Words to woo — or wilt — by

A look at the best and worst sex in literature

Calgary distinguished itself in the international world of letters this year when Calgary-born novelist Nancy Huston won the Guardian’s 2012 award for “Bad Sex in Fiction.” Huston joins lofty (and primarily male) company: previous winners include Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and John Updike (Lifetime Achievement, 2008). If we grant that Huston deserves the honour for her novel Infrared (and she does, she really really does), the question remains as to what precisely constitutes “bad sex” in literature? How does one weed out the unsexy from the sexy, the nasty from the sublime?

The best measure may be to consider whether you want to be there yourself — in that position(s) — doing or being done by the protagonist(s) and/or author.

To get you started, here follows a (totally subjective) list of the Top 5 unsexiest and sexiest moments in literature. Enjoy. Or don’t. We have no interest in knowing which. You little monkey.


1. Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

“All right, Israel, cum in my mouth. Don’t let me wash it out, so when I talk to those people, I can have your cum swimming in my mouth, and I will smile at them and taste you. It will be as you wanted it, me standing there, tasting your cum, stumbling over words.”

Obliquely — and perhaps unintentionally — the above passage answers the novel’s titular question. A person should be less pretentious, less twee-ly and self-consciously shocking. A person should brush his or her teeth after giving head, and before entering company.

2. D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover:

“John Thomas! Dost want HER? Dost want my lady Jane? Tha’s dipped me in again, tha hast. Ay, an’ tha comes up smilin’. Ax ’er then! Ax lady Jane. Say: lift up your heads, O ye gates, that the kind of glory may come in. Ay, th’ cheek on thee! Cunt, that’s what tha’re after. Tell lady Jane tha wants cunt. John Thomas, an’ the cunt O’ lady Jane!‘

First rule of thumb: don’t name your penis. Second: don’t name your partner’s member, cunt or otherwise. Third: foreplay is not a puppet show.

3. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs:

“I am beginning to enjoy it,” she said, “but enough for today. I am beginning to feel a demonic curiosity to see how far your strength goes. I take a cruel joy in seeing you tremble and writhe between my whip, and in hearing your groans and wails; I want to go on whipping without pity until you beg for mercy, until you lose your senses. You have awakened dangerous elements in my being. But now get up.”

Wanda (above) talks a lot. So does Severin, her abject lover. Enough said.

4. Roberto Bolaño, Woes of the True Policeman:

“This will end badly, thought Amalfitano... as Padilla’s cock sank smoothly into his old ass.”

Granted, Padilla is one of Amalfitano’s students at the university, so there are some ethical issues at play here, but his attitude still seems unduly negative. Also, a couple of sentences earlier, he’s thinking about his dead wife. Big turn-off.

5. James Joyce, Ulysses:

“...and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes.”

Elvis left the building 15 yesses ago.


1. Philip Roth, Deception:

“Then who was that in your studio with my legs over your shoulders?”

Funny = sexy. Effective verbal banter is crucial to good fore-and-afterplay.

2. Vincent Lam, The Headmaster’s Wager:

“Gradually faster, until he gave in, abandoned himself to it, spilled over the edge of himself, knew that she had also done so. Although a man could be selfish in seduction, he must be considerate in pleasure.

YES. Yes yes yes yes yes. And thank you.

3. King Solomon, “Song of Solomon” (King James Version):

“The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, / the work of the hands of a cunning workman.”

Compliments are sexy. A confident person is an adventurous person. A thankful person. A giving person.

4. John Donne, “Elegy 19: On His Mistress, Going to Bed”:

“License my roving hands, and let them go / Before, behind, between, above, below.”


5. Edna St. Vincent Millay, “I, being born a woman and distressed”:

“I find this frenzy insufficient reason / For conversation when we meet again.”

Challenges = sexy. Try me Edna. I’ll give you a reason.



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