If you’re not familiar with the Bad Sex in Fiction award, I can’t describe it any better than Jezebel magazine does:
[E]ach year the Literary Review has singled out an author who writes awkwardly enough about sex to convince readers that the winning author’s experience with actual sex acts has been limited to puppet performances put on by a middle school health teacher who had a very limited sense of irony.
This year, male nominees far outnumber females, an occurrence that isn’t unusual. In fact, only two women have won the undesirable award since it began in 1993.
So are men worse at writing sex than women?
This Jezebel article, How Come The Worst Sex Writers Are Always Men?, poses a couple of interesting theories.
First off, men outnumber women in both commercial and academic publishing houses. Shockingly, only 15% of the authors at Harvard University Press are women.
The author of the Jezebel article thinks men are more heavily represented in the Bad Sex in Fiction awards for a different reason, though.
[S]ince women had (and often still have) to actively wrest control of their own sexuality away from a patriarchy that often determines how the female body is used and represented, they are able to speak with greater comfort and authority about sex when they achieve sexual autonomy. The difference between male and female authors could be as simple as the difference between the heir to a fortune and the entrepreneur who builds her own fortune from nothing — the heir would be more likely to take wealth for granted as a precondition and would have a harder time understanding how wealth is created and how it skews his worldview. In a word, this difference is entitlement and men have been entitled to sexual agency for much longer than women.
Or maybe bad sex writing is a badge of patriotic dishono(u)r. 2010’s winner, Rowan Somerville, said: “There is nothing more English than bad sex. So on behalf of the nation, I thank you.”
His novel The Shape of Her won because of erotic sentences such as: “Like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin he screwed himself into her.”
Seriously, only an Englishman would could consider moth-collecting sexy.
Romance readers might think that some of the bad sex writing sounds familiar. In 2008, John Updike won the Lifetime Achievement Award for writing a wealth of sexually awkward novels that include sentences like: “His man seed exploded into her womb.”
I hate to say it, but I’m sure I’ve read similar sentences in some romance novels. Although I love and defend my genre, I have to admit I’ve read many, many a torturous sex scene in romance novels. Are women literary authors more likely to have read similar scenes in their lives and worked hard to discover more thoughtful, less cliched ways of describing the act?
So is it the case that men really write worse sex, or does the Literary Review not include romance novels in its scope because, well, many people would take it as a given that they can include eye-gougingly horrible sex descriptions?
Maybe it’s down to the differences between how men and women communicate about sex. I don’t just mean the way they speak about it, but how they encounter it outside of their personal experiences. For the generations of authors who are nominated for the award, I would guess that women were more exposed to sex in novels than men were. Men who are in their 40s and upward now may have learned about sex more through pornographic videos and movies, or nudie magazines – media where the language used would be less diverse than in novels. Could that lead to them using stilted, awkward language when writing about sex themselves?
Do you think men deserve to be nominated for the Bad Sex in Fiction award in such great numbers? Why do you think they make the list more often? Does writing bad sex reflect thoughtlessness or less finesse when it comes to real-life sex? Or does it show that men are less comfortable communicating about sex than women are?