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I’ve got this problem. It’s far more common than you might think – or so I am told. But it’s rather delicate, and not often discussed seriously in public. To do so is to risk ridicule.

But I’m going to step right up to the plate and admit it, here and now. If I talk about it in public, then maybe other people will be inspired to seek help. So, here goes:

I have textile dysfunction.

Phew! I do feel better after saying that. This is the talking cure they told me about. Better out than in, as the eunuch said.

Textile dysfunction affects roughly 40% of all writers – but the figure is thought to be a vast underestimate, if we take one-off failures, miscues and misfires into account. They say that just about every writer has had this condition at some point, or knows another writer who has experienced it.

For anyone who doesn’t know what textile dysfunction is, it’s an inability, or a reluctance, to write about making love. The actual lubricious, pulsating event itself, two bodies (or more) entwined, the beast with two backs, the thrusting gasping thrill of plunging our skills in and out and in and out and, oh GOD –

Ah. Sorry. Wrote that a bit too soon. That sometimes happens, too. We’ll try again in a wee bit.

No, it’s okay. I’ll get the wipes.

Part of me wants to blame the Bad Sex Awards for this. Writers, the successful and the unknown alike, now live in fear of making the shortlist, where poor skills in the metaphorical bedroom are rewarded, celebrated and ridiculed. Some very famous names have appeared here, and whether they take it in good sport or not, it’s a bloody nose. It has probably eclipsed that other celebration of over-wrought prose, Private Eye’s Pseuds Corner, as the feather in your cap you truly do not want.

The thing is, sex – even if it’s on your own – is a common experience to just about everyone. It’s an activity we all take part in much more than other things we write about. Stephen King, you would hope, has made love more times in his life than he has killed people. And yet, how many characters has he murdered in his books? How many books have been published which rely on violence either as a driver of the plot or its most memorable feature? Yet, no-one would think it odd to write about violence. But you can bet eyebrows would be raised if you wrote exclusively about sex.

It’s a long time since I’ve punched someone in the face, a rare event in my life, thankfully, whether giving or receiving. And yet I would write about such an act without breaking stride or thinking too hard about it. I would worry about a sex scene, though; that would be on my mind for days, long after the event. It’s silly. You would hope that love is on our minds much more than violence is. I haven’t punched too many people in the face (he hinted darkly, mysteriously and sexily), but that pales in comparison to the thousands of women I’ve slept with.

Ah, I’m joking of course. It’s more like hundreds.

All that talk of violence has left the atmosphere a bit tense. How about a nice back rub? Just pop your top off and lie down. It’s okay, you can keep reading if you like. I’ll warm my hands up on the radiators. How’s that for you?

Nice? Mmmm.

There are two classic symptoms of textile dysfunction. One is “writer’s flinch”, where we get as far as the bedroom door, then turn away. I’ve done this a fair few times. It has the feel of class to it, an admirable, almost Victorian sense of restraint. Let’s draw a discreet veil over things and then refer to the act now and again in abstract terms. Yes, yes, that’s cricket.

The other one – I’m even more guilty, here – is to turn it all into a joke. Look how funny the sex is! Let’s celebrate sexual disasters! Some films and TV shows are concerned exclusively with sexual misadventure, close encounters that somehow missed the target. The Inbetweeners relies solely on it, as does the American Pie films and Bridget Jones’ Diary. But even if you turn your nose up at these pleasures, there are many great works of art which celebrate sexiness, and even seediness. Martin Amis’s prose absolutely crackles with a sense of comedy about sexual acts, he thrives on it. Even Shakespeare, with his bed tricks, innuendoes and misunderstandings, was as fond of smutty jokes and silliness as you or I.

We resort to that out of realism. Because we’re not perfect, and sex is rarely a perfect enterprise. Even pornography has its gag reels and out-takes. Sometimes our bodies don’t “go” – square pegs into round holes, you might say – with as much incompatibility as minds and personalities. And even when we do get it right, and settle with a partner, our tastes and activities can change. If you’ve ever been in a restaurant and watched a couple sat in front of each other with absolutely nothing to say, you have to wonder how they get on in the bedroom. You might even have been in a relationship like that. It’s just life. Even when you don’t think you’ve changed, you have.

Personally I think the main anxiety over writing about sex comes from a sense of perfection. There’s a very schoolyard gossipy feel to having written down sex and suspecting you’d somehow got it wrong. “Oh my god, did you hear what that guy wrote about the other day? He thinks babies come out your bellybutton!” Because sex always aims for the sublime – even when it’s patently not – we strive to make it sublime in the minds of our readers. Because we’ve entered a sexual concordat with our audience, just as surely as we have with our sexual partners. All those old ladies you see taking out Jackie Collins or Jilly Cooper or even good old Mills n’ Boon at the library… you know why they’re reading those, right? So, if we’re going to snuggle in and get really close, it’s as well to make it as good an experience as possible.

It’s to do with Plato’s forms. We have an idea of perfect sex, and we want to express and create that in our writing, whether it actually exists in the real world or not. We want it to be perfect, or as close to that as we can get. Mutually satisfying for both parties – and any interested spectators.

But let’s gently close the door on this topic, now.

Wait a minute… What… what are you laughing at? Why are you sniggering? I’ve not been well lately… been really tired… Yes, I know it happens to everyone! You’re not helping!


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