Are men worse at writing sex than women?

The Literary Review has announced its nominees for the 2011 Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

If you’re not familiar with the Bad Sex in Fiction award, I can’t describe it any better than Jezebel magazine does:

[E]ach year the Literary Review has singled out an author who writes awkwardly enough about sex to convince readers that the winning author’s experience with actual sex acts has been limited to puppet performances put on by a middle school health teacher who had a very limited sense of irony.

Frustrated man at a laptop

This year, male nominees far outnumber females, an occurrence that isn’t unusual. In fact, only two women have won the undesirable award since it began in 1993.

So are men worse at writing sex than women?

This Jezebel article, How Come The Worst Sex Writers Are Always Men?, poses a couple of interesting theories.

First off, men outnumber women in both commercial and academic publishing houses. Shockingly, only 15% of the authors at Harvard University Press are women.

The author of the Jezebel article thinks men are more heavily represented in the Bad Sex in Fiction awards for a different reason, though.

[S]ince women had (and often still have) to actively wrest control of their own sexuality away from a patriarchy that often determines how the female body is used and represented, they are able to speak with greater comfort and authority about sex when they achieve sexual autonomy. The difference between male and female authors could be as simple as the difference between the heir to a fortune and the entrepreneur who builds her own fortune from nothing — the heir would be more likely to take wealth for granted as a precondition and would have a harder time understanding how wealth is created and how it skews his worldview. In a word, this difference is entitlement and men have been entitled to sexual agency for much longer than women.

The Shape of HerOr maybe bad sex writing is a badge of patriotic dishono(u)r. 2010’s winner, Rowan Somerville, said: “There is nothing more English than bad sex. So on behalf of the nation, I thank you.”

His novel The Shape of Her won because of erotic sentences such as: “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”

Seriously, only an Englishman would could consider moth-collecting sexy.

Romance readers might think that some of the bad sex writing sounds familiar. In 2008, John Updike won the Lifetime Achievement Award for writing a wealth of sexually awkward novels that include sentences like: “His man seed exploded into her womb.”

I hate to say it, but I’m sure I’ve read similar sentences in some romance novels. Although I love and defend my genre, I have to admit I’ve read many, many a torturous sex scene in romance novels. Are women literary authors more likely to have read similar scenes in their lives and worked hard to discover more thoughtful, less cliched ways of describing the act?

So is it the case that men really write worse sex, or does the Literary Review not include romance novels in its scope because, well, many people would take it as a given that they can include eye-gougingly horrible sex descriptions?

Man hiding face

Maybe it’s down to the differences between how men and women communicate about sex. I don’t just mean the way they speak about it, but how they encounter it outside of their personal experiences. For the generations of authors who are nominated for the award, I would guess that women were more exposed to sex in novels than men were. Men who are in their 40s and upward now may have learned about sex more through pornographic videos and movies, or nudie magazines – media where the language used would be less diverse than in novels. Could that lead to them using stilted, awkward language when writing about sex themselves?

Do you think men deserve to be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction award in such great numbers? Why do you think they make the list more often? Does writing bad sex reflect thoughtlessness  or less finesse when it comes to real-life sex? Or does it show that men are less comfortable communicating about sex than women are?


  1. I have no idea if men are worse than women at writing sex scenes, but in the case of “The Shape of Her” I can understand why it won.
    “screwed himself into her” – I laughed out loud, and thought “how very uncomfortable” at the same time 🙂

    1. It’s an awful comparison, isn’t it? I pictured a penis like a tapeworm, which really is a mood killer. Of course, the book is apparently meant to explore sexual relationships, not be titillating, but still that expression turned my stomach. And it made me picture the woman as being a cork board. Not a book I’ll be putting on my Christmas list.

  2. I think it’s the difference in the sexes. Most men just think differently than women. Maybe a man would read that above comment and think it makes sense to them lol. I am reading a romance by a man at the moment and it just doesn’t ring true to me. There isn’t a man that I’ve ever known that would talk or think the way the man in this book thinks. Not to say there aren’t some out there, but I don’t know any lol.

    1. That’s really interesting that you’re reading a romance by a man and it’s the hero who doesn’t ring true, catslady. I would’ve thought the heroine might not feel realistic, since I know many women struggle with writing credible male characters.

      I think you’re right about the difference between the sexes, too. After I posted this on Twitter yesterday, a man (@jatrudel) tweeted me and said:

      Goes to social IQ and dif psych forces btween sexes. Men think they don’t equate sex & love, yet their egos say women do.

      It made me realize that, while many men think they don’t equate and love, many women like to think that love makes sex more erotic for men. Maybe the reason more male authors make this list is because they tend to write scenes where there’s sex without love or caring, and that feels crass to us. What do you think?

  3. Apologies Kat. Just found your blog! Women, I believe, and after all it’s pure speculation for us males, can be just as unemotional about sex as men, a characteristic which males think we’d love in a woman but truthfully we don’t ever want to hear in someone we love, hence the labels we attach, whore, slut, etc. And yet, are we not also?

    Experience tells me you ladies are physically and emotionally tied at the hip to childbirth and family. You’re much more aware of the complexities and consequences of intimate relationships when you’re in the moment. We seldom make those connections, if at all, and we’ve been excoriated for it. Regrettably it is our nature. Funny thing is we are much more likely to become emotionally involved after the fact, outside of sex. Just my two cents.

  4. I would assume it’s more that men view sex very visually, at least from my experience trying to write sex scenes. I always get really caught up trying to come up with the perfect description of how it looks, and I have to keep reminding myself that for all of that wasted attention to detail I can basically just have my character think “wow, this is great” and get a much better effect. I empathize quite a bit with the lepidopterist guy, because I’ll come up with something that I think is a great description, only to read over everything later and realize that it’s decent writing, mechanically, but doesn’t add any feeling. But when I’m writing it, it always seems like if I get this description right everyone will just feel what they’re supposed to feel when they would see that.

    I know I’m way late to this blog, but I feel like I have an interesting perspective on things because I’m ftm transsexual (thus have had to “wrest control” of my sexuality), have read tons of erotica (pre transition I strongly preferred it to porn), and still can’t seem to get past this complete failure to write good sex scenes. I honestly feel like it’s just the result of someone whose sexuality is very visually driven trying to convey it in print.

    And, as an interesting point of consideration, visually driven sex drive is very much anecdotally tied to testosterone, and I’ll even notice mine changing a bit if I’m late with a shot.

    1. Anon, thank you so much for sharing your unique perspective. I really appreciate it. I hadn’t really thought about how visual men are before or linked it to testosterone. It’s something I’ll be more aware of when I write sex scenes from a male perspective. I have a tendency to make my guys get emotional and snuggly at the key moment. 🙂

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