Writing About Sex (Part One)

Once the threat of imprisonment was removed, Henry Miller thought that authors describing sexual activity would flourish. He was wrong. Today, no one's going to put you in jail for writing about sex, but even so, you might think twice about putting pen to paper…

There are unmentionable parts of human experience. At least, many writers seem to think so.

The chair of the Man Booker judges in 2012, Sir Peter Stothard, observed before the rash of Fifty Shades inspired erotica distorted the picture, that literary sex had ‘gone out of fashion’. He reached that conclusion on the greatest possible authority, having just read 145 new British novels. This is not what was expected when legal changes freed writers to describe copulation more lucidly. Then it seemed that the main obstacle to sexual candour was the danger of being banned or imprisoned. But clearly there are other restraints at work.

In terms of literature, some of these restraints may be psychological or cultural and some may derive from the mechanics of constructing a story.

In the first part of this article, I will try to work out what the cultural constraints might be. In Part Two, I will explore the question of whether sexual detail is best avoided for reasons more to do with the writer’s mind and how a story is made to work.

Essayist and playwright Wallace Shawn acknowledges that there is pressure on writers to avoid sex. He believes in resisting that pressure. Friends have ‘implied that it was sad, almost pitiful, that an adolescent obsession – or maybe it was in fact a psychological compulsion – should have been allowed to marginalise what they optimistically had hoped might have been a serious body of work.’

Benjamin Allsup in a recent article in Esquire titled The Complaint: Sexless Novels, railed against a determined avoidance of sex in modern novels and concluded: ‘We need more bodies in our fiction. We need bodies on bodies in all the wacky configurations that consenting adults will allow. Fucking matters.’

Caitlin Moran in How To Be A Woman also complains of the failure of writers to provide fuller descriptions of sexual relations.

So, the case is made that sex is avoided.

Sarah Hall, whose stories often describe the physical as well as the emotional in relationships, accepts that writing about sex is difficult but sees it as a challenge rather than a taboo. ‘You have to get the language right when writing about sex: if you want it to live on the page, you have to consider your choice of expression, the power of an image, the sound of a word. It gets down to the absolute essence of writing.’

Good Taste
The restraints on sex are generally summed up as taste and decency. This is the term used in the BBC Guidelines, for instance. But why is it tasteless or indecent to observe sexual intimacy closely? Why do writers feel that they should stand back?

Clearly not everyone responds squeamishly to the sight of sexual intimacy for there is a thriving market in pornography; many readers actively seek out sexual images and descriptions.

A concern for ‘Decency’ implies that an audience will be offended in its sense of propriety. The exercise of this type of caution understands that the reader or viewer may live within moral codes which forbid the discussion or display of sexual interest, and many people do indeed live within such cultures and learn such values in the family and when at worship. Yet, the person defending this propriety may be doing so with some effort of concentration, consciously working against desire, or what religious people call temptation.

But why resist? Well, one may be obeying one’s God, or it may simply be inconvenient to be sexually aroused while watching television or reading a book.

And our avoidance of sexual detail is not specifically a restraint on the part of the artist; most people leave sex out of their discussions with each other, however strongly it may preoccupy their private thoughts. That is virtually a social rule.

You could ask a colleague at work if she had had a drink at the weekend; you could not ask her if she had had sex.

Sophie Morgan, author of Diary of a Submissive, was being interviewed in The Erotic Review magazine about her language and she admitted to taking care not to offend even readers who would only have bought her book because they were actively seeking sexually charged reading. She said, ‘.. if I’m talking about something that I know is going to be difficult reading for a lot of people anyway then I ease up on the language a bit. I jokingly described it in chats with my editor as the ‘de-cunting process’ but rest assured it’s still very filthy and there are no awkward euphemisms for ladyparts in there at all.’

No euphemisms for ladyparts? Ladyparts, being a euphemism, illustrates well how strong the inclination is to avoid explicit sexual detail, though let’s allow that Morgan was enjoying the joke and hadn’t fallen for it herself.

But what are the forces that impose euphemism on something as natural and universal as sex?

Perhaps we feel that in writing about sex we disclose our personal knowledge of naked intimacy. We implicate ourselves. And we don’t want to do that. It is no secret that everyone masturbates but it is a secret that you or I do.

Further, our own sexual inclinations and tastes are specific to ourselves and we may feel that we disclose these by writing even about the sexual behaviour of the fictional characters we create.

And since sex is private and is conducted inside pairings, mostly, where two people together have their private language of gestures and noises, and even subliminally of smells and reflexes, no writer describing a sexual grapple for a wide audience can trust to being understood in the same way by all readers.

And we have family and friends, children perhaps. We may be less anxious about them reading our descriptions of a murder than of sexual intercourse because they will trust that we have never killed anyone, but they will assume that any description of sex draws on our own experience. Actors performing a love scene are probably assumed to be doing it pretty much as they do at home. If we write even fictionally about sex we implicate our partners. We are afraid that readers will make judgments about our partners, that we will embarrass them. So we avoid the detail.

It is interesting, for instance, that writers who seem most comfortable about describing sexual activity are those who are gay or who write from fetishistic enthusiasm. They are motivated by a determination to proclaim their right to be different from the supposed heterosexual norm. It is the heterosexual who is most silent about what he or she does in bed, perhaps wary of judgment.

This avoidance of sex appears to coincide with the core objection held by most religious traditions, to the free exercise of the sexual imagination.

All the major religious traditions commit to sexual discipline for the preservation of the family, some prescribing surgical procedures for the desensitising of the sexual organs. The question is whether writers should be part of the policing of our thinking about sex.

Henry Miller, author of the pornographic novel, Tropic of Cancer and co author with Anais Nin of several pornographic short stories, thought that cultural and legal changes would remove totally the bar to writers describing sexual activity. In the 1950s and into the 1960s it would have seemed obvious that the only reason a novelist could not give a full description of copulation or fellatio was that he or she might go to jail for it and have the work banned.

But Miller was wrong when he anticipated a new, more sexually candid type of literature.

It is difficult to write about sex if you feel that you are transgressing the understood rules of the culture you live within. That wider culture, even in the secular west, is still treating sex as potentially toxic. Television presenters warn us that sexual images are about to appear on our screens, to give us time to switch channels, understanding that many of us will want to, and without acknowledging the alternative possibility that this might be the very thing that will keep others tuned in.

There may be some symbiosis between the aversion of writers to describing sex and the wish of many readers not to find sexual detail in the books they read. In film and television it is clear that you can lose an audience by being too explicit, because of thresholds and guidelines. Perhaps a book that gets described by reviewers and blurb writers as sexually candid sheds part of its potential readership too, without compensating by picking up more of those who like sex to be plain and detailed.

There is another reason to be afraid. We have come through the feminist revolution. One of its primary concerns was with the widespread objectification of the female body. Many writers may fear that they would cause offence to women that could best be avoided by leaving the sexual detail out.

Daphne Merkin, the essayist, could write about the thrill of being spanked but it is hard to imagine a heterosexual man writing comfortably about the pleasure of delivering the slaps. Yet you don’t get one without the other.

It is hard to imagine a book like In Praise of Older Women being written much later than it was, in 1965. Stephen Vizinczey’s  story about a teenager seeking sexual relationships with women in their 30s is a heterosexual man’s bold celebration of sexual conquest.

Today, the heterosexual man now agrees that he is the villain in the sex war, though he does not feel like a storm-trooper for a sinister global patriarchy. He is still reeling from the shock of being told that all men are rapists and his morale is so low that, in his paranoiac susceptibility, he is inclined to believe it. He is wary of describing his sexual conduct and feelings because there his ploys are transparent and his vulnerabilities exposed. There the proofs may be found of the charges against him.

Vizinczey’s work came just between the relaxation of legal restraints on writers and the feminists telling us to keep our smutty imaginations to ourselves. Other books from that period like Hunter Davies’, Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush, published in 1968 or The Emperor of Ice Cream by Brian Moore reflect on the main character’s key objective of getting laid, acknowledging that the longer a man goes without sex the less fussy he becomes about who he has it with.

But Vizinczey is not as explicit as he might have been. Even as he exposes himself to ridicule for admitting to a primarily acquisitive interest in women, in making sexual gratification a goal in his life, he still restrains himself in his description of the actual physical interaction.

In one chapter he describes his attempts to stimulate a woman who is content to have sex with him but never has an orgasm. He describes having cunnilingus with her while she sleeps. But he makes it read like a description of sniffing a flower. Why not give us the texture and the smell?

Vizinczey would not have felt, in 1965, that he risked being invalidated by feminist criticism. Had he done so, he would not have told this story of tonguing a woman as she slept, an act that might today be understood as an assault.

Still, something told him that to refine the detail, with a more literal description of her tender flesh, would have clashed with his intentions as a writer.

And that something predates feminism. In fact the coyness of today, which is sometimes rationalised as a feminist understanding of the impropriety of objectifying the sexual, works out as similar in its effects to the Victorian puritanism of a century before.

We still avoid sexual detail, but our rationalisations for this change.

In the second part of this article I will try to enter the mind of the writer, the creator of narrative, to see if something goes wrong in the making of a story when sexual information intrudes.

Part Two of Malachi O’Doherty’s article will be published tomorrow.

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