Sex from the male perspective.

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This is my second post in response to E.L.James’ ‘Grey’, though the first one was more of a consideration of the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise. What actually got the ball rolling on both these posts was this Buzzfeed article which picked out some of the awkward and just odd bits of ‘Grey’ and the sex scenes.

Again, I’m not bashing the author, but for an erotic novel, the sex in ‘Fifty Shades’ isn’t actually all that good. Christian, for someone who is supposed to have been a sub and is a Dom (two roles which require self-discipline and control), has absolutely no restraint and lasts about three thrusts. He is also magically ready to go again in 30 seconds…

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Uh-huh, yeah.

So having read the Buzzfeed article, and really getting an extraordinary amount of giggles out of it (his penis is sentient for goodness’ sake!), my morbid curiosity was piqued. Despite my issues with the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise, I wanted to read ‘Grey’. I wanted to see Christian from his perspective and, as someone who has written male POV sex scenes, read someone else’s scenes. As an author, it is important to read, especially if there is a similarity between your work.

It took me less than a day to read the 500+ page thing and every moment, for me, was torture and not the fun kind. Christian Grey is an arsehole of the highest order. And the sex? Clichéd, stereotypical and just, well, beige. It got really samey, really quickly and it makes men look like jerks when it comes to sex, and if that’s what you’re going for, fair enough. Some men are arseholes when it comes to sex. However, that’s not my only issue. It doesn’t feel like a man’s perspective and I understand why that happened. It is difficult enough to write an ordinary scene from different perspectives, and different gendered perspectives, so how is it possible, as a woman, to write how sex feels for a man?

‘Cruelty’ has quite a lot of sex and three scenes which are exclusively from the male perspective. And men who have read them have told me that those scenes feel real, like I knew exactly what they experience during sex. So I have written this blog to tell you what I did, which seemed to have paid off. Admittedly, the sex I write is sex between men and women, so this is not a definitive list of sex for a woman writing sex from a male perspective. I’m also writing this advice for writing consensual sex. (This blog also assumes that there are only two genders, as defined by biological sex. This has been done for efficiency and because, as of yet, I have not written scenes which go beyond traditional gender definitions, so I hope no one is offended by this or feels I am ignoring alternative genders/sexualities.)

Tip One: ask a man

I am not recommending you grab a clipboard, a copy of the Karma Sutra and accost men in the street about what they like about sex.

‘Excuse me, sir. Do you have a moment to give me your thoughts on fisting?’

I mean ask a man in your life. If you’ve got a husband/boyfriend, ask him what he likes and what it feels like. Ask an ex, a friend you’re close to or if all else fails, go to the Internet. There are literally thousands of places (not all of them pornographic) where you can discuss this kind of stuff from the safety of anonymity, which is helpful for those of you who find that kind of face to face conversation embarrassing.

I’m not going to lie; it was kind of difficult to coax this out of my husband because he went ‘I dunno. It’s nice. I like it.’ Eye roll. I need detail man. It’s embarrassing to speak about sex, about what turns you on and off, and what stuff feels like, partly because sex, and rightly so, is supposed to be intimate and intensely private. But nothing is sexier than open communication, so get relaxed and possibly get naked. If you’re in a relationship and want to write an erotic scene (and boys this goes for you too) talking during sex, putting words to the sensation is not only good for your writing but good for your sex life. (This blog is a bargain. Writing tips and life advice all in one place)

Tip Two: Read

Read sex scenes. Ones written by women and by men. Good ones and bad ones. They don’t all have to be graphic to be effective. Jim Butcher, author of ‘The Dresden Files’ does write some highly erotic scenes which rarely progress beyond foreplay, but which capture the male experience of the beginning of sex. Anne Rice’s ‘Servant of the Bones’, the queen of writing whole novels from the male perspective, has a great male POV sex scene. Bad ones are useful too because you can find things that don’t work and then avoid using them.

‘Oh dear Lord. So that’s what that is. I thought it was a sandwich filling…’

Tip Three: call a spade a spade (or call a penis a penis)

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This is a spade…unless it’s a shovel?

Eugh. Euphemisms. Vom. Female authors appear to have this weird desire to call a penis anything but a penis, and a vagina anything other than a vagina. Here is a list of my top 10 unacceptable penis metaphors: manhood, staff, trousersnake, pole, rod, bayonet, Johnson, codger, todger and (my personal favourite) weapon. (If it’s a weapon, it’s dangerous, it could harm you and it kind of spoils the sexy vibe you’re going for.) It’s a PENIS! If you can’t call genitalia by their correct medical terminology, you clearly can’t handle writing a sex scene yet. (I would say the same for female genitals. It’s a vagina. Call it one!)

It’s an embarrassment thing again and I get that. Penises are funny and a man finds it very difficult to hide it when he gets aroused. His penis just stands up, sometimes for no good reason. It’s not kind to laugh but we do when we’re embarrassed. How do you get over this embarrassment? Simple. Stand in your living room, close your eyes and bellow the words ‘PENIS’ and ‘VAGINA’ over and over again until they are no longer funny words but just ordinary ones…

*giggles*

Sorry. All right. Genitalia are always going to be funny, especially the penis because as Billy Connelly says the scrotum does look like it’s made from leftover elbow skin, but you can’t shy away from using the correct names. But how do you avoid being repetitive? ‘Cock’ and ‘dick’ are acceptable alternatives, mostly because it’s how most of the men I know refer to their penis. You don’t have to refer to the whole organ either; you talk about his shaft and the head separately. You can be coy and say ‘He groaned as she took hold of him’ for example. You can point out he’s hard, describe how the material of his clothing is drawn tight. Use the word erection. ‘Hard length’ can be used, sparingly. This where the reading of sex scenes helps you to find alternative ways of saying penis.

When it comes to the vagina, the euphemisms are just as bad. Don’t call it a flower. It is not the 1990s and you are not Monica from ‘Friends’. Liquid centre? Really? Is she a Lindor chocolate? Women get wet, men get hard. Deal with it. Ban the word ‘moist’. Just in general; from sex, from food, from any situation that you’d like to be a pleasurable one. ‘Moist’ is not a pleasant word. Don’t refer to female arousal as ‘juicy’ either, especially from a man’s perspective. Gross. Now sex should be fun, even in fiction, so there is room for laughter and the giggles but if you’re going for an intense, deeply passionate scene, an adult male should be able to handle himself without the need for euphemisms and adolescent silliness. Acceptable terms for female sexual organs: vagina, vulva, labia, lips, clitoris, clit, nub, bud. I would avoid calling the clit a ‘button’ unless, like Joanne Hall in ‘The Art of Forgetting,’ someone is explaining to an inexperienced man how to please a woman. ‘Pussy’ is acceptable, depending on the age of your characters and the type of sex being had; it doesn’t fit slow, passionate love-making but does fit if your woman’s being tipped over a desk for a quicky.

Tip Four: genitals should not be sentient

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I’ll be honest; this is the least gross thing I could find for this.

Unless you’re writing science fiction, and that is what you’ve intended. If so, carry on. I wish you, and your sentient genitals, happy trails. I know I said I wasn’t going to bash E.L. James but this drove me absolutely bloody mad when I was reading ‘Grey’. The lines ‘My cock concurs’ or ‘My cock agrees’ happen so often I had to wonder if Christian had had a meltdown and believed that his penis could talk to him. Cocks twitch, they throb, they harden, they lengthen, they stir (as in they wake up, not as in with a spoon) cocks do many things but they do not have thought. They cannot concur because they are not able to, even if some men give their appendages nicknames and refer to them in the third person. More life advice here: boys, it just isn’t sexy. Don’t do it.

It is difficult, as a woman, to describe how a penis moves and reacts, and how a man reacts when it is touched or stimulated, and I know what James is aiming for: that primal, physical, purely animal need to screw, where one cannot see beyond the desires of the flesh, where you just want to bed the object of your fancy and nothing else matters. That doesn’t mean you use adjectives like ‘concur’. This where asking a man, or the Internet (though here you are wandering into porno territory), is helpful. If you are in a hetero-normative relationship when writing, pay attention to how your man reacts when you touch him, not just below the belt either. Look out for his facial expressions, listen to the noises he makes, the way he arches his back or shifts his hips. Ask him what feels good.

Tip Five: watch your verbs and adjectives and vary the type of sex.

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‘He thrust vigorously…’ Hmmm, no, scratch that.

Sex is an action scene but you need to decide on the type of action each sex scene is going to be. A slow and steady scene will need a completely different set of verbs and adjectives to a hard and fast shag. So decide what you want the scene to be and choose your vocabulary appropriately.

It is important to vary the type of sex that is being had. Believe it or not, men aren’t satisfied with the same fare all the time (shock and horror). Just like us ladies, they can be in the mood for slow one day and hard and fast the next. If you want people to buy into your erotica, your men cannot have two-dimensional sexual needs. (Get laid, grunt, make sandwich.)

Tip Six: use the senses

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Especially during foreplay. Men like that too, so don’t cut it out. It is incredibly patronising to any audience to assume that the connection of genitals is the only thing someone is focusing on during sex. How does he feel when he sees her naked? What does her skin and hair feel and smell like? Think about the touch of fingers on his skin, the way her lips (wherever they kiss) make him feel. Add little jolts and shocks of pleasure, make him gasp as she teases him. What noises does she make and how does he respond to her? Think about her taste and scent and what they do to him. Sex is a multi-sensory act so use those senses. Fully immerse him in the experience and you’ll immerse your audience.

Tip Seven: the climax (hurray!)

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Hey. I can’t be crass all the time.

So you’re about to reach the big finish; how do men actually finish? Exploding happens quite a lot (I am guilty of this one.) So does bucking, stiffening, shooting and rushing according to a lot of sex scenes. I have to thank my husband for his input here because I don’t have a penis, so I don’t know how it feels.

‘The first thing to be aware of is that, just like with a girl, there is a building up to orgasm. It’s like this pressure that shifts and changes throughout and, of course, that feeling is different in her hand than how it is in her mouth or her vagina. Let’s assume your man is already hard. The head of his penis is the most sensitive at any point and can be manipulated in a number of ways. If he has a foreskin, your female character can bring it halfway up or all the way up which will elicit different responses from him. The longer the sex goes on, the more sensitive the penis becomes, so longer and slower strokes will have the same effect later on as short and fast strokes had at the beginning. The pressure begins at the base of the shaft, moving upwards and builds and builds. As it does so, you are overwhelmed with the need to kiss, touch, taste her, to tell her how good everything feels. Every sense is filled with her (Aside: do you see why I married this man?) The pressure builds to a point where you just want to go as fast as you can but also make it last as long as possible. It is a glorious torture.

‘There is the misconception that men just come in one big go, whereas women have waves of orgasm. Although the typical female orgasm does last much longer, men don’t just shoot and then finish. There is the initial burst and then a few little aftershocks or pulses. There is a reason why a champagne bottle popping its cork and overflowing is used a euphemism for male orgasm. The best adjective to describe it? ‘Building’ or ‘rising’ in the initial stages and ‘rush’ works quite well to describe the sensation of actually coming, but that limits you just to the groin. Just like with women, it’s a whole body experience: your back stiffens, your hips lock, your toes curl. Make sure you don’t just write about the penis. It’s boring.’

Tip Eight: show the afterglow or aftermath

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Clearly, this depends on the type of sex you’ve decided on but sometimes what comes after is just as important as the actual sex. The desire for intimacy is not a female only desire so if you’ve written a love scene as opposed to a sex scene, show how good he feels with her resting in his arms, make him articulate it. You can have him just withdraw and walk away if there is no emotional connection but still show his physical reaction: the catching of breath etc. Nobody just switches straight off from sex so don’t do it.

Other bits and pieces:

Does there have to be conversation during sex? No. It entirely depends on your characters, if that fits them or what mood they’re in when they are having sex. A few groans and ‘oh Gods’ may be all you need for that scene.

Does the sex have to be graphic to be good? No. You don’t have to go into incredible levels of detail for sex. You can be coy or just hint at things. You don’t even have to write the whole scene. But if you do decide to be explicit, you walk a fine line. You have to give enough detail to be titillating but too much is a little gross and gauche. This where your editor can help.

What about safe sex? Would a man stopping to put on a condom spoil the flow? Hell, no. Safe sex is sexy. You can easily make it part of the seduction. Of course, this is if you’re doing a modern sex scene. You can put prophylactics from previous eras in if you like but make sure you do your research.

I hope this blog has been useful for you. Before I sign off, some good books to read for sex from the male POV: Joanne Hall ‘The Art of Forgetting’ and ‘The Art of Forgetting: Nomad’ (these books are also great for sex from a non hetero-normative perspective) Jim Butcher ‘The Dresden Files’ (there are a lot of these and not all of them have sex but they do have male arousal which can be difficult to articulate) and Anne Rice ‘The Servant of the Bones.’

Until next time.

Ellen xx

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‘Grey: a cautionary tale’ or ‘The importance of a good editor.’

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I’m not going to lie. I read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ and at first, I thought it was a bit of a giggle but as I read more of the series, I just became more and more uncomfortable with what I was reading. Not with the sex or the BDSM (different strokes for different folks. I know, I know dreadful joke). It is the relationship between Ana and Christian that makes my skin crawl. Why? Well, there’s no other way to say it; Christian Grey is an abusive predator and he didn’t need to be. Even from his own perspective in ‘Grey’ (which I read out of purely morbid curiosity) he comes across as such.

Before anyone gets upset, let’s look at his behaviour. Christian uses his wealth, his authority and experience to dazzle and put pressure on a younger, sexually inexperienced person to get her to do what he wants. That is a predator. He at several times, both in ‘Shades’ and ‘Grey’ says he should stop. And he doesn’t. He knows better and he doesn’t stop. He pushes Ana further than she is ready to go, puts his needs before hers, doesn’t remind her to safeword, doesn’t establish a norm for their relationship and when he oversteps the mark, uses his wealth to buy her apology gifts. It’s not just physical; he keeps Ana emotionally unbalanced, blinds her with sex and drops the ‘I love you, I need you’ bomb when she gets moments of clarity and tries to leave. Strip everything else away and Christian is an abuser. Plain and simple. And millions of young women are buying into this, thinking it’s just a bit of kinky fun.

All of that said, I am not going to bash E.L. James in this post. I don’t like what she’s written but that doesn’t mean I have the right to get nasty about her on a personal level. My issue is with her character, not with the woman herself. I fully believe that there are the ingredients of a good story in the series. I know she’s made a tonne of money and that the world is enraptured with the story of Ana and Christian but just because it’s popular, doesn’t mean it’s good. (Big Tobacco?)

I am not going to pick apart everything wrong in the ‘Shades’ franchise (because bad writing is an issue too) but I think there are a four things that a good editor would pick out from ‘Shades’ and ‘Grey’ that could be altered and make Christian less of an abusive prick.

Mommy issues
There is no getting away from Christian’s back story: his mother was a ‘crack-whore’ who couldn’t protect him from her abusive pimp and died of an overdose. Seeing a child in that situation does create sympathy for little Christian. He’s angry with her and has every right to be angry with her. He gets flash backs of the pimp coming, with men, to use his mother for sex so she can get her fix. The fact he calls her a ‘whore’ is reflective of the language used about his mother by the pimp. You only have to turn on a TV to see this kind of reality. It’s awful and it rings true. (Actually, in ‘Grey’ these flashbacks are sensitively written and do what they are supposed to do; create sympathy for Christian.) So, what’s my issue?

Every sub he has is a brunette. Like his mother. He humiliates them in some twisted act of revenge on the woman who couldn’t protect him. Wow. Freud would love Christian Grey. This is nothing to do with the BDSM lifestyle but is a deep dysfunction within Christian. James has taken a deeply troubling psychological issue and muddled it up with a lifestyle choice, which suggests that those who are in the lifestyle had suffered some kind of horrific childhood trauma, which in turn excuses the abuses Christian visits on Ana.

So what to do? Do you get rid of the backstory? Do you dampen down the BDSM? Neither. He can still have his childhood trauma drive him and be a Dom. How? By removing the link between his sexual desire and his mother. He tells Ana that he likes to beat brown-haired girls because they remind him of his mother. Simply cut that out and Christian’s desires are less dark. He can still not like to be touched, need to be in control of every aspect of his business, he can still be dark and brooding and a wounded soul in need of the pure love of Ana to rescue and restore him. But he’s not psychologically raping his biological mother over and over again.

Mrs Robinson
What is clear throughout the whole series is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what a Dom should be, which starts with Mrs Robinson. Elena Lincoln, a friend of Christian’s adoptive mother, seduces Christian when he is fifteen. Again, you have a Domme using their authority and position to seduce a vulnerable (and Christian is vulnerable) person. That’s a predator, wrapped up in the mystique of BDSM.
Now, I know that Ana points out that what Elena did was wrong, but Christian doesn’t see it as child abuse, even though that is what it is, as insidious and as nasty as what the pimp did to him. But like Ana he is dazzled by the sex so refuses to see that he was abused by Elena. As Ana says, if it was the other way around, everyone would be disgusted. This means that his experience, as a sub and training to be a Dom, is twisted and gives him permission to be abusive. The Dom does whatever it takes to get the sub to behave as the Dom wants, which is not how it works but I’ll explore that in more detail later.

So, how do we deal with Mrs Robinson? The age of consent in Washington is sixteen, although there are some caveats that mean that sixteen year olds are not able to consent in certain situations. Does Christian really have to be fifteen? I know why it’s been done; shock value and sympathy. Poor, tortured boy, so damaged he couldn’t bear to be loved in an ordinary way. Um, you can still achieve that if he is seventeen or eighteen. In fact, if he’d tried and failed to have normal relationships, and was still hurting at eighteen, it creates a lot more sympathy for him. He is struggling to control himself as a young adult, not a child, and it makes the Mrs Robinson situation far less unpalatable.

BDSM
The world of BDSM is a varied and often incredibly scary place to a vanilla person. There are simply too many variants to explore in one blog but the information is out there if you want to have a look. I did, for the purposes of this blog post, and there is some scary stuff out there. What lies at the heart of any BDSM relationship, whether it’s just at home, in bed or a full Master/Mistress and slave situation (where the slave gives all control of every part of their life from food to clothing to their Master/Mistress) is trust and boundaries, which are firmly agreed upon before anything starts.

Doms, oddly enough, are not the ones in control. Subs are. The sub gives power to the Dom and they can take it back again with a safeword. E.L. James gets this in theory but Christian doesn’t practise it. The role of the Dom is to fulfil a need in the sub, a need to have someone else in control, for whatever reason and it’s not always a sexual thing. It has very little to do with a need to control, though Doms get satisfaction from the illusion of control. Christian is a control-freak and does what he likes when he likes, without permission. That is an abuser.

In my travels I found this post which helps explain the Dom/sub dynamic in a bit more detail. The most interesting section was this:
‘For in BDSM the submissive (or “sub”) willingly grants the dominant (or “dom”) power over them, and they do so out of trust and respect. This transferring of control is commonly called “The Gift”—that is, it’s an arrangement—not coercive but consensual. And the “gift” itself is an agreed-upon ”power exchange.”

Most fascinating about this sexual compact is the general recognition that although the sub willingly forfeits his power to the dom, he’s doesn’t really abandon it either. Typically, the sub has at his disposal a “safe word” that when put into play will instantly compel the dom to freeze in his aggressive tracks. So the sub need never fear being irretrievably forced outside his comfort zone. In Ogas and Gaddam’s description of such “play,” note how the pressure is actually much more on the dom than the sub: “A good dom pays very close attention to the sub’s experience and determines when a sub may be approaching his or her limits. It takes training and experience to become a good dom—usually by serving as a sub for an established dom” (p. 208). And this last remark may be seen as tying into the fact that besides doms and subs, there are also switches: individuals adept at taking on either role in BDSM scenarios.’

Ana doesn’t grant Christian permission at first, which contradicts the role of the Dom, but when she does they both enjoy themselves, until he goes too far at the end of book one, with the belt.

Christian is a crap Dom. Ana is not a sub, she’s new to all of this, so he has a responsibility to guide her, which he doesn’t do well, at all. There is absolutely no firm set of boundaries, he uses booze to get her to be more receptive to his contract, he doesn’t remind her to safeword the first time he spanks her or when he applies the belt, which a Dom would do with an inexperienced sub. It’s no wonder she freaks out and runs away when he goes too far. A good Dom would also be able to read their sub and stop, even if the sub forgot to safeword, as Ana does.

Now, I’m not saying that it isn’t possible for a Dom to go too far or for a sub to try to take more than they can handle but Christian pushes Ana far too hard, far too fast. From my reading, I have gathered that in that situation a good Dom would immediately console the sub and talk through how they were feeling, why they didn’t safeword, what needs to be renegotiated. Christian gets arnica cream, Advil and a half-hearted attempt to speak to her. Obviously, there’s no dramatic ending for the first book then.

It’s clear that not enough research happened. BDSM is not about abuse, or working out deep seated issues, but about trust. Speaking to an actual Dom/sub couple would have helped James create a realistic relationship.

Stalking, jealousy and possession
Last one, for this blog. Christian stalks Ana. I could buy her having to have a background check in order for her to come in and interview him (what does he do actually? I’m not sure other than Business), but afterwards because he wants to see if she’s suitable sub-material? It makes my skin crawl. He goes to her place of work to see if she’s attracted to him, he sends her ruinously expensive 1st editions of books, he tracks her phone, he checks who she’s flying with (without asking), he follows her to Georgia, buys SIP so he can keep an eye on her (he actually says this), sends her flowers after she’s left him, and, when he goes jogging, he goes past her new apartment in Seattle and lingers outside, half hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Quite a lot. And he’s not actually been to her apartment yet. Ewwwww.

As well as being a stalker, he is a jealous, possessive freak, even before anything starts. He treats any man as a threat: Jose, her friend (who I also don’t like, because he tries to kiss Ana when she’s drunk and doesn’t want to), his brother Elliot, Katherine’s brother Ethan, any man who dares to look at her. He tightens his grip on her when someone else shows her attention. Every. Single. Time.

And it gets worse. When she loses her virginity, he wants her to feel sore the next day to remind her that he’s had her. He calls her ‘mine’ frequently, as well as ‘my girl’. He says ‘You’ve had six orgasms, baby. And they all belong to me.’ Ack. Ack. Ack. Ack.

There is nothing wrong with being infatuated, nothing wrong with enjoying your girlfriend and buying her nice things, nothing wrong with missing someone when you’ve broken up with them but it’s the way that Christian does it that is wrong. As an editor, I’d have cut the whole feeling sore thing, I’d have changed the timing of the background check, I wouldn’t have traced her phone or changed her booking on her flight. I’d get him to realise a bit sooner she was besotted with him and let that assuage his jealousy. I definitely wouldn’t have him go jogging past her new home on a regular basis. A few simple tweaks that get rid of the idea of him as an abusive predator.

Conclusion
E.L. James clearly wanted to tell a modern fairy tale: an innocent saving a dark prince from himself, while finding her own sexuality, and as a hopeless romantic, I’d have liked that story. But there’s too much that stops it from being what she intended. There are elements which suggest it could have been great, as well as titillating, and a decent editor would have made sure that happened.
Moral of the story for writers: a good editor will help you accomplish your vision, they will see the path you want to take and help you take it. The advice is designed to make your story stronger. They know you are close to the story and characters, so when they are brutal, it’s to make them better. You need their objectivity. When you get a good editor, treasure them.