Sunday, June 5, 2011


In a recent piece called "How to Make Prudery Readable?", Patheos columnist Max Lindenman decried the fact that contemporary fiction writers can’t write decent sex scenes.

"A bold previous generation, including Norman Mailer, Philip Roth and John Updike, regarded sex — particularly transgressive sex, like adultery, hate-couplings and some liaisons that come dangerously close to rape — as material deserving thoughtful explication. This new generation, including Michael Chabon, Jonathan Franzen and the late David Foster Wallace, seems to prefer cozier, more domestic subject matter.

As [critic Katie] Roiphe puts it, “The current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.”

How can we help people write better sex scenes? Lindenman wonders. What are we looking for in a good sex scene?

I thought about this for a minute and what I came up with is:  Let’s have NO sex scenes.

Or rather let’s have any scene between two actual red-blooded, alive, fleshed-out lusting, raging, anguished, ravenous-for-meaning human beings.

Junot Diaz writes a good sex scene in the sense that he makes you feel like having sex though I’m not sure that’s the point, or the whole point. But you at least get the sense that two actual human beings, who you feel for, and have affection for, and can identity with, are getting it on, and that sex means something to them.  Two human beings who are willing to suffer for sex, which is to say their hunger for meaning, connection, relief, love. Two human beings who stand to get blown apart by sex.

"Escape from Spiderhead," a recent New Yorker story by the brilliant George Saunders shows the infinite sorrow and infinite horror of sex and love when, as is increasingly the case, they are technologically conceived, driven and engineered.

Maybe it’s only possible to write a sex scene by first establishing that our souls are at stake. Maybe it’s only possible to write of sex obliquely.  Maybe the "truest" way to write about sex is to show not the sex itself, but  that sex is a dark and terrible and beautiful mystery.

Here's a passage from Flannery O’Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away describing the homosexual rape of Tarwater, a backwoods prophet, by a stranger in a “lavender and cream-colored car.”

After a few minutes the stranger reached over and pushed his shoulder but he did not stir. The man then began to drive faster. He drove about five miles, speeding, before he espied a turnoff into a dirt road. He took the turn and raced along for a mile or two and then pulled his car off the side of the road and drove down into a secluded declivity near the edge of the woods. He was breathing rapidly and sweating. He got out and ran around the car and opened the other door and Tarwater fell out of it like a loosely-filled sack. The man picked him up and carried him into the woods.

Nothing passed on the dirt road and the sun continued to move with a brilliant blandness on its way. The woods were silent except for an occasional trill or caw. The air itself might have been drugged. Now and then a large silent floating bird would glide into the treetops and after a moment rise again.

In about an hour, the stranger emerged alone and looked furtively about him. He was carrying the boy’s hat for a souvenir and also the corkscrew-bottle-opener. His delicate skin had acquired a faint pink tint as if he had refreshed himself on blood. He got quickly into his car and sped away.

No accident that the theme of The Violent Bear It Away is the life-and-death significance of the sacrament of baptism.

Katharine Butler Hathaway (1890-1942) was born with spinal tuberculosis and spent the first ten years of her life strapped to a bed, her body attached to a series of pulleys that, in accordance with the received medical wisdom at the time, were supposed to prevent her from becoming a hunchback.  They didn't.

The following is a passage from her 1942 memoir, The Little Locksmith.

Five or six times since I was born I have heard a sentence spoken that sounded as if it were made out of an entirely different substance from the substance of ordinary sentences, as if it were carved out of a piece of strange foreign wood. These sentences had no connection with what had been said before or with anything that came after them. They were undecipherable fragments, like meteorites form another world....Those sentences were made of what George Meredith, in one crucial page of The Amazing Marriage, called "arterial words." They spurted out of the body involuntarily, coming from some hidden and much deeper source than ordinary speech. In our family those arterial sentences were instantly treated as if they had not been spoken. They were not answered, never repeated, and never referred to again. There were something not wanted, and something terrible alive. They were foundling sentences, left on a doorstep in mid-air. We all looked the other way, we pretended we hadn't heard, and those parentless sentences were left to starve and perish, because, picked up and warmed and fed, they might have had the power to change our whole lives.

When I was young, I blindly imitated the family tradition of ignoring these bursts of intimacy--I caught the contagion of our family's fear and disapproval of them...

So, when my brother said to me, after a long silence, that night when we were driving across a dark starlit place somewhere between the woods and the sea along the Beverly [Massachusetts] shore, "Sometimes I wish that you were not my sister," I recognized it for one of those strange sentences. It fell at my feet out of an unknown sky.

And I did not know how to stoop and pick it up and hold it in my hands. This strange thing was meant for me, and for no-one else, but I had absolutely no skill or grace to receive it.  It was like a letter sent to a person who hadn't any name, or any street and number. I was powerless to claim it even though I knew it was mine. It set up such a commotion inside me that I could scarcely breathe.

At the first impact of it it thought he meant he hated me, and wished he had never known me. Swiftly I thought that must be because he had found at last that, although he had tried very hard, the truth was that he could not enjoy being with a deformed person, and he wished he did not have a deformed little sister to  go out driving with.

"Sometimes I wish that you were not my sister." I turned it over and over in my mind, terribly wounded and dumb, and then slowly another interpretation came flooding into me. Another meaning, and if it was the true meaning, these were arterial words. For if my second guess was right then what he had said to me was a very amazing thing. It was a confession that had spurted out of his body. It was not a cruel repudiation of me, but the very opposite.

Then I hastily remembered that this was something I could not let myself believe. I could secretly pretend that I had a lover in him, but I could never risk showing that I thought such a thing was possible for me, with him or any other man. Because of my repeated encounters with the mirror and my irrepressible tendency to forget what I had seen, I had begun to force myself to believe and to remember, and especially  to remember, that I would never be chosen for what I imagined to be the supreme and most intimate of all experience. I thought of  sexual love as an honour that was too great for me--not too great for my understanding and my feeling, but much too great and too beautiful for the body in which I was doomed to live.

Here’s the scene describing the consummation of the love, the pivotal love, the central love, the love upon which Tolstoy’s 817-page novel Anna Karenina revolves: the union between the married Anna and Count Vronsky.

That which for Vronsky had been almost a whole year the one absorbing desire of his life, replacing all his old desires; that which for Anna had been an impossible, terrible, and even for that reason more entrancing dream of bliss, that desire had been fulfilled. He stood before her, pale, his lower jaw quivering, and besought her to be calm, not knowing how or why.

‘Anna! Anna!’ he said with a choking voice, ‘Anna, for pity’s sake!…

But the louder he spoke, the lower she dropped her once proud and gay, now shame-stricken head, and she bowed down and sank from the sofa where she was sitting, down on the floor, at his feet; she would have fallen on the carpet if he had not held her.

‘My God! Forgive me!’ she said, sobbing, pressing his hands to her bosom.

She felt so sinful, so guilty, that nothing was left her but to humiliate herself and beg forgiveness; and as now there was no one in her life but him, to him she addressed her prayer for forgiveness. Looking at him, she had a physical sense of her humiliation, and she could say nothing more. He felt what a murderer must feel, when he sees the body he has robbed of life. That body, robbed by him of life, was their love, the first stage of their love. There was something awful and revolting in the memory of what had been bought at this fearful price of shame. Shame at their spiritual nakedness crushed her and infected him. But in spite of all the murderer’s horror before the body of his victim, he must hack it to pieces, hide the body, must use what he has gained by his murder.

And with fury, as it were with passion, the murderer falls on the body, and drags it and hacks at it; so he covered her face and shoulders with kisses. She held his hand, and did not stir. ‘Yes, these kisses—that is what has been bought by this shame. Yes, and one hand, which will always be mine—the hand of my accomplice.’ She lifted up that hand and kissed it. He sank on his knees and tried to see her face; but she hid it, and said nothing. At last, as though making an effort over herself, she got up and pushed him away.

Now that’s a “sex” scene. There’s a guy who knows something about the hideously painful, conflicted, tragicomic, pretty much forever doomed relations between women and men. The relations that we nonetheless spend our entire lives, thank God, more or less trying to mend, heal, make work, ponder, analyze, sacrifice for, wrest a moment of glory, humanity, connection, transcendence and love from anyway. 

I say let’s have more such scenes.



  1. I discovered Flannery at a very young age. I when years calling her "he." She's sort of vampire sex.

  2. I believe that a Catholic artist must tread carefully here. We needn't be prudes and avoid the topic, yet we should certainly pray and seek to purify our hearts before describing what goes on in these "hideously painful, conflicted, tragicomic, pretty much forever doomed" encounters.


  3. Just one thing, I have to object to classifying the O'Connor excerpt a "sex scene". It's a fairly horrific scene about the rape of a child - well, adolescent, but still. Rape does not equal sex.

  4. Well, rape actually is sex, albeit a form based on a terrible distortion of the sexual urge and of our capacity for love. My whole point being, as all three examples illustrate, that scenes where the sex itself is not actually shown, but rather the human emotions, the repercussions, the possibility of both great creation and great destruction that surround sex, often tell us more than a blow-by-blow description.

    We don't need "better" portrayals of sex itself, in other words, we need people who are awed and mystified by sex AND God AND the human condition.

    Here's the last paragraph, for example, of Tolstoy's 817-page novel, which turns out in one way to be all about sex and in another not to be about sex at all:

    “I’ll get angry in the same way with the coachman Ivan, argue in the same way, speak my mind inappropriately, there will be the same wall between my soul’s holy of holies and other people, even my wife, I’ll accuse her in the same way of my own fear and then regret it, I’ll fail in the same way to understand with my own reason why I pray, and yet I will pray—but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it!”
    --Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky


I WELCOME your comments!!!