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  • Nicole Sellew

(ESSAY) Make Literature Sexy Again

In muted light, a woman holds the face of her lover, whose beard catches the light.
Screenshot from the trailer of 'Conversations with Friends'

In this essay, Nicole Sellew questions the place of sex in contemporary literature, arguing that 'art should serve the purpose that pornography does'. Comparing the material vestiges of capitalised 'sex' against the 'unfettered joy' of actual sex, and how this might be represented, Sellew feels her way through making literature sexy again.

Sex sells: the old adage rings true for a reason. One has only to think of the glittering image of Charlotte McKinney biting into a Carl’s Jr. burger during a Super Bowl commercial break to know that this is true. This principle of advertising could be applied to poetry and literature, which are now, like everything, focused on the marketing and advertising of the thing rather than the thing itself. The literary work has become product rather than art. So, if sex sells, why does so much of contemporary literature lack real sexuality?

Sex is free; the sexual act itself requires no capital. It is a way of enjoying the body outside the confines of the capitalist system, so it follows that a late capitalist society would ultimately discourage the sex act, as well as any realistic depictions of it. The glossy bodies in advertisements only serve to alienate real people and real bodies from engaging with sexuality. Instead, these depictions of the sexual body encourage people to buy products in attempts to become more sexually appealing and become closer to the body ideal –– not to achieve any actual sexual gratification. The fusing of products with sexual imagery only serve to morph natural sexuality and sexual urges into an instrument of consumerist desire. Sex is inextricably linked to consumption, whether it manifests as a Carl’s Jr. Burger or any other product that lacks sexual qualities. A burger, a piece of fabric, or a glass bottle full of perfume is, if anything, entirely unsexy. Products are devoid of the sexual beauty found in nature and the body. If anything, the way that they attempt to emulate this natural beauty makes them incredibly disturbing in an uncanny valley way. Capitalism’s efforts to sexualise and personify brands and companies has led, in turn, to a commodification of the self, and, of course, the sexual self. Brands have become more sexual and people less so. Human sexuality is filtered through the vast, echoing mall of the internet, where people and products are suddenly indistinguishable.

Culturally, there seems to be a Protestant shame not at the bodily hedonism of sex, but at the way it wastes energy that could be used on production (or reproduction). Literature, too, has, for the most part, been unable to shake this distaste for the sex act. Sexual desire is fine –– it’s even encouraged, especially when it spurs the consumer to make a purchase. Sex itself, however, is not capitalism’s preferred climax. A capitalist society would have people sublimate desire by biting into a burger, tapping a credit card, or painting on brand-new makeup: all actions that ultimately beget further, more expensive desires. Raw sexual desire, as such, is pure. The completion of the real sex act and the exertion of energy for the sole purpose of sex is the completion of an anti-capitalist act of protest. How, then, do artists encourage people back towards real sex and away from capitalism’s glittering, aspirational sexuality?

Sex is a way of accessing the real; as is, at times, art. Art and literature have the powerful potential to depict sex in a real way. Most contemporary literature, however, is unconsciously poisoned by capitalism. In contemporary literature, most references to sex are watered-down and very much ‘suitable for work’. The sex depicted in literature is polished and prettified for consumption, much like in a miniseries or a commercial, where bodies are painted and artfully arranged rather than engaged in an act that makes them transcend form. The sex in literature comes second, if at all, to the discussions of small, often electronic currents of desire in relationships (email exchanges, text messages) and the sex act itself only serves to punctuate these blasé examinations of relationships, and often to prove something about the narcissistic desires and identifications of one or both of the characters. I am thinking, here, of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends (2017), which fails to take the sexuality of its characters to transcendent, euphoric heights. The precise control with which Rooney writes is technically impressive, but we thematically lose out on what would be present in a study of sex in its unfettered joy.

In Susan Sontag’s ‘The Pornographic Imagination’ (1967), she writes that ‘some certified masterpieces contain passages that do properly excite readers sexually’. But literature that truly engages with sexuality does more than this. It explores the possibilities of the human experience, of what it means to experience the body and to reach beyond the confines of that body.

Contemporary critics eschew the work of female writers who write at length about sex and desire. Sally Rooney is a notable example of this. Her prose, while widely touted as deeply sexual and even pornographic, is sexually timid and even frigid (though, of course, not without its own literary merit. The impulse to dismiss any sort of writing by women, especially when it is sexual in nature, is another issue entirely). The issue with this genre of writing, however, is not the fact that it engages with sexuality. It is the tentative nature of their prose and the glossing-over of the sexual act to make it suitable for the screen, for consumption and monetization, even for an advertisement. Moments and beats and images are reduced to meme thumbnails, and desire itself is forced to be focused on these facsimiles of the sexual act. Technology and late capitalism have resulted in a massive sexual deficit in contemporary society. Electronic signifiers of desire have won over physical sublimations of it. On the internet, where sexuality and desire can be monetized, they have morphed into something sinister. Instagram has become a garden of sexual metonymy, where bikinis and liquid eyeshadows take the place of human sexual organs. And there is a humanity in sexuality, a humanity that poets and novelists attempt to capture. Works that do capture sexuality in an honest way tend to be from a time before late capitalism, before Edward Bernays and the dawn of modern advertising, before the internet and consumer culture.

Regarding pornographic literature, Sontag writes: ‘The physical sensations involuntarily produced in someone reading the book carry with them something that touches upon the reader’s whole experience of his humanity—and his limits as a personality and as a body’. Literature, in its infinite power, has the potential to break open the world of the body and thus the world as a whole. And the argument here is not one for pornography –– in fact, it’s against it. Of course pornography exists today (as devoid of real sexuality as everything else), but it shouldn’t have to. Art should serve the purpose that pornography does. Art should excite, should beget desire, and should eradicate the social need for pornography.

‘Being a free-lance explorer of spiritual danger’, Sontag writes, ‘the artist gains a certain license to behave differently from other people’. Instead of using this as a way to excuse bad behavior, the artist should take this as a call to action. The artist’s attitude towards sex and sexuality should be one of insatiable curiosity, with a healthy desire to share any discoveries. Literature has the potential to break through the confines of late capitalism and remind people of what it means to exist in a sexual body.


Text: Nicole Sellew

Published: 14/12/22


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