Why do writers prefer not to describe sex in their works?

In Part 1 of this article, the evidence was laid out that writers are wary of presenting sexual detail. Peter Stothard, a Booker judge, had read 145 new British novels in one year and concluded that our writers prefer to close down the action at the bedroom door.

The article also considered the psychological and cultural constraints and the idea of taste and decency.

Some writers are now saying that this avoidance of sexual detail in literature is unwarranted. Sarah Hall, author of Haweswater, said in a recent Guardian interview, ‘Most novels avoid sex like the plague, but I love writing about it.’

She said she likes extreme situations: ‘people pushed out of their comfort zones; the civil veneer stripped off. Sex does that.’

So why are other writers more wary and how much of this is to do with the mechanics of making a story work?

What is it that is shocking about sex when we read the details? Is it just that it comes in breach of a custom of silence and that, if that custom was broken for long enough, we would find it as normal to read a description of a penis as of a hairdo or pair of shoes? Or is there something in the nature of a penis or a vagina that makes it a bum note to describe it in the middle of a love-scene, even though it is fully present in it and there is no love scene without it?

The editor of the Erotic Review, Jamie Maclean, who commissions erotic writing, says he believes that the Bad Sex Award of the Literary Review inhibits British writers. He says: ‘Although they laugh about the prospect of winning their ‘Bad Sex’ award, they’re terrified of it. All of them.’

And, Maclean says, ‘It’s all been said before. The sexual act itself becomes pretty banal in description, believe you me. Especially when you’ve read a few hundred descriptions as I have had to over the years. I find the context is far more interesting and telling, the tensions and dynamics that surround and control the act.’

The Writer’s Mind
Elizabeth Benedict, author of The Joy of Writing Sex, says the reason authors avoid sex is that they find it difficult to write. She says: ‘many of us are full of internal erotic conflict, engaged in a struggle between what we desire and what is permissible or possible. A snapshot of the culture at this moment suggests that we want it all: sex, titillation, true love, and family values. Not surprisingly, with messages as mixed as these, when we sit down to write a sex scene, our circuits jam, our feelings of self-consciousness surge.’

She appears to be saying that we want more than we can own up to and the need to preserve the secret of what we really want complicates the possibility of writing candidly and credibly.

Yet it is precisely those things which cause conflict in a writer’s mind that are more likely to become the subject of a book. So what else is at stake when a writer baulks at the prospect of describing sexual behaviour?

The Art of Narrating
One strong consideration is the momentum and direction of the narrative. Sexual detail may feel like a diversion. The sexual imagination of the reader, once awakened, may not want to subside when the narrator wants the reader’s attention back on other areas.

Sexually explicit writing is potentially more engaging than other mood creations in a story. And this may be a problem. A description of a quarrel may not make you angry or violent like the characters; an account of an estrangement may not make you as sad as those going through it, but a description of sexual intercourse can lead you to a similar state of arousal to that which the characters experience.

Terry Castle in the The Professor recounts an abusive lesbian relationship, one in which the sexual grapple was at times painful and even drew blood. But for all we know that blood came from her lip or her earlobe; she doesn’t say. Why not? She is very good at reproducing the professor’s language and mannerisms and manipulative ploys and devices. Why then a conscious decision to leave the reader in ignorance? A writer would not spare detail like that if describing a sword fight. This kind of sex isn’t much different.

Presumably she skirted that detail because the important core of the story is psychological. Giving a description of sexual intimacy seems as much a straying off the subject as would a political comment in a reflection on interior décor, yet more damaging still because an awakened sexual imagination may be content with itself and not bother about the rest of the story.

Different types of stories provide different kinds of catharsis and release. The writer may want you to weep, not to get aroused.

And as further illustration of this point, it is interesting that where most storytelling avoids sex, most pornography avoids story. A warning that a book, film or song contains ‘adult content’ is usually a sign that the content is actually juvenile, an inept or self-centred appraisal of sexuality.

George MacBeth’s pornographic novel, The Samurai is a good example of the difficulty of integrating close sexual description into meaningful storytelling. MacBeth imagines a secret agent who is ‘licensed to fuck’. She is more than a female James Bond; she is perpetually aroused. She has sex with her dog in the morning after her bath. She never encounters any man without copulating with him or masturbating him. When she closes in on the villain she allows him to imagine that she is a boy so that he may take her anally. This is more uncomfortable for her than the dog was. MacBeth is showing us that pornography can be written in elegant prose. In the end, however, it is still only pornography; it is a failure of storytelling.  It is hard to care for a character who only cares about sex.

Usually people do not die in pornography. Nobody weeps. The story is routinely pastiche or whimsical. It serves only to bring people together so that they may have sex of some kind with each other.

An exception, you may think, is JG Ballard’s Crash, a story about the sexual fetishising of the motor car. It is full of descriptions of people masturbating as they drive, imagining themselves at the moment of crashing into another car to be sexually intimate with the other driver. Actually this isn’t pornography at all, except for those readers who would actually be aroused by descriptions of car crashes and injuries and there is a lot of unaccountable sexual diversity out there.

Crash is full of sexual detail because it is about the extension of our love of the car into a confusion with our sexual feelings. And if you are writing about masturbation, as your subject matter, then you have to mention the genitals. But much of the detail in Ballard’s writing points to another problem in writing about sex.

Booker judge, Stephen Spender, was so exasperated by the repetition of the phrase, ‘he entered her’ that he swore he would stop reading a book when he reached an instance of that phrase. Even a writer with a reputation for courage in the depiction of sex, John McGahern, routinely described copulation with that drab phrase.

Centuries of silence about sex have left us without an adequate vocabulary for discussing it.

We have inherited our vocabularies for describing sex from medical language and coarse humour. So we either copulate or fuck, with the cock and the cunt or the penis and the vagina. This parallels the way we talk about meat, preferring beef to cow-flesh, pork to pig.

Other parts of the body have simple, mostly single-syllable names in English: nose, toe, ear and are not named in Latin. A penis or vagina is something you show your doctor. Your cock is something you tell jokes about. Neither is the animal thrust that connects mind to its source in nature. We don’t have the words to describe sexual intercourse, words that would be concurrent with the movements we would like to describe, whether with tenderness or mystery or whatever.

There is evidence of paradoxical, even conflicted, thinking about sex in the way we deploy the word ‘fuck’, a word that describes sex as wilful action, as imposed on another rather than enjoyed. And ‘fuck’ has become a broader purpose word to convey exasperation and contempt. Imagine the name of any other instinctive action being flexed in that way. The nearest is the use of the word ‘shit’ to mean rubbish or poor quality. But we would never use the colloquial terms for food or sleep, ‘nosh’ and ‘kip’, in ways that implied that we disdained the real thing. We have more respect for anger and humour than we have for sexual intimacy, or at least we speak of them with more confidence that we know what they are, where they belong in our lives.

Ballard describes the vagina as the ‘cleft’ or the ‘natal cleft’. This makes it sound like part of an apparatus and perhaps fits well with his vision of sexual desire being implicated in the love of the car.

Doris Lessing used the same word in her novel The Cleft. This is an imagined creation myth for ancient Rome, in which females existed before males – squirts – and narrates their troublesome discovery of each other. This is a book in which there is a lot of sexual detail, well described. The first females to go among the exiled males are raped and killed. Later adventurers appease the males by allowing them to queue up and fuck them in turn and then, when sore, work through the rest of them by hand.

What is different about these books, and what compels the writers to provide sexual detail, is that the events at the centre of these stories are themselves sexual. You couldn’t tell these stories without sexual information.

The Story
Similarly, Ian McEwen’s On Chesil Beach, is a story in which the precise turning point is a sexual event. Things can happen during sex to change our thinking every bit as plausibly as they can happen in kitchens or in boardrooms. People are interacting and how they behave communicates understandings. This is what stories are made of.

There are many short stories published in literary magazines which are as explicit as those you would find in theErotic Review but the use of sexual detail is characterised across many of them by its use for the purpose of illustrating the dilapidated or pathetic nature of the life of the character. Sex is rarely described in celebratory or affirmative terms.

For a few examples, in concurrent issues of The Stinging Fly and The Paris Review in the Autumn of 2012 several stories contained detailed descriptions of sexual intercourse. In David Gordon’s Man-Boob Summer (PR) the narrator develops an attraction for the young female lifeguard at the pool he frequents. One night he meets her by chance, they talk for a while then she kisses him and they have sex. ‘She climbed onto my lap and we jostled a bit until I was inside her…She stopped kissing me and spit in her hand, then reached down in between us, making a serious face.’

Ottessa Moshfegh’s Disgust (PR) is also about a man’s developing fascination with a woman. Mr Wu discharges his anxieties with young prostitutes and his fear that the woman he loves may be dirty leads him to engage in anal fingering and more with one of the women he pays. We get vivid descriptions of this in the text. ‘He took his fingers out of her behind and put them in his mouth. He could not believe what joy he had brought himself.’

Fiona O’Connor in Always the Stranger (TSF) has her first person narrator describe how, when she is visited by a gambling man, whose relationship isn’t clear, she surprises him by offering him a bath, then inviting him to ‘take me from behind, up against the door here.’ This story is about the woman’s inability to feel. As he pounds into her she shouts and swears at him, then tells him afterwards she’s sorry, that it wasn’t about him. ‘I was ..you know ..?’

Sex, for writers, is often where they observe the pathetic and the tragic in a life.

But sex in its diversity is surely interesting of itself. That’s why we have stories like The Necrophiliac by Gabrielle Wittkop. But these too are about the extremes of sexual interest. They are oddities like Ballard’s Crash, that may fascinate a reader without arousal.

Spunk on the floor
Wallace Shawn writes: ‘Sex seems capable of creating anarchy, and those who are committed to predictability and order find themselves either standing in opposition to it, or occasionally trying to pretend to themselves that it doesn’t even exist.’

Even in the bawdy stories we tell each other in private we don’t seem to have much interest in the mechanics of sexual interaction. Men are presumed to brag about sexual conquests and women to snigger in groups about men and their performance but when the conversation or the storytelling opens out into broader detail the physical grapple seems the least part of it.

The most common discussion of sex seems to be through humour. As children we joked and giggled about it in the playground; men in groups snort and laugh about what they would do if they had the chance and at dinner parties and book groups, after a few glasses of wine, stories of sexual incidents and embarrassments are shared; polite people become bawdy and mischievous and as they unwind they confess.  And embarrassment and social confusion are almost always at the heart of this storytelling. You never hear anyone at a dinner party, a little drunk, say how simply wonderful their sex-life is. If they did, you wouldn’t believe them because you would trust that good sex is sufficient in itself and requires no narrating. There is always self deprecation in the telling of stories about sex, as perhaps there is in most good storytelling. People reassure each other that they are sexual too and then that secret is returned to the private corners of their lives where it can no longer bother the conscious and public self.

And humour works as a medium for conveying sexual information because it neutralises the danger of arousal; one instinct, to laugh, trumps the other, to seek orgasm.

We are awfully civilised.

Basically, there is always a sense of transgression in the depiction of sex, whether of instinct, of laws and customs, religion and culture, of loyalty to those we love, of language, of the boundaries of narrative genres, but mostly we transgress by admitting the passionate animal self into discourse where it is has no manners.

There is a safer way of telling stories and most of our writers are sticking to it.

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