“Good sex is like good driving — it’s the absence of things going wrong, and it is an extraordinarily boring thing to write about.” This quote, spoken by a columnist for the Independent at the yearly Bad Sex in Fiction Award, is one of the dreariest things I have read in quite a while. If this poor bastard equates having “good sex” with following traffic regulations and avoiding any crippling collisions, well, I feel sorry him and anyone with whom he’s been intimately involved. (I wonder, did he use a road map?) I think what bothers me about the Bad Sex in Fiction Award is that contemporary fiction, for the most part, is already strangely asexual. What is, or could be, a very private act revealing characters and their relationships is relegated to the realm of other bodily functions and daily activities, like eating toast or driving an automobile. Sex primarily plays a significant part of story in novels of sexual identity or trauma, or romance or erotica, which I think bespeaks of a larger problem in our worldview—sex is something separate from life as a whole, and really something we all should be embarrassed to talk about.
Sex remains, for the most part, the domain of “low” entertainment. Sex is a big deal on Jersey Shore, or in raunchy R&B music, advertising, and pornography. The reality of sex in storytelling is considered distracting or gratuitous primarily because we see so little of it, even though it’s something people do or think about doing all the time. The Bad Sex in Fiction award only serves to make people more afraid to write about something we already avoid approaching. When sexual writing seems too clinical, or too pornographic, usually comes from an individual’s inhibitions more than the story’s content. It’s also a really unfortunate reason not to let yourself do it, in writing and sometimes in reality. Bad sex in fiction is better than no sex at all—at least these people are trying to convey something usually swept under the rug in their characters’ lives. It’s difficult to claim even a modicum of realism if everyone in a story has developed a keen disinterest in a large aspect of physical and emotional pleasure. Good sex is good if it serves the story successfully in whatever manner the author has chosen (though if it’s hot most people you’d like to hang out with will be okay with it no matter what). So, please, let fictional characters have sex. They need it.