How We Should Write About Sex

If only more academics followed Stacia Kane’s advice.
Image from staciakane.com

Most sex writing is terrible. Most scholarly sex writing is even worse. It’s a problem that stems from the unimaginative academic universe, a world that indoctrinates grad students out of creative prose, that Scientologizes away all sense of originality so that all papers sound as if they could have been written by the same chunky, black glasses-wearing, latte-sipping, theorist-name-dropping late 20s humanities Ph.D.  Academic writing is the antithesis of sexy. It’s dry and clinical, jargon-filled and plodding.  Reading it is like decoding a text whose message, when revealed, is frequently not worth the effort. Even if it is worth the effort, it’s still a frustrating endeavor. Writing about sex needs to be wet and messy and passionate and dirty. Academics have even managed to sanitize the word body, to jargonize it, to make it the opposite of what the body is, a flatulent, oozing, prickly thing that brings us sloppy, messy joy.

Sex writing needs to evolve away from a clinical, Kinseyian style. Since he was writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Kinsey’s clinical style made sense. It was appropriate. It was a way to give sex studies legitimacy. But we’re over a half a century beyond that. Even though the sex-studies stigma still exists, that doesn’t mean that we have to be overly scientific to the point of impenetrability in response. Stigmas about sexuality will always exist. Scholars shouldn’t respond to criticism by making their work innocuous and boring. Instead, they should fight critics with provocative prose full of stimulating ideas. Here’s a 3-step plan to improve academic sex writing.

First, academics need to stop pretending that they don’t have sex. Why is there an insistence that to be an intellectual means that you have risen above the corporeal? In the words of Us Weekly: Academics are just like us! They watch porn, masturbate, and have sex just like the rest of the rabble. They don’t copulate while wearing a monocle and a top hat. They don’t bring test tubes and statistical software to their assignations. They fuck. But for some reason intellectuals like to write about sex as if it’s something that happens to other people.

Next, they need to let their prose reflect this. There seems to be an inverse relationship between dirtiness of the content and dryness of the prose. Merely intimating that we are sexual creatures seems verboten. Scholarship on sex emphasizes academese, writing about sex in a way that obfuscates it, that turns off all but the most die-hard specialist. It’s as if any sense of the pleasure of writing or the beauty of language would imply that the writer possesses sensuality, that they are not serious, that their work must be of the “popular” variety.

Finally, scholars have a moral obligation to make their work accessible.  Self-consciously academic writing about sex is more than a problem of style. It actually hinders the spread of sexual knowledge. Academese alienates readers, who are seeking jargon-free sexual information. By virtue of possessing genitals, all people are “experts”on sex, and they deserve to receive intelligent, readable scholarship. The public is hungry for information on sex. If scholars don’t give it to them, they will find it elsewhere. I don’t want to live in a society where academics cloak “dangerous” ideas in the safety of  jargon. Dangerous ideas are the only ones that need defending, and they’re the least likely to be defended. If scholars won’t do it, who will?

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6 thoughts on “How We Should Write About Sex

  1. The first thing Judy told me when she read my writing was to stop being “self-consciously fancy.” Definitely has improved everything I’ve ever written when I dropped the hubris.

  2. dildographer says:

    I love Judy. She’s so wise. I’m glad she’s on my committee.

  3. Ann says:

    Very well written. Mama

  4. Geoffrey Cubbage says:

    I don’t know about a monocle, but I’m almost certain a top hat has been involved in my sex life at some point. And at least one of my girlfriends found statistical software pretty damn sexy.

    Just sayin’.

  5. dildographer says:

    Good point. Abraham Lincoln was hot.

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