Monday, January 25, 2010

This Is What Sex Looks Like


My family is on a skiing trip in Vail, Colorado. My mom rents the movie Cliffhanger and puts it on the hotel room TV for my two younger siblings and me. In the opening scene, a man and woman are suspended by ripcord over an expanse of snowy mountains thousands of feet below. The woman's equipment malfunctions and she slips; the man grabs her hand. She loses his grip, and is now held only by a rapidly failing plastic clip. She gazes up at him in panic, both of them full aware of her impending doom.

But there are technical problems; the screen goes to static. We call the front desk and they send up a technician. He switches the mode from VCR to cable as he works, and two adolescent figures appear on the screen, boy and girl. They sit on a bed in a darkened room. They kiss. The boy asks the girl if she's ready. She is. He turns a switch, and illuminates a string of Christmas lights over the headboard. They start to undress, pause awkwardly, and turn their backs to each other before they continue.

I am riveted. The actors don't appear much older than my nine years. I know from somewhere deep in my being what is about to happen, and I need to see it. But my mom snaps at the technician to get this pornography off the screen—there are children in the room. He complies, fixes the VCR, and we return to the dangling woman, who is dead in minutes.

II. FARGO. 1996

I am at my grandparents' house. My cousins and I go through the movies our parents have rented that week, and choose Fargo. I'll grow to love the Cohen Brothers, but as an eleven year-old, the humor is lost on me and I'm bored.

That is, until we get to the scene with the hookers in the hotel room: two men, two hookers, two twin beds, one pair in each. Up until now, my idea of sex has been of man and woman embracing one another and rolling around in bed—literally rolling, like a log rolling down a hill. It doesn't occur to me that any dynamism involved, but Fargo is about to show me otherwise. Instead of clamping onto the men and slipping beneath the sheets to commence with the rolling, these women sit upright astride the men, bouncing—bouncing!—up and down. I am slightly disgusted but also enthralled.

* * *

The first sex scene piqued my curiosity but left me unsatisfied. My mom's intervention denied me the opportunity to get a glimpse, and I have a feeling the film wouldn't have been very generous with the details, either; these were teenagers, after all. But I wanted to see what sex looked like—all kids do. My friends and I would look up sex in the dictionary, hoping for a clue, but like another three letter word—God—it points to something so vast that it's almost meaningless.

The sex scene in Fargo took a concept and gave it a body—four bodies, in fact, engaging in the act of sex simultaneously, graphically, unmistakably. This was what I had hoped for during that brief interruption to Cliffhanger. It wasn't about love, or even desire—it was about sex, and what sex looks like.

I don't recall any written sex scenes that made such an impression on me as a kid, which is surprising, since I was a precocious reader and had more access to graphic adult material in books than I did in films. But the sex I encountered in novels was probably couched in innuendo, in metaphor. I'll bet I passed over some of the more artfully constructed sex scenes without even realizing that they were supposed to have been sex scenes at all.

The one written sex scene I do remember—in a book my mom gave me about how to be a writer—didn't actually contain any sex. In the chapter about writing sex scenes, it instructed budding authors to get a little creative with the act. Don't be so expected, so banal, it urged. There was an example of a "good" sex scene (I almost feel like "sex" belongs in quotation marks too). A woman asks a man if he has ever held a raw egg. She breaks one in his hand, and he describes how it feels for the runny white to slide between his fingers. Something weighty and important was being communicated, something that could not be conveyed by a straightforward description of the sexual act. I felt like a joke was being told that I didn't quite get—it was slippery and off-putting, like the egg itself.

While the humor in Fargo might have been over my head, the sex scene was not—there was no mistaking what was going on in the two hotel beds. Those bouncy hookers took my curiosity and shoved it down my throat in a way that almost made me want to gag: there was something repulsive in the way they bounced so nonchalantly and openly, panting alongside one another like animals.

* * *

Now I have a full-fledged sex life of my own, but my childhood frustration with the bigness and vagueness of the word "sex" persists. I don't see how a single word can encompass such conflicting encounters, such cacophony of emotion, and still hold meaning. The word doesn't contain the experiences it references.

I keep a mental (and written) list of everyone I've slept with, and people sometimes tell me this is silly—that a blowjob is just as intimate as intercourse. I think that's the dumbest thing I've ever heard. Holding hands with my middle school boyfriend while I rode his skateboard down the street was more intimate than the sex I barely remember having on the last night of summer in Yosemite. Should I put that on my list?

I suppose I could make one list for all the intimate encounters, one for all the non-intimate ones, and one for everything in between. But at a certain point, this exercise would render me list-less, with separate accounts of the radical particularity of each encounter. And the list was supposed to show me how these elements hung together as one. In many ways, they don’t.

You could say that this shows the failure of the word “sex” to serve as an appropriate category for my experiences. But this would be denying the ability of language to do more than just categorize—it also performs. The point of the list was not to simply catalogue intimacy but to enact it—to make something out of language that did more than just reference and describe the past. I want to make a list that is as vivid and surprising as the sex it points to. I want to find language that surprises and delights and disturbs and disgusts, that is as viscous and raw as the egg it describes.


  1. I love this post. It makes me wonder where nostalgia intersects with intimacy. Was holding hands with your middle school boyfriend more intimate because of a passage of time? Will your encounter in Yosemite increase in intimacy as your memories fold and intermingle?

  2. People mistake sex for intimacy, and so many other things. It gets more confusing because the lines do blur, sometimes, and aren't solid, as you point out.

    Wonderful post.

    I no longer remember the first sex scene I ever saw in a movie, but I remember the first one that turned me on. Revenge of the Nerds: a blowup moonwalk tent, costumes, and not-so-consentual sex (the blonde, in a cowgirl costume, thinks she is having sex with her masked boyfriend, when in fact, it is the nerd, who fucks her much better than he ever could.) This probably says more about me than I chose to admit.

  3. Cody - I wonder where nostalgia intersects with intimacy too—often it's precisely nowhere. Nostalgia makes me want to dwell on memories whose real-life homologues made me feel icky and want to flee. Intimacy with the memory increases as I become more distanced and estranged from the reality.

    Hannah - That description sort of turned me on and I haven't even seen Revenge of the Nerds.

  4. @Linz - You should see it. I can't find a youtube link for the scene, but I watched it recently. It lives up to my deviant childhood affinity.

  5. That's a very interesting point, part of me -- a strong part -- tends to agree with you wholesale on nostalgia's connection with memory and not reality. However, that assumes some sort of dichotomy between memory and reality. I'm going to split the difference down the center and say that memory and reality are sutured together in some way, perhaps by things like nostalgia.

  6. Today's "a softer world" reminded me of your writings (check the link under my name).

  7. Thomas, that was great, thanks! Somehow it never happens for me like that—bummer. I remember break-up sex with my high school boyfriend being sort of gross and pitiful. I wonder if this is a girl thing or just a me thing.

  8. That is great writing, Lindsay. The first three paragraphs blow me away. The Cliffhanger parallel is perfect, sure, but what I like more is the tension you create all over that Vail hotel room. A nine-year-old's acquaintance with and curiosity about the messinesses of adult life and how those introductions are made - unintentionally, in unsupervised moments, and in the presence of strangers, like cable repair guys. I expect to see this scene in a novel you write some day - or a memoir.

  9. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.