The Erotics of Erotics
How to write sex scenes knowing other people will read them.
A housekeeping note: After today’s essay, I will be beginning the transition to paid subscriptions. If you’ve already pledged, thank you! I think that when I make the switch, you’ll be charged automatically? [Edit: Or maybe not? If you’ve pledged, you should check and see if you have to manually affirm a full subscription.] Otherwise, you can subscribe, or not, at your leisure. And I will definitely still have an occasional free-to-everyone post every so often. Thanks so much for coming on this ride with me, y’all.
This week, I asked the chat if folks had any questions for me that I could answer in my inaugural advice column1. I got a ton of amazing questions, most of which could (and will?) be their own full essays at some point. But I wanted to start with one that I had some immediate—and hopefully useful—thoughts about.
What are some tips and thoughts about writing about potentially embarrassing things that people you know may read? Like do I have to wait until my parents are dead to write sex scenes? How do I get over this. I don't want all my characters to be incels.
I have been horny as long as I have been alive. When my parents bought our first computer, in 1996, I was very enamored with Microsoft Word, which allowed me to write—I don’t know if I’d call it erotica, exactly? I would write sexy sentences. But only using words I knew, like nipple. Then I would worry that my parents would find it—it was a family computer, after all—and since I didn’t know how to delete files, I would open the document and delete my sexy sentences and write some innocuous sentences instead and re-save it. And more than once I woke up in the middle of the night to go and double-check that the document still contained the innocuous sentences and not the sexy sentences.
Anyway. As a teen, I started a Livejournal2. I kept it on and off for almost a decade, and in there spent a lot of time writing about my own horniness, the sex I thought about having, the sex I wanted to be having, the very teeny-tiny steps I was taking towards that sex. (I was a late bloomer.) When I eventually kissed someone, I wrote about that. When I lost my virginity, I wrote about that, too. (Badly3.)
But somehow, in this moment, the sex didn’t translate to fiction. My short stories—the ones I wrote in college, the ones I wrote and edited for my MFA applications—were bodily4. The characters did have sex. But it was a fact mentioned in passing, or in snapshots5. The stories were not horny. They did not have sex scenes. People were not fucking. Can you imagine?
I don’t know if I can pin the transition away from that mode—permanently, and so hard that anything else seems laughable—on any one particular incident. But I do know that once I got to Iowa, and I started writing in what I would consider my own voice6, my stories immediately became concerned, even obsessed, with the erotics of the mind and body. And as soon as it happened, it felt completely and utterly correct—like I'd landed on the path I'd spent years crashing through the trees to find.
In this incredible essay7, Garth Greenwell—one of my favorite people, favorite contemporaries, and favorite living authors of the profane—writes about this marriage of sex and art in Philip’s Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater:
Through sex, through her erotic life, Drenka transforms shame—a sense that the meaning of her body is known, fixed, finite—into mystery, a sense of a surplus of meaning, an uncountable worth. This is an extravagant claim to make for the work sex can do, in literature and in life; I think Roth means to make it. The proximity of flesh and spirit is one of the animating paradoxes of sex; it seems plausible that orgasm, that tiny replicable shattering of self, is the source of all our metaphysics.
It probably goes without saying that I think that sex is incredibly important. It’s important in real life and it’s important that it appears on the page. I am an American author writing openly about (predominantly queer) sex in 2023—a prudish, homophobic moment even for a famously prudish, homophobic nation. I think writing about sex has never been more necessary, or more terrifying.
But this isn’t the question I was asked! Susan, you did not ask me about the importance of sex in literature, you asked me how you get over the anxiety of knowing people in your life will read your sex scenes. (And then, presumably, know that you have sex? Or that you think about having sex?) And it’s a fucking great question and I’ve been meditating on it for days.
One of the most peculiar features of writing8 is that it’s an intensely personal endeavor that—upon the moment of publication—ceases to be yours entirely. You are not just writing, you are writing for other people, while also writing entirely for yourself. It's a real quantum conundrum; a weird line to walk. On a practical level, you can ask people in your life not to read things you've written9—they might listen to you, they might not—but beyond that what can be done?
The answer, you might be surprised to learn, is nothing. That is, nothing external. All the work you must do is entirely personal.
Many years ago, an older relative told me that I shouldn’t be writing openly about being queer10 or about sex at all. Not my fiction, mind you—this was just after she found my Livejournal. (How? Why? To what end? The answer is lost to history.) She was not homophobic, she insisted, she was just being practical. Didn’t I want to get a job when I graduated11? A few years later, I asked my dad to read something I’d written, and his only note was that he didn’t like that I’d used the word fuck. “I made a piece of art and showed it to you,” I said, “and the only thing you have to say about it is my use of a swear word?” I didn’t give him anything to read after that.
Both of these were important lessons: that some people—even people you love, or people who have known you for your entire life—simply aren’t capable of picking up what you’re putting down, or understanding your vision or your voice or even, like, who you are. And that’s okay! I have written before about the importance of writing the story that burns inside you, publishing industry be damned. That advice holds here, too. If the erotic lives of your characters are important to you for a particular project, or all your projects, then that is what you must do. Regardless of what people you know (or don’t know) say (or might say) or think (or might think). So I think the first step here is acknowledging that what you want to do is not excessive, unnecessary, perverted, indulgent—unless it is all of those things, because congratulations, some of the greatest art is excessive, unnecessary, perverted, and indulgent. I welcome you and your obsessions and fantasies and mysteries, and wish everyone who engages in Discourse about how sex scenes are unnecessary a very terrible Monday.
I think about people I know reading the sex scenes I’ve written the same way I think about people knowing I’m gay. Both are fundamental parts of my life and practice that are necessary to understanding me, but I also do not exist to be understood by every human being who crosses my path. It would be folly to do so. And I know it’s easy to tell someone to not give a shit what other people think, and much more difficult in practice. But think about the other, smaller ways you ignore the judgments or perceptions of other people—even people you love and care about. Your sibling/parent/cousin/etc. is not going to die because you are a sexual being (as we all are) writing about sex (as artists have for as long as art has existed). They might be embarrassed or stressed out. They might have feelings about it12! You can be available for those feelings, or not. That’s your decision. But that shouldn't stop you. It shouldn't even slow you down.
And you know what? It gets easier with practice. I had a lot of anxiety in my early years, about what it meant for me to commit to writing about sex as seriously as I do. I was anxious about what people would think about me (especially since I was a woman), or my art, or my body, or my life. I was anxious about what it meant for a potential career. And yeah, it also meant that some careers became unavailable to me13. It meant that certain people in my life would shrink away from the artist I was becoming.
But also: a whole new world unspooled at my feet. One in which I am paid to think about art and pleasure, about the metaphysics of sex and the body. One in which my daily practice is informed by my truths, my obsessions, and not those of random people who happen to know me through birth or circumstance. And through that, I can—through space and time and even after my own death—reach people who share those truths and obsessions. And I cannot imagine a greater gift I could have given to myself. I want that for you, Susan. I want that for all of us.
Also, completely open to name ideas for this advice series. Post them in the comments!
It should go without saying but this link does not lead to my Livejournal, it leads to my writing about my Livejournal. Do you want to read excerpts from my actual, literal Livejournal? Then perhaps consider subscribing?
From an unpublished story of mine from those days: “My pulse beats in strange places—my raw and torn cunt; the place where my carotid slips through the muscle and sinew of my neck; the bent crook of my elbow.” (The protagonist has just given birth.)
From that same story: “One singular memory of him asleep in my bed, the mole in the small of his back.”
This is also a question I got asked about in the advice chat, and one day I will absolutely write on the subject of finding one’s own voice.
I want to write more about about this essay at some point in the future, because it’s truly one of the best things I’ve read in 2023, but for now: do yourself a favor and read the whole thing.
As always, when I talk about writing here I am talking about writing for publication (as opposed to, say, writing in one’s own diary), and always about “literary” writing, which exists (for my purposes) on a spectrum with “commercial” writing.
I asked my father not to read my memoir. Not because of the sex scenes, but because I thought that it would hard for him to read about this particular moment of pain in my life. As far as I know, he has respected that boundary.
Of course she didn’t say “queer,” she said “bi-SEX-shual” like she’d bitten into a bonbon with a liqueur center and did not care for it.
Joke’s on her—I graduated into a global recession with a degree that was never going to get me a job anyway!
Also??? It’s worth noting that people do not always respond to things like you might expect. I have held readings and afterwards seen and talked to: The mom of a kid I used to babysit for! The mom of a girl I went to school with! An older woman from my former church! All people who have known me since I was a kid or a teen, all of whom loved my books and were excited to be there and see me again and tell me how proud they are of me. And I have been genuinely shocked and then a little embarrassed that I was shocked. People will surprise you! We all really do contain multitudes.
I went to American University, and many of my friends and classmates were studying to go into politics or international relations. I considered it, for a minute. But then I realized that there were so many things I wanted to do that would make a political life impossible, or at least very very hard. Like being out! (It was 2006, so imagining an openly queer politician was particularly tricky, but let’s be honest, it’s not that much easier now.) And I remember thinking, many times, “I am considering doing something right now that will make a political career almost unthinkable. Am I okay with that?” And reader, I was. And I’ve never looked back.