The writer Melissa Febos draws from the raw materials of her life — including her work as a dominatrix, struggles with addiction, and relationship with her mother. In her fourth book, Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative, a blend of master class and memoir, she defends the aesthetic and social value of personal writing. Weaving together anecdotes and allusions to literary, psychological, and religious works, as well as advice she refined while teaching graduate workshops, Febos shows how treating sex writing as taboo upholds oppressive conventions. The best sex she ever read is this passage from the poet Eileen Myles’s novel Inferno about the protagonist’s first time sleeping with another woman. The scene euphorically breaks all the rules Febos once learned about writing sex: to avoid humor, certain words, and grossness.
From Inferno by Eileen Myles:
Rose had a tent in her loft and we crawled in. It was dim. Everyone’s clothes were totally soft, she was home, my clothes were just old and I wore them all the time. I even forgot to drink beer. But after kissing her mouth a little chapped which seemed familiar then feeling her breasts not so large, but nice round and beautiful, familiar breasts, ones I already knew in some way I tugged down her pants. She said Oh. Like a soft amount of light, a small gust of wind. And luckily she had some sweatpants on or something, a stretchy waist. Easy getting them down and there were her lemony legs. Not big not strong, but smooth soft hair like peaches everything that way. Pink rose warm. I just dived down. It couldn’t have been too fast. Time was being so slow and warm. And there it was. A pussy, the singular place on a girl, it’s where I’m going. Wiggly thing, like soup, like a bowl.
Another mouth. Like lips between her legs and the taste of it. Piss and fruit. I pressed my face against its bone and it moved. She was letting me. All this was happening. I smelled the future right there, a present and a past. All that went through her, known through the soft sweet flesh of her lips and clit. It was like my face felt loved temporarily. It wasn’t even long this feeling of total rightness. I was telling her clit a story. If there is a warm disassociation this was it: placing my head one night on her warm puss and lapped. I felt plunged into a tropical movie in which light was bathing my head and her pussy, her cunt, her crotch was a warm smile and for a moment I lived in her sun.
This scene feels inscribed in my consciousness. And to be totally honest, I don’t remember most of the rest of this book. It just delivered me this scene. A big part of it was the diction and the images — things that, if you removed them from the context, I would be like, No. Absolutely not. You cannot compare a vagina to soup. But it just feels like Myles was deep in the memory of the sensory experience while writing it.
Inferno came out in 2010, and I probably read it around then. I was still figuring out how to write about sex and sexuality, and I definitely hadn’t refined my ability to distinguish my ideas about sex from those imparted by other people and forces. When I was younger, sex scenes were just thrilling — masturbation material. I wasn’t thinking, What is this sex scene inscribing in my consciousness? I was like, Oh, sex scenes that are reinforcing patriarchal ideas: hot. And later I was like, Oh, queer, feminist, radical sex scenes: awesome. I will masturbate to this as well.
When I first read this scene, it made me uncomfortable, actually. Too much! And I think it was indicative of my own discomfort with the intimacy of real, present sexuality, really being in the experience of the body and intimacy and pleasure with other people. The idea of a lover tasting my piss and thinking of my genitals — I couldn’t even go there. At the time, I was publishing a memoir called Whip Smart about having been a dominatrix and a sex worker, and I was still figuring out how to think about sex without relying on comfortable narratives to frame it. This was so real that it was like looking at the sun. It was a truer description of sex than anything I’d ever written.
When I was a younger writer, people talked about sex scenes as though they were separate from other kinds of scenes. “Oh, sex scenes are so hard to write. We have to invent new words for sex scenes” — because the usual words have been used for pornography and advertising or whatever. And as I got older and more experienced and became a teacher myself, I was like, Wait a minute, capitalism has co-opted all of our language. We are socialized to put sex in a side category, and that makes us write poorly about it. Sex is not separate from any other human pursuit, like learning to play guitar, taking care of my sick friend, taking care of my dog, cooking. All of these things are integrated into the fabric of who I am and how I think and how I express my beliefs and my experiences.
For me, it’s been revelatory and helpful to actively try to reinsert sex into the stream of my life and my writing. I haven’t faked an orgasm in a really long time; trying to write a sexual experience that I haven’t had feels kind of similar. I can’t do it. I believe I can tell when I’m reading an author who’s writing about an experience they haven’t lived in some way. Now, looking back, I can say Myles was writing desire in a way that upended expectations and excavating sexual clichés in a way that felt recognizable to me, even though I wasn’t the critical reader that I am today.
Sex is this realm in which a lot of unprocessed, patriarchal, compulsively heterosexual ideas and practices have flourished. Writing about sex feels like a process of very conscientiously walking around those prescriptions and toward a truer description of my actual experience — which doesn’t necessarily mean my actual experience of pleasure; it can be through the enactment of familiar kinds of fantasies and scripts. But it’s about prioritizing being awake to that. When I see scenes that feel pornographic in art or in literary work that are unconscious or unexamined, that’s no longer interesting to me.
Any hard and fast rules about making art, I’m very suspicious of them. And I think it is when I am surprising myself in my work that the result is the most successful and the most satisfying. I teach writing at the University of Iowa, and I sometimes do an exercise with my students where I have them write down all of the words they think they’re not allowed to use in a sex scene. They’re often pornographic or technical. Then I have them write a scene that incorporates all of those words. The scenes are often shockingly intense or funny. That feels so liberating to me because behind that belief that we can’t use these words are other beliefs that constrict our art.
These scenes should express something about who the character is. They should use lively language that’s describing a universal experience in a specific way. It’s hopeful when the writer is a poet because they don’t feel the allegiance to the rules the way prose writers do. Their use of commas, of punctuation, yields completely to the truth of the thing being described rather than some outside prescription. Myles’s metaphors here are wild. “A tropical movie”? What is that? Myles is inventing this thing to compare sex to, and it is absolutely working, but it is breaking a lot of the rules. And I think when we break boundaries, it doesn’t matter if we’re using familiar language. It’s going to feel defamiliarized and fresh to us.
Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative is out March 15 from Catapult.
More From This Series
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- The Best Sex I’ve Ever Read: A Breastfeeding Housewife’s Nostalgic Lust
- The Best Sex That Less Author Andrew Sean Greer Has Ever Read