Q&A

How Do I Write About Casual Sex Without Making It Fanservice for Men?

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In many stories, we have male heroes who go on their adventures and while they travel have several sexual encounters, loveless sex, and being generally free when it comes to sexuality.

I think it can be used well and serve the characterization, but the problem is I want to try doing so with a female hero. And as a male author, I fear I will just make it look rude, insulting, or “fanservicing”.

Have you any advice to help me depict this seriously and with the due respect?

– Chris

Hi Chris,

That’s a great question. I totally support your goal of having a female protagonist that has a series of casual sexual encounters. That will feel liberating for many women.

Even if these scenes have a male protagonist, they can still come across as what I call “gratuitous male wish fulfillment.” That’s not always bad, but the problem is that this kind of fanservice just for men permeates stories that are supposedly for everyone to enjoy. It feels extra bad when the protagonist is a woman, because stories about women should at least be welcoming to women readers.

So let me go over some of the things that tell readers who the sexual encounter is written for. You can apply that to your writing regardless of the gender of your protagonist.

Who’s hot, and who’s not?

Forgive me my retro web reference there. But one of the biggest indicators is how much attention is paid to showing how a character in an encounter is sexy or otherwise attractive. Straight men have a tendency to go into great detail about all the hot hot hot physical features of women in their stories. But the guy she has sex with? Barely described, and not particularly attractive as far as readers can tell. Maybe he’s way older than she is, or he is a socially awkward nerd. This makes it impossible for women readers to believe the female character would want to have sex with him at all, much less enjoy hearing about her encounter.

Attraction doesn’t necessarily have to focus on the sexiness of someone’s body, but it should feel like the woman has a strong reason to be into the person she’s with, one that women readers would actually find compelling. If her encounter is with a man, maybe he loves puppies and talking about his feelings. Maybe he’s dark, angsty, and mysterious. There’s plenty of material written by women for women out there that can give you examples of what women find attractive in a partner.

Are we watching them do sexy things or focusing on how they feel?

If the narration focuses on all a woman’s movements during a slow strip tease, it prioritizes her as an object of attraction over the experience she’s having during that moment. If the narration is for women, it’ll focus on what she is getting out of the experience, not what titillation she is providing to her partner. How does she feel while this is happening?

If this is a scene between women, it’s okay to describe how the love interest is attractive, but I would keep the description of how sexy her body is to a minimum and focus on the connection they are making and how they are making each other feel.

Who’s empowered?

Last, just remember that a protagonist should be proactively solving the problems of the story. If you have a male character who’s super badass and fixes everything and a female character that just trembles in a corner while he does, and then they get it on, it’ll feel like this is a story for men but not for women. To be clear, woman writers make this mistake too. A male character who is competent is more attractive, but if that goes too far, he can steal the spotlight from the main character.

Happy writing!
Chris

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Comments

  1. Lizard with Hat

    Hi Chris,
    I have a question about this quote.
    – “Maybe he’s way older than she is, or he is a socially awkward nerd.” –

    I first wondered what is wrong with a socially awkward nerd or an older lover – but really don’t get it.

    Or is it that we don’t get told if the man is the on or the other because all description we get is about the woman?

    I am at a loss here.

    • Leon

      I think it’s about the idea that women are less interested in the aesthetic appeal of men, causing authors to leave out such details, but not offering something else for women to enjoy.
      Kind of like inviting a Muslim to a bbq and only serving pork.

    • Brigitta M.

      I second this comment, the “hard, chiseled male” as the only type that straight women are attracted to should be relegated to Harlequin novels as the standard as to “what women like.” What one woman calls a “socially awkward nerd” might be “adorkable” to another one. Also, a lot of women like older men, especially in the context we’re talking about here. Experience certainly has its perks.

      Instead of focusing on what women are “supposed to like” perhaps it should be more on focusing on what this particular character prefers. I think what’s most important isn’t that we necessarily agree with the type of partners a character picks, but understand their reason for doing so…and sometimes, in the realm of casual sex…it’s “Well, he had a tight butt” or even “He was there.”

      The difference really, isn’t so much as to whether or not he likes puppies (maybe he’s a cat person, but we’re not talking marriage here) but that, as has often been discovered…men can say the wrong thing (ie: I once had a guy who talked about how his dog had eaten his ex’s kitten…like ew…and a bit extreme, but still) even when she’s in the MOOD and that mood is gone like it was never even there. I’ve never heard of the reverse (where a guy’s mood is gone because the gal said something and I don’t know enough non-straight relationships to say if anything like this has happened there). Doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, just never heard of it.

    • Cay Reet

      I think it’s more of a problem if the woman is super hot, super young, and super sexy and the man is … not what most women would characterize the same way.

      It’s perfectly fine for the male character to be a lot older (but in that case, I’d give the women some years, too, make her at least something around 25 and not around 18, so she does have some life experience as an adult). It’s perfectly fine for a character to be an awkward nerd. But you need to give more reason than just ‘he’s there’ for sex. If you introduce the female MCs interest in older men or in that socially awkward nerd before, nothing is wrong with her having sex with them. Everyone has different interests when it comes to partners.

      However, because the turn-around (older or socially awkward male MC gets hot, young woman as a reward for their heroics) is very common, you should establish the female lead’s interest in the partner early on.

      • Brigitta M.

        It seems like you’re putting limitations on women where there aren’t any. What person A looks like has very little bearing on what their preferred casual sex partners look like. When you consider all of the odd-couple relationships…and that’s for marriage…casual sex partners have an even broader range because the longest it’s going to last is until the morning (or the afternoon, depending on when it started).

        Even then, an overall preference can be flexible. Today she might like the guy with the cute smile, tomorrow she’ll be with the great conversationalist, and the next time she’ll be with the jock because darn it, sometimes she has energy to burn and wants someone who can keep up with her.

        And while I agree that focusing on the woman’s feelings on this is important, I also feel like we need to make it ok that women not only have casual sex, but a lot of times the reasons they choose these partners for these one-nighters (or nooners, depending) aren’t fraught with deep emotion but for the sheer physical pleasure of it.

        • Dvärghundspossen

          I’m SORT OF with Brigitta on this one. I think it would be fine to have a female MC just be super horny and bone some random dude just because he’s there. ONCE.

          But it starts going into male fan service territory if she’s always up for it with whoever happens to be nearby. (See one of my posts below for a longer comment on this.)

          And note: There are probably some women out there who really have no preferences, ever, at all, and really love to have sex with whoever whenever someone hits on them. And that’s fine. But now we’re talking fiction, and whether we like it or not, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it relates to pre-existing tropes and stereotypes.

          • Cay Reet

            I have no problem on principles with a woman just sleeping with a guy because she’s horny. I have a female agent who pretty much used to do that (she’s in a long-term relationship now because I was tired of inventing new guys for every novel and because I wanted a relationship with changed rules, the woman going out and doing the heroic stuff and the man staying at home and taking care of her injuries and making her comfortable afterwards).

            There is, however, the whole ‘woman as a trophy’ trope and I’m weary of that. If it’s clear beforehand that the woman makes the decision to have sex freely (not coerced or ‘because the dude just saved her’ or a similar explanation), then I don’t mind much whom she has sex with – that’s down to her preference and the partner available.

        • Rose Embolism

          I agree with Brigitta that there should be no real standards on who a woman will partner with outside of who she personally finds attractive at the time, as long as there’s something there she likes. Right now I’m remembering an old Kinsey Malone story where she commented in her head that wearing a really well tailored suit was an aphrodisiac to her.

          On the other hand, my impression of what Chris said was more to avoid playing to the presumably “geeky male audience”, or worse, having the guy look suspiciously like the author. I mean it’s a trope of Great American Literature for a guy who’s a middle aged professor writer to hook up with a gorgeous college age woman- and I’ve even seen that with female protagonists.

    • Chris Winkle

      Okay Lizard with Hat, I’ll clarify. The dynamic between “hot woman” and “socially awkward nerd/older guy” does not mean that socially awkward nerds or older guys can never be an appealing sexual partner or romance interest.

      It represents the way that men write male characters to be a relatable “average joe” type character, and then write female love interests who seem to have popped right out of a straight male fantasy. In these cases there is a serious imbalance in whether the character is designed for people like them or for other people to be attracted to them.

      It shows up in a variety of ways besides looks and demographics. In many of these cases the male love interest isn’t doing anything at all to be worthy of her attention, such as being emotionally supportive, helping her, giving her things, nada. Or he is but he’s also a serious creepster.

      It this imbalance that needs to be corrected. If the woman gets to be a socially awkward average-looking nerd, then there’s no imbalance if he is too.

      • Lizard with Hat

        Thanks for clarifying, Chris

        So it’s not about the male being some nerd or old guy – but the fact that they get a girlfriend without putting work into a stable and healthy relationship. And the feeling of said girlfriend are glossed over.

        Did i get it now?

        • Chris Winkle

          Yeah, that’s pretty much it.

          The question to ask is just “What is it about him that she’s attracted to?” There needs to be something.

  2. Leon

    Although every person I have ever been with has told me that I’m “the girl” in the relationship, when writing I am still extremely visual.

    I find the most effective way to make scenes appeal to women is to first write it from a visual perspective, because I need visuals to understand what is happening (and be sure that what is happening is possible). And then rewrite the scene from inside the girls head, shifting the emphasis of the writing onto the thoughts and emotions and letting the actions be secondary.

    If you know your characters well enough, it should simply be a matter of shifting focus.

  3. Dvärghundspossen

    I agree with the rest of the comments, but I don’t think that Chris actually meant that women can never be into older men or nerds… But if you write about a woman having casual sex with a nerd, describe him from her PoV in a way such that he actually comes across as adorkable. Etc for other types.

    Also, I wanna see women who really wants to have sex, not women who reluctantly “give in”.

  4. Jonaelize

    I think, one of the best ways is to have the women be the more active one. She ist the one actively looking for an encounter, initiating it or directing the partner in that direction. It doesn’t just happen to her.

    And as already said, concentrate on what she feels about it. If you write in her POV, her gaze lingers on the partner and what he (or she in a case of a same sex encounter) does, not on a description about her own sexy body/moves.
    I also think all kind of partners can be attractive to her, older, dorky, burly, what have you. But it has to be made clear why she got attracted and this isn’t always about the looks.

  5. Dave L

    If your female hero is sexually liberated, great

    If she goes around thinking about how liberated she is, how wonderful it is she can sleep around w/ no attachments, etc., not so great

    If she puts too much thought into how free she is, either the character is actually uncomfortable w/ this or the author is

    Yes, this might be appropriate for a certain type of character, but it doesn’t sound like what you’re aiming for in this particular case

    Good luck

  6. Dvärghundspossen

    One more thing strikes me… I’ve occasionally read stories where a slutty woman comes off as mere male wish fulfilment because she’s got NO preferences, she’ll just sleep with ANYONE who hits on her.
    Like, I used to be pretty slutty when I was young, I slept around quite a lot, I occasionally slept with people I just met etc, and I think that’s slutty by most people’s standards. But the thing is: I turned down a lot of guys TOO. If you’re a conventionally attractive girl/woman who regularly hangs out with various guys/men, party with men etc, you’re gonna get hit on a lot, so even if you, like, sleep with some new person on average once or twice a month, you’re still gonna turn down plenty of guys too because they’re not your type or whatever.

    However, there’s a female wish fulfilment trope which is also incredibly stupid: having the MC be constantly adored and hit on by every man who crosses her path, just so she can turn them down. (I mean, it’s not actually fun to turn people down in real life, but it still seems to be a common fantasy). It’s usually female authors who do this, but it’s a stupid trope regardless of the gender of the author.

    So I think there should be some balance; at ONE point, at least, someone might hit on the heroine and she’s just not interested. The heroine also interacts with men without sexual tension at all. And finally, she has some casual sex with people she does fancy.

  7. Innocent Bystander

    Why I can never take Golgo 13 seriously; I can’t see a damn thing about him that makes hot women tear their clothes off and throw themselves onto him. Well, aside from “the author said so.”

    Actually, I remembered this one panel from a Red Sonia comic where she’s going through the swamp (in practical gear!) and her inner monologue complains about the crappiness of it and contemplates what she’ll do once she finds civilization; get a hot meal, a room at the inn, and someone limber to warm her bed. To this day, it’s one of the first thing that comes to my mind of when I think of a woman who’s freely sexual.

    • Cay Reet

      That Red Sonia example sounds right on point. It’s clear that it’s her choice to have sex with a guy she finds attractive once she’s back in civilisation and has fulfilled her needs. Perfectly fine.

  8. Sam Victors

    I have two story ideas with female protagonists, that also involve sex scenes.

    My first female MC is a demisexual virgin who, although knows what sex is and has even watched/read erotic scenes and sometimes porn, her unpleasant relatives belittle her. It isn’t until she meets a man who is also a demisexual virgin. They start out as good friends, until they become so emotionally close (they even talk about their own sexual curiosities) that they start to feel a strong attraction and connection between each other. He asks her first if he can visit her tonight in her bedroom, she responds no, that she will visit him in his tonight. Their first time is awkward, but sweet, then they got better at it. The story is similar to Outlander (a time-travel romance), but modeled after the Greek myth of Persephone (minus the kidnapping).

    My second Female MC lives in a different world (sort of similar to Game of Thrones, only without magic or dragons), and she comes from repressed, sex-negative, fundamentalist cult and a neglectful and cruel family. The Heroine and her family travel to a Polytheistic/Pagan country to work as missionaries, but upon meeting the country’s bisexual and warrior Prince, the Heroine is instantly attracted to him, something which is seen as sinful in her religion. The Family leave home for winter in their country, only to forget (or abandon) the Heroine in the pagan country. The Prince takes the Heroine in as his winter guest, and proves to be nothing but a gentleman, albeit far different from her own culture (he’s sex positive, bisexual). She also sees that he has a strong religious side; devoted to his Gods, and believes in visions. It wasn’t until the Heroine falls sick that she’s a different side to the Prince; caring, nurturing, disrobing himself to use his body warmth to help heal the Heroine (while wearing a blindfold to respect her modesty) and even bathe and feed her. This makes her even more attracted to him, and she falls for him via Florence Nightingale effect. Its also the first positive feeling she has experienced in her life. Not only does she renounce her family and cult to become a princess, but also she elevates herself into becoming a Priestess in her husband’s country, blending both her old faith with her husband’s faith. Eventually, she becomes a Queen Hierodule (High Priestess Royalty). Another about her is that the Heroine, while engaging in a Civil War in the Prince’s country (a battle over the throne), she has an abortion of their first pregnancy because she feared if the Prince dies, any child of his will die by order of who’s on the throne. And its done without any judgment (which I think is rarely done in Romance Novels, no abortion).

  9. Rose Embolism

    I recall some good advice on sex scenes was to approach them like other scenes: what is the overall goal of the scene, how does it advance the plot or reveal character, what is the goal of the character in the scene, and even what the conflict is. That means understanding what the female protagonist wants, both at the moment, and in the larger picture of the story

    As an example, the one night stand in Windswept is important not just for the protagonist being a forward older woman who wants company, but for afterwards, where we see that shes determined to (to the point of rudeness) not have any sort of relationship with the guy (and by extension anybody) and get a strong hint of why. Which builds into the rest of the novel where we see the necessary thing she’s built her life around.

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