Last week, Claire Dederer took a break from writing her memoir about her teenage sexual experiences in the 1980s to publish an essay about why the book has proven so difficult to write. “I get frightened every time I sit down to write about something I did, or had done to me,” she writes. “To be honest, my mother, still very much alive, assumes a ghostly, accusatory form and haunts my desk whenever I start to describe, say, giving a blow job to that creepy hippie Malcolm in the patchouli-smelling van in 1984.”
Dederer argues that her sexual writer’s block isn’t idiosyncratic. It’s feminine. Writing about sex poses a particular challenge for female writers, she says, because their desire is hidden from view (less apparent than an erection), and their sexual experiences are often erased, either written through the lens of male lust or wrapped up in shame. On the inside, female desire “comes with an endless internal monologue—or maybe dialogue, or maybe babel,” she writes. Women’s “heads never stop whirring even as their bodies are otherwise occupied.” Their “desire is always guessing, often second-guessing.” But you wouldn’t know any of that from the outside, because female sexuality has “so long been represented as a form of incitement to men that it’s hard for a woman to describe lust—even to say something as simple as ‘I like sex’—without sounding, without perhaps feeling, as though she’s fulfilling a male fantasy.” In short: “it’s easier to titillate, shock, and lie than to get at the messy truth about female desire.”
On the other hand: Isn’t it easier to construct compelling stories out of a messy truth than it is to wring great copy out of an obvious boner? If male sexuality is as simple as Dederer argues, it’s easy to convert into pornography, but it doesn’t lend itself to literature, which relies on complication and introspection. When John Heilpern told Martin Amis that “no novelist, including you … has written a successful sex scene,” Amis replied: “I think it’s a watertight statement that you can’t write about successful, fulfilling sex. But you can write about the fiasco.” Female sexuality, it seems to me, presents seemingly endless fiascos—internal and external conflicts with which to approach from a variety of angles.
However: I don’t take for granted, as Dederer does, that female sexuality is a mess of tangled wires while male desire functions like a simple on-off switch. If female sexuality has been historically overlooked by literature and science, male sexuality has been oversimplified and institutionalized in the form of masturbatory classic novels and various memorial obelisks. Still, women have been conditioned to focus their lives around sex and relationships in a way that men are not. Think of the Bechdel test, which demonstrates how rare it is to see two female characters on film talking about anything other than a man, and consider how women are culturally trained to discuss sex and love. Women are inundated with lessons on how to appear most optimally attractive to men—how to act like a lady and think like a man to capture a husband. Once we’ve got him, it’s been a historically female responsibility to maintain the couple’s sex life. (Interestingly, the illustration that accompanies Dederer’s piece takes the form of a naked woman—the external view of female sexuality, not the other way around.) Of course, these cultural messages have never quite squared with our subjective realities. So when we think about that, and commit that thinking to paper, we’re automatically rewarded with the gift of a seemingly fresh perspective—a story told outside of the masculine norm. Meanwhile, men are writing about sexuality in a culture that ostensibly reinforces their internal desires, which means that even their honest sexual explorations seem dull, superficial, retrograde.
There’s also the issue of opportunity. Men may still dominate literary publishing, but on the Internet, sex writing is a female pursuit. That’s partly because when women write about sex, the authors themselves are sexualized—as in all corners of marketing, their “sex sells” more than a man’s does. Think pieces and reported essays about what women ought to be doing with their bodies also sell well—the same social pressures that Dederer says make sex writing so difficult for women are also hot-button issues in politics, and therefore journalism. And because the realm of relationships has traditionally been framed as a female concern, women perceive (or have) more opportunities to pursue personal essay writing and sex-themed reporting. If you’re a woman who wants to write about your vaginal physical therapy or your butt exploding with pus, you have a platform; if you want to investigate the hookup culture at an Ivy League school, you don’t have to interview a single man on campus; and if you want to write about how hard it is for women to write about sex, you can do that, too.
I experienced these dynamics in practice when I edited a series of personal essays about the ends of relationships that required writers to both assess their partner’s contributions to the split and interrogate their own. When I launched the series, I received pitches almost exclusively from straight women, so I hit up all the male writers I knew and begged them to submit so I could achieve a more equitable split. I didn’t find that female or male writers were “better” at fulfilling the prompt, but I did notice that I often had to push some of the male writers to go deeper into their own feelings and failings, to lay back on the defensive humor a bit, and—overwhelmingly—to describe their love interests by more than just their physical attributes, while the female writers were more likely to need help establishing a concrete storyline or easing off the sweeping feminist critique. And once the stories were published, I noticed something else—the male writers’ stories were criticized more harshly than the women’s stories were. When one man wrote about dumping a woman who refused to get a job, he was skewered; when a woman wrote about breaking up with a man who refused to perform oral sex on her, she was celebrated. I wonder if those stories would have played the same had the genders been reversed. (Show me a man who can pull off “Dealbreaker: She Wouldn’t Blow Me,” and I’ll show you the greatest memoirist of our time.)
Perhaps some of the pushback came from readers who felt the male writers were insufficiently attuned to the experiences of their female partners, and maybe they were right. But I also came away from the experience feeling that when men write about sex, they’re dealing with gendered cultural pressures, too. The predominant pressure is just to not write at all: If we see male sexuality as obvious, dominant, and culturally endorsed, then we read male stories as an outlet for gender oppression, a plainly pornographic tale, or an implicit criticism of women. That’s not necessarily off-base, but it does make a male writer’s job a lot harder.