Sexual Truth


Theories about what makes good erotic stories have probably been around as long as people have been writing them. The standard advice for writers in general is “write what you know,” and many first books are thinly-disguised autobiographies. How autobiographical can sex-writers afford to be, and does raw truth add to the quality of the writing, or subtract from it?

From a publisher’s viewpoint, “true” sex stories are a good thing because they are likely to sell. There is a literary tradition of panned and banned but widely-read sexual memoirs, especially in French. (Even the man known as Casanova, born in Venice in 1725, wrote his memoirs in French, presumably because more people could read French than Italian in his time.) The 2002 book, The Sexual Life of Catherine M, by French art critic Catherine Millet, is part of that tradition, as are the autobiographical books of lesbian writer Violette Leduc, who is probably best known for La Batarde (“The Bastard”), first published in 1964. An American lesbian, Dorothy Allison, wrote an autobiographical novel (in English) with a parallel title, Bastard Out of Carolina. When this book was published in 1992, it was widely criticized by anti-porn feminists for its sexual content, although it is not focused solely on sex.

Connoisseurs of sexual memoirs in English are familiar with the anonymous My Secret Life:The Sex Diary of a Victorian Gentleman, published in eleven volumes from 1888 to 1894, and with My Life and Loves by Frank Harris, published in four volumes from 1922 to 1927. A fifth volume was edited by another writer from Harris’ notes after his death, and the whole work was republished by Grove Press in 1963.

Books like this come to be known as “classics” once they have reached a certain age. At the time they were first published, they were treated like television talk shows that attract zillions of viewers, many of whom complain that privacy, discretion and good taste have obviously fallen out of style.

Certain publishers, such as Alyson Books, regularly post calls-for-submissions asking for true sex stories. Since Alyson specializes in gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender material, the decision-makers could claim to be continuing the work of educating the public at large by bringing the formerly hidden life-stories of sexually-marginalized people into print. Surely this is not a bad thing, even if the profit motive is the engine that drives publishing in general.

What works for publishers might or might not work for individual writers. “Write what you know” is standard advice in creative writing classes, but some students simply assume that certain kinds of experience are off-limits. When I have taught creative writing (not focusing on sex, which would probably have emptied my senior-citizen classes), most of my students have claimed to have no desire for public exposure.

Real life in some form is the raw material out of which literature is made. I often suspect that writer’s block, or new-writer shyness (“but I don’t know what to write”) comes from an unwillingness to expose any part of one’s life to anyone who doesn’t already know it. One way to break the self-imposed silence is to keep a journal and keep it strictly private until one is ready to share some of the contents with someone else.

The advantages of simply writing the truth—as the writer remembers it at the time of writing—seem obvious. Telling one’s own version of what really happened can be a great relief, even (or especially) if the story is told to a wide audience of total strangers. As the controversial English writer D.H. Lawrence claimed, “One sheds one’s sicknesses in books.” Once the truth (sexual and otherwise) is out, it no longer has the toxic power of a secret.

The disadvantages of simply writing the truth, especially about one’s own sexual experience, seem equally obvious. Even ordinary fiction, labeled as such, can attract voyeuristic suspicion from other people in the author’s real life.

Before I ever wrote an explicit sex scene, poems and stories of mine had appeared in magazines and print anthologies, and a collection of my lesbian stories had been brought out between hot-pink covers by a one-woman Canadian publisher who later went out of business.

Reactions to my writing from people I knew were often creepier (by my standards) than I expected. It seemed as if everyone in my life wanted to know who my characters “really” were, even though I had gone out of my way not to caricature anyone I knew.

Several of my “what-if” stories (about what could happen if someone vaguely like me had left high school to go on a pilgrimage to the big city in search of her celebrity idol, or tried to seduce someone in a committed relationship, or ran away from home to join a roving biker-dyke gang) were assumed to be autobiographical. College-educated friends, who had seemed to understand the difference between art and life, asked me when all these events “really” happened, implying that I was either a troubled soul or a liar. Or some combination of both.

When I began writing sex stories, I dreaded being grilled about the “real” identities of my shameless characters or about my “sicknesses” by conservative or Politically Correct standards. (Note the treatment of Dorothy Allison by her sister lesbian-feminists.) I knew that even if I could keep my sex-writing hidden from my relatives, I might not be safe from an inquisition.

My mother’s advice about sex, starting when I was old enough to understand it, was: (1) don’t do it, and (2) if you’ve done it, never tell anyone. My father usually found the topic too embarrassing to discuss. Over the years, my parents have been fairly consistent on the matter.

When I got divorced, my mother advised me to admit only that I had had sex with my husband and no one else. She thought it unfortunate that my baby daughter was living proof of my non-virginity. Although my parents now live in a nursing home where they are unlikely to be shocked by references to anything sexual, a surprising (to me) number of other people outside of various sex-positive communities favor the same sexual position, so to speak.

Those who tell the whole truth about their sex lives, in formats intended for public display, have my admiration. They are expanding the dimensions of what can be openly discussed. I can’t help wondering what percentage of them are adult orphans with no brothers, sisters, offspring, extended family, rabid exes, non-kinky friends or straight jobs.

We all decide what to write, based on our personal limits. Having weighed the odds, I continue to write erotic “what-if” stories, and occasionally dip into my memories to reconstruct a scene on an actual mattress which has been cooling ever since the person who bounced on it with me hit the road—preferably several decades ago, leaving no forwarding address. When asked how much of my fiction is “true,” I confess that reality is the ultimate source of all invention.

Jean Roberta
September 2008

“Sex Is All Metaphors” © 2008 Jean Roberta. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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