When I was in graduate school studying creative writing, I read Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater. Of all the literary works out there, this was one of the few to grace the syllabus. But we were lucky, because Roth came to speak to our class. He had a bum knee and was grouchy. It didn’t seem appropriate to ask about misogyny; it wasn’t exactly a word people used, especially with literary luminaries. This was 20 years prior to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 election campaign and the #MeToo movement, and the consequent popularization of the word misogyny. Besides, Roth wasn’t the only one to ruin sex on the literary page. Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Tom Wolfe had all already won their gold-plated Bad Sex in Fiction trophies, an award established by the Literary Review in 1993 that is, as editor Jonathan Beckman explained, “a prize that cares deeply about writing, that shows how it’s done badly so it may be done better in the future.”
No one insists men should not write about sex and women’s sexuality, but perhaps we should at least consider it. To be fair, not all winners of the Bad Sex in Fiction award have been male. Of the 27, two were women—and, in my opinion, a third contender should be Sisters by Lynne Cheney, which, incidentally, included a scene with a Republican vice president who dies of a heart attack while having sex with his mistress. In grad school, someone brought the novel to the lounge. The sex scene was so frighteningly bad, and so creepy, people openly ridiculed and mocked it. What’s also important to note is that not all of those who have won the award wrote about or from the woman’s perspective. Nevertheless, the discrepancy is notable. If there are as many female writers as there are male writers, shouldn’t we suck equally?
It’s possible that women tend to shy away from writing about sexuality—especially graphic scenes. I’ll be the first to admit that, when I write about sex, I sometimes cringe at the thought that readers might automatically assume those scenes are somehow autobiographical; there’s the expectation that women need to write from their lives, whereas men are able to use their imaginations. I know a cis white man who wrote a novel about a white guy who gets locked up in a Chinese prison. I was dumbfounded when he said, almost proudly, that he hadn’t done any research. Why? He wanted to let his imagination “wander.”
As early as 1962, Doris Lessing paved the way for women to be more open to sex, relationships, and sexuality, both in literature and in our lives. We’ve seen authors like Helen Wilkinson and Jeanette Winterson follow her lead, and yet, close to 70 years later, the gender gap persists. Cis white men feel entitled to write sex scenes; women less so.
Meanwhile, I recently came upon a story in which an octogenarian cis male writing instructor gets an “outrageous” proposal from an 85-year-old cis woman, described as “wrinkled” and “hunched over a walking stick,” asking for help getting through some form of writer’s block: “I must have some moderate contact with a penis, for a week, maybe two.... That’s the only way I’ll get the juices flowing.... I’d like that penis to be yours.”
It’s no surprise that the protagonist is a “fan” of Henry Miller’s musings on sex, which, for me, raised alarm bells—justifiably, as it turns out: “She remained remarkably glued to my dolphin, if you will, until its tumescence had thoroughly subsided and its fluids thoroughly drained. We remained like that for another good fifteen or twenty minutes.”
I’m not sure where to even start. Dolphin? Tumescence?! Twenty minutes!
Then, to my horror, the woman gazes up at the protagonist, “her eyes glistening with tears,” and asks, “Have you ever seen a woman cry when she comes?”
Now, I’m willing to believe a woman can orgasm when giving a blow job. It’s as likely as a cis male not coming after sexually bringing a woman to climax multiple times, I suppose. Unfortu-nately, the author did not develop the story further.
In an environment where the few stories that get published are selected ostensibly because they are the crème de la crème, it’s baffling that stories like this one get noticed, and what’s more, persist.
Christina Chiu is the winner of the James Alan McPherson award for Beauty. She also authored Troublemaker and Other Saints..