There’s something about getting your hands on that first piece of erotica that just changes your life Forever …. And, yes, that was a Jude Blume reference. Need you ask what the first sex scene I read was?
Reading your first sex scene is so much different than watching your first sex scene. It allows you to use your own imagination: You cast the characters, you conjure the images, and you — fourth-grade you hiding under the covers with a flashlight and a copy of Tropic of Cancer that you stole from your dad’s study — are never the same.
We asked some of our favorite writers, editors and literati to reflect on the very first sex scene that they read. It is perhaps not the most highbrow list (no offense, V. C. Andrews), but it’ll make for a very welcome trip down memory lane.
I didn't start writing and reading seriously until I was in my early 20s, and so the first sex scenes I remember reading were from Mary Gaitskill's Bad Behavior when I was still in college. The most striking thing about the sex scenes in Gaitskill's stories was how much they managed to uncover about the characters. There's a saying about dialogue in fiction, that dialogue is not simply about speech, but rather about what the characters do to each other with that speech. In Gaitskill, sex operates in much the same way.
Forever ... by Judy Blume. I don't know how old I was, but I had read all the Judy Blume I could find and then was super indignant there were ones I hadn't read. So I was maybe 11? And was all, “MOOOOM, WHY DON'T I HAVE THIS JUDY BLUME, I WANT IT NOWWW.” I'm sure it wasn't the first sex scene I'd read, but compare it to Flowers in the Attic or Clan of the Cave Bear, you read Forever, and you're like, “Yeah, okay, I might do that someday.”
The first sex scene that I remember reading was in Judy Blume's novel, Forever ..., and I was in sixth grade at the time and that book was making the rounds among my group of friends. Everybody was worked up to read it, and once it was “your turn” to keep the book for a night, you had to read fast or risk getting the book yanked out of your possession by someone who was bigger and more eager to read graphic sex than you were. And I was pretty eager. I don't remember who actually started the book going around or where it came from, but by the time I got it, it was pretty dog-eared and sticky, but I was not above getting my turn. I remember taking it home and reading it and waiting for the sex, and when Katherine and Michael finally bang it out and I had read the descriptions and details and graphic images and repetition of all the euphemisms and pet words for a dick, I was disassembled, rearranged and put back together again. I was 12 years old. I was awake. I suddenly realized the benefit of a locking bedroom door — and I don't think I left my room much. I was so inspired and raging with hormones and a new vocabulary that I wrote a porno story in seventh grade and sold it around my junior high school for a buck a read. By 13, I had it all figured out — and I had moved on to Judy Blume's Wifey by then. I had a whole new vocabulary.
The first sex scene I read that really got to me wasn't really a sex scene; it was the entire first chapter of Sabbath's Theater by Phillip Roth. What this sequence taught me was that what really good writing does is arouse in us emotions that are somehow connected to body fluids — testosterone, in this case, but I quickly realized that the same basic principle applied to writing that makes us cry or sweat or choke on our own bile. So, in other words: Good writing crosses the mind/body divide; it's a completely intellectual endeavor that nevertheless presents, in the reader, physiologically.
After I read that chapter from Roth, my own writing changed — and not just in stories. I did go on to write a whole bunch of sexy letters to a girlfriend (which actually did go on on to become a short story), but I later realized that to some extent Roth was borrowing from Nicholson Baker, who is a pioneer in all this. And what Nicholson Baker's sex writing does — and I hope I have some insight here, as I just finished writing a book about him — is emphasize that sex and literature are connected, that sex has always been an analog of the intimate relationship between reader and writer. And for me, good sex scenes in literature are always dual in that way. We should never forget that "creative" writing has always been only a half-step away from “procreation.”
Davy Rothbart, author of My Heart is an Idiot:
My parents had an interesting bookshelf in the basement, all kinds of crazy shit on there. I was probably 10 or 11 or 12 when I found a how-to sex manual by Margaret and Peter Blood. A tasteful, intelligent book, but my study of it was made more complicated by the fact that I actually knew the Bloods. They were an old couple that was part of the Friends Meeting community and Sunday worship that my family attended regularly. [It was] odd to be taught about sex by this couple I knew pretty well, who were in their 70s, through reading their book.
As far as straight-up sex scenes, I also found the books Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and an Anais Nin erotica book to be pretty awesome and arousing, as well as some passages from this book by Jean Auel, Valley of the Horses. Those books are damn sexy! I remember Anais Nin always used odd terms for people's dicks and vaginas: “He thrust his manhood,” etc.
Yeah, my friends first spanked it to their dad's old Playboys; me, to my folks' old mildewed books. I guess I'm such a literary-minded guy, I always preferred the “Penthouse Forum Letters” to the sexy pictures.
I read a sex scene in The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett when I was 11 or 12. I forget why I took it down off the bookshelves in our basement, but I do remember lying on the couch in the basement and reading it and getting a strange feeling I'd never felt before. That book is wildly dirty and a lot of the sex is rapey — imprinting on it in this way is probably why I've read all the Game of Thrones books, come to think of it.
Many years later, I attended a book party for Ken in Erica Jong's apartment and couldn't resist telling him that he was the author of my sexual awakening. I don't know what I expected him to do with this info, but he was really nice about it and not pervy. He seems like a good guy.
Definitely Flowers in the Attic. Don't bother watching either movie, it's all about the book — actually, it's all about the series! The best part is that every single love story is a SUPER FORBIDDEN LOVE. The favorite, of course, is Cathy and Chris who are BROTHER AND SISTER! But they love each other! When they fall in the love in the attic there's something so deliciously titillating about the whole thing, it's as if they're the last two people on Earth and they're just craving love and sex and what other option do they have? You kinda get it, and even though it's like super big-time incest grossness, you also kinda root for them, too. I LOVE IT!
When I close my eyes and try to remember, I see fragments that may or may not be attached to the right books: fingers running along a tanned, flat stomach in Judy Blume's Forever ...; something secret between a male doctor and female patient in Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale; the general sense of thrilling, foreboding creepiness going down in V. C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic; and then, wait, is there actually Neanderthal-on-Cro-Magnon sex in Jean Auel's The Clan of the Cave Bear? Or am I making that up?
I do distinctly remember the first time I saw a sex scene, on a trip with my mother and her friend to Quebec, age 12 or so, when they stayed downstairs in the hotel restaurant to linger over dessert and let me go up to the room by myself and watch TV. I was flipping through the channels when I saw a man and a woman in frilly Victorian clothes doing things I instantly knew I wasn't supposed to see and stopped to watch, which made me feel horribly guilty and deliciously dirty. It was Lady Chatterley's Lover, by D. H. Lawrence, presumably a porn adaptation, though I was truly so innocent that for all I know it was some straight-up version rated PG-13.
I very clearly remember reading the novelization to 9 1/2 Weeks, but stopping at the butter scene. Wait a second, that was the novelization to Yentl.
Actually, even before that, I remember sleeping over my best friend Marc's house, when I was about 11, and waking up very early on a Saturday morning. No one else was awake yet. I can recall plucking a book off one of the family's numerous bookshelves. The book was Ken Follett's Eye of the Needle. Or Triple. Or maybe The Key to Rebecca. I can't remember specifically, but I did eventually end up reading all three books a few years later. I loved stories about “espionage,” especially when they involved “sex.”
In this particular passage, a slinky Asian woman was described as having pubic hair so dark that it looked “purple.” I didn't know what this meant at the time, and I still don't know what it means, but I never forgot that description of “purple pubic hair.” I guess there was also some actual sex involved, but I'm not sure.
When my friend's family awoke, I put the book back on the shelf and then very silently ate a pancake breakfast with the rest, making sure to avert my eyes from everyone except for the family dog. I felt woozy and, at my first opportunity, rode my bike home and took a long, long snooze.
There may have been others earlier, but this one sticks out, because it kind of scared me. I was maybe about 12? It was in a mass market paperback that I certainly wasn’t allowed to be reading and of the type that my parents never had in the house. A friend must have had it or a friend’s mother. It was Danielle Steel or some other author I conflate with her. In the sex scene, a man and woman who had an adversarial professional relationship were in bed, even though they hated each other. He went down on her (I didn’t fully understand what he was doing) and she came, and then she rolled away because she liked to have some space after an orgasm. He grabbed her and held her down and went down on her some more, and she came again, harder. And was grateful to be forced. Or something. It was ... yeah. I didn’t know what to make of it at the time.
Evan Hughes, author of Literary Brooklyn: The Writers of Brooklyn and the Story of American City Life:
I must have read sex scenes before I read The Magus by John Fowles, but that's the earliest I can come up with. The book was operating mostly over my head when I read it, but the fact that it was beyond me, too adult, was exciting. My mother suggested I read it one summer under the mistaken impression that it was written for people my age. I was maybe 12. I don't even recall the scene or scenes — I'm terrible with remembering plot — but I do remember that it became increasingly bizarre to me that my mother had recommended that I read this book.
The first sex scene I read was in one of Bertrice Small’s historical romance novels from the ‘80s, This Heart of Mine. I was in the fourth grade, searching for words in the book I wasn't sure how to define: nouns like nipple and loins, verbs like pucker and thrust. Sifting through my mother’s treasure, hidden in a drawer beside her bed because it wasn’t fit for the living room shelf, I felt wicked and bewildered. In some ways, the experience parallels what it was like, as an adult, to read a printed PDF of Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye on the el train. I was sure I was going to get caught and that I wouldn’t know how to defend this horrified pleasure I couldn’t understand.
Literary sex scenes generally read tactile or overly sensual, equally as awkward and pointless as dry humping movie sex. Why bother? When I was 15, a friend passed me Story of the Eye by Bataille. I loved that the text was so illicit it had to be handed off to me in private, like a schoolyard drug deal. This was the first book I ever read that used sex as a literary device, connecting the psychosexual to the primal. Reading it with no prior introduction to French surrealists, I was blown away. The text itself fucked with my head; it was explosive and revelatory, not seedy and cloistered. I wish more literature felt that debaucherous.
Why do we read sex scenes? And why do those first sex scenes we read have such a large impact on us? It’s not as simple as “it’s fun to read about sex,” though, yeah, it is. As Paul Kwiatkowski points out above, sex can also act as a literary device. For many of us, our first sex scene was the first time that we read a real description of the act, rather than the clinical one from the copy of The Care and Keeping of You that your mom gave you for your 12th birthday. It’s the first time you understand that sex is the playing field that so many other, more complicated things — identity, betrayal, love — happen on. That’s why even the more lowbrow books on this list still resonate: Sure, it’s not the best writing in the world, but it depicts sex as something complex and real.
This may be a nosey question, but we’re dying to know: What was the first sex scene you read? Let us know in the comments below, and be sure to tell us why you still remember it.
Michelle King grew up in South Florida and now lives in Brooklyn. Her contributions have appeared on BULLETT, Refinery29, xoJane and The Huffington Post. Harriet M. Welsch is still her role model and probably always will be.
(Image credits, from top: from Flickr; from Amazon; from EasyLiving; from NPR; from WilderUtopia.com; from Last Stop On Route; from Great Audiobooks; from People; from Penguin; from SMZp; from Book County; from Excelsior; from Amazon; from Wikipedia)
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