A few days ago, I experienced one of the most joyful moments of my long and not-very-distinguished teaching career. I was leading a workshop called “Sex Scenes Without Shame.”
When it comes to such classes my pedagogy is, shall we say, unorthodox. The first thing I do is read my students a piece of howlingly bad erotica. In this case, I chose a short story entitled “A Seminal Release” by a very sick and beautiful individual who shall remain unnamed. Here’s a short sampling of the prose:
She leaned in and began darting her healthy pink tongue in and out of his right ear, and his dong began to well up with the juice of man as she did this. He undid her designer belt and slid his worker-hands down her pants and into the folds of her thong underwear, careful to note that her sex was as shaved as the top of his head was. He began to finger wantonly.
Her cries rose in volume and she pulled his now hard stick out of the sweaty confines of his pants and underwear. She was happy to note it was the size of a CD tower. And just as fucking hard!!!!
After I’m done reading and everyone has had a few deep breaths, I ask my students to write the worst sex scene they can. I specifically instruct them to make it graphic and to use crude language, including as many absurd genital euphemisms as they can stomach. Shining shaft of manhood. Candy shop. Secret garden. Sperm puppet. You get the idea.
Believe it or not, the resulting scenes are often deeply moving. And here’s why: because nearly every bad decision a writer makes is the result of insecurity. Our desperation to entertain the reader causes us to turn away from our characters and flog the language.
This is especially true of sex scenes, because writers have to battle their own anxieties—about their own sexuality and about whether they’re allowed to set out forbidden thoughts and feelings and behaviors on paper. Ordering students to write a terrible sex scene, ironically, unburdens them of this expectation. They are able to relax and let their ids go into overdrive.
Forcing them to write in vivid detail also addresses another common failing: writers whose inhibitions cause them to spend five pages on coy witticisms and foreplay while never allowing their characters to get naked—physically or emotionally. We get only a fleeting glimpse at the dangerous moments of sexual interaction.
But back to the class in question, where every single student produced an enthralling scene. And I don’t mean by this that the scenes were titillating. I mean that—beneath all the mandatory Sperm Puppets—something emotionally and psychologically profound was happening.
One student wrote about a female executive who vented her need for power by sexually bullying her male assistant. Another wrote an eerie scene in which a lonely, aging woman calls in to a crisis hotline and masturbates while thinking about her son. A third wrote about a married couple that enjoys a seemingly idyllic lovemaking session, which nonetheless leaves the woman feeling bereft.
The most striking scene of all came from a woman I’ll call Estelle. By her own estimation, Estelle was half a century older than the rest of the students. She was frail and soft-spoken and I would later learn that she had fallen on the stairs leading to the classroom.
And now I was reading her pornographic filth and expecting her to reciprocate. For the record, she was clearly uncomfortable with the assigned task. “I don’t think I did this right,” she said softly. “I’m of a different generation from these younger people, you see. I’m not sure I can read this out loud.” I assured Estelle she didn’t have to, but the rest of the class managed to coax her into trying.
What emerged was miraculous: a heartbreaking scene between an elderly couple in a museum. The woman is full of suppressed longings. She fantasizes about going back to their hotel room and lying back on the bed and letting the man part her legs and her sex. She can’t express these desires out loud, though, so instead, when they get back to their room, the sexual act focuses on the man and his failure to achieve an erection. After a long and mortifying effort, the woman manages to bring him off. Her own needs are completely ignored.
I had tears in my eyes as I listened to Estelle read—and I wasn’t the only one. Her scene spoke to the manner in which women too often have been expected to silence their true desires, and in which the central drama of sex has to do with stroking the male ego rather than attending to the intimate needs of the woman.
After she finished reading, Estelle glanced around the room sheepishly. I can’t remember her exact words, but they went something like this: “I came here today because I want people to know that elderly people still have desires. Nobody wants to think about it. But we do. I live in a retirement community where it’s mostly women and the men are sort of beat up. But we still have needs. We still need to be touched.”
It is my own sentimental belief that every single person on earth, if properly compelled, can write a beautiful sex scene. I don’t mean “beautiful” in an aesthetic sense. I mean a scene that honestly captures what it’s like for our hearts and minds and bodies to be taken up by the needs that Estelle articulated.
In fact, as the culture becomes increasingly dominated by pornographic images—that is, images of sex drained of intimacy and psychology, turned into a limbic spectacle or XXX marketing—we need honest sex scenes more than ever.
That is, we need writers (and artists of all kinds) to portray sexuality for what it is: a deeply emotional experience, full of yearning and hope and doubt and shame.
Literary and cultural critics have complained, often reasonably, about the dearth of sex scenes in modern literary fiction. It seems to me this is partly the result of how pervasive pornography has become. It no longer seems daring—and in fact can invite accusations of pandering or exploitation—to include the rude parts.
This anxiety is especially acute these days given the success of a book such as “50 Shades of Gray” in which the portrayals of sex, while certainly explicit, are encrusted in a plaque of cliché. A book such as this is not about sex as it actually exists in the world—where people continually struggle to overcome their inhibitions and allow themselves pleasure—but a fantasy in which rough sex becomes a lubed pathway to psychic liberation.
There are many readers who love “50 Shades of Gray” for this very reason. But I’ve always preferred books such as “The Lover” by Marguerite Duras, or “Spending” by Mary Gordon, or “The Good Mother” by Sue Miller, or “My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up” by Stephen Elliot; books that portray sex not an escape from real life, but as a means of confronting our most fragile desires and fears, the private humiliation of our bodies, the hot and tortured work of pleasure. (And let’s go ahead and throw “The Song of Songs” on the top of that list. It’s not just the sexiest piece of writing in the Bible. It’s the sexiest piece of writing ever, by my reckoning.)
It’s also true that the assembled snarkmeisters of the Internet and beyond are constantly on the hunt for bad sex scenes, which they can ridicule publicly. That only makes writers more self-conscious about writing sex scenes, and thus more apt to avoid them altogether, to rush through them, or to render them so elliptical as to be unassailable.
But the truth of the matter, as Estelle and my other students continually remind me, is that people don’t need advice about writing sex so much as they need permission
It is part of the human arrangement—one of the holiest parts, frankly—that we all come equipped with a body that wishes to stroke and touch and caress and to have these ministrations performed upon us.
As writers, then, we can settle on one of two courses of action: we can either ignore this part of ourselves and thus neuter our characters. Or we can investigate, with a ruthless and tender gaze, what sexuality means in the lives of our characters—and thus ourselves.