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Slut Saga: How to Write a Sex Scene

F the dominant narrative.

By Featured, Literature

Illustration by Bei Lin.

Melisa Febos is a superstar in the literary world. Her book “Body Work” — part memoir, part craft textbook — was chosen as an NPR Best Book of the Year. It’s the textbook used by Professor Kathie Bergquist in the class “Queering the Personal Essay,” where students get to read and write about marginalization from a personal nonfiction perspective. 

Febos’ second chapter is titled “Mind Fuck.” It tackles the complicated subject of writing about sex. Her argument is that sex is typically depicted in literature from the perspective of a dominant narrative. 

Society has constructed a story of what sex is supposed to look and feel like, but that narrative is based on the dominant construct of male desire. What does society think men want in sex? This is different from what people genuinely want from their sexual experiences and partners, but the blueprint is already an insidious parasite in our collective psyche. 

The way to break the cycle of reading and writing the same generic sex scenes is personal awakening. To be aware of the dominant narrative is to be able to oppose it or to write into it intentionally. 

Example: Are we writing exclusively about heterosexual sex? If we’re writing about queer sex, under what framework are we doing so? What stereotypes are we evoking? Questions like these can transform us into heightened versions of our writerly selves. Through interrogation of the paradigm, we awaken into writers who are in conscious control of how we challenge the dominant sexual narratives or adhere to them.

Febos suggests that we know we are in control of our writing when we can justify every sentence, word, and punctuation choice of our sex scenes. Although, it’s enough to be in control if we, as writers, can pinpoint the motivations, desires, and obstacles characters face in their sex scenes … as if we were discussing any other well-written platonic scene. 

The thing that resonated the most with me about “Mind Fuck” is Febos’ idea that sex, and writing about sex, is performative. The sex we have is directly influenced by collective beliefs of what our bodies should be like, and how we should sexually perform.

Despite our attempts to be as authentic as possible with sex, the bedroom can become a performance space. So can our writing. We might want to say and do things because that’s what we think others want from us, consciously or unconsciously.

My vow to you, dear “Slut Saga” reader, is to be in control of my narrative about sex — to be aware of the performance, to write with authenticity.

Febos proposes a writing exercise: Write your sexual history in five sentences. Once that’s done, do it again but without repeating any of the previous sentences. These new five sentences can be as specific or as broad as you want. You can write about a defining moment, what you like in bed, or an overview of your partners. When you’ve finished (pun not intended), do it again. Write five more sentences. Do it again. Then, do it again until you can’t come up with anything new.

This exercise is meant to rethink the stories we tell about sex. It’s the awakening we spoke of: What do we, as writers, focus on when describing sex? Where do we, as people, go to in our minds when the topic is brought up?

My performance as a sex columnist is that I have no shame. But the truth is I found myself shy when, in class, we were asked to do Febos’ exercise and then read our responses out loud.

I choked. I let out a little whimper. 

I inhaled a shallow breath. I felt vulnerable.

My resistance to sharing surprised me. 

This was the first time I wrote about my sex life in a way that was personal, and honest, and heartbreaking, and authentic. It felt raw to break the performance I had built for myself. 

I’ll share it with you. Mind you, it’s not pretty. And that’s okay. That’s what real sex is like. So, here is Sisel’s Sexual History rewritten four times:

I had sex for the first time at the age of 22. E and I had sex at least twice a day, every day, during the two years we were together. I loved having sex with him, although sometimes I don’t like having sex. My antidepressants make it really hard to cum. We broke up, but I want to go back to having sex with E. 

When I had sex for the first time, I dissociated five times. I dated a boy named M for two years, and not once did we have sex. A month after being with E, I knew I was ready to have sex with him. I told my mom I lost my virginity the same day it happened. 

My sexual record with E was 16 times in a span of three days. When E’s stepdad asked why we were still asleep at noon, E’s mom responded with, “they’re young and in love, not a lot of sleeping is happening.” Number 16 happened while we were waiting for my Uber to arrive … the condom broke. 

My specialty in sex is giving head. Both E and M said I’m the best they’ve ever had. Other than that, I am a pillow princess. I like being dominated, made submissive. I love the topic of sex so much, I was afraid I was becoming a sex addict at the age of 12. Funny enough, I came out as asexual at the age of 16.

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