example is from a movie, not a book: In Tequila Sunrise there’s a scene where Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfieffer look at each other across a table. It’s way hotter than the much-hyped hot-tub scene between them later in the movie, Mel’s butt notwithstanding. I remember thinking when I saw the movie that if someone I was attracted to looked at me like that, I’d melt on the spot (or, as Whoopi Goldberg says, “glide across the room”).

  4. This is a bit off-topic, but I notice that the older I get, the more frankly I am able to talk about sex, sexuality, gender, and all the related issues. Maybe I’ve finally reached the age when I can say “sex” and not have people, men usually but not necessarily, hitting on me. Or if they do, I give ‘em the old grandma glare and that settles it.

    I also notice that one of my reactions to the current political climate is an impulse to not only read porn/erotica/smut — thereby contributing to the financial well-being of them what writes it — but to jump in and write some myself. And let all the neighbors know.

    • Can’t say the current political climate makes me want to read or write erotica, but it has made me want to stand up for women’s reproductive rights, which include the right to have sex for the fun of it without worrying about pregnancy.

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  7. I find that the thing that turns me on is sensuality, as opposed to actual sex. (Maybe I’m not reading the right books?)

    But that long gaze, that casual brush can be an intense turn-on. That’s my goal when I want intimacy in a book. I am glad there are tales of fast sex available for those who want them, but I want intimacy, and finding it feels like a fantasy — so, give me better intimacy with interesting characters and a good story, and I’ll be a loyal reader! As for writing it, we’ll see.

  8. Someone once explained to me–or maybe I read it in a Gina Ogden book about sex–that the function of porn is to smash down the doors in your head that keep you out of the place where you can have sex. I don’t think she distinguished between porn and erotica; I think that line is pretty vague, which is why I can’t really draw it. But she did say that the extreme language of “hard core porn” is used because those words are guaranteed to smash that door flat.

    This clinical approach (Ogden is a shrink) makes sense to me. It’s about the mechanisms of the mind that make us feel sexy, allow us to feel sexy, prevent us from feeling sexy. That technical behind-the-curtain stuff always fascinates me.

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