When Lit-Fic Sex Goes Wrong!


I’ve finally had enough, guys. It’s happened to all of us in Romancelandia, but this was my final straw. There I was, reading a literary fiction book that shall remain unnamed but was highly touted as a must-read of the year, when the sexy part started.

“Ooh,” I thought. “Let’s go!”

And then. Her vagina. Was compared to a cabbage.

Listen, I’m no sex therapist, but if anything about your lady parts is reminding you of a cabbage, you might need a sex therapist. There are plenty of sexy fruits to choose from. Peaches are popular. Cherries are usually for first-times, but still usable. Strawberries? Nectarines? Snozberries? If you can use a fruit to describe the taste of a glass of rosé, it’s fair game to apply it as a descriptor for Downstairs.

As a good Irish girl, I rank cabbages just behind potatoes as a beloved food-source, but trust me. If you’ve ever boiled one, you know that sex and cabbages must remain separate entities. For the good of all involved.

This is not a new phenomenon. It’s not even a surprising one. The Literary Review does an annual “Bad Sex in Fiction” contest, and every year I look forward to seeing just how bad things can get. What can I say, I have a bad case of schadenfreude towards my more literary colleagues.

Some gems from the past include: sex noises that are compared to beached seals and police sirens (The Matter of the Heart by Nicholas Royle), a chompy beejer (A.A. Gill’s Starcrossed contains the line, “she got to his cock and stuck it between her teeth like a cigar.”) and this very worrisome “sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.” That one, my friends, was by the much-renowned songwriter Morrisey in his book List of the Lost. Maybe he should stick to music.

The Telegraph, not to be outdone, found a few entrants of their own. 

Samuel Beckett’s Malone Dies (spoiler alert, I guess?) features “Macmann trying to bundle his sex into his partner’s like a pillow into a pillow-slip, folding it in two and stuffing it in with his fingers.”

Bro, you need to see a doctor. Folding your manhood in two cannot be a good idea.

And beyond any of these award nominees, pick up almost any highbrow literary book and just watch the way they describe bodies and sex. You’ll find that there’s almost always something intentionally off-putting in the description. Not to mention all the times we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for two characters to get it on, only to get close-doored or badly metaphor-ed.

It wasn’t always like this. Anais Nin, Henry Miller and Erica Jong are considered to be great literary figures, and they put explicit sex into their novels. Heck, even Madeleine L’Engle has a great scene in her young adult book A House Like a Lotus.

It seems to me, with absolutely no scientific evidence to back it up, that once women started writing sexy romance designed to be read by other women, the literary establishment took the general stance that bodies and sex are not to be celebrated if you want your book to be as well. The patriarchy is a foolish thing. Because every girl I know stole romance books to read as teenagers and quietly learn about how much more there is to the act than Cosmo’s position of the month — but where are the boys going to learn it?

I don’t think it’s coincidence that most of the Bad Sex nominees are men.

Publishers of America, I implore you. Dudes have to learn this stuff somewhere, and porn is really not the way to learn about anything but interesting camera angles. You gotta put the banging back in our books.

And I get it. Sex is really hard to write. There are really only so many words out there to describe the same parts and actions. But surely even a novice can come up with something more detailed than, “We fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked, we fucked.” (The Future Won’t Be Long by Jarett Kobek.) For an absolute master-class in all available sex words and descriptions, I’d highly recommend any Sierra Simone book, but particularly her New Camelot series.

American Queen by Sierra Simone

Besides, sex is an integral part of human existence. What sense does it make to spend three-hundred pages describing every facet of a character’s life, but close the door on sex? I’d argue that the sex a person is having can tell you at least as much about their relationships with others and themselves as any normal therapy session. And certainly more than a few vignettes about how they make their coffee, or drink at night instead of talk to said therapist.

BB Easton

In fact, over the course of BB Easton’s series that begins with Skin and ends with the previously mentioned Suit, the sex is almost a metaphor for her life. With her first, totally screwed-up yet somehow really hot boyfriend, she’s submissive, letting him push all her boundaries in often harmful ways. By the time she meets her husband, she’s the one in control.

Follow by Tessa Bailey uses the sex scenes to subtly reinforce the way the two main characters open up to each other.

From the balcony scene (sweet heavens, the balcony scene!!!) where they can’t even see each other, to their near-sex looking at each other in a mirror, to finally doing it face-to-face. We see their emotional relationship reflected in the physical.

That’s not just good writing, that’s good psychology. You know, the sort of thing that gets praised in literary books.

So let’s put two middle fingers way up high at the patriarchal publishing system (#notallpublishers), and gift every man we know with romance novels this holiday season.

Hey, maybe I’m a sex therapist after all.


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