By throwing myself headlong into the awkward and frustrating experience of writing sex, I am ceding control of my narrative.
September 28, 2022
When I was younger, I was gripped by a novel’s sex scenes. The book’s spine would bend easily around those pages, crinkled and folded so many times that the book flipped open with a touch, as if waiting for me to pore over its most tantalizing parts. The scenes always felt pivotal, a culmination of pent-up tension and longing between characters. They appealed to my romantic sensibility as a child, an acceptance that even when the world fell apart, somehow the characters would have this untouched moment of complete connection, of true vulnerability.
One of my favorite sex scenes is in chapter twenty-one of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. In my family’s shared hardcover copy, I had opened up that chapter so many times that all its sharp edges had softened with use, its pages stained with oily fingerprints, hastily rubbed crumbs from the toast or chips I was eating.
In the novel’s pivotal sex scenes, the narrator recounts the intercaste, forbidden love affair between Ammu, mother of the twins at the heart of the story, and Velutha, a Paravan servant:
Clouded eyes held clouded eyes in a steady gaze and a luminous woman opened herself to a luminous man. She was as wide and deep as a river in spate. He sailed on her waters. She could feel him moving deeper and deeper into her. Frantic. Frenzied. Asking to be let in further. Further. Stopped only by the shape of her. The shape of him.
And when he was refused, when he had touched the deepest depths of her, with a sobbing, shuddering sigh, he drowned.
The moment is described in sentences that are long and short, languid and abrupt. The river, an ever-present force in the novel, becomes an image for the woman’s body but also the destructive background to their doomed love. Water is the site of both tragedy and fulfillment. The lovers’ attempts to possess each other in this moment are futile.
Wasn’t that what lovemaking, having sex, fucking, rutting—whatever way you might describe the action in the English language—was about? To imbue, dissolve so completely into the other that you forget yourself and your limitations? To realize that no matter how hard you try, you can never truly have them?
I devoured all kinds of sex scenes, not just ones with Roy’s evocative imagery. From the hypermasculinity in my grandfather’s collection of James Bond novels, to the bodice rippers in my aunt’s Mills & Boon romances, to the violence in Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. It never occurred to me to be critical of the troubling politics behind most of these works. All I cared for was the thrill of it: what I read seemed forbidden, different, exciting. These books were far removed from my reality, where sex was a nonentity, a constant question mark behind the charged emotions of my early teens.
Only when I got older did I realize that these scenes I loved were rife with clichés, especially when it came to the female-identified body. Women’s breasts were “puckered,” “blooming,” nipples were always “taut” or “erect,” described as if they were penises. Heterosexual intercourse almost always treated the woman’s genitalia like a door; the man must somehow end up “inside” her, after having opened her up and entered. Arundhati Roy did it too. There also could only be so many ways one could describe a penis. I read so much cringeworthy writing in which the penis is a sword being sheathed, or some form of weaponry attacking the “opening” of the woman’s body.
But it was only after encountering Roy’s writing that I realized the value of the sex scene as more than just a titillating moment. For the first time, I encountered a lovemaking scene that perfectly tied the forbidden romance through metaphor to the setting, uniting the novel’s themes in one clear moment. I grew to love the above passage as a reader and as a writer, because of how it expanded my understanding of Ammu and Velutha, their relationship with each other, and the world that would eventually destroy them both.
I had read so many sex scenes that the moment I would have to write some of my own crept up, and I found myself struggling. I revisited Roy’s scene over and over again to try to understand how to bring out vulnerability in my own characters, and by extension, myself.
In a piece for The Guardian, Garth Greenwell wrote about how sex encompasses so much of our humanness that the real question is “why one would write about anything else.” Indeed, why would I shy away from writing about an act that has occupied so much of my reading life?
Actually writing a sex scene forced me to confront my own insecurities and the limitations of my gaze. I could appreciate other writing about sex, but I could not detail the activity myself. I dreaded the process because I was afraid of what my family would think. Dread accompanied the kind of shame and embarrassment that made me sneak the “adult” books off the shelves in my home, flip through them furtively, and remember the pages with a touch and bend of the spine, rather than with a bookmark.
Perhaps the secrecy came from cultural prudishness, the kind I experienced growing up in Pakistan. Perhaps it came from my childhood belief that I was undesirable, unpretty, awkward, and that reading such books was vicarious wish fulfillment—that I might escape into scenarios that would never be a part of my real life. These little scenes, intimacies, moments of vulnerability, were reliable fantasies that I could turn to instead of other people who were fickle, real, flawed. Isn’t that why so many of us read books?
I found that writing sex scenes demanded more than just a desire to provide the reader with escapism. I had to understand how they served the story, the characters, and the setting. And as I struggled through writing what were mainly heterosexual sex scenes involving cisgender people, some of the best work I read as an adult came from queer and trans authors. In Jordy Rosenberg’s Confessions of the Fox, a love story unfolds between Jack, a thief, and Bess, a prostitute, set in the London underworld of 1724. Jack, who is trans, makes love to Bess with the aid of a wooden horn that becomes a tool of passion, and an extension of his body:
He would have known because it spoke to him the way a block of wood at Kneebone’s spoke to his Chisel when it wanted to be shaped. He would have known what it was that she handed him, what it wanted, and what to do with it. […] It spoke to him the way any material spoke to him. Spoke of what it wanted and what it could do.
And what this Horn wanted, simply, was to make itself a part of him.
Without fetishizing a body that is often marginalized, Rosenberg writes a scene that is extremely sexy, and affirming. In her craft book Body Work, Melissa Febos describes the value of such scenes as a form of character development: “A character’s relationship to sex itself often reveals more about them than any act can, and characterizing that relationship well will always render a sex scene more meaningful to a reader.” Jack and Bess’s intimate scenes were explicit and the language gorgeously specific to the era and the world they are constructing in their lovemaking: Bess’s genitalia is a “quim” and a “Boiling Place,” Jack’s an “unnameable knob.” Bess sees Jack the way he wants to be seen, and in giving him the horn, empowers him to make love to her.
My approach to writing sex scenes revealed a lot about my baggage and insecurities. Maybe the characters in my work in progress carry some of that baggage. Z and T, two college friends and roommates in Lahore, Pakistan, think about sex a lot—they read pornography in illicit magazines they pick up from bookstores and on the internet, stash them in their hostel room, and try to write their own versions. Z is a girl from a lower-middle-class background who introduces this world to T, who grew up in an upper-class home. The women bond over their shared love of pulpy “dirty” stories, books that aren’t considered “high literature,” with sex scenes that are both titillating and absurd. Despite their eager rebellion, each carries with her ingrained assumptions about the other’s relationship to sex because of their class differences: Is T the prudish innocent, the symbol of upper-class “respectability,” introduced to looser morals by Z, the freewheeling girl who has to earn her way through college? Or is Z “corrupted” by upper-class westernized excess, tasting freedoms long denied her because of T’s wealth and access to spaces where they and their friends are granted privacy?
I tried writing the kinds of scenes Z and T might pore over, drawing from pornographic or erotic stories I found on the internet in both English and Urdu, digging through blogs and sites where anonymous souls typed out their fantasies, set in college dorms and in joint family homes across Pakistan. Cousins lust for one another while living under the same roof. A boy makes a girl orgasm against a library bookshelf. In the Urdu novel Challawa—serialized in the 1970s—a beautiful, sophisticated woman is on the prowl, searching for innocent schoolgirls to seduce on the bus.
These stories are both popular—Challawa was a hit when it first came out—and on the margins, unacknowledged in Pakistani “polite” society. Yes, some of them are not the best writing; many are exploitative and reliant on the male gaze, even more are rape fantasies. Yet the more I read, the more I realized they were indispensable tools, reflecting our darkest desires, fears, anxieties, inhibitions back at us. I wondered if all of those sex scenes, the popular and taboo ones, could function as mini-stories within a larger narrative and serve the plot and the characters in some way.
Here is one of the first “pornographic” stories T reads for fun, about masturbation. This excerpt occurs early on in the story, as T begins to explore her sexuality and test the limits of her own body. The excerpt, intended to objectify a woman who is masturbating, is from a fictional “sexy magazine” found in a secret stash in a Lahore bookstore:
She placed her hand mirror on the floor, propping it up against the bedpost. Leaving the cucumber abandoned on the carpet, she pushed through the dense curls of her cunt with her finger to find her opening. She had never seen herself this way before, and what she found surprised her. Her skin had touches of lavender on the outside, growing pinker the further she probed. Folds like rose petals unfurled and closed up again. If she pushed the left fold, the right curled inward. At the apex of this delicacy, a flap of wet skin remained untouched by the hair around it and bloomed with a darker tinge of crimson, poking its way out and quivering when she pushed it. A film of clear liquid leaked from inside the petals, staining the carpet and the edges of her inner thigh. This, she knew, was a sign that she was on the right path, for the slickness was familiar. This God-given body craved more!
I began writing using clichés I had found in pornography—the cucumber as masturbatory tool, the bedpost, the hand mirror a substitute for the laptop camera which also acted as the male gaze, comparing female genitalia to flowers.
As I tried to mimic pornography, I gained aesthetic appreciation for the process of writing this scene as well as emotional insight into the character and her world. It was intended to get T all hot and bothered. She eventually would masturbate for the first time after reading this, turned on by another woman’s pleasure. The scene also transformed into an expression of wonder that comes with a woman discovering her unexplored self. T finds a surprising outlet for her desires—she fantasizes about masturbating everywhere, in public, in the classroom, on their building roof, in front of the boys in her year.
What does that fantasy tell me? Maybe T has unique predilections (who doesn’t?). But the more I wrote into T’s character, the more I learned how much she wants to be noticed by her peers, be less of a wallflower, but that she doesn’t have charisma (unlike Z), talent, or confidence. She is attracted to a number of people around her, but they don’t turn her on. She truly gets wet when she says something smart and receives praise and admiration for it. The function of the pornographic masturbation story within my story helped me grasp T’s more intrinsic desires through her sexual imaginings.
Attempting these scenes felt like a culmination of a lifetime of grappling with my own relationship to sex and sexuality. Greenwell wrote, “Sex throws us profoundly into ourselves, our own sensations, physical and emotional; it is also, at least when it’s interesting, the moment when we’re most carefully attuned to the experience of another.” A masturbation scene told me something about my character, but how she engages in sex with another character has to reveal something about their relationship.
T is uninhibited when alone, but how can I bring forth her insecurities when in the presence of an old friend? What else can I learn about her life decades after college as she clutches her friend in a dark room while filled with regret about the past? Because they cannot see much in the dim light, I focused on tactile rather than visual descriptions:
Now that we are here, on a dusty mattress, my hands grasping at the rough wool of his sweater, the stiff cotton shirt underneath, in search of skin that turns out to be thin and wrinkled from middle-age, he is still a memory in the darkness. I push him onto his back and straddle him, my legs opened above, my breasts still covered by my kurta. I am a little disappointed when we manage to push his pants past his thighs. In the dimness, his penis seems darker than his stomach and glistens with his arousal, hard against a belly that has grown soft. My fingers brush against it, around the soft tip and the length that is firmer than the rest of him, with patches of dry skin from the cold.
I wanted to give the penis a richer description, and each attempt felt forced, like I was trying too hard (I know). In the above scene, I focused on how T perceived her friend after decades apart, noticing how age had changed him. Eventually he orgasms, but she doesn’t:
I shudder, the orgasm just out of reach when he arches his back beneath me, and collapses, exhausted. We lie next to each other, heated by our exertions and the imagined presence of another in this room, whose memory surrounds us like warm wind shaking two leaves side by side on the same tree. Dancing in unison but never touching.
Sex brings their bodies together but doesn’t make them feel less lonely. Their memories encompass them, and they remain separated while searching for physical release in each other.
The scene takes place in the dark, because T is shy, and watching her old friend’s face as he orgasms is too intimate to be comfortable. I also found it difficult to detail their expressions in the throes of passion. Would he grimace in concentration? Would his mouth be wide open as if he is shouting? How would I bring my imagined reader into this moment through T’s discomfort and not my own? I tried, and am still trying, to separate my characters’ inhibitions from myself. Thinking through the strangeness of a lover describing her beloved’s face in the throes of completion involved the marriage of descriptive interiority with language that must have no artifice.
In Body Work, Febos wrote how we as a culture have “exiled sex in our minds.” The quote struck me because sex had always been on my mind, ever since I pored over the books in my childhood home, ever since the love scene between Ammu and Velutha sank into me and remained there like a persistent ache. I had never exiled sex in my mind, but I had been holding myself back from including it in my creative life.
Sex in life and literature can be terrible, poetic, explicit, beautiful, romantic, depressing, awkward, and uncomfortable as hell. When I stopped being preoccupied with my cultural and psychological inhibitions, removed the shame, my characters were allowed to breathe.
To orgasm is to allow vulnerability. By throwing myself headlong into the awkward and frustrating experience of writing sex, I am ceding control of my narrative. This requires brutal and unflinching honesty. My characters’ preferences, fantasies, and secrets reveal themselves in the process of writing such scenes in ways that bits of dialogue between them while walking down the street do not. These understandings arrive with a lot of preparation and lead up, but they disappear too fast, like a flame catching and being extinguished—or an orgasm.
I have to plow forward in writing them, before I lose the careful attunement Greenwell wrote was a part of the sexual experience, but I also believe is part of the writing experience. It is through these brief snatches of connection between characters—sexual release, the beginnings of a kiss, the igniting touch—where key realizations about the story and the character can emerge. The most delicious challenge involves holding onto each moment, and capturing it before it is lost.
This essay is part of a series on craft and process by our 2022 Margins Fellows. Look out for more in the coming months.