The Catharsis of Writing About Sex in Memoir

I’ve mostly written sex scenes as reportage. His body was there. My body was here. Breast clad in. Hand on. Not that dissimilar from the setting and documenting of any other scene. Yet, when I read back over the sex scenes throughout my debut memoir, The Heartbreak Years, what I see is that in recreating these intimate moments for a reader I regained the autonomy I was often missing in the moment.

Much of the sex I had in my twenties occurred at a mental remove, likely due to teenage sexual trauma or because I was blackout drunk (also, likely due to teenage sexual trauma). In an early essay that would find its way into the book, I describe drunk sex “as serene as a movie astronaut suited up and floating in the endless silence of space.”

It is in reflection that I can finally be fully present—there’s nothing to be afraid of, I know how this story is going to end. The thing is, even in bed with men I didn’t fear, the one I did was always there too—held somewhere in my body, held somewhere in my memory. Elsewhere in the book, I liken having one of your earliest sexual encounters anchored in trauma to burning your tongue on the first bite, every subsequent bite accompanied by an uncomfortable reminder.

There’s much debate over the value of sex scenes—whether or not they must serve some explicit purpose—like moving the plot forward—or all the questions around what makes a sex scene good. I would agree with Melissa Febos, who says that a sex scene is no different and beholden to no other writing rules than any other scene.

The greatest power of sex in memoir isn’t to turn the reader on, but to turn the writer free. By now, nonfiction writers have thoroughly informed our readership that writing is not cathartic. But maybe we came on so strong in our stance because we were mostly jostling for greater respect for our art—we are practicing a craft, not distributing our journal entries to the masses—and what should be said instead, is that not all writing is cathartic.

The mapping of my experiences to a narrative has led me to a new emotional plane more than once.

Sometimes writing a wound becomes its own wound. Sometimes to write the thing, we must first no longer be the thing. But there are vices and people I’ve seemed to release at the same time as I’ve released a new essay into the world. I don’t think this is coincidence. The mapping of my experiences to a narrative has led me to a new emotional plane more than once.

This is not to say that writing always illuminates, always offers up answers or that even the version of the writer you encounter in the essay is a static, on-going version of the person who wrote the essay and continues to live the life the essay is drawn from. Writing an essay is not the same as crossing “Stop being a mess” off the to-do list. No.

But is it possible for my writing to change my reader if it doesn’t change me first? Before I can pass along my truth to anyone else, I have to first be honest with myself. This is similar to the argument Wesley Lowery makes in his NYT Opinion piece, “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists.” He puts it plainly, “No journalistic process is objective. And no individual journalist is objective, because no human being is.”

Writers, regardless of chosen genre or field, are conduits for the human experience. I know I have veered far from the matter of sex but bear with me, this line of thinking will lead us back to the bedroom. Besides, Febos has already given me permission to make sex about all things and anything but.

Now, let’s put Lowery on an intellectual date with Phillip Lopate. In “Writing Personal Essays: On the Necessity of Turning Oneself into a Character” in Writing Creative Nonfiction, Lopate closes out the essay by stating that turning yourself into a character is “a necessary precondition to transcending the ego—or at least writing personal essays that can touch other people.”

By turning myself into a character, I’m also creating space for the me that exists outside of the essay to behave as both observer and director. An observer of the actions of my past self and the director that oversees the reenactment of those actions for the reader.

The character is the conduit for truth between the writer and the reader. I create the character to connect with the reader, but I—the writer doing the transmitting—remain for myself.

By turning myself into a character, I’m also creating space for the me that exists outside of the essay to behave as both observer and director.

So, then, there must be some aspect of the writing that remains for me too. Perhaps, from draft to draft, the ratio shifts. A first draft might be ninety percent for me and ten percent for some future unknown audience. And a final draft eighty-five percent for the audience I now have in mind and fifteen percent for the me who felt compelled to tell my story in the first place. The honesty exists in the alchemy between the two.

In my work, a sex scene functions just as any other scene might—as metaphor, as character development, as a comedic break, as transition from one moment to the next—in creating a cohesive narrative for the reader. And that’s important work.

But the true value of that work for me as a writer remains in the fifteen percent of the writing I did for myself. The sex scenes have returned me to the moment and returned me to myself. I am delivered by my writing so that my reader may also be.


The Heartbreak Years by Minda Honey is available via Little A.

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