A few weeks ago a friend sent me a link to an article entitled: “Why Is It So Hard for Women to Write About Sex?” by Claire Dederer (The Atlantic Monthly, February 19, 2014). I clicked the link expecting something along the lines of an article I read at the end of the last century when I first started writing dirty stories, this one by Jane Smiley, who confessed that she was writing a new book with explicit sex scenes and found herself blushing as she wrote. After all, ladies aren’t supposed to descend to explicit descriptions of sex that might arouse, even while they touch upon topics like incest for the sake of literature.
However, to my surprise, The Atlantic article contained a new twist on the reason good girls feel shame when they write about sex. You see, Dederer is writing a memoir about sex, “specifically about having an awful lot of it awfully young—too young—as a teenager in the 1980s.” So far so good, in terms of a surefire hook for the publisher’s sales department. Yet Dederer’s difficulty with the writing process reportedly lies in the fact that she was and is ambivalent about sex, an experience of “doubt braided tightly with the desire.” More than that, apparently she actually thinks during sex and somehow got the message this is bad and she shouldn’t let anyone know that she does this. (I got that message, too, but have mostly moved beyond, thanks to erotica!)
Without going into a detailed summary of the article, what struck me most is that while Dederer acknowledges that female sexuality is seen as normal and real in our times, she worries that her attempts to express ambivalence, complexity or anything other than the sentiment that sex-is-awesome-give-me-more will make her “seem anti-woman, or anti-sex, or anti-sexual-woman (or just a downer).”
Moreover, according to Dederer, men don’t have this problem because their desire is visible in the uncomplicated form of an erection. Which, gentlemen, I hope you will agree, is a brutal simplification of the male experience of sex in our culture. Surely you feel ambivalence, know complexity, suffer pressure to speak of sex in certain accepted ways rather than challenge the cliches with honesty?
I’m not sure which bothers me more, the dehumanizing assertion that male sexuality is uncomplicated because we can see boners or the assumption that women are now allowed to write about sex but are only allowed to do so in positive and uncomplicated terms in order to affirm that women feel desire? As erotica writers, we are all aware of the restrictions of genre upon our writing, but I hadn’t realized it was this bad over in Literary Land. No wonder Dederer finds it hard to write about sex.
But for Dederer the landscape is not totally bleak. She has discovered a few female literary models that give her inspiration when she sits down to write about “giving a blow job to that creepy hippie Malcolm in the patchouli-smelling van in 1984.” One writer in particular, Lidia Yuknavitch, intrigued me enough to place a request for her novel, The Chronology of Water, through interlibrary loan. I liked the scene Dederer quoted from competitive swimmer Yuknavitch’s memoir about ogling the older female swimmers when she was a girl. At first she claimed to be horrified and disgusted, but in a humorous twist in the very next paragraph she confessed to being enthralled and aroused by their strong, hairy bodies.
Alas for the foes of sexual shame, The Chronology of Water yielded but another means to silence a writer taking tentative steps toward honest sexual expression. Allow me to share an extended passage from the introduction to Yuknavitch’s memoir written by her fellow writing group member, Chelsea Cain, the author of numerous best-selling thrillers.
“Chuck Palahniuk brought up the idea of inviting her. ‘She writes this literary prose,’ he told us. ‘But she’s this big-breasted blond from Texas, and she used to be a stripper and she’s done heroin.’ Needless to say, we were impressed.
I already wanted her to sit by me.
There was more. Chuck told us that some really famous edgy writer—I didn’t recognize her name, but I pretended that I did—had given a talk at a conference about the State of Sex Scenes in Literature and she’d said that all sex scenes were shit, except for the sex written by Lidia Yuknavitch. Maybe Chuck didn’t tell us that. But someone in the group did. I don’t remember. I think I was still thinking about the stripper thing. A real-life ex-stripper in our writing group! So glamorous.
Yes, we said, invite her. Please.
She showed up a few weeks later, wearing a long black coat. I couldn’t see her breasts. She was quiet. She didn’t make eye contact. She did not sound like she was from Texas.
Frankly, I was a little disappointed.
Where was the big hair, the Lucite platform heels? The track marks?
Had Chuck made the whole thing up? (He does that sometimes.)
How was he describing me to people?”
Wait, the great Chuck Palahniuk sponsored Yuknavitch for his writing group (even if he does stretch the truth a bit in introducing her)? Does it get cooler than that? But alas, I’m sure ERWA writers are all too familiar with Cain’s preconceptions about women who write about sex or have experience as sex workers or even have large breasts—we’re slutty exhibitionists who provide great material for characters in thrillers, never people with demure wardrobes and complex or even introverted personalities.
The most notable part of this excerpt, however, is the proclamation by the unnamed but famously edgy writer that Lidia Yuknavitch is the only writer on the face of the earth who can write good sex scenes. That’s right, folks, there’s only room for one voice to speak to us about sex in The Right Way!
Before we dismiss the unnamed famous writer’s opinion as a theatrical gesture—or a paid endorsement—might I point out that holding up some legendary stud or beguiling courtesan as a model against which ordinary mortals fall short is a time-honored way to shame people about their real sexuality. Allowing only a small elite of sexual superstars permission to express their experiences is another effective way of silencing the rest of us. Clearly the only thing worse than having ordinary sex is writing about sex in a way that doesn’t crown you as the bestest, coolest sex writer ever.
But remember, this only works if we feel shame about our sexuality and our ability to express it. It probably sells a lot of books, too, this idea that one gifted individual has a special knowledge and skill in sex writing that no one else can match. We eagerly reach for enlightenment from without and, for me at least, always come away unsatisfied.
Given that the literati seem to buy that there are but a very few acceptable ways to write about sex mere decades after respectable people were finally given permission to write about it at all, a question bears asking—how much progress have we really made when it comes to the opportunity to express sexual experience with honesty, whether that be joyful, dark, or a combination of the two? In my opinion, ERWA writers consistently and generously illustrate how well this can be done, even if The Atlantic isn’t giving us equal time to talk about how fun and easy it is. At the same time, we do live in a sex-phobic culture that is very adept at twisting old weapons into new ones to keep too many people scared they'll do it wrong.
Here is the dirty secret beneath all of this judgment and angst—if you want to write your truth about sex, you can’t do it wrong. There is room for many voices and many experiences, the more the better. Each of us can make up his or her own mind about what touches, amuses, arouses, angers or even shames us.
Start there and writing about sex becomes much easier.
And so I send my best wishes to all courageous writers who speak their erotic truth in spite of the cultural forces aligned against us. May you all, woman or man, find writing about sex inspiring, soul-expanding and challenging in the best of ways.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman (recently released as an ebook) and a new collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor