Popaganda Episode: How to Write About Sex
We always complain about about bad sex scenes and unrealistic sex in pop culture, but what makes really good sex writing? Best Sex Writing 2013 editor Rachel Kramer Bussel and Smut Peddler comics publisher Spike talk with us about what they've learned makes great writing about sex.
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A transcript of this show is below:
Sarah Mirk: This is Popaganda, the feminist response to pop culture podcast. I'm Sarah Mirk.
Colleen Coover: It's not one of my favorites, but it's definitely the first one I remember, and that is the love scene in Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and what's his name ... Michael Douglas. Isn't that his name? It was the first time I saw side-boob in a movie and also the first time I saw side-butt of a lady.
Sarah Mirk: I'm at Periscope Studio in downtown Portland, talking with two cartoonists about their favorite sex scenes in film and TV.
Colleen Coover: It was at the second run theater in the town where my dad lived, and it was summertime, and there was air conditioning in the second run theater. Also, I didn't really like my step-family very much, so I would go to all the movies that I could. I went to see Romancing the Stone maybe three or four times in one weekend.
Erika Moen: Just for that pan of the side-butt.
Colleen Coover: Just for the side-butt. But that started me on reading romance novels in general, which is now my reading genre of choice.
I'm Colleen Coover, a while ago I used to work on a sexy comic called Small Favors, a girly porno comic. Now I'm working on a comic called Bandette, which is not at all sexy but it is a lot of fun.
Erika Moen: I'd say it's flirty.
Colleen Coover: It's flirty.
Erika Moen: My name is Erika Moen, I work on Oh Joy Sex Toy, which you can read at ohjoysextoy.com, and was pretty directly inspired by Small Favors by Colleen Coover.
Sarah Mirk: We often talk about bad sex scenes, about how sex and sexuality are typically totally misrepresented in pop culture. Sex is always glamorous, heterosexual, passionate.
So instead of ragging on bad sex, today's show takes a positive spin. Today we’re talking about how to write about sex. To kick off the show with some ideas of what people think of as actually sexy cinema, I'm biking around Portland, talking to a couple people about the sex scenes that have always stuck in their mind.
Here's Erika Moen.
Erika Moen: So my answer is so tame, but growing up it was all these Disney movies and the shots that they would have where the lady character would just be in the spotlight for a second.
Most vividly, I think about Ariel from the Little Mermaid. She's just been turned into a human and she's breaking up from the surface of the ocean to get her first gulp of air and her hair, her beautiful red hair, flips up as she breaks through the surface and inhales air for the first time. I was really into that when I was young.
Colleen Coover: I think that's great that you consider that a sex scene.
Erika Moen: I know, isn't that ridiculous? It was awesome.
Obviously, it's not a sex scene, but it was when ... I didn't words for this at the time, but as a grown-up, I can now say it was like feeling desire and having your breath taken away by another person and being like, "I want to go to there."
Sarah Mirk: Next, I head up to north Portland, to the feminist-friendly sex boutique She Bop.
A.J.: This is A.J. From She Bop, and I'm here to talk about one of the favorite scenes from a movie when I was a kid. One of the scenes that I thought was really sexy was from the movie Bound, and it was a scene between the character Corky and Violet, and what I liked about it was that it happened within the first 15 minutes of the movie.
Normally in movies, we're getting to know the characters, there's some tension being built up within the first half hour of the film and then they have sex, but this it's within the first two minutes, there's some tension in the elevator, Violet brings Corky a cup of coffee, Corky takes a cup of coffee, comes over later to fix Violet's pipes. Not like that, but kind of like that. Then violet basically seduces Corky. For those of you who don't know the movie, Corky is played by Gina Gershon. It was, for me, the first lesbian scene that I'd ever seen in a movie and I just thought it was the hottest thing ever.
This isn't super current, but I remember all of the sex scenes from Six Feet Under, when I watched that show a couple of years ago when it was on Netflix, and the very first sex scene in that was between Nate and Brenda in an airport closet. I remember thinking to myself, "There's no way they would get away with this in the post-9/11 world, because of the security." They just walked into a closet in the airport and started having sex. That show was filmed before all of that happened. I remember that was my first thought, like, "this is probably not what I should be thinking. I should be thinking, 'What a hot sex scene.'" But instead, I was like, "they would never get away with that."
Sarah Mirk: We all find different things sexy, from Maggie Gyllenhall in Secretary to the Little Mermaid, I guess. But to explain what good sex writing has in common, I talked with two experts on the subject.
First off, I spoke New York-based writer and editor Rachel Kramer Bussel, who edits collections called things like, The Best Erotic Romance and, most recently, Best Bondage Erotica 2014.
Then I talked with Chicago comics creator Spike, who has resurrected a beloved sexy comics collection called Smut Peddler. Both women specialize in editing stories that deal with diverse sexualities and focus on consent.
Rachel Kramer Bussel could fill an entire bookshelf with the sexy books she's edited. Her most recent title is Best Bondage Erotica 2014, but she's also edited collections on bisexuality, sex in hotels, and 2013's best sex writing. Having read through thousands of pages of erotic material to pick out the best stories, she's certainly a great person to talk to for advice on how to write about sex.
What makes good sex writing? As you're reading through pieces, what stands out to you as something that you love it when people do when they're writing nonfiction work about sex?
Rachel K. Bussel: I think what makes a good piece of sex writing, to some degree, is what would make a good piece of any kind of writing, which is that it's compelling and says something new or says it in a new way. I don't necessarily think there's new sex acts happening, or it's not necessarily about things that no one's ever written or thought about, but they're said in a way that speaks to people and that will make people want to keep reading, regardless of the reader's sexual orientation or sexual background.
I think sometimes people think, "Well, only kinky people want to read about kinky sex," or "Only polyamorous people want to read about other polyamorous people," and I actually think it's the opposite. I think that good sex writing is universal.
It could be about something that's really obscure or only practiced by a small group of people, but if it's well-written, someone will want to read that and might see themselves, some part of themselves, in that work.
Sarah Mirk: Are there patterns you see in sex writing that bother you? That if you could strike them from the earth, the earth would be a better place?
Rachel K Bussel: I don't know if I would say there's patterns that bother me, but I do think that there's a lot of women writing about being submissive and how that interacts with feminism, and part of me ... And I've been one of those people, I've written about that too. Part of me thinks that's great, because I think we see an abundance of that because it's something that women are grappling with.
This may not be answering your question, but I wish we also saw more men writing about being submissive, and men writing about cross-dressing and bisexuality and being sex customers or being sex workers. Yes, there are people writing about those things, but one question that I'm actually asked a lot is, "Why aren't there more men writing about sex?"
I try to publish a variety of genders and sexual orientations, but I do think that on the whole women are drawn to writing about sex more because sex is a more fraught topic. I don't want to discourage women at all from writing about it, but I think if you are going to write about your own sexuality or sex in general, you want to think, "What am I adding to the conversation? What else can I say about this?" Not just, "This happened to me last night and I want to process it." There's nothing wrong with that, but I think the more you can push yourself to go deeper into the story and find out what it's really about, the more it's going to, perhaps, relate to more people.
Sarah Mirk: That's really interesting what you're saying about there being many more female sex writers than male sex writers. I wonder if that's because women are reacting against what we see in media, because we feel excluded by traditional narratives or get pissed off about what we see on TV and we want to respond to that with our own words.
Rachel Bussel: I think it's partly because women are told more than men what they can and can't do with and about their sexuality, so I think a lot of women then say, "Oh, I did this thing that is not what the culture says I'm supposed to do and I had this reaction."
It makes sense, but I think there are plenty of men who have important things to say about sex too, and I think that, conversely in the way women are told ... I think even now, there are a lot of proscriptions on women's sexuality, but there are also on men's sexuality. There are certain things that are okay to do, especially if you are a straight man, and there are certain things that are not necessarily okay.
The kinds of writing, in general, that I like to see are people who are looking at those boundaries and figuring out, "Where do I fit in and where do I not fit in, and who do I tell about that and who do I not tell about that?"
To me, what also makes it interesting, and something that Sex Writing 2013 definitely explores, is that I don't there's really these clearly demarcated boundaries of public and private when it comes to sex, because so much of what we think of as private sexuality also verges on public topics. There's sports in here, there's the law. Even that idea of polyamory, we're talking about gay marriage, we're talking about condoms and porn. I think there's so many overlaps and I think that certainly a lot of us are brought up to think of sex as this very private topic.
I think that keeps a lot of people form thinking about it in a broader context. I think the biggest thing that people who give sex advice are asked is, "Am I normal?" I think part of that fear of not being normal is not seeing yourself in the broader culture around sexuality.
Sarah Mirk: Do you still get nervous to write about sex, to make ... It is such a private topic and you do it very publicly. What makes you nervous when you're writing about sex?
Rachel Bussel: I have no idea why this is the case, but sex is probably the one topic that I am not nervous at all to write about.
I've written about my own personal life many times and I've also interviewed tons of people about their sex life, and I guess I just never really felt ... I have felt shame at individual moments around my sexuality, but overall I really haven't felt ashamed about my sexuality so I haven't felt afraid to write about it. I don't really know why that part of it has happened so easily for me. I think it's the opposite for a lot of people and one thing I encourage people to do, especially in erotica but also in nonfiction is, if you have a story that you want to tell that's really important to you, but you have a job or family or other reasons that you couldn't use your real name, use a pseudonym. Plenty of people do, and I think that can be really freeing, to get published and to share your story and to see how other people react to it. You can always come out as your pseudonym later, but I don't know.
For me, writing about sex has come fairly easily. I think, also, the rewards have outweighed the negatives in terms of people telling me their own story when I write about one thing. It's not always that their story is directly related to what I've shared, but it touched something for them or reminded them of something in their own life, or a family member's or a friend's life. I think, for me, that fact, that it's reached so many people, is what keeps me going.
Sarah Mirk: Yeah. That's one interesting thing is you're talking about writing about really private acts, but you were saying you want to put writing out there in the world that adds to the conversation in some way.
How do you feel like you write about your own sex life in a way that really brings something new to a bigger picture? When you're thinking about a story you're going to tell, do you ever get nervous about, "Oh, this is just a small thing that happened to me and I have to relate it to some big picture."
Rachel Bussel: That's a good question, because I think it's hard to contextualize your life in that way, especially if you're still dealing with something. I don't necessarily think that every person's individual story has a corollary with something exactly going in the culture, but I am pretty sure that even if you think you have the most outrageous, crazy story that's never happened to anyone else, it's probably happened to someone else.
I think that's part of why we're so interested in sex, because whatever your personal sex life is, you have a sexual imagination and I think people are curious about other people's sex lives and they're always going to be.
Sarah Mirk: I'm interested in talking about the ethics of sex writing. When you're writing a piece like that about yourself, how do you deal with the issue of you're also making somebody else's life public, the person that you're having that interaction with?
Then, especially if you're writing about strangers and their sex lives ... You've interviewed a ton of people about their sex lives. How do you deal with ethics of, "Oh, I'm not sure I should publish this." What do you publish from someone's sex life?
Rachel Bussel: I think this is an ongoing discussion in the culture, especially with blogs and online journalism, because there is some degree of legal culpability. If you write something about someone and you leave it pretty clear who they are, that's something that could possibly ... I don't know exactly the legality of that, but I feel like, first of all, when I'm writing about something real that happened with someone, if I'm publishing it as nonfiction, I ask myself first, "Why am I writing this? Am I writing it to make fun of them or because I'm mad at them, or is there a broader purpose to me writing about it?" Usually in those cases I'm writing in the first person, and I try to bring it back to my own reaction.
I think if you are writing about sexuality and your own life, there's no way to get around the fact that you're probably going to be writing about other people at times.
One of the first things I do is make sure that the person isn't identifiable. Now, they may think they're identifiable, and they might know who they are, and maybe your best friend who you told something to might know who they are, but to the broader world, you don't want to say, "Oh, and they have a tattoo of Morrissey on their left bicep, and this person has-"
I don't know anyone with that tattoo, that was a totally random example.
Sarah Mirk: That seems a little personal, I think.
Rachel Bussel: You don't want to do that, out of respect for that person, because I think that we would all want that respect in return.
The broader question of is it ethical to write about someone who you've slept with? I fall on the line of, it's your life to write about your own reactions, but I also think that person could respond as well. I think there should be more of that, I would love to read more he-said, she-said or she-said, she-said.
I think there was a story that Elizabeth Gilbert's ex-husband was going to write a response book to Eat, Pray, Love, and then I don't remember exactly why, but he never did. I was excited to read that. I thought that would be interesting, because I don't think that one person writing something down is the final word. It's always your subjective opinion and I think we have to remember that, especially with first-person personal essays. That's always one person's take on what happened, it's not the definitive answer to it.
I think those are still valuable, those personal takes, because it's about what you learn from it. I think sometimes ... This is veering off-topic a little, but sometimes people will read an essay someone wrote and say, "Oh, well, you're saying that because you had a great time at a swinger's party or at a nudist colony or at the dungeon, but you're saying everyone should do that."
I think that's a really false reading of a first-person piece. If someone's saying, "I enjoyed it," you might infer that you, too, might enjoy it, but unless they're saying explicitly, "Everyone should try this," they're just saying, "This is what happened to me."
I think that, because sex is so personal for people, sometimes readers confuse that.
Sarah Mirk: That was Rachel Kramer Bussel in New York.
Comic book Smut Peddler started out in 2003 as a humble black-and-white mini-comic with a bold ambition: to be the world's sexiest anthology of women-centric comic book smut. Unlike the love stories of mainstream superhero comics, the characters in Smut Peddler anthologies vary in body size and race and sexual appetite, with many of its short comics focusing on queer stories.
After three issues, the initial incarnation of Smut Peddler went out of print, but Chicago comics artist and writer Spike revived it from the dead in 2012. Her 350-page sexy comics anthology immediately sold like hotcakes. Now Spike, well-known for publishing her webcomic Templar Arizona, is back with Volume 2.
The second issue of Smut Peddler is a self-published book, funded on Kickstarter, that draws from some of the best artists publishing sex-positive comics online. Smut Peddler will bring its saucy mix of erotic comics to the shelves of comic book shops and feminist sex stores nationwide this August.
I talked with Spike about what makes a good sexy comic. So Spike, you're the editor of the world's sexiest anthology of women-centric comic book smut.
Spike: That's me.
Sarah Mirk: That's quite the big job title.
Spike: Oh yeah, it's one I took on myself. I'm really proud of what Smut Peddler has become, not just for what it is in your hand as a comic book, but what it symbolizes and the statement it has made with its success.
Sarah Mirk: Tell me about that statement. What does it mean to you?
Spike: I am 35, and I remember distinctly growing up with ... I was never directly told this, but the ambient knowledge that pornography was for men. It was made by men for the enjoyment of men. The occasional woman made porn and that was great and everything, but it wasn't something women made for themselves.
In that kind of environment, you grow up, you like the idea of sex, you like the idea of romance, you like the idea of people getting it on, but when you look at porn, you're not being considered as part of the audience. And when I say "porn" here, I mean the porn that's being produced in the valley in California, coming out on DVD and there's 74 chapters and it's got a very targeted audience and it's not you. But I think with the advent of things like the Internet and Tumblr, I think it's become very obvious that kids, I mean the best thing ... I think of people who are under 25 as kids, so I'm talking people between maybe 16 and 21-23, they are very much in touch with the idea that women can enjoy porn too and they make their own porn and it's awesome and it's hot and it has ... They're not growing up with this misconception that porn is something that's not for them. Smut Peddler is the crystallization of that concept, sort of the push back against porn for men exclusively. The fact that it can go on Kickstarter and it can make the money it made and make all the creators all this money and get so much attention for it, I think that's actually really important and that's a statement. Again, yeah it's porn, I get that, but at the same time, more than that, it’s a statement of sexual ... Gosh, what's the word I'm looking for? Agency, I think I'd say.
Sarah Mirk: That's definitely interesting, you're running a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign right now to publish the second version of Smut Peddler that you've taken on. You were shooting for $20,000 in your Kickstarter campaign, and as of today there's 5 days left in the campaign. You've raised $129,000 and there's been 3,800 people who have given you money. What that says to me is that clearly there's a market for this. Clearly there's a lot of people out there who are hungry for this kind of content, who really want sexy, feminist-friendly comics.
Sarah Mirk: And yet you run this from your office, it's just you making this thing. Do you feel like traditional publishers don't get it or haven't gotten up to speed yet?
Spike: I have had it suggested to me that I team up with traditional publishers, and I did send out feelers after 2012, but since then ... I'm not really sure that anybody could offer me anything that's better than what I'm doing on my own, and by "on my own" I mean the editorial side of things. Obviously I need all the amazing artists and writers involved, that's a no-brainer. Because this country has had to deal with something called the Comics Code Authority and that is something that came out of a moral panic decades and decades ago, mid-century, where a psychologist by the name of Fredric Wertham insisted that comics like Tales from the Crypt and true-crime comics, and so on and so forth, were a cause of juvenile delinquency. In order to avoid government regulation, the comics industry instituted its own form of regulation, which is the Comics Code Authority. If you're familiar with the Hayes Code of Hollywood, that's kind of what the Comics Code Authority was.
It had things in it where you could not depict marriage in a negative light, all criminals had to be caught and no criminal enterprise had to prosper, superheroes could only do and say certain things, women could only do and say certain things. You could not question authority in a comic book, and of course, depictions of sexuality, completely out.
This actually had an interesting knock-on effect in that there were tons and tons of women comic readers around the time the Comic Code Authority was just emerging, but a lot of these women comics readers were reading romance comics and girls' adventure comics. Just to be on the safe side, those comics stopped being published, and as result, what was left on the comics stand was superheroes and Bugs Bunny. It was like that until comics with an X, underground comics, Robert Crum and his compatriots, came in with the hippies.
But that did a lot of damage to the comics scene in America, to the point now where most Americans, when they think comics they think superheroes, but that's because every other genre was made practically unsellable by the Comics Code Authority.
Sarah Mirk: Something that you were pointing to that definitely resonates with me is that these days, lots and lots of people are making their own sex-positive and pretty sexually graphic comics, a lot of them being published online and especially on the website Tumblr.
Sarah Mirk: It really seems to me, as somebody who stumbles across these things, that there's definitely a renaissance going on in terms of people writing their own and drawing their own sex-positive comics.
Spike: This goes back, again, to the Comics Code Authority and comics history. For a long time, comics was restricted to the comics shop, which is quite frankly a notoriously chauvinistic environment. Not all of them, I've been to some amazing comic shops, but to this day a lot of comic shops have significant trouble with female fans. It's made as an unwelcome environment.
Women go into comic shops and they get commentary from the clerk behind the counter that, "You have the smallest breasts in the store," and who is going to feel welcome in an environment like that? They go into comics shops and start browsing the aisles, and they get ridiculed for their comic choices because they're not what th clerk thinks they should be.
The self-appointed gatekeepers of comics are what kept the readership of a certain demographic for a long time, but there are no longer any gatekeepers. It's the Internet again, it's Tumblr.
Sarah Mirk: So what's exciting about Smut Peddler is that you're taking this comics world that's really thrived online and that has lots of fans and followers online and bringing it into comics shops and bringing it into traditional publishing, and putting that world of sex-positive comics into the hands of people who like to read books and people who do like to go to comics stores and might not even know what Tumblr is.
Sarah Mirk: What makes a good sex-positive, women-friendly comic that you would want to include in Smut Peddler? What do you look for?
Spike: First and foremost, agency is very important. The people involved have to want to be there, and I mean the characters in the story, not the creators. Things like consent is a no-brainer, no one gets any points for consent, that's just one of those things that's required. You don't get a special dispensation because everyone in your comic is willing and able.
Shame-free sex is very important. I find that that can be a really unfortunate element, coercive sex and shameful sex are something I see more than I would like to in a lot of erotic comics that aren't women-centric.
I find that women really appreciate depictions of varied bodies and varied sexualities. Women like seeing people in their erotic comics who have smaller breasts or have larger waistlines, or they have skin tones that are closer to their own. Maybe they're a little older, things like that.
Sarah Mirk: Can you tell me about a comic that, when it came into your inbox, you immediately said, "Yes. This is great. I love this, I want to publish it."
Spike: Absolutely. Jess Fink is a fantastic cartoonist. You should look her up if you're not familiar with her. She recently put out a ... I guess they call it a time-travel memoir. It's called We Can Fix It, which is just her visiting herself at different periods of her life and telling herself, ultimately, "Things are going to be okay, just hang in there," and making out with herself. So it's extremely funny and very poignant.
Her submission to Smut Peddler is called "How You Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?" It's about a space alien who is probably not the greatest UFO pilot to have ever lived, because he crashes his spacecraft on earth and he can't fix it. He's not handy enough. And he happened to crash his spacecraft close to a school where a young man is attending class, but he is getting ... This is sort of a period piece. I'd have a hard time placing it, but I'd say early 20th, late 19th century. He's having a hard time with his classmates because homophobic slurs are being thrown at him and he's kind of a teacher's pet and he's already a very retiring, shy kind of guy so this is doing him no favors, but he's also very much a tech head. He's very good with mechanical things.
The alien finds this out and the alien decides he needs this human to fix his spaceship. The dialogue suggested to me, and this is very important, the dialogue suggested to me that these two people genuinely grew to like one another. They didn't start out that way, but they grew to like one another. Despite their language barriers and cultural barriers and the fact that they're not the same species, they manage to figure out how to talk to one another and get to know one another and display attraction for one another in a sincere and believable way.
The problem I have with a lot of porn, and it's porn by everybody across the board here when I say this. I don't believe that these two people are particularly interested in having sex with one another. It's that stereotypical scenario where the bored housewife says to the cable guy, "Oh gosh, free HBO. However could I thank you?" There's nothing appealing about that scenario to me. A nerdy human kidnapped by a space alien, I can see that happening.
Sarah Mirk: You were saying that some of the most important things that you look fort are a lack of coercion and people actually liking each other. So do you have any comics in Smut Peddler that deal with BDSM and consent within a situation where there's a control imbalance?
Spike: Oh, absolutely. The first one that comes to mind is by Kate Leth. She is the author of Kate or Die, a comic on ComicAlliance, and she also recently also wrote an Adventure Time novel for BOOM! She did one about a bisexual woman who, up until that comic, had exclusively dated men. Her friends knew she identified as bisexual, but now she's dating a woman and it is a dominant-submission kind of relationship. For now, for her friends, suddenly her bisexuality is real. It's no longer theoretical. It's no longer a stated fact, it's an evidentiary fact. I like that one because that one deals with trust and power exchange. That's the quintessential good BDSM story to me.
Sarah Mirk: What kind of stories are you sick of seeing? What comics, when they come into your inbox, are you like, "Oh, this again?"
Spike: Let me think. Honestly, a lot of the submissions I get are very unique. I'm trying to think of the stuff I've turned down, just because I've seen too much of it. Gosh, let me think, let me think. Mostly what I've turned down, the only theme across the board ... It's hard to get into detail, I just don't buy it. These people in this relationship are going to have sex and I don't buy it, the same way I read a story and it's about two school kids, and one kid sees the other school kid and falls in love, and I'm just supposed to accept that okay, they're in love now. I don't buy it. That's not how it has ever happened in my experience and the experience of others. Insincere sex, I suppose you could call it.
Sarah Mirk: Like it feels cheesy or fake, or not realistic?
Spike: I have a big thing about pillow talk that is not realistic-sounding. I do not like pillow talk that is filled with metaphors or really unusual ... No one in the heat of the moment would say certain things.
Sarah Mirk: Please tell us some terrible pillow talk.
Spike: Oh, no. Oh, gosh. Oh, I hope they aren't listening to this. One in particular would be, "Strike me as Hephaestus would strike his anvil."
Sarah Mirk:So that's a classical reference in the pillow talk?
Spike: It was about the Greek gods and I was reading that and I'm like, "Nobody would say that."
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