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The sexual imagination: embarrassed by my embarrassment

The Blonde/Marlene Dumas/1993
Source: Bonhams
Sometime in early 2011, after much angst and reflection, I came to the conclusion that the reader appointed by a publishing house to evaluate my first attempt at a novel was right. There was a significant flaw in the flow of the narrative. I had written two novels and had found a spurious, unworkable way to join them up. 

My enemy was time. I had begun the novel whilst I was still in business school, around 2005, and then put it aside for a while. I then attempted to complete it years later. 

The author had changed: my style had evolved, I questioned the soundness of my plot, I had doubt on whether the world needed another work of art based on our HIV/Aids tragedy.

Yet I couldn’t just let Surrender (the working title of the novel) go.

So the idea occurred to me that I should experiment with it. Self-publishing was on the rise and I had spent some time blogging so I was familiar with that platform. I thought of the serialised novels of times past and an idea was born. I decided to present Surrender to the world as blog. I duly got a domain name – – and set on my task.

As I got into the project, I made final edits to the chapters as I blogged them. Surrender is a love story. It is also a reflection not just on love in a difficult time, but also on sexuality. 

As I reviewed what I had written, I was self-conscious about how I had written sex scenes. The main criticism about Surrender, the fatal flaw, was that it began almost as chick-lit. That is to say light, romantic and feminine. And then it becomes dark, disturbing and male-centered. As a young woman in my late twenties and thirties, I desperately wanted to understand the drivers behind male sexuality, especially in a South African context, and some of my writing at the time reflects this.

There are awards for bad sex scenes in fiction. I was terrified that Surrender would be a candidate if it ever saw light of day. I wondered if, in the chick-lit part, the sex was of the Mills and Boon type. I was concerned if my rendering of Thabo’s predatory sexuality was nasty. 

But what bothered me the most was whether any part of it could titillate a reader. My intentions were literary, not provocative, and I wondered if I wanted to have any sex at all in the work. Faced with the prospect of describing anything sexual in a public space, I found myself becoming a prude. What would people think of me, upright professional lady, describing a sexual act?

This sudden attack of prudishness made me realise I was not as sexually liberated as I had always imagined myself to me. I also found, as I wrote about Thabo’s encounter with prostitution, that I was pragmatic in that I understood that a lot of men visited prostitutes and I leaned towards decriminalisation, but the practice bothered me. In doing my research I asked a lot of male friends whether they had ever visited a prostitute. I put forward the question in a forthright, blasé manner. I conveyed no judgement in my tone and attitude.

Eventually, one guy admitted to indulging in transactional sex. And quietly, I judged him.

I had just met him. We were with a group of friends, and one of them was trying to set us up. I wasn’t interested in him. I guessed that he was also not interested in me because we settled into very frank conversation rather quickly. It was at a lovely spot but it was close to Oxford Road and the ladies of the night were out and about. Under the prevailing atmosphere, it wasn’t hard for me to pop my question.He answered honestly. I realised why everyone else had answered in the negative, though it seemed statistically improbable. Male sexuality sometimes goes to places that are not easily acceptable to women.

So back to my self-consciousness about Surrender: It was fine for me to ponder sexuality in the privacy of my study, tapping away at a keyboard. This was a fascinating and worthy subject. But to reveal this exploration in a novel for public consumption made me feel vulnerable and embarrassed. I was no Marlene Dumas, that great South African-born visual artist who confronts human sexuality head on, with humour and insight.

Yet I blogged away and nobody said a word about the sex scenes. Friends read the chapters I posted and not a single eyebrow was raised.

As months went by, I came to be embarrassed by my embarrassment. And got over it.

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