If You Want to Learn to Write About Sex, Read James Salter
When I try to write about sex, I think back to when I was just out of college and, handy with a makeup brush, took a job to make some extra money doing makeup on a gay-porn film set. On the second day, we filmed a three-way that took up most of the day. The actors struggled: one was hard, the others weren’t, then the others were and the first was not, and so on. After a few hours, the director sent us all out of the room and turned out the lights so the actors could work it out. This was before Viagra—you had to have an honest hard-on to shoot. We waited outside the dark room, the lights out, even the cameramen outside, waiting, until finally we heard the signal, and then the crew rushed back in to film. We turned on the lights.
The actors were made to pause, immediately. I had to touch them up. They were panting, sweating like athletes. They’d rubbed off most of what I’d put on them. As they held their positions, I touched them up. I thought about how something had happened in the dark that we couldn’t see, an excitement that couldn’t be in the film. It was probably better than what we would film, more interesting.Too much writing about sex tries to either make it prettier or more serious, sexier or funnier or shocking, or anything, really, except what it is. On its own terms, sex is information. This I learned from reading James Salter. Reading his sentences, I saw what I knew of sex, that sex is a moment in which you are known and knowable. Whatever it is you desire appears from behind the veil of shame or fantasy or nostalgia, or sheer impossibility, and in its presence, you are revealed to yourself. Porn obscures this; porn is about the fantasy of the viewer, not the mixed fantasies, realities, and disappointments of the actors in the room. Truth might get you off, but porn doesn’t deal in maybes, was never interested in unreliable, unpredictable truth-telling.