Cara Sue Achterberg: Why Moms Can’t Write Sex Scenes

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“This post originally appeared in Literary Mama.”


Being a novelist and being a mother, must at times, be exclusive.

2017_January_blog_JenaSchwartz_APO-300x300Photo by Jena Schwartz

Writing a sex scene requires that I pretend I’m not a mother and that none of my children will ever (ever!) read the story in front of me. I pretend they dwell on Mars or Greenland or somewhere with no bookstores or libraries or internet.

Because if I think of them, it’s like trying to have sex with your husband with the door open and the lights on and the sounds of your kids playing video games in the next room. The scene will be very PG.

And before you assume anything, let me assure you that I don’t write erotica. I write women’s fiction and memoir about fostering dogs. Tame stuff. Really.

In women’s fiction, occasionally (okay often), sex does come up. Women have sex. And maybe we don’t obsess about it the way men do (maybe), but when writing an authentic story about a woman’s emotional journey, sex figures into it. No way around it. Even if I plan to spare my readers the gory details, the thought behind the scene still has to ring true. It’s very difficult (at least for me) to imagine a sex scene when at any moment I might be interrupted by a person looking for another jar of peanut butter or the keys to the car.

In a perfect world, when it’s time to write these scenes, I would sequester myself in my lovely writing nook, far, far away from any hint of the existence of children. This isn’t possible (not least of all because I have no lovely writing nook far, far away from the hint of the existence of children) because I’m a writer who doesn’t outline. I follow stories where they take me. Consequently, I can’t know ahead of time that today’s the day the big sex scene is going to happen. If I did, I’d schedule my writing around an empty house and a glass of wine. Sometimes sex just comes upon me. (Please read that in context.)  And if when it does, my 17-year-old daughter is seated beside me on her laptop, well, it’s limiting. Let’s say that.

In my saner moments, I remind myself: My kids will someday have sex. In fact, I suppose it’s entirely possible that they already have. And certainly they know their father and I have sex. Or at least we did. Three times. So why am I so squeamish about writing sex scenes that they might one day read?

Maybe it comes down to a very important point I always make when I teach creative writing: Write like no one is reading. It’s the only way to unearth the most honest story you can write. Later you can edit for a reader, but the initial magic must come with no strings.

And if that means removing your children (metaphorically) from the earth for a time, well, you do what you have to do.

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On March 27, 2017

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