I have encountered a few blogs/comment threads/posts lately dealing with the issue of realistic sex. In one, the conversation revolved around using condoms in a realistic (read: responsible) way. In another, it was about lube and positions. Then of course, there is the ever present argument against women writing m/m sex scenes at all.
The tipping point came for me when I read a review for a book I was considering buying that slammed the author for writing sex that was “not biologically correct”. I don’t know what the legal rules are for quoting reviews, but I’m going to risk it and take a sentence from this person’s critique: “I understand why women who write do not understand the physical composition of a man’s body, but it seems odd that a man would write some of the same false statements.”
When I read this, I paused for a minute (really? women don’t understand a man’s body? Fuck you!), then I moved on. But I found myself thinking about it later, all night actually, and this morning I went back to read it again. Now, I didn’t read the book in question (yet), so I can’t comment on whether or not the sex scenes were “biologically correct”, but I think that doesn’t really matter, and here’s why: Sex in fiction is part of the fiction.
Why do we expect, of a book that is fiction, that is a fantasy (even if it is based in reality) to somehow have realistic, perfectly accurate sex scenes? You’re reading a book about vampires, and you’re concerned that there wasn’t enough pre-sex ass stretching? You’re halfway through a novel about a millionaire and his boy-toy, and the biggest problem you have is the fact they didn’t use lube? It’s fiction. None of it is real!
I know, I know. When you read something that doesn’t make sense, it takes you out of the story and makes you remember you’re reading fiction, which you don’t want to remember while you’re reading. But I wonder, why is sex the one area where this is a problem? If you bought the vampire premise, or the cop-turned-stripper, or the drag performer supporting five foster kids, why can’t you believe that someone might have sex without using lube? If you can suspend your disbelief despite so many other obvious falsehoods, why is a tiny detail in a sex scene such a deal-breaker?
Coming from a background of reading (and writing) male/female erotica, I find this whole thing laughable. No where is written sex less confined by reality than in m/f erotic romance, and nowhere do people care less about that. Sure, it has to be physically possible, but beyond that, m/f readers generally want a fantasy. Rarely is lube mentioned, or condoms, or is much thought given to physical limitations. Women are always gushing vaginal fluid, never menstruating, and usually able to reach orgasm through intercourse alone. And if any reviewers do complain, they never accuse the author of not knowing how to have sex. Would they, though, if it was a male author? I don’t know. Maybe.
I suspect many men who say women “don’t understand the physical” aspects of m/m sex are actually upset about something else. I don’t know exactly what bothers them, but I don’t think it’s really the on-page sex they have a problem with, because they rarely give specific examples of how, or in which ways, female authors “got it wrong”.
In researching this blog post, I searched for specific examples. It took a while. Finally, after reading dozens of reviews and forum threads, I found a few men who clarified their complaints. So here is my short list of bullshit “m/m sex scenes written by women” criticisms, and why they each are really non-issues (or, at least, why they should not be blamed on the author’s gender):
Lube. Okay, here’s the thing: everyone uses lube when they have sex. Even women. Yes, lubrication is more necessary during anal intercourse, but there are people who use spit, and they seem to do just fine. I don’t understand the lube obsession so many readers seem to have. (Does astroglide have trollers out there writing reviews for them?) I use lube, you use lube, can we just assume everyone knows about lube and move on? Or do we really need to spell it out every time?
Anal stretching. Here’s another dirty little secret: women have assholes! We can have anal sex. Some of us even like it (shocking!). Don’t assume I don’t know how to do it. And although I do want realism, I think the stretching (unless you’re talking about a character who hasn’t “done it” in a while) is overdone. If your character is having sex frequently, the “one finger, two finger” stretching scene is not such a big deal.
Positions. There are a lot of sexual positions, and I’m sure you can make up a few if you’re clever. Everyone knows people use more than just “missionary” and “doggy”, but they can get tricky to describe. Just because characters aren’t acting out the gay kama-sutra, don’t assume that means it’s because a woman doesn’t understand how men have sex. We use many positions, also. We don’t need to illustrate them all.
Anatomy. Please don’t ever think that a woman doesn’t know how a man’s body works simply because she is a woman. I am not a gay man. I do not have a penis. But I have had many lovers, I am married, and I have a son. I know more than I ever wanted to know about male genitals. You’re not that difficult to figure out, guys. Consider this: almost every time I’ve had sex, a penis was involved.
Condoms. Yes, it is responsible to use condoms, and to show characters using condoms. Yes, disease is an issue that is real and should be considered. But sometimes, humans make bad decisions, or act without thinking. I think it’s okay to write about that, occasionally.
Cleanup. Do we really need to talk about this? Why? I know what semen is, I know what it looks like, feels like, and tastes like. Everyone does. Sex is messy, sometimes even more so for women. I have gone thorough pregnancy and childbirth, for fuck’s sake! I understand feces, blood, mucus, vaginal and seminal fluid. And I know how to launder them all out of the sheets. Let’s move on.
this next one isn’t really about sex, but it came up a lot: Characters that aren’t “real” men. I have known a lot of men. They all seemed pretty real to me. And you know what? They were all very different from each other. Do women sometimes write male characters who say or do things most “real” men might not say or do? Sure. And they also write female characters who say and do things not many “real” women would. That’s permissible in fiction, last time I checked. Can we just agree that humans are all wildly different? And let’s allow that just because a male character doesn’t act like you (or your friends), that doesn’t mean the author has never met a “real” man. I’m not saying you should give authors a pass on writing shitty characters, just don’t blame it on their gender.
Overall, I think my problem with this issue is that even with the years I spent living in wild promiscuity, a long and intimate marriage, and watching/reading plenty of porn and erotica, even with decades of sexual experiences and dozens of partners, I am certain there are many people who have sex in ways I can’t imagine. I would never tell someone they’re “doing it wrong”. But so many people seem to do just that to fictional characters.
I know I sound bitchy, and that might have to do with my having spent all night stewing about that review. Or maybe I am just a bitch? Possible. It’s also possible that I get more angry on the behalf of others than I do for myself. Maybe because, even while criticizing a male author, male reviewers can still find a way to insult female writers? Or maybe I’m just sick to death of men telling me what I can’t do?
Mostly, though, I don’t want to read (or write) sex scenes that are forced to fit into such a strictly unbending set of rules. I want a fantasy. That’s why I’m reading, and not having actual sex. How about you?