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?
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