• Mind Fuck: Writing Better Sex

    Melissa Febos

    Summer 2020

    Recently, I began a weekend creative writing workshop with this exercise: write your sexual life story in five sentences. Short of gratuitous usage of semicolons, there was no wrong way to do this; it could be as abstract or as concrete as my students wanted. It could be a chronological list of the five most high-topography sexual events in their lives, or it could be a list of images more akin to a surrealist poem. After the allotted five minutes, they all set their pens down with a touch of weary accomplishment. Then I asked them to do it again.

    This request was met with stares, some uncomprehending, some with a touch of loathing. I pressed on. The only requirement was that they not reiterate any of the previous five sentences— they could zoom in to a single event, zoom out to a philosophical summary, make it silly, make it emotionally opposite, make it more honest, make it less or more abstract. After they’d finished, I asked them to do it for a third time. A fourth. At this point, many of their stares implied that I was unhinged, sadistic, or simply ridiculous. Eventually they stopped staring and started writing faster. Here’s the point: their writing got better. It became truer. It became more theirs. I told them, We could do this all day. I meant: and not run out of ways to tell that story. More importantly, they would bear witness to something greater than mere improvement.

    Over the years, I’ve come to look forward to the point in my own writing at which continuing seems both incomprehensible and loathsome. That resistance, rather than marking the dead end of the day’s words, marks the beginning of the truly interesting part. That resistance is a kind of imaginative prophylactic, the end of ideas that I already had when I came to the page. The exhaustion of narrative threads that were already sewn into me by other sources of varying nefariousness or innocuity. It is on the other side of that threshold that the truly creative awaits me, where I might make something that did not already exist. I just have to punch through that false bottom.  

    Left to my thoughts, which are driven by pragmatism, ambition, anxiety, and past reference, my conception of creative possibility, of what might comprise my art, is a steadily narrowing doorway. My favorite classes—like my favorite lectures, like my favorite texts—are usually those that remind me of all the possibilities, of the incredible capaciousness of art and my own imagination. There are so many ways to write a thing, so many ways that only I could possibly write it. Over time, we start to narrow our thinking about what a piece of writing—what a certain story—can be, how it needs to be told. Partly, this is because we get attached to the most familiar narrative. We get attached to the one we tell ourselves, because it makes persisting easier. It makes us feel better about ourselves. It excuses us. It excuses others.

    The cause of this limiting of our range, of our scope, is inertial: that is the narrative we have been told about ourselves or our stories, and so that’s the narrative we tend to tell. I’ve spent my whole life being prescribed narratives about my own body: how it should and shouldn’t look, what it should or shouldn’t do, and what its value is. Particularly, I have learned a lot from my culture, media, government, men on the streets of whatever city I’ve lived in, men whom I have loved and not loved, women whom I have loved and not loved, and even readers and fellow writers about how my body is mostly good for sex and that sex should mostly be good for men.

    The degree to which this education has affected my life is impossible to overstate. It has defined my relationship to my body; all of my sexual and romantic relationships; my relationship to food, clothing, money, and of course, sex. It has governed much of how I think of myself, and what I have spent the minutes of my life contemplating and doing. The great work of my life has been the project of its undoing, of discerning what is possible to undo, what must be lived with, and how to situate what must be lived with in the mind and life so that it does not do the work intended by its embedding: to undermine any power I might have that does not serve men.

    My first book, Whip Smart, was, and I guess still is, a deeply unsexy book about sex and sex work. It’s also a feminist book about power and money and gender, and how, for a time in my early twenties, mostly married middle-aged rich white men underpaid me to spit and urinate and slap and beat on them in sexy outfits. That job, and the book I wrote about it, was ultimately a piece of that work to undo my own mind’s patriarchal programming. When I became a domme, I was a lifelong feminist and a hopeless femme. I wanted to wear stockings and stilettos, and I also wanted to be free. I had a deep drive to be wanted by men and a deep shame about that, which of course came from the same source—a brilliant double bind that I thought was expressly my own. I thought that I simply could not reconcile my politics with these desires.

    The job seemed like a solution: I could get paid to be wanted and dress like a cartoon sex object while kicking men in the balls. I could call the whole thing a feminist endeavor, and maybe it would be true. As a solution, it worked and it didn’t. True, I left that job with a far more generous definition of feminism, one that allowed for stilettos and stockings, but it was not kicking men in the balls that earned me the privilege. It was writing the book, which taught me that it was never up to anyone else to tell me how feminist my shoes were. The work of being a domme, although it was often funny, tender, revelatory, and interesting, consisted of enacting the fantasies of men. In essence, it didn’t matter if I was kicking men in the balls or jerking them off. By the time I quit, getting paid to dress like a high femme felt a lot more degrading than doing so on my own time, for my own pleasure. This is certainly not true for all pro-dommes, but it was for me, a young woman who had arrived at the dungeon with the goal of using it to manipulate herself.

    While finding loopholes and manipulating my own narrative had helped me to survive a lot, those devices never helped me transcend the limits of the value systems in which I lived. I could never have found room for all of me inside such a limited definition of feminism, nor found empowerment in a job defined by my servitude. In both cases, I had to abandon those structures. While false consciousness doesn’t preclude consciousness, it certainly isn’t a route to greater freedom. Not in life, and not in writing.

    Shortly after that book was published, during a post-reading Q and A, a woman stood up and asked, “Aren’t you ashamed?” It was a rhetorical question, but still I answered it. “No,” I said. “I am shameless.” This was both true and untrue. I was not ashamed of having been a sex worker or of having written about it, though shame is one of the forces that propelled me into that job.

    Later, I wished I had answered with the words of the late great essayist Nancy Mairs:

    Shamelessness, like shame, is not a masculine condition. That is, there is no shameless man as there is a shameless woman or, as my grandmother used to say, a shameless hussy. A man without shame is in general assumed to simply have done nothing he need feel guilty about. A woman without shame is a strumpet, a trollop, a whore, a witch. The connotations have been, immemorially, sexual. . . . My sexuality has been the single most powerful disruptive force mankind has ever perceived, and its repression has been the work of centuries.1


    That is, even after rejecting twenty-five years of encouragement to be ashamed, and writing a book about rejecting that shame, I was shamed. (I mean, of course I was.) Shaming is done from the outside and it never ceases.

    Those external reactions, many of which I’ve internalized, have very little to do with my actual body and my actual sex. They are what I have had to navigate around or through or what I have to annihilate if I ever want to write about my actual body and my actual sex.

    Writing is, like gender or dominatricing, a kind of performance. But the craft of writing is primarily an art of making decisions. I often like to terrorize my students by insisting that every single notation—every piece of punctuation, every word, every paragraph break—in a piece of writing is a decision. You know when something is done, I tell them (they always want to know how to know when something is done), when you know the argument for every single choice, when not a single apostrophe has slipped by uninterrogated, when every word has been swapped for its synonym and then recovered. I don’t mean to take the fun out of it, or even to impose my own laborious process on them, but I actually believe this. Not in the first draft, or even the fifth, but by the end, I want to have stripped away as many tics and defaults, as many blind choices as is in my power. I want to be awake to all of my choices.

    A big part of making creative decisions is relying upon what I guess we can call instinct—the intelligence of the imagination, the spirit, maybe, what we used to call the muse. A big part of instinct is just the cultivated habits that we refer to as skill. However much talent I had as a graduate student, the intelligence of my imagination could not communicate itself very clearly until I had spent some years practicing how not to indulge my strengths and weaknesses alike. This instinct may not be acted upon with great momentary consciousness, but the years of consciousness that cultivated it stand in for that.

    What I am interested in ferreting out are those other instincts, the ones we have inherited or practiced for reasons other than our good writing, the communication of our imaginative intellect. Which brings me back to sex: so much of writing that describes it is still performing unconsciously, still comprised of a series of decisions that were not so much made by the writer but by the matrix of inherited values that inform the reader’s own beliefs around the acts.

    Driving out this automatic tendency is easier said than accomplished. When I first starting writing Whip Smart, I received two devastating notes, which were essentially the same.

    The first was from my graduate workshop, in 2006, the first people to ever read the beginnings of that book. I submitted a twenty-page chapter that detailed a session with one of my regulars. There was spanking, a golden shower, and lastly, some shooting up in the bathroom. After exclaiming their interest in the subject and praising my sentences—the reactions I had hoped for and been thusly satisfied by—one of my classmates asked me, “But what were you . . . feeling during all of that?”

    “I was on heroin,” I reminded them, defensively, automatically. “I wasn’t feeling anything.”

    That wasn’t good enough. Because what they already knew, likely more from being lifelong readers than MFA students, was that one of the requirements of memoir, and perhaps of all satisfying or authoritative writing, is that the writer know more about their characters than the reader does. Simply transmitting my impressions of an experience at the site of their happening was not nearly enough. My early drafts suffered from the worst sort of dramatic irony: the unintentional kind. Not only did my readers know things that my protagonist didn’t—that in fact not every waitress in Manhattan would have been a pro-domme if they’d known it was an option—but also things she hadn’t entirely realized. For instance, that some of the experiences I described were the type to leave an impression, even on a mind smoothed by heroin.

    This note led me to take a six-month hiatus from writing the book to conduct more research, primarily in the form of psychotherapy. The second note, incidentally, came from my psychotherapist. I was so excited to show her my writing, thinking erroneously that she, having come to know me primarily vis-à-vis my persistent anxieties and compulsions, would be amazed by my talents, of which she had previously had no inkling. At twenty-six, I did not yet know that people who are not artists, but have relationships with artists that are not based on the artist’s art, care very little about that art. Or, to be more generous, they care about it only insofar as it is relevant to the relationship. After reading a chapter of my memoir-in-progress, my therapist did not comment on its literary merit at all. Instead, she told me: “You’re still acting like Justine.” Its truth and incisiveness left me thunderstruck: I had allowed the persona I’d constructed as a domme to author my memoir. It was the story I had been telling myself as those events happened, not the story of what happened.

    In a way, it was a kind of literary pornography that Susan Sontag describes in her essay “The Pornographic Imagination,” which makes a wonderful case for literary pornography by way of mostly French writers including de Sade, Bataille, and Pauline Réage. “Pornography,” Sontag asserts, “is mainly populated by creatures like Sade’s Justine, endowed with neither will nor intelligence nor even, apparently, memory. Justine lives in a perpetual state of astonishment, never learning anything from the strikingly repetitious violations of her innocence.” While my persona—unlike Justine—was carefully endowed with intelligence and will, she was also somewhat barren of insight, motive, or the sort of progressive self-knowledge that we hope for in the narrator of a memoir.

    Ironically, in the larger narrative of my life, I was a fairly well-developed character. I learned and grew and progressed in a somewhat linear manner, though my relationship to sex and desire as represented in my work—and to a lesser extent, my thoughts—was strangely repetitious. Sontag claims that “pornography is a theater of types, never of individuals,” and in that sense, the dungeon was a pornographic theater—in its sessions if not its dressing room, where we got to know each other’s real names and the personalities beyond our domme personas. In some ways, I had also made a pornographic theater of my own bedroom by so often playing a role in my own sex—especially with men—that was more informed by cultural indoctrination than my own desires. But no one is a type inside themselves, and no performance is bereft of the actor’s own private consciousness. However deeply suppressed, its story always plays out simultaneously, and unless the work actually aspires to pornography, it is usually the one more worth telling.

    The project of that experience is something I can describe so succinctly only on the other side of having written a book about it and with nearly twenty years of hindsight. At that time, my own motives were not yet clear to me, nor were the distinctions between my own desires and those coming from outside me, or my internalization of them, or the story I had cursorily written to paper over those realities. In this case, the flimsy story was that I had simply recognized a lucrative opportunity. That commercial BDSM was an inherently feminist enterprise. That being on drugs prevented anything from making an impression on me. That I didn’t feel anything but bored, empowered, and high. None of this was true. The experience was not all that well paying, was often humiliating, and I was often aroused, ashamed, confused, scared, exhilarated, and bored even while high on drugs, not to mention the oubliette of my truer feelings to which I did not yet have access. This kind of psychological, imaginative, and ultimately aesthetic slumber can be entertaining, particularly if your own thoughts about sex are uninterrogated, but the more my own consciousness wakes, the more boring I find it.

    My mother has been a practicing clinical psychotherapist herself for over twenty-five years. Once, I asked her if she ever gets sleepy during sessions. “Rarely,” she said, and explained that, for the most part, she finds listening to her patients inexhaustibly compelling. Over the years, she has come to understand that the only time she gets drowsy is when her patient isn’t telling the whole truth, mostly to themselves, or when they are not fully awake in their telling. If they are performing a persona or telling her the story they have told themselves and not reaching for the greater truth of an experience, she begins pinching herself. I related, not as a listener to people’s stories but as a reader of them.

    There are many beautiful and acclaimed books that I have begun and found astute in any number of ways. However, if such a book strikes me as asleep to its own biases, if it lacks that glint of authorial awareness amid the characters’ self-delusions, my attention drifts. I wish there were a more technical way to describe this recognition, but it is largely the function of experience. I have written work that is dishonest in this way and, in literature as in life, we who have recovered from a thing are often the best detectors of it.

    If using art to tell the story that we have been telling ourselves is boring, then using art to tell the story that that we’ve been conditioned to tell ourselves is even more tedious—a redundancy of a redundancy. Historically, the art that reinforces these scripts is driven by commerce—the more we believe we ought to be something that we are not, the more money we will spend in that mission. The state wants art that reinforces the status quo, as it wants sex that reinforces the status quo, and the best way to do that is to reiterate it, even in the obscure niche of literary prose. The genius of social conditioning is that it is viral and can adapt to any situation a human might enter.

    All of this is one explanation why the pornography I watch, the sex I enjoy, and the sex scenes I’m interested in reading are such discrete categories. Which is not to say that a good literary sex scene oughtn’t describe sex that plays to patriarchal scripts, only that it ought to know that it is doing so—and ideally, why. Having cultivated this awareness in myself—the ability to recognize a sex scene that triggers a conditioned erotic response (like the ones I watch in pornography2) and are basically enactments of ideas I’ve been socialized to believe since childhood about women’s value as sexual objects and submission to men as the apex of sexual pleasure—I tend to slam the laptop closed before I’ve even finished my porn-driven orgasm. Not because I am ashamed to have been watching porn but because once I’m no longer high on arousal and tapped into my deeply ingrained neural pathways, the artifice and depravity of the porn I like to watch bums me out completely. It is not only tedious but frightening and sad. I’m only interested in joining the theater of types designed to brainwash and oppress me as a momentary actor; I don’t want to hang out there as myself.

    Recently, a friend with similar pornographic predilections and I together wondered why we don’t get off on porn that mimics our actual sex experiences.3 I suspect that it’s because that sort of porn would rely upon the internal mechanics of intimacy, which a video cannot as effectively produce, whereas porn that is working off the scripts that are already embedded in us requires nothing else to trigger arousal. “The emotional flatness of pornography is neither a failure of artistry nor an index of principled inhumanity,” Sontag explains. “The arousal of a sexual response in the reader requires it. Only in the absence of directly stated emotions can the reader of pornography find room for his own responses.” That is, I don’t need the porn I watch to be believable or relatable in any personal way to get off. If I watched porn that attempted to mimic my real experience of sexual intimacy, my standards would become inestimably higher. The power of scripts is that they are easily transferable, whereas sexual intimacy is entirely specific and cannot easily be simulated. Porn is probably the lowest quality entertainment I can consume, made possible by its reliance on these internal scripts, which don’t require (and which to some extent foreclose) imaginative nuance. In my opinion, the highest forms of art do the opposite: they disrupt our internal scripts and force our thinking to become creative, like the third or fourth round of writing your sexual life story in five sentences. They upend the familiar story and insist on a truer, more interesting one.

    Writing, with its room for the reader’s visual imagination, has the potential to arouse her in all of these ways. As an adolescent, I used to masturbate to literary works of misogynistic pornography, feminist erotica, and serious literature. I loved trashy mysteries and horror novels, and I thrilled to Jeanette Winterson, Gloria Naylor, and Rita Mae Brown. I could place or find myself in all of it. At that point, however, I’d had very little experience of sex with other people. When I began to acquire more, that sex was profoundly affected by everything I had read and watched. It took me a long time to discern between the satisfaction of enacting a story I’d internalized and sexual pleasures more specific to me and my partners. It doesn’t mean that I don’t ever want to have sex that boils down to telling myself a story about a kind of sex I learned to idealize as an adolescent, but it does mean that I can tell the difference.

    Here I have reached a kind of thesis, one that I had hoped, in all honesty, to avoid. I suspect that to write an awakened sex scene, one may need to be awake to their own sex. The work of discerning artistically between the narratives that have been downloaded into your brain and the ones of your own design can only follow the work of awakening to it in your own life.

    It would be convenient in many ways if how we live did not so fundamentally inform what we write, but of course it does. From what mysterious place in us does our most inspired work emerge? I suspect from some creative intelligence that resides beneath our intellect, a close neighbor to the place where our worst impulses are born. We’ve spent a lot of time considering the work of disgraced men and agonizing over the question of whether we can still love their work. To this I say: Of course. A better question might be: Do you? I’ve found that while the work of terrible people can be redeeming in many ways—beautiful and politically potent, funny and moving—in the area of their terribleness it tends to fail. The female characters in works of fiction by a writer who has violated women are often two-dimensional objects of obsession, possession, derision, or worship—all violable statuses. Or perhaps the men are all presented as inclined to violate. In other words, the author’s imagination frequently fails to transcend his own personal limitations. Once I recognize this in a work, it is hard to unsee, nor do I wish to unsee it.4

    Like most students of my generation, I grew up being taught to worship the novels of men whose imaginations failed to transcend their personal limitations in this way. Many of my “favorite” books were by these authors.5 Although my standards did not begin to conscientiously rise until graduate school, even as an undergraduate I became so familiar with the ways that men wrote about women, particularly around sex, that I came to anticipate it with a familiar dread. That didn’t stop me from reiterating them in my own life and work.

    I just finished writing a whole book about how I learned to discern and expunge the patriarchal narratives that were embedded in my consciousness. To the extent that it has been possible, that mission has inestimably improved my sexual life as well as my writing about sex. The most meaningful way to awaken to any truer story of your own life is to surround yourself with people and works of art that are also interested in this project. It has also turned out that, for me, writing itself is a primary means of liberating my own mind. When I went back to Whip Smart after my six-month therapeutic hiatus, I did not bring with me a fully formed story about my experience. Therapy couldn’t give me that. I simply returned to the page with a honed will and an ability to find it.

    A memoir is a diorama of experience, populated only partially with the memories we carry to the desk. Part of the work of writing it is that of completing it with many of the memories and experiences that we did not have access to during the events that we describe. In order to write a memoir worth reading, I had to recover all of my disgust, arousal, humiliation, and fear during those years as a pro-domme. I had to discover what I had felt even when it had been obscured by heroin. In this way, I was finally able to tell Melissa’s story as well as Justine’s. I was able to describe my role in the theater of types and the person I was beneath the mask.  

    When something seems difficult, in writing and in life, we tend to make rules around it. We like to assign the trouble we have to the thing that troubles us. It is not us who struggle with sex scenes, but sex scenes that are difficult, that need to be governed by rules. It is also easier to control who writes sex scenes when there are copious rules for how to do so. Not everyone is equally inclined to follow rules or as easily punished when they fail to.

    When it comes to sex scenes, the rules say things like: Don’t write them at all, and if you do, don’t use these words. Don’t write them silly, porny, dramatic, tragic, pathological, grim, or ridiculous. My whole practical thesis around the craft of writing a sex scene is this: it is exactly the same as any other scene. Our isolation of sex from other kinds of scenes is not indicative of sex’s difference, but the difference in our relationship to sex. It is our reluctance to name things, the shame we’ve been taught in our sexual truth, our fraught compulsion to enact a theater of types. It is indicative of the lack of imagination that centuries of patriarchy and white supremacy has wrought on us.

    To teach sex scenes is to talk about plot, dialogue, pacing, description, and characterization: all those elements that comprise a captivating scene. A sex scene should advance a story and occur in a chain of causality that springs from your characters’ choices. It should employ sensory detail that concretizes and also speaks symbolically to the deeper content of the story. Or if not, it should service your work of art in whatever ways you want your scenes to. Though I am happy to talk about scene building anytime, that’s also not how I want to spend the rest of this essay.

    The harder work of writing sex scenes is undoing your own mind about writing about sex. Being given rules about a thing can shape your mind. Think of Foucault in Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, writing about the Panopticon—the prison model predicated on surveillance that used the internalized eye of the state to control its prisoners: “discipline produces subjected and practiced bodies, ‘docile’ bodies.” The examples for this are infinite, but take for example the way I related to my own body for most of my life, how it was determined by the rules I was given for how it should look. I spent years monitoring and punishing my own body for being something it was not. One of the ways that I undid that conditioning was by habituating myself to other ways of thinking. For years now, I have ended my daily morning journal entry with the sentence: Today, I reject the patriarchy’s bad ideas. It’s a needed reminder than when I start to feel bad about my body or laughing too loud in a restaurant or start to wonder if I should shave my armpits, those are not my ideas. I like my body, laughing loud in restaurants, and my soft and strangely patterned armpit hair.

    Sometimes the best way to unlearn something is by simply cultivating defiance toward those unchosen rules. Willful, opposite action can counteract their habitual governance of your writing and thinking. This is the logic undergirding the concept of “affirmations” and a whole genre of self-help books. I believe it’s possible to retrain the mind to write more creatively and truthfully and smartly about sex, just as it was possible for me to train my writing out of the bad habits of mixed metaphors, passive voice, superfluous modifiers, and a total lack of narrative tension. As an added benefit, I believe that doing so will simultaneously train your mind out of relying on those internalized narratives and habituate you to thinking more creatively and truthfully and smartly about sex.

    So, instead of outlining all the bad examples of sex scenes, thereby reiterating the rules we have been given in order to rebut them, or using my own preferences to produce another set of rules that mandates a writer go to therapy before she writes a sex scene, I’ve started a list of unrules, intended to release us from some of the restrictions that have been imposed on our writing and which we’ve learned to enforce on ourselves.

    The only restriction I’ll impose on the examples I use is that they won’t fall under the umbrella of what Inga Muscio (in her wonderful book, Cunt) coins “rapism.”6 It might seem obvious that I’m not including any kind of sexual violence in my vary narrow collection of favorite sex scenes, but it’s not obvious at all, because for much of my life I have been presented examples of sexual violence as sex.7 These categories do not exist in isolation from each other; there are endless connections between sex, trauma, and violence. But for the purposes of this essay and this partial list, I will only use examples of consensual sex.

    Obviously, this list could be hundreds of times longer than this essay and its contents tailored to each writer. Our embedded tics are a subjective collage assembled by our relationships to various cultures, classes, identities, and experiences. My hope is that you expand my list to more closely speak to your particular inhibitions.

    1. You can use any words you want.


    In my experience, the most commonly repeated rules about sex scenes relate to diction. (No pun intended.) There are only so many words for some things, we say, and these words have been used up: cock, pussy, the likening of women’s nipples to pencil erasers.

    We are all ultimately writing about the same four or five things: death, trauma, love, loss, recovery. Mostly death. If sex words have been overused, so have grief words. But you don’t see folks so readily nixing the use of sad or tears or melancholy or scenes of staring into the middle distance as you contemplate the terrifying sublimity of your own mortality. Not the way you see folks banning the words pussy, hump, thrust, or, most terrifying and supposedly unsexy, vagina.

    The problem is not that vagina is an unsexy word. Or that nipples never do look like pencil erasers.8 The problem is that we have exiled sex in our minds. We have isolated it from the larger inclusive narrative and we have limited its definition to that which serves the most privileged class of protagonists.

    I think that this is a symptom of that other habit of treating whole classes of human beings as though they are untethered from the concerns and stakes and narrative depth of the dominant protagonists. It is a craft quandary indeed to write yet another sex scene in which a white male protagonist exercises his archetypal masculinity on a secondary, two-dimensional character functioning as a prop in his hero’s journey without any narrative awareness of this exhausted trope.

    But to write a sex scene in which that marginalized character is treated with some reverence and depth? To write it from their perspective? To write a scene in which that white male character experiences, even in an inchoate way, the deep discomfort that occurs when we act out our erotic story on another body without recognizing its humanity? I’ll repeat the unrule: you can use any words you want.

    Here is Eileen Myles, from Inferno, in case you thought comparing a pussy to soup, or using the word crotch, was out of bounds or unsexy:

    But after kissing her mouth a little chapped which seemed familiar then feeling her breasts not so large, but nice round and beautiful, familiar breasts, ones I already knew in some way I tugged down her pants. She said Oh. Like a soft amount of light, a small gust of wind. And luckily she had some sweatpants on or something, a stretchy waist. Easy getting them down and there were her lemony legs. Not big not strong, but smooth soft hair like peaches everything that way. Pink rose warm. I just dived down. It couldn’t have been too fast. Time was being so slow and warm. And there it was. A pussy, the singular place on a girl, it’s where I’m going. Wiggly thing, like soup, like a bowl.

    Another mouth. Like lips between her legs and the taste of it. Piss and fruit. I pressed my face against its bone and it moved. She was letting me. All this was happening. I smelled the future right there, a present and a past. All that went through her, known through the soft sweet flesh of her lips and clit. It was like my face felt loved temporarily. . . . I felt plunged into a tropical movie in which light was bathing my head and her pussy, her cunt, her crotch was a warm smile and for a moment I lived in her sun.

    The revelation here is not that these words can be used in a sex scene, but that a pussy, a cunt, a crotch can be transformed by a sex scene. “Language is never innocent,” Roland Barthes once wrote, and I agree. Here, in the sense that the words pussy, cunt, and crotch all carry the connotative luggage of all their previous contexts—the violence, disgust, and pornographic theater of all the scenes and mouths I’ve heard them in. Experience, however, is innocent. This narrator’s sexual reality is so powerful a phenomenon that it washes these words of their previous connotations. Now they mean not a wimp or a bitch or the place on a woman that belongs to a man, but something magnificent and weird, pure and exotic, deeply familiar and erotic—a warm smile, a cosmic body. Just as sweatpants become perfect attire for such a scene, smooth soft hair like peaches, and the actual smell of sex a good one. When they enter this revelatory scene, these degraded words are suddenly imbued with the same reverence as their speaker. To use them is an incontrovertible act of (re)creation.

    2. Sex doesn’t have to be good.


    In the full meaning of “good.” Because a lot of it isn’t. True, a lot of sex is not about love, intimacy, or even pleasure. Sometimes it’s driven more by rage or a wish for escape or, in the case of this excerpt from Cheryl Strayed’s essay, “The Love of My Life,” grief.

    I did not deny. I did not get angry. I didn’t bargain, become depressed, or accept. I fucked. I sucked. Not my husband, but people I hardly knew, and in that I found a glimmer of relief. The people I messed around with did not have names; they had titles: the Prematurely Graying Wilderness Guide, the Technically Still a Virgin Mexican Teenager, the Formerly Gay Organic Farmer, the Quietly Perverse Poet, the Failing but Still Trying Massage Therapist, the Terribly Large Texas Bull Rider, the Recently Unemployed Graduate of Juilliard, the Actually Pretty Famous Drummer Guy. Most of these people were men; some were women. With them, I was not in mourning; I wasn’t even me. I was happy and sexy and impetuous and fun. I was wild and enigmatic and terrifically good in bed. I didn’t care about them or have orgasms. We didn’t have heart-to-heart talks. I asked them questions about their own lives, and they told me everything and asked few questions in return; they knew nothing about me. Because of this, most of them believed they were falling instantly, madly in love with me.

    I did what I did with these people, and then I returned home to Mark, weak-kneed and wet, bleary-eyed and elated. I’m alive, I thought in that giddy, post-sex daze. My mother’s death has taught me to live each day as if it were my last, I said to myself, latching onto the nearest cliché, and the one least true. I didn’t stop to think: What if it had been my last day? Did I wish to be sucking the cock of an Actually Pretty Famous Drummer Guy? I didn’t think to ask that because I didn’t want to think. When I did, I thought, I cannot continue to live without my mother.

    Perhaps when Strayed wrote the first version of this essay, it was more infused with the story she had been telling herself just after her mother died. Instead, it is the story of the story she told herself as it was happening, and the greater story in which that story existed, and which could only be told by a narrator who had a wide enough lens to view it.

    When I say that sex doesn’t have to be good, I mean that it can be awkward, unsatisfying, offensive, and boring. I also mean in the virtuous, moral, or wholesome sense; it doesn’t have to be healthy or emotionally intimate. The representation of our sexual lives ought to include the full spectrum. While it’s well known that straight sex is full of fake female orgasms and that homophobic bigots think that all queer sex is depraved, there are few depictions of realistically bad queer sex. This is due in part because there are so many fewer depictions of queer sex overall, but it is also due to the phenomenon of image management that often occurs in representations of marginalized communities.

    As a queer woman and a former sex worker, I have experienced blowback for depicting aspects of those sexual experiences that weren’t wholesome or fulfilling or healthy. Most of us former and current sex workers know that drudgery and dissociation are indelible parts of that work. And all of us queers know that all of our sex is not “healthy” or satisfying.9 There were plenty of days in younger years when I faked orgasms with women.

    I’ve found that those of us fucking in the margins are often policed by our own communities to represent our sex in an idealized way. I get the logic. There are so few representations of our sex out there that we who find any kind of spotlight must speak well for the whole community. The idealization and marketing of our marginalized sex experiences as wholesome and perfect is a great argument against the argument for our depravity. But it also erases so much of our humanity. Queerness does not have to be healthy to be human. No one of any race need prove their respectability by the sex that they have or purport to have. We do not have to earn our humanity by being any kind of perfect. Ultimately, I think that representing the full range of our humanity is the best argument against its erasure.

    Here is a scene from Raven Leilani’s Luster:

    Slowly, he eases me down onto his grand, slightly left-leaning cock, and for a moment I do rethink my atheism, for a moment I consider God as a chaotic, amorphous evil who made autoimmune disease but gave us miraculous genitals to cope, and so I fuck him desperately with the force of this epiphany and Eric is talkative and filthy but there is some derangement about his face, this pink contortion that introduces the white of his eyes in a way that makes me afraid he might say something we cannot recover from just yet, so I cover his mouth and say shut up, shut the fuck up, which is more aggressive than I would normally be at this point but it gets the job done and in general if you need a pick-me-up I welcome you to make a white man your bitch.

    Perhaps even more important than the representation of our fake orgasms is that of our transcendent ones, acquired by way of acts that might make certain straight readers squirm. Not because it’s important to make them squirm, but so the rest of us know that it’s possible to make a white man your bitch or get spat on without shame, as Garth Greenwell shows us in Cleanness:

    There were things I could say in his language, because I spoke it poorly, without self-consciousness or shame, as if there were something in me unreachable in my own language, something I could reach only with that blunter instrument by which I too was made a blunter instrument, and I found myself at last at the end of my strange litany saying again and again I want to be nothing, I want to be nothing. Good, the man said, good, speaking with the same tenderness and smiling a little as he cupped my face in his palm and bent forward, bringing his own face to mine, as if to kiss me, I thought, which surprised me though I would have welcomed it. Good, he said a third time, his hand letting go of my cheek and taking hold of my hair again, forcing my neck farther back, and then suddenly and with great force he spat into my face.

    Reading, we often say, is an exercise in empathy. It is entering into the consciousness of a character and feeling what they feel, assuming their concerns. That is why we show instead of tell, to create a tableau of experience that the reader can enter. Whether or not Sontag is correct when she writes that “everyone has felt (at least in fantasy) the erotic glamour of physical cruelty and an erotic lure in things that are vile and repulsive,” it doesn’t stop us from rejecting the idea that these aspects might also be, to some lovers, an expression of tenderness, play, or intimacy in addition to dominance or humiliation. Every sex scene that we write has the potential to expand a reader’s entire conception of goodness. The idea of good is deeply associated with Judeo-Christian ethics, but the word good comes from the Old English gōd, which denoted excellence, fineness, and desirability—entirely subjective qualities—and the Old English gædrian, “to gather, to take up together.” That is, in the oldest sense of the word, mutually satisfying face-spitting is just as good as missionary.

    3. Sex is what you call it.



    One afternoon near the end of seventh grade, my mother picked me up at the library, where I had supposedly been studying with my friend Tracy. I dropped my backpack on the floor between my feet and buckled my seat belt, but my mother didn’t drive. She kept staring out the windshield and finally said, You smell like sex, Melissa. Mortified, I stared out of my side of the windshield. I’ve never had sex, I said, believing it was true. Sex isn’t just intercourse, she said.

    File this under things a bisexual mother can clarify for you. Since my teens, when I started openly dating other women, I have fielded (mostly from men) the rude but “innocent” question of how two women have sex. The implication being that sex includes penetration by a penis, that this act is the culmination of all the lesser acts that precede it. Perhaps the biggest inherited narrative about sex that I’ve had to undo in myself is that default defining of all sex as related to hetero sex. Back then, no matter how I explained it, the askers of that question frowned. How sad, their faces seem to say, that you’ve never ever gotten past third base. How sad, I’d now like to reply, that you’ve been trapped on a baseball diamond for all of your sexual life.

    Show us what your sex is, what your characters’ sex is. Maybe you, too, have been defining it in relationship to heterosexual models that have nothing to do with your own desire, or that of your characters. This might be hardest for straight people, who have the greatest number of inherited stories to wade through. Discover it in the writing; I often have. The beauty is that we don’t have to agree on this. When I was a dominatrix, I once rubbed balloons all over a man for seventy-five dollars. He would’ve called it sex. I called it work. It was mutually consensual, and I think we were both correct in our assessment.

    If your sex is balloons, if it is blowing raspberries on your lover’s belly, if it happens fully clothed or in furry costumes, if it happens in a group or alone—give it the same gravity, the same reverence or irreverence as all of the tiresome dick-chafing scenes we all grew up reading. In the world of your writing, no sex is a punch line unless you make it one. There is no marginal erotic unless you sideline it. 

    Here is one of my favorite poems, “Practicing” by Marie Howe:10

    I want to write a love poem for the girls I kissed in seventh grade,
    a song for what we did on the floor in the basement

    of somebody’s parents’ house, a hymn for what we didn’t say but thought:
    That feels good or I like that, when we learned how to open each other’s mouths

    how to move our tongues to make somebody moan. We called it practicing, and
    one was the boy, and we paired off—maybe six or eight girls—and turned out

    the lights and kissed and kissed until we were stoned on kisses, and lifted our
    nightgowns or let the straps drop, and, Now you be the boy:

    concrete floor, sleeping bag or couch, playroom, game room, train room, laundry.
    Linda’s basement was like a boat with booths and portholes

    instead of windows. Gloria’s father had a bar downstairs with stools that spun,
    plush carpeting. We kissed each other’s throats.

    We sucked each other’s breasts, and we left marks, and never spoke of it upstairs
    outdoors, in daylight, not once. We did it, and it was

    practicing, and slept, sprawled so our legs still locked or crossed, a hand still lost
    in someone’s hair . . . and we grew up and hardly mentioned who

    the first kiss really was—a girl like us, still sticky with moisturizer we’d
    shared in the bathroom. I want to write a song

    for that thick silence in the dark, and the first pure thrill of unreluctant desire,
    just before we’d made ourselves stop.


    When I think of literary works that incite in me the feeling of early eroticism, I think of this poem. It does not evoke the first time I had intercourse, oral sex, or even an orgasm with another person—not any of the events that serve as supposed benchmarks in a sexual history. It evokes my “first pure thrill of unreluctant desire”—the first time I got stoned on physical longing. For me, it was in my basement under a mildewy towel with a fellow teammate from Little League. We called it playing “Date,” and she always played the boy. That teammate has never shown up on any mental list I’ve made of my lovers. But if I revise the definition of sex that I inherited from a church I don’t belong to, or the interests of a hypothetical man I won’t be fucking, then she was my first.

    When we define our sex first by those acts that mean something to us, by the consummation of our desire, the center shifts. Similarly, when we do this for our characters, they get to stay at the center of their own stories. The scene in which a character’s sex is whatever she calls it maintains the continuity of the world created by the writer because it is not injected with some other narrative, one that privileges the desire of a character whom the writer did not create but who exists inside them nonetheless.

    4. Writing about sex doesn't have to include sex at all.


    A lot of my favorite sex writing does not include sex by any definition. It is the writing that situates sex in the mind, the emotions, the history, the body, and the world of the character. Here, we return to that craft issue: sex writing is effective when it writes sex into the lives of characters, into the personal, political, and historical realities that created that character and their desires.

    Take this from Carmen Maria Machado’s essay “The Trash Heap Has Spoken”:

    Once, I thought I saw a woman who looked like me in an amateur porn video. Her breasts hung low, and her stomach folded like mine did, and I couldn’t stop watching her. She bit her lip and sucked her boyfriend’s cock and rode him and bent over him and laughed and made the most delicious noises. She was beautiful. He looked at her with such reverence. They were, I think, actually in love.

    The guy I was sleeping with came over for dinner. I sat him down and played the video and asked if she looked like me.

    He watched it for a few minutes, his eyes softening perceptively. Then he gently pried my hands off my laptop and folded down the screen. “Not really?” he said. “I mean, a little. But not really.” His expression was inscrutable. He was a nice, kind person, and I could tell he was trying to find a nice, kind response. The problem was he didn’t know what I was looking for.

    “It wouldn’t be bad if you said she did,” I clarified. “I just want to know what I look like.”

    Sex, like any experience, is a lens through which we learn to see ourselves—sometimes a warped version, sometimes a truer one. We don’t have to be fucking to look through it. Our access to pleasure is determined, to some extent, by the story we’ve been told about what a body like ours deserves. Is a character still acting out the story she was taught about her body (for instance that it was mostly good for sex and that sex should mostly be good for men), or has she written her way out of it, as I eventually did? Machado’s narrator is in the process of discarding the stories she was raised on about fat bodies and what they deserve and replacing them with a self-image that is deserving of desire, that feels entitled to physical pleasure. Inevitably, this will affect her erotic life. A character’s relationship to sex itself often reveals more about them than any act can, and characterizing that relationship will always render a sex scene more meaningful to a reader.

    Finally, I’ll return to Nancy Mairs, who has written a number of great essays about her own sexuality as well as how the sexualities of disabled people are perceived by the able, with a passage from her landmark essay “On Not Liking Sex”:

    The other day, sitting in a tweed chair with my knees crossed, drinking a cup of coffee and smoking a cigarette, I looked straight at my therapist and said, ‘I don’t like sex.’ I have known this man for years now. I have told him that I don’t like my husband, my children, my parents, my students, my life. I may even have said at some time, ‘I don’t like sex very much.’ But the difference between not liking sex very much and not liking sex is vast, vaster even than the Catholic Church’s gulf between salvation and damnation, because there is no limbo, no purgatory. . . . I have, [my therapist] says, what our society considers ‘the worst wart.’ In 1981 in the United States of America one cannot fail to like sex. It’s not normal. It’s not nice.


    The rest of this essay goes on in a similarly humorous, if somewhat glib, manner. I enjoyed it, though I enjoyed more the revision of it she offered in her 1986 collection, Plaintext. In it, she claims that the first essay was “true, insofar as any truth can be translated,” but also “an exercise in making careful statements that would ensure that I never said what I really had to say.” What she really had to say was much more earnest, vulnerable, and compelling. That “in sex, as in the rest of my life, I am acted upon. I am the object, not the agent,” which follows an earlier point in the same essay: “I am no original but simply a locus of language in a space and time that permits one—in politics as in sex—to fuck or get fucked.” Ultimately, she acknowledges and explores the indelible connection between her experiences of sex as “an act of war” and of being raped at nineteen—her first intercourse. 

    I am interested in reading about Mairs’s voluntary celibacy, but I am even more interested in reading about the previously obfuscated reasons for it that she wrote her way into a few years later. It reminded me of writing my first book, how I’d had to punch through that false bottom to further awaken inside my own story, how it was through the writing that I did so. Perhaps all the writing I love best began as a shallower version of itself—glib and tidy, a theater of types in which we cast ourselves in the role we wish we had played or the one we were prescribed—a doorway into the truer and more interesting story.

    In one of my favorite essays of all time, “Uses of the Erotic,” Audre Lorde defines the erotic as far more than the sexual. It is a connection with the self that makes possible deeper connection with others, and can be attained while doing anything—cooking, writing, fucking, fixing a car, or holding a child. The erotic is a “power that rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge.” Once we have experienced it, she claims, we must hold the rest of our lives to that higher standard. “Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives.”

    In my life, this means that I haven’t faked an orgasm in many years. I don’t have sex when I don’t want to. I don’t stick with the first version of my own life story, and I don’t let my students do so, either. It means that I refuse to let the narratives that once colonized my thinking also colonize my art. This requires a different kind of rigor—in thinking, living, and creation. Whereas writing was once an exercise in transcription, it has become an exercise in transformation. I urge you to hold your own life and work to this higher standard. As Lorde writes, “This is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.”

    In order to write well about sex, we must write our whole selves into it; we must place our characters at the center of their own stories. This is an issue of craft, but it is also about joy—the joy of awakening to the full range of human experience, in all of its ecstatic, uncomfortable, freaky, transcendent, holy realness. “Uses of the Erotic” is not an essay about sex or sex writing, but in the end, neither is this. It is an essay about the revolutionary power of undoing the narratives we’ve been taught about ourselves, how that project makes us not only better writers and lovers, but more human to ourselves.




     1 It is an appropriate response to so many unwelcome comments: 

           “You should smile more, beautiful!”

    “My sexuality has been the single most powerful disruptive force mankind has ever perceived, and its repression has been the work of centuries.”

    “Are you sure you want to eat that?”

    “My sexuality has been the single most powerful disruptive force mankind has ever perceived, and its repression has been the work of centuries.”

    “C’mon just the tip!”

    “My sexuality has been the single most powerful disruptive force mankind has ever perceived, and its repression has been the work of centuries.”


     2 I won’t elaborate here, partly out of a desire to protect my own privacy, partly out of a desire to protect my ability to enjoy watching these sorts of porn, which, if subjected to articulation and more direct analysis, might be ruined for pleasure.


    3 It’s not a booming industry per se, but there are definitely options for the queer feminist masturbator who wants to see videos of real queer women fucking each other and possibly even having real orgasms.


    4 I actually went to my bookshelves in search of some examples of these and then remembered a recent purge in which I donated all of the ones that came most quickly to mind (see partial list in the subsequent footnote). I didn’t feel moved enough to go digging online for the examples of which I had purged my home. The ones that remained on my shelves are more contemporary and because I have already been exhausted by the public conversation about their misdeeds and the subsequent connections to their work, I don’t want to distract with more specificity. Some, I keep, because there is so much else to love about their work. Others I can let go of because there are plenty of other good books.


    5 Hesse, Bukowski, Kerouac, Miller, Hemingway, Mailer, et al.


     6 “Let’s, for a moment, take the whole spectrum of sexual violence—the emotional abuse, exploitation, and sexual abuse of children; family molestation; stranger and date rape; the paltry sentencing laws; the acute vulnerability of indigenous women, women of color, and transgender communities; rape culture; the degrading humiliations war brings; and the ongoing dangers and indignities refugees suffer—let’s take it all and lump it together under one encompassing term: rapism.”


     7 In one of my creative writing workshops during undergrad, a classmate brought in a short story with a scene of graphic coercive sex. A few years later, I would have known to call it rape. I would have been able to say that in the class. But instead, I listened to our teacher talk about how hard “sex scenes” were to write.


     8 Or, that it’s never effective to describe them as such. See Michael Cunningham’s 2010 novel By Nightfall, which contains one of the best longtime-married couple’s sex scenes I’ve ever read and includes the description:

    Her nipples may have thickened and darkened a little—they are now precisely the size of the tip of his little finger, and the color of pencil erasers. Were they once slightly smaller, a little pinker? Probably. He is actually one of the few men who doesn’t obsess about younger women, which she refuses to believe.

    We always worry about the wrong things, don’t we?


     9 It does seem important to note that multiple studies over the past few decades, including one in 2018, show that queer women overall have more orgasms than straight women and are more likely to “receive more oral sex, have longer duration of last sex, be more satisfied with their relationship, ask for what they want in bed, praise their partner for something they did in bed, call/email to tease about doing something sexual, wear sexy lingerie, try new sexual positions, anal stimulation, act out fantasies, incorporate sexy talk, and express love during sex.”


     10 “Practicing” reprinted from What the Living Do by Marie Howe ©1998, 1999 by Marie Howe. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Compnay, Inc. All rights reserved. 

    Melissa Febos is the author of Whip Smart, Abandon Me, and Girlhood, which is forthcoming from Bloomsbury in 2021. The inaugural winner of the Jeanne Córdova Nonfiction Award from LAMBDA Literary, her essays have appeared in the Believer, McSweeney's, Quarterly, Granta, Tin House, the New York Times, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor at the University of Iowa, where she teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program.

    Read More

    Web Design and Development by Riverworks Marketing