Writing about Sex – How do you do it, and how did Jane Austen?

Writing about sex is an area that most novelists have to grapple with at some stage of their writing careers. For others it is their career. Jane Austen had a specific way of dealing with this. I didn’t know this as I am not a reader of Jane Austen. However, serendipity led me to this. Here’s how it happened.

Jane Austen Photo - Imagine her writing about sex

Colorized engraving of Jane Austen, based on a drawing by sister Cassandra. (Photo: Author unknown, [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

I picked up an old newspaper this morning to cut out the Toughie Crossword for future puzzlement (they usually take me about 3 weeks to complete). The paper was the Daily Telegraph of 30 May 2017. There was an interesting piece in there about the Hay Literary Festival and specifically on the subject of Jane Austen and the way she wrote about sex.

My own experience writing about sex

I don’t often write steamy scenes in my novels, but in Sicilian Channel there was an exception. The scene just flowed from the story and seemed perfectly natural in the context.

Only one person has commented on the scene I wrote and he said that it made him feel uncomfortable. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to dig deeper into that view. There was nothing ‘unnatural’ in that specific scene (although some other scenes were arguably sexual from an S&M perspective as one of my characters is a lesbian psychopath).

The Jane Austen way

Anyway, back to the main point, which is that the way in which Austen wrote about sex was very subtle. Despite the fact that she had not experienced sex with men (see the DT article for ‘expert opinion’) she was able to build sexual tension. Today, much writing is very explicit and arguably we are over-exposed to detail. Compare that with the way that Victorian man – and perhaps some women – found the relatively rare sight of a woman’s ankle to be very stimulating, almost in the way that the scratching at a door can be terrifying in a ghost story (such as in ‘The Haunting of Hill House’ by Shirley Jackson). My own writing generally inclines to the subtle technique and leave the rest to the reader’s imagination.

The question for writers is ‘what do your readers want’? The man who had commented on my explicit scene was bang slap in the middle of my target demographic, so I was surprised by the comment. Two books later I still have not ‘gone explicit’ again when writing about sex, but that is not because I have avoided the scenes, it’s just that the story didn’t take me there. One more thing – they say that a man in his prime thinks about sex every 20 minutes or so. I’m not in my prime anymore, so could my writing about sex reflect my own stage of life? After all, I only think about sex every 30 minutes now.