Jean Thompson
Jean's Blog

On Prince and Writing Sex Scenes

Originally appeared on the Largehearted Boy Blog

She Poured Out Her Haert

I wish I could write a sex scene that was half as sexy as one of Prince’s songs. No, forget half, I’d settle for a lower percentage. The man knew how to light a fire. Some of his songs, especially the earlier ones (“Sister”, “Head”), display a kind of calculated nastiness, and some of his performances were flamboyant sexual theater. One person’s erotic thrill is another’s gross out, and vice versa. But there are songs of his that are guaranteed to put you in a velvet sweat, which is a line I wish I’d written.

Writers of fiction and writers of pop songs both traffic in words. Prose too can make use of musical elements like rhythm, rime, and repetition. But prose is, well, prosy. While anything is possible, I doubt if too many couples have made love to an audiobook version of Bleak House. The extended version of “Kiss”? That’s another story. And if you ever saw Prince in concert, on television or a Youtube clip, in all his preening, thrusting, gyrating glory, headful of extravagant black curls, sequined jacket, white shirt open at the neck, you got the memo. Are there many hot videos of authors reading from their own works? Unknown.

Of course literature is its own formidable art form, with its own possibilities. Writers have their own bag of tricks and range of choices, more so than ever. We can dip a toe into matters sexual or opt for full body immersion. Cultural taboos and restrictions have been loosened. Boundaries have been breached and overrun, and once we did that, we backed up the truck and ran them over once more for good measure. As Cole Porter, who got a fair amount of coded sex into his songs, put it, “Good writers too who once knew better words,/ Now only use four letter words/ Writing prose, Anything goes.”

But how do you convey eroticism without it turning into porn? (Or for that matter, how do you write effective pornography?) There is the dignity of Tolstoy’s formulation in Anna Karenina: “That which for Vronsky had been almost a whole year the one absorbing desire of his life, replacing all his old desires; that which for Anna had been an impossible, terrible, and even for that reason more entrancing dream of bliss, that desire had been fulfilled.” {Part Two, Chapter 11, paragraph 1.} But it doesn’t quite . . satisfy a modern reader. For Anna, circumstance, character, and culture send her into a fatal shame spiral, and that is the story Tolstoy must tell. Still, you might wish Anna had a chance to hear “Delirious”, and realize, perhaps, that this sex stuff could be fun.

So how do you write a sex scene? How to make it romantic, or lewd, or just plain hot? There really aren’t any guidelines. Less is more, except, of course, when more is more. Like the act itself, there are so many ways of doing it wrong. (Note to Hemingway: The earth moved? What were you thinking?) Miscalculations of tone or strategy can leave your reader repulsed, or worse, giggling. Some vocabulary makes us wince or blush, some makes us wince and blush and . . take an interest. Myself, I try never to use the word “thigh” unless I’m talking about fried chicken.

Peculiar things happen when writers meet to discuss their craft and the topic is sex. Once I had to caution an undergrad fiction workshop that they should not inform the administration that we were having a perfectly serious discussion about whether or not to use, in a certain context, “screw” or “fuck”. It was all done in the service of aesthetics. Still . . .

Prince sings about “grinding”, and uses “stroke” as a noun. He sings the word “ass”, and, in “Darling Nikki”, the word “masturbating”. There’s no doubt more unfiltered terminology in the songs that I just haven’t come across yet. It has shock value, sure, but most of the time his musicianship sells it. And unlike words on a page, which you can stare at as long as you please, dirty words in music sometimes make us doubt our ears: Wait, did I just hear what I thought I heard? If you’re old enough, you remember “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen, and all the filthy things we hoped they were saying. Turns out it was just a really really incoherent performance. But it set many a teen-age libido aflame. Suggestion can be just as powerful as statement.

Everybody has their favorite Prince song, and mine is “Little Red Corvette.” It was Prince’s first big Billboard hit, a dead-on mix of sexual poetry and superior musicianship. It starts with a series of shimmering synth chords, all possibility and anticipation, and a drumbeat that leads us on and on.

There’s a fast girl in a fast car. She has a pocketful of Trojans, some of them used. So much for any gossamer romance. There’s hesitation in this encounter, potential humiliation, even fear. But what have you got to lose? “Move over baby/Gimme the keys/ I’m gonna try to tame your little red love machine”, so much for hesitation. Sex wins out every time. There’s a reaching guitar solo, a high, rocking chorus, a tempo change, heavy breathing, the word “smooth” drawn out into into four syllables. And by the end, regret and caution, the aftermath and consequence of all that sexual energy. The girl/car is much too fast, needs to slow down before she drives her body “right to the ground.” It’s a more complicated, satisfying, and nuanced vision than any simply transgressive song. I’ve been singing along to it for more than thirty years now and I don’t intend to stop.

When it came time to write the sex scenes for my newest novel, they didn’t come easily. I remembered a workshop where we all decided that it was easier to write about sex gone wrong, than about ecstatic encounters. For a time we all took a turn at writing our own bad sex scenes and I must say, we succeeded admirably. So I included some bad, mortifying sex in the novel, and some sex that more or less misfires, and, once I got my mind around it, some passages that I hope do justice to the good times. I’m happy enough with those pages. I just wish you could dance to them.