After reading Emma Darwin’s excellent comments on my previous post, I think I need to clarify things a bit: I don't think sex being messy or awkward precludes it being wonderful or romantic. But, in my experience--maybe I'm just unusually clumsy--very few couplings move like a Cirque du Soleil act. Outside the world of the circus, I think most couples move from one position to another a little less deftly. (The verb “clamber” occurs to me.)
I suppose my main problem is that if something is only wonderful and romantic, I can't figure out how to tell it as a story, or even make it an interesting scene. I like nothing better than a perfect day at the beach, but I can't figure out a way to turn a perfect day into a scene. And I note that in movies where the couple is first falling in love, the filmakers usually put in a song and show a montage of them walking, holding hands, talking and laughing...but you can't hear the dialogue. Why? Because the filmmakers can't figure out how to make "then they had a perfect time for a month" into a scene either.
Passion can make up for a lot of awkwardness--otherwise no one would ever have sex in a car--but when I see, say, a sex scene in a car and everything moves like a ballet, it makes me cry foul. On the other hand, if the POV character in the car finds the buckle of the seat belt bruising his/her thigh or the door handle jabbing into his/her shoulderblade, it anchors me in the scene. I think one of the few really good sex scenes in the movies is in Fatal Attraction when Michael Douglas lifts Glenn Close and carries her to the kitchen counter—with his slacks around his ankles. It’s the awkwardness that sells me on the frantic passion.
I’m not arguing that every scene need be awkward and/or messy. I’m saying awkwardness is something to be embraced when it presents itself, rather than viewed as a threat to the scene. You might or might not decide to include the details of someone pulling off their pantyhose, or, as Emma mentions, jeans—either of which are awkward to the point of verging on comedy. Writing is always a matter of selecting which details to present. But I think too often awkward moments are excluded for fear of ruining some idealized tone when awkwardness is usually an opportunity.
To take a really minor example, say in the throes of passion our POV character rolls over onto the little toy fire engine some toddler left on the bed. That can be played as comedy, but it can also be played for character (or both). Does our character call a halt to everything and stop the moment, or does he/she try to unobtrusively wriggle off the poky little truck, or does he/she try and ignore it, or does he/she unobtrusively manage to get hold of it and drop it off the bed, or does he/she embrace their partner tighter and roll them both the other direction, or—well, you know the drill. I like it when stories reveal character by how the players deal with obstacles, and that’s what awkwardness is—an intimate obstacle.
Of course, I'm not talking only about physical awkwardness. I include extraneous thoughts, or noticing something incongruous, or, of course, the POV character’s self-consciousness in all its myriad forms.
As to messy--well, in poorly written sex scenes, everything's gleaming and smooth and glossy and firm and muscular. From the first moment, everyone smells…well, poetic (might be musk, might be new-mown hay). No one’s hair gets so drenched with sweat that it stands up in a lopsided Mohawk. And nobody ever needs to run off to the bathroom. Certainly not during. Usually not even after it's over.
And, speaking of being over, Emma points out that the post-coupling moments, and whatever scenes follow, are often done very badly—if not simply ignored. That’s an important observation. If you have a sex scene and nothing is changed afterwards, you have to question the existence of the scene.
Hollywood usually handles this by having the couple wake up together the next morning, give each other a long, luxurious kiss--and then the woman walks off with all the covers wrapped around her.
Apparently in Hollywood people's mouths taste good after eight hours of sleep. Wish mine did.
And do people really get out of bed and walk off wrapped in the covers? Weird.