Kristen Arnett’s latest book, With Teeth, is about — among other things — a middle-aged woman seeking intimacy. She’s a mom, her marriage is in a rut, and the hottest sex of her life is likely behind her. Arnett is an expert at capturing longing and sadness and passion — specifically how the three tangle together, how wanting someone sometimes means wanting a version of them that no longer exists.
She is, then, very well qualified to discuss the best sex she has ever read, which occurred in Julia Armfield’s novel, Our Wives Under the Sea. In the excerpt below, Arnett sees everything that shapes erotic experience: longing, loss, tenderness, understanding, and humor. The narrator is speaking from a time after her wife has returned from a deep-sea expedition as a fundamentally different person in body and mind. They have lost the intimacy they once shared, and the narrator can retrieve it only through memory. It’s a scene as poignant as it is messy; as Arnett explains below, that combination is exactly what she wants from great sex writing.
“At the age of twenty-four, I went on an internet date with a man who kissed me hard against the railing of a bridge and told me conversationally that he was a Dom, but then grew upset when I told him to stop pulling my hair. I don’t feel safe with you, he said and didn’t call me again. When I told this story to Leah, years later, she told me he couldn’t have been the right kind of Dom. They can be difficult to find, she said, took the inside of my wrist and kissed it, then smiled when I told her I thought I’d told her to keep her arms above her head. Maybe he was just sensing that the two of you weren’t compatible.
Sex with Leah was a key and a lock, an opening up of something I assumed impassible, like a door warped shut by the heat. Joy in the fact of pleasure, in the fact of my own relief. When we fucked, I felt myself distinct from my various versions; the frenzied me, the panicked me, the me who had imagined herself poisoned by something she had never even done. I don’t think, Leah said to me once, that the problem was really you. She was lying beneath me — her light hair, her strong chin, the way she had of widening her eyes when I came too close, as if to encompass the whole of me better — and when I made a questioning noise she kissed the side of my face. I just mean, she said, that being afraid of sex isn’t typically anyone’s fault, it’s just a question of circumstance.
The last time before she went away (the last time full stop), I pushed her into the mattress and held her there, pressed my palm into the indent of her throat and then released, and then pressed again. (Hold my throat when I come, she had said to me once, that way you can feel the noises before I make them.) It was light still — forgetful afternoon, charmed hour before the coming on of evening. The going-away party was scheduled for the next night. Shall we pretend I’m going to war, she said, and I laughed and bit the insides of her thighs the way she liked me to and later on she kissed me and crooked her fingers inside me, twisted them around almost 180 degrees, the way we had discovered, through trial and error, was the only way that worked. I remember her legs, the smudge of green bruises, synthetic citrus smell of her underarms. I remember the way that her hair rose static from the crown and then fell again. I remember the way that she looked at me, the open surge of her gaze, like I was something she’d invented, brought to life by the powers of electricity and set down there, in the last of the light.”
I love that this scene begins with terrible sex. The narrator is telling her wife about a guy — a self-identified dom — who ended things because he pulled her hair and he didn’t feel safe. It’s clear the narrator wants her wife to make fun of this man. Instead, the wife concludes the two wanted different things out of sex. It’s generous, but it’s also a sign the wife knows the narrator well, and I think it’s hot when people have an understanding — especially when they’re with a partner — about what exactly they bring to sex and what they want to get out of it. When they’re in a good place to provide that to each other, it’s very sexy.
I’m obsessed with how we think about sex during sex. Here, memory permeates with the present in a way that feels very human. Sometimes we think about sex we’ve had while having sex in the moment or fantasizing about sex we’ll have in the future. Time is never linear during sex. And though the scene is clearly erotic — at least the good parts — it also moves so swiftly between humor and fucking. Something sweet and then something mean. I love when all those things sit together. It’s really hard. And I think it’s extremely queer to be like, I’m deeply sad, but it’s making me horny. And this happens everywhere in the book.
This is what I’m always looking for in a good sex scene. I need more than the play-by-play of physical actions, where part A goes into slot B. I want a feeling. I want sex to be kinky but also tender, because that’s how it actually works. I’m looking for the messiness of a body. The fluids, what a person needs to come — whether it’s the movement of a hand or the understanding of a person’s body, they’re all deeply erotic.
And here, the tenderness sticks out. The sex is poignant for the narrator because, in real time, her wife is different. They no longer have the erotic relationship she remembers. It’s a memory of when they could fulfill each other. It’s a heartbreaking memory. And even though it’s erotic, it’s hunched inside the pain of the present, when her wife can no longer eat and have sex. She’s been disembodied. They can’t even sleep in the same bed. They can’t touch in this way. And so there’s so much want in this memory.
When I write sex scenes, the ache is just as important as the orgasm. Tension comes from building momentum — not only in sex scenes, but any scene requires building and aching and needing. But sex, specifically, plays such a vital role in literature. People question its role in movies and books. But the erotic is fundamental to existence. Sex tells us who characters are. Plenty of people move through the day thinking of sex. We don’t need to be having sex to be thinking about it; anything might trigger a memory. That’s a normal part of having a body. Sex permeates everyday life — at least I think it does. Maybe I’m just a pervert. But sex is never as simple as “Dim the lights; time for the old missionary position.” Because it’s never only happening when it’s happening.
I love queer sex on the page. In all its forms. Growing up repressing my thoughts about how I wanted to have sex, now I love writing about it. I want to showcase different forms of queer sex. What does fantasy look like when you’re closeted? How does sex feel at different ages? How does it feel to have sex as a middle-aged queer woman? This is what I’ve been writing about. We write what we’re obsessed about, and, surprise — I’m obsessed with middle-aged women!