Interview by Lara Lillibridge
I had been really looking forward to Ronna Russell and Steph Auteri’s 2020 HippoCamp session: How To Write About Sexual Intimacy Without Making Your Reader Cringe and/or Horrifying Friends and Family.
Their session description read:
The strongest memoirs are those that bring the reader in close, creating a sense of intimacy with personal disclosure that can range from the good to the embarrassing to the horrific. And this includes what happens beneath the sheets. With the stigma that remains attached to conversations around sexuality, it can be scary to approach sex in our memoirs. In this session, Ronna Russell and Steph Auteri share their own experiences writing about sex, talk about the stigma surrounding it, explore how it can serve the narrative (or not), and lay out some rules for good and bad sex writing.
Of course, the pandemic interfered and HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers did not happen in 2020, but I still had questions about how to approach sex in memoir, so I asked them to have a conversation about it with me.
First, let me introduce both of my interviewees:
Steph Auteri was actually the first person I ever interviewed for Hippocampus Magazine, back when her book, A Dirty Word: How a Sex Writer Reclaimed Her Sexuality, was released. The reported memoir explores the ways in which our culture treats female sexuality like a dirty word.
Steph is the founder of Guerrilla Sex Ed, and has written about sexuality for the Atlantic, VICE, Pacific Standard, Rewire News Group, and other publications. Her more literary work has appeared in Poets & Writers, Southwest Review, Creative Nonfiction, under the gum tree, and elsewhere.
I met Ronna Russell at HippoCamp 2018 and had the honor of blurbing her memoir. Since we both had books release the same year and both live in Ohio we’ve done an event or two together as well. Ronna is the author of The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, a memoir with a lot of explicit sex. Her work-in-progress is a historical novel following several women’s lives and sex backward through time. She has a sorely neglected blog and a full-time job as a university student pursuing a combined degree in women’s studies, creative writing, and anthropology.
Lara Lillibridge: Steph and Ronna, I was sad that your HippoCamp session was canceled — I had been really looking forward to it! Of course, I totally understand. But I appreciate both of you sitting down virtually and sharing some of your knowledge on the subject.
Steph Auteri: Ronna actually approached me about possibly presenting on this topic. Ronna can speak more to what gave her the initial idea and why she approached me, but what I can say is that I had previously led a workshop on a similar topic at the Montclair Literary Festival, on memoir in general, and the prospect of honing in on sex writing — particularly as someone who has been writing about sexuality for 20 years and who has experienced all the reactions — made perfect sense.
Ronna Russell: After reading A Dirty Word and hearing Steph speak, I thought a workshop on sex writing might be fun to do together. Sex is a tricky topic for a lot of writers, and it seemed to be missing from the HippoCamp line-up. I enjoy writing uninhibited sex scenes and Steph is so experienced at writing about sex and related topics, it seemed like our combined approaches might make a good workshop. I would like to say that this idea came from a pre-quarantine/menopause place that I no longer inhabit.
LL: What determines how explicitly someone should write about sex?
Steph: First of all, for me, when it comes to writing about sex at all, it comes down to one question: Why? Why am I including this sex scene? I, personally, write about my sex life ALL the time. I do this because I want to normalize sex and I want to normalize conversations about sex. Other writers are going to have to pinpoint why they want to write about sex. Reminding yourself of your purpose can help carry you through. It can make you brave.
“Reminding yourself of your purpose can help carry you through. It can make you brave.” — Steph Auteri
Though I make a living writing about sex, I write very few actual sex scenes and, when I do, it’s very intentional. It serves the narrative in a very specific way. So when you’re thinking about writing your own sex scenes, I think you have to ask yourself: Why am I including this? Does this incident change something in me or in the relationship I’m describing? Does it move the narrative forward? Does it reveal something about you or about the way you move through the world?
To my mind, a good sex scene is not necessarily about the sex itself. Rather, it’s about the relationship between you and your partner, or about your relationship with yourself. Instead of trying to write an explicit piece of erotica in the middle of an otherwise unsexy memoir or essay, think about what might be revealed through interiority or body language or the way two or more people are interacting. You don’t have to describe every beat and you don’t necessarily have to be explicit. A smoldering glance… knees brushing up against each other… these sexual cues can sometimes be more powerful than an explicit description of “the sexual act” itself.
“To my mind, a good sex scene is not necessarily about the sex itself. Rather, it’s about the relationship between you and your partner, or about your relationship with yourself.” –Steph Auteri
Ronna: Agreed. The short answer is, it depends. There are many different reasons to have sex and many different scenarios in which sex happens, and the way a scene is written is dependent on those factors. It can be violent, dangerous, passionate, hot, or a thousand other things. If it’s a steamy scene, the heat is in the build-up of tension. If it’s violent or emotionally fraught, explicit details can reveal the trauma. If a scene is explicit (and not about trauma), humor is a necessary element. The coupling situation is often awkward and few of us are suave all the time. Adding in details of missteps and missed cues can add a delightful layer that relieves seriousness or over-romanticizing and can also invoke tenderness. If you can leave a reader giggling and turned on, it’s a win, just like in real life.
“Adding in details of missteps and missed cues can add a delightful layer that relieves seriousness or over-romanticizing and can also invoke tenderness.” — Ronna Russell
LL: Are there certain situations where you would dial back the level of detail?
Ronna: When I am in a writing class with people who are younger than my children.
LL: Do you believe there is such a thing as TMI?
Steph: What’s Too Much Information for one person may be No Big Deal for another. I think someone who’s grappling with how much detail to include should perhaps think about how readers might respond… and how that response will make them feel. Readers may feel discomfort. Squeamishness. Disgust. They may judge you. They may want to do the equivalent of closing their eyes, stopping up their ears, and shouting, “LA LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” How will you feel in response to these different reactions to your work and, by extension, your life? (And, for that matter, how might your sexual partner feel? Is that a concern for you?)
Ronna: I had a few readers respond to my memoir with discomfort, but that is the chance I took when I included the sex scenes. My story was about sex and discomfort, so there was no way around it if I was going to tell the story I wanted to tell. I take a different approach in fictional scenes and let the characters lead the way. They tell me what they are going to do and sometimes that makes ME uncomfortable, but it’s their story and I’m just writing it down.
LL: Are there any rules or best practices for writing about sex?
Steph: I hate rules, but my general rules are:
- A good sex scene is not necessarily about the sex itself (as I already mentioned).
- You don’t have to describe every beat or be explicit about every detail (again, as I already mentioned).
- At the same time, you should consider expanding what you include by also expanding your definition of “sex.”
- When it comes to crafting a sex scene, the same lessons apply as if you’re writing any other type of scene.
Our relationship to sex writing is fraught because our relationship to sex is fraught. There’s a learned reluctance to name things. There’s the shame we’ve internalized around our sexuality. But writing about sex is the same as writing about anything else. You want to build a strong scene with a strong sense of setting, character development, telling details, and character interaction. If you look at your sex scenes through the same lens with which you look at your other writing, it will be just as strong.
Ronna: Wonderful answer, Steph. I do think there is a great reason to write sex scenes, even if they are not included in a final draft. You get to know your characters on another level and you also get to know yourself in a deeper way. If writing about sex makes you uncomfortable, then by all means, do it. If you want to develop the emotional life of a character, put them in a sexual situation and see what they do, then leave the scene out if it doesn’t further the narrative. But no, no rules.
LL: I had an advisor in my MFA program who cautioned me never to write about sex/sexuality except in metaphor. She said it was for my own safety, lest I provoke a man to stalk me. Do either of you have a reaction to that advice?
Steph: My god, victim blame much, advisor-person? It’s true that writing about sex can lead to you being sexualized by others, in ways you can’t control. At the same time, the silencing that exists around the topic of sex is so problematic. Because we don’t communicate with each other about sex, we end up silently comparing ourselves to what we think everyone else is doing in the bedroom. And inevitably we come up short. This silence keeps us ignorant and makes us feel alone. By extension, this silence around sex also makes us afraid to write about our sex life. Because: What will people think? Will they be scandalized? Will they judge me? This is ridiculous. Sex is a normal part of our lives and an integral part of our overall health and well-being. I shall now step down off of my tiny soapbox.
Ronna: First of all, Steph, please get your ass back up on that soapbox and stay there. And second, wow. How to perpetuate rape culture in one easy lesson. Not sure if I want to laugh, cry, or punch a wall. Predators should not be catered to. Women can and should write about whatever they want, and any subject that comes with a “be careful” warning should be dived into head first.
LL: Do you think the freedom to write openly about sex is linked to misogyny or feminism?
Steph: Buaahahahahahaha. Absolutely. It’s hard to distill all the layers this question contains into one bite-sized response. The answer is tied up in the way we police the bodies of anyone who is not a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied male. It is tied up in our history of whose stories are shared and whose stories are silenced and/or denigrated. It is tied up in the shame our children learn around their bodies and their sexuality from the very beginning of their lives. Oh god, this question is too huge for me to answer, so I’ll just go back to: Yes. Absolutely.
“The answer is tied up in the way we police the bodies of anyone who is not a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied male.” — Steph Auteri
Ronna: Yes. Women cannot exist without being targeted even when not writing about sex. Our entire culture is rooted in patriarchy to such a degree that women slut shame each other. Internalized misogyny is a real thing. Even the questions of what will people think and how will your readers feel and who might be uncomfortable is all about protecting reputation. Reputation is all about being (or presenting) a certain way.
LL: What advice do you have for anyone who is writing about sex and struggling?
Steph: Again, I ask folks to pose that question: Why do I want to write about sex? If the answer to this question feels vital to you… if it feels necessary and important… then I have to call up these words of wisdom a former professor of mine shared: write as if your loved ones are already dead. In this way, you can get everything down on the page, without holding anything back.
Later on, after reviewing your work and trying to make a decision as to whether or not to publish, ask yourself: what is the worst thing that can realistically happen if I put this out into the world? And then ask yourself: What is the best thing that can happen if I put this out into the world?
Everyone has their own level of comfort or discomfort around self-disclosure. I can’t tell you what to do with your story. But if you find you can live with the worst thing while in pursuit of the best thing, you’ll have your answer.
Ronna: Immerse yourself in the scene and write it all down like it’s happening in the moment. Write every excruciating detail, including internal random thoughts, fleeting emotions, farts, bathroom breaks, and that time the dog jumped on the bed. Let the whole scene unfold on the page with the understanding that none of it has to stick, so to speak. When it’s all written, the important parts will stand out–those are the parts to keep.