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The sext, even more than short stories or poems or novels, is the ultimate plea for a reader’s attention. Stakes are rarely so high. John Gardner’s fictive dream is never more delicate and alive than when it’s being created and shaped by two people under the thumb of a crush. When these messages work, when the dream is upheld, it’s often due less to the particular words being chosen than to the connection between the people involved.
Late last year, when Adam Levine’s alleged sexts went viral, his attempts at flirting were heavily ridiculed. His desire seemed pleading and generic. “That body of yours is absurd,” Levine allegedly wrote. “How are you such an hourglass.”
These messages served as an unintentional seminar on what good sex writing should never be, not because his desire is silly—desire is always silly, and self-serious, and enormous, and and and and and and—but because, taken out of its context, sex writing will undoubtedly flop. Good sex writing, however, the kind found in books by Anaïs Nin and Raven Leilani and Garth Greenwell and Violette Leduc and others captures the strange and animate details of bodies and souls in connection. It reaches outside of time, the past and the future swirling eagerly around the immediate moment.
Take, for instance, this passage from Bryan Washington’s Memorial.
It’s late when Mike touches me, and I’m not thinking about it until we’ve started–then we’re mashing our chests together, jumbling legs and elbows.
His tongue touches mine. My nose strafes his belly button. There’s a point when you’re with someone, and it’s all just reaction. You’ve done everything there is to do.
But once in a blue moon, they’ll feel like a stranger, like this visitor in your hands.
So it’s the first time we’ve kissed in weeks, and then I’m sucking Mike off when he lifts up his knees.
I point to the living room.
Grow up, Mike says.
And before he says anything else, I’ve got one finger in there, and then four. Like I’m kneading dough. He laughs. He stops when I’m inside him.
He’s tight, but I fit.
I wish it takes me longer.
Most notable here is the physicality. Chests mash together, limbs jumble, tongues are touching and a nose skates over a belly button. It’s easy to see the bodies on the page; the reader is not overwhelmed by feelings or abstraction. What makes the scene exceptional is how Washington deftly reveals the state of the relationship. Rather than confront it directly, Benson, the speaker, resorts to generalized theories about their connection: “There’s a point when you’re with someone, and it’s all just reaction.” From there, though, he returns to physical specificity—they’re kissing, he’s sucking Mike off. While the abstractions mark the routine, the details that follow break that routine, enlivening the scene by fracturing the predictability of their sex lives.
Good sex writing doesn’t necessarily have to be about good sex. Imogen Binnie’s Nevada opens with some uncomfortable sex between Maria and her girlfriend Steph.
[Maria] acts like she’s into [being choked]. She’s thrashing, hands at Steph’s wrists, pulling…. Steph is turned on. She’s pressed up hard on Maria’s leg. Then one of her hands off Maria’s throat, at her own crotch, and Steph is getting herself off.
Obviously, there’s an art to faking it. Anybody can tell that a parade of porn star squealing and panting is just acting, but convincing somebody who loves you, who you definitely at least used to love, that you’re present and choking and hot for it, you kind of have to make yourself believe it. So Maria does.
Like in Memorial, Nevada’s opening captures the immediacy of the sex and the history of the relationship. Additionally, it traces an ongoing conflict exacerbated by Maria’s failure to articulate it. Sex serves as the window into Maria’s internal tension and the tension between these two characters. Steph wants something Maria cannot give her. The avoidance she shows in this moment will follow Maria throughout the book. The sex is meaningful, and important to the book, because it conveys character and relationships. Like Washington, Binnie keeps track of how the characters physically interact, allowing the reader to move easily between physical and emotional stakes.
All these scenes have a sense of propulsion and specificity. There is context. There is history. There are physical descriptions of bodies. These passages accomplish what not only good sex writing but any good writing must: they keep readers in the moment, they flesh out their characters, they keep us turning the pages. They hold our attention.
People Collide by Isle McElroy is available now from HarperVia.