On Writing About Human Sexuality

Just note: This post is not intended to discriminate. It is designed to prompt hard questions about objective + subjective realities.

I just spent a wonderful weekend south of Nashville, for another Writing Day Workshop (see notes/resources from these workshops here), and amid other questions considered this weekend, I sat with the question of ‘how to write on/about human sexuality.’

It’s an extended question, that deserves and requires a very extended treatment–hundreds of dissertations, or perhaps just one, very comprehensive one, could be written on this question.

A few theoretical places and definitions to propose (debatable, but I like these as first principles, given the way they help ground content on the page, as writers write, as readers read):

  1. Sex = physical characteristics, as given in DNA, neural patterns, reproductive endocrinology & anatomy, etc.; with rare exceptions, biologically sexed as man or woman, distinguished by distinct, comprehensive, integrated sets of the physical characteristics noted here
    1. Some people might deny the value or validity of the sexual as given by the physical, but advances in neural patterns, neuro-plasticity, and endocrinology (see an article on this question here; I’m drawing on strictly peer-reviewed research in endocrinology) alike make it more and more difficult to deny the reality of physical form this way understood. Women have a particular set of reproductive organs that men do not; women experience hormonal abnormalities in a way that men do not (i.e., painful periods). Experience and observation testify to much here.
  2. Gender = interior experience of the person who is sexed (emotional/affective, spiritual experiences; intellectual mode or filter through which these experienced are received/understood/vetted)
    1. Some people might deny the value of gender, or the possibility of an interior experience of femininity or masculinity (if we understood those to be interior correspondents to the physical form given in bodily realities; say a woman experiences an interior disposition to maternity in her heart, in part because her body is ordered to it–a theoretical mind model here, for the sake of integrity in the way these two realities operate with one another). I’d say experience and observation testify against the denial of the value of a category like ‘gender,’ given that all language around ‘sexuality and/or/versus gender’ arises because of a disrupt in exterior and interior experiences, which suggests that all people have these experiences interiorly or have the potential for them.

In one way, given the definition above, it could be said that every single person has a sex and a gender, but that the vast majority of persons experience their sex and gender as one, and that this then makes, for some people, the category of gender irrelevant or incomprehensible (in part because they do not study or are not aware of their own experiences); the interiority of gender (subjective) is mapped onto the exteriority of sex (objective), and/or vice-versa.

In persons with a diversity of experiences on the LGBTQ spectrum, for example, as a set of categories that have objectively developed in a particular way over time, note that there is always an account, in one form or another, of a divergence between sex and gender, as if they were competing with one another. (It might very well be the case that they are competing with one another, but it is not sufficient to ever assume an answer to this question. I acknowledge the reality of the experience for all sexual beings–all sexual experiences.)

Here are some thoughts, assuming that we adopt the pre-requisite definitions above. Let me note here that the very structure of my questions suggests, in me, the fundamental belief that there are actual, objective answers to every question, that can be tested against the structure of the body, the structure of the intellect, the structure of the affect, and the structure of the integral in us.

There is, therefore, in me, never room for a ‘relativistic’ or one-dimensional answer–to write a relativistic or one-dimensional answer is to not do the work to understand what integrity and actuality look like in the human person, it is to neglect the structure of the human body and person, and it is to deny observation and experience.

People always come from somewhere; there are always things that happen to us; there are always things that we do to ourselves and to others; and there are always, without question, answers to many–if not–most questions about the why and how in us, in others, so long as we do the work to test all frameworks, all sources, against experience, and against what we know from within experience may be complete or incomplete in us.

Some questions, for writers, as a general framework:

  1. How is sexuality given to us, physically? What does our sexuality look like in us, actually, physically? Do we or do we not have a particular physical build that determines the way we live and function, every day?
  2. How is sexuality experienced in us? How is gender experienced in us?
  3. How are the notions of these questions formed in us, intellectually?
  4. How are the notions of these questions formed in us, emotionally?
  5. How are the notions of these questions formed in us, spiritually?
  6. How are the notions of these questions formed in us, physically?
  7. How should they be formed? What happens if they are not formed? What happens if they are misformed?
  8. How does any form of intellectual, emotional, spiritual, or physical trauma affect the human body and experience?

I am always a proponent of formation in integral, healthy sexuality, understood here as a union of these dimensions, ordered to the true integrity in relationship; where there is not integrity in the sexual experience, it is difficult to justify integral persons involved sexually.

(In other words, we as persons cause the particular form or structure of our sexual experiences. So how and why are we how and what we are? And how and why are our sexual experiences what they are?)

I am, thus, essentially, a proponent of an honesty before experience, and so it is that writers have the fundamental responsibility to shape their characters’ sexualities and sexual experiences substantially, so that they–and, ideally, their characters–know the answers to these questions. I think it is important, for example, to treat of abuse, and rape, and otherwise in fiction and non-fiction (how does a rape victim experience their sexuality? how does a woman identify a narcissist from a non-narcissist? how do abuse and neglect change what we understand to be normal about love?–see the book Authentic Love for key answers to these questions).

We call it ‘rape’ and ‘abuse’ because it is non-normative, or non-healthy (in other words, we identify them because they are objectively not what we intend, or are objectively different from what we see and want). We want to identify it as such, and thus want the tools to identify it in us, in our real lives, and around us; I think it important that good non-fiction and formation put all of these things into really healthy, integral context. On the other side of the spectrum, we need a grasp of what fiction is versus what it isn’t, as a tool for learning and grasping reality; just because someone rapes in a novel doesn’t make rape itself good, but it is worthy–given that rape occurs–to have some form of understanding how and why it comes to be, and what it can do to a life. (Let’s be real: for me, fiction, non-fiction, and hardcore research in peer-reviewed academic journals, on different questions, from endocrinology, to empathy, to militarization, have been the fundamental sourcing for answers to the basic question: ‘What is reality? What am I?’)

It might be said (something like this): I want my child to never rape, and never be raped; I also want my child to love the victim of rape, and to know that rape is not the victim’s fault, and to be able to say to someone who may be a victim, of rape, abuse, sex trafficking, or otherwise: ‘Are you okay? Can someone help you?’ It might be asked: What do you have to do to get your child there? I’d say: read fiction, and put fiction into context; read good non-fiction, and use this non-fiction as your context.

It is dangerous to perpetuate an answer to questions of sex, gender, and sexual experience, whatever those answer may be, if there isn’t some form of a cause–an answer to the question, Why?–underlying the reality before us: in us, in others; in our characters, of all diverse kinds, with the fundamental understanding that they are all human persons, and human persons worthy of respect. I caution against including sexuality in a visceral or explicit way within novels without a clear, true grasp of the answers to this question–only because one might perpetuate a sort of ignorance about things, or a version of those things that isn’t actually true to the vast majority of others’ experiences, or to the way that the structure of the person gives rise to healthy sexual realities, and more.

Some thoughts. Learn to look for causes, and ask hard questions; learn to make your characters four-dimensional, so that they are real, unique, and true, inside and out, to what they are, the way we must also be, as characters in the novel that is our own personal life. The key difference–fiction is imagined, and about real life, whereas real life is just real; this is real life.

For some novels, read: Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon (fantastic, and integral in terms of the portrayal of human sexuality, as distinct from marriage itself, in many, many ways; extended conversations to be had), and watch the show; The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks (also integral portrayals of integral sexuality, as distinct from marriage itself; a separate, extended conversation), and watch the movie; and Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, as well as Forbidden, by Tabitha Suzuma (portrayals of the effects of abuse, or strange dynamics relationally, and their impact). Also watch something like A Walk to Remember, to see something of questions of healthy sexuality and formation explored.

Whereas some may find these kinds of books or treatments inappropriate or unethical, I’d say those persons conflate their own sexual triggers with the sexual reality as portrayed, integrally; the degree to which there is a sort of ‘ethical’ or ‘moral’ participation in this content is fundamentally contingent upon the human person, who is the ethical or moral agent, if morality or ethics exist at all.

The potential problem exists at the level of, say, hard pornography–significant abuse of the sexual integrity of all persons involved, and a perpetuation of an enjoyment of that form of disintegrity in the watcher, if s/he enjoys it. One can watch a clip of pornography and be completely unmoved by it; one can watch it, and make it a stimulation toward violence–the problem lies at the level of the human person who is watcher, and if we agree pornography to be harmful, definitely at the level of the maker–but integral portrayals of sexuality are not pornography, for they do not perpetuate a disordered sexuality.

The primary question, though: Is to what extent is a visual portrayal essential at all? Where there is healthy sexuality, in formation and activity alike, it could be said, one does not need portrayals of sexuality at all; sexuality is self-explanatory, unto itself. Why do person seek after it? For formation and/or to satisfy emotional/attachment needs, in part, even if they never know that to be the case–and so what are we doing as a culture to form our own grasp of sexuality?

Be careful to never traumatize a child to feel guilty about their curiosity or interest; these are healthy responses to sexuality, I’d say, fundamentally, given that we are sexual beings–curiosity or interest is never the problem. The problem is potentially in the way natural curiosity or interest is formed and then manifested in actions, and herein begins a conversation about integral sexuality, whether one can ever bear one, how one comes to be, and why one should or should not seek one out.

When it comes to kidlit especially, be ready to give children real answers, to serious questions; never, ever traumatize a child for seeing something real–and for wondering about what it is, and how it came to be, and for seeking after it, to try it, to taste it, and to know it, inside out, if you have not explained it to them, for them, for now and unto the rest of their life.

See my “The Person Project” post for some more context, about these thoughts.

If one were to ask, how does one attain a healthy sexuality? There may be different ways to understand it, but I’d define it as a sexual integrity across all of these dimensions.

Some quick thoughts, to attain:

  1. Identify emotional realities. (See the PDF in the link above.)
  2. Heal unformed emotional realities & attachment needs. (^)
  3. Form one’s self in sexual realities. (^)
  4. Seek after the highest and most integral realities. (^)

The hardest? #1-2. Almost always.

2 thoughts on “On Writing About Human Sexuality

  1. Tracey Phillips says:

    W., I totally agree with the interiority/exteriority experience that women and men have during and with regard to their sex and the act itself. I had never thought of it it terms of our physical bodies, and how because of our shape we take it all in; but that makes so much sense. It relates to he fact that most women interiorize everything about relationships and including the act of bonding with another person. It is a discussion worth having both here and on the fictional front. Thanks for sharing!


  2. T.L. Davis says:

    If one tells a story honestly, these things reveal themselves in each developed character. In a lot of cases, without dialog or confrontation of the issues, but through subtle actions, questions and answers. That is the artistic part of fiction, is it not?


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