“Bulbous salutations”, “pleasure caves”, and “stiffening shafts”, all mixed up so often in a veritable hodgepodge of sexual activity and (sometimes anatomically incorrect or physically impossible) movement. All can be found in abundance throughout the literary canon – a testament to the difficulties writers have when it comes to writing about sex.
Of course, we know sex is notoriously hard to write about; yet the fact that we know how hard it is should not necessarily excuse the fact that writers – good, sometimes even great ones – continually seem to struggle to change their approach here. Instead, it seems we are stuck in an endless loop of vaginas “squeaking like wet rubber” (David Huggins), of women “making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren” (Nicholas Royle) and “designer pussies” (Aniruddha Bahal).
The Literary Review’s infamous Bad Sex in Fiction Award was created over 25 years ago to highlight passages of egregiously bad prose and description and to prevent writers – and publishers and editors – from repeating the same mistakes. The awards are an international phenomenon; with writers keen to avoid picking up the literary world’s most notorious ‘booby prize’. So why have the awards been going since 1993 and we are still – still! – uncovering new ways for writers to make the act of sex sound like some sort of crazed anatomy lesson? Why haven’t authors paid any attention to the awards, or worked out how not to write about sex? Why hasn’t anything changed?
The cause of the problem – as is the case with so many other things – is, perhaps, men.
Certainly, all evidence seems to suggest that male writers have a particular difficulty in writing about sex – 23 out of 26 past winners have all been men; along with over 80% of nominees for the award since 2002.
It’s not new to point this out – Joel Snape, writing in the Telegraph suggests it’s because men like to “show off” and singles out 2014 winner Ben Okri for doing just this, pointing out that the author, “smothers one female character’s internal monologue with so many abstract nouns and metaphors that it’s impossible to tell what’s going on: at first she’s adrift on warm currents, then ‘the universe is in her’, and then a stray rocket goes off.”
If people have realised that men are particularly bad at writing about sex, perhaps the question ought to be: is this really all that surprising?
Suspicions, probably, should have been raised the moment – for example – Jonathan Little’s protagonist in The Kindly Ones compared himself to “a sow nuzzling for a nest of black truffles” during the act.
George RR Martin famously – and egregiously – broke the cardinal rule of writing sex when he vividly described Samwell Tarly’s penis as a “fat pink mast”. As Booker Prize judge Lucasta Miller explains, a trap so many writers seem to fall into is describing sex in a way that it reads “like a biology textbook […] when people use similes and metaphors in their anatomical depictions of the sexual organs, it’s toe-curling and embarrassing.”
So why do so many men keep making the same mistakes, year after year, in book after book?
In some cases – such as with 2015 Bad sex award winner Morrissey – it can seem as though the male writer barely understands what human beings are; let alone how they make love. The former Smiths frontman was singled out for the following particular passage:
“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”
But regardless of how anyone could think it possible for breasts to barrel roll – or whether anyone really definitely knows what “the otherwise central zone” refers – the real reason men can’t seem to write about women is that they still don’t understand that sex – both in real life and in fiction – requires two people (at least) to be effective. And that requires the ability to both see the other person involved as your equal, and to see things from their perspective.
This, it should be clear to everyone by now, is not something that comes easily to men – least of all the (usually CIS, privileged and white) men who make up the Bad Sex in Fiction award shortlists.
But, as evidence to these sorts of statements is often helpful, let us look no further than the remarkable vaults of Twitter and Reddit’s Men Writing Women threads. These showcase the scale of the problem, pointing out real-world examples where men have tried (admittedly, perhaps not that hard) to describe a female character and failed spectacularly. The following are just a few examples:
Reading these threads (or indeed, casting your mind back to many works of fiction throughout history), you quickly realise that there is an ‘attractive woman’ trope that rears its head again and again. These women are easily identifiable in the way they are almost unattainably attractive – and how they will frequently either be studied by a male protagonist (or, indeed, study themselves in a mirror if they are the narrator) and remark on their physical appearance, usually with comparisons between their different body parts to different pieces of fruit.
By creating these essentially empty vassals of characters, male authors are bound to end up writing bad sex scenes, because one half of the partnership necessary to have good sex isn’t present. Thus, no matter of misplaced imagery can help insert the frisson or spark that makes a fictional sex scene feel in anyway real. And you end up with things like Scoundrels: The Hunt for Hansclapp by Major Victor Cornwall and Major Arthur St John Trevelyan, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Bad Sex in Fiction Awards:
“Empty my tanks,” I’d begged breathlessly, as once more she began drawing me deep inside her pleasure cave. Her vaginal ratchet moved in concertina-like waves, slowly chugging my organ as a boa constrictor swallows its prey. Soon I was locked in, balls deep, ready to be ground down by the enamelled pepper mill within her.”
So then, perhaps part of the reason men can’t seem to write about sex is that it is part of a wider problem where men struggle to write female characters that aren’t two-dimensional ciphers for male characters to either kill, fuck, or ‘mansplain’ things to (or some combination of all three).
It may be, as Guardian journalist Rhiannon Rhys Cosslett suggests, that male authors simply cannot be bothered to empathise with women or to think about what it must be like to be a woman. She goes onto pose a serious question for men who write about both sex and women, asking:
“Can you really be considered a great novelist when, in writing characters of a gender that makes up 50% of the population, you consistently fail?”
So what are men supposed to do about this?
Thinking about all this, the answer to the above question really should be simple. Men just need to understand the (apparently revolutionary) concept that women are people.
If you can manage to understand ladies, and what they like, that helps: it avoids unnecessary penetration metaphors and gets across the idea that everyone’s enjoying themselves. If you can understand that women like to fuck; and not just be fucked, that helps. If you can recognize that sex requires an actual living person to do it with you, that’s a big step; because otherwise all you’re ever going to end up describing is a scene where a man makes love to a picture-perfect (though sometimes anatomically unrealistic) sex doll.
If you aren’t able to do this, and you’re not willing to try and understand how women think, act, and make love; then everyone of your readers will be able tell that you’re faking it.
It can be done
Believe it or not, there are – remarkably – some male authors who not only understand that women are actual human beings; but are also able to write really good sex scenes. You can pick up anything by Larry McMurtry or Michael Cunningham. Nick Brooks, who wrote the sexily delicious volume, Sexy Haiku also deserves checking out. And while Sebastian Faulks has sometimes erred in his sexual description, he is well thought of in many circles for writing well-realised female characters – as well as one of the most successfully kinetic sex scenes in literature in Birdsong.
And, lest we forget to acknowledge that sometimes women can be just as bad at writing about sex as men, look no further than Rosa Mundi, and this particular passage in her novel, Vocational Girl where she writes of a blow-job: “I like the feeling of my lips being stretched, the incorporation of the chthonic male other into the mouth from which I speak, the head from which I think, the face which is my polite persona in the non-sexual intercourse of polite society.”
It’s true that writing about sex is hard work; but then, just as with real sex, it seems the trick is to put the effort in.