Sunday Salon: Let's Talk About Sex (Scenes)

Unmade Bed

More and more often, both in the blogosphere and in real life conversations, I'm running into adult readers who actively avoid sex scenes in novels. "It was better back when writers left something to the imagination," they'll say, or "I stick to older books, before there was so much sex in fiction," or even "I enjoyed Book X. There was one explicit sex scene, but I just skipped over it."1 In the spirit of trying to understand a position far removed from my own, I'm wondering: what's your position on reading about sex? Do you avoid it? And if so, can you shed a little light on why? Personally, I love a good sex scene, and I'll be attempting to explore that in more detail below.

First off, let me just say that I can totally understand including sex scene warnings if one is reading middle reader or young adult novels with an eye toward recommending them to young people. Developmentally, readers are ready for different levels of mature content at different times, and content warnings provide information useful to parents, teachers and librarians. And I can understand including specific warnings if a novel includes a scene of rape or sexual violence, since sexual assault victims can be triggered by these scenes.

But we're talking about adult readers, reading for their own pleasure, and the scenes they seem to be avoiding depict consensual sex between adults. I must admit, this position puzzles me. The way I see it, sex is an integral and enjoyable component of human existence. There is no reason a scene depicting sex can't be just as subtle and revealing of human character as a scene in which characters prepare a meal together, or get ready for a party, or fight in a war. Furthermore, it seems to me that to exclude sexual activity from the literary scene in any kind of systematic way would be to restrict unnecessarily the palette with which we paint our own existence. Most people, at some point in their lives, have sex. Shouldn't it therefore be a valid literary subject? Peoples' sexual lives can sometimes reveal aspects of their psyches difficult to depict in any other way: after all, many people are at their most vulnerable during sex, and some expose aspects of themselves which they hide away at all other times. For many, it's a powerful bonding activity, and taking a reader through the experience with the characters can communicate that bond, as well as revealing or foreshadowing sources of discord between the partners. In other cases the motivation for seeking out, and methods of enjoying, commitment-free sex can be just as revealing of a character's inner life.

Furthermore, it's simply untrue that modern authors write more sex than those of the past. Sexuality has a long and glorious literary history: Chaucer and Boccaccio are full of joyfully raunchy sexual farces, and the ancient epic of Gilgamesh features lines like the one that Stephen Mitchell renders "Let me suck your rod, touch my vagina, caress my jewel." The Song of Solomon in the Judeo-Christian Bible links the sexual love with love of the divine, and plenty of Roman poets, including Ovid, Lucretius and Catullus, treated of explicitly sexual themes. Shakespeare's plays pulse with the many shades of human sexuality, from Iago's deliberate crudeness when goading Brabantio ("Even now, now, very now, an old black ram / Is tupping your white ewe") to Juliet's lovely, starry-eyed honeymoon speech ("Spread thy close curtain, love-performing night"...). Much of eighteenth-century British literature is gleefully ribald, with Tristram Shandy's sorrowful retelling of his distracted conception standing out as a particularly humorous example.

Even Victorian literature, notoriously repressed, is hardly without sexuality—and here we come to the "leave it to the imagination" debate. Any thirteen-year-old can perceive the sexual passion between Jane Eyre and Edward Fairfax Rochester, and the dynamic between these two romantic leads is, I think, one huge reason (among many) for Jane Eyre's status as a perennial classic. Some would argue that Brontë's ability to depict this tension without writing an actual sex scene into the novel, is an argument that all sex scenes are "unnecessary." To do so is to take the default position that the right amount of sex for any given book is the absolute minimum amount possible, and that writers should only leave a sex scene in a novel when they cannot find any other way to provide equivalent character or plot development in a sex-free way.

Yet why should this be? I certainly wouldn't argue that Brontë's technique is ineffective, but that doesn't mean it's the correct treatment in all cases. To take just one counter-example, it's not always the aim of a writer to create a burning sexual tension à la Jane and Rochester. The claim that books and films are sexier when authors and directors "leave something to the imagination," involves the assumption that the goal of depicting sex is always a kind of sexualized romanticism, with the fade-to-black or "Reader, I married him" allowing the reader to fantasize a happily-ever-after. But sometimes the goal is realistic rather than romantic: to depict complicated, ongoing sexual relationships, with all their warts and subtleties. One of my favorite examples is the sex scene between Paul D. and Sethe in Toni Morrison's Beloved: Morrison evokes a nuanced mix of lust, disappointment, nostalgia, anger, tenderness, roaming thoughts and eventual temporary peace, all in a brief scene of rushed sex and subsequent awkwardness between these two old acquaintances. Is there another way she could have demonstrated the same emotional arcs? I'm not sure there is, but even if there were, why would it necessarily be a better choice? The scene is beautiful and effective just the way it is.

Don't get me wrong: I have read books and watched plenty of films in which the treatment of sex seemed too slick, too packaged, as if the purpose of its presence was solely to titillate the reader/viewer long enough to suck some dollars from his or her pocket. These books and films seem more like products to be consumed than artworks to be engaged with, and seeing sex in this way is understandably disturbing. I think this is what people mean when they say that they don't mind sex scenes "as long as they're not gratuitous." A sex scene should further the plot, character development, atmosphere, or other aspect of the literary project; it should be integrated into the work of art in an organic way.

Yet, if you think about it, this is true for every type of scene, every type of treatment. When I read Junot Díaz's The Brief Glorious Life of Oscar Wao, I felt that I was being sold a too-slick product involving the sanitized presentation of a certain ethnic milieu—and encountering a commodified cultural identity didn't feel any better to me than encountering commodifed sex. Any variety of scene or subject can be done well or poorly, yet few other types of scenes garner the caviats that sex scenes do.

Plenty of books and movies are explicitly conceived and executed as products, rather than artworks. Yet I never hear people claiming that they "don't mind depictions of [babies, food, convertibles, etc.], as long as they're not gratuitous." "Food porn" and "woodworking porn," for example, can get as gratuitous as they want: there is no cultural stigma around watching cooking shows or looking at craft magazines, so we don't feel we need to apologize. Viewers of AMC's show Mad Men, which is both a commodified product and a thought-provoking artwork about commodification, hardly ever opine that they "don't mind lush costume and set design, as long as they're not gratuitous." On the contrary, the fans love the clothing and sets—and well they should, as both are gorgeous. Our culture tells us it's okay to enjoy beautiful clothes and architecture, and so fans of Mad Men openly celebrate the show's look and feel. Why should our attitude toward well-executed sex scenes be any different? Obviously, we need some level of analysis around the commodification of our culture at large—but my answer to the problem of the commodification of sex is not to foreswear all depictions of sexuality, but to seek out those which strike me as nourishing, thought-provoking, and/or plain well-done.

Although I am obviously strongly pro-sex scenes, and do feel sex in fiction is unjustly maligned, I'm genuinely eager to hear conflicting opinions. If you avoid sex in fiction, what is it you dislike about reading these scenes? How do your perceptions of sex in modern fiction differ from mine? If you are positive or neutral toward sex scenes, what makes a really effective one in your mind (if you can even say, as there are so many different uses for scenes involving sex)? Are there any that stand out in your memory, for whatever reason?

In the spirit of further celebrating sex scenes in my personal canon, here's a short list of my personal favorites and the work they do. There are so many, but I'll leave it here for now. Share your own in the comments!

  • The scene between Sethe and Paul D. in Toni Morrison's Beloved discussed above. In just a few pages, it reveals a remarkable amount about both characters and the trauma in their shared past, and eventually ends up at a point of mutual peace and generosity.

  • Say what you will about the sexual politics of DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover (and the corniness of that scene with the rain and the wildflowers), Lawrence does an excellent job at using sex to illustrate the evolving relationship between Connie and Mellors, including all their myriad resentments as well as the few transcendent moments of connection they manage to achieve.

  • Although not solely a sex scene, Molly Bloom's monologue in James Joyce's Ulysses is certainly heavily sexual, and deservedly famous as an orgasmic affirmation.

  • In Possession, AS Byatt uses images of loose hair and unmade beds to explore the oppressiveness of constant sexual emphasis in our post-Freudian culture, and then presents an alternate model of relating to sexuality in the late sex scenes between Maud and Roland.

  • The brief sex scenes between the two leads in Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda accentuate to a heartbreaking degree the fragile, glass-like nature of the dynamic depicted, which is about to be shattered. And they're just hot, there's no other way to put it.

  • Simone de Beauvoir's discussions of her sexual awakening in La force de l'âge are powerful in their honesty and insight; I find it especially unusual for a woman to write so openly about the psychological effects of an overwhelming physical passion.

  • The many scenes of sexual duplicity in Choderlos de Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses—the ones in which Valmont woos one woman with a letter written on another's naked body, for example—walk the thin line between humor and tragedy, and demonstrate as nothing else could the daring and amorality of the characters.

  • Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu features an ongoing theme of voyeurism and masochism in its sex scenes (beginning with the young Marcel's observation of Mademoiselle Vinteuil and her female lover through the window), which Proust uses as a jumping-off point to meditate on the effects of observation in general, and the intersection of human tenderness and cruelty. As usual with Proust, these scenes tend to be some delectable mixture of funny, sad, and thoughtful.

The Sunday


1Yes, that last is an actual real-life quote. How did the person know the scene was explicit before skipping over it? You tell me.


  • Sometimes I feel the need to mention them in my review, especially if it's a teenage book, but in general I have no problem with them myself. There are differences in writing though, and I think when a lot of people say they don't like them they are thinking of the stereotype of tasteless scenes in romance/erotic literature, that sometimes also occur in other genres. Those certainly exist but there are plenty of better ones - however if all you've encountered are bad you're going to feel put off.

    • True, it could be that there are more clichés around badly-written sex scenes than badly written scenes of other kinds, and I can see how reading a badly-written sex scene would be more cringe-inducing than reading a badly-written scene about, like, going to the bank. I've certainly read a few mortifying ones!

  • I don't mind sex scenes at all if they are well-written. I think that some are just rendered so clinically that one wishes the scene had been omitted and left to the imagination. But definitely there are readers who don't want them at all, tasteful, titillating, or not. The U.S. is still quite a Puritanical place! :--)

    • Haha, yes, the overly-clinical problem. I'm remembering the opening monologue in Eve Ensler's Vagina Monologues where the speaker tries to imagine actually using the word "vagina" during sex. What a turn-off. Still, I'm glad authors keep trying to get it right.

  • I don't "mind" them myself. They just tend to be so badly written. The more explicit they are the worse the writing gets.

    I've long believed that back in the day when such scenes had to be hidden from readers, authors had to be much better writers to get them included in their work. That big storm in Jane Eyre, the one that leaves the big old tree split in half by lightening, is one of the sexiest scenes I've ever read, but no actual sex is mentioned at all.

    On the other hand, there are a couple of scenes in Andrew Hollinghurt's novel The Swimming Pool Library that are very graphic, very sexy, and well written, too.

    I guess it's the bad writing I object to.

    • Yes, that scene is very sexy! Jane Eyre is a tremendously sexy book, no two ways about it.

      Thanks for the reminder about Hollinghurst; I've heard such good things about this stuff and have been meaning to check him out. Well-written sex scenes are one more feather in his cap. :-)

  • Sure, authors should sex it up. It shouldn't be gratuitous, but it's as valid a way to shed light on character as any other. On the other hand, just because it's a normal part of life, doesn't mean you have to include it -- authors routinely skip over scenes of characters going to the bathroom, paying their bills, answering telemarketing calls (when they do nothing to develop the characters or plot).

    One of the difficulties in writing about sex, I think, is because it's such an intensely personal experience, the reader reactions are going to be more emotional and more vehement -- it's much harder to determine whether the writing is good or bad. It's NOT like reading about someone preparing spaghetti sauce and accepting they do so a little differently than you do. What's sexy to one reader may be ridiculous to another, so it's a tough spot for an author who doesn't want to be clinical; yet revealing something about a character through sex could be revealing very different things to different readers. I can totally see why editors would advise writers to keep it to a minimum and leave it to the imagination.

    I wish I had some examples to add to your list, but nothing worthy comes to mind.

    • That's such a good point about the intensely personal nature of sex, which must add another layer of difficulty to using sex scenes for specific plot- or character-building purposes. It's ironic, because in one way there's little that's as universal as the sexual urge—I mean, it's a biological imperative, after all. Yet it's become so individualized and personalized in human society.

      There are certainly ways of depicting sex that would get in the way of enjoying or understanding a book for me...yet I also like to think I can rise above a certain level of difference. Lawrence's depictions in Lady Chatterley involve a certain amount of female submission & phallus worship I don't agree with, but I still think it's an admirable book & that the sex scenes are well done.

  • Thinking of a piece by Elaine Blair that I just read in The New York Review of Books talking about the new Nicholson Baker book, House of Holes, as well as his other erotic (if you can call them that) offerings. Certainly there is bad writing often in such content for so many reasons including what I perceive as squeamishness or an inability to capture something so intensely personal that reflects us often at our most vulnerable as you state here, but there is often a decided lack of humor or wit in the presentation. Yes to beautiful and intensely pleasurable moments of intense connection certainly but yes also to the elements that are ridiculous in a way, that diverge from our public faces to such extents as to not only be revelatory but to appear foreign as well. And that is a bitch to capture. I think of an interview I once read with Carrie Fisher where she said she has a hard time reconciling the disconnect between the public face of a relationship with the sexual one - doesn't it seem silly walking down the street with a partner discussing where to go for lunch after you have just had your face in their crotch, I believe was the example she gave.

    As for those who skip or complain about these parts of books they read, well...

    • Good point, there's such a fine with sex between intensely pleasurable, and embarrassing or ridiculous. I'm thinking of that scene in Lady Chatterley where Connie just watches Mellors's butt bobbing around and thinks it looks so ridiculous and pathetic, and why is she here again? It's definitely a risk to write a scene that aims for pleasure and ends up coming off as laughable. On the other hand, that disconnect between the public and private faces of a relationship, and the tension between passion and the ridiculous, are such potentially rich sources of insight into human beings, it would be a shame not to explore them. Even though, as you say, it's a bitch to capture.

      In other news, I kind of love Carrie Fisher.

  • My opinion exactly. If it's sex just for the sake of titillating the reader, then no thanks. But if it furthers any of these parts of the story, then I'm all for it.

    You could add to your list Charlotte Bronte's Villette. While there's no explicit sex, the erotic undertones in spots are really strong and vivid.

  • Molly Bloom and the Mlle Vinteuil scene (to take two of your examples) are not really sex scenes though, are they? They're examples of writing which involves sex, or has a sexual aspect to it, but they're not descriptions of the act.

    And of course sex makes for great farce and humour, as so often in Shakespeare, Chaucer, Tristram Shandy etc (and apparently Gilgamesh!) But only a horrible prude would object to these examples.

    This is why people literary rumpy-pumpy: because in writing a sex scene, in the act of describing it, the author must either resort to mechanics, which like it or not is what porn consists of, or loftily ignore the skin and fluids and go down the quasi-mystic route of exploding stars and spiritual congress, which is ridiculous precisely because it overlooks the essential physical dimension of sex, but also because the "meaning" of sex is almost uniquely subjective. People can and do communicate their experiences of death, food, art - but sex seems different. Perhaps it's because sex by its nature is an intimate experience which is distorted by the act of description.

    And this is why the kind of non-gratuitous sex you find in DHL is unsatisfying: it's like an allegory. For most writers sex can't just be sex; the reader is obviously being asked to meditate on power relationships or some other extraneous issue. As we read a Lawrentian sex scene, we feel as though we're being crudely lectured by an embarrassingly uninhibited uncle (although I feel that way about the non-sex scenes in DHL, too).

    All of which isn't to say that I think literary sex is an impossibility: just exceedingly difficult both to justify and to execute.

    • Insert "object to" after word four, paragraph three.

    • Well, the Mlle. Vinteuil scene is more of a makeout scene, I suppose. There's more going on as well, but the two women are making out & we don't see them "go all the way." But that whole thematic thread certainly involves scenes of actual sex, as when the narrator is spying on Charlus's S&M practices. In that scene, as I recall, we don't get descriptions of specific body parts, but we do certainly get the sights & sounds of sex unfolding, which I think "counts."

      I would almost argue that the end of the Molly Bloom monologue IS sex; it doesn't need to describe it because it enacts it.

      in writing a sex scene, in the act of describing it, the author must either resort to mechanics, which like it or not is what porn consists of, or loftily ignore the skin and fluids and go down the quasi-mystic route of exploding stars and spiritual congress

      I think this is true if one is writing a sex scene that is primarily supposed to be sexy, or supposed to participate in the myth of sex as innately earth-shattering. But for me, when writers like Morrison and McEwan (I'm thinking of the scene between Robbie & Cecilia in the library in Atonement) can remain firmly rooted in the concern of developing character through sex, then both the extremes you mention can be avoided. In both the Atonement and Beloved scenes, we can follow the physical movements of the characters perfectly well, but our primary concern remains with their complex emotions and psychology. (And mediocre, ridiculous or abortive sex is just as useful for this purpose as fantastic sex.)

      As we read a Lawrentian sex scene, we feel as though we're being crudely lectured by an embarrassingly uninhibited uncle

      I laughed out loud. I love the book, but this is an unfortunately spot-on description. :-)

  • I'm not a big fan of explicit sex in novels, but I think that comes from my very strict religious upbringing. It's almost as if I can see my mother over my shoulder, gasping at what I'm reading, telling me Jesus is sending me to hell.

    That said, I read them. The author put them in there for a purpose, and I'm not going to ignore part of what they're saying just because it makes me a bit uncomfortable. I read somewhere, years ago, that when an author writes a sex scene, you can count on it not being about the sex, and when they write pretty much anything besides sex it's about sex. I think that's a *bit* of an over generalization, but I still kinda like it.

    Recently I read Nalo Hopkinson's "The Salt Roads," which has some of the most explicit sex I've ever read, including depictions of menstruating women. I was grossed at sometimes, but I still read (and really enjoyed) the book.

    • when an author writes a sex scene, you can count on it not being about the sex, and when they write pretty much anything besides sex it's about sex.

      I love this! It's a generalization, yes, but pithy and contains at least a grain of truth. And also points out something that tends to bother me about half-assed Freudian criticism: when analysts say that a certain scene of characters having dinner (for example) is "actually about" masturbation or Oedipal desire or whatever, "about" in what way? What is the scene revealing about the author's attitude toward masturbation, or what does masturbation mean in the larger psychological context? You couldn't write a masturbation scene that was SOLELY "about" masturbation, so how can you write a dinner party scene that is? Silly.

  • What an interesting topic, Emily! I'll admit that I've expressed a preference for the "less is more" approach when it comes to sex scenes, but that's mostly because, as others have said, sex scenes are so often badly written. However, I've enjoyed many of the books you and others have mentioned and didn't bat an eye at the sexual content (or at least didn't bat an eye in the offended and irritated way, LOL). I think the key for all of these scenes is that the erotic content is so beautifully integrated into the rest of the work that it feels necessary and important (or part and parcel of the ribald comedy), not something there merely to titillate, though titillate it might.

    I think the sexiest scenes I've ever read are in Dorothy Dunnett's King Hereafter. She focuses more on the foreplay between her two leads and does leave the act itself to the imagination, but it's not a mystical ignoring of skin-to-skin contact.

    • not something there merely to titillate, though titillate it might.

      I think this is the key. A scene that's arousing is in itself either a positive or a neutral in my mind, but if it feel extraneous or jarring it turns into a negative. And some of the best sex scenes, I think, are not intended to titillate (or not primarily), as Jason points out below, but whether or not they do they have to belong. Much like it would be weird suddenly to come across a disconnected chapter devoted to deer-hunting or basket-weaving in a book otherwise concerned with a high-powered Manhattan CEO.

  • Great post and totally on the point, as usual. As part of my year-long Lovecraft binge, I have acquired an anthology called Cthulhurotica. Yes, it is indeed a collection of erotic Lovecraft-themed stories. Some were kind of silly, but there was one called "Flash Frame" that freaked me the hell out. Think The King in Yellow meets The Ring. *shudders* *reads story again*

    Anyway, one of the more interesting niches I've come across is the "clean reads" book bloggers. (Good Clean Reads seems to have been the trendsetter.) They tend to be nice LDS ladies whose reviews include ratings for "adult" content such as sex, violence, and swearing (despite the fact that they're reviewing for other adults). They also try to avoid books that have too much, or even any, of that stuff. Not surprisingly, most of what they read tends to be either YA or works by other Mormons. I realize that people have different sensitivities but those blogs just depress me. They seem so limiting and narrow-minded. It feels like they're essentially asking literature to ignore large portions of the human experience and treat readers like children who shouldn't be exposed to mature themes.

    In the social justice blogosphere, meanwhile, I have also come across people who have had traumatic experiences expressing a wish for "trigger warnings" on books dealing graphically with topics like violence and abuse, because such scenes can literally trigger PTSD symptoms. Now that I can understand and have started to do myself. For me, the difference between these two camps - between the pearl-clutchers and the survivors - is the difference between puerile sanitization, on the one hand, and emotional stability on the other. One is telling other adults what's appropriate for them, while the other is trying to navigate mental health. Does that make sense or do I sound hypocritical?

    • Nope, not sounding hypocritical to me!

      Emily, this was really interesting to read! I am more wary than many people about reading novels with lots of sex in them, because so much of what people take for erotic reads as coercive to me. This tendency has probably got a lot to do with my experiences as a trauma survivor. For instance, lots of old romance novels I've read (and put down!) include scenes where the protagonist is ravished by some love interest, and "her body betrays her" and it turns out to be a super awesome sexy fun time because even though she didn't want it, she wanted it, you know. I have walked out of movies that gave off the same vibe. It's not out of prudishness that I do it, it's self-preservation; I don't want to spend the rest of the evening breathing through my PTSD reaction to the rape scene I just sat through.

      I'm not sure how to balance a desire to read fiction more widely with an interest in avoiding triggering material. It seems difficult to articulate without inadvertently lumping myself in with moralizing pearl-clutchers, and without sounding like I want to be infantilized. (Nope, grown-ass adult here, interested in making informed decisions about the media she exposes herself to.) Trying to find summaries of novels to read before I commit to reading novels is only sometimes successful because of people's reluctance to describe rape scenes as such (have a look at this post by Harriet J. from Fugitivus for some would-be-hilarious-if-it-weren't-so-icky examples in comments).

      Sorry if this came off sounding hostile! I'm in your corner with respect to sex being an enjoyable part of human existence… it's just that I'm also really picky about which representations of it I can stand to read or watch.

      • It's such a good point that the popular depictions of sex, especially mainstream depictions of heterosex, have become heavily skewed toward a coercive model, for a whole variety of messed-up reasons. And for someone with trauma around rape or sexual violence, I totally get the difficulty with knowing ahead of time which modern sex scenes are likely to be triggering and which are not. I can imagine that, even in instances where the treatment of those dynamics is thoughtful (as in, not old-school romances that straight-up glorify rape, but a thoughtful literary treatment of, for example, a person who enjoys rough sex or does consensual rape-fantasy role-playing with their partner(s), or even a novel that explores the emotional fallout from trauma around sexual violence)—I can imagine avoiding even those types of books as potential triggers. Those boundaries are different for everyone, for sure.

        As I said to EL Fay, I try to include warnings about scenes of rape and sexual violence, and I like to think that, if the sex in the book were portrayed in a way I found creepy or off-putting, that would probably come up in my post just because it would impact my impression of the book as a whole. And I see that a lot in the blogosphere: not a formal "sex warning," but something along the lines of "The writing was accomplished and the characterization good, but the sexual dynamics prevented me truly connecting with the book." But again, one person's creepy is another's turn-on, and the line between authorial approval and critique is sometimes fuzzy, so there will probably always be a degree of subjectivity making those calls.

    • No, I don't think that's hypocritical at all&dmash;which is good, since it's more or less my own position. I try to include warnings for scenes of rape and sexual violence, but it would not even have occurred to me to include warnings for consensual sex scenes. If something in that particular scene strikes me with regard to a larger point I'm trying to discuss, then I might mention it, but otherwise I just take it in my stride and assume we're all grownups here and ready to do the same. (And if some 13-year-old DOES like to stop by and read my maunderings about the use of disgust in Samuel Beckett, I'm betting that 13-year-old can also handle a little literary hanky-panky, as well as the occasional curse word or whatever other "unsanitary" content the books I read might contain. If you're reading my blog for the salacious content, I'm afraid you're getting an extremely small payoff for the investment!) So all in all, yeah, I agree with you.

      Regarding that Cthulurotica ;-)

  • I've been struggling to think of a convincing sex scene, not Joycean allusion but fiction that has the style and tone (and the vocabulary) to impart the inherent passion and joy of sex. I suspect that I am in Doris Lessing's camp that sex is best when not analysed, or depicted too explicitly in words.

    At its greatest intensity sex is beyond language, and can seem trivial when reduced to the awkwardness of words. After all, what word to pick? One man's John Thomas is another man's joystick. Picking an unfamiliar word can render the scene risible.

    The trap that many writers fall into is fully detailed description of sexual intercourse, where each participant takes turns. Imagine a description of eating a meal reduced to: he raised the fork to his lips, the prawn rolled over his tongue, he chewed it twice and then swallowed it down his throat. I think I am more interested in the meaning of the experience to the characters.

    Nicholson Baker is interesting because he does not engage the participation of readers, but turns them into voyeurs. First time, with The Fermata I thought, 'clever trick,' but to repeat the same trick again made him a bore, a writer of soft-porn (which has its place).

    Seen through a different filter, sex can be hysterically funny and I think I may prefer my sex scenes from the pen of Rabelais or Chaucer, rather than Lawrence.

    • Haha, your example of describing a meal, made me laugh, Anthony. :-) It's a good analogy because both eating and, say, listening to music, are experiences which can bypass the verbal in a way similar to sex. Yet somehow we have developed a tradition of writing relatively effectively about both—or at least, there are certainly food and music writers who are highly respected. Maybe the key is only including the mechanics of the meal when it communicates something about the larger sensual or emotional experience: not "then I skewered the tomato on my fork, then I raised the fork to my mouth," but something more like, I don't know, "The tomato skin was blistered from the grill, the warm fruit barely holding together around the tines of my fork." Ugh, too many words. It's really difficult! But can be done well, I think.

      I think I agree that passionate, joyful sex is maybe the most difficult to convey well in words. In most of my favorite examples, the sex is a vehicle for a larger emotional arc involving some degree of reservation or tension between the characters.

      And yeah, I often prefer the old-fashioned farcical or bawdy treatment as well. I almost included the fairly disgusting but also hilarious scenes between the narrator and the old hag in the dump from Molloy on my list.

  • Oh, I think a properly written sex scene can be so artistic. My favorite so far is the (one) sex scene from Atonement by Ian McEwan. Of course, I would never have called the rain scene in Lady Chatterley's Lover cheesy, so I might have bad taste. ;-)

    I think a scene must be written artistically when it's about sex, not simply to fill up the novel. (Chapter after chapter, without any purpose beyond pleasuring the author and/or reader.) But when done well, it's gorgeous, I think...

    • I love that scene from Atonement. Almost included it in my bulleted list; it's a great example of sex scene done right, I think. It captures so much about the breathless possibility and awkward blundering of youth, and then of course the fact that they're interrupted by Briony foreshadows the tragedy to come.

      And oh, don't mind my put-down of Lawrence. I think that scene is a little corny, but there are certainly others in Lady Chatterley that I think come off as intended.

  • Hot topic! I don't mind sex scenes at all. Hell, I like them, but it seems that the general consensus is that the likelihood of being pulled out of a steamy scene is pretty high depending on the reader's preferences, the author's word choices, etc. I think that lots of readers prefer the "less is more" approach because it leaves it to the reader to fill in the blanks rather than getting caught up in a certain word choice or an especially flowery metaphor. From my recent foray into romance novels (if there's a guilty reading pleasure, THIS is it), I can tell you that I would die a happy woman if I never ever read another sword/sheath metaphor for sex. Really?? You really want to evoke a weapon jabbing at a woman's nether regions?? Ahem.
    I think the last memorable sex scenes that I've read in a *literary* novel was in The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee. There was a bit of voyeurism involved there, but I can't remember much else.

    • I am so with you on the sword metaphors, Gina! What are people thinking?

      It's interesting/good that you bring up romance novels, because despite my appreciation for sex scenes in the more "literary" fare I generally read, and my overall sex-positive politics, I've been completely unable to stomach the sex in the (very) few romance novels I've tried, and it's absolutely down to the factors you point out: individual reader preference and authors' choices of vocabulary and metaphor. The ones I've tried have very much bought into the most rigid of gender roles, with the words "Man" and "Woman" often appearing capitalized, like some kind of gendered essence. I realize that's very sexy to some people, but definitely not to me (I'm more into gender-bending/androgyny), nor does it reflect the world I perceive around me. So yeah, definitely true that it's easy to get pulled out of these scenes—especially, I think, if they are aiming to arouse. If they're more about character development of non-stereotypical characters, they usually ring truer to me.

  • I don't have any problem whatsoever with sex scenes, as long as they feel important to the book as a whole, as with any other kind of scene, and as long as the writing is good (which can be done in a multitude of ways). Basically I agree with your point that sex scenes shouldn't really have different standards than any other kind of scene. I'm very curious what you would make of one of Nicholson Baker's "sex" books -- The Fermata, Vox, House of Holes. I've read Vox and thought it was quite well done, but I haven't gotten to the other two.

    • sex scenes shouldn't really have different standards than any other kind of scene.

      Yeah, exactly. My long post, distilled into a few words. :-)

      The comments on this post are the first time I've heard that Nicholson Baker is known as a sex-writer; basically the only book of his I've seen reviewed is The Anthologist. I'll keep an eye out for his racier fare, now that I know.

  • Wonderful post, I think I agree with every single point. This also puts me in mind of a much-maligned Katie Roiphe essay in the NYT a while back, about whether the current crop of young male American novelists was afraid of dealing with sex in their fiction.

    On that question I come down on the side of yes, and it's really for reasons embedded in your essay. It's not the case for everyone, but for a great many of us, sex is a huge part of life. When a novel ignores it, I feel it's being ignored. Not every aspect of daily life is in the scope of every novel, and that's fine, but there is a definite sense that sex is getting less attention (at least in "literary fiction") than I think it should.

    As to why people don't like to read about it though, I think it's much more about the actual mechanics of the depictions. There are definitely enough wince-inducing sex scenes out there to merit that response. But there are good ones too, and there should be more of them.

    • There are some good ones, for sure, and I can't help feeling that if literary authors got more practice writing sex, they would (on average, as a whole) get better at it. Sort of like the music/food writing analogy that Anthony & I were playing with above. Those are both difficult things to put into words, yet there is a whole respected tradition of attempting it; if sex in literature were less ghetto-ized, I'd bet there would be a larger percentage of well-written sex scenes.

      for a great many of us, sex is a huge part of life. When a novel ignores it, I feel it's being ignored.

      I totally agree with this sentiment. Right, it doesn't need to be everywhere, but a portrayal of the world without it feels unbalanced to me.

  • I'm an avoider of most sex scenes these days. I just think that very few writers get it right. Most sex scenes are so cringe-making that they make me laugh. Also, some sex scenes are misconstrued by readers. Lawrence wasn't writing about straight sex in that scene where Constance finds fulfillment. Proust's M is a voyeur and Proust allows us to share the peeping, but I'd rather not. What about Max in The Kindly Ones? Great book ruined by that bizarre encounter with a tree. Wuthering Heights doesn't have explicit sex in it, but Heathcliff is all pent-up frustration & desire, and all the more attractive because of it. I think that what is left unsaid is often more powerful than what is stated. We can read between the lines and make our own meaning from the text, without having to be shown by the author. Although, without the sex scene in On Chesil Beach there would be no novel, but so many people seem to have missed the implied incest between father & daughter. Maybe readers of contemporary novels are so used to the sex being spelled out they miss the oblique references. Just a few idle thoughts.

    • It's certainly true that there are plenty of cringe-inducing sex scenes out there, for sure. And I can understand how reading too many of the bad ones would be a turnoff.

      I do agree about the power of leaving certain things unsaid, and the role of the reader in creating meaning by reading between the lines. I guess I just don't feel that the thing hidden between the lines always needs to be sex. Sometimes sex is what's getting shown, and what the creative reader finds between the lines is insecurity, or bravado, or anger, or a complicated shared past, or whatever. I mean, in any kind of scene it's going to be disappointing if the writer spells out every little thing for the reader and leaves nothing to close reading (this was my big complaint about Eugenides's Middlesex, for scenes totally unrelated to the sex), but I don't think an artful, subtle approach necessarily precludes sex scenes.

      Also, I haven't read The Kindly Ones but am now pretty curious about the tree encounter...!

  • You might find this post, by a defender of romance novel sex scenes, worth reading. I did, although for other reasons.

    • That is such an interesting post, Tom, thanks for the link. It's especially pertinent given what I wrote to Gina above, because the particular romance novel she mentions is one of the few that I've tried, unsuccessfully, to enjoy. Oddly, given that I don't really like romance novels, the Smart Bitches Trashy Books blog was one of those that got me into book-blogging to begin with (one of the founders is a friend of a friend), and that blog challenged a lot of my previous assumptions about why romances are ghettoized, and how the generic conventions are similar to other, more respected forms (detective novels, sonnets, conversion narratives, etc.). It's an interesting point that purple prose is just one convention associated with this generic form, in the same way blank verse is associated with Renaissance drama.

  • Actually, in Ulysses the scene that really stuck with me was the one with Gerty McDowell - I cried when she leapt off the wall and started limping away, and the rest of the chapter was shatteringly powerful because of it. I think there are a few problems with writing a sex scene, but one is that, by default, we expect the emotional tenor to be erotic (or disgusting, one of the two). This si so strange to me, the closest example I can come up with is having a baby, which is similarly supposed to transcendent or miserable, and if its something else, its uncomfortable or farcical? But really, a laughing sex scene, or a bored sex scene, or a lonely passionless sex scene, or whatever, those ones never come up - blinded by orgasms, I guess. I don't know, maybe its just me, but I've had a far wider variety of orgasms than disgusting or erotic. Those too, mind you, but still. So, some of the books I've read will have a sex scene come up, and then all of a sudden, it'll break the flow of the book, because the writer feels they ought to turn me on, when the emotional tone has been something completely different from that. The erotic is banalized that way, you know?

    • Oh yes, the Gerty McDowell scene is wonderful! And there's SO much going on there, with the romance novel pastiche and the way we're never sure whether we're really in Gerty's head or whether Bloom is fantasizing about what he thinks she's thinking. And then her limp, and his quiet let-down as he walks along the strand. Man, I love Ulysses.

      I know just what you mean about the awkwardness created by that expectation that the designated role of a sex scene MUST be to arouse (or, you're right, disgust) the reader. When in fact the potential function of a scene involving sex are just as limitless as the function of any other scene. But it must be hard sometimes to think outside the box sufficiently to realize that potential.

      And I'm fascinated by the parallel you draw to depictions of and expectations around giving birth—such a good point, and one I'll keep in mind.

  • Oh, that scene in Ulysses is so brilliant. I know what you mean. It started out as one thing and ended up as something else altogether. Gerty's limp was so utterly unexpected and that chapter just turned my emotions inside out.

  • This is an interesting topic! I would have to agree with many of the commenters- sex scenes can be hard to write well. But I think it's also true that passing over them can be just as jarring- I remember one book that I read as a teenager where the a sex scene was written as: "their passion carried them over the waves"- end chapter. Granted, that was a badly written book all round, but I think that dealing with sex in writing in any way, whether implicit or explicit, can lead go badly. Sex scenes can be jarring, but they can be great, and they can really add to a book.

    • Haha, Catie, your memory of that awful line reminds me of a YA Florence Nightingale biography I read in elementary school, which contained a sentence something like "And then she knew the passionate joy of being joined to another." Which is REALLY WEIRD, since Nightingale never married and wouldn't even really share the nursing spotlight with anyone else, and she had a fairly antagonistic relationship with most doctors (at least in the beginning), so I'm not sure what the author was talking about. Possibly I'm misremembering the subject of the bio. In any case, cheesy line.

      I think you're right that leaving sex out of a book when it calls for inclusion, can be just as jarring as including it gratuitously. The reader can often sense the writer's discomfort, I think, and that's one factor that makes the cringe-worthy scenes.

      • Haha, wow that IS even more awkward than the line I remember. I think you're right- the discomfort of the author is often what makes the treatment of sex awkward. But maybe that discomfort is also influenced by the expectations readers have of sex scenes- since people often feel so strongly about the writing of sex scenes I wonder if writers approach them with more trepidation?

  • Nothing like sex to really get a conversation started! I was raised on Judy Blume, sex in novels doesn't bother me ;) I think it must be difficult to write well though given the annual bad sex in fiction award. How to avoid the cliches to make it real and emotionally true? That is, if you are going for serious. Fun post!

    • Seriously! Everyone likes a sex talk. ;-)

      I remember reading my first Judy Blume, and thinking "Whoa, she can include this in a book? This is allowed?" Heh. And then I felt like surely everyone in the doctor's waiting room could see through the cover to the makeout scene contained within.

      Avoiding the clichés is difficult indeed, but I'm glad folks keep giving it a shot.

  • Wow! So many comments! I was intrigued to understand for the first time, when reading about obscenity trials in the 19th century, that 'leaving it to the imagination' was considered NO different to a graphic portrayal. In fact, it WAS a graphic portrayal if the writer's skill led the reader to conjure up images that made them hot under the collar. Hence Madame Bovary's hand fluttering out of the carriage window, the scraps of paper blowing away on the breeze, was obscene. It was so suggestive as to get the imagination working on overtime.

    In some ways I can really understand this, as working on contemporary tropes of pornography in French literature, it took no time to realise that most of this stuff is decidedly un-erotic. It's anti-erotic. You get shown too much, you go beyond the point of wanting to see. That was what fascinated me when I was researching the topic: what were people really trying to see? And it always turned out to be: enough to get their imaginations going, and rarely more than that. It is so subject to the law of diminishing returns.

    • I know, I wasn't aware my comments counter even went this high.

      That's so interesting about the 19th-century rules governing obscenity. So authors were on the hook, not for what they wrote, but for the readers' responses to it. Nerve-wracking for the authors involved, I imagine.

      Your points about being taken beyond the erotic, beyond where you want to see, reminded me of reading Steven Marcus's study of Victorian pornography, and his point about how it's an ethos of excess, of infinite combinations and recombinations of positions, partners, etc., with no possibility of completion. Ideally, in non-pornographic literature, the goal is instead "just enough" or some level of balance in what's portrayed. Enough explicitness to communicate the embodied nature of the experience, but not so much that it overwhelms the reader (unless that's the intention, of course).

  • Bother, it says my comment submission failed. I didn't have anything of great moment to contribute, just wanted to register my extreme dislike of sex scenes that tip into the realm of the coy. Not coy like asterisks, but coy like they want to have a real sex scene but they don't want to use normal sex words, so they say things like "he stroked her sex" (I am seriously so much in loathing of that locution that it causes me physical pain to type it), which is just nauseatingly coy (I think), and even worse than the clinical sex scenes (to me).

    • Sorry about the commenting bother, Jenny.

      I totally agree re: the coyness. If I can sense an author's embarrassment around sex terms, that's worse for me than an overly clinical description (though neither are great). Then you have your plain humorous euphemisms, which are also wince-inducing but do at least amuse.

  • I don't have much to add to this lurid, truly shameful conversation, Emily, but for statistical purposes only I wanted you to know that while I read this post and all its comments with one hand, I had to resort to two to type in my response!

  • Interesting post, and lots of interesting comments, too. I think Frances's point about good sex scenes, sometimes, being able to capture humor as well as or instead of beauty/intensity is right on.

    I just finished reading The Sextine Chapel, so right, clearly you can see that I don't avoid sex scenes - that book is made up entirely of sex scenes, some of which are sexy and some of which aren't. I think part of the project of that book is to explore/comment on the separation of sex from daily reality - sex as escape but not always as successful escape. (My boyfriend read part of The Sextine Chapel before I did, and keeps referring to it as "erotica," which I don't think is apt at all—I think in erotica, even in smart/literary erotica, titillation is the point, and I definitely think that's not the case in Le Tellier's book. Not that I've got anything against erotica either, just that I don't think this book is it.)

    • Heather, have I told you I love your blog name? Every time I "see" you around the blogosphere, it gives me a little twinge of joy. And also, I think a Liz Phair reference is quite apropos to a discussion of sex scenes. :-)

      I had never heard of The Sextine Chapel, but am now curious to check it out. The sly humor in the excerpt you posted on your blog was very engaging. And I know what you mean about erotica—it's inaccurate to lump all sex writing into the erotica envelope, since "being sexy" is not the intention of all scenes involving sex.

  • Loving this conversation, Emily! I'm one that tends to avoid sex scenes -- for me it's because sex is a personal sacred gift from God (I know that may sound strange to the non-religious).

    But. I love a well written sex scene that treats it sacredly. I haven't read many of the books you mention in your bullet points -- but I LOVE BELOVED's treatment, for example. And 100 YEars of Solitude it so sexual but it's just beautiful. Personally, I think classic lit just does it best -- like the innuendo in Madame Bovary, for example. Flaubert didn't have to write it out but its so passionate and beautiful all the same.

    When I say I avoid sex scenes, I am thinking of some modern novels that I have read that are just so badly written it is awkward. I just would rather avoid those. But I don't read a lot of modern fiction, so I'm hoping I keep avoiding the awkward scenes.

    • Classic lit does everything best! :-) (Of course some contemporary books are classics in the making.)

      I think I know what you mean, Rebecca, despite my extreme lack of religiosity. It seems like the groups of scenes you and I would enjoy might form a Venn diagram, with quite a large bit of overlap. I'm definitely with you on the scene from Beloved.

      Not sure I 100% agree about Madame Bovary—I found the writing beautiful but the sex/romance itself lacks passion and beauty; it's just another facet of Emma's compulsive quest after the thing that would give her life meaning. In that way, as I understand the concept, the sex portrayed isn't very sacred. Although, I suppose you could argue that by pointing out the lack of intentionality and self-consciousness Emma brings to all her actions, Flaubert is back-handedly honoring their opposites. In any case, the carriage ride in question certainly does not suffer from poor execution, that's for sure!

  • Like you, I have an unabashed love of sex scenes, especially when they're done well. I think that's a given, no? [I do, however, also enjoy picking up particularly discordant sex scenes in otherwise "respectable" novels--I will take to my grave Franzen's description of a character's penis as "a faintly urinary dumpling," good heavens.] So, yes, this will be about the good ones--

    Skipping? I realize that I do that, and not out of modesty. Let me split my generalizations: One, I read a lot of romance novels and my tastes tend to lean toward heat. The duds aside, it's the stories that integrate the sensuality into the narrative that work best for me, because the tension and the need to have sex doesn't come out of the blue--the sex between the characters is the natural progression. It's also one of the most effective scenes that the author can wield in revealing these characters' stories, and how those stories meld with the other's. The sex isn't simply a part of the formula--it's neccessary not only to how our protagonists get together, but it's necessary that the author witness those revelations within the sex scene to fully comprehend and appreciate the story set before her [me]. Not all romance novel sex scenes are gasps and fiery explosions--sometimes heroes fumble, sometimes heroines misstep.

    That said, I have often skipped the sex scenes of romance novels during a rereading, because although I want to revisit the characters I'd come to love and stand witness to their story once again, I slowly tiptoe away from the more heated parts. I know this goes completely against what I said above--how to fully appreciate the story this way?--but that's how it is with this weirdo.

    With the rest of the books I read, I find I'm not so visceral with my approach. Yes, much of the "standards" I've listed above are applicable to possibly all literature with sex scenes, but love isn't the only factor, if at all. Outside the romance novel genre, the sex scene is a vehicle for other themes, other preoccupations. The sex scene's a device that does not solely focus on love or eroticism, not even necessarily about the relationship about the characters. I don't skip those, as they're a different creature altogether--I generally don't feel as moved by them, however.

    [I think I have more percolating inside me, haha, but this will have to do for now.]

    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sasha.

      when they're done well. I think that's a given, no?

      It should be, shouldn't it? Yet so often people feel the need to add that caviat. "I love fishing scenes, as long as they're done well" sounds a lot weirder.

      I think skipping scenes on a re-read is a whole different ball of wax from (claiming to be) skipping sex scenes on a first read-through. I think on re-reads we all tend to, if not skip scenes, at least pay greater attention to some scenes over others, based on our particular re-reading goals. So that, I totally get.

  • I'm reading The Decameron at the moment, so I was excited to see this post in my Google Reader! :) I find myself terribly fascinated and amused by the sheer bawdiness, especially by how so many stories show women as addicted to the, ahem, rod (hook? nightingale? oh he uses so many metaphors). Older classics, even just 18th century stuff like Tom Jones, are so different from Victorian lit and the whole Puritan history of the US. It's great fun!

    Moving to contemporary lit, I'd say I'm neutral on sex scenes: I love them when they're done well and hate them when they're done horribly, which is pretty much my attitude to any scenes in a book!

    (As a barely related sidenote, I loathe phrases like 'food porn' and 'book porn.' I just find them so inelegant and they conjure up the ickiest images in the my head; yes, I'm going with ickiest because I'm sure my reaction is a bit childish.)

    • I am actually totally with you on disliking the internet slang "X porn," Eva, but I decided to use it in this entry anyway because I think it makes a point about "gratuitousness" and how we tolerate and even celebrate "gratuitous" images of just about anything except sexuality - and why should sex be different? But yeah, in general I agree that it's an icky and overly precious neologism.

      And oh man, Boccaccio and Chaucer are both are so bawdy & fun!

  • It's true that book bloggers generally do not discuss sex in novels. I seem to remember Sophie's Choice by William Styron was quite explicit, but it seemed appropriate for the story. Austen's novels are sparking with sexual tension and yet of course sex is never mentioned. Horses for courses I suppose. Great post.

    • Thanks, Nicola. I have yet to read Sophie's Choice but certainly agree about Austen's novels, P&P in particular. In fact, given that readers so often gravitate toward the romantic elements of her work at the expense of everything else, I wonder if she's ever been accused of including "gratuitous" sexual tension!

  • I do love a good sex scene in a novel. Gratuitous sex is fine too, as long as that's what you showed up expecting. It does tend to evoke a response though, and isn't necessarily something you're going to be comfortable reading in public...say on a bus. Also I'm sometimes reluctant to recommend a book to people if it has a lot of sex in it, and I don't really know how they might react to that...or to the fact that I'm doing the recommending. For example I don't recommend really explicit stuff to my dad because that would make me feel icky.

    • Haha, yes, I do get your point on recommendations, Wendy. I'd be unlikely to recommend a racy novel to my grandmother. But I suppose there are also lots of other factors that would prevent me from recommending something I like to my grandmother - she doesn't care for experimental prose, for example, or too much violence. So all in all it's just one more thing to take into account, I suppose.

  • first, i really have to say that you'll be battling porn bots off for weeks with this! (thank god you have captcha)

    i love books with sex scenes. thinking back on my reading over the last few months, almost every book has had prominent and well done sex scenes. sometimes they're subtle (jean rhys, voyage in the dark), while in other times, they're pages of graphic detail of a husband going down on his wife, explaining his methods that he's cultivated over years (michael cunningham, by nightfall).

    since sex is such a strong part of culture, especially of life in america, i love reading about it and seeing how different authors work it into their literature. i suppose i prefer authors who, at least on paper, seem comfortable with the words they're writing. give me henry miller's raunchy descriptions any day as long as you mean it.

    it puts me off a bit when a book is rejected solely on the basis of having sex for an adult audience, which may be a bit unfair on my part, but with how many books are about relationships, chemistry, finding that someone, how do you leave sexual chemistry and sex out?

    • Haha, it actually hasn't been so bad with the porn bots, knock on wood. I had a horrible onslaught of spam a few months ago & started banning IP addresses.

      I totally agree with your take on sex scenes, obviously. It just seems like such a major part of life, and as Nicole said, when it's left out I feel it's being ignored. To me the "natural" depiction of the world includes depictions of sex, and like you I find it interesting to see how different authors incorporate sexuality into their work.

  • I have been reading about the bad sex awards lately, and I am always reminded of this post. I just don't think that the bad sex scenes that are shortlisted are necessarily bad, and the award seems to come out of this thing where we hold sex scenes up to different standards than other scenes.

  • "I love fishing scenes, as long as they're done well" sounds a lot weirder.

    One reason may be that descriptions of fishing--skillful or inept, whether you approve of fishing or don't--rarely strike readers as ridiculous; descriptions of sex very easily can. (No annual Bad Fishing Scene awards.) When you're excited, never mind why, portrayals of sex (written or spoken words, images, sounds) can heighten the excitement; if you're not excited, they can be boring or absurd or squalid, which unless intended are bad effects to produce.

    But your analogy with food--that scorched tomato--suggests a line of approach. Eating is never just calorie intake for us human beings--we always invest it with meaning, from the quasi-porn of chocolate fandom to the Holy Sacraments. Likewise with sex: it's a biological drive, but it's never a mere biological drive, whether it's expressed coldly and mechanically or suffused with tenderness and love. So maybe sex writing works when it gets us close to what the sex means to the participants, and fails when it mistakenly concentrates on the acts and misses the meaning? It doesn't take much imagination to exhaust the physical possibilities of what goes where; things get interesting when (as with that lovely Carrie Fisher quote) we put the acts in a context that gives them meaning, so that (for example) deciding where to have lunch is a different conversation just before than it is just after.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography