Saturday, June 7, 2008

Sex in Fiction

I'm conducting a workshop on THE JOY OF WRITING SEX at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association in July. Along with reading the book of the same name, I'm picking other writers' and readers' brains about the first time they read a book in which there was explicit sex. If you'd please help me out with your observations, I'd appreciate it. What I'd like to know is:

How old were you?
Title and Author?
How was the scene used to advance the story or deepen characterization?
How did it make you feel?

I'll start.

Most folks might imagine my first exposure to sex in fiction was in a romance novel. Not so. I was 17 years old, a junior in high school and in a Contemporary Fiction class. The teacher had given us a laundry list of "college-bound classic" which we had to read and write reports on. I dove into the work with glee. Reading was like candy to me. Still is.

One of the first titles I pulled from the list was John Updike's RABBIT RUN, a piece of literary fiction that has been roundly hailed by critics as brilliant. TIME listed it as one of the top 100 novels of the 20th century.

I was not ready for it. I was pretty naive for this bleak, depressing look at life and relationships. And I was totally shocked by the oral sex "Rabbit" Harry Angstrom coerces Ruth, a prostitute, into performing on the night his wife Janice is giving birth to their child. First, because I had no idea people did such things (told you I was naive) and secondly, because the relationships between Rabbit and Janice and Rabbit and Ruth are cold and abusive. There was no joy. No real pleasure in the exchange for either of them. No connection beyond flesh.

And perhaps that was the point. Updike seemed to be saying "Life is meaningless. We fill it with useless activity and people with whom we have little in common. Get yours." If that was his goal, he achieved it. I felt depressed as I read RABBIT RUN. It felt cheap and dirty.

If I read it again now, I think I'd still find it depressing, but I might have more pity for the characters who are frantically searching for meaning and can't seem to find it.

Ok. Your turn. I'm looking forward to hearing about your literary "first time."


Rowena Cherry said...


I don't remember how old I was...alas... but everyone was talking with shock and disbelief about Lady Chatterley's Lover by D.H. Lawrence.

I was definitely a schoolgirl, and probably in the upper fourth or lower fifth, when we haunted the school library in scholastic pursuit of definitions of naughty words.

The scene that I understood and remember was the one in the shed, where he touches Lady Chatterley in a place I never associated with sex, and to this day do not find sexy.

Moreover, he commented!

I was shocked and horrified, and I've never read anything else by Lawrence. I can't remember if I even finished the book.

I suppose the scene showed what a coarse, rude fellow the gardener was!

EmilyBryan said...

Thanks for jumping in, Ro.

Interesting. So far when it comes to more literary fiction, we have a high "ick" factor.

I remember my mother telling me about the first time she read a romance novel. She'd had no idea reading a book could be so "thrilling."

The way I felt about the sex in the first romance novel I read was much different than the Updike sex too. It was a positive experience. It made me feel optimistic and happier.

Ella Drake said...

I was an early prolific reader, and read EVERYTHING that fell into my hands. The one that stands out in my mind, so it must haveeen the first, was when I'd gotten my hands on an adult's poorly hidden pulp porn book. I think age-wise I wasn't even in double digits. The scene that stuck was a woman with two men. I remember being a little shocked and a little intrigued. I wondered how it worked, and why they would want to do that. I also had a friend whose dad had Playboys filling several cupboards. The man had an impressive collection, and my friend and I would read them together, mostly to giggle. This makes me wonder how common it must be to have porn as the first introduction to sex in media/print.

Alongside The Hobbit and Pride and Prejudice, I tried to read Lady Chatterley's Lover and Fanny Hill as a teen--I didn't really like them and thought they were depressing, too. I put them down and didn't finish. Unfortunately for me, another early scene that won't leave my head, and I truly wish I could "unread" was in a horror novel that I'm clearly suppressing because I don't remember who wrote it.

Needless to say, the earliest scenes I read were the ones I really should not have read at such early ages, and there were no loving relationships portrayed in any of them.

The first sex scene that opened my eyes to romance was in SHANNA by Kathleen Woodiwiss. I believe I read it in reprint in college. Not sure. It took my breath away, and I've been in love with romance since.