Shelly Hickman

Ramblings and Whatnot

What is Your Steam Tolerance?


Everyone has varying comfort levels when it comes to sex scenes in novels. There are two main reasons I steer clear of explicit sex in my stories. One, I’m a middle school teacher who uses her real name on her books, so writing descriptive sex would likely be problematic. Even without the graphic sex, I still try to keep the fact that I’m an author from my students. Not that any of them would have interest in reading the stuff I write, but if one or two of them did, it would just be… weird. Two, I write chick lit/romcoms, and to me steamy sex kind of seems out of place in that genre. However, I’m sure there are authors who pull it off quite successfully.

That being said, I do like to include at least one romantic/sexy/amusing scene between my hero and heroine, and you know what? It’s really hard to do without getting explicit, and sometimes it’s tempting to go there. But as much as I like to keep a light, whimsical tone when I write, I’m still a romantic at heart. I LOVE to read and write about the build-up that leads to the hot sex.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a well-written steamy read as much as the next girl. Which by the way, I recently read Lindy Dale’s Seven Days, and all I have to say is hooooooooeeeeey! You better have a bucket of ice water on hand if you choose to indulge in that one.

Now what was I saying? Oh yes. Romantic at heart. Build-up to steam. Difficult to convey.

Maybe it comes easy for other writers, but not for me. The reason being is that sexy, romantic scenes involve talking about eyes a lot. And hands. And fingertips. Then back to the eyes. Throw in a collarbone and neck. Lips. Mouths (essentially recycling the word lips). Then we’re back to the eyes again. Are you catching my drift? There are only so many romantic gestures one can come up with without repeating yourself, and if you want to make the scene as lengthy and satisfying for the reader as possible, you start running out of ways to show interactions that we take for granted when watching films.

In movies and TV it’s easier because we can just watch the dreamy couple share that romantic dance for a full minute or two without hearing the narration. “He looked deeply into her eyes and brushed her cheek with his thumb. She lowered her gaze before looking into his eyes again.” Blah, blah, blah…

I will always remember when I wrote my first book, which I never published because—just no. I asked my closest friend to read and comment on it. She is an amazing writer, by the way. Anyhow, I wasn’t aware of how often I used the generic phrases he looked at her… she looked at him, etc. To this day, I distinctly remember her comment in the margin which said something to the effect, “Geez. There’s a whole lotta lookin’ goin’ on,” with a little smiley face next to it. Remember, Michelle? Heh heh. I was like, “Oh my gosh! All they do is look at each other!”

I’ve spent the last couple of days working on my one romantic/sexy/amusing scene in my work in progress, and I’m praying that readers will find it romantic/sexy/amusing. Not “OMG! This scene just goes on and on and repeats the same crap over and over. And then I get to the end of it, and there’s no graphic sex? WTF?”

Only time will tell.

As usual, I got a little sidetracked from my opening and I’m wondering what level of sexual detail others prefer in their novels. I was quite surprised when one of the reviewers for Menopause to Matrimony said the sex scenes made her extremely uncomfortable. She had agreed to review it for me and was kind enough to finish the book despite the fact that it made her uneasy, but I was taken off guard because to me, the sex in my books—what little there is of it—is pretty vanilla.

So I guess like anything else, it’s all a matter of perspective. 🙂

UPDATE: Here’s the link to a guest post I wrote from a couple years ago on a similar topic, if you’d like to have a look-see.

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11 responses to “What is Your Steam Tolerance?”

  1. This post cracked me up, and it totally echoes how I feel about sex in books. I don’t mind reading a well-written sex scene, but not many writers do it well. If there are euphemistic terms (rods and members and lady gardens), I’m out. But if it gets too clinical, that’s no good, either. As a writer, I enjoy writing a good, steamy scene, but rarely do they make the cut in my books. I leave a lot of “R-rated version”s on the cutting room floor. They’re fun to write, but I’m not good at them, AND my mom reads my books, sooooo… buh-bye. Also, like you, I write chick lit, which is a genre that doesn’t lend itself to graphic sex. Thank goodness. I’m more about sweet or funny. If something funny happens during sex, and the scene furthers the story, it will make it through to the final draft, but it still won’t be graphic. That’s just not my style.


  2. Lady gardens. Ha! I hate the euphemistic terms. Some are just plain weird. In fact, I’d written a guest post about this a couple years ago and was going to include the link here, but couldn’t find it. I eventually located it, so I think I might go back and drop it in.

    Like you, sweet and funny is more my style. I trust readers to fill in the blanks when fading to black. 😉

    Thanks for the input, Brea!


  3. I totally relate to your post. I feel exactly the same way. I just cannot write an explicit sex scene – I think I would be really bad at it and like Brea Brown – my parents read my books so its just impossible!!! I’m actually not much of a sex scenes type of reader either though. I tend to skim read most sex scenes in books (so needless to say how quickly I got through 50 Shades of Grey 😀 !!!) Also being a chicklit/romcom writer, I am so glad that I don’t have to include any in my books 🙂 I like romance and laughter so I prefer the funny and romantic scenes rather than hot sexy scenes. It actually makes me feel better to hear you, Shelly and Brea say that you feel that way too – I thought I was just a really boring old fashioned 40 year old 😀


  4. Meredith Schorr Avatar
    Meredith Schorr

    I don’t mind sex scenes as long as they work well with the story. I don’t like when the plot revolves around the sex instead of the other way around. And I agree with Brea about throbbing members of such. Those make me cringe! I write humorous women’s fiction/chick lit and have sex scenes in some of them – because I think they work with the characters/story – but I don’t feel obligated. Also, they are only about a paragraph in length! I only have two of them in both books – not enough to turn off those who don’t like them (hopefully), but a little surprise for the folks who do enjoy them.


  5. I can’t imagine writing anything really steamy and knowing that people I know would read it (like Cassandra, parents spring to mind!).
    As a reader, I’m okay with it – Jilly Cooper worked it into her novels pretty well – but in general I prefer less steam. If I want to read “erotica” then I’ll pick up that specific genre… and not read it on the train 😉


  6. Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie Avatar
    Julie Valerie @Julie_Valerie

    I think this topic will generate conversation from writers till the end of time. These scenes are so difficult to write without falling into cliche or repetitive use of body parts doing what body parts do: eyes looking; hearts beating; hands sweating . . . And it cracks me up thinking about the myriad reactions friends and family have when reading something we wrote about “it.” It’s certainly less embarrassing to read sex scenes written from someone we don’t know. 🙂


  7. Oh thank goodness! I thought I was the only author who had issues with writing sex scenes! I don’t include them in my books because a) I write romcoms, and an angsty, overwrought sex scene would be out of place; b) I get all squicky writing something like that (although, hypocrite that I am, I have no problem reading sex scenes); and c) I suck at writing sex scenes (no pun intended). So I’ll leave it to the experts and just enjoy reading them. However, I have managed to develop my pre-sex-scene (or, rather, the moments before the door closes) skills enough that I’m proud of the level of steam I’m now able to achieve. That’s good enough for me.


  8. Sorry for the tardy reply, everyone. I spent my day trying to get middle schoolers to log into their computers for the first time this year. As easy as that may sound, it wasn’t. I’m mentally exhausted. They have difficulty grasping the yyyymmdd format for their birthday.

    ANYWAY, Cassandra, the thought of my parents reading an explicit sex scene written by me is cringe-worthy. Not gonna do it.

    Meredith, I also hate when a plot revolves around sex (with the exception of Nine and a Half Weeks). 😉

    Pauline, I think you should read your erotica on the train, just to see what kind of looks you get. (Kidding of course. I’d never have the nerve to do that.)

    Hands sweating? Julie, that actually sounds like something I could use in one of my scenes, because sweaty hands don’t sound terribly sexy.

    Jayne, developing my pre-sex content is also what I strive for. I’m good with leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination. 🙂

    Thanks for all your comments, ladies!


  9. Reading, I can cope with a fair bit of steam. But writing – oohh I struggle with even kissing. In fact I’m doing a course a bit later in the year to try to help with that!


    1. Sandie, I’d love to hear more about that course and what you thought of it! 🙂


      1. It’s not for a while yet, but I’m looking forward to it. Will let you know how it goes.


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About Me

Las Vegas native, Computer Science teacher, and writer (when the mood strikes). Author of five novels – mostly romantic comedies – available on Amazon and Audible.


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