The best description of sex I’ve read in 50 years of reading

There are just two subjects—death and sex—says Philip Roth, one of the greatest living writers. This prescription creates great difficulties because Martin Amis and others warn writers against trying to describe sex. The attempts are almost always a failure, which is why each year the Literary Review’s Bad Sex Awards have such a rich crop to choose among. But I have at last encountered a convincing and arousing description of good sex, and my wife agrees with me. I found it in a most unlikely place.

Before I reveal all I want to credit Beth Kilcoyne, my near-sister-in-law, with the acute observation that Jane Austen is the most erotic writer in English. Not an ankle is seen; no clothes are removed; and there is no sweating or heavy breathing. But nor to be pedantic is there an attempt at describing the sexual act. Austen followed Amis’s advice.

I suggest too that it’s easier to write about bad—or at least wholly unsentimental—sex. Roth and his contemporaries, Updike and Bellow, do this, and I read a good example this morning in Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings. He describes gay sex between a Jamaican gangster and his white lover, and there is no love or sentiment. James’s task is made easier by the book being full of profanities and violence and written in patois. He has the language for sex, whereas those who have to use words like penis or clitoris are instantly lost.

Bad Sex Awards

The Bad Sex Awards have been going for 23 years and inevitably attract much attention, sniggering, and gasping at the high standard of bad writing.

The Smiths singer Morrissey beat off a tough field in 2015 to win with this single sentence:

“At this, Eliza and Ezra rolled together into the one giggling snowball of full-figured copulation, screaming and shouting as they playfully bit and pulled at each other in a dangerous and clamorous rollercoaster coil of sexually violent rotation with Eliza’s breasts barrel-rolled across Ezra’s howling mouth and the pained frenzy of his bulbous salutation extenuating his excitement as it whacked and smacked its way into every muscle of Eliza’s body except for the otherwise central zone.”

George Pelicanos must have come close with sentences like: “She stroked my pole and took off my briefs, and I got between her and spread her muscular thighs with my knees and rubbed myself against her until she was wet as a waterslide.” I do wonder, however, whether he wasn’t trying for the prize, whereas Morrissey in his rock-star arrogance and innocence might have thought he was writing convincingly about “full-figured copulation” (whatever that is) and “his bulbous salutation.”

Of the 23 winners only three have been women, which is perhaps surprising as I’d expect women to know more about bad sex, often left thinking “was that it?” as a drunken man completes his business, rolls off, falls asleep, and snores.

Wendy Perriam, of whom I’ve never heard, was the first female winner, in 2003.

“She closed her eyes, saw his dark-as-treacle-toffee eyes gazing down at her. Weirdly, he was clad in pin-stripes at the same time as being naked. Pin-stripes were erotic, the uniform of fathers, two-dimensional fathers. Even Mr Hughes’s penis had a seductive pin-striped foreskin.”

I find her winning contribution more funny than straight bad, although the reader is left lost after just one paragraph. How was he naked and in pin-stripes? And what is a two-dimensional father, and how is he relevant?

Rachel Johnson, Boris’s sister, is another publicity-hungry writer who may have had the prize in mind as she wrote her novel. She declared herself proud to have won the award.

“Almost screaming after five agonizingly pleasurable minutes, I make a grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside, but he holds both by arms down, and puts his tongue to my core, like a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop. I find myself gripping his ears and tugging at the locks curling over them, beside myself, and a strange animal noise escapes from me as the mounting, Wagnerian crescendo overtakes me.”

The judges picked out the “cat lapping up a dish of cream,” but I’m impressed by Rachel’s Wagnerian orgasm. One would expect nothing less.

You can read through all the winners at, as I’ve just done. Four things struck me. Firstly, it’s all very noisy, everybody screaming, gasping, crying, and hollering. Secondly, the writing may be bad, but the sex is good. Nobody seemed to have had a pedestrian experience. Thirdly, it’s the inappropriate, improbable, bizarre, and laughable metaphors that consistently undo the writers. Fourthly, it’s all very funny, which was presumably the main intention of Auberon Waugh, who started the prize and—like a true Englishman—valued humour above everything.

Good sex writing

That’s enough foreplay, I must get to my main point. I came across what I think to be the best description of sex I’ve encountered in 50 years of reading in a wholly unlikely and unexpected place—in The Name of the Rose, a novel set in a monastery in the 14th century. Almost all the characters are male, and it’s a whodunit as well as a celebration of books, libraries, and philosophy.

The sex scene appears out of nowhere, and at first sight seems not only to be unlikely but also unpromising. The book is supposedly written by an elderly monk some 50 years after the events it describes. It’s the monk who describes his only experience of sex, when he was a young novice; and he considers that he had committed  a sin and that the Devil had driven him to it. It’s only because he wants to give a full honest account of all that happened during that strange episode, when monk after monk was murdered, that he gives a full account, although we do wonder if he doesn’t get some pleasure from the account.

The sex occurs when the novice encounters a frightened young girl in the monastery at night. We know that she has been procured fort the carnal satisfaction of the one of the monks. She and her family are poor and hungry, and she has no choice but to comply. The novice is gentle and kind to her, and she responds by calling him beautiful and offering herself to him. He knows that the Devil is at work, but he succumbs.

I’m not entirely sure why the description works, but here are some thoughts:

There’s no descriptions of the mechanics of the episode

It’s long, allows space

The Song of Songs, the great erotic poem of the Bible, is incorporated generously

The chunks of Latin allow those of us who don’t understand Latin let our minds wander and imagine

There are lots of similes and metaphors, which might have interested the judges of the Bad Sex Award, but they come from the Bible

Boldly the author compares his ecstasy to the feeling he had when seeing a Christian martyr burnt. This might seem worse than anything that has won a Bad Sex Award, but it works

The piece is as much poetry as prose

So here, after my protracted build up, is the extract from the Name of the Rose.

“What is love? There is nothing in the world, neither man nor Devil nor any thing, that I hold as suspect as love, for it penetrates the soul more than any other thing. Nothing exists that so fills and binds the heart as love does. Therefore, unless you have those weapons that subdue it, the soul plunges through love into an immense abyss.

And so I approached the shadow, until, in the moonlight that fell from the high windows, I realized that it was a woman, trembling, clutching to her breast one hand holding a package, and drawing back, weeping, toward the mouth of the oven.

May God, the Blessed Virgin, and all the saints of paradise assist me in telling what then happened. Modesty, the dignity of my position (as an aged monk by now, in this handsome monastery of Melk, a haven of peace and serene meditation), would counsel me to take the most devout precautions. I should simply say that something evil took place and that it would not be meet to tell what it was, and so I would upset neither my reader nor myself. But I have determined to tell, of those remote events, the whole truth, and truth is indivisible, it shines with its own transparency and does not allow itself to be diminished by our interests or our shame. The problem is, rather, of telling what happened not as I see it now and remember it (even if I still remember everything with pitiless vividness, nor do I know whether my subsequent repentance has so fixed in my memory these situations and thoughts, or whether the inadequacy of that same repentance still torments me, resuscitating in my oppressed mind the smallest details of my shame), but as I saw it and felt it then. And I can do so with the fidelity of a chronicler, for if I close my eyes I can repeat not only everything I did but also what I thought in those moments, as if I were copying a parchment written at the time. I must therefore proceed in this way, Saint Michael Archangel protect me, because for the edification of future readers and the flaying of my guilt I want now to tell how a young man can succumb to the snares of the Devil, that they may be known and evident, so anyone encountering them in the future may defeat them.

So, it was a woman. Or, rather, a girl. Having had until then (and since then, God be thanked) little intimacy with creatures of that sex, I cannot say what her age may have been. I know she was young, almost adolescent, perhaps she had passed sixteen or eighteen springs, or perhaps twenty; and I was struck by the impression of human reality that emanated from that form. It was not a vision, and in any case it seemed to me valde bona. Perhaps because she was trembling like a little bird in winter, and was weeping, and was afraid of me.

Thinking that the duty of every good Christian is to succor his neighbor, I approached her with great gentleness and in good Latin told her she should not fear, because I was a friend, in any case not an enemy, certainly not the enemy she perhaps dreaded.

Because of the meekness of my gaze, I imagine, the creature grew calm and came to me. I sensed that she did not understand my Latin and instinctively I addressed her in my German vernacular, and this frightened her greatly, whether because of the harsh sounds, unfamiliar to the people of those parts, or because those sounds reminded her of some other experience with soldiers from my lands, I cannot say which. Then I smiled, considering that the language of gestures and of the face is more universal than that of words, and she was reassured. She smiled at me, too, and said a few words.

I knew her vernacular very slightly; it was different from the bit I had learned in Pisa, but I realized from her tone that she was saying sweet words to me, and she seemed to be saying something like “You are young, you are handsome. …” It is rare for a novice who has spent his whole childhood in a monastery to hear declarations of his beauty; indeed, we are regularly admonished that physical beauty is fleeting and must be considered base. But the snares of the Enemy are infinite, and I confess that this reference to my comeliness, though mendacious, fell sweetly on my ears and filled me with an irrepressible emotion. Especially since the girl, in saying this, had extended her hand until the tips of her fingers grazed my cheek, then quite beardless. I felt a kind of delirium, but at that moment I was unable to sense any hint of sin in my heart. Such is the force of the Devil when he wants to try us and dispel from our spirit the signs of grace.

What did I feel? What did I see? I remember only that the emotions of the first moment were bereft of any expression, because my tongue and my mind had not been instructed in how to name sensations of that sort. Until I recalled other inner words, heard in another time and in other places, spoken certainly for other ends, but which seemed wondrously in keeping with my joy in that moment, as if they had been born consubstantially to express it. Words pressed into the caverns of my memory rose to the (dumb) surface of my lips, and I forgot that they had served in Scripture or in the pages of the saints to express quite different, more radiant realities. But was there truly a difference between the delights of which the saints had spoken and those that my agitated spirit was feeling at that moment? At that moment the watchful sense of difference was annihilated in me. And this, it seems to me, is precisely the sign of rapture in the abysses of identity.

Suddenly the girl appeared to me as the black but comely virgin of whom the Song of Songs speaks. She wore a threadbare little dress of rough cloth that opened in a fairly immodest fashion over her bosom, and around her neck was a necklace made of little colored stones, very commonplace, I believe. But her head rose proudly on a neck as white as an ivory tower, her eyes were clear as the pools of Heshbon, her nose was as the tower of Lebanon, her hair like purple. Yes, her tresses seemed to me like a flock of goats, her teeth like flocks of sheep coming up from their bath, all in pairs, so that none preceded its companion. And I could not help murmuring: “Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair. Thy hair is as a flock of goats that lie along the side of Mount Gilead; thy lips are like a thread of scarlet, thy temples are like a piece of a pomegranate, thy neck is like the tower of David whereon there hang a thousand bucklers.” And I asked myself, frightened and rapt, who was she who rose before me like the dawn, beautiful as the moon, radiant as the sun, terribilis ut castorum acies ordinata.

Then the creature came still closer to me, throwing into a corner the dark package she had till then held pressed to her bosom; and she raised her hand to stroke my face, and repeated the words I had already heard. And while I did not know whether to flee from her or move even closer, while my head was throbbing as if the trumpets of Joshua were about to bring down the walls of Jericho, as I yearned and at once feared to touch her, she smiled with great joy, emitted the stifled moan of a pleased she-goat, and undid the strings that closed her dress over her bosom, slipped the dress from her body like a tunic, and stood before me as Eve must have appeared to Adam in the garden of Eden. “Pulchra sunt ubera quae paululum supereminent et tument modice,” I murmured, repeating the words I had heard from Ubertino, because her breasts appeared to me like two fawns that are twins of a roe, feeding among the lilies, her navel was a goblet wherein no mingled wine is wanting, her belly a heap of wheat set about with lilies.

“O sidus clarum pellarum,” I cried to her, “o porta clausa, forts hortorum, cella custos unguentorum, cella pigmentaria!” Inadvertently I found myself against her body, feeling its warmth and the sharp perfume of unguents never known before. I remembered, “Sons, when mad love comes, man is powerless!” and I understood that, whether what I felt was a snare of the Enemy or a gift of heaven, I was now powerless against the impulse that moved me, and I cried, “Oh langueo,” and, “Causam languoris video nec caveo!,” also because a rosy perfume breathed from her lips and her feet were beautiful in sandals, and her legs were like columns and jewels were the joints of her thighs, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. O love, daughter of delights, a king is held captive in your tresses, I murmured to myself, and I was in her arms, and we fell together onto the bare floor of the kitchen, and, whether on my own initiative or through her wiles, I found myself free of my novice’s habit and we felt no shame at our bodies and cuncta erant bona.

And she kissed me with the kisses of her mouth, and her loves were more delicious than wine and her ointments had a goodly fragrance, and her neck was beautiful among pearls and her cheeks among earrings, behold thou art fair, my beloved, behold thou art fair; thine eyes are as doves (I said), and let me see thy face, let me hear thy voice, for thy voice is harmonious and thy face enchanting, thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, thou hast ravished my heart with one of thine eyes, with one chain of thy neck, thy lips drop as the honeycomb, honey and milk are under thy tongue, the smell of thy breath is of apples, thy two breasts are clusters of grapes, thy palate a heady wine that goes straight to my love and mows over my lips and teeth. … A fountain sealed, spikenard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, myrrh and aloes, I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey, I have drunk my wine with my milk. Who was she, who was she who rose like the dawn, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, terrible as an army with banners?

O Lord, when the soul is transported, the only virtue lies in loving what you see (is that not true?), the supreme happiness in having what you have; there blissful life is drunk at its source (has this not been said?), there you savor the true life that we will live after this mortal life among the angels for all eternity. … This is what I was thinking and it seemed to me the prophecies were being fulfilled at last, as the girl lavished indescribable sweetness on me, and it was as if my whole body were an eye, before and behind, and I could suddenly see all surrounding things. And I understood that from it, from love, unity and tenderness are created together, as are good and kiss and fulfillment, as I had already heard, believing I was being told about something else. And only for an instant, as my joy was about to reach its zenith, did I remember that perhaps I was experiencing, and at night, the possession of the noontime Devil, who was condemned finally to reveal himself in his true, diabolical nature to the soul that in ecstasy asks “Who are you?,” who knows how to grip the soul and delude the body. But I was immediately convinced that my scruples were indeed devilish, for nothing could be more right and good and holy than what I was experiencing, the sweetness of which grew with every moment. As a little drop of water added to a quantity of wine is completely dispersed and takes on the color and taste of wine, as red-hot iron becomes like molten fire losing its original form, as air when it is inundated with the sun’s light is transformed into total splendor and clarity so that it no longer seems illuminated but, rather, seems to be light itself, so I felt myself die of tender liquefaction, and I had only the strength left to murmur the words of the psalm: “Behold my bosom is like new wine, sealed, which bursts new vessels,” and suddenly I saw a brilliant light and in it a saffron-colored form which flamed up in a sweet and shining fire, and that splendid light spread through all the shining fire, and this shining fire through that golden form and that brilliant light and that shining fire through the whole form.

As, half fainting, I fell on the body to which I had joined myself, I understood in a last vital spurt that flame consists of a splendid clarity, an unusual vigor, and an igneous ardor, but it possesses the splendid clarity so that it may illuminate and the igneous ardor that it may burn. Then I understood the abyss, and the deeper abysses that it conjured up. Now that, with a hand that trembles (either in horror at the sin I am recounting or in guilty nostalgia of the event I recall), I write these lines, I realize that to describe my wicked ecstasy of that instant I have used the same words that I used, not many pages before, to describe the fire that burned the martyred body of the Fraticello Michael. Nor is it an accident that my hand, passive agent of the soul, has penned the same expression for two experiences so disparate, because probably I experienced them in the same way both at the time, when I lived through them, and now, as I have tried to bring them back to life on this parchment.

There is a mysterious wisdom by which phenomena among themselves disparate can be called by analogous names, just as divine things can be designated by terrestrial terms, and through equivocal symbols God can be called lion or leopard; and death can be called sword; joy, flame; flame, death; death, abyss; abyss, perdition; perdition, raving; and raving, passion.

Why did 1, as a youth, depict the ecstasy of death that had impressed me in the martyr Michael in the words the saint had used for the ecstasy of (divine) life, and yet I could not refrain from depicting in the same words the ecstasy (culpable and fleeting) of earthly pleasure, which immediately afterward had spontaneously appeared to me as a sensation of death and annihilation? I shall try now to reflect both on the way I felt, a few months apart, two experiences at once uplifting and painful, and on the way in which that night in the abbey I consciously remembered the one and felt with my senses the other, a few hours apart, and, further, on the way I have relived them now, penning these lines, and on how in all three instances I recited them to myself with the words of the different experience of that sainted soul annihilated in the divine vision. Have I perhaps blasphemed (then? now?)? What was similar in Michael’s desire for death, in the transport I felt at the sight of the flame consuming him, in the desire for carnal union I felt with the girl, in the mystic shame with which I translated it allegorically, and in the desire for joyous annihilation that moved the saint to die in his own love in order to live longer and eternally? Is it possible that things so equivocal can be said in such a univocal way? And this, it seems, is the teaching left us by Saint Thomas, the greatest of all doctors: the more openly it remains a figure of speech, the more it is a dissimilar similitude and not literal, the more a metaphor reveals its truth. But if love of the flame and of the abyss are the metaphor for the love of God, can they be the metaphor for love of death and love of sin? Yes, as the lion and the serpent stand both for Christ and the Devil. The fact is that correct interpretation can be established only on the authority of the fathers, and in the case that torments me, I have no auctoritas to which my obedient mind can refer, and I burn in doubt (and again the image of fire appears to define the void of the truth and the fullness of the error that annihilate me!). What is happening, O Lord, in my spirit, now that I allow myself to be gripped by the vortex of memories and I conflagrate different times at once, as if I were to manipulate the order of the stars and the sequence of their celestial movements? Certainly I am overstepping the boundaries of my sinful and sick intelligence. Now, let us return to the task I had humbly set myself. I was telling about that day and the total bewilderment of the senses into which I sank. There, I have told what I remembered on that occasion, and let my feeble pen, faithful and truthful chronicler, stop there.

I lay, how long I do not know, the girl at my side. With a light motion her hand continued to touch my body, now damp with sweat. I felt an inner exultation, which was not peace, but like the last subdued flicker of a fire taking time to die beneath the embers, when the flame is already dead. I would not hesitate to call blessed a man to whom it was granted to experience something similar in this life (I murmured as if in my sleep), even rarely (and, in fact, I experienced it only that time), and very rapidly, for the space of a single moment. As if one no longer existed, not feeling one’s identity at all, or feeling lowered, almost annihilated: if some mortal (I said to myself) could for a single moment and most rapidly enjoy what I have enjoyed, he would immediately look with a baleful eye at this perverse world, would be upset by the bane of daily life, would feel the weight of the body of death. … Was this not what I had been taught? That invitation of my whole spirit to lose all memory in bliss was surely (now I understood it) the radiance of the eternal sun; and the joy that it produces opens, extends, enlarges man, and the gaping chasm man bears within himself is no longer sealed so easily, for it is the wound cut by the blow of love’s sword, nor is there anything else here below more sweet and terrible. But such is the right of the sun: it riddles the wounded man with its rays and all the wounds widen, the man uncloses and extends, his very veins are laid open, his strength is now incapable of obeying the orders it receives and is moved solely by desire, the spirit burns, sunk into the abyss of what it is now touching, seeing its own desire and its own truth outstripped by the reality it has lived and is living. And one witnesses, dumbfounded, one’s own raving.

And in the grip of these sensations of ineffable inner joy, I dozed off.

I reopened my eyes some time later, and the moonlight, perhaps because of a cloud, had grown much fainter. I stretched out my hand at my side and no longer felt the girl’s body. I turned my head; she was gone.

The absence of the object that had unleashed my desire and slaked my thirst made me realize suddenly both the vanity of that desire and the perversity of that thirst. Omne animal triste post coitum. I became aware that I had sinned. Now, after years and years, while I still bitterly bemoan my error, I cannot forget how that evening I had felt great pleasure, and I would be doing a wrong to the Almighty, who created all things in goodness and beauty, if I did not admit that also between those two sinners something happened that in itself, naturaliter, was good and beautiful. But perhaps it is my present old age, which makes me feel, culpably, how beautiful and good all my youth was just when I should turn my thoughts to death, which is approaching. Then, a young man, I did not think of death, but, hotly and sincerely, I wept for my sin.

I stood up, trembling, also because I had lain a long time on the cold stones of the kitchen and my body was numb. I dressed, almost feverish. I glimpsed then in a corner the package that the girl had abandoned in her flight. I bent to examine the object: it was a kind of bundle, a rolled-up cloth that seemed to come from the kitchen. I unwrapped it, and at first I did not understand what was inside, both because of the scant light and because of the shapeless shape of the contents. Then I understood. Among clots of blood and scraps of flabbier and whitish meat, before my eyes, dead but still throbbing with the gelatinous life of dead viscera, lined by livid nerves: a heart, of great size.

A dark veil descended over my eyes, an acid saliva rose in my mouth, I let out a cry and fell as a dead body falls.”









3 thoughts on “The best description of sex I’ve read in 50 years of reading

  1. Pingback: Good and bad writing about sex | Richard Smith's non-medical blogs

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