Sexuality is one of our most basic drives, but it’s also fundamental to our identities as people. Which means sex is the subject of a million cliches, and tons of terrible writing. Not to mention, stupid prejudice. The good news? Science fiction and fantasy writers have a special opportunity to look at sex afresh. Here’s how.
As usual with these writing “how to” articles, I’m not really an expert — but this is a topic that I’ve struggled with a lot, and I’ve come up with some ideas about. So here are 11 tips and ideas on how to make your science-fictional or fantastic sex more interesting. And yes, more diverse — not because “quota,” but because “not being boring.”
1. “Sexuality” doesn’t just mean sex scenes. This should be a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning. A lot of sexuality involves stuff that happens when people are fully clothed, including flirtation but also conversations about starship hull design or whatnot. Sexuality tends to be present in the background of other interactions, even if nobody involved is a creep or a harrasser. A realistically drawn character has sexual and romantic thoughts and feelings in the midst of everyday conversations, even if he or she never expresses them. And if two people have sexual chemistry, they can be looking at star charts together and it can be hotter than showing them boinking. In fact, sometimes the most thrilling fictional sexuality is the least overtly sexual. (But in real life, don’t be a creep or a harrasser.)
2. Sex is never just about sex. This is part of that whole “fundamental to our identities” thing. People use sex for all kinds of weird emotional and psychological purposes. Including dealing with insecurities, coping with loneliness, subverting a power dynamic, or having “revenge sex.” And then there’s the ever-popular pity fuck. Just as you can carefully include sexual subtext in non-sex scenes, you should be aware that every sex scene has a non-sexual subtext. (Or it’s probably a boring sex scene.) When Spock and Kirk have sex (as they so often do, in all good fanfic) they are dealing with conflicts and issues in their friendship, but also maybe exploring scenarios where Kirk doesn’t have to be in command the way he is in their day-to-day interactions. When you go to bed with someone, you bring all your issues — about money, about science, about self-image — with you. The more you acknowledge that stuff during an actual sex scene, the hotter and the more interesting it will be.
3. Synecdoche is your friend. So is metonymy. One of the most cliched shots in softcore porn movies is the one where one person’s hand is clutching the sheets, and then the other person clasps their hand. It’s just a close-up of two hands. It’s cliched for a couple reasons — it’s not a shot of anybody’s junk, and it’s effective. So in prose fiction (or your screenplay or whatever), I’m not recommending you describe people’s hands, necessarily. But bear in mind that the part can stand in for the whole, and the captain’s uniform pants can stand in for the captain. Sometimes, you can convey a lot by just focusing on one part of the scene, or by an object that’s symbolic. Which reminds me: what is your viewpoint character looking at during the sex scene? Is it her handheld communicator, sitting on the dresser nearby, which she’s afraid is going to ring? Is it some part of her lover? (Like a wrist, or neck?)
4. People get leg cramps. Really, they do. They get charley horses, and someone’s knee jabs someone’s thigh, and people get asthma attacks, and headrushes and giggling fits.
5. Sometimes the plainer the language, the more intense it seems. And metaphors often have a way of seeming silly, when you’re talking about something that’s both personal and super-intense. There’s a reason so many bad writing contests and showcases focus on sex scenes — it’s very easy to veer into purple prose when you’re describing the mechanics of jubbly bits. That’s one reason why it’s sometimes better not to describe the jubbly bits at all — see “synecdoche/metonymy is your friend” — but also why plain language is better. Don’t use synonyms or colorful terms for “penis,” just say “penis.” Don’t use flowery language, just say what happened in as unadorned prose as you can managed.
6. In the best sex scenes, people often have something to lose. This goes along with the notion that sex is about other things besides sex. There’s a reason why we’re more interested in sex between people who are emotionally vulnerable, or cheating on someone, or trying to prove something, than in sex between two well-adjusted people who are feeling completely secure. A good sex scene is quite often suspenseful — like, if this doesn’t go the right way, someone is going to be in a bad way. If both people in the scene are trying to show that they’re in control of what’s happening, that can be more interesting — but so can watching someone who’s always in control give up control, and face the potential consequences. Janeway/Seven image by AlvaroJane.
7. Likewise, desire is often hotter and more believable when it’s ambivalent. In real life, people often want things that they also have negative or confused feelings about — because our society is weird and we impose a lot of baggage on people’s relationships. This isn’t just for queer people — all kinds of desire come with weird hang-ups and internalized self-hatred and prejudice. Including internalized fatphobia, ableism, ageism, and so on. It’s amazing how many kinds of desire our society has managed to stigmatize. So in fiction, desire is often more believable if there is conflict and guilt and weirdness attached to it. Even desire between two ostensibly “regular” straight white people is going to have weird hangups, which you can allude to without wallowing. (Unless you want to go to some really dark, John Updike-y territory here.)
8. If you’ve met one queer person, you’ve met one queer person. Especially nowadays, LGBT people have so many subcultures and regional differences and cultural divides that there’s no such thing as a unified queer culture. That means stereotypes are even sillier than ever before, but also that “authenticity” is a more slippery concept. And if you’re a straight person writing queer characters, the most important thing is to make them feel like real people with real lives and honest emotions.
9. Sex is already kind of science fictional. Seriously. It’s this weird biological process that involves organs that change shape, and bizarre fluids and people going temporarily insane and entering an altered mental state. So it’s easy to imagine hacking the biology in truly strange ways, the way Lois McMaster Bujold, Rudy Rucker and Ursula K. Le Guin, among others, have. Sex is such a bizarre thing, no matter who’s having it or how, that it’s shockingly easy to imagine a wildly different version of it. Just read some biology textbooks, or Evolution’s Rainbow by Joan Roughgarden, to see how varied and strange sexuality is in real life, and then imagine how it could evolve on other planets, in wildly different ecosystems.
10. A realistic, believable society will have sexual difference. So yeah, if your futuristic utopia doesn’t have any LGBT people, or anybody whose sexual desires aren’t in line with the median, then it’s a painted canvas backdrop. If your picture of early 21st century Earth is all straight people, the same thing applies, and ditto for the humans living on another planet light-years from here. But also if you create an alien race with a very different reproductive system, it’s worth considering how some members of the species will probably have different or non-confirming desires.
11. Sex is really silly. I feel like a lot of the preceding advice is advocating a really serious “warts and all” approach to sexuality in fiction, including speculative fiction. But actually, sex is really weird and silly, and ideally enjoyable. In spite of all the social baggage and the fear of STDs, sex is both fun and funny. For any kind of absurd or zany look at humans, sex is a terrific window to our ultimate bizarreness. Don’t be afraid to have fun with this stuff.