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.