No, Really, That Wasn't Me: Three Dangers of Writing About Sex


It’s not easy being related to a writer, or at least this is what I gather from observing my family, some of whom have begun prefacing certain actions with a tremulous “Don’t write about this, okay?” In fact, just a few days ago, my husband, who really ought to know better, asked me whether I really believed what I wrote about sex. My initial reaction was to get all defensive: “This is fiction! Sheesh!” But his question also got me thinking not only about the way sex works in my stories—something I’d never really paused to consider before—but also about some of the dangers involved when you write about fictional sex:

1. You risk revealing more than you’d like.

Several years ago, I took a creative writing workshop at Indiana University with fellow student Anthony Tognazzini, who brought in his story “Gainesville, Oregon—1962.” In one of the subplots of the story, three characters have sex with each other, and during the… ahem… climax, all three “come suddenly, in succession.” (Titillated? You can read the story in Tognazzini’s collection I Carry A Hammer In My Pocket For Occasions Such as These.)

“Okay,” complained one member of the workshop, “it just isn’t realistic that they’d all come at the same time.” As I remember the discussion, everyone else nodded in fervent agreement.

The ironic thing about this comment is that nothing in Anthony’s story is “realistic” per se. If anything, the story takes place in a kind of Leave it to Beaver world where lawns are a brilliant green, shirts are ironed to crisp perfection, and characters are overwhelmed with despair. But apparently, when it comes to sex, readers will only tolerate so much. I looked around at my classmates, smugly thinking that I now knew something about their sex lives that I hadn’t known before: they were having trouble achieving the mythic Simultaneous Orgasm.

But did you see what just happened? By using the word “mythic” in the previous paragraph, I’ve now inadvertently revealed that I do not regularly engage in spontaneous and successful threesomes. Which brings me to…

2. With great power comes great responsibility.

For many years, what I knew about sex came from Judy Blume, never mind that my own personal experiences never mirrored her characters’. While Margaret of Are You There God?-fame exercised regularly to increase her bust and prayed not to be the last of her friends to get her period, I wore baggy T-shirts and rounded my shoulders to hide the fact that I was among the first in my class to reach puberty.

You’d think this disjunction would have taught me a lesson about believing everything I read, but it didn’t. I must have read Blume’s Forever..., a how-to manual for teenage sex thinly disguised as a novel, dozens of times with an enthusiasm unwarranted by my steadfast belief that teenagers didn’t really have sex (and this despite the fact that my senior class president was pregnant).

In high school, my biggest complaint about Forever… was that Michael, the earnest boyfriend, named his penis Ralph in what seemed to me an obvious ploy on Blume’s part to avoid having to type the word penis over and over again. But the main problem with Forever, it turns out, was one I wouldn’t recognize until I was much older and more experienced: the fourth time Katherine and Michael have sex (trust me, I kept track), they come nearly at the same time. See? There it is again, the mythic Simultaneous Orgasm.

My point: Here is Judy Blume, writing a novel that is, at least in part, meant to educate and empower girls about what awaits them, and yet it still presents the mythic Simultaneous Orgasm as the failsafe indicator of true love. If this is the case, true love is difficult to find: according to a recent BBC article, intercourse alone just doesn’t do it for up to 75 percet of women, and that’s without taking timing into consideration. Lucky, lucky Katherine, I guess. Or is it lucky, lucky Judy Blume? Which brings me to…

3. If you’re writing what you know, this must be you.

“Writing what you know” is one of most frequently quoted rules of fiction writing, although exactly what “what you know” means is very much up for debate. What you want to avoid, though, are moments like the one in The 40 Year Old Virgin, in which the title character reveals the extent of his inexperience by claiming that women’s breasts feel like bags of sand.

Recently, my husband gave a copy of my book of short stories, Ask for a Convertible, to his parents. “My God,” said his father, “that first story is just full of the F-word. Are you sure Danit knows what that means?”

“Well, dear,” said my husband’s mother, “she is pregnant with her second child.”

It’s not really the kind of conversation you want your in-laws—or anyone—to have about you. And even though my in-laws obviously suspect that I’ve had sex at least twice, I still cringe at the thought that they might conflate me with Osnat, the main character in my collection, who some might consider promiscuous. (I’m guessing Judy Blume probably feels similarly about being conflated with Katherine in Forever….)

To complicate matters, like many writers, I’m only partly aware of what exactly it is I’m doing when I write—the rest comes through subsequent reflection. And even then, I’m frequently stymied when readers ask questions about motifs and symbols in my work that I didn’t notice myself. So what do I make of the realization—in retrospect, of course—that the sex in my stories seems to be more about power than love? What’s more, it turns out that when my characters do have sex, things tend to get gooey: when they kiss, strands of spit stretch between their mouths; after the act, they feel sticky and gross.

To some extent, I see my “fascination” with bodily fluids as a response to Judy Blume, to her tendency to gloss over the less aesthetic aspects of sex. It’s as if the part of me of me that writes is thinking, “You want sex? Fine! But it won’t be pretty!” (Of course, to be fair, Blume is hardly in the minority here; dried saliva and romance don’t go together in many literary and televised contexts.)

To a larger extent, though, I honestly don’t know why I’ve taken on this role of Self-Appointed Reporter of General Ickiness. What I do know is that for me, writing what I know means trying to get at some kind essential human experience. The characters and events in my stories are fictional, yes, but the underlying emotions, I hope, ring true. And what better way to capture a character’s feelings of bewilderment, alienation, intimacy, or joy, than to strip her naked, put her in the bedroom (or in a parked car) with another person, anxious, sweaty, and longing for connection? Gooey, awkward sex might not be as fun as the violins-and-roses variety, but it certainly builds character. And if later someone reads my work as autobiographical, doesn’t that mean that on some level I’ve succeeded, that the events and characters do come across as real? Surely that’s worth the risk of personal embarrassment, I think. Or at least that what’s I’m telling myself now, while I worry whether everyone else but me is busy having squeaky-clean sex—at least when they’re not having threesomes.