It's true, even the hottest sex scene would be ruined--for me, at least--if a male character slowly unzipped their pants to reveal their... jade stalk. ("Cockstand," however, would be okay. I have made my peace with cockstand.) Sexual language is so personal and all tied up with the particular brain synapse connections we've made over a lifetime. One person's hot talk is another's desire killer. For example, I can't stand the term "making love" because that's what my parents called it during "the talk" with us, thus rendering the term permanently icky. (Subsequently intolerable 1970s songs: Feel Like Makin' Love, Feel Like Makin' Love, et al...) But to someone like, say, Alan Alda, "make love" is probably a sexually-charged phrase, imbued with all sorts of longings, memories, and images. "Pull off that cowl neck sweater and let's make love, Ellen Burstyn," he perhaps whispers in one of his fantasies, an old favorite. (Alan Alda, if you're reading this, I apologize for speculating on your sexual fantasies. It won't happen again.)
The problem of writing a decent sex scene confounds even the most acclaimed writers, hence the existence of the Literary Review's Bad Sex in Fiction Award. This year's winner, announced last week, was Rowan Somerville for The Shape of Her. His competition was tough--Jonathan Franzen was among the other nominees--but it was prose such as this that pushed Somerville to the top:
"Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her."That sentence alone would probably be enough to put Somerville on the top of the list (except perhaps to that one weird dude from the Entomology Department who keeps taking The Shape of Her into the bathroom with him) but he kept the bad sex coming. In one passage, he described pubic hair "like desert vegetation following an underground stream" while another read:
For a man who though it would be a good idea to describe a breast as a salt-dispensing rodent's nose (albeit the "loveliest" one), Somerville gave a surprisingly well-worded acceptance speech. "There is nothing more English than bad sex," said Somerville, upon receiving his award. "So on behalf of the nation, I thank you."
By the way, if you are contemplating writing a sex scene and want to avoid winning such an award, you might eschew the talk of salt-dispensing nipples and go with more generally accepted sexual language. One dude calculated the top penis synonyms used in romance novels and found that most common word in penis references was "hard," followed by "manhood," "erection" and "throbbing." Feel free to mix n' match these words--throbbing manhood! erect hardness!--or borrow something from his frighteningly exhaustive list of bulging, jutting, straining synonyms like "evidence of his arousal," "fullness" and "aching shaft." If Somerville had just replaced his weird-ass insect imagery with an "aching fullness" or two, he wouldn't now be world-renowned for bad sexual writing--an honor I imagine has thinned his dating pool considerably.
In the meantime, I have to ask: what sexual words make you cringe? That is, what is your "making love"?