A few nights ago, we watched the first episode of Homeland (we binge watch, which, according to a recent Netflix poll, is how 76 percent of viewers prefer to get their TV fix), which is pretty sexy, and it struck me how much we rely on sex as a shorthanded way to tell a story. You may remember the plotline: Nicholas Brody, a U.S. Marine, is freed after spending eight years in an al-Qaeda prison in Iraq. The first thing he wants to do is phone his wife – who, at that exact moment, back in the U.S.A., is having exhuberant sex with his best friend. She has a clamorous orgasm, sinks exhausted to the bed, and that’s when the phone rings. A few scenes later, when Nicholas is home, he and his wife have sex. Neither of them seems to enjoy it very much. Oh-oh, we think, this isn’t going to go well at all. The sex scenes have told the story.
There are dozens of other ways that message could have been conveyed – Brody’s wife could have been living with another man, having breakfast with him or out shopping for new curtains or, as might have been the case in our household, binge watching old episodes of House or The Good Wife. She could have been at work (probably in a politician’s campaign headquarters), getting her hair styled (decadent Western obsession), or planning a move to L.A. (isn’t everyone?). Why use sex?
Set aside, for the moment, the simplistic idea that watching a couple having sex is more intriguing than, say, watching them troll Walmart for deep-discount sneakers for the kids (from a story-telling point of view, it isn’t). In real life, we (most of us) (I assume) don’t get to see much of the former, and get to see way too much of the latter. But it’s more than that. Even off-screen, sex has become part of the language, an accepted and understood way of telling us what we should be feeling, whether we are buying a new truck or a Valu-Pac of bathroom tissue. Sex is our emotional shorthand; good sex equals a good relationship. We know that isn’t necessarily true in real life – a person can love his or her spouse dearly and yet find sex disappointing, and a couple can have issues with each other and still have a good time in bed – but when sex is used as a metaphor, we get it. Good people have good sex frequently, bad people have bad sex at intermittent and indeterminate intervals. It’s like the old hat code in Roy Rogers: the good guys wore white hats, the bad guys wore black hats.
None of this is surprising, is it? We aren’t watching reality TV, we’re watching fiction, and fiction has its own tropes. Sex has been one of those tropes since fiction was invented (think Gilgamesh, or Garden of Eden). In fact, sex has provided us not only with interesting material for fictional scenes, it has given us a structure for our basic fictional narratives: it has given us the arc.
A few years ago, when I was teaching a course in creative writing, I began with a description of a typical story structure. I described a story’s arc as a narrative progression that builds to some kind of realization, a moment of enlightenment, when something that was not clear to the narrator or the reader before suddenly becomes clear. This Joycean “epiphany” is followed by a short passage in which it is shown how that Aha! moment changed the narrator’s view of the world. We even use the word “climax” to describe this momentary, fleeting realization: a traditional story builds towards a climax, which is then followed by a denouement. This insight was not unique to me, it is almost a Jungian archetype. “Traditionally,” writes Australian novelist Kate Grenville in The Writing Book, “a plot can be sometimes described in the form of a graph with various landmarks: initiating incident, complication, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement.” So can a session of exhuberant sex.
The word “climax” came into the English language (from the Greek klimax, meaning “ladder”): in rhetoric, a climax is the arrangement of arguments or reasoning from the weakest point to the strongest, until the argument reaches its maximum, culminating effectiveness. The word didn’t become a euphemism for sexual orgasm until the late 1800s; around the turn of the century, it was adopted by Marie Stopes, an early advocate for birth control among the lower classes, presumably because it was an easier word to remember than orgasm.
All stories don’t have a single, culminating, heart-rate-exploding climax towards the end of it, just as all stories don’t have conflict as the driving force that keeps the reader reading. But if they don’t, we think there’s something wrong with them. Where’s the epiphany, we ask. How does the conflict get resolved? These are questions generally posed by Western critics, and usually Western male critics. A few years ago, when I was editing a fiction issue of Canadian magazine, I was sent a story by a First-Nation’s woman writer. It was a good story, but it didn’t seem to me to go anywhere, and it lacked tension, which is another word for conflict.
“Native stories don’t have conflict,” the writer told me. “And the whole idea of stories having to start with seduction and foreplay and end in a powerful orgasm is a male conceit. Our stories aren’t about fighting and domination, they are about community and spiritual growth.”
I accepted the story. And have since been careful about saying what a “good” story has to have in it. And we never got past Episode Two of Homeland.