14 February 2015

Sex and Literature: A Charged Relationship

My next column for The Sunday Guardian.

The producers of the film adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James have chosen 14 February – Valentine’s Day – to release the film of the same name. Popular media has redefined this day to denote romantic love, and the release of this film goes far beyond that convention by deliberately turning the conversation into sex. In a country that is routinely denied sex education, it feels both progressive and ironic that, with this film (which, according to reports, devotes at least a full twenty minutes to depiction of sexual activity) being the biggest and most important release of Valentine’s Day, sex turns out to be the biggest and most important aspect of love.

Ultimately, though, the Fifty Shades phenomenon, which has been exciting and revealing and surprising in many ways, is also worrying, because the relationship in the book – and, consequently, the movie – does not seem entirely consensual. Anastasia Steele is in love with Christian Grey, the book’s brooding eponymous protagonist, but it is almost never clear how comfortable she is with the sexual proclivities of her partner. She is introduced to bondage, discipline, sadism and masochism (BDSM) by Grey. Sadism and masochism, by themselves, derive their terminology from the names of the Marquis de Sade, who wrote explicitly about violent sex, and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who wrote about a dominant-submissive relationship, not unlike the one that Grey attempts to foster between himself and Steele.

But in James’s novel, for the most part, Steele finds the idea of BDSM violent, repugnant and, in her own words, ‘depressing’. True practitioners of BDSM, though, lay emphasis on consent; they find communication of personal desire to be a meaningful and enriching aspect of ‘safe’ sex – safety from violence, that is, not safety from disease. With consent, the expectation is mutual gratification. And although Grey does offer Steele consent forms and the like, Steele’s reason for agreeing to most of Grey’s demands is, by her own admission, her fear of losing him. Steele, who loses her virginity to Grey at the start of the book, is almost never seen as sexually forthcoming.

In Henry and June, a memoir carved out of Anais Nin’s diaries, chronicling her marvelous, polyamorous, generous and sexually intense affairs with Henry and June Miller, who were married to each other, Nin devotes a lot of space to the very idea of proactive female desire. She writes: ‘Often, though, the passivity of the woman's role weighs on me, suffocates me. Rather than wait for his pleasure, I would like to take it, to run wild. Is it that which pushes me into lesbianism? It terrifies me. Do women act thus? Does June go to Henry when she wants him? Does she mount him? Does she wait for him? He guides my inexperienced hands. It is like a forest fire, to be with him. New places of my body are aroused and burnt. He is incendiary. I leave him in an unquenchable fever.’

At the Jaipur Literature Festival last month, Sarah Waters, Nicholson Baker, Deepti Kapoor and Hanif Kureishi – ‘writers whose books have lingered long between the sheets’ – were in conversation with Parul Sehgal at a session called ‘Basic Instinct’ about ‘the pleasures and pitfalls of literary writing about physical intimacy’. Waters said, in that session, ‘We tend to think of sex as something that takes us outside culture and society, but sex is part of the culture.’ Waters, who casts her beautifully written lesbian romances in the Victorian era, has, in a sense, normalized queer culture through her genre-defying works, a combination of historical fiction, erotica, queer fiction, romance, mystery, crime and thriller. In her writing, women take charge at a time when it seemed impossibly difficult to do so. They are sexually charged and dynamic: their sex is a function of their love, but almost never of their gender.

It isn’t as though writing about sex has not been celebrated. Every year, the Literary Review, a British literary magazine, presents the Bad Sex in Fiction Award to the author who has written the worst sex scene published during the year. The rationale behind the award is, purportedly, ‘to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it’. The award which has been, in the past, given to such luminaries as Sebastian Faulks and Manil Suri, has also been described as Britain’s most dreaded literary prize. Last year, Ben Okri won for a passage that ends with the sentence, ‘Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.’


One might appreciate, as well, the existence of an award for good sex in fiction.