Strangers and Strategies: Conceptualising the Writing of Sex Scenes

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 10 October, 2018

Sociologists Jennifer Lois and Joanna Gregson found, over the course of their research, that "Outsiders often made comments to [romance] writers that suggested they viewed them as oversexed women who documented their personal sexual experiences and fantasies in their books" (466). Romance writers responded to "outsiders leering at their willingness to write about sex [...] in two ways: granting the request by personalizing their sexuality or denying it by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books" (471).

Writers who adopted the first type of response were

advertising themselves as sexual beings. Though this strategy was not universally accepted, we saw many examples, such as dressing as dominatrices at book signings; singing sexually suggestive karaoke with romance novel cover models at a readers convention; and hosting “post the sexiest shirtless Navy SEAL” contests on Facebook fan pages, often with the explicit goal of growing readership. (475)

Other authors, however, chose to

resist. They mainly did so by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books and framing it instead as integral to the craft of storytelling. If writers could emphasize that the story sex was not about them, they could decline the invitation to display their sexuality, negate the assumption that they were documenting their own sex lives, and gain control over the leering interactions. (476)

Lois and Gregson found that "Embracing either a personalizing or depersonalizing strategy did not create a fixed division among writers, but some writers had strong opinions about how useful and appropriate each strategy was" (476).

It might not be an entirely "fixed division" but I was surprised when I encountered a vintage guide to writing romance that seemed to to employ both strategies near-simultaneously.

In Chapter 10, titled "Will They or Won't They? Writing Sensual Sex Scenes", of Helene Schellenberg Barnhart's Writing Romance Fiction: For Love and Money (1983), a series of short quotes from editors and established authors break up the text. These quotes are set apart from Barnhart's own words by being placed in what amount to boxes, and the text is both in bold and italicised:

“[...] Although naturally the sensual scenes, like the rest of the book, are basically works of imagination, probably I draw on my personal experiences and preferences more for such scenes than for any other part of the stories.” Lynda Ward, romance author (146)

“All you need to be able to write a good love scene is to enjoy making love yourself. Any good romance writer is a romantic and knows that’s one of the best things in life. It should come pretty automatically.” Joyce Thies, one half of Janet Joyce, romance author (148)

“I look for quality writing – immediacy, intensity, sincerity, good dialogue and action, and a rapid plot development that keeps me turning the pages. Where sex is concerned, emotion and sensuality are important, not clinical detail. Whatever turns the writer on will come off the page.” Jacqui Bianchi, romance editor (149)

Ward and Thies are employing strategy one and Bianchi is encouraging a reading of romance novels that links sex scenes with their authors' sexuality.

As the author of the guide, Barnhart does add a little about how her own experiences affect her writing, in a section concerning symbolism:

I'm particularly drawn to the ocean, since I spent my childhood and adolescent years in a house built on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In a sex scene, I might use the ocean symbolically [...] Nature can furnish you with an inexhaustible supply of symbols to use in creating sensual sex scenes [...]. I have found, though, that for a symbol to work, you must be emotionally moved by that symbol. It must have a personal meaning to you. (147-48)

Saying that oceans are significant to you because you lived near one in your childhood is not really an example of strategy one, even if you do suggest that there is little "more sensual than the wind sighing through the pines, or the murmur of the waves as they break upon the beach below the bedroom window" (158). The inset comment which follows this extremely minor revelation, moreover, underscores Barnhart's reticence and modesty because it is the most blatant example yet of strategy one:

I’m always in the mood to write sensual love scenes, undoubtedly influenced by my office being in one corner of a very sexy (to me) bedroom. If this isn’t enough, I need only walk down the stairs and seek my husband. After thirty-three years of marriage, his love is still inspiration enough to have fueled several novels.” Alice Morgan, author of contemporary romances (159)

Rather strikingly, the paragraph preceding this quote is addressed to would-be authors who "feel inhibited or embarrassed at the thought of writing sex scenes for your romance novel, or worried over what your family and friends might think" (159). One might, given the number of inset quotations employing or supporting strategy one, think that Barnhart would proceed to advocate this approach. Instead, the reason Barnhart insists the newbie must "purge" themselves "of this feeling if you have decided to write this type of book" is that "you are not describing your own romance, your own erotic thoughts, or your own sexual experience" (159).

Moreover, the inset statements from Ward, Thies, Bianchi and Morgan seem entirely incompatible with what Barnhart has to say next about what will happen:

If you [...] attend a professional writers' conference. Listen to the pros. You'll soon discover that as they talk about their stories, it is not of themselves they speak. They talk about their heroines and heroes as if they were separate, living people. You'll have to remind yourself that the subjects of the conversation are fictional. Professional writers have no difficulty in putting themselves aside, and you won't either, with a little practice. (160)

This, it seems to me, implies that all authors employ strategy two. I can't help but wonder what effect these mixed messages had on aspiring authors in the early 1980s. Personally, I feel a bit gaslit.


Lois, Jennifer and Joanna Gregson. “Sneers and Leers: Romance Writers and Gendered Sexual Stigma.” Gender & Society 29.4 (2015): 459-483.

Schellenberg Barnhart, Helene. Writing Romance Fiction for Love and Money. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1983.