Stef Penney: Writing About Sex

Stef Penney: Writing About Sex

I didn’t set out to write an explicit book. The necessity of doing so evolved from the love story; the discovery that the lead characters were going to be involved, and that it was going to be a physical relationship. I was nervous of how such passages would be received (and already one Amazon reviewer has complained about the ‘copious quantities of copulation’ they encountered); quite apart from the exposing nature of such writing, the spectre of the Bad Sex Award hovers over us all, wagging a prurient finger, and tittering.

With that in the back of my mind, I wrote and cut, rewrote, researched, cut and rewrote again, and several people of both sexes read and commented on the results before the manuscript went anywhere near the publisher. So what’s on the page is the product of a great deal of thought, and, in my considered view, there is exactly the right amount of sex in this book.

Why be so explicit? We all know what happens when two people go into a bedroom, right? Well, no, apparently we don’t. Everyone – or almost everyone – has their own personal experience, but beyond that, it seems, all is mystery, speculation and confusion. That’s the problem with leaving ‘it’ up to the reader’s imagination: every reader will fill your tasteful ellipse with something different – possibly with unachievable fantasy, with prejudices, with bad experience, with porn. I wasn’t going to do that to my characters, and I felt I owed readers at least the attempt to do this honestly; to treat the characters’ intimacy with the same precision and seriousness that you would treat any intense human experience.

Isn’t there too much sex in books already? No, not of the right kind. I’ve read too much bad sex in otherwise good books: bizarre metaphorical sex; coy, breathless sex; baffling, ‘what just happened there?’ sex; phallocentric, male-experience-dominated sex. Too often the female response is barely mentioned. The implication you draw, as a reader of either sex, is that it is negligible, incomprehensible or irrelevant. It is important to ask why this is – and the fact that a lot (by no means all) of those writers are male is not a good enough answer. There are exceptions (Sarah Waters, for example) but they are distressingly few.

In my quest for knowledge and precedent, I sought out scientific research, erotic poetry, literature (the likes of DH Lawrence, James Salter, Harold Brodkey) and I trawled the internet as much as I could bear. I read the lot in the quest to see how others did it – and waded through many, many passages which didn’t come close to answering the obvious questions – did she come? Has this man heard of a clitoris? What were they using for contraception? And did men in Lawrence’s day really accuse women of ‘withholding’ their orgasm (as happens to Lady Chatterley)? The more I read about sex, and the more I thought about the way it has been portrayed in prose, the more important it became to be incontrovertibly specific.

This was the challenge I felt I couldn’t duck – to write about a sexual relationship in a way that convinced me and reflected what I know. An account that showed the sexual biographies of two people from both points of view; showed, in fact, how they reach the point where they come together, and why their relationship is the way it is. And while we’re on the subject of coming together, simultaneous orgasm was one myth that was never going to get an outing here. In the late 1920s, eccentric Freudian disciple Princess Marie Bonaparte had her clitoris surgically relocated – twice – in the desperate attempt to achieve one and thus conform to Freud’s dictum (and resulting social norm) that women should have only ‘vaginal’ orgasms resulting from penetration. It didn’t work.

The Princess’s delusion is ninety years old, but there is still – heartbreakingly – much ignorance, confusion and unhappiness out there. Following internet sex forums, I was shocked by the prevalence of women asking questions like, ‘How do I know if I’m having an orgasm?’ and, ‘What is the difference between a clitoral and a vaginal orgasm?’ (It’s a fair question, as even scientists and sexologists can’t agree on whether the vaginal orgasm, or the elusive G-spot, actually exist. For the record: the consensus is, they don’t.) The fact that so much confusion prevails, still, is no surprise; neuroscientist Dr Nikky Krause had a study denied funding by the UCLA ethics committee – only the second to be turned down in the school’s history – because she refused to remove the component that was researching the female orgasm.* There were also wonderful nuggets on the internet – asking a search engine, ‘What does it feel like for a man to be inside a women?’ led to some amazingly thoughtful, generous and enlightening answers. It has been a revealing journey all round. When friends began to read the book, some surprising conversations ensued. I learnt things I had never known about them, and I became more forthright in turn; we opened up. Why had we never talked about this before, we wondered? Why did we not achieve good, orgasmic sex until our mid-twenties, or later? Why were we too ignorant, too embarrassed to ask? Why did we expect so little?

I’d love to think that things have changed in the last quarter century, but judging by the prevalence of sexual abuse, rape, porn-addiction and the cries of confused souls online, it hasn’t changed nearly enough. All that unnecessary suffering. We need better sex education, and we need to be able to talk and write about sex, honestly and seriously, without (or in spite of) derision and censure. It’s difficult. I have found it difficult. It would help enormously if schools taught sane, kind, empowering books like those of sex therapist Ian Kerner. It would lead to an incalculable increase in the happiness of women and men. This is why it matters, and why the sex in this book had to be so detailed – because without such specifics we will never understand someone else’s experience. It was vital not to contribute to the porn and erotica-fuelled fantasy of easy, instinctive sex; not to thicken the fog of uncertainty, shame and embarrassment. Not to make yet another young woman wonder if there is something wrong with her – as I once thought (and had, on occasion, been told).

Such ignorance leads to appalling things. It enables sexual predators, bullying, and emotional abuse. It enables the awful, recent case of the schoolboy who raped a classmate, who, when asked why he didn’t stop when the victim cried, said, ‘girls always cry during sex.’ We all deserve better, and all it takes is the decision to be frank about sex. We can move into a post-ignorance culture. It’s about time.