Why Are Men So Much Worse At Writing Sex Than Women?
Male authors dominate the Bad Sex in Fiction awards, and it’s no coincidence
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Every year, I look forward to the moment when the self-regard and PR hustle of the year-end best-of list season is punctured by the announcement of literature’s most nose-thumbing honor, a true leveler that can pit a star like Haruki Murakami against the authors of Scoundrels: The Hunt For Hansclapp: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Awards. Mighty and unknown alike are mocked for their cudgeled phalluses, supernaturally objectified vaginas (this year’s “enameled pepper mill” from Scoundrels haunts my dreams), and surging ejaculatory tsunamis.
Almost any writer, no matter how otherwise accomplished, could wind up in the running: nominees have included David Mitchell, Thomas Pynchon, Tom Wolfe, and Norman Mailer. Sexual intimacy is a realm into which humans travel together and alone, a fraught environment that conceals as much as it reveals, a forbidden, universal place both theater and sincere. Of course it’s hard to write; what could be harder for mere mortals than explaining the divine?
It seems, however, that sex is much harder to write for some of us. Since 2002, nearly 80 percent of nominees for the Bad Sex Awards have been male — 114 men to 31 women. (It’s hard to find the full shortlist before 2002, but before that, all the winners back to the prize’s inception in 1993 were male.) Among the relatively few female writers who have been up for the honor, authors Erica Jong and Eimear McBride stand out, but famous women writers are rarely nominated, while male critical darlings such as Jonathan Franzen and the prize’s laureate John Updike have made multiple appearances on the finalist list. While the gender bias in literature might explain away some of this trend, the male dominance of the honor is not a mere reflection of the fact that men are more published than women. The Bad Sex Awards favor men even more heavily than perpetual VIDA Count worst offender The New York Review of Books; like that storied journal, the Awards, too, could be said to evidence a “continued […] pattern of apathy toward gender parity.”
What, exactly, is being (dis)honored with a Bad Sex Award nomination? Some of the writing is inarguably poor in quality, but the award could hardly be said to be singling out the very worst prose of the year. The quality they recognize is far subtler: what unites the works nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, year after year, is failure of the imagination. The majority of nominees are not just men but cishet white men, and their work often manifests a classic sexist inability to realize female characters. In Grace’s Day, William Wall characterizes his adolescent girl protagonist’s reaction to her unpleasant first sexual experience as a “pain […] primitive as the clay.” Luke Tredget’s Kismet features a woman rendered “an empty vessel for what feels like disembodied consciousness” by lazy afternoon sixty-nining. The tortured metaphors in Gerard Woodward’s The Paper Lovers intertwine with centuries of misogynist imagery (paging Flaubert and Emma Bovary’s hissing snake corset) to become their own chimeric yet dimensionless female body with “her long neck, her swan’s neck, her Alice in Wonderland neck coiling like a serpent.” And not one but two finalists seem caught in a diminishing feedback loop that lamely links their male characters’ fantasized breastfeeding memories with adult sexual tit play.
What makes this sex writing bad is not the writing itself but the revelation of each author’s poorly drawn erotic landscape, in which an overabundance of insisted-upon excitement corrodes and obscures the possibility of intimacy. In this realm of unrivaled joining, they conceptualize the other, the desired one, the obscure object, the lover as flat and dim, a mere surface upon which the protagonist’s fantasies and self-absorbed interiority are projected. A refusal to examine the experience of the other is not only an artistic failing, but a moral one, that perpetuates the restrictive sexual mores that punish everyone, artist or not.
The world of the body is discreet, and tracking and describing its ecstatic experiences is a hazardous endeavor, full of potential misunderstandings, egotistical presumptions, and false starts. “Eating something you’ve never had before is exhilarating,” says the late great food critic Jonathan Gold in City of Gold, the stellar film about his love affair with Los Angeles. “But then what’s even better, I think, is you get through the exhilaration. You go through the infatuation phase over the next couple of meals. And then maybe if you’re really lucky you get to the place of understanding.” Sex is as amorphous and foreign as any unknown realm — we can only visit, taste, and wonder, and try our hand at describing the experience. Bad Sex nominees are too sure of the territory, not reverent enough towards its mysteries, not self-conscious of their limitations.
Nowhere is this more true than in this year’s winning text, James Frey’s Katerina. Given Frey’s rapacious appetite for soul-grinding repetition, quoting Katerina here seems besides the point; if you want to know what the book is like, just interpolate the words “fuck” and “cum” with random nouns. In what I believe is a very genuine attempt to express deep truths about a young person’s heady experience of powerful sexual connection while traveling abroad, Frey is not only cloddishly puerile but even worse, boring. The harder he tries to strike at the secret heart of enigmatic power — its G-spot, if you will — the limper and less sexy he becomes. Like a tech CEO offering a tour-in-pictures of the genocide-torn country where he took a nice meditation vacation, Katerina is all about the solipsistic and juvenile preoccupations of the man at its center and not at all about the world he passes through. He can’t see outside of himself, because he has never departed his perspective. Katerina herself might as well be a Beauty and the Beast-style anthropomorphized Fleshlight.
In The Guardian, Sian Cain argued that Frey’s book could only have been published by a privileged white man: “The day someone young, black or unknown publishes something as bad as Katerina, I’ll sing L’Internationale.” Privilege’s impoverishment of the empathetic creativity necessary to meaningfully portray sex has rarely been more exactly portrayed than in the Bad Sex Award nominees. Women’s imaginations can be and often are impoverished by privilege. But women have more experience at countering the limitations of a single story, and they have always had to work harder to prove themselves — as, indeed, have queer and gender-nonconforming writers, disabled writers, non-neurotypical writers, and writers of color. Occupying a subject position outside the presumed norm — able-bodied, white, male — forces upon the human mind intrinsic lessons about how to call others into their world. This type of storytelling is a survival skill, one that demonstrates, over and over again, the outsider’s humanity to those for whom it is optional to recognize it.
“A sex fiend is someone who actually likes sex, not just the getting-off part but the dirty parts, the salty mess of it,” Maggie Nelson wrote in The New Yorker in memoriam of Prince, celebrating “the real divine electric dirtiness that is possible between excited young bodies who have accepted that they have desire and somehow manage to find each other.” The Bad Sex Awards honor poorly imagined sex, sex drenched in Frey’s favorite “cum” and “residue” (thanks, Tredget) but utterly bereft of texture and color and taste. That men have received many more Bad Sex Awards than women suggests not that they are worse than women at writing sex, but rather that they are more likely than women to approach the erotic interior as an already conquered known world rather than respecting it as terra incognita.