When I was at the Lone Star LesFic Festival in Austin, I was fortunate enough to be on a panel discussing one of my favorite topics—sex. A question from an audience member got me thinking about the sex scenes we write and the vocabulary we use for them. She wanted to know if the authors on the panel kept lists of phrases and words we used to describe actions and body parts, crossing them off as we used them in books and making sure we came up with new imagery for every scene. The question is an interesting one, and the responses to it were as varied as the panelists, but my short answer is no. I was intrigued enough, though, to want to write out a longer explanation.
I spent an enjoyable chunk of time with a thesaurus while I decided what would be on my list, were I to write one. Scrumptious mammarian nugget, mouthwatering womanly chasm, and moist wormhole of rapture (the last in case I decide to write sci-fi). Needless to say, these would be immediately edited out of any document I submitted and would never see the light of publishing day. The fact is—without introducing items from a sex store—there are only a few body parts that play a significant role in sex. I say, call a nipple a nipple. So how do we, as writers, come up with fresh and unique sex scenes for each book, without resorting to the giggle-inducing euphemisms?
Let me pause for a moment to explain the second half of my title. I’m not talking about bringing PB&Js into the bedroom for some sex play, since the thought of the resulting mess kicks my OCD into overdrive. I’d have to throw out the sheets—and possibly the mattress as well—the next day. Yech. Okay…my anti-anxiety medication is kicking in and I can continue… The question in Austin made me think of an analogy of sex to the sandwich we all know and love. The ingredients are simple, few, and easily procured. But ask five people how they prefer to construct this basic sandwich, and I’m sure you’ll get at least five different answers. Crunchy or smooth peanut butter? Raspberry jam or apple jelly? White bread or full-of-fiber-seven-grain-with-flax-seeds? What’s the reason for this seemingly infinite variety of combinations? Personality. Character. Personal taste, personal history, personal appetites.
Character is the key to making a sex scene ring true, feel erotically charged, and affect the reader (and the writer, I must add). When the two characters involved (or more, if you’re MJ Williamz) bring their pasts, their needs, and their varying degrees of ability to understand each other into the bedroom, the resulting scenes feel authentic and different from any other scene with any other characters. The basic act can be straightforward and the vocabulary can be simple, but no other characters would have the exact same experience.
How did this come into play in my latest book, Mounting Evidence? In this instance, the location was the most important variable. The two characters, mounted police lieutenant Abby and wetland biologist Kira, have spent a lot of time and effort building walls around their personal lives and protecting their home space, for different reasons. Their first sexual encounter is outside and in a neutral place, where they can let their guard down for a brief moment. The two later scenes are in places that have greater emotional impact and represent a true sharing of their inner lives. The parts involved are lips and fingers and thighs. Nothing as fancy as a moist wormhole, but the events are significant to them and will seem to the reader—I hope—to be genuine expressions of the emotions specific to them.
So…sex and PB&Js. What are my personal preferences? As far as sandwiches go, I like smooth peanut butter and cherry jam, with a ratio of 1.5:1 jelly to peanut butter. Even though I like most sandwiches cut on a diagonal, PB&Js should be cut across the middle. And, although I prefer artisanal breads with good chew as a rule, peanut butter and jelly belong on the soft, mass-produced bread of my childhood. As far as sex goes? Well, I prefer having it to not having it, and that’s all I’ll say about that…