Why is fiction concerned with sex automatically labelled erotica or pornography even when the sex described is sad, harrowing, abusive, or otherwise un-sexy? Why do so many critics treat sex as a light, fluffy subject or something the writer has inserted into the book just to ramp up sales? And why do many writers shy away from describing sex, as though what goes on in the bedroom is too private to share even with readers who've been privy to the inner thoughts of the character from page one?
Mechanically, sex is pretty simple. There are only so many different ways to do it, only so many variations of fitting Tab A into Slot B or C. But the experience of sex changes all the time and this provides a writer with enormous scope. There are layers of experience ? physical, emotional, spiritual, historical, political ? and all those layers can go into a sex scene so that, rather than writing about two bodies bumping against each other, you're really writing about two histories, two intellects, two bundles of fear and hope and hunger colliding.
A well-written sex scene can show more about a character than pages and pages of internal monologue. Sex strips people of their clothes, their disguises, their words, and sometimes their reason. Naked and at the mercy of another human being, our vulnerability brings out shades of our character not otherwise seen. Cruelty, childishness, greed ? aspects rarely revealed by apparently reasonable adults going about their day-to-day lives are exposed.
The potential for exposure is why, I think, it is often said that sex, of all human behaviours, is the most deeply private. Too private, some might say, to be turned into words, printed on paper, and exchanged for cash. But novelists write about all kinds of private things. Illness, faith, self-hatred ? all of these are deeply personal and private topics. All are things that we struggle to describe and explain, experiences that one feels no other person could possibly understand, that one must be inside the experience to truly know. Yet novelists pick them up again and again.
Do the authors who avoid writing sex fear that readers will think that every sexual encounter described is being related by the author from personal memory? Perhaps, but being confused with one's characters is an occupational hazard for a novelist and I don't believe being assumed sexually experienced is any more upsetting then being assumed devious or weak-willed or anything else attributable to our characters.
So perhaps the fear is not personal but professional. There persists the idea that serious writers do not write about sex, not explicitly anyway. Deaths may be described in chilling detail, as might illness, bowel movements, tea-making, hair-brushing, painting, writing, fighting, murdering, cooking, and anything else you can imagine, but sex is out of bounds.
But what are writers supposed to write about if not the things that concern and obsess human beings? And sex does. The expression, repression, sublimation, corruption or control of sexual desire has been at the heart of an overwhelming number of human tragedies and triumphs, both fictional and real. Considering the things we do for sex, the damage it can cause, the joy it can create ? I can think of few things as important or