On Writing About Sex In America

A story about a short story with at least three lives

I have a story in Kink, a new anthology that came out last week edited by R. O. Kwon and Garth Greenwell, two writers I love and admire enormously. Kwon’s moving story of the genesis of the anthology is worth your time. My story’s title, “Best Friendster Date Ever,” one of my favorite titles, suggests what is easy to confirm: the story is not new, and in fact, this is the third anthology this story has been in. And in that is a story.

The first anthology was Best Gay Erotica 2006, edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore and Richard Labonte, and was published by Cleis Press, at the time a radical feminist press. The contributor’s list included Dennis Cooper, Patrick Califia, Kevin Killian and the late Sam D’Allesandro, our queer Breece D’J Pancake. The second was Susie Bright’s Best American Erotica 2007, published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon and Schuster — Kink’s publisher. That contributor’s list impressed me at the time and even more so now: Dennis Cooper, Octavia Butler, Kathryn Harrison. Both of the previous anthologies are similar to Kink, in that both had literary writers the way Kink does, queer writers in at least some of the way Kink does, though it is true that the diversity of the contributor’s list is extraordinary, if I can say that as someone in it. Yes, in 2021, Kink has been reviewed by mainstream outlets like The New Republic, The New Yorker and The New York Times, where it has been welcomed as an anthology where literary writing and sex writing meet. It is now in a second printing. Part of that is the brilliant editorial vision of Kwon and Greenwell. Part of that is the hard work of the writers in the anthology, and the writers who came before us. And so this is something of a backward glance, then, to praise those previous editorial visions. Richard Labonte was my visionary boss at A Different Light Books in San Francisco, and he cultivated many writers through these anthologies, which he edited for years. And Sycamore’s vision for diversity as an anthologist and a writer is a part of their long-standing commitment to a more radical world. And we surely would not have queer literary sex writing in the mainstream without the efforts of Susie Bright.

I made very few edits in each of the story’s different iterations. If anything has changed, it is the world around it. I’m not prepared to say I think we are more tolerant as a culture, exactly. But maybe there are just a few more people on our side. Whatever that side is.

From the photo archive of sexologist Richard Freiherr von Krafft-Ebing (1840–1902), courtesy of the Public Domain Review.

My first fiction writing teacher, Phyllis Rose, told us there were two topics for literature — sex and death. This was the first of my college writing classes back in the late 1980s, and I remember I got excited — this was the first time someone had said this to me and it seemed very grown up and sophisticated to speak this way. I soon noticed it was more common to write about death, though, because you were never made to be embarrassed about death.

If you wrote about sex, you might be laughed at. You could be accused of writing porn by your classmates, or worse, the teacher. This was considered bad, potentially a kind of de facto harassment. More often than not you’d hear, did I need to see that? — the comment someone usually made when complaining about sex in workshopped stories. Conversations ran toward craft but used as a code for permissibility. Was it was acceptable to use the “language of porn,” for example? Did this sex scene need to be there? Did it need to be described that way?

What exactly was the language of porn? I remembered wondering. Was I supposed to use medically correct terms in trying to write literary sex scenes, and avoid the slang any child learns?

Thus came about, I suspect, a very common genre of story in college, known as the “dead grandmother story.” (Grandfathers died too but were less often the topic somehow.) It is true that deaths and funerals are typically a place where secrets are uncovered, which I think is part of another related genre I see now as a teacher — the “going through the effects of the deceased” story. There’s considerable drama around who grandmother wanted to see get that necklace she liked, or the story you can find in the disorganized contents of the home of the deceased.

All of this was confusing given what I’d learned, in college, about the 20th century modernist literary mission of including the obscene within the literary. It somehow didn’t seem to account for including pleasure in the text, queer pleasure especially. The unspoken message, by the 1980s, for us writing students, was that writing about pain was noble, writing about pleasure was possibly shameful, and writing about pleasures some considered shameful was pornographic, i.e., “bad.”

But there’s only so long as a writer that you can ignore sex.

After college, I made my way to San Francisco, where by comparison, it seemed like sex was the only topic of our conversation, if not our writing. When I arrived to San Francisco in the late 1980s, it was a place where it seemed like many people’s day jobs supported their sex lives. Me included. San Francisco was a place to figure yourself out, I decided while I was there, and that could go on for as long as you wanted it to. Your sex life there was like an art you supported but without the hope of making a living at it, unless of course you were a sex worker, but they were often people who themselves were paying for an education in something else. And then I met the sex workers who are performance artists in their own right, writers whose work is deeply connected to sex work.

I also met many New Narrative writers then for example, who never declared themselves as such to me at least, but who were, from what I could see, busy recreating our sense of what was permissible on the page and in life. I would sit reading and drinking coffee at Café Flore with Steve Abbott, for example, on any given day of the week, or if I didn’t have time to sit with him, I might go and grab a coffee to go from Spinelli’s, where Sam D’Allesandro’s ex-boyfriend would serve me and sometimes tell me stories about him. Kevin Killian, Dody Bellamy, Kitty Tsui, Patrick Califia, Dorothy Allison, Robert Glück, they were all around me in the store where I worked, coming to readings or giving readings or just there to pass the time and browse. In a world where these writers were writing, there was no way to think of avoiding writing about sex. It didn’t make any sense to me to leave it out.

The press around Kink has involved various attempts to define kink. Something I would like to offer that seems directly connected to the literary is how kink almost always involves either imagined scenes, contexts, fictional personae, costumes, masks taken off or put on, new names, new worlds — kink is, to put it more directly, as good a training to be a writer as any other place you might try to find yourself. And the connection to pleasure? A bonus.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop as a graduate student that I met Elizabeth Benedict, a teacher who took writing about sex seriously enough that she published a book about it, The Joy of Writing Sex. Her influence on my thinking about sex and writing at the Paris Review:

It seems to me that the writers we love most are those who manage to capture something we ourselves have thought and rejected, for being forbidden, dangerous, elusive, something that if we made room for it would undo something else we want to keep, so we force it away — literature as a catalogue of rejected thoughts. For the way they can hold onto what the rest of us would put away as dangerous, they become heroes, the ones who emerge with the one thing we hoped to keep secret, but know we need.

At the MFA level, conversations with peers outside of class too often included calculations around whether writing about sex disadvantaged you in applications for programs, grants, arts colonies, or teaching jobs—another kind of code for “don’t do this.” It was almost never a conversation about art or artistic freedom.

By the time I published my debut novel in November of 2001, I was considered part of a next wave gay literary writer alongside Scott Heim and Dale Peck, publishing in the mainstream— as Caleb Crain noted in his 2014 essay, “How Much Gay Sex Should A Novel Have?”—and debuting with explicit gay sex scenes in my work. When I met the writer Emily Gould in the late Oughts, she told me she had read my work in an erotica class.

Source: Public Domain Review

The story in Kink was written after the publication of that novel. I was not trying to liberate myself to write about sex by then — I was trying to write about what was past the declarations — the narrator is out, he is living a life of hapless serial monogamy, aware that more exists outside the perimeter of his life. I was trying to write about pleasure as its own allegiance. As I told the BAR, I was interested in the idea of the story as being about “people at the lip of a cave full of treasure, playing with something that led them to the entrance.”

Eventually, the story became the kind of item I would sometimes consider leaving off my CV when applying for certain jobs. But then I would feel ashamed, and not just at wanting to hide the credit. So I left it in, would maybe doubt myself if I didn’t get the job, and then resign myself to my fate, which is that I am who I am and a single CV line doesn’t change that.

I always included the credit in the end as I have been writing explicit sex scenes for my queer characters since I applied for an MFA program in 1991. The choice I made then was based on my belief that any program that accepted me would have to accept that I wrote about this material or it wasn’t safe for me to go there. I called this theory the “be your own freak” theory of success, which meant, to me, that I had to do this on my own terms.

I still work this way. I still think it is the only way. Anyway, please do get yourself a copy of Kink.

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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