Robin Rinaldi, author of the electric memoir The Wild Oats Project, shines a light on the history of sex writing, and shows how she convinced herself to write so candidly about her experiences.
Offering up a sex scene to a reader isn’t unlike offering sex. You might be accepted with caution or rejected with disgust. Its execution will be judged either immediately or in retrospect. By operating within the realm of intimacy, you aren’t just baring yourself, you’re also baring the reader: her desires, preferences, doubts, wounds. You are in tender, dangerous territory.
The problem is that most writers tread too lightly. As a lover of both fiction and memoir, I’ve always wondered why my favorite writers took their laser-beam insight into so many primal experiences—childbirth, aging, illness, spiritual breakthrough—while leaving sex to the literary shadows.
I’m not sure what allowed me to write a sex memoir. Perhaps it’s the fact that writing intimate things down has always been easier for me than speaking them—the page serving as a kind of protected, sacred space. Perhaps my years spent as a journalist, delving into others’ private lives, primed me to bare my own. Or maybe I owe it to the belief, ever-stronger in midlife, that I’m no one special, one of seven billion, and thus my sex life is also unspectacular. Just another human with the same old foibles and desires. Whatever the reason, the end result is that I approached the dozen or so sex scenes in my book as I would any other moment. Here’s what I gleaned in the process:
- Straightforward is best. Heading into a sex scene I asked the same questions as always: What did I see, feel, hear, smell, taste, say, think?
- Sex isn’t always titillating, and not all sex is the same. Sometimes it’s boring, other times moving. Sometimes you orgasm, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you feel physical pleasure, other times you’re lost in your head. Some sex scenes should go on for paragraphs and others deserve only a sentence or two.
- The measure of a sex scene is the same as the measure of any other scene: Did it change the characters in any way, or plant the seed of change? If not, skip it.
- Because I’m straight, I found it helpful to write to women. In other words, forget the gaze of the beholder. Forget, for just a moment, that any man will ever see this. This is especially important for a female writer. Women are so used to playing the object, to seeing themselves through male eyes, but the writer must be subject, not object. Don’t perform; report.
- With that said, one fascinating phenomenon women can deftly describe, precisely because we’ve had so much experience with it, is what it feels like to be objectified: the constraint of it, the thrill of it, the power it bestows and the power it takes away. But even when describing the joy or sorrow of objectification, the writer is still the subject.
- Writers constantly face truths they’d rather not tell. This is especially the case in sex. But it’s worth it to bite the bullet and tell the truth. One reason sex remains such a murky area for most of us is due to the very fact that writers haven’t explored it in enough depth. We’ve left it to experts, pornographers, the advertising industry, and Hollywood. That’s not who I want telling the important story of the most human act of all.
And if these points aren’t illustration enough, here are three masters of the sex scene who can all be consulted to great effect:
Lidia Yuknavitch: The Portland-based novelist and memoirist has said she aims toward a language that originates in the body. That’s apparent in her bold, physical, celebratory descriptions, reminiscent of Joyce. See page 236 of The Chronology of Water.
James Salter: Salter is a master of subtle and yet powerfully erotic narrative. He can draw a scene in such straightforward detail that you don’t realize until several paragraphs in that—wait . . . is it? . . . does he mean? Yes, you are indeed reading about sodomy. See page 112 of A Sport and a Pastime.
Aimee Bender: Bender’s short story, “On a Saturday Afternoon,” is something I’ve never seen in literature before: a sexual encounter that from start to finish paints the woman as agent. Specifically the woman sets up, controls, and watches two men having sex. That shouldn’t be groundbreaking but it is. See the entire story, published in the collection The Color Master.
Robin Rinaldi has been a newspaper and magazine journalist for seventeen years. She has been the executive editor of 7×7, a lifestyle magazine covering San Francisco, and written an award-winning food column for Philadelphia Weekly. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, and Yoga Journal, among other publications. She lives in Los Angeles.
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