One writer’s position on…(SEX!)

From Cape Town with Love turns up the steam (screenshot courtesy of

Sex is in the air.

I just saw a great post on sex scenes in novels by author L.A. Banks [link below], which nicely echoed some recent conversations of mine.  I teach in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and a male student approached me yesterday and asked me to recommend one of my novels with good sex scenes.

The Tennyson Hardwick novels, of course!  That’s the series I co-author with hubby Steven Barnes, in partnership with Blair Underwood, about an actor-turned-detective.

I recommended From Cape Town with Love or In the Night of the Heat, both of which get pret-ty steamy.  I’m always too shy to read the scenes aloud.  (The audio book version of their predecessor, Casanegra, taught me that words on a page sound even more intimate when they’re spoken. Whoa.)

Sex scenes can be controversial, pushing readers’ buttons.  Some readers complain that Tennyson is too sexual, and others wouldn’t have him any other way.

When Casanegra was first published in 2007, I was so excited that I wanted to have it announced at my church’s Sunday service.  But…well…

Ironically, though, when I was invited to a book club meeting by a church member, attended by highly religious church ladies, no one even mentioned the sex in the book, completely taking it for granted as a part of the story.  I’m embarrassed when older family members read the books, but they’re not complaining either.

The best sex scenes are the ones that deepen and reveal the characters or forward the plot.  What’s the key to writing good sex scenes?  It’s the same standard as any scenes in fiction:  Story logic (don’t ram them in, so to speak), emotional honesty and attention to detail.  I also try to walk a line between being too clinical and too coarse.

One of my favorite examples is “Bring on the Bombs: A Historical Interview” by the great Nikki Giovanni in Best Black Women’s Erotica, edited by Blanche Richardson ( Cleis Press, 2001), where the tumult of the civil rights movement drives a couple into each other’s arms to gain strength from their erotic encounter.

In the second Tennyson Hardwick novel, In the Night of the Heat, we show Ten’s emotional deterioration after a break-up when he seduces a woman who is highly vulnerable because she’s deep in mourning herself.  (A reader recently reminded us about this naughty behavior on his Facebook Fan page when “Ten” dished out his company line about never fooling around on the job.)

In the Tennyson novels, it’s not just sex for the sake of sex.  The novels are told in first person, so the character is the narrator.  He’s a former gigolo who serviced powerful women in Hollywood, and his past creeps up on him at unexpected moments.  He is sexually damaged, and his careful attention to sexual detail is a symptom of his struggles with sex and intimacy.

That’s out story, anyway, and we’re sticking to it.

Unlike Leslie, as she writes in her blog post “Is there such a thing as too much good sex?”, I’ve never had an editor ask me to ratchet the sex in a novel up or down—although I once decided to spice up the short story I wanted to submit to Blanche’s anthology.  The sexual content in my work has always been at my own discretion.

When Steve, Blair and I knew we were publishing a Vook (video e-book) version of From Cape Town with Love, we all agreed right away that we wanted to cut out the explicit content to make it more appropriate for younger readers.  (But trust me, it’s still hot.  That’s where the screenshot above is from.)

But there has been some form of sexual content in almost every novel I’ve published, starting with my first protagonist, Hilton, as he makes love to his wife in The BetweenIn My Soul to Keep, my 500-year-old immortal has understandable sexual prowess. In Joplin’s Ghost, sex pretty much saves my protagonist’s life.  Literally.


Because sex is an important part of life—and it’s certainly a treasured part of mine.

With the Tennyson Hardwick novels, a sexually damaged character is also our way of urging readers to tread carefully.  Sex is powerful, and power can be good or bad.  The If-it-feels-good-do-it philosophy can lead down some of life’s thorniest paths.

Just ask Tennyson.

The Tennyson Hardwick series is published by Atria Books.  The Vook version of From Cape Town with Love is available for computer download at, or as an iPhone or iPad app at iTunes.


Filed under On writing

6 responses to “One writer’s position on…(SEX!)

  1. I loved “From Cape Town with Love.” The sex was steamier than the previous two Tennyson Hardwick novels. I’m glad you didn’t let the sex get in the way of the story. I was sure that your husband wrote the S&M scene…ouch. Personally, bondage is a turnoff, but the book was a page-turner, nonetheless.

  2. Nice!

    It is an interesting issue — in my first novel, “Bite Marks” I felt like there was almost no sex until the end (though one character spends a lot of his time in Times Square peep shows). But in book two, “Blood Pressure”, it flowed out in some chapters very naturally between the characters. I didn’t even think about it until Booklist’s review described it as “With plenty of action and intrigue, plus a fair bit of erotica…” which took me by surprise, but I had to admit was true. 😉

    I think you have it right — it’s best when it moves the story forward, and says something about the people involved, whether it’s who they’re having sex with, why, or the kind of sex — as long as it all feeds back into the STORY! And you ALWAYS do it well.

    One of my favorite bits in “Joplin’s Ghost” was the attempted seduction through the hotel room door by her young fan, and in “The Good House”, when the heroine’s ex-husband is “taken” by the evil spirit and finds himself in the aftermath of a drug-fueled back seat sex scene with a minor — terrible to consider, terrifying, but totally gave us a sense of what was at stake…

    Just keep writing. I love the worlds you create, alone or in partnership with Steven — how great is that to share, so much more intimate than sex — and you do it so well!

    The writing, I mean, I can’t attest to anything else. 😉

    • Terence, thank you! And congrats on the Booklist review! (Reviews are no small feat these days…) Your memory for my past sex scenes somewhat astounds me. I’d forgotten all about that horrible moment with Tariq in The Good House. Dang, you’re good!

  3. Pingback: Tananarive Due Talks About Sex « The Black Lion

  4. Deacon

    Thanks for this article
    I have always been a bit awkward with this subject as a writer and as a christian but at least I have a starting point to operate from based on the opinions of an expert I respect and admire.

    L. E. Gray aka Deacon

  5. It’s interesting (and, for me, timely) that this topic should come up now. I’ve been asked to contribute to an erotica anthology and I’ve been stressing it just a little. With the exception of short scenes in my first DARK DREAMS story “The Track”, and my novella “LIVE AGAIN”, I’ve always shied away from love/sex scenes (I guess they can really be 2 totally different things). I’m no prude by any stretch of the imagination, but I always thought the scenes sounded stupid when I wrote them, like bad 70’s porn (“Excuse me, ma’am. I hear you got some pipes that need unclogging”). I’m glad to see this post, gives me a bit of perspective on the matter. I’ve read all your books Ms. Due, and I can honestly say that the love/sex scenes blend so well with the story, that they not only come off as natural, but also necessary. If I can get even a fraction of that down, I think I’ll be set. Thanks.

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