Perhaps It’s Time to Talk About Sex
(The title of this post is a direct quote from my mother, who, when I said “Sure, Ma. What do you want to know?” sighed in relief and retired to her room with a cup of tea.)
For someone who got her start writing romances, I often get uncomfortable writing about sex. Why not? Sex is good. But by and large I don’t find sex, when described accurately, particularly sexy. Sex, the act, is sometimes brutal, often comical, rarely lyrical, and can reveal deep vulnerabilities in the participants thereof. But the actual who-puts-what-where? Plumbing, and about as sexy as plumbing.
So why write about sex at all? It’s a part of life, for one thing. It can be a great lens to focus on a character (see vulnerabilities, above). But as I’ve been keyboarding some of my fiction to put up on my BVC Bookshelf, I’ve noticed that the only times I get really descriptive about sex, it’s not meant to be erotic. When I write about sex and it is meant to be appealing and compelling, it’s more about emotion than penetration. Why can’t I do both? Be descriptive and compelling? There are writers who can, but for me (to misquote SNL) it’s either a dessert topping or a floor wax, not both. Sex in real life is often funny–I mean, how couldn’t it be, when you factor in elbows, mis-read cues, and morning breath?–but the terminology for body parts found in some sex scenes is far funnier. “Pebbled nipples” (ow) and “pulsing love button” are two terms I recall from years ago. Put me right out of the mood. And yet, I know there are people for whom this is the erotic bee’s knees.
What I find sexy is not what you find sexy, because what’s sexy is really much more in the mind than in parts south. When I wrote “Abelard’s Kiss,” a story about a woman’s relationship with a bioengineered sex toy, I got very specific, almost clinical, trying to walk a knife-edge between swoon and squick, and I hope I managed it. But I have to admit one reader’s enthusiastic “ooo, where do I get one?” response to the story unsettled me deeply, because…eew. In The Stone War, one of my favorite characters has what she thinks is an erotic dream about a man she is in love with. It’s actually a telepathic sending from another character who is trying to use her feelings against the man she loves. There too I got fairly clinical, because I wanted to capture her feelings, but I didn’t want it to be a good thing.
What do I do when I want it to be sexy? To establish emotional stakes? I look away. I tell very little. Romance, to me, is about impression and sensation, focus and distraction. It’s about an implicit possibility, and the meaning of that possibility. That’s why the scene in Witness when Harrison Ford and Kelley McGillis dance to “Don’t Know Much About History” is so powerful: it’s all about potential for connection, and the danger of it. Romance is about words and touches, about the person who is courting finding exactly the right word or gesture with which to draw in his or her lover. It’s about being known, and knowing, and discovery.
When I was editing comics I brought Witness to the office to show to a few of my artists who were not getting the “less is more, really” message. Showed them the barn scene from Witness, and two of the guys got it (one, alas, never did). Then we talked about what happens between panels in a story (Scott McCloud’s brilliant Understanding Comics is what got me thinking about this), and why that is the place for the plumbing we don’t see. That white space, or the focus on sounds or light or scent when something else is going on, allows the reader to bring their own notion of what is erotic to what she is reading.
It is said that what I like is erotic; what you like is porn. That’s too easy, and too judgmental. I’ve already said what I think is erotic. To me, porn is about the body: what goes where, in what configurations. Porn is concerned with size and shape and firmness and all the physical stuff. Sensation is a given. There’s a place, and a use, for both. In my writing, the physical stuff is less important than the mood, unless it isn’t–and then you might want to think about why I’m talking plumbing when my character thinks they’re getting incense.