The Kiss Quotient and Another Kind of Sex Scene
The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang, is a romance novel about an autistic woman, Stella, who hires a professional escort to teach her how to have sex. And it's sexy. It also uses some really great strategies in its depiction of sex.
I've written about sex scenes before, and I teach a class about them. One of the techniques I like to study is the building of intensity through patterns of language that can mimic climax. This book has scenes like that! But it also has tremendous sex scenes that do the opposite. They reach a different kind of intensity through a flattening of affect and a more even stream of detail.
It makes me think, first of all, of the technique of accumulation. Instead of increasing the tension or emphasis throughout a scene, or raising the stakes in a more physical way, accumulation trusts the reader's mind to build intensity through the pileup of smaller pieces.
A central concern of this novel is consent and making sex into something that is not overwhelming. I like the technique as a reflection of that theme. The intensity is not forced upon the reader. Rather, we can choose whether or not to engage with it.
Just as interesting, the flooding of detail also means that good sexiness can exist in the same plane as the squicky or uncomfortable. When using accumulation, a sex scene can move easily from erotic to confusing to frightening, without breaking stride. It's much harder to do this in a scene that relies on building intensity through the rhythm of sentences, because a gross word in place of a sexy one rings like a false note. It breaks the rhythm. Sometimes you want that rhythm to break, of course. But sometimes you don't.
The following passage keeps a steady rhythm even as it moves from sexy to something else:
His mouth was inches away, but she couldn’t quite push herself to kiss it—even though she wanted to. She’d never initiated a kiss before. In the past, the men had just kind of . . . fallen on her.
“Can I tell you where to kiss me?” she whispered.
A smile slowly stretched his lips. “Yes.”
His breath fanned over her ear, sending goose bumps down her neck, before he pressed a kiss to her left temple.
“Now where?” The words were spoken softly against her skin, each one a caress.
The tip of his nose grazed her skin as he moved lower. He kissed the hollow beneath her cheekbone. “Now?” he asked without lifting his lips.
So close. She could hardly breathe. “The corner of my m-mouth.”
“Are you sure? That’s very close to being a real kiss.”
Impulsive impatience seared through her, and she sank her fingers into his hair, held him in place, and pressed a closed-mouth kiss to his lips. Bolts of sensation zigzagged straight to her chest. After a surprised hesitation, she did it again, and he took the lead, showing her how it was done, drawing the kisses out.
This was kissing. Kissing was glorious.
When his tongue slipped between her lips, she went stock-still. Not glorious anymore. His tongue. Was in. Her mouth. She couldn’t stop herself from pulling away. “Is that absolutely necessary?”
He exhaled sharply, and his brow creased in puzzlement. “You don’t like French kissing?”
“It makes me feel like a shark getting its teeth cleaned by pilot fish.” It was weird and far too personal.
His eyes danced, and though he bit his lip, she could see a grin peeking around the edges of his mouth.
Because of the way the details accumulate and because of the way the sentences work, we can move smoothly from sexy to its opposite.
A few of the sentences that describe Stella's arousal are slightly longer, mimicking a sort of breathlessness that can help a reader to feel what the character feels: "His breath fanned over her ear, sending goose bumps down her neck, before he pressed a kiss to her left temple." "Impulsive impatience seared through her, and she sank her fingers into his hair, held him in place, and pressed a closed-mouth kiss to his lips." But they're not much longer than the ones that pull up short: "When his tongue slipped between her lips, she went stock-still." It's the same basic rhythm.
This is really important. Because the sentence pattern is consistent, Stella's sudden discomfort does not break the rhythm of the scene. I often like to be unsettled at key moments in fiction, because it makes me feel the upheaval that the character experiences. But, in this particular moment, the lack of shock is a better simulation. It brings the reader's experience closer to that of the character, who is not shocked either.
Stella is nervous about sex and not ready to be swept away. She is disturbed, of course, but not surprised. She thinks she's no good at this. A break in the rhythm of the scene would shock the reader, but the character isn't shocked by her own reaction. She fully expects it.
The technique also helps the reader understand Stella's confusion and discomfort without actually being confused by it. After all, the absolute experience of confusion might pull us out of more than the hot moment; it might pull us out of the scene altogether. With this method, the sex comes to a halt, perhaps, but the scene continues.
I also admire this scene because of the challenges it overcomes. A difficulty in any sex writing is word choice, because the terminology tends to be so loaded. Words can seem too silly or too cliche or too erotic or too clinical or too gross.
But here we have a scene where the sex is supposed to be both sexy and gross. There is space for both reactions. And the effect is created, brilliantly, by the steady rhythm of the sentences, the flattening of affect, and accumulation of details.