“…like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her” – Rowan Somerville – The Shape of Her (Literary Reviews “Bad Sex Award” 2010)
I’m reminded of a scene in a highly underestimated movie, “She-Devil”, and the delightfully appalling ruminations of romance writer Mary Fisher (played by Meryl Streep) as she struggles to find new descriptions for the oldest past-time in the world. She does use the term “love button”, but we are left mercifully unaware of what part of a woman’s anatomy she is referring to. I read a few of the under-the-counter Mills & Boon when I was a virginal adolescent and found it all very exciting. However since then I have mostly been left cringing at sex scenes in literature. And there are a lot of badly written sex scenes out there.
The problem with badly written sex scenes is that they become the focus of the entire book. I remember having a conversation with a publisher (not mine) about a newly released teen novel in which she described the sex scene as “powerful and confronting”. I smiled and nodded but was left wondering if we had read the same book. I found that same sex scene shocking. (And those of you who know me or read my stuff know full well I am not easily shocked). I also found this particular sex scene unnecessary. I kept imagining how this young girl’s first time might have been alluded to in a far more powerful way; a way that respected her more and acknowledged the necessary awkward humour of such an event (or am I just channeling my first time here?).
The sex scene can so easily turn into teeny-porn. That’s great if you want to be controversial and have the most thumbed library copies in the state. The only pages of “Flowers in the Attic” I ever read were the couple in which the brother and sister get it on, and that’s because someone slipped it to me in science class whilst I was in real danger of burning it down with my Bunsen burner. And believe me, the book fucking fell open at the pages in question. Here’s the rub: how to write the sex scene that doesn’t become the focus but becomes a part of the tapestry. Or are we just not culturally ready for sex scenes to sit comfortably and noncontentiously beside the rest of a narrative in YA literature?
I am also aware that there is an enormous amount of criticism awaiting anyone who approaches that bridge. “Bridgekeeper: What...is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?” There are a number of correct answers to the question. So many approaches. And it is very rare for the critic to be the one catapulted into space.
So. The sex scene. Clothes on or clothes off? Both first time or one experienced? Planned or unplanned? Mutual or rough persuasion? Orgasm? – who the fuck am I kidding (hard enough to locate one now! – no offence fellas). The problem is that no matter what choices a writer makes in her head, there is the unenviable task of translating that onto the page in a way that respects the characters and the readers. One must blur the line, like a smudge of charcoal, between the leading up to, the event itself, and the immediate aftermath. If a sex scene stands out like sore fucking thumb (no pun intended) it’s just not working for me.
So far, none of my sex scenes are working for me.