June 26, 2024

From Portrait of a Lady on Fire.

Gadabout Town: What’s in a Sex Scene? 
A lot of ink has been spilled parsing the difference between “literary” and “commercial” fiction. Some might call it arbitrary; others, imaginary. It could be said that one distinction between the two is that in contemporary literary fiction, characters seem rarely allowed to get off.

Sex scenes in literature have always been contentious. Since the inception of the novel, detractors and moralists have often accused the form of promoting degenerate behavior and corrupting the morals and impressionable minds of young women. The Literary Review started a “Bad Sex in Fiction Award” in 1993 and laureates include Jonathan Littell, Tom Wolfe, and Morrissey (yes, that one). On the one hand, contemporary literature, like movies, is often accused of being bereft of real eroticism. On the other hand, smutty fiction and erotica is thriving online and increasingly in print as well, albeit subject to the scolding of many more highbrow readers. Everyone’s a critic, so few are having fun.

So we asked some of our readers to tell us about their favorite sex scene in a book.

Charlotte Shane, author of Prostitute Laundry, An Honest Woman (out August 2024), this blog, and co-host of this podcast with Jo Livingstone.

The most memorable sex scene I’ve come across recently was in Penelope Douglas’s Credence (2020), which I read a year or two ago after I found out about Douglas through a TikTok in which a high school student filmed guys in her class as they (blushingly, incredulously) read parts of Punk57. On the whole, Douglas’s predilections—an obsession with bullies, possessiveness, and sex in cars—are not mine. But she appreciates the value of unbearably ramped up sexual tension and embraces shameless conceits. For example, Credence is endowed with the classic premise of a girl moving into the mountain home of her absurdly hot step uncle and his absurdly hot two sons, where she fucks all three of them. God, I’ve seen what you’ve done for others; it hurts to see people living my dream; etc. 

For about half of the book, the main character, Tiernan, is a virgin, a state obnoxiously extended due to the arbitrary wait for her 18th birthday. (Douglas also has a fixation on younger adults but generally tries to make sure they’re technically “legal” by the time a penis enters any hole.) It seemed like this stupid aspect would be excused when, on the night of her birthday, Tiernan watches porn with her step-cousins: Noah, the sweet(ish) blond one, and Kaleb, a violent, mute brunet. Noah starts jerking off first, then Tiernan starts fingering herself, and then all three prepare to escalate to….you know. But then the dad—who, spoiler alert, is the eventual devirginizer—interrupts, but does not watch or join them. He sends the sons away, spanks Tiernan (who almost comes during it, but doesn’t), and then everyone retires to their respective bedrooms.

I’ve literally never gotten over this, and probably won’t unless—until?—I rewrite this scene to my own satisfaction. Tiernan eventually does have the devil’s threesome with the brothers, but it goes rather directly to double penetration (anal and vaginal) which is just…annoying. The decadent yet causal lewdness of the porn/mutual masturbation set up was perfect, and it was squandered. Fingers crossed that it’s revisited and repaired in the upcoming Five Brothers. If not, I’ll try to submit my contribution to Literotica before the year is out.  

Davey Davis, author of the novels the earthquake room (2017), X (2022), and Casanova 20: Or, Hot World (2025), as well as this newsletter about art, culture, and sexuality

I can't play favorites with any writer, least of all Jean Genet, but a passage from The Thief's Journal (1949) came to mind. Genet's autobiographical protagonist, an itinerant criminal and homosexual roaming postwar Europe, writes about fucking Java, a "handsome twenty-two-year-old athlete" whose tattoos reveal his past membership with the S.S. As his buggering begins, Genet's trade pretends to be asleep, feigning an unconsciousness soon betrayed by his body.

Deeply threaded by my prick, he becomes something other than himself, something other than my lover. He is a strange part of me which still preserves a little of its own life. We form one body, but it has two heads and each of them is involved in experiencing its own pleasure. At the moment of coming, this excrescence of my body which was my lover loses all tenderness, clouds over. In the darkness, I sense his hardness and can feel that a veil of shadow is spreading over his face, which is contracted with pain and pleasure. I know that he knows he derives this pleasure from me, that he awaits it from my hand which is jerking him off, but I feel that the only thing that concerns him now is his coming. Though we are bound together by my prick, all our friendly relations are cut off. Our mouths, which could perhaps re-establish them are unable to meet. He wants only to be more deeply impaled. I cannot see him for he has murmured "Put out the light," but I feel that he has become someone else, someone strange and remote. It is when I have made him come that I feel him hating me. 

This sex scene reads, as so many of Genet's do, like an ouroboros had a baby (?) with the comedy/tragedy masks . In this encounter, conducted through Genet's cock—which is also an umbilical cord, an hourglass, and even the parasitic Java himself—concupiscence is connection, whereas postcoital flaccidity spells the end of all possibility. And yet, Genet knows Java most intimately when his desire is spent and spilled, "penetrating the mattress," as he goes on to say. What would have happened, I find myself wondering, if they'd done it in missionary? 

Sophie Kemp, author of the forthcoming novel Paradise Logic

For me, the best sex scene in a book is actually a few different sex scenes in How Should a Person Be? (2010) by Sheila Heti. In this book, Sheila starts fucking a guy named Israel. There's a monologue in the middle of the book where she is addressing Israel but also us, the readers, and it is something that literally took my breath away the first time I read it. It's something me and a few of my friends sometimes quote at each other. It's something I've gotten into an argument with an ex boyfriend about. "I don't know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel," she writes, "I don't know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard—with every jab, your head battered into the headboard. Why are you all reading? I don't understand this reading business when there is so much fucking to be done." 

There's so much brutality in Heti's sentences, in the way she talks about fucking. It isn't cute and it isn't soft and it isn't sensual and it also — crucially — isn't sad. You don't feel bad for her. She's not a sad girl. She's not being pathetic and asking a man to hit her in the face because she feels pathetic. She writes about fucking like she loves fucking. She write about fucking and has agency in the fucking. She doesn't shy away from what actually happens: the pressing of the head into the headboard, the choking down on a cock, the cumming part. There is absolutely nothing coy about the way she talks about fucking Israel. She breaks it down for you, mechanically. Gesture by gesture. I love it. I go back to it constantly. 

I abhor how prudish people are in fiction. It bores the living daylights out of me. People are scared to go into detail about sex when it's good and you like it the most. I don't get it. Does it make you cool to not talk about the mechanics of sex? I don't believe in beating around the bush to keep polite company polite. Heti's fucking monologue is instructional to me. I write very graphically about sex. I don't care if it grosses people out or if I'm taking it too far. I love having sex. It's something I think about constantly. Why not write about it? Like seriously, why would you be sitting libraries reading books by prudes when you could be writing about getting fucked, but like actually? 

Rainer Diana Hamilton, poet and author of God Was Right (2018).
A hand entered

What do emotional, spiritual, cultural, and physical “receptivity” have in common? To prepare for a saint’s vision is not the same as to adapt to a new custom, react to a sad movie, or ready oneself to be topped. But my young mind got stuck on the wordplay it first registered when puberty converted “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”—replaced in the newer English translation of the Catholic mass with “I am not worthy that you should come under my roof”—into a double entendre. It still waits for the word. 

Renee Gladman’s Ravicka novels elide some of these differences, too. In Event Factory (2010), sex is a language the protagonist speaks fluently, but it remains a foreign one: no matter how clearly the speakers manage to communicate, there’s a sense someone is imitating an unfamiliar convention, however successfully. Conversely, it’s respectful to be down, like a tourist who is game to try a new dish or cover their hair. At a large dinner party in a new city, the narrator, studying her surroundings, follows a server into another room, where he asks her to sit down at a card table: 

I bent to sit and he bent; our timing was impeccable. Then something dawned on me. I stood up and extended my hand. “Hello,” I said trying to find my sexy voice, in case it was also time to fuck. Who could tell with everything being so gestural? “Oh. Please sit,” he repeated. “I have collard greens.”

Though she got it wrong in this case, the time does comes later, as she sleeps in the grass:  

A hand entered me as I lay on my back. It did not stay long. A hand entered me again. The third time, it was not the whole hand but four fingers. Perhaps three. The three came back and with them, a body. I let loose a sound and pressed my head against a shoulder. As the fingers left me and the body disappeared, I lowered my head to the ground. I inhaled, and a hand entered me. Then I made a sound. Somebody shouted, “Look at what I’m writing,” but the voice came from far off. I inhaled again, expecting a fist. A fist entered me. My uterus rose and my mouth expanded. I did not breathe. The fist lingered there; my muscles clutched it.

Her breath is at first timed to the fist, as if it is a weight she’s lifting; this is an experience of strength. It’s marked by diction as certain as it is indefinite: that the second mention of “hand” does not earn a “the” suggests that there are multiple hands, but no—it just appears anew. I love this representation of the way sex keeps all sorts of things at a distance: A hand, a shoulder, then a hand again, a sound, a fist, a fist, but the fingers and the body are distinct when they’re on their way out. The writer’s cry for attention does not stop the movement. 

In this passage, Gladman builds a world where it is customary to be prepared to be fisted by one or more unidentified people while napping in the grass. This receptivity produces an opposing force of alienation, the lover’s limbs no longer registering as parts of their body. This is what I would call erotic realism. 

Noah Grey Rosenzweig, literary agent at Triangle House

When I think about sex, I think about heterosexual people having sex. Even though I do my very best to think about heterosexual people as infrequently as possible, the sex that is permissible and publishable in our culture is heterosexual. Ad campaigns for Jeremy Allen White in nothing but his underwear are lusted after - the very same ad campaign for FKA Twigs is banned from being displayed in the UK. 

There’s a lot of writing about sex, and I’m not an expert—but the desire to swing the pendulum towards purity, to call teens anti-sex and what feels like the constant onslaught of complaints from people saying there’s too much sex in movies, in books, in everything, is exhausting. It feels terrifyingly in line with the rise in bills being passed restricting trans people’s ability to live. The bottom line is that purity culture is clawing its way towards a comeback, but fortunately for everyone, there’s plenty of sex to be read and written about and watched (have you seen Love Lies Bleeding? Challengers?). 

Setting aside the romantasy softcore porn that has taken BookTok and other places by storm (even though, frankly, this type of literary porn has basically always existed in some form or another, it was just perhaps more restrained or expertly veiled by people who were actually writers), there’s plenty of good sex to be had in media, if you know where to look. And if you don’t know where to look, might I suggest looking where queer people are looking? 

Joāo Gilberto Noll’s Hugs and Cuddles (2008), translated from Brazilian Portuguese by Edgar Garbelotto, is a sexual escapade, a romp, a gender-bender all of its own accord. Just two paragraphs in to the beginning of the novel we meet our young narrator, wrestling and masturbating with another boy in the back of a dentist’s office—his first of many trysts, though it is this one that most solidly imprints in his mind—while the two contemplate the development of their pubic hair. What follows is a blurry stumble, in the most delightful way, through this man’s life as he tries and fails to rid himself of his obsession with his engineer friend, to rid himself of shame, and to ultimately find peace. It’s impossible to make sense of and impossible to stop reading - gender is irrelevant, but sex is the focus. What happens in between the major plot points in the novel are simply an endless amount of trysts—in the open, in alleys, behind bars, in bathrooms… and what makes this sex writing so important, apart from the fact that other writers should take note of his craft and style, is that Noll wrote his narrator in search of fulfillment, sexual and otherwise, while society was actively crumbling around him. The government cracking down on queerness, people raising money for a mysterious “cause,” forcing the narrator to be ever more careful and reckless with his own sexuality. 

Essentially, it’s the perfect summer read. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. 

Zofia Weretka, Manager at Book Culture and triple threat

“Did my skin burst into flames? I had to look down to check. Nope, nothing was burning. At least, not visibly."

This quote from page 70 of the final installment of the original Twilight Saga, Breaking Dawn, perfectly encapsulates how it felt reading the honeymoon chapter of this book hidden away in your room at 13 after desperately convincing your parents the series was age appropriate and they had nothing to worry about. In 13-year-old you's defense, they technically didn't -- Mother Meyer elegantly glides from Edward pulling Bella "gently into deeper water" in the dark of the night to "the sun, hot on the bare skin of [Bella's] back" waking her the next morning. The anticipation (4 books worth!) followed by pages of brooding on Edward's part about how he was barely able to control himself (!!!) and Bella promising him it was all she could have dreamed of ("Fire and ice, somehow existing together without destroying each other") was just about all my pubescent self could handle; surely anything even remotely more graphic would have sent me into orbit. All this to say, I think it's telling that when presented with this prompt, my brain immediately found what was clearly the most impactful sex scene (or lack thereof) from my formative years.