My friends and I talk a lot about sex. I learnt how to give a blowjob from my two best friends in my childhood bedroom, a boy and a girl, you know, for diversity. They talked me through the steps. Until then I had thought the movement of the head was a dramatised myth invented by the Weitz brothers. This was not the first time something about sex embarrassed me. Sex confronts you to your body in such an intimate way. Not just your body in corporeal, as an object, but also as a subject in a hyper-sexualised society.
As I read these six books, the feeling of being confronted by a reality of sex resurfaced. In all of them there is sex, and the varying kinds of humiliation that can accompany it. Together, they form a discussion kind of like the ones I have with my friends. These stories expose sexual experiences in a way that is candid and unforgiving, which seems much like real life. Though this may not have been the central point of each individual text, the feeling was pretty unanimous while I was reading and trying to understand a link between them. It’s hard to say whether the judges of The Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction had this in mind when they shortlisted these books. My guess is probably not.
PULL QUOTE: My hands don’t ever feel hot, not in that metaphorical, metaphysical alluring way.
Reading Abigail Ulman’s Hot Little Hands, I immediately thought of my own hands, of which I am self-conscious. My hands don’t ever feel hot, not in that metaphorical, metaphysical alluring way. They don’t even feel hot when I am touching someone else. With my hands I am almost always unconfident. These characters felt familiar; if it wasn’t my friends I could see in the pedalling girls, it was me. What Ulman embeds perfectly in her characters is that latent humiliation, which surfaces only after you distance yourself enough from an act that you can become two people. The humiliation that, though it may not be fair, is the parenthesis of significant moments for a young woman, a girl, who is being slammed in the face by greasy, ungraspable things. Like a school teacher and a fourteen-year-old student getting too close on a Saturday afternoon. Sitting next to each other in a theatre, her teeth graze his jacket as she whispers his name, “Mr. Ackerman,” and all he can muster is,
‘Are you tired, Sascha?’ His mouth found my ear and he took his eyes off the screen. ‘Or do you want to go somewhere else?’
At times I read Hot Little Hands as an anthology of girls shaping their sexuality to complement male desire. I was most unsettled reading one particular story where a young female protagonist has sex with a male side character. Both are teenagers, and their sex is embarrassing and uncomfortable. It is embarrassing because it relentlessly exposes the generic-ness of sex, the learned behaviour of two teenagers, the acquiescent ‘this is how it is’.
Yeah, you take that big dick.
Come all over that big dick.
Where do you want my come?
Yeah, he said, you love my come.
And I found it uncomfortable because even though I knew something was missing, I could see myself in the interaction. They have sex like this because as teenagers they have undoubtedly watched more sex online than they have ever had in real life, and do not understand what sex can be. That it can be pornographic while maintaining mutuality. They’re only capacity is to reproduce what they have seen, forgetting about, or even unaware of the emotional side of sex.
In Annah Faulkner’s Last Day In The Dynamite Factory, the married couple Diane and Chris also have emotionless sex, sporadic and technically unsatisfying. It is less embarrassing and scary to read than imitation porn by two teenagers, but it is far more sad. Two people, with enough experience and understanding to know what sex can be, engage in a futile undertaking, like throwing stones at the window of an empty room. Chris wants to have sex with Diane. Chris wants Diane to want to have sex with him. Diane has never had an orgasm. Diane has sex almost as an act of hospitality.
When he is primed, she pulls him on top of her, but as he glides into her accommodating warmth he feels another part of her withdraw – her spirit or soul – the part of her that never waits for him. He holds her, kisses her, pumps her, harder and faster in his lonely quest, but all that lies between them is the sweat of his endeavours.
I know that lots of marriages are crappy and sad, and I also know that lots of marriages are happy with or without sex, but still, this is the saddest line in the whole book. It is humiliating because it is lonely and desperate, and the incapacity of a body to do what the mind believes it should do can make us feel hopeless.
Loneliness during sex does not happen all the time, of course, but aloneness after sex is inevitable.
They stay this way while he shrinks inside her, the slow suck of wet flesh coming away from wet flesh, then the cool leak and spread of semen against her inner thighs.
Here, in Stephanie Bishop’s The Other Side of the World, the return to autonomy is captured perfectly as the unglamorous will of the body. Sometimes we use sex to make ourselves feel connected to another person, to prove that we are not alone, but then all always it is over and there is gooey flesh coming away from other gooey flesh and we are reduced to our individual selves again. This is a disappointing reality of sex, that no matter how hard two people try eventually they have to come apart. I suppose one of the great things about sex is that, in a way, you can have it on your own. Sometimes sexual pleasure without a partner is an empowering and rewarding experience that allows you to understand yourself more innately and feels really good, and sometimes it is nothing to write home about. Sometimes even, it is sad and lonely.
Bass masturbates once or twice a week in the shower. He stands very still afterwards and leans his head above the faucets. His shoulders shudder and his nose runs and it’s the only time I see him cry. He towels himself off more slowly on these mornings.
And his expression, when he looks at himself in the mirror, is the saddest I have ever seen.
This is sex without a partner, entrenched in longing, to which there might never be an end. It is not the typical experience of masturbation, which is more like a see-saw of neutrality and pleasure. This scene from Eliza Henry Jones’ In The Quiet, is told by Cate, Bass’ wife who is dead and witnesses the world from an ethereal vantage point. She watches her husband, a widower standing in his bathroom reduced to his most primal state – he masturbates and cries, as if it can only be one with the other. Afterwards, when he is drying himself, I wonder if he is peaceful or defeated, if it is through his sexual need that he is confronted by what he has lost.
I have a friend whose mum told him that if he were to ever cheat on someone, that he shouldn’t tell them, that telling them would only be an unsuccessful attempt to absolve himself of guilt and would not do either of them any good. In a way, I like this advice. Should one person’s sex guilt be unloaded onto someone else?
In Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, Jodie falls in love with her estranged brother’s new girlfriend. David and Sarah live together and work in a fish-and-chip shop. David is distant and disturbed. Sarah and Jodie become close friends and soon understand their connection as something dangerous. They allow themselves to persist. They have sex and in the preceding moments, when Jodie and Sarah are standing naked before each other, Jodie’s conscience is stamped with the image of her brother.
For those easy moments I haven’t thought of David, but there it is, David and Sarah, David throwing bread, cutting holes in his flannelette shirt…. Her chest is in front of me. She breathes low. Her shaped stomach. Her firm arms. Her tight shoulders. The grainy exposure of her neck. My brother’s lover.
Afterwards, they decide to stop hanging out. Jodie keeps away from Sarah and David. But she can’t stop thinking about Sarah, and is filled with yearning when she masturbates.
I sob after I touch myself, a tangle of sheets around my ankles. A grieving that is not dignified or quiet.
I googled ‘crying after masturbation’ and found lots of forums discussing the negative associations that can come from experiences of sexual pleasure, the possible shadow that can be cast on intimacy, or the self-loathing and despair it can trigger. Jodie’s conflict is undisguised, her guilt entangled with longing and love.
PULL QUOTE: I am on the phone to a friend who is anxiously rambling about her new (self-diagnosed) mouth herpes.
I am on the phone to a friend who is anxiously rambling about her new (self-diagnosed) mouth herpes. At the end of her self-torturing rant she sighs, “It’s amazing what sex guilt can do to a person.” In Nic Low’s Arms Race a man finds himself caught between his own feelings about his relationship with a much younger woman and other peoples’ judgements.
She looked up at me and I placed my hand on her stomach, then eased it down between her thighs. Her eyes half closed. Sometimes these things make me feel young. Sometimes they make me feel like a dirty old man.
Even with no one else around Steven is self-conscious. Sex is shameful to him. He is inhibited and hyper-aware. Because of his unorthodox relationship, Steven is beginning to understand that he will inevitably live a life observed and the pressure of the external eye is becoming the lens through which he views himself.
I had a vision of a girl flung back in the grass with her jeans around her ankles and someone, some weathered old man, me, straining away on top. I dropped my gaze.
Immediately, I felt something was wrong but was unable to explain why. Steven is humiliated by his desires, aware that his relationship could be looked upon as perverted. This forces him to withdraw from himself, almost as if he were watching himself become the predator-man the outside world thinks he is.
The guilt he is made to feel for his relationship with a woman who looks young enough to be his daughter is so pervasive that his sense of self is a muddle of perversion and shame. At first, I disliked this imagery because it sounded too dominant, the girl’s jeans like shackles. This seems unfair. Wanting to have sex is okay. Wanting to have sex that is so charged there is no time to even undress fully is also okay. This scene is not one of dominance, it is one of desire and maybe if the ever on-looking eye of society decided to turn away, Steven would be able to love his partner without shame.
PULL QUOTE: How pervasive in real life is the experience of sex and sadness, that in each of these stories it finds its place?
How pervasive in real life is the experience of sex and sadness, that in each of these stories it finds its place? I wonder if these individual experiences are really a greater cultural experience in Australia of a type of sex that is accompanied by sadness, humiliation or guilt. These six books made me think about how I have sex, what I expect from it, and how it can make me feel. Specifically, about how it can sometimes makes me feel shitty. They function similarly to some of the discussions I have with my friends – confronting and embarrassing, they remind me that I am not alone. But we also have conversations that aren’t depressing. We talk about sex and generally we feel good about ourselves. Being able to remember this is a sort of redemption. Recently my best friend said she started watching porn while she masturbated and that it was a total game changer. Everyone was happy for her.
I promise you I looked for everything else but sad sex. I thought about the authors of the books. All the possible ways that they could have benevolently tied together. I wish there was some esoteric historical event that bound these writers together. I wish I could have discovered it through an endless, intelligent trail of Wikipedia hyperlinks – I have looked but, there is nothing. Nothing except for the occasional, if not frequent, unfulfilling reality of sex, which is that it does not always start and end with sparkles and fireworks.
Sasha Rose writes and does other stuff in Melbourne.