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Sex not so sexy in The Slap

James Frey says:

fictional characters – homo fictus – are not identical to flesh-and-blood human beings – homo sapiens. One reason for this is that readers wish to read about the exceptional rather than the mundane. Readers demand that homo fictus be more handsome or ugly, ruthless or noble, vengeful or giving, brave or cowardly, and so on, than real people, are. Homo fictus has hotter passions and colder anger; he travels more, fights more, loves more, changes more, has more sex. Lots more sex. (Frey, J 1988)

While protagonists in The Slap don’t love more or change very much at all, it’s fair to say they are having much more sex than us ordinary mortals – if they’re not getting it off, they’re fantasising about getting it off. Yet, rather than learn or understand more about the protagonists by seeing them in their most intimate and sometimes most vulnerable moments, the men in particular, seem devoid of feeling other than that which occurs in their nether regions.

If men in The Slap are defined by sexual desire, women are defined by submissiveness. Though Tsiolkas may have been using sex to comment on masculinist norms or contemporary sexual relationships, his focus on the mechanics of sex contributed to characters who seem little more than stereotypes.

Sex scenes in The Slap, though confronting, were equally generic, when they could have been romantic, fun, erotic, funny, tender, raunchy, loving or a combination of all the above. Sex is difficult to write without riddling it with cliché, overblowing it with sentiment, or resorting to orgasmic metaphors last seen and best forgotten in the film Australia. However, these literary faux pas may have been an improvement on sex so analogous, it sometimes felt that the only thing changing between scenes were the names.

The people of The Slap were often indistinguishable from each other but no more so than when it came to their sexual antics – giggling or sheepish women subjugated by male desire, whose fulfillment came when their men did, and male protagonists, most often thrusting and sperm-producing. Sex was usually cold and mechanical and about one thing – male gratification. This scene fairly typical:

With her free hand she started tickling his balls, then slowly her fingers tapped along the shaft of his fattening cock … He closed his hand around Kelly’s fingers to tighten her grip around his cock and he thrust up and down on his seat,
jerking himself into her hand

An absence of interiority, with sex more about the physical, most notably male genitalia, and its myriad functions, missed the most important erogenous zone of all – the brain. Instead, we got sex scenes that turned us on (or off) with hairy chests, bulging pecs, a labia-majora-of-cunts and tits enough to do a Benny Hill skit proud.

Without interiority, it was difficult to identify with the protagonists or to better understand their inner lives, their motivations or the relationships between couples. So it was revealed that Hector was worried about ageing and felt guilty about his affair with Connie; why, when he loved Aisha and enjoyed regular rollicking sex with his missus (she was up for it even when she was stacking the dishwasher), did he have the affair in the first place?

The Slap favoured sex devoid of foreplay, and was replete with women who were slutty or not, grateful as mistresses and wives, or whose only role was as fodder for men’s fantasies. Hector, for instance, is overwhelmed by a need to masturbate when he returns home after spying a young woman while out shopping:

He was picturing the luscious buttocks of the Vietnamese woman he had spied at the market. He came in a minute and he wiped the semen off the seat, chucked the toilet paper in the bowl, pissed, and flushed it all away.

Harry is similarly inclined:

Four young girls in thin strips of bikinis were showering in the park. They had pert adolescent tits, they were blonde and lithe. Grinning, he pushed his crotch hard against the dark tinted glass of the balcony wall. He breathed long and hard, his eyes still focused on the girls below, who were now giggling and squealing, splashing water at each other. His penis lengthened and hardened, stretching against the lycra. Slowly, he rocked back and forth against the glass. Come on, bitch, he mouthed to himself. One of the girls had bent over and he let out a small groan at glimpsing her full, toned buttocks. Wouldn’t you want my cock up that hole, you little whore.

The relentlessly nasty portrayal of sex in The Slap was reinforced by a narrative that sounded more like the voiceover from a bad 70s porno movie than a modern take on sexuality:

    A stiffening obliging nipple…

    He had never been fond of girls who wore thickly applied foundation, powder and lipstick. He thought it was sluttish, and even though he was aware of the ridiculous conservatism of his response, he could not bring himself to admire a heavily painted women…

    …his cock had been released from the cavity of his Y-fronts and he could smell Aisha’s desire…

    She shook and shuddered as he pushed his cock inside her. She wanted to bite him scratch him, devour him. Fuck me…

    Fuck my mouth, she urged and took his cock once more inside her…that’s it honey, that’s beautiful…

    It felt slutty, dangerous. His salty masculine taste was in her mouth…

And the sexual manners of the protagonists seem way more suited to pimps and entrepreneurs-made-recently-good than the middle classes who are said to have inspired The Slap. Like Harry, Tsiolkas perhaps doesn’t realise that being middle-class is about much more than owning expensive real estate.

Tsiolkas has been quoted as saying ‘the publishing industry in this country is dominated by an old-school, Anglo-bourgeois elite and I am tired of that voice‘. While I don’t disagree, it’s a shame he has replaced bourgeois stereotypes with gendered and cultural stereotypes that fail to acknowledge diversity.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Trish Bolton’s novel, Stuck, was the recipient of a 2018 Varuna PIP Fellowship and a 2015 Varuna Residential Fellowship. In 2017, Stuck was longlisted for the Mslexia Women’s Novel Competition (UK) and Flash 500 Novel Competition (UK), and in 2016, was the joint-winner of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Unpublished Manuscript Award.

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  1. “And the sexual manners of the protagonists seem way more suited to pimps and entrepreneurs-made-recently-good than the middle classes who are said to have inspired The Slap. Like Harry, Tsiolkas perhaps doesn’t realise that being middle-class is about much more than owning expensive real estate.”

    I am truly fascinated by this statement. Do the middle class have “nicer” sexual manners? What is the “more” to being middle class than owning expensive real estate?

    • Hi Liz, I think notions of class have shifted over the last couple of decades. Certainly most Australians identify as middle-class. This was brought home to me a few years ago when teaching at a university on the edges of suburbia where the students were the first generation of their family to go to university. While many of their families were struggling to make ends meet, these students all identified as middle-class. Still, there’s more to class than income: there’s going to the right school, the right university, the work you do, the networks you have, the clubs you belong to, the suburb you live in and so on.

  2. “when they could have been romantic, fun, erotic, funny, tender, raunchy, loving or a combination of all the above.”

    You’ve quite obviously missed the point here. Maybe Tim Winton is more your thing.

  3. I dunno, I read The Slap as a depressingly, unrelentingly realist representation of male sexuality at its least mediated: omnivorous appetite for physical spasm, felt independently of emotion or affection, and experientially compartmentalised once attained. Maybe women do interiority because our experience of sex is literally interior. I think a lot of men secretly (or not-so-secretly) find women’s thoughts on sex unrealistic, sentimental and twee.

    • Kerryn, while I agree that many men fall into this category, many do not. I would have liked to have seen that diversity represented in The Slap.
      I was more commenting on interiority as a way to better understand the emotions of the male protagonists. I’d hate to think that driving all men was just sexual appetite. I recently heard an interview with Kate Copstick, the editor of Britain’s Erotic Review, and she said women couldn’t write sex for some of the reasons you give.http://www.abc.net.au/rn/bookshow/index/subjects_Sex_and_Sexuality_2010.htm I’m not sure I agree that women experience sex so differently from men, perhaps we just need a little more coaxing.

  4. Picture me standing behind kerryn saying: \yeah – what she said!\. Tho I suspect I might have more to say about who might be afraid of the working class, later

  5. I come from a working-class background, many of my older friends and neighbours, who I count among my friends, are working-class and my siblings are working class. I am certainly not afraid of the working-class nor do I hold them in contempt. We are kidding ourselves if we don’t think class in Australia exists.

  6. None of which answers my question: what do u mean by your statement about the sexual manners of the middle class?

    • Liz, whether we like it or not, class ascribes certain values and I would argue that the middle-classes are, or like to appear, educated, cultured, genteel even. These are not qualities I would attribute to the men in ‘The Slap’.

  7. I totally agree with you. I thought the sex scenes were (a) male focussed (b) lacked interiority (c) far more detailed than necessary and (d) cliched and corny.

    Apparently Tsiolkas talked them over with girlfriends. I find that hard to believe, unless they were girls particularly appreciative of male homosexual erotica.

  8. Thanks for the post. I love talking about sex. You say:

    “…it’s a shame he (Tsiolkas) has replaced bourgeois stereotypes with gendered and cultural stereotypes that fail to acknowledge diversity.”

    I reckon a novel is at once a closed world and one engaged, to varying degrees, with the world of the reader. Interpetation happens when the two worlds collide. In the closed world of The Slap sexuality is represented in a way that suits the intentions of the writer. The representation of sexuality as diverse, polymorphously perverse or whatever lights your fire would make the The Slap a very different and, I think, a less interesting book. The author, I think, “fails to acknowledge diversity” by design, not oversight.

    I’m interested to know which writers represent sexuality to your satisfaction?

    • I like your analysis, though I’d be more convinced that the lack of diversity was by design had the sex not been so boringly the same – for instance, Harry and Hector’s masturbation scenes.

      If the sex scenes were meant to be a comment on rapaciousness and consumption or on the misogyny of Australian men or Greek-Australian men, I needed more than dominant man – submissive woman to convey that.

      Who writes sex well: Linda Jaivin, Sarah Waters, Toni Jordan, Anonymous (The Bride Stripped Bare) and Dana in my novel class who wrote a breathlessly sexy scene between two young women, one of them disabled. Yes, I know all the writers I’ve mentioned are women.

  9. ‘Apparently Tsiolkas talked them over with girlfriends. I find that hard to believe, unless they were girls particularly appreciative of male homosexual erotica.’

    Yes, I wondered about that. On reflection I think he was probably asking them about getting women’s sexual responses right, rather than with a view to writing from a female perspective.

  10. Trish, I think you may have been aiming for the shock factor which you seem to have achieved, but The Slap is, by far, the most honest piece of literature on the shelves at the moment. To me, Toni Jordan writes Mills and Boon sex, her entire story is a Holywoodisation of mental illness. Obviously raw and confronting literature just isn’t your thing. To me, it seems society has become sex obsessed, and I think that is what Christos is trying to show. That we are acting instead of thinking, that we are all about pleasuring ourselves, that society has become all about me, me, me, and in that case, interiority and writing ones ‘brain’ would just wouldn’t be making the point that Christos is trying to make.

    The industry IS dominated by an anglo voice, and it is SO refreshing to hear something other than the bland, repetitive voice out there. These days only one in every twenty books I read moves me, otherwise, it’s all the same.

    So can I assume then, that since you are saying Christos’s characters are cultural stereotypes, that you were not moved by any of the characters? That none of the characters challenged you? That you felt no emotion toward them? Especially the older father. I have yet to see a more honest and heart-wrenching portrayal of a migrant father. I’m sorry, Trish, I just don’t understand where you’re coming from.

    • Hi Koraly, I wasn’t so much aiming for the shock factor as to have a little fun with it. Because I didn’t like the sex in ‘The Slap’, and again I want to point out, that I wanted more from it not less, does not mean I disliked the entire book. I also enjoy the way Christos writes not just fiction but non-fiction – his observations are honest and courageous. I like it that in ‘The Slap’ he writes about migrants who have been part of Australian culture for a very long time but still largely ignored in the mainstream and I like it that he is writing about the burbs and commenting on greed and consumption and class.

      I can’t say I was moved by the migrant father but I did find that he and Richie were the most sympathetic characters.

      And finally, the character of Grace in Toni Jordan’s ‘Addition’ rather than being a Hollywood stereotype of someone suffering mental illness, is quirky and original. She challenges the way we see and treat mental illness and is never a victim.

  11. Isn’t ‘The Slap’ one person’s depiction, interpretation, vision of sex (though of course the book’s about much more than shagging your face off)? Does it matter whether or not the author ‘got it right’? Isn’t it merely a version of reality? Can’t the sex an author describes be whatever he/she wants it to be? Novels are about freedom, after all.

  12. Nigel, discovering different versions of reality is one of the reasons we read but we don’t always have to like or agree with them.

    Freedom is also about being free to critique a book whether it’s in a book club, around the water cooler or in a blog. And wouldn’t it be so boring if we all agreed?

  13. Hi Trish, sure, but I was responding to what seemed to be an impression that there’s a right way and a wrong way to represent sex in fiction.

  14. I’m clearly on the wrong blog to be challenging the idea of the inherent moral superiority of the middle classes – not a question of whether I like it or not, but whether it has any basis in reality. Just wanted to be clear that u were actually prepared to put that out in public

  15. Liz, you misconstrue my comments – at no stage have I said, nor do I believe, in the moral superiority of the middle classes.

  16. Trish

    Your post has the makings of a very profound conversation.

    The issues you raise here are precisely the ones raised from my own reading of The Slap. However, I am surprised you have not problematised your own subject position – as book reviewer – when you ask why the novelist chose the narrative and character structures he did, rather than what YOU would have preferred – the non “generic” sex scenes that “could have been.”

    Unfortunately, your analysis is stillborn by your aggressive denial of the subject position of The Slap’s author. I say aggressive because your denial is obvious by your substitution of the politically correct “absence of interiority.” Until you address the author’s subject position, all your mewling about “generic” sex scenes is merely compounding the problem.

  17. Obviously I came to this post late but Trish, I just wanted to thank you for this honest and sharp review. I enjoyed The Slap, but I agree with most of your commentary. Would love for Tsiolkas to have engaged with this comment stream.

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