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Three shades of sex talk: female writers on the challenges of erotic fiction Add to ...

Sheila Heti: I find most books still shockingly prudish. Can we try to understand why this is?

Susan Swan: Does it come from a traditional Christian suspicion of the body? Let's face it: Canada has a long tradition of Presbyterian Scots who saw sex and the body as sinful.

I'm reading Fifty Shades of Grey – not just for entertainment, but to see if its depictions of women having orgasms resonates with me. Usually, with such books, there is a degree of faux artifice that follows the portrayals of sex in Hollywood movies. Many women writers fall into writing a version of that. First, one or two kisses, some gropings and then mutual orgasms. I think this romance code is a hard thing to shake. Maybe both men and women long for sex to be snappy and smooth, or women still hesitate to tell men that getting them aroused takes longer than it does for a man.

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Zoe Whittall: I think if the writing is good in and of itself, and you respond to it, then it’s good sex writing. There is no fixed way to write sex well, just as there are no fixed ways to write a job interview or a car explosion well. If you've avoided the clichés and are being real and aren't all freaked out as a writer about what you're writing, then that is a place to start. So if bored housewives are scandalized by mild S/M in Fifty Shades of Grey, but I find it tame, that's just the way it is.

Swan: When it comes to bad sex writing, I think the reason most men are going to have a trickier time coming up with compelling, authentic descriptions of women’s experiences of sex is a lack of knowledge about female nature. Both sexes are still discovering what female nature is. Traditional attitudes to women, reflected in 19th-century science, have been based in prejudice or wish fulfilment, so how could male writers get it right? When I was a young woman, feminist theory insisted that women weren't that different from men. Now researchers like Louann Brizendine, in her bestseller The Female Brain, says that the neurochemical make-up of women makes us very different from men, in the ways we experience language, being a parent and sex.

Whittall: Theorists like Brizendine are popular because they simplify gender and use some easy-to-dispute neuroscience to traffic in stereotypes and reaffirm from a biological-determinism perspective that all women feel one way about sex and all men feel another. Gender isn’t fixed in this way.

Heti: One of my favourite books about sex is U.S. writer Chris Kraus's I Love Dick. What excited me about her approach is that the book is so suffused with desire, yet the characters have sex only once, late in the book. I like it when a writer shows sex as embedded in life. This is different from “sex scenes,” which read weird to me. Sex is so much closer to our humanity than scenes. It’s as if writers put in “thinking scenes” or “relating scenes.”

Swan: I think that's why Henry Miller wrote about sex so well. He was trying to say, this is how I experience life, and myself with my favourite women.

Whittall: I think we have to step back and look at the cultural reality of where we live – a deeply sex-phobic and slut-shaming world which still wants to portray women as scared of sex, or as unwilling participants in a world where mens' tastes rule. Or women are rabid beasts. There is very little room for nuance or reality.

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