If we’re being honest: Sometimes sex is bad. It’s not always fireworks. It’s not always trumpeting and transcendent. Cosmic couplings, two-bodies-as-one, those sorts of rolls in the hay don’t happen every time you hit it. Thundering mind-annihilating orgasms are elusive.
And sometimes sex is bad in books — but we’re not talking the Bad Sex in Fiction of the infamous award. We’re not talking nipples like rodent noses or penises like pile-drivers (thanks, Rowan Somerville and Nick Cave). Nope, we’re talking about sex scenes in literature that explore the times when sex is sad, when it’s mournful, melancholy, desperate, violent, lonely, regrettable, necessary, inevitable. The times that leave you emptier than you’d started. These passages eschew the air-brushed fantasy for the messy truth (which is not to say these scenes aren’t erotic in their own ways). Below, the best of bad sex.
From The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender’s surrealist stories edge up against fairy-tale and fable, but her sex scenes are grounded in recognizable human moments. This comes from “Quiet Please,” about a librarian who goes on a sex spree.
“She has him in the back room; he makes one tentative step forward then he’s on her like Wall Street rain, his suit in a pile on the floor in a full bucket, her dress unbuttoned down, down, one by one until she’s naked and the sweat is pooling in her back again. She obliterates herself and then buttons up. This man too wants to see her again, he might want to marry her, he’s thinking, but she smiles without teeth and says, man, this is a one-shot deal. Thanks.”
From The Collected Stories by Leonard Michaels
Leonard Michaels writes dark and sexy and violent and all sorts of depraved. There’s a distance and indifference that render all the sex scenes empty. In “The Captain,” a man has sex with the wife of his could-be boss.
“She lugged; steady, patient strength; the motion of serious, honest work. In different conditions, I’d have considered it beautiful; her naked, multidimpled back, rippling, heaving spine against iron . . . She rolled onto me, tried to soothe me with mothery tongue, breasts, and holes, but something had happened to make me unreceptive, inconsolable, as if my body, in trauma, had shaken free of my mind.”
From Things You Should Know by A.M. Homes
Pedophilia, suburban orgies, sex both provocative and perverse, often extremely ill advised: such is the domain of A.M. Homes. The story “Georgia” follows a woman who collects the used condoms of teenagers to inseminate herself in the front seat of her car.
“As soon as the condom is on, she feels her body opening. As soon as the girl is upon him, she is upon herself, warming to the touch. She wants to be ready. She is watching them and working herself. This is better than anything, more romantic, more relaxing than actually doing it with someone.”
From The Short Fiction of Norman Mailer by Norman Mailer
Mailer’s been called out for his sex time and again. “The Man Who Studied Yoga,” published in 1952, a year before the first issue of Playboy, is a bleak take on four people who get together to watch porn. It starts with so much potential, and ends with cold cuts.
“One does not study pornography in a living room with a beer glass in one’s hand, and friends at the elbow. It is the most unsatisfactory of compromises; one can draw neither the benefits of solitary contemplation nor of social exchange.”
From The! Greatest! Of! Marlys! by Lynda Barry
Cartoonist Lynda Barry captures exactly the funny-odd and sometimes sad and often beautiful moments in the awkward adolescent lives of her characters.
“Marlys saw it. She saw those guys and Cindy Ludermyer. She hid in the bushes and watched Cindy pushing on the guy and the guy pushing on Cindy. And it was Marlys that threw the rock.”
From In the Devil’s Territory by Kyle Minor
In Kyle Minor’s outstanding debut collection of stories, he digs into the dark places. In the knock-out novella “A Day Meant To Do Less,” a man has to bathe his bed-ridden mother. He starts to hum “Sexual Healing.” The cringes continue when the only thing he can compare it to:
“…was a certain kind of lovemaking… a lovemaking of the most intimate kind, a lovemaking that all but precludes knowledge of the body in favor of a different kind of lostness. A lovemaking punctuated only by the involuntary blinking that for brief but too-long moments breaks the illusion, the spell, of complete connection, two sets of eyes locking upon one another in near-inviolate attention while bodies perform their lesser task. The pleasure of that deepest kind of intimacy, sure, but the terror, too. The complete giving and undoing of self.”
From The Aeneid by Virgil
Sex is always sad when one lover has to leave to found a city. Dido and Aeneas had it tough.
“Meanwhile confusion takes the sky, tremendous
turmoil, and in its heels, rain mixed with hail . . .
…Dido and the Trojan
Chieftain have reached the same cave. Primal Earth
and Juno, Queen of marriages, together
now give the signal: lightning fires flash,
the upper air is witness to their mating,
and from the highest hilltops shout the nymphs.
That day was her first day of death and ruin.”
From Endless Love by Scott Spencer
The 45-page sex scene — marathon, graphic, sweet, obscene — is perhaps the most memorable we’ve encountered in our reading lives. Hot, but devastating, because it’s not love Scott Spencer writes about, it’s obsession.
“There was blood on our thighs, our arms and fingers. There was blood in our hair and in the corner of our lips. Our lips themselves were caked with it.”
From Meadowlands by Louise Glück
This poetry collection by Pulitzer Prize winner Louise Glück tracks the unraveling of a marriage (Homer’s Odyssey weaves in and out of it). From a poem called “Anniversary”:
“I said you could snuggle. That doesn’t mean
your cold feet all over my dick.
Someone should teach you how to act in bed.”
From No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July
A special needs teacher has an affair with a teenage student. Two sisters maintain a phone-sex habit with each other. Miranda July’s sexual stunts make us shudder, but it’s difficult to look away. From “The Moves,” in which a father teaches his daughter how to get a woman off:
“There were twelve moves in all. He did them on my hand like sign language . . . Still fingers held like silence for a beat, and the long quick strokes that he called ‘skinning.'”
From A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter
James Salter’s sexual realism in this explosive novel is elegant, direct, unusual.
“Then hurriedly, as an afterthought, he takes off his clothes and slips in beside her. An act which threatens us all. The town is silent around them. On the milk-white faces of the clock the hands, in unison, jerk to new positions. The trains are running on time . . . With a touch like flowers, she is gently tracing the base of his cock, driven by now all the way into her . . . These atrocities induce them towards love.”
From How To Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall
Long-listed for the Booker Prize, Sarah Hall’s fourth novel is a rich and sensual look, in part, at the madness of grief, manifested in reckless sex.
[She throws herself into] “illicit, dangerous sex. Sex that is novel and leaves you sore; that is experienced in the gaps between your mundane, moral life; that is strange and breathless and addictive . . . These exchanges are simply a confirmation of life to your entropic atoms, an attempt to reverse the exodus of your psyche. You are simply grief fucking.”
From A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe
In Oe’s autobiographical novel, the main character seeks refuge in an old girlfriend after his wife gives birth to a son with a brain hernia. Not sure it gets much bleaker than this.
“Their intercourse would evoke the ravaged sparrow of a penis Bird had glimpsed this morning when he dressed and would evoke his wife’s distended genitals sluggishly contracting after the agony of childbirth. Sex for Bird and Himiko would be linked to the dying baby, linked to all of mankind’s miseries, to the wretchedness so loathsome that people unafflicted pretended not to see it.”
From The Beauty of the Husband by Anne Carson
Anne Carson’s work, ferocious and lush, concerns itself with desire and loss.
“That night we made love ‘the real way’ which we had not yet attempted
although married six months.
Big mystery. No one knew where to put their leg and to this day I’m not sure
we got it right.
He seemed happy. You’re like Venice he said beautifully.
Early next day
I wrote a short talk (‘On Defloration’) which he stole and had published
in a small quarterly magazine.
Overall this was a characteristic interaction between us.
Or should I say idea.
Neither of us had ever seen Venice.”