Kristen Roupenian’s recent piece in The Guardian about the “trouble” with women writing about sex is telling. Roupenian writes that her work has been compared to Mary Gaitskill’s work in part because her inclusion of sex became a focal point. Roupenian bristles at the suggestion that sex is the point of her writing, that “all other elements exist to say something about sex, and the state of sexual relations, rather than the other way around.”
I understand Roupenian’s anger. People often exhibit a reductivist tendancy toward “sex writing.” Even in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, people still talk about erotica in hushed tones; like many other genres, sex writing is looked down upon by some who claim to sit on the pedestal of literary fiction. The larger argument is often that writing about sex can enervate your work, but it should be a passing moment, not a focal point, because sex writing isn’t serious work. The result is that those of us who often write about sex—especially those of us who identify as women—risk being taken less seriously as writers. The result is that many women writers who write excellent erotica do so under pen names.
I enjoy writing about sex, a lot in fact. It’s not just because I like reading about sex, which I do, but because I like the challenge of producing work that attempts to defy pigeonholing. Writing about kink, however, is an even bigger risk: because kink is considered anything that deviates from the straight line of sexual engagement, it’s still often seen as a fringe practice. That’s why I was excited about Monet Thomas’s kinked challenge, which is what I wrote this story specifically for: I hadn’t written kink yet, although I’d been thinking about it. I knew it would risk further reductivism, but I wanted to test those bounds.
What I’ve noticed is that many people still think kink is largely about sex alone, when for kinksters, there’s often more at the core. In addition to sex, kink encompasses an entire landscape of psychology, intimacy, autonomy, and the establishment of healthy boundaries and communication. I wanted my story to reflect some of this expansiveness.
In the end, what I wrote was a story where kink is the mechanism to help one mother cope with emotional sacrifice. I wrote the story like a folded paper fan: without the parentheticals, it’s straightforward, about a woman preparing her house for her grown child’s visit. With the parentheticals, it reveals that hidden interiority that most of us will never see when we look at our mothers, or any mother, for that matter. My hope is that it illustrates that stories can center sex and have merit because of their inclusion of sex, not in spite of it. My career is pushing me toward more of this work, and I hope it will others too: there’s a lot of terrible sex writing out there that we should all feel compelled to overshadow.
MEGAN PILLOW DAVIS is a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction and is currently a doctoral candidate in the University of Kentucky’s English Department. Her work has appeared recently in, among other places, Electric Literature, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hobart, and Paper Darts, and is forthcoming in Atticus Review and Waxwing. She has received fellowships from Pen Parentis and the Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a residency from the Ragdale Foundation. She is currently writing her dissertation and a novel. You can find her on Twitter at @megpillow.