Still from Mysterious Skin (2004)

Consider these facts about sex writing:

  • Explicit sex as we know it today doesn’t play a role in 19th century American fiction. In The Portrait of a Lady, for example, when a man is “making love” to a woman, it means he’s courting her.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey holds the record for fastest selling paperback.
  • The Literary Review annually awards bad sex writing.

These facts indicate three obvious things: people have always had sex, but the way they’ve written about it has changed in important ways over time; however hesitant some people might be to write about sex, people are very interested in reading about it; the literary establishment acknowledges sex writing, but isn’t quite comfortable with it.

Why is writing and reading about sex the source of so much discomfort and uncertainty?

One of the reasons writing about sex elicits such a polarized range of responses from authors and readers is because, as a culture, we’re still hung up about it. Sex is important and powerful, and our conceptions of it differ greatly. Some spend time developing ingenious ways of stifling or seeking to control sex’s power. Christianity, for example, has long been teaching people to hate their sexual impulses, and the U.S. prison system locks millions in same-sex environments where the lack of access to heterosexual partners is supposed to be part of the punishment. In contrast, others celebrate sexuality — developing new categories and modes of expression. It’s no wonder that the way sex happens in literature, and the way readers respond to it, is just as varied.

But there are other, more specific reasons that the creation and reception of sexually explicit writing is such a messy affair. The first is the way our culture emphasizes the individual and fetishizes artistic creation and output. We’ve heard about the death of the author, but that hasn’t gotten rid of the idea that a writer’s creative output serves as a direct window into their beliefs and values. As a result, writers who favor the sexually explicit too much aren’t taken seriously by literary folks (even if the writing is actually very good) while so-called “serious” writers seem expected, however tacitly, to present sex in a way that distances them from the content, or from seeming to take too much of a prurient interest in the details — the result is writing that has been drained of the kinds of specifics that help render essential truths.

There’s also the issue of the medium. Film scholar Linda Williams names horror, porn, and melodrama as the “body genres” because they seek to elicit bodily responses: shrieks, cum, or tears. As a visual medium, film is good at doing these things. These film genres have their literary counterparts, but even if horror writing and horror film share the same generic title, they operate differently, taking advantage of different conventions that are suited to the different mediums. A horror novel can’t make you jump, and it won’t try. So maybe part of the problem with sex writing, part of what makes it so difficult to create and absorb, is that writing, as a form, doesn’t lend itself to sex as content. Sex isn’t something we typically think carefully about in the moment, and if anything requires careful thought, it’s writing. And why would we look to literature for depictions of sex when sex as content is so readily available in visual media that seem more suited to the task? Literature may be better suited for other things — for interiority, psychology, emotion — so perhaps this is why when sex does take center stage in literature, it becomes a novelty. People read (or at least purchased) Fifty Shades of Grey in droves because they wanted to experience sex in a less familiar way — offscreen, in writing.

But maybe great sex writing doesn’t have to be an oxymoron. There’s a good novel by Scott Heim: Mysterious Skin. It’s unsettling. It’s sad. It’s beautiful. It’s pretty much unforgettable (and the movie adaptation starting Joseph Gordon-Levitt is all right, too). Of course, it also has a lot of explicit sex. When I listened to Scott Heim talk about writing the book, I wasn’t surprised to learn he’d spent time writing pornography for Honcho magazine (under a pseudonym, of course). His practice paid off — the sex in Mysterious Skin does what depictions of sex are usually supposed to do: it arouses. But it’s more than just the prose that makes the sex work well in that novel. Some of the sex is actually child molestation, and in allowing readers to become aroused, the novel places readers in the position of the abused boy — aroused but knowing something is wrong, conflicted, uncomfortable, and tortured. The novel is too honest and too important to have become a bestseller, but readers might find that it embodies what is supposed to be impossible: a good novel that spends a great deal of time focused on explicit sex.