by Jean Roberta
The introduction of sex in a work of fiction can feel problematic for several reasons: sex has traditionally been considered “unspeakable,” something that can’t and shouldn’t be described in detail, at least in the social mainstream, and sex is considered an exceptional activity, a form of interaction that is completely different from any other. Of course, sex is different from every other shared activity, but even the most casual hookup is usually preceded by a comment or question (“Looking for a good time, sailor?” “Are you alone?” “Do you come here often?”).
The challenge for an erotic writer is how to get from here to there. Going beyond conversation to the shedding of clothes usually means shedding certain readers as well. Erotic writers know that some readers won’t read writing about sex, even if these readers actually have sex lives, and even if they bring murder mysteries with them to the beach for “light” reading.
Besides all this, there still seems to be an amazing amount of confusion about what is sexually acceptable in the real world. I recently had a conversation with my stepson (age 36, and a veteran of several serious heterosexual relationships) when he agreed to drive me to the home of a fellow-volunteer counsellor on the local sexual assault line so I could pass on the satchel that contains a mobile phone for emergency calls.
Stepson seemed to feel he was under suspicion of various crimes just because he is male. I assured him that I trust him more than I trust most men, having known him since his ninth birthday.
My assurance apparently didn’t ease his discomfort enough. He told me that when he sees an attractive woman, he wants to have sex with her. I wasn’t sure if he was confessing a sin or defending his male nature against a particularly feminist form of prudery. I told him that wanting sex is fine. (He knows I’m an erotic writer, but this fact often seems to slip from his consciousness.) I explained that wrestling a protesting woman to the ground or putting a drug in her drink to knock her out is not fine; in fact, those activities are crimes. He implied that no sane man would do any of those things, but he still seemed troubled.
I was aware that a stepmother-stepson relationship is an awkward context for a conversation about sex that is not intended as foreplay. For all practical purposes, I am one of his parents, but we’re not actually related by blood. I still feel as if someone needs to explain the concept of consent to him as thoroughly as possible, but I doubt if I’m the best person to do that.
I wonder how many other men either feel like criminals because the sight of attractive women excites them, or who feel entitled to do whatever they have to do to overcome most women’s refusal to have immediate (unpaid) sex with strangers—or with men they know too well.
A fellow erotic writer recently suggested to me that none of us are “politically correct,” which apparently means that scenarios about men using force or deception to have sex with women shouldn’t offend any of us. It’s not as if any erotic writer was ever a young woman who needed a job, and didn’t want to be tricked into a sketchy situation involving non-consensual sex and no pay, with the risk of getting killed. And it’s not as if any erotic writer was ever a woman who wanted human status.
As I’ve said here earlier, my fantasies about true sexual freedom (without degradation, contempt, or various forms of punishment) take place in an alternative world because I’ve rarely seen it in this one. I can imagine a culture in which it would be perfectly acceptable for a person to approach another person for sex, and perfectly acceptable to accept or refuse. In the case of rejection, the seeker would just continue looking for a playmate. In the absence of sexual hypocrisy, homophobia, or a sexist double standard, the search probably wouldn’t take long.
In a fantasy novel that I read years ago (sorry I can’t remember the title or the female author), the question “May I offer you anything?” was widely understood to be a proposition, and the answer was often yes. The simple honesty of this form of etiquette appealed to me, and I wished I could visit that imaginary world.
So in the world we live in, as well as in the stories we write, how do we take two or more sympathetic characters from everyday interactions—in which everyone is fully dressed—to sexual ecstasy? A standard guidebook on sexual etiquette would help. More honesty and empathy in the culture at large would help more.
What would help the most would be a general understanding that no one is “out of character” when they are out of their clothes. Au contraire. The butcher, the baker and the cabinet-maker want sex is some form, with someone. So do the doctor, the lawyer, the accountant, your child’s kindergarten teacher, and the bag lady pushing a shopping cart.
I haven’t found a way to segue comfortably from non-sex to sex on the page without feeling as if some part of the narrative doesn’t fit with the rest. As my spouse often says, I want to live on my own planet.
As long as I am stuck on this one, I will be tempted to describe sex (when I do) in a culture that speaks what is still largely unspeakable here.