Novels, Poetry

Literature and Sex

In one sense, ‘sex’ didn’t exist until 1899, when H. G. Wells first used it in his novel Love and Mr Lewisham as an abbreviation for ‘sexual intercourse’ (and Wells would know: his string of lovers was long and illustrious, including the feminist writer Rebecca West and the modernist pioneer Dorothy Richardson). You’d have to wait till 1929 to ‘have sex’ with someone, when D. H. Lawrence introduced that idiom into the language. (Of course, these are merely the earliest recorded uses: the terms probably slightly predated Wells and Lawrence.)


The words ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ hadn’t come about until relatively recently, in 1892, when the first English translation of Austro-German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1886) appeared. The word ‘heterosexual’ was coined only then because, for the first time, one needed something to complement or negate ‘homosexual’. Before that, amazingly, there was just ‘sex’ and ‘sodomy’ (or rather, there wasn’t even ‘sex’, as we’ve seen). The arrival of the word ‘homosexual’ coincided with what Michel Foucault described as the development of homosexuality as an identity, in the late nineteenth century.

The idea of writing as a form of sex is long-standing. Lord Byron’s famous denunciation of fellow Romantic poet Keats as a purveyor of ‘mental masturbation’ (‘he’s always frigging his imagination’) is but one example. Jesuit priest and pioneering nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins thought a pen was a sort of metaphorical penis, to be used by the male and not the female (for ‘the begetting of one’s thoughts on paper’, as he put it in a letter of 1886).

More recently, there is the ‘Bad Sex’ prize, awarded annually since 1993 by the Literary Review to the writer who gives us the most toe-curlingly bad description of a sex scene in a new work of fiction. Here’s 1997 winner Nicholas Royle giving us all he’s got:

Yasmin grinned and writhed on the bed, arching her back, making a noise somewhere between a beached seal and a police siren. And then he was there. Slowly at first, dead slow – she liked that, he knew. Then speeding up gradually to gain a rhythm until he was punching smoothly in and out of her like a sewing machine.

Sexy! The trophy is in the shape of an open book with a naked woman draped over it. The co-founder of the prize was Auberon Waugh (son of novelist Evelyn Waugh). Past winners of this not-so-illustrious gong include Melvyn Bragg, Sebastian Faulks, Tom Wolfe, Giles Coren, and Norman Mailer. Curiously, E. L. James (author of Fifty Shades of Grey) does not feature on this year’s Bad Sex shortlist.


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  2. Thanks, good suggestion – we’ll have to write a whole post about Boccaccio (and other great medieval writers) at some point soon. Sex will undoubtedly loom large there too…

  3. Mmm, what about Decamerone, written by Giovanni Boccaccio)))