Sex Writing is About So Much More than Just Sex

Antonia Crane       by Antonia Crane

“Sex should be written like our lives depend on it” –Steve Almond

I wipe the gummy glob of eyelash glue from my cheek in the literature department teacher’s lounge. My candy tattoos are covered beneath a pinstriped navy blazer, not because of a company policy, but to avoid another classroom distraction. Bagels are tightly wrapped in plastic near a small black microwave on a beige countertop. A basket is piled high with apricot and blackberry jelly. Packets of honey are stacked for tea. A silent, unplugged coffee pot stands near a tower of Styrofoam cups stuffed with red plastic stir sticks. A faded black sweater is draped over a chair, left behind. This teacher’s lounge is akin to the dressing room where I strip at the one titty bar in Cat City, Pleasures. The main difference is that it’s always night inside of a strip club and the dressing room is loud with half-dressed girls guzzling red bull while they flip through magazines, apply eye shadow, curl their hair and text. It’s always daylight outside of this large window that overlooks an elegant eucalyptus tree that waves in a chilly breeze.

Here, a bookshelf is filled with literary anthologies like Art of the Story and Art of the Tale instead of 7-inch scuffed stilettos and wayward g-strings tossed on top of pink lockers. The only person I speak to here is the prim, bespectacled hipster boy at the front desk, who happily hands me to key to the Xerox machine where I copy and staple my own handouts. At Pleasures, I chat with everyone: the drunk staggering construction guys still smelly from work, the pregnant stripper who asks me for a lighter, the DJ who has no idea who Patti Smith is and the bartender, Christine who says I am her lucky charm.

In the teacher’s lounge, I’m alone except for the ghosts of other professors who have sipped tea in this lounge before me like: Kathy Acker, Angela Davis, Barbara Kruger, Eileen Myles and Dana Johnson. I’m humbled to be where they have been. The creative writing class I teach begins in two hours.

In stripping and in teaching, I believe the early bird catches the worm. I prefer to arrive early to the party because I need time to read my student’s short critical responses, make sure I have enough handouts for all 17 students, embed my chosen YouTube videos into my power point for today’s class on writing sex scenes and scrape last night’s glitter off my eyelids.

That I am teaching creative writing to young adults in a fancy UC university setting scares the shit out of me and bloats my heart the way that winning at slots must feel: buzzers and bells rattle within with an alarming sense of what happens when I momentarily get what I’ve always wanted: to inspire students to write emotionally resonant and meaningful stories and to provide the same jolt of hope I’ve been given by my teachers. My literature students are bright and willing, tardy, young and terminally distracted. Like my customers at Showgirls, they wish to be communicated with rather than lectured to and they hope to be entertained. The trick is to strike a balance between imparting literary erotic wisdom and providing my students with the kindness, compassion and respect they deserve, ever building their confidence to write the best possible stories. Launched into this brave new world, I equate students with customers. Only my role is more sturdy mentor than provider and I’m busy with another type of urgency: demonstrating why sex scenes are written at all and convincing a room full of skeptics that sex scenes are effective at revealing what our character’s desires are made of. Sex scenes push our characters up against their basic primal need to be seen, be heard and desired. I will be using Steve Almond’s essay on sex writing “Hard Up For A Hard-On” to discuss how sex scenes exist to place both characters at extreme emotional risk.  I will be using Mary Gordon’s novel Spending to demonstrate how she trots her sentences out to reflect her consciousness as she conveys the physical rhythm of the sex act with her placement of commas, colons and semicolons. I depend on my decades long career in the sex industry—that rich, fertile trough from which I have been feeding—because it’s a gold mine of disturbing, enlightening, sad, desperate, colorful erotic material.  The things I learned from stripping can be applied to teaching my class.

For example:

 Last Tuesday night in the dark, red strip club, where gratitude and hunger throbbed with equal force, a white haired man in an expensive golf shirt and overly tanned, wrinkled legs followed me into the VIP section. He purchased exactly a half-hour with me on a sticky couch away from the main dance floor. I straddled him on our couch in the corner and considered how much energy I’d save to do the half hour instead of the floor dances where I charged by the song. I glanced at my watch. My lower back ached and I was hungry. I handed him his goblet of red wine and learned his name. Fred drank and grinned at me like a guilty dog after ripping through the kitchen trash and dragging it through the house.

“You’re a lucky man,” I said, referring to the blue light special of two-for one dances in effect all day. I liked clients to think I was advocating for them, the consumer. That I was on their team. We were getting “there” together, wherever there was.

“You have no idea,” he said. He cupped my face in his hands and peered deeply, drinking me more intensely than the wine.  He could have swallowed my entire head. I held his face the same way.

“You like to be touched like this?” I asked.

“I want to die in the arms of a blonde like you,” he said.

“Move that one up the bucket list,” I said.

“I bet I could make you squeal,” he said.

“Like a pig?” I said.

“I used to make my wife squeal,” he said. For a minute I thought he was going to cry.

“Used to?” I asked. Men adored confessing their deathbed marriages. Dick pills didn’t guarantee them better sex lives at home, only a relentless, red boner.

“She got Lou Gehrig’s. I lost her after 42 years of marriage,” he said.

A long silence choked the air out of both of us. He stared off towards the bar then back at my tits. I wrapped my vanilla scented arms around him and held him there in a tight hug, tighter than the face cup and the eye gazing, until he pulled us apart.

“Do you have anyone to leave all of your cool stuff to?” I asked.

“My granddaughters are the loves of my life,” he said.

I rubbed my face against his cheek, silk against sandpaper. Purred into his ear. I thought of him driving away shit-faced and hoped he didn’t get into an accident tonight. There were granddaughters to spoil for fuck’s sake. I didn’t want him to die in my arms, not tonight.

“By the next shift you work, I will have bought this place, and you can sit on the throne,” He said. I over-smiled at him then, touched by his impulse to give me some version of greatness as though he thought I had no possibility of greatness without him. And this made me angry and grateful.

“No one has ever said that to me,” I said. It was the first and only lie I told him. Our half hour was up and he paid me my hundred forty bucks. I walked through the dark club towards the bar where Fred ordered more shitty red wine while his white shirt turned pink under the lights. I hoped he would sober up and leave soon thereafter, but he moved on to the next blonde to offer his kingdom in all of its pretend glory.

Sex scenes are often not about the sex act at all but what the characters are thinking and feeling.  While the man has dominion over the girl’s time, she is clearly not about to give him what he wants. Fred is lost in grief and contemplating death and the loss of his late wife, while offering to give the dancer the “throne” in a sordid low-rent titty bar as if she wants to be queen of that place, but really he wants her to be queen of his fate.

Join Antonia Crane for her course, “From Heartaches to Hard-ons: How to Write a Potent Sex Scene” starting October 12th. Register here.

Antonia Crane is a writer, professor, and Moth Story Slam Winner in Los Angeles. She is the author of the memoir Spent (Barnacle Books/Rare Bird Lit, March, 2014). Her other work can be found inPlayboy, Cosmopolitan Magazine, Dame Magazine, Salon, PANK magazine, Black Clock, The Rumpus, The Weeklings, The Believer, Frequencies, Slake, The Los Angeles Review, The New Black, and lots of other anthologies. She is a co-founder and Senior CNF editor of the Antioch Alum journal The Citron Review and the CNF editor ofWord Riot. She can be found running up Griffith Park mountain and here: She tweets @antoniacrane.