"One person's mediocre shag is another's bliss on a stick." (Photo: Getty)
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Laurie Penny on high culture: In defence of bad sex

Half a century after the end of the Chatterley ban, high culture still recoils at the least whiff of smut.

The Bad Sex Awards are not as exciting as they sound. Personally, I rather like the idea of a ceremony at which the great and good can be rewarded for selfless works with the talentless fumble or sub-standard quickie of their choice. But the Literary Review’s annual competition for the worst piece of erotic writing in fiction, whose 20th shortlist has just been announced, is something altogether more priggish. Pleasant as it is to point and laugh at other people’s intimate fantasies, there’s something about this spot on the critics’ calendar that makes the skin creep – and it’s not just the eye-watering descriptions of what two people can get up to with one piece of ripe French cheese.

It’s a very British censoriousness, this sort of smut-shaming. The Bad Sex Awards were established in 1993 “to draw attention to the crude, badly written, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”. There are a number of reasons why the whole thing makes me queasy.

First, it’s so dated. Scanning through the episodes of hay-twitching and “morphinergic mechanisms splutter[ing] into life,” in this year’s crop of entries, I got the urge to take the editorial staff of the Literary Review by the hands and introduce them, as gently as possible, to the internet. There, on fan fiction sites and messageboards whose printed pages would fill whole libraries, they will find as much weird and woeful erotic writing as their fussy little minds can imagine.

Why would I want to sneer at the indelicate phrasing of another Hampstead duvet novel when I can open my laptop and access reams of smutty stories – some of which, like EL James’s Fifty Shades of Grey, end up as paperback bestsellers — whose anatomical detail is that much more speculative?

Secondly, many of the passages of “bad sex” selected for public mockery are, in fact, rather well-written descriptions of sex that happens to be fumbly and awkward. In real life, that’s what a lot of sex tends to be, especially at major plot points.

Here are some of the things that occur in the shortlisted “bad sex” passages: two young people worry if God will judge them for bunking up. A man is overwhelmed by sensation during intercourse and starts having weird minor hallucinations. A woman attempts awkward dirty talk involving her own breasts.

All of these are things that actually happen, and it behoves us to imagine that art and literature can describe the many worlds of human lust, pain and emotion that do not take place in soft focus, with billowing white sheets and smooth jazz playing in the background.

I would like to put in a word for wonky sex writing, both as art and instruction. I don’t know about you but I rarely find passages of sexual description “redundant” in otherwise bloodless books. In fact, a surprising number of the modern novels in my possession happen to fall open at redundant passages of sexual description, almost as if those pages have been read and reread just to check how perfunctory they are — especially the volumes I owned as a randy, bookish teenager. So, I’d like to thank all of those novelists and sleazy science-fiction writers who braved a turn in the critical stocks to share their visions with me and my fellow lonely nerds.

More than half a century since the end of the Chatterley ban, “high” culture still reaches for its smelling salts at the least whiff of sauce. The squeamish sensibilities that produce the Bad Sex Awards have, in common with commercially produced pornography, the assumption that there is an objective scale by which the goodness or badness of sex may be judged, and a standard script from which one ought not to deviate.

The reality, of course, is that one person’s mediocre, embarrassing shag is another person’s idea of bliss on a stick – but you only get to find that out after a few gauche encounters with other people’s “morphinergic mechanisms”.

Priggishness may yet do to literature what pornography has done to cinema — namely, to widen the gap between sexual content and everything else. Over the past decade, as racy videos have become freely available online, mainstream movies have become substantially less explicit. An 18 rating is no longer the draw it once was. Nobody needs to go to the cinema to see a pair of breasts any more and it is more lucrative for most directors to keep it chaste for a lower age-rating. The result is an increasing divide between sex and the rest of culture: airbrushed limbs and choreographed grinding are permissible but the truly explicit stuff must be kept out of the mainstream, banished to its own shady realm where we can access it with the proper degree of shame and self-hatred.

This is how we arrive at a situation where, as has been exhaustively observed, boys and girls are learning about sexuality from violent, repetitive misogynist porn and nowhere else. Ignorance and censoriousness breed violence and suffering. They prevent us from talking about danger and desire with anything like honesty; they replace learning and creativity with a semi-secret sexual script that we wall off from the rest of society so that it grows up weird and stilted.

The truth is that bad sex is not nipple slips and weird cheese scenes. It’s not clunky metaphor made clumsy flesh. Bad sex is ignorance, abuse and trauma. Bad sex is what happens when we believe that talking about sex is “redundant” and writing about it is “crude”. It’s what happens when sexuality becomes a shameful, angry place at the forbidden centre of culture, where all the angst and hate and gendered pain is enacted on the bodies of others. Ritual humiliation and fear of humiliation are still part of the modern erotic script — and that’s what makes really bad sex.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, iBroken

Lady Macbeth.
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Lady Macbeth: the story Stalin hated reaches the movie screen

Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises.

Lady Macbeth (15), dir: William Oldroyd

Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, Nikolai Leskov’s novel about a bored, oppressed and bloodthirsty young woman, was adapted for the opera by Shoskatovich. Two years after its premiere in 1934, it had a terrible review, allegedly by Stalin himself, in Pravda. The new film version, Lady Macbeth, is set in 1865 (the year the novel was published) and feels resolutely anti-operatic in flavour, with its austere visuals and no-nonsense camerawork: static medium shots for dramatic effect or irony, hand-held wobbles to accompany special moments of impetuousness. The extraordinary disc-faced actor Florence Pugh has her hair scraped back into plaits and buns – all the put-upon teenage brides are wearing them this season – and the film feels scraped back, too. But it features certain behaviour (murder) that would feel more at home, and not so riskily close to comedy, in the hothouse of opera, rather than on and around the stark moors of low-budget British cinema.

Pugh plays Katherine, who is first seen reacting with surprise to a booming singing voice at her wedding ceremony. Unfortunately for her, it’s her husband, Alexander (Paul Hilton). On the plus side, there won’t be much cause for crooning in their house, no power ballads in the shower or anything like that. The tone is set early on. He orders her to remove her nightdress. Then he climbs into bed alone. It’s not clear whether she is expected to follow, and a cut leaves the matter unresolved.

Alexander defers to his grizzled father, Boris (played by Christopher Fairbank), who purchased Katherine in a two-for-one deal with a plot of land in north-east England, on important matters such as whether she can be allowed to go to sleep before him. So it isn’t much of a loss when he is called away on business (“There’s been an explosion at the colliery!”). Ordered to stay in the house, she dozes in her crinoline, looking like an upside-down toadstool, until one day she is awakened, literally and figuratively, by the sound of the rough-and-ready groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) sexually humiliating the maid, Anna (Naomi Ackie). Katherine leaps to her rescue and gives Sebastian the most almighty shove. Pugh’s acting is exceptional; fascination, disgust and desire, as well as shock at her own strength, are all tangled up in her expression.

When Sebastian later forces his way into Katherine’s room, you want to warn them that these things don’t end well. Haven’t they seen Miss Julie? Read Lady Chatterley’s Lover? Thérèse Raquin? Well, no, because these haven’t been written yet. But the point stands: there’ll be tears before bedtime – at least if these two can lay off the hot, panting sex for more than 30 seconds.

The film’s director, William Oldroyd, and the screenwriter, Alice Birch, play a teasing game with our sympathies, sending the struggling Katherine off on a quest for independence, the stepping stones to which take the form of acts of steeply escalating cruelty. The shifting power dynamic in the house is at its most complex before the first drop of blood is spilled. Indeed, none of the deaths is as affecting as the moment when Katherine allows her excessive consumption of wine to be blamed on Anna, whose lowly status as a servant, and a dark-skinned one at that, places her below even her bullied mistress on the social scale.

There is fraught politics in the almost-love-triangle between these women and Sebastian. It doesn’t hurt that Jarvis, an Anglo-Armenian musician and actor, looks black, hinting at a racial kinship between groomsman and maid – as well as the social one – from which Katherine can only be excluded. Tension is repeatedly set up only to be resolved almost instantly. Will Alexander return home from business? Oh look, here he is. Will this latest ghastly murder be concealed? Oh look, the killer’s confessed. But the actors are good enough to convince even when the plot doesn’t. A larger problem is that Lady Macbeth grows less psychologically plausible the higher the body count rises. Katherine begins the film as a feminist avenger and ends it as a junior version of Serial Mom, her insouciance now something close to tawdry camp. 

“Lady Macbeth” is released 28 April

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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