Recently, I suggested that fiction writers avoid love scenes in their books. (The post is called The Trouble with Sex in Novels.) The reason I offered this advice is because I believe sex scenes are difficult to write well, but easy to write poorly, if you want them to be sexy.
One thing that makes sex scenes hard to write in English is most of our sex words are either clinical or vulgar. For example, in the realm of anatomy, we have these clinical words:
The vulgar words for anatomy are … well, just you never mind if you can’t come up with some yourself. There are plenty. For male anatomy, the vulgar terms tend toward the exaggerated or the humorous; for women’s bodies, unfortunately, the derogatory predominates.
Whether the term is clinical or vulgar, most sex words in English expresses the language’s discomfort with sexuality by placing it an emotional distance, either by intellectualizing sex through the use of scientific terms, or by making fun of sex through humorous nick-names, or by insulting it with offensive phrases.
None of these qualities make it easier to write sex sexy, although they are a treasure-trove bonanza if you are into emotional complexity, tension, and ambivalence (otherwise called “messing with your readers”).
As Anglo-Saxons know, the French handle these matters much better, and it is a French word – “le sexe” rendered into English as simply “sex” – that I find handy when I can’t write my way around the problem entirely.
In French, “le sexe” is a word for the genitals of both men and women, for sexuality, for the physical, psychological, and social characteristics of gender, but not for the act of sex itself, at least according to my Petit Robert (that’s a dictionary not a nickname for well just you never mind), which I have to admit was published in 1970.
So, perhaps my definition is quaintly out of date, but I still like it. It’s straightforward, applies equally to men and women, and encompasses qualities of personality and culture as well as sexuality. Which is, in other words, the way I like to think about the matter.