‘Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power.’ Oscar Wilde.
Writing sex should be easy. Few people of adult age would be unfamiliar with the basics, and there’s (surely) a finite range of variables to the act itself. And yet capturing it on the page can feel like a political, ethical and aesthetic nightmare.
Not for nothing do we have the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, presented annually since 1993 to authors excelling at ‘poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction’.
Whether it’s Morrissey’s ‘winning’ 2015 entry from his novel List of the Lost (‘the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement …’) or Nancy Huston’s 2012 award for a passage from her novel Infrared (‘undulating space where the undulating skies make your non-body undulate …’), sex writing tends to be defined by its failures rather than its successes.
To begin with, there’s a power dynamic in sex writing that mirrors, though inaccurately, the dynamics we’re likely to experience during IRL sex, the big difference being that writing tends to be the work of a single mind – more masturbation than sex, with all the fantasy and wish-fulfilment self-pleasuring brings. And historically, overwhelmingly, that onanistic outpouring has been the product of a straight male imagination.
All of which presented a challenge to me as a cishet man while I was writing Poly, a novel about love and sex, with a straight male first-person narrator who has two female partners. #MeToo happened while I was wresting with this, highlighting more starkly than ever the prevalence of sexual abuse and power imbalances.
So how, then, to write sex authentically, especially if we sympathise with psychotherapist and author Esther Perel’s famous argument that: ‘We want between the sheets what we protest in the streets’?
Language is freighted when it comes to writing sex, the connotations as slippery as lube and as deadly as certain STIs. It took me about five minutes into the two-and-a-half years I spent writing Poly to decide I would avoid overtly sexualised descriptions of any of the bodies being written about – because I was mindful of the tiresome male gaze, for sure, but also because the ‘sex’ words I instinctively reached for came pre-loaded and were likely to explode.
At the most innocuous end of the scale, terms such as ‘boobs’ or ‘balls’ conjure everything from end-of-the-pier jokes to that embarrassing uncle or aunt you just can’t believe were ever sexual, and it only gets worse the more extreme the euphemism. The supposedly erotic ‘turgid manhood’ from Mills & Boon novels of old doesn’t work these days, and the anatomical terms (vulva, testicles) don’t exactly scream ‘sexy’. I needed words that worked aesthetically while also not sucking politically and ethically.
I found some inspiration in Zadie Smith’s short story Sentimental Education, in which the female narrator considers the ‘maleness’ of sex language, reflecting that:
All these rules had to be adapted for Darryl. He loved to laugh and delighted in physical worship. There was no aggression in him. He lay back and waited to be adored. The easy way she took him into her body, for example, painlessly, subsuming him, providing him with temporary shelter, until it came time to release him. But it was the nineties: the language was not on her side. You didn’t “release” men, they “pulled out”. … [In contrast] In a matriarchy, you’d hear women boasting to their mates: “I subsumed him in my anus. I really made his penis disappear. I just stole it away and hid it deep inside myself until he didn’t even exist”.
In Poly, Chris, the narrator, is trying, often failing, to find new, more appropriate language and behaviour in the bedroom and beyond: with his partner, Biddy (‘She was outside me, I was inside her …’); with Biddy and his wife, Sarah, during a threesome (‘I’d lain there, not believing, before […] joining in […] trying to avoid any obvious porn moves’); with Sarah, in relation to one of her lovers (‘I was a nice guy, and some other nice guy was screwing my wife. But fuck patriarchy – Sarah was the one doing the screwing, nothing was being done unto her.’)
As I kept working on the novel, I developed some guiding principles for writing sex scenes. Avoiding corrupted ‘sex words’ formed part of it, but I also set some aesthetic ‘rules’ for myself, which I’ll share with you:
Don’t be afraid of metaphors
Metaphor and simile can feel pretty much unavoidable when writing sex. Apart from being a passion killer, any technical description of an orgasm – ‘the sudden discharge of accumulated sexual excitement during the sexual response cycle’ – neglects the lived sensation of being out of your body, away – momentarily, blessedly, and ironically for the writer – from language and coherent thought. And so, whether it’s Kafka’s male land surveyor in The Castle (wandering mid-coitally through ’a country so strange that not even the air had anything in common with his native air’) or Mary Gaitskill’s female narrator in Secretary (‘I had an impression of a vicious little animal frantically burrowing dirt with its tiny claws and teeth’) the metaphor and sex scene are intimate, if sometimes uneasy, partners.
Be clear about mechanics.
The physical logistics can make or break a sex scene, especially when metaphors abound. As in a real-life orgy, you can be having all the fun and metaphorical meanderings you want, but if you don’t know where A’s arms, B’s legs and C’s torso are, it’s going to get really confusing really quickly. In what is otherwise, in my view, a good sex scene in Slow Dancing by Elizabeth Benedict, we can (I think) glean from the context that the “it” being referred to is a penis, but the logistics get somewhat confusing. ‘He moved her head then away from himself so that he could feel her breasts there, between her breasts, and he pressed them close around it, which no one had ever.… It was weird having it pushed into her face, pushed against her, as casually as if it were a finger.’
Acknowledge the dirt.
Sex is dirty. The connotation is that it’s taboo, but it’s also just dirty in a literal sense. Our sheets get stained, we sweat, ejaculate, sometimes bleed. Any metaphor that floats too far into the astral clouds becomes hopelessly detached from this most grounding and universal aspect of sex. Gabriel García Márquez, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, circumvents that danger in a sex scene where one of the bodies ‘exhale[s] a lugubrious lament and a vague smell of mud’.
There’s nothing funny for you when you’re the one approaching orgasm. But there’s always something funny, or on the verge of being funny, when someone else is. As Catherine Brown put it in a 2019 article on iai news: ‘Looked at from the outside, the physical actions of sex, and mental concentration involved in them, often seem absurd – as any pre-pubescent finds when “the facts of life” are explained to them (why would Mummy and Daddy want to do that?).’
In Poly, I tried to bring all the above principles into the sex scenes, including this one between Chris and Sarah, in their bedroom:
Sarah curled into me, a dust storm of pheromones I knew I could survive, as always, by shallow-breathing. But then – a kiss on my shoulder, another on my upper arm. I turned onto my side to face her, stroked her hair, bunched it in my fist. Her fingers on my chest, teasing; taking my hand and guiding it between her legs. Her mouth finding mine, her kisses, the earth taste I’d missed and martyred myself for.
And then, a few minutes later:
She raised her hips to meet mine with every thrust while I did everything I could not to climax too soon. Eyes closed, I imagined Sarah without skin, my gran eating breakfast, my teeth being removed and replanted upside down – rooted.
Paul Dalgarno was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and immigrated to Australia in 2010. In Glasgow, he was a senior features writer, columnist and Deputy Weekend Features Editor with The Herald and Sunday Herald newspapers. In Melbourne, he was Deputy Editor, Arts Editor and Science Editor of The Conversation website. Paul has written for many publications, including Guardian Australia, Australian Book Review, Archer, Penthouse, Sunday Times Scotland and The Big Issue. His memoir, And You May Find Yourself, was published in 2015 (Sleepers Publishing). Poly (Ventura Press, 2020) is his debut novel.