‘Sex’ seems to be a word that most people understand,
so there is a fair chance that the woman will understand
what the man is getting at when he mentions the subject.

Perhaps he is finding difficulty getting into the passage
and it may be necessary to ask why. Perhaps she is dry
because there is no natural lubricant for the penis,

or perhaps she is very tense and unable to accept him.
It may be that the fault lies with the man, if he cannot
complete the sexual act, or his climax comes too soon.

At this point it may be necessary to enquire about orgasm.
As sexual excitement reaches its climax (orgasm), the man
will recognise that the jerking out of his semen (sperm)

is about to start and that it is inevitable. His semen
is said to be ‘coming’ and if any discussion is needed
the verb ‘to come’ may be used without causing offence.

For instance, the woman may be asked if she understands
what the word ‘coming’ means in this context
and whether she has ever experienced such a thing.

Does the feel herself to be on the verge of fulfilment,
only to find herself drawing back from it because of some
unspecified mental problem, and if so, what?

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 14 No. 19 · 8 October 1992

At the risk of being called ‘an egotistical monomaniac’ once more by Alan Rudrum (Letters, 24 September), may I burden your pages again? I would like this time, instead of talking about myself, to offer some advice to Hugo Williams after reading his poem ‘Sex’ in the same issue. While I am relieved to find that he does know the basic facts of life, I think he could do with a little more knowledge of female phsyiology. The physical phenomena he writes about can be simply explained. There is an obvious reason why his heroine lacked lubricity – she did not fancy the man concerned. Perhaps he should have attempted sex instead with a woman who did.

Fiona Pitt-Kethley

Vol. 14 No. 20 · 22 October 1992

Somewhere between the ages of eleven and thirteen I sat quietly through a biology lesson on the facts of reproduction. An elegant woman informed the uncomfortable class of something called a clitoris, about the existence of which the medical profession had not yet reached a consensus. This odd piece of information rested dormant in my unconscious for a decade or so, until I sat down last Wednesday evening with a cup of tea and the latest edition of the LRB (24 September). I turned first to Hugo Williams’s poem, ‘Sex’, which also left me a little uncomfortable. I found that my discomfort, heightened by the last third of John Sutherland’s piece, had provoked this long-stored memory into consciousness. I am not entirely certain of the logic governing the connection between Williams’s poem, Sutherland’s review of Jeanette Winterson’s novel, and being informed of the uncertain existence of the clitoris. But a connection there certainly is. Neither am I certain of the logic governing Sutherland’s assertion that adultery ‘is tied into strict definitions of penile penetration. No penis, no adultery.’ My experience of adultery is at odds with Sutherland’s definition. Adultery is defined according to anxieties about inheritance and paternal identity; penile penetration is only involved if conception is a possible concomitant. Hence penile penetration of another man is also excluded from the legal definition. It can, however, be used as evidence of ‘unreasonable behaviour’.

I was intrigued by Sutherland’s comment on the probable effect of putting Winterson’s passage describing aggression towards her lover’s husband on a practical criticism paper. Surely the projected inability of students to read gender into this piece of text says a lot more about the structure of assumptions governing any practical criticism exercise (relying as it does on crude assessments of genre) than about Winterson’s passage. And that word leads me back to Williams’s poem. There is (at least I hope so) an ironic drive to the lines: ‘ “Sex" seems to be a word that most people understand,/so there is a fair chance that the woman will understand/what the man is getting at when he mentions the subject.’ Williams’s tone is a relief in comparison with Sutherland’s assumption of a readership nodding in assent to his situating of Winterson’s novel as a narrative centred on an idea he ‘still finds odd’. I found equally odd the reviewer’s implication that the idea behind the narrative could cause a ‘snigger’. This sense of oddness became severe irritation when he detailed a list of sexual acts in which the characters in Winterson’s novel might have indulged the reader. I can only assume that Williams’s poem and Sutherland’s review should be read after taking note of Barbara Duden’s remark (in Anne Summers’s article in the same issue): ‘The imagination and perceptions of a given period have the power to generate reality.’ I am as relieved not to inhabit the realities of Williams and Sutherland as I was to discover the fallibility of biology-class ‘facts’.

Ashley Tauchert
University College London

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences