The Problem With Sex Scenes

CONTENT WARNING: Discusses sex and the erotic, and mentions rape, peripherally.

I've recently read several books with very vivid sex scenes: Summit Avenue, which is by the way, a BEAUTIFUL book, and Memoirs of a Beatnik, which quite possibly is the most sex-soaked book I've ever read in my life (No, I've never read the Marquis de Sade, and Sacher-Masoch did a lot more TALKING about sex then actually having it, in what little I read). This has me thinking about the sex scene as an art form - I don't read a lot of modern lit, so this is probably simply because my normal books don't HAVE a lot of explicit sex in them (though I have often thought it'd be really interesting to see how, say, Charlotte Bronte or Elizabeth Barrett Browning would write a sex scene). As such, the things I say here are probably kind of naive and obvious. I apologize.

To summarize my feelings, it is interesting to me that, when one hears the words 'good sex scene', one assumes that this means the scene referenced must be erotic. I don't know, I guess that sounds silly. But let me say it a different way: If I say the words 'good wedding scene', that could be something solemn, something funny, something sad even. We accept that 'wedding' is a very complex topic, that it is a canvas to express something larger, rather than simply to express the idea of the ideal wedding. The title 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' is intriguing, quite simply, because one expects that if there are four of them, that each will be wildly different in emotional tenor. 'Four Sex Scenes and a Funeral' has a different effect (and what a movie that would be...).

I think this, in part, has to do with the relative youngness of the respectable literary sex scene. I know that is an arguable statement, but I would submit that while sex has been written about explicitly likely since the dawn of writing, it has not been always, particularly in the western world, accepted as a part of the palette of the general audience storyteller. If Wuthering Heights were written now, it would be more explicit, I would venture to say, and if most books today were written a hundred years ago, they would be less. Sex Scenes written before the modern era, in fact, seem to revel in their prurience. Even in 1969 when Memoirs of a Beatnik was written, the very explicit sex scenes feel defiant, and rebellious, the author thumbs her nose at the literary establishment every time she says describes a man's penis. Of course, at times now, this can seem a little tiresome, a little bit like the author is being self-indulgent even, but this is the lens of time in large part: a woman writing an explicit description of losing her virginity or having sex with other girls at college in 1969 was a truly rebellious act. And so di Prima quite frankly tries to make the scenes as erotic as possible, to grab the reader and say 'yes, sex is, in fact awesome, and it's awesome whether or not you are a nice nuclear family doing it quietly in your two twin beds pushed together, it's awesome in a hovel of a garrett in New York, or in a field in Connecticut, it's awesome when it's happy and it's awesome when it's sad.' The statement 'sex is kinda awesome' is no longer an entirely controversial one (though there is conversation to be had there) - one can imagine it on a t-shirt, in fact. Sex feels nice, we have, as a culture, come to terms and accepted that.

But, then, I think to an extent, this is still what we've been trained to expect of a sex scene. I speak only anecdotally, here, and I do not know if this is universally applicable, but I would suggest that most children's first emotional exposure to sex (a clinical, academic exposure perhaps preceding it, if they are taught the birds and bees lesson), is usually a prurient one: it's sneaking a book off your parent's shelf, or making out with your significant other and having it go too far, or hearing a dirty joke, or seeing a pornographic movie or picture. Sex is something that we have taught our children must be ignored or sniggered over. So, when those children grow up and become the target market for a movie, a novel, whatever, when they see a sex scene coming, they expect it to titillate and excite. And so, to a certain extent, I think this is how sex scenes end up being written. There is a tendency to describe bodies, instead of minds, sensations instead of emotions, there is a tendency to fantasize (in one direction or another, not always positive), a tendency to glamourize.

And this is not to say that a truly erotic sex scene is not a powerful and worthy thing. Sexual longing and release are very powerful, real parts of the human experience, and at least somewhat close to universal ones. But, at the same time, I think that we discourage the exploration of other parts of what sex is to us, more specifically even, what consensual sex is. A teenager masturbating can be sexually powerful for them, or it can be sort of embarrasingly funny, and these two ideas are expressed pretty widely in films, for instance, but it can also be a lot of other things, solemn and self-searching, angry, self-absorbed, deluded. Masturbation can be very poignantly lonely, or it can be very poignantly comforting. A sex scene between two consenting adults can be very sexy or very awkward, it can also be very upsetting without ever being a rape or a power game, or it can be very exhausting, or very chummy and friendly, or it can be very horrifying, or introspective, or distracted, or sad, or triumphant, or disappointing, or any number of other things. I have had more scenes in my life that fit the outliers (positive and negative), personally, than fit the standard story of no-strings erotic or hilarious. Sex's resonance is not simply that it gives you something snigger over, and it's not just that it feels nice.

I understand that there are authors, directors, screenwriters, actors, etc that go to express this (the song 'First Orgasm' by Amanda Palmer is an interesting example), and I also don't want to suggest that the world just needs more sex scenes - I don't mean to suggest that sex is the ONLY reservoir of emotional resonance. Thank god, it isn't, or we couldn't ever be friends without nudity ensuing. And I think we are much better at, for instance, exploring the intricacies of the buildup to sex, the long courting period (I know Amanda hated it, but I found Fingersmith to be an excellent example of this, or the above-mentioned Summit Avenue, for a wonderfully sentimentalist take on it). I think the responsibility lies on us, as readers, honestly, to make a dialogue about sex scenes that goes past joking or discussing the erotic (both of these being fine in their place, but we need to do MORE than that, you know?). I've had haunting, powerful conversations with people about other scenes in books, but sex scenes, we shy away from - or we say, simply, there was a 'really great sex scene', which the reader, generally, interprets to mean 'it was very erotic.' Of course, this is difficult, because I know that there are people who, with very good reason DON'T feel comfortable discussing a sex scene. But, we overcome that in other places - warnings about spoilers come to mind, or warning at the beginning of the review that we're discussing rape, so that we don't traumatize someone who has been a victim in the past. But, you know, I think it would be possible to have a really fascinating, enlightening conversation about, again, say, the sex scene in Fingersmith, or those in the film Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive, or the sexual scenes in Tender Morsels (and not just the rape ones, either).

Anyway, just a thought. Perhaps I'm just naive.


Emily said...

I totally agree with your point that it would be great if "a really good sex scene" could come to mean more than "a sex scene that turned me on" in common parlance. I can think of many scenes involving sex that are "great scenes" in the larger sense of bringing together the characters & themes of the novel in interesting ways - the first one that leapt to mind is the reunion of Paul D and Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved. There's this gorgeous circular quality about it wherein the two people are farthest apart when they're hurriedly and not very erotically having sex, and then as they lay next to each other in bed their thoughts & emotions loop around and come into harmony with one another and dwell on their shared past. It's beautiful.

Actually, for all the flak it gets I think Lady Chatterley's Lover does a great job exploring the different human modes of expression possible through sex, in a way that's not very glamorized at all. Most of the time Connie & Mellors are either distracted, or resentful of each other, or dwelling on the past, or feeling sad, and all that is expressed either through (for example) a sex scene where she's thinking how ridiculous he looks even though she wants to be into it, or a scene where they both feel like they should be taking advantage of a special night together by having sex, but they're both irritated with each other. The difficulty of true physical or mental communion in the modern/industrialized world. (Not that I necessarily buy his nostalgia about returning to nature, but I think he uses sex very well in thinking about & developing those ideas.)

Nabokov, too, plenty of his stuff. I agree with you, as well - Sarah Waters is a master. Several scenes in The Night Watch were amazing from this perspective, at least one of them also very erotic. AND MOLLY BLOOM, of course! Not to mention Leopold.

I'm stopping now. :-)

Nymeth said...

I don't think you're naive - I think you made some truly excellent points here. You're right; "great" tends to be taken to mean "erotic", but when I use it I usually mean that it had real emotional resonance. I'd argue that we DO need more of those sex scenes, the ones that explore the very wide range of emotions that sex can contain. I've actually thought a lot about this in the past - why this is an area of experience that literature doesn't really seem to reflect. You might be on to something when you say that it's because it's relatively new.

There are so few sex scenes that I think have real emotional resonance that the ones I do find really stand out. Fingersmith is a huge favourite of mine, and Illyria by Elizabeth Hand is the most recent example. Also, I completely agree with Emily about Lady Chatterley's Lover. I'm an unapologetic huge fan of that book exactly because it does such a great job of exploring the several different things that sex can mean or convey - and this surprised me. Somehow I expected it to be more defiant for the sake of being defiant and less emotionally complex.

I could blab about this at length, but I'll leave you with a link that might interest you: http://markcnewton.com/2010/06/24/sexual-healing/ The post is more about different attitudes towards gay and straight sex scenes, but there are some good points about how sex scenes in general are perceived, especially in the comments. I found Hal Duncan's particularly interesting.

Trisha said...

What a fantastic post! I've always wanted a "good sex scene" where at some point during the activity there is laughter. It seems sex is most often described in books as "intense" or "passionate", all terrible longing and uncontrollable urges. What about a bit more "fun"? As you say, pop culture seems to see sex in a very narrow way - or at least portray it narrowly.

Trapunto said...

I can easily imagine a sex scene written by Charlotte Bronte. I can imagine many of her scenes, with slight alterations, TURNING into sex scenes.

And I even think it's *her*. Not me.

I am glad you think Summit Avenue is a beautiful book. I do to! Though, weirdly, I don't remember the sex scenes.

Emily said...

@Trisha I was just reading a book that features laughter & sex together - Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, in which the main character's lover tells her none of the other women he's been with have laughed during sex; they've all cried about how he must despise them. He finds the change disconcerting, but not unpleasant.

@Trapunto I agree completely about Charlotte Brontë.

And I just thought of another very interesting addition to the mix: Zora Neale Hurston's short story "Sweat" is all about the different flavors of sex between a couple, how it starts out joyful and young, and becomes corrupted & contemptuous & wrapped up with money, and then is able to some degree to heal and be caring again. Great story with a particularly heartbreaking sex scene in the middle of it.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - I tried Lady Chatterley when I was too young, so I can't trust my judgements on it :). I'll have to try it again sometime. But Molly and Leo, I definitely know what you're saying. Ms Waters, I've so far only read Fingersmith, but have most of her others on the shelf waiting for me :D. I read my first sex scene when I was, about, 10 or 12, and it was a shudderingly unpleasant experience, and looking back I wonder if one of the things that makes a sex scene so challenging is that it's such a personal private thing (at least in our culture), that it's difficult to write a scene inclusively, you know? I will relate to a moderately skillful description of, say, a penis entering a vagina far differently than would someone else. For whatever reason, we identify very strongly with our particular sexual predispositions, and people find it unpleasant to sympathize a character's sexual action if it doesn't match those predispositions - for instance, some men I know, even if they are openminded and perfectly okay with homosexuality, just find it unpleasant to read about homosexual sex, just on a physical level it's the opposite of exciting to them. Of course, this doesn't mean the scenes shouldn't be written, at all - just framing what must be a troubling writer's dilemma: how do you write a scene that would naturally have diametrically opposite effects on two seperate segments of your audience? On the other hand the distaste rather than just a feeling of 'meh whatever' is a social construct, I think, in large part, and one that ought to be destroyed, eventually, so I truly hope more scenes are written, and read, and given to people when they're at the right age, so that we can get over our eww-gross effect.

Ms Nymeth - It's a difficult question, because... well, the thing about saying we need more sex scenes, is that I worry that it will end up becoming more trashy sex scenes. Part of this is just the residual prudishness that I know we all need to overcome, but part of it is that, in sex in our culture, there are a lot political and cultural norms enforced. Our lessons about sex (this is normal, this is nasty, this is kinky, this is what makes you slutty, this is what makes you reliable, this is what girls are like, this is what boys are like) are very difficult to tease out for people, and very subtly powerful - I mean, talk about the ultimate positive reinforcement system, at some level, you know? This is, for the same reason, why I struggle with the idea of pornography: because when it becomes more prevalent, the trashy, destructive, norm-reinforcing stuff becomes more prevalent, too. I don't know, it's a very difficult question, because on the other hand, how are more good attitudes about sex going to come about if we aren't a bit more open and honest and inquiring about it? I suppose in a sense, one has to just trust that people will be more attracted to the things that are good than the things that are bad - it's hard to trust the human race, though... it's difficult as a question, altogether. What do you think?

Jason Gignac said...

Trisha - I agree, I'd like to see a sex scene where the humor is positive - there's plenty of 'American Pie' in the world, but there is a subtle implication that feeling something playful or funny during sex is a sign that you or your partner has failed. The sex humor we DO see, of course, seems to reinforce the opposite - point and laugh at the idiot that messed up during sex, you know?

Ms Trapunto - YES! And that's why I used her as an example :). And Ms Browning is sort of my 'or the opposite way of describing sex' example. Or Rosetti! Goblin Market, for instance, is such a sensual feast already... :). And - there was only one sex scene, and I have to admit, part of my writing this post was wondering whether the sex scene felt awkward because it's hard to read a sex scene with your whole brain, or whether it's hard to write one. I think it's the former not the latter, hence the emphasis I (hope) I made in the post.

Emily said...

@Jason I sort of relate about Lady Chatterley - it's a surprisingly "adult" novel, not in the XXX way, but in the life's-a-bitch, filing-tax-returns, war's-a-racket, people-are-petty-and-small, working-every-day-of-your-life-until-you-die sort of way. And the sex reflects that. It's also DEFINITELY a product of its times, despite mine & Ana's fandom. :-)

I feel like, if we trained ourselves out of this expectation that sex scenes SHOULD be a turn-on necessarily, we would have fewer issues like the ones you're describing with people finding various sexual practices distasteful. As an extreme example, and not something that counts as a "sex scene" but may still be relevant, I dislike reading about rape, but I still do it all the time because it's recognized as part of the litany of human experiences. There can't be a realistic novel about colonialism/slavery/war without rape, because it's one of the oldest weapons of control in the book. And if so many men and women read about a horrendous violent act for the sake of getting an accurate picture of the human experience, we should also be able to take in our stride reading about consensual sexual practices that don't turn us on, and evaluating them in the context of the characters' stories. We do that all the time with non-sexual scenes, after all - a character will find someone or some idea immensely appealing, and even though we as readers may be repulsed by that idea, we can use our empathy to imagine why they/it might appeal to the character as presented. Sex is currently processed differently, like the reader feels some sense of entitlement to get turned on by it, but IMO it shouldn't be.

PS - Sorry for taking over this discussion thread! I just think it's interesting. :-)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - I suppose the difference to me, is you're SUPPOSED to feel uncomfortable about a rape scene, you know? A rape scene SHOULD make you feel icky. You should never get used to it, as it were. So, most of the audience the writer is addressing is at least on the same page - some, sadly might be so FAR on that page that they cannot read the scene at all, but at least it's because they agree it's horrible, not because they cannot accept it for what it is. Two gay men having sex, on the other hand, I may write it HOPING you'll feel a warm sense of comfortable marriageness, but there are those who, for whatever reason, have been rendered incapable of feeling that, because they feel DISCMFORT when you mean them to feel the opposite, you know? Now again, this isn't to say writers shouldn't write them. They should. Write more of 'em, in the right places. I'm just pointing out that Sex is somewhat unique in this regard. Violence gets close, I guess, if you're reading a book that glorifies war, and you feel repulsed by the heroic scene where they bayonet the bad guy's belly. There is certainly that.

I agree, it comes to empathy - and I suppose I'm curious what the limits of empathy are, you know? I mean, again, I think there ARE cases where an erotic sex scene is exactly what's needed - is it possible to write a sex scene between two men with enough universalized intensity that someone who is decidedly straight and has no interest in the behaviour of itself can feel, empathically, what it feels like to be in that relationship? (I ask out of pure curiosity, as I'm not quite far enough on the Kinsey scale to judge for myself) I mean, I am not sure my sister, for instance, would necessarily enjoy the scene in Fingersmith, on any level, and I wonder how much of that is biology and how much is social barriers to empathy. I personally think it's the latter, but again, I'm in a poor position to judge, I suppose.

And I personally don't believe there is such a thing as 'hijacking' my comments, unless you count taking them over to sell Amway or something. I am happy that my meandering post got you thinking and gave you somewhere to discuss your thoughts :).

Trapunto said...

Don’t you think someone’s going to take this to its logical conculsion? *Jane Eyre: Uncorseted*

Regarding rape scenes vs. sex scenes, I think many sex scenes *are* written in such a way that you are meant to feel icky. Sort of a dirty truckstop bathroom, heh, heh, heh, this is icky, but don’t you love it? way.

And I look down over my glasses and say boredly, not really.

I have lived long enough and am well-enough-aquainted with myself to lnow I am not puritanical or a prude. But those words wreak such havoc with teenaged confidence they are strangely ready-to-hand when sex in art comes up.

I like to distinguish between prudery, which purses the lips and shakes the finger; and reticence, which knows but doesn’t tell.

And I feel really funny being the one to bring this up, considering my last review was about a male/male romance novel!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto: Regarding the 'icky' sex scenes - point taken. I also think a number are written to sound 'gritty and realistic' by the same token, which often ends up sounding like it's grandstanding to me. I suppose, more than anything else, I want sex scenes that sound as if they are about the book, not about the author, if that makes sense?

Trapunto said...

Makes a lot of sense.

Anonymous said...

Love cannot be forced.