Roundtable: On sex and writing
October 30th, 2023
How do you capture the experience of sex on the page? These writers and editors shed some light on their process.
Writing about sex can sometimes feel like dancing about architecture. It can feel futile to try and translate the experiences of the body onto paper. And yet, many people have done it, and done it well. Feeld reached out to a range of writers—including editors, journalists, memoirists, and novelists—whose work touches on sex in different ways to ask them how they approach the subject.
What are some words or phrases you over rely on when writing about sex?
Connection, ecstasy, transcendence. —Janet Hardy
“Stroke” and “fuck” probably. Alas! Fuck stroking. —Casey Plett
When reporting, I try to be very conscious about avoiding generalizations. I use a lot of quantifiers: some, many, most, others, (i.e., “many people with clitorises prefer external stimulation, others are more sensitive.”) I sometimes worry about sounding too vague, but I think it’s important to remember that sex and pleasure are extremely personal, and look different from person to person. —Anna Fitzpatrick
What words or phrases do you absolutely avoid?
Twee little euphemisms for genitals et al. Back when I was reading manuscripts for Greenery [Press], I kept a running account of the most abstruse genital euphemism, but I retired the trophy after encountering “her hot needy petals of lust.” —Janet
I bet mine are similar to many other people's...or, at least, I hope they are! I don't like cozy little euphemisms along the lines of “romp” and “steamy.” —Amy Rose Spiegel
Growing up in the Middle East, my grade school classmate's father worked at a local bookstore, and she was able to nab forbidden bodice-rippers and other pulpy, naughty novels for me and her to read. While I enjoyed them and they served like an erotic education of a sort, I stay away from the kind of language they used, which ranges from purple to euphemistically shy to clinical. Like...I can't really read “member” without laughing. —Sarah Thankam Mathews
Female, male, any kind of childish word for genitalia (muff, wiener, bits etc.) —Cathy Reay
“Ecstasy” or “moan” and their attendant variations. No thanks! —Casey
Which writers (past or present) cover sex especially well?
Dr. Jack Morin's The Erotic Mind is, to me, the best overall nonfiction book about what turns us on, and why. —Janet
Online: Ro White, Samantha Cole (though she also has a great book), and Penda N'diaye. Offline: Rene Ricard and John Keene. —Amy Rose
Arundhati Roy, Philip Roth, Raven Leilani, Garth Greenwell, J.D. Holmes, Jane DeLynn, Davey Davis, Noor Naga. —Sarah
Helen Hoang's romance novels are breathtakingly horny; it's kind of extraordinary. Like many others, I was mesmerized by Jean Garnett's Paris Review essay, "Scenes From an Open Marriage". which was so elegant and matter-of-fact. We work with Hallie Lieberman a lot, and I am always thrilled by the way she zeroes in on adrenalizing pop-culture angles like: What happens when you have sex with a celebrity? —Estelle Tang
Rachel Thompson at Mashable, Lois Shearing at Cosmo, Beth Ashley, Evie Muir. —Cathy
Tamara Faith Berger. —Casey
What do you look for in good sex writing?
Intelligence, which in this case means a way of relating the mechanics of sex to all the other ways humans interact. The simple in-out in-out is not very challenging, but exploring the way it connects to love, friendship, lust, spirituality et al. is the work of several lifetimes. —Janet
Good sex writing is not that different from good writing, period. Confidence, originality, humanness, a command of language, and a characterization that's deep and precise. I read scenes of intimacy wanting to believe them, to be transported, to feel something. —Sarah
Inclusive terminology around gender and a deep sensitivity and awareness of being gender-inclusive; articles that don't shame anyone or add to the pressure to “perform” well; pieces that are based on real (not Hollywood-esque) experiences; features that prioritize the lived experience of marginalized people. —Cathy
I love a fiction writer who can convincingly eroticize something that wouldn’t otherwise turn me on. You know how in the movie Crash, David Cronenberg was able to at least temporarily convince people that car crashes are really sexy actually? I love any art that lets me hang out in someone else’s sexuality for a while. —Anna
What is a piece of sex writing that you've written or edited that you're especially proud of?
There's been a lot both before and since, but I think it's still my first book, Action: A Book About Sex. —Amy Rose
My colleague David Mack messaged me one day, saying, “What if I go to a poppers factory?” He ended up writing "This Man Does Not Make Poppers." which asks: how did a banned substance end up in basically every bodega and corner store, and why is some 65-year-old straight white guy from Connecticut making it? —Estelle
I really enjoyed writing this piece on accessible sex toys. It's hard finding outlets to take pitches about disabled people having sex, so whenever I can publish something that—shocker— confirms this, I feel quite proud! —Cathy
I still love mine and Dossie [Easton]'s book Radical Ecstasy: S/M Journeys in Transcendence the best. It's certainly not the bestselling of our books, but I think in many ways it's the most important. —Janet
I wrote a story called “Rose City, City of Roses” where there's a sex scene that I hoped to be explicit and intimate, and it ended up being one sentence. I think I'm proud of it. —Casey
How do you balance the erotic with the informative in your work?
When I assign stories about sex, my logic is usually some version of: this will help people have the sex they want. We ran a story about how common it is to schedule sex, and hundreds of thousands of people read it; it's not titillating at all, but, like, now you know, put it in your Google Calendar. You'll bone more. —Estelle
That's a constant struggle. Having lived in the most arcane reaches of sexual and relationship communities for several decades, it can be very difficult for me to ascertain what "normal" people understand and what they don't. Trying to find a balance between confusing them and patronizing them is very challenging—I try to have my work read by people from all walks of life, who can tell me when I'm being too abstruse or too didactic. —Janet
I tend towards the informative in my nonfiction work. The erotic will come out naturally depending on what I’m writing about; if I’m describing films I’ve seen at the Independent Porn Awards, or quoting interview subjects when they talk about their sex lives. I try not to editorialize other people’s experiences and default to their words when I can. Of course, when it comes to my fiction writing, all this is reversed. —Anna
Spellcheck: do you write it “Come” or “Cum”?
Come as a verb; cum as a noun. —Amy Rose
Come, always. —Sarah
I'm reluctantly okay with “cum” as a noun, although I prefer “jizz.” As a verb, it's a major squick for me—a harsh vulgar word for a glorious experience. I don't even use "come" very often—there are many better ways to describe ejaculation and orgasm. —Janet
Cum is the noun; come is the verb. —Estelle
Depends on the story. I'm a Gemini. —Casey
About the contributors
Casey Plett is the author of A Dream of a Woman, Little Fish, A Safe Girl to Love, the co-editor of Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction and Fantasy From Transgender Writers, and the publisher at LittlePuss Press.
Cathy Reay is a freelance journalist writing on disability, accessibility, love, and relationships. She has written for The Guardian, Glamour, Metro and I paper, among others.
Amy Rose Spiegel is a writer and editor living in New York. She is the author of two books, Action: A Book About Sex and No One Does It Like You. She was the writer and host of the podcast series Power: Hugh Hefner.
Estelle Tang is the deputy culture editor at BuzzFeed News.
Sarah Thankam Mathews grew up between Oman and India, immigrating to the United States at seventeen. She is the author of the novel All This Could Be Different. In 2020, she founded the mutual aid group Bed-Stuy Strong.