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

Heti: The HBO show Girls is doing a lot there. I was talking with my friend Misha Glouberman about the relationship the Lena Dunham character has with her boyfriend; he’s not that respectful of her. I think we live in a world where women are shamed for engaging in potentially risky, “destructive” or dangerous romantic or sexual scenarios, as though we can be so easily damaged. But with Lena’s character – you can’t see that potential for damage. I think it's a way of warning women from experiencing the world. Yet going into all of life is the most useful, important and strengthening thing a person can do.

Swan: A new\ generation is helping to change perspectives about women’s sexuality. But I think the outspoken quality of the writing of my generation is what has made it possible for writers like you and Zoe to have the expectation that writing about sex is part of writing about humanity, a legitimate literary subject. You aren't fighting for the right to have your say – you're just saying it and wondering why others get perplexed. That's pretty remarkable. How do you approach writing about sex?

Heti: I think I don’t feel shy writing about sex because I don't think about readers as people who sit with your book judging you the author, because they don't know you the author. Even if they think they’re judging you, in fact they’re judging a fictitious character they've created in their head.

Whittall: I think sex is deeply hilarious a lot of the time. One of my favourite sex scenes was inspired by a roommate of mine, who came home and told me about hooking up with a girl who smoked during sex. That stuck in my mind as such a funny image. So I wrote that into a scene. I think if something is funny, I can write about it a lot easier than if I'm trying to make something sexy, cause that can just go so wrong, so fast.

Heti: I agree. I think I would be quite intimidated over writing sex passages if my point was to turn people on; I'd worry about failing in that. But that's never why I write about sex.

Whittall: My last book was reviewed really oddly – more than one reviewer described the characters as “promiscuous,” and many talked about how often the characters had sex. But there are only two sex scenes, both under two paragraphs. I think that novel gets talked about that way because one of the characters is a trans man, and there is a love triangle featuring two bisexual femme women. Those identities are automatically sexualized by reviewers.

Swan: I often find gay women’s writing about sex more honest, more personal and more believable.

Whittall: There have been tons of books with honest depictions of sexuality by queer writers, but they are rarely, if ever, considered legitimate by the mainstream literary world. Straight readers aren’t expected to universalize to queer characters, even though queer readers universalize to straight literature all the time. I received an e-mail recently that read, “I didn't realize this was a gay book, I wouldn't have picked it up if I'd known, but I did and I loved it and could relate anyway.”

Swan: How do you work, knowing people may be put off by the fact that you're gay? Do you write as if the world doesn't have those prejudices?

Whittall: I try not to be too aware of the audience while I write initial drafts, but that awareness can't help but influence my choices sometimes. I'm also glad that straight authors are starting to include queer characters in their work; although I will say I don't enjoy the level of congratulations they get for being “edgy” or tackling “difficult or fascinating subject matter.”

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