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22 April 2016

Are we sex-literate? Why we should all be writing more about pleasure

Being able to articulate our desires is key to our wellbeing – but if we want to be sex-literate, we need more inventive writing than Fifty Shades of Grey.

By Joanna Walsh

In the UK, according to the association for PSHE teachers, “‘Personal, Sexual Health and Economic’ education is a non-statutory subject on the school curriculum”. It’s a frequent but unresolved complaint that children are taught no more than the mechanics of sex, and are sent out into adulthood with little beside biological basics, except warnings of STDs and other consequences. “Thou shalt not [is] writ over the door” of the Garden of Love, just as it was when the poet William Blake questioned why our “joys and desires” should be bound by prohibitions and prescriptions. But what constitutes sex-literacy, and why does it matter?

Few, after Freud, would dispute that sexuality is at the heart of personal and social identity and – as in every other area of life – if we’re not able to tell our own stories then we are not able to articulate, to construct, to explore or manage these identities. That women are much less likely than men to be literate worldwide has been strongly linked to their smaller share of economic and political power. 

Greater moral strictures on sex-literacy for women have likewise given them a smaller degree of power in the sexual economy, including the power to understand and control their own bodies, not to mention the power to defend themselves from exploitation and violence (I remember a 2013 Vice report on women in a conservative religious community in Bolivia, who were unable to complain of rape because their genitals had never been named to them.) Words, written and spoken, are of key importance here; after all, the “graph” in pornography means depiction with a pen.

In 2010, UN Secretary Ban Ki-Moon said, “Every literate woman marks a victory over poverty.” It seems likely that every sex-literate woman could mark a similar victory over poor sexual health, as well as for improved family, romantic and sexual relationships, not to mention the self-esteem – the effects of which reach into all areas of life – that comes from no longer finding parts of your body and their activities unmentionable. 

In order that these effects be achieved we need to break the biggest taboo around sex literacy which, as we see from the PSHE guidelines, is not the “facts of life” or their downsides, but the idea that it might be fun. But here’s a pleasure gap that online porn – often shoddily produced, and, being made mostly by and for men – is not filling. It was all over the cover of Time Magazine when I was in the US last week: a generation of boys “brought up on pornography” are turning away from its limited possibilities. However, if much contemporary pornography is an imperfect attempt to make art about sex, there is no freedom to be gained by giving the genre up as a lost cause. 

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For a personal education in pleasure, we need not lessons, but stories. Freud was a master story-teller. His case notes, however much they have superseded by more recent theories, remain important because he gave us the bones of how to talk about sex in terms of narrative, and his use of symbols is parallel to literary language: imagery, metonymy and metaphor. Unlike video porn clips, which offer a set, linear consumer experience, words can be used both critically and creatively, to break down and analyse concepts and, reconfigured, to build stories that express something new and personal.

And, though there’s nothing wrong with it as an icebreaker, we probably need more inventive sex writing than Fifty Shades of Grey. For good, unabashed, sex writing in contemporary literature in English, go to Katherine Angel’s Unmastered, Nicholson Baker,’s House of Holes, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, Rob Doyle’s This Is The Ritual, Joshua Cohen’s Four New Messages. . . Or try some comics, from Alan Moore’s Lost Girls, to Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets, to Alison Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch out For. 

Don’t expect to agree with everything you read: sex-literacy reminds us of the potency of words, raising the same question as online porn, film, and video games, about the power of representations to prompt actions off the page. Sex-writing is a speech act that not only describes sex, but is usually a turn-on of one kind or another. Part of the issue is that nothing about pleasure is uncomplicated: no one would dispute that something so central to our lives can be difficult and controversial – and this is another thing we should not shrink from exploring.

Again, women have historically been less frequently given (or allowed themselves) permission to incorporate sex-writing into fiction. There are notable exceptions, including Anaïs Nin, but they have often taken sex as their subject, which is a different practice to including it in more general works. This gap offers contemporary writers an opportunity as well as a constraint: as Heti wrote, tongue-in-cheek in How Should A Person Be?, “One good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like” – and that includes genius sex-writing. It is perhaps incumbent on women to write more about sex, which – irony! – might convert a pleasure into a duty. 

Luckily pleasure and language go hand in hand. As Roland Barthes posited in his 1973 Plasir du Texte, literary jouissance, or bliss (which also, in French, carries a connotation of orgasm) is produced by the union between the writing and the reader. Sex-writing can be a paradigm for writing in general. Working playfully, or provocatively, with what “can” and “can’t” be said – not only with the direct description, or evocation, but acknowledging the wordplay of dirty jokes – sex writing is a direct encounter with the some of the things language can do, and excellent practice for any kind of writing. Is writing dirty per se? “Only”, as Woody Allen said, “if you’re doing it right”.

Joanna Walsh is the author of several books including Grow A Pair, 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex. ​

This article is part of the New Statesman’s Literacy Week.

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