What we write about when we write about sex

Her jaws worked faster and faster, molars grinding together relentlessly, pounding the food into mush. Deftly, her practised tongue formed the masticated food into boluses that were swallowed whole, rippling down her throat. Her teeth tore into the chicken one more time, lips closing hungrily around the food. Finally, sated, she pushed away her plate. ‘That was wonderful,’ she sighed. ‘You must give me the recipe, Mum’.

Funnily enough, we don’t tend to write about eating like that in fiction. There’s plenty of food in literature – memorable family meals, intense flavour, hunger. We grow up sharing the excitement of Charlie Bucket’s first nibble of chocolate, graduate to Proust’s nostalgic ache for his fragrant madeleine or the urine tang of Leopold Bloom’s kidneys. But as far as I know, few people writing about food and eating feel the need to specify the physical actions connected with eating, the grinding of teeth or the reflex of swallowing. It’s not really the point, is it?

All of which makes me wonder why that’s what people tend to write about when they write about sex. As the Pulp song Hardcore puts it, ‘this goes in there, then this goes in there.’ It’s not terribly interesting (unless you’re a kid trying to work out exactly what does go in where, in which case you might be better off with a biology text book).

The hoo-hah about 50 Shades of you know what got me thinking about who writes well about sex. I blush to confess that I have tried to read the aforementioned. It’s very much about what goes in where, rather dull, and all sounds horribly uncomfortable. Can women really read it without wincing and wondering about cystitis? I found it about as erotic as an appointment for a smear test.

So why is it so hard to write well about sex, and what’s the key to doing it well?

The first thing, of course, is that it’s about emotions, not gynaecology. As with writing about food, you need the context of the longing for it, the delayed gratification of it, the tantalising, heart-stopping attraction of the object of desire. The scent, the flavour, the texture – all can build the mood. But the key is to help the reader understand what is happening inside the character’s head, not just to his or her body.

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach was shortlisted for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Award, which rather missed the point. Yes, the ill-fated coupling of the two protagonists yields passages of extreme awkwardness, excruciating to read. But surely that was the point – McEwan takes us into the head of his uptight, virginal heroine, grimly determined to do the right thing on her wedding night, despite her fear and lack of desire. It’s only bad sex because that’s what so many inexperienced young people, unprepared and fearful, went through. Contrast the forceful desire and concentrated longing of Atonement – McEwan clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to literary sex.

As does Alan Hollinghurst, whose elegant novels give us an entire world with all its social nuances and mannerisms. Sexual manners and politics are inextricably linked, marking insider or outsider status as clearly as education and class. Hollinghurst writes clearly and beautifully about everything his characters do, and doesn’t come over all coy or awkward when they reach the bedrooms. Or the changing rooms, communal gardens, lavatories or wherever else the urge might seize them.

Sarah Waters is another author whose sex scenes bar no holds, yet which read as erotic, rather than gynaecological. The combination of historical fiction and lesbian characters perhaps gives the novels a heightened sexual charge. When the sex is so clearly forbidden by the social context, the intensity of desire burns more brightly. She’s celebrated for her frankly sexual picaresque Tipping The Velvet, but the single sex scene in her next novel, Fingersmith, packs a real emotional punch. There’s little physical description, but the build up of tension and the joyous exclamation of the heroine – ‘My pearl!’ – tell us all we need to know.

Angela Carter wrote knowingly and disturbingly about female desire, notably in her short story The Bloody Chamber. Her interest was in the queasy intersection between corruption and innocence, and the complicity of the seeming innocent. It’s similar territory to 50 Shades, but 50 times more powerful.

Sex, of course, doesn’t always have to be erotic, in books any more than in life. It can be funny, appalling, routine, grubby, wonderful. The queen of funny sex has to be Jilly Cooper, never afraid of reaching for an inappropriate metaphor. I’m inordinately fond of Jilly Cooper’s books, largely because of my addiction to terrible puns, so I will forgive her almost anything. Even describing hero Rupert’s erection as ‘so large, she expected to see Greenham Common women camped around it, waving disapproving placards’.

The trouble with writing about sex purely to titillate, rather than as part of the life of the characters, is that it quickly becomes tedious. E.L James has made a fortune from tapping into women’s curiosity about erotica, although I do wonder how many make it to the end of the book. I’d like to make a suggestion for anyone tempted in that direction. Anais Nin was doing this decades ago, and much, much better. Find yourself a copy of Delta of Venus – the prose will spare your blushes, but the subject matter won’t.

Image: My own

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