September 29, 2015

Is This Supposed to be Hard? That’s What She Said.

Writing about sex might not be easy, but can't it be pleasurable?
Writing about sex might not be easy, but can’t it be pleasurable?

By Alexa Day

An article from The Atlantic, way back in March 2014, asked: “Why Is It So Hard for Women to Write About Sex?”

I just saw it this past weekend; a learned friend passed along the link.

So my first question was, “Is it hard?”

And then I started giggling. You know, if you’re here for my maturity level, I was bound to disappoint you sooner or later.

Seriously, though, I wondered whether it was so difficult as writer Claire Dederer was letting on. I concede that writing sex-laden fiction isn’t always the easiest thing in the world. I am plagued by the fear that all my characters are doing the same three or four things in exactly the same order. I’ve shared with you my struggles over word choice.

But is this really so difficult that all women have trouble with it?

Yeah, no. I don’t think so.

Let’s say at the beginning that Dederer and I are working from two different genres. She’s focused on literary fiction, including literary erotica, and that’s not my chosen field. But her point seems to be that in order to be authentic, written sex must be, to some extent, unpleasant.

Dederer’s highest praise is for a hand-job scene in Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying; Dederer enjoys the multitude of thoughts that run through Isadora Wing’s head as she’s jerking a boyfriend off on her mom’s couch. The sensual pleasure isn’t really the point for Dederer. What makes the scene real for her is the wild rush of activity coursing through Wing’s mind. Dederer confesses that her own patterns of sexual desire are marked by extensive mental discourse. While she acknowledges that women are free to desire sex for its own sake — no holds barred — she suggests that all of us are gripped by self-doubt, confusion and no small measure of guilt.

Do we want to climb that guy like a tree? Are we sure? Should we be that sure? What’s making us feel like that?

When she arrives at Anais Nin and her descriptions of visceral, elemental pleasure with her Peruvian lover, Dederer is dismissive. Nin writes of “white heat … raging fire, heaven and hell”; Dederer deadpans, “If you say so, dear.”

I don’t know if Nin says so. But you know what?

I say so.

I’m sorry if Dederer can’t imagine something like this as a genuine sexual experience. But I can. I don’t even have to try that hard.

I’m also sorry if Dederer is bringing all that self-flagellation to her sexual experiences and by extension, to her writings about sex. I can imagine that, too. I know all too well that plenty of women in our sexually schizoid society cannot quite get comfortable with the idea that it’s okay for us to desire sex — but that it’s not totally okay and there’s no way to determine when it’s okay and when it isn’t. Dederer is writing, in all fairness, about sexual memoir, and the real world will bear down on that genre more than it will on fiction.

Having said that, I cannot and will not assign that experience to all women who are writing about sex.
I’m grateful to have the opportunity to write about sex in any number of contexts. I’ve got characters having curious sex, angry sex, show-off sex, grateful sex, you name it. And like a lot of erotic romance writers, I often have to remind folks that none of this is autobiographical.

But my reality, thankfully, is based on the idea that sex is and ought to be pleasurable. I might have trouble writing the sex well, but every poorly chosen, repetitive, overused word of it is designed to make the act sound enjoyable. By the time my characters are undressed and getting down to the same three or four things my characters always do, in order, they are very clear about the fact that they want each other. There’s no confusion about that.

Now, I’m glad the world of sexual memoir is out there. I do enjoy the prospect of reading stories from women on their sexual journeys, even as they’re trying to find their way to whatever their sexual truths might be. I’m certainly not saying that all written sex has to share the same spicy delight of Nin’s account.

But let’s not leap to the conclusion that all women are having trouble writing about sex with both pleasure and honesty. Speaking for myself, I just don’t think it’s all that difficult to do. Maybe I’m just enjoying the effort.

I can’t be alone there, can I?

Follow Lady Smut. A good time will be had by all.

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  • Post authorKayla Lords

    Maybe more of us who actually enjoy writing about sex need to write more about our enjoyment of sex and/or writing about it. 🙂

    Reply to Kayla Lords
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I think that might be the answer! I hate to think that “serious” literary people are going to think that all of us have issues with sex; that can only work out badly for those of us who enjoy the sex and the sex writing. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorLorraine Pearl

    I love writing sex scenes, and I don’t find it difficult either. At first, I thought it would be hard. I was pleasantly surprised to find out it wasn’t. Although, like you, I worry that it gets repetitive.

    I know a lot of women who have a hard time writing sex scenes, unfortunately, and even more who are uncomfortable reading them. Hopefully that will change more over time.

    Reply to Lorraine Pearl
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I need to summon the courage to actually find out if my characters are doing the same three or four things in the same order. 🙂

      Yes, hopefully, we’ll start to see a lot more comfort with writing sex as more people are exposed to different kinds of sex writing! I know when I was in school, all we got was the type of literary fiction that made the whole experience sound awful. I’m glad romance found me when it did.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorMadeline Iva

    I think it’s important to capture the scene in your mind when you’re still sweaty and–uh! I mean still *inspired*. The mistress of sex scenes in terms of cranking the tension until you feel all knotted up in your tummy or lower down is Lora Leigh. She starts building tension for a sex scene about twenty pages out. It’s pretty genius how she does that sh**.

    Reply to Madeline Iva
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Yeah, she definitely knows a thing or two about a thing or two! 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorKel

    So I have thinky-things about this… and… I also have urg-thoughts about this.

    I am an intrinsically wordy person who loves the almost ritualistic interactions in an unresolved relationship based on both emotional and physical tension. But… as I pointed out to a friend (female-friend), if you’re coherent enough to form words during sex, you’re not actually enjoying it that much.

    And as much as I love words, and love descriptions, and love knowing what’s happening in character’s heads, if there’s poetry, or even coherent expletives happening, I *do not believe* that the character is actually getting off. Possibly “white hot heat” is the wrong experience, but if the character isn’t at least partially lost in the sensation of skin-on-skin and need and want and whatever else is happening to them and everyone else in the scene, I don’t believe that the writer understands how to write sex. I don’t even really believe the writer understands how to articulate how sex happens.

    Because thinking about anything beyond “if I touch this… wow… ga? Whoohoo!…” means you’re paying attention to the wrong things. (And even that’s much to coherent, really). The coherence comes from outside, from stepping into the space from the past, or anticipating the future. If the moment is happening in the now of the story, the characters should be hanging on tooth and nail, and be really happy to be incapable of speech.

    But that’s just me.

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