Twenty years ago I published my first book with a small press, and it won an award my hometown newspaper described as “the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award.” My father still thinks that’s the award name, though he says The Prestigious Flannery O’Connell Award. All writers hope that getting their first book published will change their lives. It does, variably. I got a teaching job, also firsthand insight that hardly anyone reads a small press book with a good award except writers and aspiring writers—especially an aspiring writer enrolled in your class and perhaps his mother. One day a student a few years younger than me told me his mother had read my book. I braced myself. I was in one of my grim starter marriages, and my grim father-in-law had weighed in. He’d skimmed my book and grimaced. “Trying too hard to be naughty.” He compared me unfavorably to Shakespeare, whom he couldn’t have read closely. “Why sex?”
I’d also written about eating, sleeping, driving, dreaming, dying. I’d described hunting season, wheat harvest, the internal combustion engine. “Sex is part of life,” I said, flustered. My father-in-law said that using the bathroom was also part of life, but it wasn’t art. He was king of his castle, so I didn’t argue. But what could I have said? That sex is more interesting than excrement, of course. Or that I hadn’t written about sex disproportionately. My only jobs before teaching had been waitressing, at truck stops, honky-tonks. I’d written what I knew: blue-collar coming-of-age stories from a female perspective.
This was the era of third-wave feminism, so to speak. Two decades younger than Gloria Steinem, raised rural, a first-generation college student, I’d had female classmates but just one female professor. In graduate school, female professors were still rare. Today, I have several female colleagues and yet, after twenty-odd years of teaching fiction workshops, I notice that the depiction of women’s sexuality is still reacted to—by male and female readers alike—with more scandalized titillation or scandalized disapproval than depictions of male sexuality. The reasons why are so ancient they’re etymological.
The student whose mother had read my first book said, “It wasn’t her cup of tea.”
I nodded. “Probably not.”
He said, “She told me she’d never seen so many synonyms for penis.”
My student’s mother and my ex-father-in-law—not the avant garde, not by a long shot—came from a generation that acknowledged the carnal side of life tacitly, understanding Rhett Butler ascending a staircase as cinematic code for “then torrid sex ensued.” I’ll clarify, though, that I didn’t use a penis thesaurus. I didn’t describe anatomy if I could help it. As I tell students, word choice is uniquely tricky while writing about sex. Familiar words trail the smoke of previous contexts. Familiar words include slang, indelibly linked to not just sex but insults and degradation. He’s such a dick. Fuck you. Clinical terms conjure health class lectures. Yet avoiding familiar words leads to euphemistic quasi-poetry as inadvertently comic as “Dear Penthouse Forum.” Concrete words for sex and sex organs aren’t just concrete words. They invoke moods, standards, beliefs.
If penis or intercourse are hard to depict, female genitalia are harder. Clinical words for female genitalia sound as detached but more indiscreet than clinical words for penis or intercourse. Trying-to-be-lyrical words sound inane. If you use slang, you’ll sound more ugly and violent than you do using slang for penis or intercourse, because slang for female genitalia includes the last words in the language with the capacity to shock. Assumptions revealed by these subtexts of slang—that words for penis and intercourse mean penis and intercourse unless they mean humiliation and abuse; that words for female genitalia not locked away or bestowed with ceremony mean pariah—only begin to answer my ex-father-in-law’s question about why I, trying to write candidly but not grotesquely about women’s lives led outside the shelter or sanction of marriage, couldn’t help but write about sex. These subtexts of slang imply that to have a penis is to have power, including power to humiliate, and that to have a vagina is to have around-the-clock responsibility to safeguard it until you hand it over to the optimal power-wielder.
Some sex scenes should shock the reader, true. Some sex scenes should sound detached or satirically soft-core. To write these, we use familiar words, each preexisting in its own sex-dialect and thus arriving in a new scene attached to old values. Familiar words allow us to write about violent, clinical or hackneyed sex, but they won’t help us write a scene in which two characters tumble toward an awkward surprise, a moment in which brute needs get clumsily met and turn the protagonist into a host of contradictory emotion.
Since our word choices are limited, writing about sex is a little like using Old English. Old English—a dead language with a small vocabulary—employed a limited set of cognates in compound form (kennings), to describe a wide range of experience. Coast is literally særima, “sea-rim;” body is literally bancofa, “bone-closet;” dusk is foranniht, “fore-night,” but also nihthelm, “night-helmet.” Ezra Pound loved Old English because its kennings prove that new perceptions can be described only by using old words in new adjacencies that—in Pound’s era, if not Beowulf’s—radically violate each other’s previous connotations. Example: “April is the cruelest month,” a line Pound approved and perhaps edited, dismantled the overfamiliar association of spring with hope. To write well is to avoid putting words in combinations that have occurred so often they’re clichés. Old English used existing words in new combinations because its vocabulary was small and the world is vast. When we write about sex, we use existing words in new combinations because the vocabulary for sex is small and sex is varied, unpredictable, vast.
Because I’m a product of a culture that finds it difficult to describe penises and intercourse without sounding clinical or violent, I mostly didn’t. Because I’m a product of a culture that finds it nearly impossible to describe female genitalia, I never did. Besides, I was writing from the point of view of young women encountering the unknown. For young women, female genitalia are known, therefore unremarkable; male genitalia are unknown, worthy of remarks. So I sometimes used anatomical or colloquial words for the unknown, the penis, but I tried to disturb old connotations by surrounding these familiar words with contextually incongruous words that load old words with new significance. Contextual details in a paragraph depicting a first glimpse of a penis—late-spring snowbanks, granular and sooty; a broken earring made of beads, wire, and chips of deer antler; the domesticated squares of yellow light from windows in nearby houses where small-town authority figures sleep in lockdown for the night—increase or alter meaning.
As for oddball synonyms, in one story about a naïve woman and an impotent country and western singer, I used a word I found in a book of Appalachian folklore: jemson. It’s likely the Scots-Irish version of the more familiar johnson, but I knew for most contemporary readers jemson would be unfamiliar, phonetically suggestive too, sounding mystical like gem or prism. If you’re a young woman, a penis is mysterious if not mystical. It seems full of occult power in that young women hear in advance it inflicts great pleasure or pain. A semester in college will draw even a virgin’s attention to the transcultural phallic symbol. Long before college, adolescent girls learn from gossip, from their mothers’ warnings, that a penis causes not just rebirth and fertility but ruin.
In short, sex is commonplace, yet it has the potential to be a tableau vivant in which latent attitudes about power or its lack, about autonomy or surrender, about autonomy and volition, turn explicit. So I found it necessary to write about the removal of clothing, the search for a private place, the startled first moment of contact and collaboration, but also about idiosyncratic details and dialogue that make these age-old reenactments unique. What matters is not sex but surrounding sights, sounds, and textures, not the sights, sounds, and textures that get depicted in erotica, but the sights, sounds and textures that imply social circumstance, which is to say limitations and freedom.
By the time I wrote my second book, my characters were middle-class strivers. Accordingly, my sex scenes avoided slangy penis synonyms. Yet, one day I realized that, over and over, I’d written about purses. My characters worried about the most decorous purse, the lost purse (lost with it one’s ID!), the purse with the broken clasp, the purse kept nearby because strangers will filch valuables inside, the purse someone went into without the lady’s consent. Freud was wrong. A cigar is never just a cigar. My purse motif was an unconscious metaphor, not that I was the first to stumble across it. In Lolita, Humbert Humbert masturbates into Lolita’s white purse, which makes the blatant point that Lolita was an unguarded receptacle about to be sullied. Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence made use of oval flower beds and deep lakes. But I don’t want to go too far with this allegorical notion that all vases, bowls, boxes, pools, swamps are anti-phallic archetypes I once heard a professor describe as “vatic symbols,” oddly so, since “vatic” derives from the Latin vates, or “seer into deep mysteries,” which conjures the image of someone (a man, of course) staring into sublime vaginas, and, besides, the term is especially jarring in our era when “vatic” is mostly associated with the Papacy, not women.
Because Old English literature—a heroic body of work my ex-father-in-law would have endorsed—focuses on combat and valor, records of Old English words for sex and sexual anatomy don’t exist. But we have recorded instances of Middle English words, which obviously had a longer oral history. The Middle English word for penis is wæpen. Yes, weapon. There’s teors: rends. A word for female anatomy is conte, from the Latin cuneus, “wedge,” or possibly from congnitus, “get to know well.” Vagina is the word also used for sheath, weapon-cover. Its proto-Indo-European root is wag, or split thing.
So, etymologically, a woman’s split weapon-cover receives a man’s weapon. These meanings are ancient but familiar too. The first dirty jokes I heard—in retrospect, intended less to amuse than to circulate the facts of life to other middle-schoolers—featured Tarzan and Jane enacting a slapstick version of the fall from grace. The G-rated words used by Tarzan and Jane correlate pretty systematically to invasions, receptacles, weapons. Tarzan always initiated sex, and yet Jane, like Eve in Paradise Lost, was too-curious.
In literature, female characters have often paid a steep price for sexual freedom. As a young woman, I knew this because I read. I’d also come of age after the so-called sexual revolution, which had the odd side-effect of making it harder for a woman to say no. As rationales go, preserving chastity used to be unassailable. Yet, after casual sex was destigmatized (in theory if not in fact), women who said no could be accused of being unhip, no fun. Still, women who’d said yes faced pressure to keep experience a secret.
So the rules were in flux but not much flux. Today, in the era of fifth- or sixth-wave feminism, the fixation on virginity is gone but the fixation on inexperience isn’t. For example, the recurring advice-column question about one’s “number” and whether or not to disclose it to a prospective marriage-candidate is a mostly female question. Assumptions about women’s independence, or its nuanced lack, show up as ghost-rules from previous centuries. I tried to depict ghost-rules when I once wrote about a thrice-divorced, educated woman dating a man fifteen years older than she is, but younger than her father. She introduces them over cocktails served in the father’s RV, parked in her yard.
“Your daughter has a true friend, sir,” Rex said, drinking.
“Don’t call me sir.”
“You are a little older.”
“I look out for her,” Rex said, “and I will.”
Maidie said, “I look out for myself.”
Maidie’s dad frowned. “No reason to be rude.”
As Rex stands to leave, the father gestures toward Maidie’s house and says, “Don’t let me interfere with your routine,” giving Rex permission to spend the night. When I depicted sex in that book—though not at that squeamish juncture, after Maidie’s father has given her hand in sex—the details and dialogue emphasized the entire book’s conflict: between Maidie’s belief that love is subject to renegotiation or cancellation and the world’s insistence that, no, it leads to weddings.
For centuries, women left fathers’ houses for husbands’ houses, or they never left home at all. Sex was traded for food, shelter, social standing: marriage. To write about sex this way is old-fashioned. But to fail to acknowledge the aftermath of the old barter is dishonest. And female sexuality depicted with a Philip Roth-style insouciance always leads to belated regret. If the narrator in Susan Minot’s “Lust” is at first too gleeful to be mistaken for a nineteenth-century heroine who must eventually wear a scarlet letter or a least throw herself under a train, she admits that having had sex with a conventionally male sense of bravura has, bit by bit, experience by experience, made her feel as if some essential, prized, necessary commodity—her selfhood? her dignity?—has been forever eroded.
Today the so-called sexual revolution seems to have been only provisionally extended. Rape remains a crime for which we try not just the accused but the victim. Because of the internet and phone cameras, public shaming of women who’ve had sex—whether or not they’ve consented—has a terrifying ability to proliferate faster than a communicable disease. And we’re still arguing about what “consent” means. It means to feel with. Yet it’s familiarly construed to mean a half-hearted “Yes, because objecting doesn’t seem worth the effort.” I wrote about sex because I hoped to depict more than measly consent, more than promiscuity and its repellent alter-ego, respectability. I wrote about sex because it’s a small moment that reflects big quandaries: the myriad ways young women will be allowed or persuaded to clasp or unclasp; the rituals that preserve at least a façade of inexperience; also that big taboo, single mothers with inconvenient longings.
Women once faced daunting biological consequences for sex, but even post-condom, post-diaphragm, post-pill, we haven’t escaped social consequences, the atavistic disrespect our vocabulary recalls. Sex—how and when women are permitted to have it—is a subject through which women interpret our place in the world, our progress and regress, the hopeful directives that led us forward and the pseudo-liberated primrose paths too. Writing about the protected, the saved, the known, and our willingness to face not just the anatomical unknown but the changed future if we break old rules is writing about initiative and maybe even courage. When two people in a story have sex the subject isn’t sex but civilization itself, how its rules are tested, stepped beyond, or once in awhile bumped up against as a one-size-fits-all container in which individual desire is contained.
Art credit: “Bellocq’s Adele,” by Carri Skoczek