Filed under:

Brenna Bailey-Davies

Four Tips for Editing Sex Scenes

Two people lie cuddled in bed, back to front, their heads on a single white pillow. Two cushions have been placed on one corner of the bed

No matter what genre of fiction you’re editing, you could come across a story that contains a sex scene. So let’s talk about what to look for when editing something spicy.

As always, approach the edits with care and compassion. Writing is a vulnerable process, and many writers feel even more self-conscious about sex scenes.

Please note, this post is specifically about scenes with consensual sex, and I want to emphasize the importance of including consent on the page. I will not address sex scenes with no consent or dubious consent here because editing those requires additional nuances that go beyond the scope of this post.

Consent in a book should always be explicit and enthusiastic to reflect its real-life importance. Depending on the level of detail in the scene, showing safe sex practices on the page, such as the use of condoms and birth control, is also crucial.

Regardless of the scene’s context, showing consent and safe sex practices adds a level of authenticity and integrity that is essential for ethical representation.

Now, let’s get into our four main topics: purpose, emotion, language and inclusivity.

The purpose of sex scenes

The first thing to consider when editing sex scenes is purpose, and this comes into play on two levels.

Genre and target audience

Does the book need a sex scene in the first place? Some genres, such as romance and erotica, often include sex scenes, and audiences will expect them. Audiences for other genres, such as cozy mysteries, could balk at them. Approaches to sex scenes in general fiction depend on the book, so it may be more a question of how well the scene fits the tone of the novel.

Once you’ve established if the book warrants including a sex scene (or more than one), consider what type of sex scene audiences will expect. An open-door sex scene, meaning everything is shown on the page? A closed-door sex scene, where the scene “fades to black” by cutting to the next scene?

A well-read author will likely be familiar with the norms in the genre, but as editors, we need to flag where the text may deviate from reader expectations.

What the scene does for the story

Sex scenes are about more than character intimacy — although intimacy plays a big part. In erotica, for example, one major purpose of sex scenes is to arouse readers. While that may be one of the goals in other genres as well, a scene’s purpose often has more meat to it than arousal alone.

Sex scenes can be essential for the plot. Information revealed in a sex scene could move the plot forward by resolving a conflict or introducing an obstacle, and this can help show character growth by bringing characters together or pushing them apart. 

The role of emotion in sex scenes

Portraying emotions on the page is key for setting the tone and connecting with readers.

What emotions are present at the beginning of the scene, and how do those emotions shift as it progresses? This will depend on the scene’s purpose.

For example, if the characters are keeping secrets from each other, physical intimacy might heighten their feelings of guilt about their emotional distance. If the scene is a long-awaited reunion after a struggle, maybe the characters feel relief and joy in addition to lust and love.

The right language for the scene

Just like the scene’s purpose, the language needs to meet audience expectations.

What type of language will readers of the genre expect around sex and intimacy? Will they prefer swears or no swears? Do they expect explicit descriptions of actions and body parts? And what will they want those body parts to be called?

For example, in reference to a character’s derriere, “ass” would likely fit the expectations of erotica readers, whereas a cozy fantasy audience might expect “butt” or “bottom.” Age group comes into play here as well; a sex scene in a YA book will not look the same as a sex scene written for adults.

Watch for overly creative language when it comes to names of body parts. Imaginative words can often make a scene sound cringey or overly cheesy, pulling readers out of a story. Like with dialogue tags, writers don’t need to reinvent the wheel!

Inclusivity in sex scenes

Inclusivity is essential for editors to address in sex scenes so that writers don’t unintentionally alienate readers.

Part of inclusivity is using gender-neutral descriptions. If something (e.g., a scent) is described as “male” or “female,” nudge the author to be more specific. What makes a scent female? What does a “female body” look like? There is no objectively correct answer, so taking out the word “female” and describing the scent or body shape is not only more inclusive, but also likely to be better writing.

Editing for inclusivity also applies to language regarding how the sex acts take place. Characters will experience sex in different ways and some may need mobility aids or equipment, so keep in mind what is physically possible or preferred for each character.

Most writers aren’t trying to be sexist, ableist or fatphobic, or to exclude transgender, nonbinary and gender nonconforming folks when they write sex scenes, but it happens. It’s our job as editors to point out any potentially alienating language and gently suggest a revision to make the text more authentic and inclusive.

To sum it up

When editing a sex scene, consider purpose, emotion, language and inclusivity. Editing for clarity on these four topics will help your client’s story achieve peak performance in their readers’ minds!

___

Previous post from Brenna Bailey-Davies: On Editing an Editor: Brenna Bailey-Davies and Genevieve Clovis in Conversation

The Editors’ Weekly is the official blog of Editors Canada. Contact us.


Discover more from The Editors' Weekly

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

2 Comments on “Four Tips for Editing Sex Scenes”

  • Susan

    says:

    Hi Brenna —

    Thanks for taking on this topic.
    I’m curious about what you mention in your introduction: “Consent in a book should always be explicit and enthusiastic to reflect its real-life importance. Depending on the level of detail in the scene, showing safe sex practices on the page, such as the use of condoms and birth control, is also crucial.”

    I don’t understand what you’re trying to convey in the second sentence though. Are you suggesting all consensual sex scenes need to show safe sex practices” but to varying degrees, depending “on the level of detail in the scene”? Surely not all sex scenes, although consensual, would necessarily include safe sex practices though … Perhaps I’m misunderstanding yourmeaning. Could you please clarify?

    Thanks very much!

    Susan

    Reply

    • Hi Susan,

      Whether an author wants to include safe-sex practices on the page is their choice (of course), but it helps to normalize safe-sex practices (and reflect their real-life importance as well) if they’re shown. This could be as simple as one character asking another if they have a condom, or a quick line of dialogue about when they were last tested. This will depend on context, of course. For example, if the people having sex have been together for years and are monogamous, maybe condoms and getting tested won’t matter to them. It’s certainly a topic worth thinking about when editing, though!

      I hope that answers your question.

      Cheers,
      Brenna

      Reply

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To top