I didn’t think I needed much for a sex scene to turn me on, but after trying, really trying, to delve into “literary” romance novels, feminist romance, erotic fiction, and steampunk paranormal romance, I became disenchanted. Bored by bodies stirring and intense waves of pleasure. Friends of all kinds, married women with kids, single twentysomethings, divorced fortysomethings, and even my literary agent who represents a slew of talented romance novelists who have actually sold books — writers making bank on Amazon! — swore by the the new voice of romance. “Men are well hung. Women always have shattering orgasms during sex,” my friend says about her absorption in romance novels. It’s a place where men fought to the death for women. A place where women were revered. But in the end, my vibrator sat in its drawer where it has been for the past few months, dried up next to a full bottle of lube and unread books.
A successful sex scene, for me, has very little to do with penetration or the girth of a lover’s cock. I want my literary sex scenes to stem from a more muted place, where the physicality of the act is secondary. I want the sex to touch on the character’s relationship. I want the sex scene to act as subtext. I want complexity. I like less amplification.
It’s a lot to ask from a sex scene, to carry so much weight and arousal but also keep a lid on it. Like sex in a hotel room should be — loud but not too loud. A good muted sex scene is difficult to achieve for this reason. It’s why I was relieved to read Paula Hawkins' best-selling novel The Girl on the Train. Everyone's talking about how it's this year's Gone Girl, but what no one's talking about is that it has great sex scenes — ones that are more muted, and more realistic, and darker, than what we've grown used to in our fiction. The art of the muted sex scene is a lot like foreplay. When the foreplay is robust, everyone is more aroused. Meow.
The Girl on the Train is a thriller with three female narrators: Rachel, an alcoholic, is obsessed with her happily remarried ex-husband, Tom. Megan, depressed and manic, is married to Scott. Anna is Tom’s new wife. Megan and Scott are supposed to be the epitome of the perfect marriage — in Rachel’s eyes, they’re romantic untouchables. She watches them from the train with envy; she believes they have what she was missing in her relationship with Tom. But because this is a thriller and things aren’t always as they seem, we learn Megan and Scott are (spoiler!) miserable.
Their sex scenes are crude, with her teetering between needing him and manipulating him. In one scene, Megan leads Scott to the bedroom to avoid an argument. “He pushes me down on the bed, I’m not even thinking about him, but it doesn’t matter because he doesn’t know that,” Megan says. It’s raw, callous, and exciting, titillating even, because it’s unexpected. Sex isn’t intimate for Megan with Scott; it’s how she creates distance. The more Megan internally rejects her husband without his awareness, the more I’m fascinated by her character. A sex scene exists, but only as a distraction from the larger plot.
You want to talk about romance? Megan has the archetypal romantic-novel relationships: a husband who doesn’t satisfy her and a mysterious lover.
When we first meet Megan’s lover, they’re at their typical spot. They fantasize about exotic countries. He traces his fingers over her belly. She dreams of opening a beach bar. It seems sensual and tender until we get to the next paragraph, which is the undertone of what’s really happening — that this affair was supposed to be over long ago. “See? I win!” Megan gloats to herself. “I told you it wasn’t the last time, it’s never the last time.” Once a romantic scene filled with promise and hope is now a cryptic subplot, but this is what I already expect from Megan. This gloomy manipulative side is what turns me on. Is it sick that I don’t want Megan to be happy? She’s my Morrissey song. She’s my cemetery walk on a dreaded sunny day. Megan’s hollow. Megan’s lover is hollow. They tumble in a translucent sea of empty sex and lies, and the next morning he disappears.
Anna North’s new book, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, also tackles the raw emotional side of sex, yet sticks to a muted delivery. The book is set up as a tribute to Sophie Stark, a film director; each chapter is narrated by either a lover, a family member, or one of her subjects. Allison is Sophie’s lover; she describes Sophie with detail, but doesn’t candy-coat it. “She fucked me like a man — not like the boys I’d been with, but like the men I’d meet later on, who’d learned to read a woman’s body and knew without asking that I wanted them to hold me down.” That’s the difference between a muted sex scene and one that’s more explicit. A good muted sex scene like North’s holds back. It’s not so obvious. It’s coy. Instead of feeling like we’re under the sheets with Sophie and Allison, we feel as if we’re watching them from a long lens.
This doesn’t mean that a sex scene has to be filled with conflict to work for me. There are muted sex scenes that work even in the setting of pomp and romance. In fact, when I read these sex scenes, they remind me of my all-time favorite sex scene in Madame Bovary.
“She liked to explore the room, opening the dresser drawers, combing her hair with his comb, and looking at herself in his shaving mirror. Often she would even put between her teeth the stem of a big pipe that lay among the lemons and lumps of sugar, beside the water jug, on the night table.”
This is a sex scene.
In 1856, France tried to block publication of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary because this postcoital sex scene, among others like it, violated obscenity codes.
The touching of human skin or human hair, especially human hair that’s experienced adultery, like in Emma Bovary’s case, was once an intimate gesture. You touched someone’s hair or someone’s comb and you got them pregnant.
Flaubert didn’t dissect this adulterous sex scene between Emma Bovary and her lover the way he might have by today’s standards, but let’s unpack it. Emma Bovary is a married woman staring at herself in another man’s shaving mirror; she finds the pipe on the night table, which means she is in his bedroom, comfortably exploring his belongings. “The lumps of sugar and lemons” are organic, sweet and sour, a lot like love, or the taste of love. Emma Bovary places her “teeth between the stem of a big pipe,” exploring his extremely phallic grooming tools the way she might explore his body.
Two hundred years later and Flaubert’s words are like baby eroticism. Of course, it’s a function of its time, but even contemporary fiction, I think, works better when the sex is left to the imagination. Writing explicit sex scenes is so challenging because, as Steve Almond explains in “Hard Up for a Hard-On,” people put too much pressure on themselves to write sexy. How much physical interaction and description of the actual sex act do you need before you sound like an unhinged, hormonal teenager or a Philip Roth novel? It’s not about the sexual interaction between two people, Almond says, it’s that somebody is thinking. Sex, as Almond writes, is “awkward and shameful, and ecstatic and wonderful... Most sex writing is almost nothing like that.”
No other type of scene has its own bad writing awards, after all. I cringed my way through Roth’s The Humbling, which was short-listed for the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award in 2009. As much as I appreciated Susan Choi’s delve into a bisexual romance in My Education, I was totally distracted by the sex. (“We wept a great deal and loudly; and endured our orgasms like shipwreck survivors with hoarse shrieks of actual fear.”) But that's not a reason to avoid sex. Books can be about sex — the power and vulnerability therein — without being exhaustive.
What do we want out of a sex scene anyway? Eroticism? To be made uncomfortable? To see our characters emotionally naked? Don’t we also want to see what makes them tick? All of it, I say. I want it all. Take Mary Gaitskill, whose mechanical style is the antithesis of groaning and shrieking. Gaitskill’s sex scenes are muted in that she nullifies sentimentality. Bad Behavior, her short story collection from 1988, is a masterpiece in uncomfortable sex writing.
In “Secretary,” Debby is spanked by her boss after he finds a few typos on a memo. Debby’s turned on; she even kicks a paralegal out of the office so she can masturbate. It’s not exactly consensual because he’s her boss and Debby is trying to figure out what about humiliation turns her on, but Gaitskill holds back by keeping tightly focused on the act itself. “I became aware of a small frenzy of expended energy behind me. I had an impression of a vicious little animal frantically burrowing dirty with its tiny claws and teeth. My hips were sprayed with hot sticky muck.”
This feels detailed, maybe not entirely muted. But compare it to the “tampon” scene in Fifty Shades of Grey where Ana Steele’s internal dialogue is a gushing, flowery approach: “He reaches between my legs and pulls on the blue string… what! And…gently pulls my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet. Holy fuck. Sweet mother of all… Jeez. And then he's inside me… ah! Skin against skin… moving slowly at first… easily, testing me, pushing me… oh my. I grip on to the sink, panting, forcing myself back on him, feeling him inside me. Oh the sweet agony… his hands clasp my hips. He sets a punishing rhythm — in, out, and he reaches around and finds my clitoris, massaging me… oh jeez. I can feel myself quicken.”
Gaitskill’s ability to focus on more minute details gives us a different perspective of the sex scene. She plunges the emotion out of it in this scene. She tells us only what we need to know: that Debby’s boss stood behind her, jerking off, furious, like a wild animal.
James, on the other hand, provides too much. Way too much. She forces the scene on us when less would have worked. Imagine cutting it down to three sentences: “He reaches between my legs and pulls on the blue string and gently pulls my tampon out and tosses it into the nearby toilet. He reaches around and finds my clitoris, massaging me. I can feel myself quicken.” Tampon removal is a pretty bold undertaking, but whatever floats your boat. Remove the ahs and the sweet agonys and the scene is raw, more intimate; it gives us a real narrative of domination.
In Amy Hempel’s short story “Offertory” from 2006, the lead female character excites her older male lover (they don’t have names) by detailing a past affair she had with a married couple. He wants to hear the words “cock and cunt” but she holds back, teasing him as he begs for more details. This is muted, you ask, even with those words? Yes, because Hempel takes a reverse approach here. Though the sex exists between them, it’s not all about the sex; it’s also about how she holds back the sex, how she controls their relationship. She says: “I learned that the more froideur in my tone, the more heated, the more insistent he would become — until I would be unable to continue because his mouth would be stopped up.”
If this isn’t the hottest sentence you’ve read in a long time, then I don’t know what. Here’s why it works: because it tells you nothing. And it tells you everything! We know what it means for a man’s mouth to be stuffed up by a woman and we can bring our own experience to it.
Literary sex scenes should take a page from Hempel, or Gaitskill, Flaubert, North, or Hawkins. All of these authors, they’re duplicitous in a way; the sex is a decoy. The sex leads us in another direction. In Hawkins’ case, her sex scenes push her thriller forward; instead of Hawkins telling us about the sex itself, about the size of Megan’s breasts or, I don’t know, the length of her orgasm, we’re getting clues about her relationships. Without giving away too much (because I promise, my spoilers have been minuscule), these clues within the sex scenes are instructive to the story as a whole.
I’ll leave you with Hempel’s “Offertory.” Once the female character refuses to share erotic stories with her male lover — knowing that those erotic stories are the only way he can become truly aroused — she’s finally in control. She’s happy to “leave him with the failure of his own imagination.” Ultimately, that’s more gratifying for the reader as well — to be left with our own imagination. If it’s not, then pick up an erotic novel. You can get off that way too.
Hayley Krischer is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. You can subscribe to her weekly newsletter "So Very," where she writes about feminism, pop culture and translates Gwyneth Paltrow for the little people.
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