Sensuality versus Sexuality: Writing Convincing and (Potentially) Compelling Sex Scenes

by Celia Daniels

If you think writing a sex scene for the first time is an awkward experience, imagine teaching a room full of young college students how to write one. How do you overcome the giggles? How do you begin to explain what writing a sex scene is all about?

I started with a video about food. This video, specifically.


What does this video have to do with sexuality or the act of sex? Next to nothing. However, it has just about everything to do with sensuality. Look at the shots of the roux and the bechamel on the bread. This video about food takes on intimate camera angles; it directs audience attention to sense-based details in order to evoke key, engaging sensations. The sensations in this video in particular can range from intense enjoyment to amusement to hunger – sometimes even hitting all three at once.

It’s important, when writing a sex scene, to consider what sensations you want readers to experience when coming away from the text. How can you, as a writer, direct reader attention to the details that will set the mood of the scene? Alternatively, consider this: is it possible to write a sex scene that is simply “excitement, plateau, climax, come down” and still make it compelling?

Let’s take a look at an example sex scene. The following quote can be found in The Day Before Happiness, by Erri De Luca. It reads:

“She pushed on my hips, an order that thrust me in. I entered her.
Not only my prick, but the whole of me entered her, into her guts,
into her darkness, eyes wide open, seeing nothing. My whole body
had gone inside her. I went in with her thrusts and stayed still. While
I got used to the quiet and the pulsing of my blood in my ears and nose,
she pushed me out a little, then in again. She did it again and again,
holding me with force and moving me to the rhythm of the surf. She
wiggled her breasts beneath my hands and intensified the pushing. I
went in up to my groin and came out almost entirely. My body was her

Yeah, imagine reading that one out loud in front of a classroom of college students.

This is a paragraph that clearly makes use of sensual detail. Note here that “sensual” is not synonymous with “pleasant.” The imagery of the guts is quite poignant, though; the wiggling is notable; and the final metaphor is memorable, if nothing else. Out of context, one could even assume that the tone this paragraph takes on intends to color this scene humorously. In context, this author won a 2016 “Bad Sex Award” from The Guardian and was tonally genuine – no sarcasm here. Based on this information, we can reasonably say that this sex scene is an example of utilizing sense-based detail in a less than delightful manner; the sensations a reader leaves the scene with, rather, don’t necessarily jive with the tone the author intended to convey.

Let’s look instead to one of my favorite novels, The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern. Regardless of plot or character, the following quote is one of the most sensual I’ve ever read. It reads as follows:

“The circus looks abandoned and empty. But you think perhaps you can
smell caramel wafting through the evening breeze, beneath the crisp scent
of the autumn leaves. A subtle sweetness at the edges of the cold…The sun
disappears completely beyond the horizon, and the remaining luminosity shifts
from dusk to twilight. The people around you are growing restless from wait,
a sea of shuffling feet, murmuring about abandoning the endeavor in search of someplace warmer to pass the evening. You your self are debating departing
when it happens. First, there is a popping sound…[a] soft noise like a kettle
about to boil for tea. Then comes the light.”

This scene is not about sex. Yet it has the same structure as a sexual moment – excitement, a plateau,  and a climax. I didn’t want to include the come down because I think you should read the book, but the end of this moment is rather satisfying. Look, too, to the sensual detail – Morgenstern invokes a layer of smells as well as images in order to bring the tone of this scene to life. Audible details put readers in the center of the moment; you’re invited to feel the fascination invoked by the light along with the excitement, the tension, and the snap of the climax.

The tone of this scene is notable, of course – it’s meant to be intense and evocative. Not all sex scenes need to be written in this way or with this tone. The sense-based detail as mentioned above needs to fit the mood of the scene overall. Do you want to write an awkward sex scene? How can you use the senses to emphasize that a situation is awkward or uncomfortable? Want to write a quick fuck in an alley? How can you use the senses to make a reader understand that the situation is desperate?

Use of sensual detail – mood appropriate sensual detail, mind you – is what makes the difference between sexuality and sensuality in the midst of a sex scene. By finding the mood of your scene and then identifying key sensory details that seem as though they would fit, the sex scene you intend to write can be all the more convincing.

Beyond this, there are some general things to keep in mind when writing a sex scene. I shared these tips with my students, and I now choose to share them with you.

-don’t use overly complicated phrases for genitalia
-keep track of limbs, please
-remember to include foreplay
-most sexual situations require lube and preparation. Save space for this.

-Don’t be afraid to get creative with your scenes. If you want to write something new, do a bit of research and see where it takes you.

I also left my students with a writing prompt. I gave them five minutes to write a scene that did NOT depict sex but that was still sensual. The results I got ranged from deliberately funny to purposefully evocative. I encourage you to undertake the same prompt. You may be surprised to see what you can come with

Celia is a teacher and writer who is currently supporting the wonderful  IUWriteCon book giveaway. Celia has work  coming in a few publications out at the moment including, Road Maps and Life Rafts, “Ode to London”, and Magic Jar, “Where Do You Go (When The Noise Gets Too Much?).


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