| On Writing
Debut Writing Sex with Women, by Women, for Women
People have sex. Women have sex. It would feel irresponsible to censor or smooth over this part of their (and our) lives.
I am so often dissatisfied with the way sex is portrayed in media, whether created by queer or straight folks. In film and television, save for The L Word and its reboot, sex between women can be so gauzy when depicted, and unrealistic. (The comedian Cameron Esposito calls it “skydiving” sex, when everyone’s hands are in the air, and not where they would be in real life.) In literature, I find there’s often some imagery around wetness and lushness and fecundity, then a quick cut to the next morning.
In real life, queer women—alongside women who have sex with women, perhaps without a specific queer label—have varied and rich sex lives, and that’s something worth saying. It is not the pulsing pornography of heterosexual men’s uninspired minds, nor is it something that happens after the camera pans away. In my debut novel, A World Between , I keep us focused on the bed and the writhing bodies, which was something I knew would be true as soon as I began writing five years ago.
Being raised by my WASPy mother and Japanese dad, I found that sex was one of those taboo topics—like frank conversations about body parts or consent. But my mom did what she could, allowing for the lesser embarrassment of buying me books that explained in kid terms what sex was or what I could expect from my period. I, along with my little circle of first generation friends, pored over those books to understand and howl with laughter about all the things our parents wouldn’t tell us directly.
One thing those books for sure skipped was what happened if I, a cis woman, wanted to have sex with another person who wasn’t a cis man. That learning wasn’t to be found in illustrated, tongue-in-cheek educational materials, and instead was in the domain of On Our Backs Guide to Lesbian Sex and hands-on experience. (I demand credit for a lack of puns up until this point.) Sex with women was about trying people on, and trial and error of what I liked and how to please others. It was feeling desire more deeply than I ever had. I was lucky to have partners who kept my body safe, without the threats of plagues I knew existed in the straight world: coercion, pregnancy, general fuckboy-ery.
What I’ve learned about sex didn’t end there. Thanks to therapy—for this and many other things—I’ve learned that the intersection of sex and communication isn’t simply conversations about sex or the talking people do during sex. Sex itself is a kind of communication, a nonverbal rapport that ideally expresses what one wants or doesn’t want, creates intimacy, and can advance the relationship further.
This is true in life and in A World Between , a story about Eleanor and Leena, who move away from and towards each other over the course of thirteen years. Sex-as-communication is something I also used as a writer. I served the realistic sex scenes readers deserve as well as some idealism about the sex that I want to see in the world.
I found it hard to create chemistry on the page. First, it is literally one-dimensional, and so often chemistry is found in a firmly three-dimensional universe (Bette and Tina! Harry and Sally!). In literature, the sparked interaction of two people is up to the author, creating moments of dialogue and shared intimacies that entice a reader to invest, that make the relationship, and therefore the narrative, believable.
In my book, I used many tools to communicate what it was about Eleanor and Leena that connected them—like banter and a shared sense of humor or trying my damndest to convey the delight and butterflies-in-gut they felt for the other. But the one I found most interesting and clearest to pen was sex.
There are a handful of sex scenes and false starts in A World Between , all with the intention of illustrating with action and little dialogue that these are two people with a romantic, sexual connection—soulmates, if you believe in that kind of thing. Letting someone in, baring yourself literally and figuratively, can be an intimate act, as it is for Eleanor and Leena.
By going to bed together, they’re telling us something that the flirty banter does not: They are serious about each other, trust each other, and are ready to the point of combustion to get naked together after a couple of almost-more-than-making-out moments. Eleanor herself could not be more clear, referencing a PG-13-appropriate interest in sex with Leena on page five, before she even knew the other woman’s name. This was simply a Chekhov’s gun situation.
Sex can tell us so much about a character. In the case of Eleanor and Leena, they are who they are, whether in bed with a sexual partner or walking down the street. Eleanor is extra; Leena is utilitarian. It’s also in who they are to each other. Sex together when they first meet is timid and slow, but over time, as they know each other better, there’s no need for caution.
Letting someone in, baring yourself literally and figuratively, can be an intimate act.
Beyond this, sex can convey something more subtle. Do they favor variety? Are they game to try anything? Do they have elaborate fantasies that they cannot bear to share with anyone? Are they not interested in sex at all? Do they seek out more than one partner at a time? Their motivations, interests, and actions related to sex can help create a whole character. (This is true, of course, when a character’s private self reflects their public self; Leena and Eleanor are who they are, with sex as a manifestation of their personalities. But this is not always the case, as characters may find themselves revealing different facets in the bedroom that they might not at work. Reflecting on this, I’m a little disappointed in myself! Next book: much more complicated relationships to sex.)
Seeing this form is made all the more powerful to see a character change their motivations and interests, and how that affects the actions they do or don’t take. Later in my book, Leena is more comfortable in seeking exactly the kind of sexual pleasure she wants, something that would not have been true of her character earlier in the text. Her direct overtures around sex are one more way we learn she has transformed with time.
Any sex Leena initiates or participates in is, of course, my decision. Through sex, I am talking directly to readers about what I find critical in the discourse around sex. I wanted to show someone’s—Leena’s—growth. I wanted to depict someone like Eleanor who, when we first meet her, is a very sexually motivated college-aged woman. Yes, she likes Leena as a person, thinks she’s smart and wonderful and funny, but she also wants to have sex with her. I don’t think we see enough of that in the overabundance of media that showcases young cis male desire.
Thinking back to glossy, unrealistic, or incomplete sex that we so often see between women: I wonder if the urge to clamp down and leave more to the imagination is a reaction to the way that women having sex has been commodified outside of our community, trampled on by the Male Gaze. Perhaps it leaves creators skittish.
Call it naivete or bravery, but my feminism compels me to gulp down awkwardness and look past what I was taught was taboo. People have sex. Women have sex. For me, within the confines of this book, it would feel irresponsible to censor or smooth over this part of their (and our) lives. I was and remain committed to telling the truth about sex.
In wanting to create something real, I was uber conscious of choreography. There’s kissing, there’s the slide of hands—and then clothes start coming off. In what order and how? Someone lays down on a bed and stretches out their arm, then someone lays next to them, wrapping an arm around their middle, then someone else strokes the inside of a thigh, and on and on.
Tracking the movements, ensuring that a reader is following along, writing in a way that’s accurate to bodies (e.g. you can’t go down on someone and be stroking their hair at the same time, unless you have Stretch Armstrong arms): It’s a tall order. With my edits, then other people’s edits, then more people’s edits, the finished product in A World Between is a seamless flow of limbs and pleasure––albeit with some bra clasp struggles and fears of out-of-practice vaginas.
Beyond stage directions, I knew I wanted to test the boundaries of intimacy, focusing on the surroundings of sex. For example: Someone’s period needed to derail sex. With two menstruating people who aren’t on the same cycle, it is just something that happens, and I’ve never seen that portrayed in the media. That kind of vulnerability between two people, to raise something that remains taboo and have it be taken well (“There would be no enjoying herself while Leena had cramps, so they kissed and kissed and kissed”), felt important to depict.
Likewise, in one sex scene, there’s a moment of Eleanor’s nerves at revealing her naked form for the first time: “She wasn’t sure Leena would like what she found.” Her self-consciousness and fears are for naught, as “Leena worked quickly, shucking her out of her clothes, and then she moved like molasses. Kissing up and down her arms, her legs, her sides, like Eleanor’s body was a world to be circumnavigated. Being cherished like that was almost painful, and she leaned into her discomfort until the awful feeling turned to gold.” Women’s bodies are judged and inspected from birth, and it was gleeful to create these small moments of acceptance in situations that aren’t always so glorious.
Women’s bodies are judged and inspected from birth, and it was gleeful to create these small moments of acceptance in situations that aren’t always so glorious.
It’s not something I thought deeply about in college, when I wrongly assumed that conversations about consent were unnecessary if cis straight men weren’t involved. But with my fresh 2020 eyes, I wanted to make sure that sex scenes—between college-aged people especially—featured a lot of checking in and requests for consent. This is in part my feminist desire to create what I wish to see in the world, but it also tells us something important about Eleanor and Leena: They respect each other and are kind and careful with the other in intimate, delicate moments. This signals something small in the larger tableau of who they are together.
I know there’s something saucy about this essay: Sex! Queer women! With a toddler who is allergic to sleep, and being married and monogamous, I’m perhaps not the expert on this topic that I once was. But that’s the power of writing: the ability to recall memories, to cobble together, and put forth what you want others to consume. Reflecting on the birth of this novel, I cannot help but see the humor to go from a life without discussion of sex to discussing it in almost every interview and essay I write.
For as much bravado as I have about my Feminist Manifesto to talk about sex, I squirm a little to think of the words my family and coworkers will read, words I typed with my fingers, words that came from my brain. But I brush that aside and close my eyes to any self-consciousness, because I’m writing for people that have not seen themselves represented, and that is the higher calling that matters.
And I never forget that I’m writing for myself as well. I created something that satisfies me, that if I read, I would think, Damn! Yes. Exactly. More.