Part I: Introduction: On what this is and who it is and isn’t for.
Part II: Pretty Things To Look At: Visual descriptions and their fallacies; subjects, objects and breasts; exclusivity and accidental pornography.
Part III: Pretty Things To Use: A casting call gone wrong; age of consent and why it matters; on how Daenerys Targayen said yes.
Part IV: Pretty Things To Use, continued: On sexy rigor mortis; entertainment vs. insult; on how beauty standards make it harder to write well.
Part V: Pretty Things We’ve Read Before: On building mixed ensembles; on why everybody hated Tauriel; what The X-Men teach about gender defaults.
Part VI: That’s… Not How That Works: On why you should fact-check your erotica; on how your bible studies teacher was wrong about orgasms.
Part VII: Do It Right: All the positive examples and bonus advice on how to do it right for all who made it this far.
That’s… Not How That Works (Factual Errors)
If you write a group you aren’t a part of or a thing you’ve never done, you will probably get things wrong sometimes. It’s the way it goes. It’s one reason why gay men generally don’t appreciate slash fanfiction1. Years ago, Brad Pitt stated in an interview that he is considerably more intimidated by filming sex scenes as compared to action scenes. After all, he pointed out quite reasonably, most men out there have had sex and can make comparisons; but most men haven’t been in a gun fight. I’m sure there are some mafia enforcers out there, wanting to bang their heads against a wall while watching State of Grace,2 but I doubt they bear statistical significance.
So generally it is very embarrassing to make a factual error in describing a woman. Not just because the majority of people on this planet are women, or because you could have at the very least gotten one to proofread for you.3 But also because you will be laughed at by all the male readers who either have a good education in the related fields, or get laid regularly.
Basic Female Anatomy
Dino put his feet up and chatted for a couple of minutes, then he put down the phone and returned to the table. “Okay,” he said, “the [medical examiner] confirms his first estimate of time of death. The girl had a tiny purse tucked into her vagina, just big enough to hold her driver’s license, a credit card, and a few bucks. Her name is Elizabeth Sweeney.”(Stuart Woods: Desperate Measures. USA 2018)
I have no words, but I also sincerely hope that none are required. Actually I don’t even think that other examples are required. Let’s just… move on.
Women Bodies Do Not Work Like Boy Bodies
Women bodies do not work like boy bodies. I can see where those writers are coming from, since they usually make somewhat reasonable deductions. Sometimes you just don’t even consider that something cannot be generalized. But for god’s sake, guys, ask your wife or your lesbian best friend or whatever to proofread scenes that involve a woman doing anything to do with her lady parts. Your editor, if female, might be too embarrassed to explain.
Ser Jorah stood. “Perhaps it’s time you found that out.”George R.R. Martin: A Song of Ice and Fire
“Yes,” [Dany] decided. “I’ll do it!” [She] threw back the coverlets and hopped from the bunk. “I’ll see the captain at once, command him to set course for Astapor.” She bent over her chest, threw open the lid, and seized the first garment to hand, a pair of loose sandsilk trousers. “Hand me my medallion belt,” she commanded Jorah as she pulled the sandsilk up over her hips. “And my vest -” she started to say, turning.
Ser Jorah slid his arms around her.
“Oh,” was all Dany had time to say as he pulled her close and pressed his lips down on hers. He smelled of sweat and salt and leather, and the iron studs on his jerkin dug into her naked breasts as he crushed her hard against him. One hand held her by the shoulder while the other slid down her spine to the small of her back, and her mouth opened for his tongue, though she never told it to. His beard is scratchy, she thought, but his mouth is sweet. The Dothraki wore no beards, only long mustaches, and only Khal Drogo had ever kissed her before. He should not be doing this. I am his queen, not his woman.
It was a long kiss, though how long Dany could not have said. When it ended, Ser Jorah let go of her, and she took a quick step backward. “You… you should not have…”
“I should not have waited so Iong,” he finished for her. “I should have kissed you in Qarth, in Vaes Tolorro. I should have kissed you in the red waste, every night and every day. You were made to be kissed, often and well.” His eyes were on her breasts.
Dany covered them with her hands, before her nipples could betray her. “I… that was not fitting. I am your queen.”
(A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin again, who seems to be under the impression that female nipples follow the same rules as male genitalia. Hardening nipples are indeed an extremely unreliable sign of a woman’s arousal. Standing in a tent naked during a cool night, as Danearys does here, would do the trick all on its own. For practice, look at how this is another example of a teenager mysteriously – without any reasonable explanation – being into sexual coercion by a much older man, when any sane kid queen would kick the guy out of her tent screaming murder. Or maybe freeze in terror. Because that’s another thing: Women do not usually magically displace their agency just because somebody planted one on them. Frankly, we can’t afford to. In a world where one out of five women as raped at least once in her life, assuming otherwise is plain naive.4)
Another favorite example of mine can be found in Ken Follett’s Third Twin. Forgive me if I get it wrong, since I’m working from memory. Somewhere in the first third of the novel, our female protagonist has been tentatively getting closer to a nice young man when he becomes a person of interest in a rape investigation. Although she herself believes to have seen him on the scene, she has a strong feeling that he could not possibly be the guy, pinging her as quite trustworthy. (an instinct proven right later) They go on a date. It goes fine. In front of her place, they kiss and make out. However, self-preservation kicks in and she gets very uncomfortable, because what if…? She ends the kiss and sends the guy away. And then according to Ken Follett, what a woman will do in that situation is go home and masturbate as a way of handling the residual arousal. I’m told that this could be an issue for a man in a similar situation, since men get erections but don’t necessarily lose them. And hey, I give Follett kudos for knowing that women have orgasms, and can achieve them all on their own after sending the guy on his way. But thinking “Fuck, what if he rapes me?” is still a very thorough way of killing any arousal for the next couple of hours for the majority of people with female genitalia. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s sure to raise a relevant amount of eyebrows in your audience.
Orgasms Are Mandatory And I Don’t Care What Your Bible Studies Teacher Said
One example I will never forget: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne is a fine book that I would warmly recommend on any other count. What I won’t recommend, going by this source alone, would be choosing Teddy Wayne as a sexual partner, whoever he is other than a contemporary American author. Because the social script in his head for how sex works seems to not include an orgasm for the woman. First person narrator Jonny is eleven years old and becomes the unfortunate witness of his mom, Jane, having extremely kinky sex with one of her employees.
I held my breath, since I was sure they could hear me breathing. […](Teddy Wayne: The Love Song of Jonny Valentine)
The man said, “You like being my little slut, don’t you?” and Jane again said, “Yes, sir,” and I heard a loud slap and Jane moaned and the guy said, “Shut up,” and Jane said, “I’m sorry, sir,” and heat rose up in my body like it wanted me to jump over the couch and tackle him, even though I knew from her voice that Jane was playing along. But I’d get in major trouble.
My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and I peeked up a tiny bit to see if I could watch them without them catching me […]. Jane’s back was to me, and the guy was standing in front of her totally naked except for dark socks and his boner sticking straight up out of his pubes. […] I couldn’t see him too good, only that his arms were covered with tattoos.
Oh, man. The head crew guy. Bill. […]
“God, you’re so beneath me,” Bill said.
“I’m sorry,” Jane said in her little-girl voice.
“You don’t even deserve my cock tonight,” he said. “I’m just gonna jerk off on you.”
“Yes, sir,” she said again, and I heard him jerking off. After a minute he said, “I need moisturizer or something,” and she ran in and out of the bathroom and handed him something, and he took a few more minutes, and I closed my eyes and thought of me telling Lisa Pinto she was my little slut and her calling me sir, but the way Jane said it, and then Bill took a step toward her and made this sound like an animal growling.
He went to the bathroom and peed and used the sink while Jane pulled a bunch of tissues from a box and wiped herself off. Bill came back and Jane went to the bathroom, and he sat down on the couch. I peeked over again. His hands were behind his head like a pillow, and it looked like his eyes were closed. He was still naked. […]
When Jane came back, she sat down next to him and asked, “Want some?” Bill took a long gulp of water before giving it back.
“It’s my birthday on the sixth,” Jane said. Bill grunted, though it wasn’t like one of the grunts from before. “Maybe we could do something special that night.”
“Maybe,” Bill said. “Where are we gonna be?”
(Notice anything off? Nothing wrong with the depiction of Jane. No breasts. Go her for embracing submissive kinkiness. But where, I ask you, is her orgasm? I mean, yes, this is kinky role play that could require that she doesn’t get one, okay. But then her arousal still wouldn’t just go poof. I’ll assume she didn’t go to the bathroom to get off, because that would be one shit sexual encounter. So the person who wrote this, and the persons who edited it, did work off an assumption that female orgasms are not necessary parts of sex. Is that misogynistic? …I would say so, precisely, but none of the words that come to mind instead are particularly flattering.5)
Okay, okay! Enough said about what you shouldn’t do.
Let’s finish this off with a couple of words on how to do it right.
Read the footnotes via mouseover Or read them here:
- That’s the kind with the kinky gay pairings.
- An excellent movie that everybody should watch, though it certainly won’t win any prizes in the depiction-of-women department, seeing as how it only features one. I could tell you nothing about her personality.
- If you can’t, you might want to ponder why that could be.
- This would be a US statistic. According to UN resources, worldwide it’s one out of three. It’s terrifying.
- And yes, of course there will be women who don’t take offense, or who feel that Jane’s orgasm happened invisibly outside of Jonny’s perception. There will always be cases that offend some women, but not others. I’m personally very offended when somebody forgets the existence of female orgasms. I find them quite relevant.