Five years ago, the novelist Garth Greenwell published a love letter to Lidia Yuknavitch in the New Yorker—a paean to her dark, inventive sex writing. “The genuinely subversive and challenging aspect of Yuknavitch’s work is her foregrounding of the body, and especially her presentation of sex,” Greenwell observed. He quoted a passage from Yuknavitch’s second novel, The Small Backs of Children, in which an artist masturbates with paint, then cuts his own throat—just a little—to blend his blood with the paint before he moves to his canvas.
Greenwell’s review, “The Wild, Remarkable Sex Scenes of Lidia Yuknavitch,” was not only an excuse to marvel at an already-celebrated aspect of Yuknavitch’s work; it was also an occasion to gauge his own willingness “to risk melodrama, obscenity, and sentimentality,” as he thought Yuknavitch had. When he wrote the essay, Greenwell, a generation younger than Yuknavitch (he was born in 1978, she in 1963), was awaiting the release of his debut novel, What Belongs to You (2016). An American poet who taught for several years in Sofia, Bulgaria, Greenwell had created a stir with a novella, Mitko (2011), about his narrator’s months-long affair with a male hustler. Revised, Mitko became the first chapter of What Belongs to You, a story that he expanded—with the same characters and setting—into his second work of fiction, Cleanness, published early this year. (The linked stories in What Belongs to You and Cleanness form more of “a song cycle” than a novel or story collection, he has said.)
Greenwell’s connoisseurship of sex scenes has paid off artistically. He is now considered perhaps “the finest writer of sex currently at work,” as a Times Literary Supplement reviewer put it earlier this year. He is a practitioner, with Yuknavitch and a few others,1 of what we might call the School of Embodiment: a kind of close tracking of sensation and response that we typically assign to poets or sensory neurologists. This doesn’t mean that work by these writers is stylistically similar, only that it seeks meaning in and through the body. “I believe that we are all walking around carrying every experience we have ever had written on our bodies,” Yuknavitch has said. “Our physical bodies. And in my work I want these bodies to signify—not as traditional characters—but as if those stories inside the bodies were, momentarily, activated.” In a recent interview, Greenwell remarked on the numbing ease of online porn: “It seems to me that we’re surrounded by images of bodies but there’s a real dearth of embodiedness—of the experience of being in a body, the experience of being a consciousness in a body, the experience of being a person in relation with other human persons. Sex as an occasion of ethical regard.”2
Yuknavitch’s fiction offers less ethical regard and more viscera. Literal viscera, in the case of her speculative story “Second Language” (2017), about a sex-trafficked teenager whose entrails dangle awkwardly from her midsection but who gets on with her job of servicing needy American men. Though her standard prose is boisterous and extravagant, Yuknavitch can pull the reins when she wants to convey injustice, as in this tightly-focused rape scene from The Small Backs of Children: “Seventeen times against the wall or in the barn: You move or scream or say anything I will kill them all. In front of you. First I will torture them and then I will kill them. Her eyes as dead as she can make them. Her arms as limp as she can make them. Her heart as hidden as she can make it. A soldier’s cock entering the thin white flesh of a girl, into the small red cave of her, the fist of her heart pounding out be-dead, be-dead, be-dead.”
Anyone comparing Yuknavitch’s feverish prose with Greenwell’s measured sentences, his Jamesian considerations, gently tacking from one perspective to another, will find it hard to believe they both, to some extent, derive from the Beats and their offspring in the literary avant-garde. Figures like Dennis Cooper, Eileen Myles and the Bay Area New Narrative writers of the 1980s and 1990s (most notably Kathy Acker, with whom Lidia Yuknavitch had an intimate relationship) prized open late-twentieth-century queer identity and desire, often in fragmented, first-person narratives—explicit, destabilizing, messy, personal—operating at the fringes of a wider cultural critique that encompassed AIDS activism, the NEA Four and a golden era in gay film.
In keeping with these predecessors, Yuknavitch’s sex writing is her political writing. The moral outrage fueling The Small Backs of Children and most of her work, her restless reworking of themes around sexual violence, exploitation, coercion—especially the exploitation of the young—is on a continuum with her overall sex positivity,3 with its ideals of openness and boundary negotiation. What’s exhilarating for the reader in Yuknavitch and Greenwell’s work is this unity between art and politics, drawn in part from the queer tradition. There’s a righteous joy in their sex writing—even in dark or traumatic scenes—and a sense of conviction that seems the hard-won fruit of personal and political struggle. Both have written about their alienation from their families of origin. Greenwell was kicked out of his father’s house at fourteen, when his sexuality came to light, and Yuknavitch suffered too much of her father’s attention in a sickening combination of cruelty, suffocating love and sexual violation detailed in her 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water.
The vivid, immersive sex writing of the School of Embodiment stands out clearly in comparison to other contemporary fiction from writers who use sex and desire more or less traditionally, to further character or plot development, or as the most intense arena in which to bring characters together, a kind of Thunderdome. But increasingly, in recent fiction, sex is where women seek punishment.
Sally Rooney’s sex writing feels both authentic and a shade remote, as if her characters’ heads float slightly above their unruly bodies. Normal People (2018) tracks the loving long-term uncommitted relationship between Marianne and Connell, friends and occasional lovers since high school. Sex scenes between them are emotionally nuanced, but Marianne’s otherness—her abusive home life, her leg hair, her political rants at parties—troubles Connell, and though they keep reuniting, he finds ways to deflect Marianne’s romantic yearnings and maintain his distance. In response, Marianne explores kink as self-punishment, a way to discharge her grief over Connell’s disappearances and to process her self-loathing. (In none of the novels mentioned here is submission simply a fetish; it signifies maladaptation or past trauma.) Her mind wanders in a somewhat chatty stream of consciousness during these bondage-and-discipline sessions, except for one passage of abrupt focus—and embodiment—when Marianne is unexpectedly bound with ribbons by Lukas, the man she has been allowing to abuse her and photograph the process: “She closes her eyes but he tells her to open them. She’s tired now. The inside of her body seems to be gravitating further and further downwards, towards the floor, towards the centre of the earth. When she looks up, Lukas is unwrapping another length of ribbon.”
Her breaking point in the arrangement with Lukas is not this excessive ribboning, but that he dares to say that he loves her. This is the real defilement. Marianne’s ideal of love is the furthest thing from the theater of cruelty she and Lukas have created in his studio. Wholesome Connell has been a bit slow in saying it, but she knows he loves her. And he would never hurt her physically (on the contrary, he rushes to protect her from her violent boyfriend and brother), so he remains pure—Saint George fighting a dragon that Marianne sometimes seeks out.
The unnamed narrator of Miranda Popkey’s debut novel of ideas, Topics of Conversation (2020), makes an art of losing. She loses desire for her warm, attentive husband and engineers a scenario she hopes will break up the marriage: a one-night stand with a stranger from a hotel bar. But the stranger is not entirely unknown. She seems to have recognized in him the coldness and cruelty she relishes in men. After an elaborate exercise in consent that seems to bore her, the stranger pins her to the bed, one hand against her neck, and demands to know why she is there: “‘I am here because my husband loves me, even though I am a monster and therefore unlovable. I am here,’ I said, ‘because I hate myself. I am here because I want someone else to hate me, too. I am here to prove my monstrousness to myself and to my husband. I am here because I want someone else to see it.’ … Silence. His lips fluttered, like he was trying not to smile. ‘You don’t like yourself very much.’” Then he confirms her consent again, her agreement that she won’t try to leave, won’t flinch when he hits her. The few, well-chosen physical details stand out in a scene that is largely (like the rest of the novel) interior.
Popkey’s narrator returns home to her loving parents after the separation but finds kindness “as unforgivable in a parent as in a lover.” She only wants “direction and praise for following it.” In its absence, she boozes and flounders. She wants to be used sexually, but not to take care of herself or anyone else. This is the “fundamental problem” with her that prevents her from finding romantic love and satisfying work and settling someplace decent with her child (the unplanned consequence of her one-night stand), rather than Fresno, her chosen hellhole. “Shame is not without its pleasures,” the narrator reflects, “not least the pleasure of knowing you deserve to feel it.” Popkey grapples with sexual possession and violence in a number of ways, including a mesmerizing set piece in which her narrator watches (fictional) outtakes from a Norman Mailer documentary. While the off-camera interviewer struggles to redirect the discussion to male greatness, a woman acquaintance of Mailer delivers a bitter monologue on the literary world’s contempt for Adele Morales, Mailer’s wife, whom he stabbed twice at a party in 1960.
The trope of the damaged girl who acts out her emotional wounds through sex is so pervasive in contemporary fiction, film and television that it is difficult to see it as impermanent, like other cultural obsessions, a time stamp that may one day feel as quaint and artificial as the lecherous Italian dancing master. Whatever psychological and political work Western cultures are doing (or evading) with this trope, we are nowhere near finished.
When the damaged girl is Black, complications can multiply. Two recent novels addressing both race and transgressive sex are Candice Carty-Williams’s Queenie (2019) and Raven Leilani’s Luster (2020)—cross-Atlantic cousins featuring young Black heroines whose precarious lives crumble around them. The books have much in common. London-based Queenie and New Yorker Edie gradually lose their white-collar jobs, housing, lovers, friends and family. They feel powerless yet persist in making choices that reduce their agency.
Queenie falls apart when her boyfriend leaves her. She hangs on his ambivalent parting words, wanting to believe that they are just taking a break: “Even with his neuroses and his love of logic and his racist family, at least I knew where I was with him.” But as her depression drags on, she incurs the wrath of her boss, compulsively hooks up with strange men from dating apps and allows an office flirtation to boil over to a harassment charge. She keeps having sex with a man who savages her insides so violently that the nurse at the sexual health clinic offers her victim-support pamphlets.
Like Greenwell, Carty-Williams keeps the emotional pitch almost level between sex scenes and the rest of the narrative—in this case deploying a frank, subdued tone, edging into resignation, and straightforward diction. She might as well be describing the final stages of an illness: “I made no sound as he leaned down and bit my neck, then my shoulder, leaving what I knew would be deep, red impressions on my skin. I was in pain, but still I didn’t cry out, didn’t ask him to stop. I didn’t want him to. This is what you get when you push love away. This is what you’re left with, I thought.”
As in Queenie and Normal People, the female submission in Luster is also shorthand for low self-esteem, for “messed up chick, a danger to herself and others.” Mary Gaitskill’s early work—especially her debut collection, Bad Behavior (1988), and its cult-status story “Secretary,” loosely adapted for the screen in 2002—helped popularize this iteration of the damaged-girl trope, spawning innumerable stories and novels. Like Queenie, Leilani’s Luster emerges from the teeming intersection of sexism, racism, childhood trauma and the protagonist’s own mistakes. Edie, already in trouble at her publishing firm for reckless sexual adventures with coworkers, starts an online affair with a much older dominant white man, Eric, whose newly open marriage turns out to be a narrow precinct patrolled by his wife, Rebecca, a force even Edie comes to admire. When Edie loses her job, Rebecca brings her to New Jersey to live with her and Eric and their adopted twelve-year-old daughter, Akila, a gifted Black child marooned in a white suburb. The transactional nature of this arrangement is not lost on Edie or Akila.
For most of Luster, S&M seems the only sexual language Edie can understand, a performance of her alienation and subjection as a Black woman. Eric’s punishments make sense to her; she can feel them. She relishes his rage when he first realizes she has shown up at his anniversary party: “The last time I saw him was the first time I ever saw him come, an elastic split second made for paint, somehow analogous to the expression he is making as he tries to find the words, his mouth opening and closing without sound. I like this part. I remind myself of this when I realize I am nervous, when I realize how incongruously this degree of anger hangs on him, and that I cannot anticipate how this anger will manifest.”
Edie’s sex scenes with Eric are powerful—in keeping with the novel as a whole—but tend to pull quickly toward analysis and grim humor. Edie does not want to linger in the body. After the party, Eric hits her across the face: “‘Again,’ I say, and this time it is harder. This time I keep my eyes open and admire his focus, whatever high or extremely low regard of me is moving him to use such force. Because it is a little impolite how gamely he satisfies this request.” Leilani lavishes more physical detail on these two blows than anywhere else in the couple’s sex life, and comes closest here to conveying Edie’s bodily reality. At the end of the book, when Edie has moved out and is finally following her ambition to paint, Leilani gives us a far more profound and erotic encounter, when Rebecca poses nude for Edie. Nothing explicitly sexual takes place between the women, and no one gets smacked. But they both know that the power has shifted.
An interesting, slightly earlier exploration of the damaged-girl trope (subtype: failed artist), Sheila Heti’s succès de scandale, How Should a Person Be? (2012), is a formally playful autofiction in which her heroine Sheila leaves her kind husband, squanders her time and professional opportunities, exploits her new best friend by recording their conversations (with reluctant consent) to lift wholesale for her own art, hates herself and generally dithers, ostensibly in the service of her philosophical inquiry: How should she be? Aside from some quasi-romantic yearning for her female best friend, Sheila comes alive chiefly in one explosive chapter, “Interlude for Fucking,” a panegyric to her ruthless new lover, Israel, in the form of direct address to the reader: “I don’t know why all of you just sit in libraries when you could be fucked by Israel. I don’t know why all of you are reading books when you could be getting reamed by Israel, spat on, beaten up against the headboard—with every jab, your head battered into the headboard.”
All things considered, this is not so far from Yuknavitch and Greenwell’s territory: the revelations of the body. Yielding control—even, or especially, for this kind of rough treatment—provides a momentary clarity and singleness of purpose Sheila can’t find anywhere else. Worth the headache, perhaps.
In a 2006 interview, one of Heti’s great influences, filmmaker and novelist Chris Kraus, defined S&M as an attempt at connection: “a very intense, complicit contract between two people. It is a mobile, portable intimacy against the backdrop of complete indifference and anonymity within a large city.” But the transgressive straight sex in these novels proves only briefly connective; the men dissolve when they’ve served their punitive narrative purposes. After the thrill fades, Sheila can’t believe she has spent so much libidinal energy on this fairly ordinary guy.
“For me, the body is a real place,” Yuknavitch said in a recent Paris Review interview. “It is a place you go to, a place you inhabit. It is the fundamental setting of every experience you have. And it is sometimes a place you leave in moments of fear or crisis or grief or depression or pain. I am working toward creating art that happens to a reader in their real body.” In addition to what she calls her “bourgeois teaching gigs,” Yuknavitch founded the Corporeal Center in Portland, a writing school and home for her “body-centered art-making philosophy.” Although politically combative—in fact, volcanically angry since the 2016 elections—Yuknavitch doesn’t sneer at less radical or “embodied” writers or those pursuing a psychological realism that she has rejected: “Some other people are writing about prettier things. There’s room for all of it.”
There is room for all of it, and the new trends in fictional sex scenes undoubtedly reflect and resonate with aspects of a generational experience. But from the perspective of the queer tradition, there is something prim and regressive in attributing a character’s “edgy” desires (BDSM, humiliation) to emotional imbalance.4 In Yuknavitch’s work, by contrast, S&M experiences tend to be cathartic, even healing—no matter how damaged the protagonist. In “Gospodar,” the S&M encounter in Greenwell’s Cleanness, the narrator’s longing for erasure—“I want to be nothing,” he confesses—snaps back the moment his dom tries to enter him without a condom. Death is not the kind of “nothing” the narrator wants.
Some of the tension in Queenie, Normal People and How Should a Person Be? operates subliminally, in the conflict between the protagonists’ sexual politics and their surrender to unworthy men. Popkey brings this to the surface. Her narrator rejects sensitivity (partners “with working definitions of the word feminism”) in favor of debasement, and finds herself lusting after “the oldest, the sweatiest, the baldest” and most conservative lawyer in her firm: “I didn’t know what to do with my body telling me You don’t want what you want.” Garth Greenwell’s sex writing negotiates different asymmetries, which may contribute to the languor of many of those scenes. In Greenwell, sexual politics factors chiefly in relation to the outside world: his narrator’s rejection in adolescence by his homophobic father, for example, and his alertness to possible gay bashing. His gay male lovers bring disparities in age, nationality, wealth, sexual role, looks and economic opportunity to the bedroom, but they are not contending with that old antagonist: the opposite sex.
In an early section of Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, the unnamed first-person narrator (an American teaching English in Sofia, like his author) recounts his disappointment when Mitko, whose body—whose presence, at least—he has bought for the night, leaps from bed after sex to take advantage of the narrator’s laptop and booze supply. “I heard the sound of more gin being poured,” he recalls, “then the pressing of keys, then the distinctive inflating chime of Skype as it opened.” The frustrated narrator, whose grasp of Bulgarian is weak, listens to Mitko video chat for hours with friends and clients. His mind wanders to other cities and cruising spots, other sexual offers, and we follow his loose, associative thoughts as we might follow Proust or Woolf wherever they go. He tries to read Cavafy, to dignify the sordid evening. Finally, only three hours remain before the narrator has to wake and head to school,
where I would stand before my class wearing a face scrubbed of the eagerness and servility and need it wore as I followed Mitko to the bathroom, standing behind him (he was still naked) as he stood to piss. I rubbed his chest and stomach, lean and taut, the skin of my hands catching just slightly on the bristles of hair; and then, at his words of permission or encouragement, something like Go on, I don’t mind, my hands went lower, and gingerly I took the base of his cock and wrapped my hand around the shaft, feeling beneath my fingers the flow of water, heavy and urgent, and feeling too my own urgency, the hardness I pressed against him.
This unhurried pace is characteristic of Greenwell. When not in bed, his narrator can often be found walking through Sofia, his interior travelogue delivered at the same pace as the sex scenes. But most striking is Greenwell’s avoidance of metaphor or belabored reflection. Long sexual encounters, such as his tour de force in the chapter “The Frog King” from Cleanness, in which the narrator covers his lover’s body with kisses—slowly and symmetrically, one side then the other—unfold without reference to the sun or moon or a sense of compulsively reenacted past trauma. He is present in his body and the moment, wanting another body: naked prose for naked longing.
This is an online supplement to our issue 23 symposium, “What is sex for?”
Art credit: Kádár Tomás, “The Kiss (Homage to Gustav Klimt),” 2007