After Portnoy: Three Men on Writing about Sex
Call it feminism, or post-feminism, but a few waves in, what is the ripple in art -- in literature? Katie Roiphe wrote an essay for The New York Times about the “male, white” writers of now. She thinks feminism, or something, has neutered them.
She points to Dave Eggers as the prototype of this cuddlecore movement and a scene where he and a female character go home from a club to just lay on one and other. Framed next to the orgies and dildos of Phillip Roth and John Updike, it makes a striking point.
My view is that sex was once so repressed, we needed some big, fancy orgy scenes. But today, when my apartment building advertises loft spaces with a bisexual shower threesome, we know that glamorizing sex is not enough.
Sex is still repressed, we don’t allow it to be what it is: this beautiful, scary thing that opens up pieces of yourself -- suddenly you are five and embarrassed, or 10 and embarrassing someone. I think many contemporary writers are creating an honest depiction of sex, addressing the bigness of it, and, yes, how sex is good, but also how not-sex is good. And why can't being naked and laying on someone “count” as sex, anyway?
But I wanted to know what these “male, white novelists” think. I talked to Stephen Elliott, who writes kinky sex scenes (The Adderall Diaries, My Girlfriend Comes to the City and Beats Me Up); Steve Almond, whose work has been referred to as, unfortunately, “dick-lit” (Candy Freak, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life); and Tao Lin, who has written both sex scenes and scenes with a significant lack of sex (Richard Yates, Shoplifting from American Apparel).
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As someone who is out there about sex, do you notice that in the sex positive world most of the visible writers are women?
I think that women probably dominate what we think of as erotica. Also there’s definitely, in the writing that we consider erotica, almost no straight males.
Yeah, I wonder if that is from men missing out on feminism, which has allowed women to take control, sexually.
Yeah, there’s this new feminism that’s really pro-sex. And it’s political. When straight men, straight white men are writing about sex, it’s not political in the same way. They’re not often pushing those boundaries.
Is writing about sex important?
I think it’s important because if we don’t, then we’re gonna be put in jail for the things that we do behind closed doors, you know. Like, on the one hand I wanna respect your right to be in the closet. But the reality is that gay people have a lot more rights because they started coming out of the closet. And it's the same thing for BDSM and the leather community. If your sexuality falls outside the mainstream, I think it’s politically important to be open about it. It's hard. Oftentimes we think that everybody is gonna abandon us if we are open about our sexuality. I didn’t lose any friends. It’s kind of like, when you’re 20 you worry about what people think about you, and then when you’re 30 you don’t care what they think about you, and then when you’re 40 you realize they weren’t thinking about you.
So is Katie Roiphe right in saying that the male writers of today don’t really write about sex?
I think that there’s definitely a lot of men writing really well about sex. I don’t know if they’re the most popular writers out there right now. That says more about who society is choosing to focus on, because the writers are certainly there.
So why are you writing about sex?
I have a lot of sexual issues. My early stuff was not very sexual, I was dating a woman and she said “you should really write about sex.” And I turned around and a whole world opened up. There’s so much there: human motivation, why we do what we do, who we are in sex. So it’s a place to go when you’re exploring the human condition. I have an author friend who’s very famous, and he’s written some big best selling books. He said to me that at any given moment 40 percent of his mind was taken up with sex, if not, more. But he never felt safe to write about it, so he never has. There’s this huge area of motivation and humanity that he’s not exploring.
So where do you think we are headed, as a culture, sexually?
I think there’s an opening up, thanks to the new feminist movement and the Internet. I think there is an opening of what sex can be.
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So Katie Roiphe said “the current sexual style is more childlike; innocence is more fashionable than virility, the cuddle preferable to sex.” Do you think this is true?
I would say that that statement is probably a fact, in that Katie Roiphe factually, within the context of "Katie Roiphe's brain" which probably includes the information of "the current" (in terms of literature/music/culture) that is .001% or something like that (a number probably a bit higher than average, because she probably did some research for her article, but that is still "very small" relative to something like a scientific article about a trend), has that feeling, and has expressed it in a New York Times article. That she feels that way seems factual. I view that statement as her feeling, rather than a fact, or anything close to a fact. But I view everything in that manner unless it is stated in the language of a robot or computer.
What do you think about the stereotype that male sexuality is so simple the assertion that “men just want to get laid” -- where as female sexuality is seen as complex?
I think any non-specific description is a simplification. "Male sexuality" is a simplification, in my view. I think it is literally true that every person is unique in every manner, if only to a small degree. I don't think in terms of "masculinity." I don't have any feelings about the phrase "male sexuality" except that I know that I don't want to think in terms of that, in part because it is a simplification.
What does writing a sex scene look like for you?
For the Nerve piece I went about it by describing something that happened by using my memory as a first draft. Which is the same way I write other things of an autobiographical nature. I'm probably trying to convey an event that was interesting, emotional, or [notable in whatever other manner] to me, which is the same thing I'm trying to convey with [anything], I think. Everything I write is inspired by everything I've experienced and perceived. Ideally I don't view sex, TV, tennis, baseball, Bill Gates, the Loch Ness Monster, Gmail chat, the internet, American Apparel, or [anything] differently.
How do your characters view sex?
I've written about characters who view sex as "something with a lower reward/work ratio than [most desirable things]" and who view sex as "something with a higher reward/work ratio than [most desirable things]," so I feel it has been a range of things to my characters. It offers pleasure, that it is something "interesting" in various manners (intellectual, cultural, etc.), and that due to how it's viewed in certain cultures/times it is something potentially funny or scary. This is the same as my view, throughout the past 27 years, of sex, I feel.
One thing that I think does set your stories apart, sort of sexually, is that I feel like your characters are a bit gender neutral.
I feel that ideally my characters are gender neutral, excepting concrete differences in gender like that males have penises and females have vaginas. I feel that, ideally, I view each person, in terms of abstract things, specifically, though, for example I don't, ideally, assume [anything non-concrete] if all I know about them is that "they are a male" or "they are a female." I assume the "male" has a penis but not that he is more [whatever] or less [whatever]. This is the ideal, though, and I don't think me, or anyone, is 100% successful at it, because the brain seems to automatically group things around certain ideas, to associate certain things with certain other things, in a manner that seems not "neutralizable" unless one is unconscious, or "dead," maybe.
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I want to reference something you said in your last Bookslut interview: “This culture is running as fast as they can away from the truth of themselves and how they really feel. It's pathetic.” I think this especially applies to sexuality.
Porn is the ultimate expression of this retreat. It's sex without the emotional complication, a purely glandular exercise.
So what’s up with this Katie Roiphe assertion, why aren’t your contemporaries writing explicitly about sex?
The larger point that Roiphe seem to miss, or ignore, is that sex (and writing about it) was a HUGE TABOO when Updike and Roth were writing about it. That's why Portnoy or the Rabbit Quartet's frank and explicit treatment of sex felt momentous -- they were a literary expression of a larger cultural shift. But writing about transgressive sexual thoughts and feelings and actions just isn't non-normative at this point. It's SOP. With that said, there are still plenty of folks writing about sex, because sex is emotionally dangerous. That's the only reason to write about anything, as far as I'm concerned.
You actually wrote a response to Katie Roiphe’s piece in The Rumpus where you said that it wasn’t the feminists who had made writers scared to write about sex, but the critics. Could you say more on this?
As a writer who dares to write about fucking and sucking and masturbating -- things we all do every day -- I've often faced critics who get really hung up on the sex, rather than focusing on the stories, which are nearly always about heartbreak.
So do you think that men are silent about sex because of some “new male” thing, that post a few waves of feminism, men are thinking differently about sex?
I just don't feel qualified to comment on "archetypes of the new male," or whatever. I don't even trust most of these formulations, which boil down to making generalizations about huge populations of individuals. Literature is aiming in the opposite direction. Its job is to get to bottom of one person (or a few people's) internal chaos. Along the way, hopefully, the reader feels implicated. It's about cutting beneath all these pseudo-anthropological labels. Because look: I think people mostly stay the same. We're all sacks of doubt and hope and guilt and desire and loneliness and horniness. The thing that seems to be changing, so far as I can see, is the volume and velocity of the marketing pelting us 24/7, the pornofication of desire (retail, carnal, or otherwise).
You pointed out in your Rumpus piece that being inundated with sex, whether it’s the ubiquity of porn online or through porny advertising can effect sex in art… what do you think has happened there?
It's stripped away a lot of the mystery, and made sex seem like a marketing pitch. Most artists are, understandably, leery of coming off like marketing people. But no matter how porned out the world gets, people are still good and terrified of getting naked and having their tender needy parts rubbed and having stuff squirting and dripping out of their bodies and actually I kind of love this about human beings. It's a lot of what makes sex interesting to me -- the fact that we're still all charged up with lusty shame.
What is the place of sex in literature?
The goal of putting anything in literature (sex, violence, death) is to lay your characters bare. Period. The internet brings us sex as a commodity, as a flattened-out experience we can peer at without exposing ourselves, not as a real human event. That’s what real life (and, in the best instance, art) is for.