This essay first appeared on the blog, The Phantom Paragrapher on January 13, 2020.
Who cannot be aware of the well-deserved ruckus concerning cultural appropriation? It is no longer acceptable to ape features or stereotypes of another gender, race, ethnicity, or any demographic we do not personally occupy. Each such group in its own way has been culturally, economically, or otherwise deprived, and now demands its place in the sun.
What is the fiction writer to do? We create all kinds of characters, and though it is wise to consider submitting certain of our work to “sensitivity readers,” some of us are loath to do that for a variety of reasons, mine being I don’t want anybody besides a professional editor telling me how to write. Yet, there is peril.
My own response is to write characters within the confines of universal responses and feelings. It’s safe to say we all feel threatened when our lives are in danger or to be robbed; or we all want our children to do well; or we want earn a good living, be independent, etc. Eighty percent of what we are is universally shared. But there also are responses to events or images or representations unique to certain classes of people different from the one I occupy.
Take women. I as a man don’t know the kind of vulnerability women must feel knowing that half of the world’s population could physically overpower them if it wanted and not constrained; or as a black person what it’s like to be followed around a store on the assumption I am suspect, as they commonly experience. So, of course there are matters which groups are sensitive to and must be respected in our depictions.
The once-rigid silos our respective groups occupied have evolved into cyclone fences: They still contain us but make us more visible to one another. If I as a white male write a female character through the sole prism of my masculinity, I may distort the presentation of her, whereupon my story’s verisimilitude for female readers goes poof. On the other hand, I can no more suspend my male-ness and have every right to possess and express it as she her female-ness. Nor do I want to try to become female. I couldn’t do it with any honesty. The obvious answer is to hear her hopes, fears, aspirations and respect them and her. On the other hand, what do I, as a male writer, do with the bad boy-as-lust-object phenomenon which makes no damned sense to me? Writing sex is no less complicated than real life sex.
Then how do I write a heterosexual love scene? Submit it to a female sensitivity reader to make sure I got her part right? What then happens to the exquisite dance of fantasy, power, control and submission integral to real life sex? In real life, those things get acted out in subtle ways which sexual partners make known and accede to, even crave. When asked if sex was dirty, Woody Allen said, “If you’re doing it right.” What does that mean to a woman? Sex at midnight on the Spanish Steps in Rome? And when? Always? Sometimes? What does it mean to men? Silly costumes?
Death in the Family contains three passages involving sex. Each is different. One is a power play; one is lovemaking; one is lustful. The story is written in the first person, its protagonist, Donny Lentini. In writing each scene I was ultimately guided by the scene’s purpose and motivations of the couple. I was also aware that just as there is no one way to do sex, there is no one way to write it. Further, I gave up on the idea that anything I’ve read or heard or discussed about women’s sexuality and constellation of feelings surrounding love, lust, and sex would enable me to, as Woody Allen suggested, do it right. I had no choice but to write those scenes as a man and hope that my deep respect for women and Donny’s respect and need and love for Pepper would render the writing true. I also can’t deny, it was kicks writing them. You don’t write a scene without visualizing the action and breaking it down second by second and act by act as if under a strobe light.
In my novel, I Detest All My Sins, the sex was not between two consenting lovers, but violent, perverse, controlling, unwanted, and by a despicable character written for the reader to hate. It is a case in point regarding my argument about (some) sensitivity readers. Bad guy Deadly Eddie Matthews takes a woman captive and sexually abuses her. Although thoroughly distasteful, it was written to establish a moral lesson concerning justice, power, and righteous vengeance. In many ways, writing wrong sex is easier than writing right sex. In that book, the female character metes out vengeance in an especially delicious way.
And a final consideration: No two people are alike and they change from moment to moment, depending on the stimulus. Life is dynamic that way. A sex scene in a crime novel is a snapshot of two characters under specific circumstances in a particular moment in time.
If the writer’s heart and mind are in the right place to begin with, he is much more apt to get the scene right.