Today I’m going to talk about sex.
Or, sex in fiction and why, in fiction, we need to discuss sex.
Trigger warnings because sex, but also because I discuss rape culture with examples.
Yesterday I spent time redrafting the first chapter of Whatever Great-Aunty Lizzie Says, which used to be the short story Whatever. To summarise, it’s Steve and Abe in Steve’s Toyota talking relationships and sex, and the humour comes from the odd-couple combination of an awkward, kind-of-repressed gay vampire and a sexually-experienced pansexual breather (human) trying to negotiate sex that takes into account vampire venom and all the things Abe isn’t comfortable with (which are many). Steve talks about his indie porn collection and why realism in porn matters; he name-drops sex acts and sex safety in conversation in ways that make Abe realise Steve is never going to find merely fucking a cis dude (or a vampire) to be at all confronting. Steve knows what he wants and doesn’t want and lays it all out straight to a vampire who gawks and still hasn’t mentioned a few particulars Steve should know. (Steve already knows because of course he was going to go home and Google vampire sex: what else is the internet for? Why get involved in a relationship without educating himself as much as is possible?) The two literally spend a chapter hashing out what they are and aren’t comfortable with and what is and isn’t safe, and I can tell you now: this chapter isn’t actually foreplay for a sex scene. They don’t, in the novella, have sex. The conversation is really all about character and relationship development, something that gets derailed by the appearance of the eponymous Great-Aunty Lizzie. It’s also about how someone might go about sex in the twenty-first century.
I have a lot of opinions on sex and sexuality in writing, and I’m not talking about the long lists of Words People Should Never Use Unless You Want People Laughing.
Now, here’s the funny thing. I don’t write erotica. I’m probably not going to write many explicit sex scenes, in large part because I’ve read enough erotica to know that I can’t truly add to the genre. It always feels forced, awkward and clumsy. Believe it or not, there’s an Abe and Steve sex scene that’s been a WIP for four years, and it is a WIP because I never really wanted to write it in as much as I felt like readers of gay fiction want to read about the fucking and expect to read about the fucking. Realising that I don’t care and I don’t have to write it (for reasons that aren’t oh, what do the real-life people I know who read my work think of me writing a sex scene) is pretty fucking liberating, especially because I don’t often find sex on the page to be all that interesting. I skim it, unless it’s really good (in the same way that I skim-read all the fight scenes in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn books because I do not fucking care about Pushing on this and Pulling on that). I’m not interested in writing for the purpose of titillation and I don’t do it well, so I’m not going to. There are so fucking many authors who are writing the sex scenes that people who want them can go and enjoy them.
In a lot of my works, though, my characters talk about sex.
In fact, they talk about sex so much the fact I don’t want to follow it up with actual sex scenes is kind of weird in and of itself.
See, I’m queer. (Yes, really!) I spend time in queer communities, where sexual discussions tend to be a lot more frank than the equivalent in heterosexual/general society. I read queer genre fiction, which – rightly or wrongly – is far more likely to include explicit and graphic depictions of sex. I have beta-read and edited queer erotica. I’ve read a whole heap of it. It’s a lot harder to find queer genre fiction works that don’t include explicit and graphic depictions of sex, in fact, so I will take romance and/or sex as a necessary requirement if I want to get in on some awesome queer lady heroines. Sometimes, ye gods, I will even read queer erotica just because I want hot ladies or trans representation. I do believe, without a doubt, that this preponderance of queerness and sex and/or romance is as a result of the assumption that queerness is by default more kinky and/or sexually explicit than all things cishet, and that’s not a comfortable thought. It’s certainly an idea being perpetrated when the number of mainstream-styled queer genre works are very few in comparison to the romance or erotica genres in queer fiction. However, regardless of this, sex is more visible, open and accessible – without the associating accompaniment of shame and awkwardness and pretense – in the queer community, and I don’t think this is a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s bloody awesome. We should know about Jizz Lee and Courtney Trouble. We should be able to have frank conversations about our bodies, our likes, our needs; we should have readily accessible content that teases, excites, inspires and educates. I love the fact that sex is not restricted or shameful. I love the fact that we know mainstream Western social attitudes to sex are utter fucking bullshit and there is a world of indie erotic queer media for queers challenging the notion of audience, beauty, narrative and sexuality.
It’s a tragedy that these conversations are happening on the fringes of society.
I have conversations where I have to remember that, no, cishets don’t usually confess to knowing what a ball gag is. Or associate the word ‘dungeon’ with things that are not Dungeons and Dragons and then make a crack about buying things that are not Magic: the Gathering cards. Even in the post-Game of Thrones world, mainstream discussions are remarkably lacking in reference to the pornographic content. Am I the only one to find it hilarious that the whole damn Western world is watching Game of Thrones and going to rather extreme efforts to pretend it’s just a violent fantasy TV show? World, it’s a fucking porno! My dad and I are watching the same damn porn … yeah, I can understand why we’re all pretending it’s not porn, but that in itself says something about how Western society still regards sex and erotic content. My comment on my last post about buying an m/m erotica novel pretty much exemplifies that, which absolutely makes me a hypocrite: it is not okay to publicly consume erotica, and if we do we need to pretend very hard it has some value that is not erotic. I still need to awkwardly justify it to my cishet friends, afraid of what they think – whereas to my queer friends the comment would be something like OMG, I found m/m erotica in an actual fucking bookstore and it was only $2! Except the love interest was a dude who travelled England arresting, sentencing and killing witches, so apparently I’m supposed to find a killer of women an erotic character … no. Gross. Should’ve known it was $2 for a reason… See, I talk about needing to live authentically, and even I’m still not all that good at it, such that I can be an absolute fucking hypocrite on my own fucking blog!
I don’t ever mean that queer people shouldn’t fall in love and fuck in fiction. I just want it, like in mainstream heterosexual works where cishets fall in love and fuck in just about every book extant (yawn) to be a subplot or on the backburner. I am all about a sex-positive world where people can get it on and enjoy erotica and porn without shame, awkwardness or excuses. (If such a world existed, women wouldn’t be buying Fifty Shades and being amazed by erotic writing; they’d know that there’s so much sex-positive, woman-centric, BDSM-positive, well-written erotica out there that doesn’t feature abusive boyfriends E. L. James wouldn’t, consequently, sell more than ten copies.) I don’t even want all queer books to have this kind of subplot romance; I don’t want romance and erotica to go away. I just want mainstream queer works with romance as a subplot to exist alongside the romance-heavy books so readers have choices in how queerness is depicted and utilised: single and asexual queers shouldn’t feel like they don’t exist because queerness is too often defined through romance and fucking. There are many ways one can be queer that doesn’t involve romance or sex, and for a work to be inclusive this needs to be accepted, honoured and celebrated. Unfortunately, these mainstream-styled works are few and far between, and I’d like to see that change.
(In short: there are plenty of ways to write happy and healthy queer characters without proving their queerness through the possession of a sexual partner or writing a coming-out narrative, and we need to see them. Neither thing is bad on their own – I’ve written both – but there are other ways to be queer and these need to make it into the books, too.)
I do believe, though, even while I choose not to write about sex as a scene (the act of people fucking) there is a desperate want for honest, frank, real discussion about sex, sexuality and sexual expression.
Isn’t it funny how there’s a lot of not-mainstream works that depict romance and sex as graphic scenes, and yet there’s still not a lot of discussion about sex? Characters talking about sex in a frank, casual, laid-back sort of way, without angst or tension? In works like Fifty Shades what one does and doesn’t want is a fucking plot element, for all that there’s a contract and supposed (in actuality very limited) discussion about it. Somehow, when we go out into the world as adults, we are supposed to magically and silently suss out what it is our partner/s want/s, never mind what we want and don’t want. Knowing to slap a rubber on a cock and that STIs exist was the sum total of my sex ed, and without getting started on the heterocentrism of said sex ed (nobody ever taught me that queer people exist and there are so many more ways to have sex than missionary PIV) it seems to me that there’s a whole lot more to being a sexual person in a sexual world that we expect young adults to figure out on the fly. In romance it’s quite common that The Right Person will magically turn out to want all the same things as the protagonist – or the love interest will convince the protagonist what he wants (usually he, not always) is of course what she (usually she, not always) wants and didn’t know. The opportunity for meaningful dialogue is brushed over. Consent is sexy as an ideal (except that Fifty Shades proves it is not), and yet it’s so often assumed or presumed, not discussed. Even a throwaway line about a partner purposefully looking into their partner’s eyes to check for enthusiastic consent would help ground this dialogue as a healthy and necessary occurrence!
People complain about how sexualised the modern world is, but that objectification comes with an absurd lack of dialogue, as if the answer to Western society’s problems with sex involve ducking behind a door and hoping sex goes away. We don’t teach our children how to be physically and emotionally safe. We don’t teach our sons how not to be predators. We don’t teach our daughters (and children who are not sons) to say no in a direct, assertive manner. How can someone be emotionally safe if there isn’t explicit discussion about sex – if our children are not informed? If we know that these discussions don’t happen at schools or home, don’t we have to include them in the media we create?
Not talking about sex and sexuality is (heteronormative) rape culture.
I spent the summer, as a seventeen-year-old, being pursued by a friend who wanted to be my boyfriend to the extent that he came around to my place, uninvited, every second day for two months. I invented family events, I dropped hints, I came up with a thousand excuses why he shouldn’t come, and he listened to none of them, but at no point did my parents – who thought he was a friendly, charming boy – ever tell me that I could just tell this boy to not come. I hosted him, every second day, for two fucking months. I was complicit in something that was borderline stalking because I was taught to be polite and passive. And when this boy pinned me to the floor and wouldn’t let me up? When this boy pressed me between the fence and the garden shed at his party – literally cornered me – and kissed me? I couldn’t say no then, either. The best I could do was stand there and turn my head so he wouldn’t get his tongue in my mouth. The best thing I could do was stand there and endure this boy’s hands and mouth on my body because I wasn’t taught to say no – because there were never frank discussions about sex, sexual contact, assertiveness, relationships, sexuality. I didn’t know what I wanted – I certainly didn’t know, at the time, anything useful about my sexuality – or how to communicate it. In my head, what happened to me is assault, but it’s not entirely his fault because men are taught to ride roughshod over the only ways we are taught to communicate our discomfort and women (and non-women) are taught to passively express our misery in ways that go unheard while we stand still and endure. That is fucked up beyond imagining.
If a teenager can’t even say “Um, I don’t want to French”, there’s something desperately wrong with the world.
That teenager couldn’t tell the man who groped them on the bus to get his fucking hands off them. Believe me, there’s no way in hell that teenager could have ever told a partner to not touch their face or sides, ever, or express their feelings on sundry sexual positions, bondage and blindfolds. How can they, if they can’t even say no to a kiss?
That teenager became an adult, surprise, surprise, who spent years avoiding anything that might even remotely lead to dating, touching, kissing and sex. I’m working on the trusting people thing. I’ve gotten to a point where I can hug others without feeling uncomfortable, so I dare say one day I’ll work my way through the rest. It’s allowed to take a while. This is why, though, I write characters who talk about what they want and what they don’t want. I write characters who Google safe sex practices. I write characters who are aware of their bodies and needs and are happy to look this veil of silence in the eye and call it for the bullshit it is.
I write characters who open their mouths and talk about sex.
I have written a novel where part of one chapter is literally a character pointing out that the use of ‘wanker’ as a pejorative means the speaker has some weird-arse attitudes about shaming people who engage in solo sex and why the fuck is there even a special, belittling word for single-person sex anyway? (Seriously, why is solo sexual expression worthy of such shame? Well, except for heteronormativity and sex-for-children, of course. Sorry. Rhetorical question.) And then, a few chapters later, ze tries to find the word for ‘subspace’ in hir second language all the while casually talking about this prostitute ze visited once and, oh, why do you people have this weird diminishing attitude to sex work when it’s just a fucking job? And their entire character arc over three books is literally both of them coming to terms with a history lacking consent. Sydney, in Asylum, is a whore, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of: one shouldn’t have to take up sex work to keep a roof above one’s head because one lacks a choice in the matter, but it is absolutely a valid form of income, and if Oscar or anyone ever looks down on her for that, she’s gone. (Sanctuary, in fact, is all about something that’s not often mentioned in stories that include sex as a reality: abortion. Yes, I’m writing a spec-fic novella about abortion.) Steve and Abe, as above, have entire conversations about safe sex, where to fuck and what they like, and they listen to each other in that dialogue because knowing what one’s partner wants and needs is important (quite aside from the risk to Steve).
Open, expressive, explicit discussions about sex save girls and people and boys. When we hide our porn away, when we hide our erotica away, when we pretend that sex doesn’t exist, we don’t have space for conversations about sexuality and sexual expressiveness and sex safety and consent. Girls like Ana end up with predators like Christian Grey because she never has the opportunity to learn about her body, her desires, her needs before she meets him. She never learns how she can have those things fulfilled safely. She never learns that she deserves a partner who respects and honours her absolutely-valid feelings. Stories like this end up promoted as the romance of the ages because we are not talking about sex.
One of the most awkward non-conversations I’ve ever had with Mum is when someone used an euphemism for anal sex on a TV show and she asked me if I knew what that meant. I just nodded, because I knew; by that time I’d been reading professional and amateur erotica as part of a group of erotica writers online, and fuck, this was not a thing I wanted to discuss with a parent. However, this is when she, as my parent, dropped the ball by not following up on this opening and asking me what I thought I knew about sex. It was an opportunity to find out what I knew and didn’t know. (In fact, in not asking, I learned more about what Mum does and doesn’t know about sex.) Instead, she just nodded and we both pretended it never happened. I shudder to think how I might have turned out if I hadn’t been queer and hadn’t ended up learning a good deal about fucking – and not just the mechanics – online. Would I be reading Fifty Shades and enjoying the illicitness because I hadn’t been exposed to good sex writing and non-misogynistic erotica?
Every third fucking conversation in a vast majority of things I write is about sexual openness, sexuality, sexual orientation, asexuality, sexual expression, words for sex, treatment of sex, the ways differing societies view sex, the misogyny inherent in our handling of sex, what people want and need from sex, how people go about sex, who’s having sex, the danger of sex, what people think about sex.
I don’t write sex, but I write many words about it for the same reason I write many words about anything: I will not see another teenager stand there and be assaulted for want of a dialogue.
So I will write stories where parents tell their adult child where their condom stash is and characters tell their sexual partners with frank casualness what they want and don’t want from any given sexual encounter.
And, one day, I will be comfortable with this.
In the meantime, I’ll keep telling myself that my bouts of hypocrisy when it comes to awkwardness about writing (and talking) about sex is, in fact, nothing more than rape culture in action.