So it’s no secret around these parts that I (and all of us at The Gloss, really) like to read and write about sex. I find it an interesting subject for a variety of reasons: it can help us understand ourselves and each other, it’s often horrifying and/or funny, there is still a taboo around talking about it, you never really stop learning about sex, it can be empowering to tell your own story, I like reading other people’s personal shit…I could go on. But one thing I’ve noticed about most of the sex writing I’ve been reading these days is that the conversation seems to be dominated by people inhabiting queer and/or feminized bodies, i.e. everyone but straight, cisgender men. Why is that?
I should proceed with the caveat that I know there are some straight/cis men out there writing good things about sex. Just yesterday, I read a great essay by Jonathan Lethem about his coming of age that was included in Rachel Kramer Bussel‘s Best Sex Writing 2013 anthology. But when I consider the most prominent writers dealing primarily with sexuality, I think of women and gay men. I think of Marie Calloway, Karley “Slutever” Sciortino, Lux Alptraum, Stoya, Rich Juzwiak, Tracie Egan when she was “Slut Machine,” Audacia Ray, Tristan Taormino, Susie Bright, and of course, the great Dan Savage. (There are probably a lot more that I’m forgetting.) What kind of straight male sex writers occupy the popular imagination these days? Whoever writes the sex tips in Maxim?
James Deen has a great blog about his life as a porn star, which sounds genuinely wonderful and fun and uncomplicated. But if you look at the comments, or the comments on any article about him, you might find a clue as to why he doesn’t have more blogging compatriots. A lot of people seem to think he’s an asshole for 1.) being a porn star, and 2.) writing about it, because of course a man would want to do that. Men (I’m just going to refer to them as “men” now, but you know this is shorthand) are supposed to want sex all the time, and women are supposed to want relationships and babies. When women and queers write about sex, it is seen as transgressive, empowering, taking back the narrative. When men do it, it’s reinforcing the status quo, or simply bragging.
Of course, a lot of women who write about sex are also branded attention whores, hacks, and worse, which might be part of what scares men away. The majority of male sex writing I have come across is tucked tastefully within the pages of “literary” books, where it is assumed to say something larger about the human condition. I just wrote and deleted a paragraph about the history of male sex writing, because pretty much all of it has been subsumed into the larger literary canon to the point where no one considers it “sex writing”: Phillip Roth, John Updike, Henry Miller, etc. Is this an artificial distinction I shouldn’t be drawing? Probably! But I didn’t invent it. I’m going to go ahead and say this is part of the problem.
I asked sex writer Karley Sciortino her thoughts on this issue, and she had this to say:
I definitely think it’s possible for straight men to write about sex in a non deuchbag-ey way. Obviously there are men like Harold Robbins, George Bataille, and Henry Miller who have famously written about sex in ways that are erotic, progressive and beautiful. In terms of modern sex writers, it does seem like women are ruling the turf. I think today there’s a stigma around men displaying any sort of uncertainty or insecurity about sex–it’s considered unmanly–which potentially makes it harder for them to write about sex in an open and honest way.
In addition to this fear of ambivalence, maybe everyone but the most respected male writers are afraid of being branded as narcissists, whereas women are already marginalized, so we might as well carve out this space for ourselves in the sex-o-sphere. Or maybe men are simply less troubled by and/or interested in sex and sexuality in general, as most of mainstream culture and pornography already normalizes and caters to their needs?
Or perhaps some men are rightfully scared of being seen as exploitative, since many of our sexual dynamics are informed by living in a misogynistic society, whether we like it or not? Maybe a lot of men don’t write about sex for the same reason a lot of white people don’t write about race: they are uncomfortable with the role they may be subconsciously playing in the continued oppression of others. And maybe they should be. I mean, look at this passage from a short story by Marie Calloway and tell me how much you’d like the speaker if it were written from the man’s point of view:
“Good Bitch,” he said, as I put his cock in my mouth. He gripped the collar and facefucked me violently. He told me to stick my tongue out and hum, I gagged loudly. “Suck it like you haven’t eaten for weeks.”
His goal was always to make me vomit, and I had a strong gag reflex. When I vomited repeatedly, he told me to lick it off his balls. He dragged my face into it when I threw up on the floor.
I liked the complete intensity that came with being made to throw up, nothing held back.
He gagged me roughly holding my nose: my whole body convulsed, desperate for air. He let me breathe, and I let out a huge gasp.
“Do you know how much that turns me on, you struggling for air?” He asked.
This story is very explicitly about searching for “the line between a woman choosing to pursue sexual autonomy, and caving to a misogynistic society that encourages the sexual degradation of women.” Could a man write a story about the same thing and expect readers to sympathize with him?
Of course, I am talking mainly about sensitive and progressive men here. Unabashed assholes and the “anti-PC brigade” seem to have no problem writing about sex. Notorious douchebag Tucker Max isn’t afraid to write about the chicks he bangs. A guy named Chester Brown wrote frankly about participating in The Erotic Review, basically a Yelp for the sex trade that lets johns pick apart prostitutes in frequently misogynistic ways. But are these really the only male voices we want to have out there? I’m reminded of a Slate article about how progressive minded men often stay silent on “women’s issues,” but reactionaries have no trouble spewing vitriol, often leaving women’s voices out of the conversation entirely. The men who should be writing about sex because they are decent human beings are not…because they are decent human beings.
In the end, I don’t really have a single answer to my initial questions, other than I think men should be less afraid to perform the “feminine” activity of writing about sexuality outside of the masculinized literary canon. (And within it, as well, if Katie Roiphe is to be believed.) Maybe we should be more sympathetic to the male dom in Marie’s story; after all, he is a person who is figuring things out, too. Can men write about sex without sounding like douchebags? I certainly hope so.
Photo of the Marquis de Sade: Wikipedia