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Illustration by Katherine Killeffer

Fellatio and Juliet: On the Hard Task of Writing About Blowjobs

Cody Delistraty

Though many authors have mounted attempts to convey the strange and singular experience of fellatio, only those who understand the power dynamics between giver and receiver succeed.

Illustration by Katherine Killeffer

Michael Cunningham might be the modern master of the fellatio scene, but it took leaving them out to finally win a Pulitzer. "I can't help but notice that when I finally write a book in which there are no men sucking each other's dicks," he told Poz after winning for The Hours, "I suddenly win the Pulitzer Prize."

Cunningham's facility with writing fellatio is a rare talent. In Flesh and Blood, he uses a chapter-long scene running up to a blowjob as a kind of self-contained bildungsroman. Newly arrived at Harvard, Billy Stassos is seduced and fellated, and—although the scene begins with him full of fear and wary—he ultimately finds confidence in his newly assured homosexuality and a trust in men that he never received from his tough father. It is perfectly and succinctly rendered—a self-contained story in a single blowjob.

Read more: Putting Penis to Paper: When Sex Writing Goes Terribly Wrong

But even if Cunningham has found success in it, the literary depiction (both implied and shown) of fellatio has rarely been useful for reliably showcasing writerly talent. There are too many potential pitfalls. The key to the strong fellatio scene is not so much in its ability to create or to complicate character dynamics—as in most heterosexual sex scenes of highbrow literature—but rather to demonstrate and create internal character growth. And, even more so than with typical sex writing, the fellatio scene hangs in a delicate balance and can quickly tumble into ridiculousness.

The entirety of Susan Minot's 128-page novella Rapture takes the reader through the thoughts of both the giver (Kay Bailey) and receiver (Benjamin Young) of oral sex. Minot's descriptions are at once ironic while also staying concrete and detailed in explanation; she begins to fail when she gets carried away—the classic error in sex writing. She forces herself into this situation with her narrative conceit, which is to have the entire novel surround the thoughts leading toward Benjamin's climax. It is the psychological equivalent of the overwriting that plagues the sex scenes in Lauren Groff's otherwise stellar Fates and Furies: The physical descriptions are just too much. "He shut his eyes and thought of mangoes, split papayas, fruits tart and sweet and dripping with juice," Groff writes of her protagonist Lotto's ecstasy, "and then it was off, and he groaned and his whole body turned sweet."

The successful fellatio scene is necessarily understated. It is neither a time to find a metaphor for every sensation (as in Fates and Furies) nor a chance to jump into characters' minds (as in Rapture), but rather the opposite: It is an opportunity for minimalism. Cunningham's scene works because he doesn't need to explain what is happening to Billy; Billy's latent homosexuality and inability to trust his father are solved by his pleasure—that is, by implication. A blowjob lends itself toward suggestion and psychological emptiness, which itself can be understood in the context of social dynamics.

Michael Cunningham. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the sole time that the fellatio scene should consciously concern itself with the thoughts of and relationship between giver and receiver is when dealing with the exchange and hoarding of power. During oral sex, both participants have a valid claim on wielding the greater power: The giver literally holds the receiver within himself or herself and thus holds his pleasure, but the receiver has to do nothing while still managing to experience pleasure. It is the lovers' mutual understanding of power—is power about brandishing pleasure or about experiencing it?—that determines who holds the upper hand.

Fellatial power is dynamic and cannot be unilaterally understood. It is contingent on the characters involved, which makes the well-written blowjob scene one of the most subtly telling ways of demonstrating power and characters' understanding of themselves and their partners. Michel Houellebecq's resolutely misogynistic, often middle-aged, often self-hating male protagonists show an understanding of the insidiousness of this dynamic: Houellebecq's protagonists tend to claim that they are powerless—and that power resides with the giver (the person who administers pleasure)—while Houellebecq carefully leads the reader to see that the reality is likely otherwise.

A blowjob never occurs in a vacuum.

In Houellebecq's Submission, for instance, 44-year-old François, a literature professor at the Sorbonne who has fallen in love with a student he has been sleeping with, tells the reader that he has little power over the 22-year-old, Myriam, because she has a beautiful body and delivers well-executed blowjobs. "For men, love is nothing other than gratitude for pleasure given," François says. "Every one of her blowjobs would have been enough to justify the life of a man."

Yet all other signs point to the fact that it is actually François who maintains the greater power in their relationship: He is twice Myriam's age and her teacher, and their sexual encounters always take place at his apartment. He also admits to cycling through students to sleep with, usually seducing a new one each year. Receiving fellatio from Myriam validates François's feelings that he is not taking advantage of her, but that her control of the situation—that is, her control of his pleasure—makes him merely victim to her sexual prowess and power.

It is not an atypical confusion of power. When Cary Grant found out he was cast alongside Audrey Hepburn in Charade, he asked for the script to be changed so that her character—Hepburn was 25 years his junior—would initiate all of the film's romantic advances, according to the screenwriter Peter Stone. Otherwise, it would seem an abuse of power for him to seduce her. It is only those who truly hold the power in a relationship who are able to willingly—and momentarily—give it up.

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On a warm evening in July 2000, after a reading at the FNAC in Monaco, a young female reader asked Houellebecq if she might accompany him to the train station. She then asked him to spend the night with her. "Before accepting I made it clear that I hated to suffer," he recalls in his preface to Tomi Ungerer's illustrated book Erotoscope. "I love sex, but S&M disgusts me."

She reassured him at once. Although she was interested in S&M, she only wore revealing clothing to show off her "pussy and ass." She only desired to control his pleasure—to reveal herself or not reveal herself, to give him pleasure or to take it away. Although Houellebecq claims to have been initially reticent of carrying on with this encounter, his mind was changed when he determined that her perception of having power might prove a force of pleasure for him. "She added, which finally convinced me, that she succeeded very well in oral sex," he writes. Her belief that she held the power of his pleasure—and her sexual facility—kept him entertained for "the next three hours."

To follow Houellebecq's logic of power slightly further, the fellatio scene is the most arousing type of sex scene to a reader or viewer because it renders the receiver—a position in which the reader or viewer can easily imagine himself—resolutely in control while still allowing him to witness the giver's belief in his or her own power. "If fellatio is the queen figure of porn cinema," Houellebecq writes, also in that preface, "it is not only because men adore this caress; it is also that, sometimes, when the camera lingers on the woman's face for a long time, catching both her gaze and the movements of her tongue, one feels something pass of her emotion, her gluttony." The giver believes, or can be imagined to believe, that they are getting the better end of the deal even as the receiver knows this to be false.

Sheila Heti. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Fellatio is, of course, a different game for women. In How Should a Person Be? Sheila Heti demonstrates the power predicament of heterosexual women in a depressingly realist manner: She allows her narrator to embrace her lack of power while also trying to throw it back in the face of abusive, hurtful men. "Aside from blow jobs, though, I'm through with being the perfect girlfriend," laments Heti's narrator. "One good thing about being a woman is we haven't too many examples yet of what a genius looks like. It could be me. There is no ideal model for how my mind should be. For the men, it's pretty clear... You just keep peddling your phony-baloney genius crap, while I'm up giving blow jobs in heaven."

By connecting her blowjob prowess to the social vagueness of what it means for a woman to be a genius, Heti's narrator challenges the notion that giving blowjobs is one of the few places where women can feel powerful. Thanks to Heti's absurd phrasing ("while I'm up giving blow jobs in heaven"), she subverts the notion that this is even a form of power at all.

It's clear that the physical dynamics of fellatio reflect the psychological ones, but they reflect social dynamics as well. The act of fellatio occurs within the context of a patriarchal society in which social expectations dictate that men work (i.e., remain active) while women remain passive. But during a blowjob, it is the man who remains passive as a woman or another man becomes active. It is one of the few instances in a man's life in which both pleasure and lack of work are reconciled, as he does not feel that he must do work to improve his situation. In fact, it is the opposite of work that he needs to do: He needs to feel, to observe, and to be aware. It is within this context of total presentism that he finds the keenest pleasure.

It is only those who truly hold the power in a relationship who are able to willingly—and momentarily—give it up.

A blowjob, therefore, never occurs in a vacuum. It is related to social expectations, especially to male expectations of productivity and work, but during the act itself these thoughts must fall away to make way for the implicit trust involved. To write a blowjob—within this social context and with the necessary nuance—is therefore achingly difficult. Even many of the great modernists fail to do so.

In Fury, Salman Rushdie is unable to detach himself from the sexual act he's writing about and, consequently, the prose descends into an uncommon form of sentimentality. The book deals in large part with the effects of post-colonialism and neoliberalism on modern sexuality, and it is difficult for Rushdie to escape heavy-handedness. He understands the complex social context, but misses the nuance.

Through a narrative time jump, Rushdie omits the likely oral sex scene between Malik Solanka, an Oxbridge-educated millionaire, and Mila Milo, a young Serbian computer genius. But their off-stage fellatio is played out in metaphors related to the dolls that Malik collects. "There's so much inside you, waiting," young Mila says to older Malik. "I can feel it, you're bursting with it. Here, here. Put it into your work, Papi. The furia. Okay? Make sad dolls if you're sad, mad dolls if you're mad... Blow me away, Papi. Make me forget her! Make adult dolls, R-rated, NC-17 dolls. I'm not a kid anymore, right? Make me dolls I want to play with now." The metaphor of dolls and lines like "I'm not a kid anymore" and "blow me away, Papi" make some sense in trying to socially contextualize their affair, but Rushdie goes too far, falling into saccharine prose, defeating the otherwise serious symbolism he's attempting to create.

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It would be wise, however, to leave room for the possibility that all of the above is an example of reading too grandly into literary depictions of fellatio. In March 2015, at the American University in Paris, Houellebecq and Lorin Stein—the editor of The Paris Review and the English translator of Submission—were on a panel discussion together. At the end of the evening, Stein mentioned that he'd had particular difficulty translating a certain oral sex scene in which François describes Myriam as looking like a "poulet rôti" while fellating him. Stein wasn't sure if the literal translation of "roasted chicken" would provide the same kind of image that was achieved in the French, so he decided to email Houellebecq about it. "Cher Monsieur Stein," Houllebecq responded, "when I say 'poulet rôti,' I mean 'poulet rôti.'"

A blowjob is a blowjob is a blowjob. The scenes change, the words change, but the meaning—and the relationship of power—seems, always, to be the same.