When it comes to Bad Sex writing, woman are upping the ante

Ben Okri

Exhibit 1 from the shortlist of this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction awards:  “He steps into her, furious. And when it hits her, it slams her hard and fast, as life once had.”

Not hard and fast enough?  Another novel shortlisted for Literary Review’s annual award for excruciating sex scenes in literature contains these delightful lines: “She comes and comes, waves of hot silk—I grit my teeth and push her off. I bend her over and really give it to her.”

If not-entirely-compliant sex is your thing, try this: “She cried, and breathed less jaggedly, ‘It hurts, it hurts.’ I did not stop until it stopped hurting, until I heard pleasure articulated from her.”

Which esteemed men of letters have been scribbling scenes in which their female characters submit to their lusty literary advances, supine and passive against the enormity of their pen? None. All three are by women writers — respectively Helen Walsh, May-Lan Tan and Amy Grace Lloyd, who manages the double: to have a woman subjected by another woman: her passage is a lesbian romp.

If the women have taken over the wham-bam encounters — the only exception on the list being Kirsty Wark — what of the male writers? Ben Okri’s Age of Magic describes the ardour of protagonists thus: “He loved her with gentleness and strength, stroking her neck, praising her face with his hands, till she was broken up and began a low rhythmic wail.” Two Japanese girls “entwine themselves lithely” around Murakami’s male lead and overwhelm him. (The British don’t get all the bad sex: this has always been a pretty international list.) Or Wilbur Smith’s Desert God, in a passage that even Mills & Boon would have regarded as too tame: “Our legs and our arms were entwined, and our breath was mingling. I could feel her heart beating against my own.  Gradually our two hearts became a single organ that we shared.” Not a phallus in sight — though that is also explained by Smith’s protagonist being a eunuch.

How times have changed since the memorable previous years of machismo such as 2005 when Giles Coren won for his description of frenzied coitus, concluding with the man firing off three stripes onto his lover’s belly “like Zorro”.

In this list, the women write of “he” and “she”, the men write of “they”, the couple, during the coupling.

The old aphorism goes: “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” Does women’s march towards empowerment in the outside world reveal an alternative desire — to be disempowered in the bedroom, feminism flipped over? Or perhaps, more simply, it is just how they think men see them.

As for the male authors, their passages collectively say they are fed up with a state of war in the bedroom. They surrender, they want to themselves be possessed by their lovers. Unless, of course, all too conscious of the cliché, they write so soppily because they don’t want to seem like sexist brutes. 

How heterosexual literary lovers will ever find satisfaction is hard to see: if the “she” of the female authors play the abused object of desire, while the “he” of the male authors just wants to stroke her hair, it is hard to see either side getting much satisfaction.

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