Writing about sex in literature is a difficult task; there are so many ways authors can go wrong. Nowadays, most writers spend too much time on the build up and then release the curtain during the show, choosing instead to segue to a point immediately after the act. Others spend an inordinate amount of energy coming up with penis euphemisms, and end up ruining a scene (think: late John Updike), or even a whole novel. Evelyn Waugh’s son, Auberon, established the Bad Sex in Fiction Award 17 years ago for this very reason. He wanted to “gently dissuad[e] authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing, or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels.” Rowan Somerville was the 2010 winner for some godawful passages in his second novel, The Shape of Her. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen, was also nominated, as was Mr. Peanut by Adam Ross.
To counter this terrible scourge on contemporary readers, here is a list of noteworthy sex scenes in modern literature not by a Great Male Novelist (e.g., Mailer, Roth, or Updike) — those supposed masters of the form.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Brokenhearted, Janie Crawford revisits her home in Eatonville, Florida and begins to recount the key moments in her life to her friend Pheoby. As a girl, she spent her free time lying in the grass, watching nature reveal itself to her:
“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.”
Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates
Anyone who grew up with this book knows the hidden pleasures in imagining yourself a part of a ragtag ’50s girl gang. Legs Sadovsky was the leader, but Maddy was her heart:
“This wild wild scene in the candlelit FOXFIRE chamber hidden from Others’ eyes in a third-floor room in a boarded-up warehouse out beyond Fairfax near the railroad yard, the FOXFIRE sisters were in a delirium of ecstasy worked up to a higher and higher and higher pitch on whiskey and those skinny parchment cigarettes that black guys called reefer and sold, anywhere you could find them, for a quarter apiece, the sight of blood made them more feverish so Maddy had the terrible thought, What if we lick blood? — what will stop us, then?”
“The Hitchhiking Game” by Milan Kundera
A young couple go on a road trip and then decide try out new roles; the woman becomes a hitchhiker and the man pretends to pick her up. This passage is a fantastic example of confidence before the fall — she’s rejected in the next paragraph, but really, does it matter?
“She had never undressed like this before. The shyness, the feeling of inner panic, the dizziness, all that she had always felt when undressing in front of the young man (and she couldn’t hide in the darkness), all this was gone. She was standing in front of him self-confident, insolent, bathed in light, and astonished at her sudden discovery of the gestures, heretofore unknown to her, of a slow provocative striptease. She took in his glances, slipping off each piece of clothing with a caressing movement and enjoying each individual stage of this exposure.”
“Jon” by George Saunders
In this short story, children are adopted by a market research firm in order to predict future trends. The following is a third party description of, as Maude Lebowski would dryly say, “coitus,” by one of the best satirists out there. You can also find this in the January 27, 2003 issue of The New Yorker (which includes a later scene involving Honey Grahams that is definitely worth checking out):
“Also all what I am saying is, who could blame Josh for nothing that little gap and squeezing through it snakelike in just his Old Navy boxes that Old Navy gave us to wear for gratis, plus who could blame Ruthie for leaving her Velcro knowingly un-Velcroed? Which soon all the rest of us heard them doing what the rest of us so badly wanted to be doing, only we being more mindful of the rules than them, just laid there doing the self-same stuff from the video, listening to Ruth and Josh really doing it for real, which believe me, even that was pretty fun.”
Histoire d’O by Pauline Réage, AKA Dominique Aury, AKA Anne Desclos
In this story of love and lust, the protaganist is a sex-slave in a French mansion teeming with whips and chains. Réage created the first “O,” though many (including Kathy Acker) would refer to her in later works. Even though this won the prestigious Prix des Deux Magots, a publicity ban waylaid the production of this paean to S+M for years:
“She heard the remarks being made by the people present, but listened through them for her lover’s moans, caressing him carefully, with infinite respect, slowly, the way she knew he liked it. O was aware of the splendor of her mouth, of its beauty, since her love deigned to enter it, since he deigned to make a spectacle of its caresses, since he deigned to discharge into it.”
6. Beloved by Toni Morrison
This seductive ghost uses her sexuality to control her lover, Paul D. At one point in the novel, Beloved finds him hiding in the storeroom. He says, “What you want in here?” She answers, “I want you to touch me on the inside part and call me my name.” Destiny’s Child followed up on Beloved’s command with 1999’s “Say My Name.” Who doesn’t enjoy a roll in the …corn?
“As soon as one strip of husk was down, the rest obeyed and the ear yielded up to him its shy rows, exposed at last. How loose the silk. How quick the jailed-up flavor ran free. No matter what all your teeth and wet fingers anticipated, there was no accounting for the way that simple joy could shake you. How loose the silk. How fine and loose and free.”
The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet
Prostitution. Thievery. Deception. Phantom Limbs. This semi-autobiographical novel about hooking and survival has it all:
“This innocent complicity at once set up a relationship between us. All his former charms bore down on me: the power of his shoulders, the mobility of his buttocks, the hand that had been torn off in the jungle by another savage beast, and finally his sex, so long denied, buried in a dangerous night which was shielded from mortal odors. I was at his mercy.”
Pussy, King of the Pirates by Kathy Acker
By recounting the sexual abyss as a slut/goddess/whore, and borrowing heavily from Histoire d’O as well as Treasure Island, Acker creates a story of a girl pirate quest that spans centuries and continents:
“The sex during the sex show had sent her over the edge, over every edge, over herself, flying, until all that was left was sky and endless blackness. During the loss of herself, ‘she’ became scared. O realized that she wanted this sex, that she needed it, this sexuality that she had known when she was a whore.”
Sexing the Cherry by Jeanette Winterson
A hilarious passage on size queens, set in 17th century London. There is some time-traveling involved, however, so don’t say we didn’t warn you. It all begins with a gentleman’s protestations, and ends with a sigh:
“I beg your pardon, but I cannot.”
“Cannot. I cannot take that orange in my mouth. It will not fit. Neither can I run my tongue over it. You are too big, Madam.”
I did not know what part of me he was describing, but I felt pity for him and offered him more wine and some pleasant chat.
When he had gone I squatted backwards on a pillow and parted my bush hair to see what it was that had confounded him so. It seemed all in proportion now. These gentlemen are very timid.”
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale
In this new book, Bruno, a precocious chimpanzee, is desperately in love with his lab attendant:
“This time it was Lydia — gorgeous-smelling Lydia, my human peach — who attended me into the little room with the box. Just being alone in a room with that woman was enough. And now she removed a peach from the pocket of her white coat, she took a sopping wet bite out of it and took her sweet time chewing. Then she placed the peach inside the box…. Alone, I again in turn pressed the button…and proceeded to feast: but this peach tasted so much richer than the first, as it was imbued with the magic of her touch — with her lips, no less — her tongue! — I had seen that woman put her mouth on this object! This vicarious contact made me insane with desire.”