As you may know, I spent much of this week at AWP’s 2013 conference in Boston. On the last day, I attended a panel on how to write a good sex scene. The panelists read from their own works and from those of other writers who they think have written sexual intercourse well. Some of the scenes were raunchy and graphic, others were tender. How sex was depicted depended on what the writer knew to be true about the character. Womanizers don’t go soft, so to speak, so if that’s who the character was, that’s how his language about sex was written.
I heard eight examples of “good” sex scenes—all between heterosexual men and women. (I can’t call them couples; you’ll see why in a minute). In all but two, the man’s goals and pleasure were the focus, even when the scene was narrated by the woman. And from what I could tell, only three contained the woman’s clear consent. Of those that didn’t, one depicted a man getting his brother’s ex girlfriend dead drunk; she followed his commands and seemed to be enjoying herself by the end, but it wasn’t clear that she knew who he was. Another had an electrician finding a woman in the woods and her crying at the end of their encounter. Another involved adult play in which the woman was surprised to be whipped and had welts but liked it. Maybe. Or just went with it.
I can’t help but be disturbed by this. Most of the examples were written by women, and women made up half the panel. When someone in the audience asked why the examples were so male dominated, the female panelists told her because that’s the way the world is, and their work to reflect the world’s misogyny and the characters’ experience. So I thought to myself, is consent really lacking that often in real life?
Understand now, none of these scenes fictionalized a stranger holding a knife to a woman’s throat or a gun to her head, or even overpowering her with his physical strength. They each showed a woman not having a say in whether she wanted to have sex or wanted to have it in the way it was done, and about her going with the man’s expectation, arrangement, or pressure, without any thought to her own desires or needs. And in one case, without the capacity to decide if she wanted to have sex.
I think all of this does happens all the time, and this isn’t consent. Rape can be written with pretty language, but it can’t be a good sex scene without consent.