Writing About Sex

“Pushing her back on the veranda floor and ripping off her thin chemise, she knew she’d get more than splinters if he got his wicked way”

was how an arch undergraduate friend of mine sent up a certain popular genre of literature. But with reports of fatal ‘consensual strangulation gone wrong’ rising 90% in the last decade as a niche (gay/ solo male) porn practice became mainstream – note the massive sales of 50 Shades of Grey: book published in 2011, film released 2015 – surely writers have a moral duty to think carefully about the possible social effect of how we write about sex.

The romantic origins of “The Bruno Benedetti Mysteries” lie in my experience of flirty relationships between gay/bi and strait men. What fascinated me was that they tended to be mutually flirty. Bruno comments on this in Tricks of the Mind, where his libido-fuelled mind is playing very nasty tricks indeed!

Justin came out of the shower towel-drying his hair. With the towel he would otherwise be wearing. […] People don’t believe me that strait (sic., yes it is my revenge) men go on like this. A woman, despite a post-Freudian century of glossy shelf-fillers to the contrary, cannot convince a man of his masculinity: he needs a man for that. Prowess on the camp of Mars may simply lead to the conclusion ‘I am a good footballer/ ruggerbugger/ tiddlywinker’ but not necessarily to ‘I am a manly man’. That’s where we are called in – the ambiguous court of Mercury […] man enough to have an opinion that counts and guaranteed to fancy anything male and therefore affirm its shaky identity. And watch out if you don’t. The huff they go into!

Poor Bruno sublimates some of his frustration into massage – which Justin willingly accepts, and even asks for – but, despite his protestations of being undesirable, men do react to Bruno’s charms and, inevitably, they end up in bed.

Here I had a choice. The bookends of erotic writing are Victorian lovers sinking fully-clothed (with perhaps his necktie and her hair undone) into the long grass at the close of a chapter and blow-by-blow graphic descriptions of flushed erogenous zones and stimulated genitalia.

The first instance, in Tricks, is closer to the former:

I’d hardly slept for two days and the reason lay inches from my face. He had the perfection of an ice-cream sundae and I was the cat who’d got the cream. [He] stirred in his sleep, stretching a smooth arm over his head to rest it on the pillow, making his chest even bigger. […] I laid my head on his blond biceps, slipped an arm over the perfect plain of his waist, my nose lying next to his ear. As I drifted off I wondered if he could feel me purring.

By the time we get to Tìr nam Bàn, the fifth book, it’s definitely nearer the latter, especially in the passage immediately preceding this:

…the scene that [they] saw was no more scandalous than one of three fairly-clothed men lounging on cushions and having coffee out of earthenware demitasses. One man, admittedly, with his head on his lover’s chest having his hair tousled while the third massaged his feet (and occasionally sucked his toes). Had they entered just fifteen minutes before, the scene would have been one of three naked men covered in sweat, lube and semen lying in each others’ arms, panting and occasionally kissing.

The reason is not only that I was now less scrupulous (I’d banned my family from reading my novels and my brother, who did read this one, skipped some pages – and had the kindness to say he also did that with Ian Rankin). I also was more confident about my reasons for writing in a certain style.

The point of the passage in Tricks is (eventually) to establish Bruno as an unreliable narrator. He doesn’t know why people do things, but he thinks he does. In the later book, the details of this scene of joyful, safe and consensual adult gay sex are provided to problematise our assumptions of morality. One of the participants has just found out that unspeakable horrors are being carried out by supposedly respectable people. So the scene is meant to shock the reader into reflecting on the nature of innocence.

I don’t tend to write about heterosexual sex (with one exception and that, hopefully, written with respect). I find much of that kind of writing demeans women and, in any case, it’s hardly new. To read of gay sex, decades ago, was a part of my liberation. Some books at that time (and now) went over the score and were either just plain porn or gay sex manuals – but I believe that writing such scenes for a conscious purpose can contribute to the story in a way that writing about other biological functions does not. Sex is also social and at least has the possibility of romance.

Writing the seventh book, The Marrying Maiden, now, occasionally describing the sexual life of a couple gives me the opportunity to allude to their romantic history:

…he’d pounced on me. Taking full advantage of the thick walls of the cottage as he threw me around the bed with more than his usual display of strength. Since our painful separation last year, lasting from the previous year, he’d been markedly emotionally sensitive and physically possessive of me. His whole purpose seemed to be to avoid any possibility that I would ever feel unwanted again.

So what social effect do I want my writing on this earthy topic to have? I leave you with the prophetic and mysterious words of Imogen, in the fourth book, Qismet:

“No. You have to hear this. ‘Malkhut’ is the Creation. The world and all that’s in it. The universe. My father, G_d rest him, forgot that it’s good. The word in Hebrew is ‘tov’. It’s used seven times in the beginning of the Book of Genesis. […] The seventh use is ‘tov meod’. It describes all of Creation, including human beings, all of Creation. It’s the first description of the whole thing, in a book where words matter so much, and it’s not just a description, it’s a judgement. ‘Tov meod’. It’s such a simple phrase in Hebrew, we use it all the time. For a nice meal, for a good plan, ‘tov meod’, it just means ‘very good’.” There were tears in her eyes now. “My father forgot that Bruno. He died in Sfat, it Safed I mean, raving about the angels of the upper sefirot. He’d forgotten about the lowest one. The one where we live. The one that’s very good, in the eyes of G­_d. I know you think I’m a materialist bitch. No don’t deny it, I know. And yes we did nickname my mother ‘Imelda’ because she likes shoes. Why not Bruno? Shoes are pretty! They’re very good! You go about disdaining human handiwork and ultimately, in materials, in ingenuity, the work of G_d! But Bruno, men no longer regard the world as the worthy object of their admiration and reverence. This All, which is a good thing, the best that can be seen in the past, the present and the future, is in danger of perishing…”

A chord sounded from the guitar she was holding, and broke her trance. I sat rooted to the spot. I recognised those last words.

Tricks of the Mind is free, in various eBook formats, on Smashwords.