D.H. Lawrence is famous, among other things, for introducing sex to the modern British novel. Even in the unexpurgated edition of “Women in Love” (now in a fine new Dutch translation by Barbara de Lange), the sex scenes are veiled rather than explicit. But by using code words like “desire” and “fulfillment,” and with pace and intensity, he still achieved a remarkable power for 1920. Here two lovers, Ursula Brangwen and the attractive, free-thinking Rupert Birkin, are making love on a blanket in the woods, in the dark:

They threw off their clothes, and he gathered her to him, and found her, found the pure lambent reality of her forever invisible flesh (…) the body of mysterious night upon the body of mysterious night (…). She had her desire of him, she touched, she received the maximum of unspeakable communication in touch, dark, subtle, positively silent, a magnificent gift and give again, a perfect acceptance and yielding, a mystery (…)

The sex is particularly intense because the two have just had a huge fight, confessed their love for each other, and finally given in to their overpowering passion. It is particularly scandalous because they are not married.

“Women in Love” is not just sexy for the sake of being sexy, though: Lawrence was making a point. The novel is his modernist manifesto, his announcement that it was time to speak openly about relationships between men and women. The novel’s four young protagonists, Ursula, Birkin, Ursula’s sister Gudrun, and her lover Gerald Crich, are determined to do nothing less than redefine the institution of marriage. They have seen their parents suffer in unhappy unions. They want a physical and emotional connection with another person in which they can be equal, independent, self-aware, and free.

In the absence of God, they talk constantly about the purpose of life. Gerald, the owner of a coal mine, believes in industriousness: “Only work, the business of production, held men together.” Birkin’s former lover, the imperious aristocrat Hermione Roddice, places her trust in will-power: “The will can cure anything, and put anything right.” Gudrun, an artist, longs for an intellectual companion who will understand her talent. Birkin and Ursula look to love—including physical love—as the source of life’s meaning.

Meanwhile the two men, Gerald and Birkin, struggle with their attraction to each other—literally, in a famous scene in which they wrestle naked, then collapse into each other’s arms. The novel ends on Ursula telling Birkin he can’t love both men and women: “It’s wrong, impossible.” Birkin answers, “I don’t believe that.”

To Lawrence’s generation, just emerging from the Victorian era, the need to be open about sex was great. Especially in the years just after the terrible mechanized killings of World War I, to show tenderness and feel physical intimacy, to get close to bodies and the natural world, seemed an act of hope. They also found sex frightening. Lawrence portrays his most openly sexual characters, a group of Soho artists, as “vapid,” “profane,” and possessing “an unfathomable hell of knowledge.” He compares sexual freedom to sledding down a steep hillside: exhilarating and out of control.

But in declaring that unmarried intercourse did not necessarily lead to hellfire and damnation, Lawrence began the conversation that still consumes Westerners today: the endless talk about the place of the erotic in individual lives.

In the process, he defined how we write about it. In ”Women in Love,” and a few years later in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”—which for the first time described sex explicitly, using ordinary words like “arse” and going into the mechanics of a woman’s orgasm—he more or less invented the sex scene in modern literature.

 

Now that the popular debate is dominated by the question of whether we talk too much about sex, it’s hard to remember how it was when people talked too little. Lawrence was born in 1885 in England, a place and time characterized by a spectacular amount of sexual repression among people of every social class. As an adult he knew lesbians and gay men; open marriages were not uncommon in his bohemian circle; his German wife Frieda introduced him to the notion of free love. (She had previously had an affair with Otto Gross, the renegade psychoanalyst who preached sex as a cure for psychic ills.) Effective treatment for syphilis was opening up Jazz Age attitudes toward sex. But divorce was still a scandal, contraception hard to come by, information about sex a well-kept secret.

The modernists were discovering what my generation learned about as teenagers: the exhilarating power of talking openly, even laughing about the body. One day when Lawrence’s contemporary Virginia Woolf was in her drawing room with her sister Vanessa, their gay friend Lytton Strachey came in, pointed at a stain on Vanessa’s dress, and asked, “Semen?” The two women burst into giggles. Woolf recalled, “With that one word all barriers of reticence and reserve went down. A flood of the sacred fluid seemed to overwhelm us. Sex permeated our conversation.”

But actually having sex seemed, for many people, beyond reach. Until he met Frieda at 26, Lawrence had had no more than a few fumbling encounters and had suffered enormously from this long sexual drought. That he was bisexual, and also repressing desires for men, didn’t help. Looking back he commented, “One is swindled out of one’s proper sex life, a great deal. But it is nobody’s individual fault: fault of the age (…)”

His greatest statement about the power of sexual openness to restore a broken society is “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” Published in 1928, two years before his death, this novel of a love between a rich, lonely wife and her husband’s earthy, sensual gamekeeper was banned in Britain for over 30 years. The overturning of the ban in 1960 was a starting point for the sexual revolution. From the Chatterley trial it was just a dozen years to legal abortion in the UK, the gay rights movement, Page Three girls, “Turks fruit,” “Ik, Jan Cremer,” and Erica Jong’s zipless fuck.

Over 80 years after Lawrence’s death, and 50 years after the famous trial, we Westerners are still struggling to cope in our personal lives with the sexual openness Lawrence proposed. From sex advice columns, singles nights, and Amsterdam’s gay Canal Parade to divorce mediation and child custody laws, new institutions, etiquette, and entire commercial industries have grown up to help people not only reify and enjoy our new freedoms but deal with the consequences.

In recent novels such as Jonathan Franzen’s “Freedom” and Martin Amis’s “The Pregnant Widow,” rather than fighting against repression, the characters are disappointed or humiliated by their sexual liberty. Now that Lawrence’s exhilarating promise has become our banal reality, has talking about sex, in literature at any rate, lost its sexiness?

 

This was a recent complaint from Elsbeth Etty, who wondered in NRC Handelsblad whether sex in literature was a dying art. The thrilling, forbidden encounters in Lawrence, “Lolita,” the 1960s novels of Roth and Updike, she wrote, have all but disappeared from English and Dutch literature. In Britain, the awarding of the Bad Sex prize provokes an annual discussion of whether writers are taking fewer risks in describing sex. Responding to that debate, Etty commented that British and Dutch writers may have become “afraid to enact their sexual fantasies or frustrations on paper, as if—as was commonly believed in the 1950s—the overthrow of sexual taboos would undermine the family, society, and ultimately the individual.”

It does, of course: sexual freedom undermines like crazy. That’s no strange fantasy of a repressed mind. Lawrence knew perfectly well that in writing about sex before marriage he was bringing down a whole house of cards: marriage as an economic institution, the rights of husbands and fathers, even class hierarchies. In “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” Lawrence, the son of a coal miner, shocked readers not only by letting his characters make love, but by letting them make love across class lines. At the trial the prosecutor asked the jury, “Is it a book that you would (…) wish your wife or your servants to read?” He became a laughingstock: in 1960, it was too late.

Etty’s question is where this leaves literature. “Exciting literary sex,” she writes, “has always been about breaking taboos.” Now that almost everything is sayable, and most of it has been said somewhere, can desire still get our attention?

Yet with the house of cards already scattered around our feet, the idea that good literary sex must still be forbidden sex strikes me as superficial. Sex in fiction can be good for any number of reasons, the least imaginative of which, at this point in history, is that it’s not allowed.

Lawrence, for instance, is not only good because he’s scandalous. As impossible as he can be in some ways—judgmental, misanthropic, terrified of women—he’s a writer of enormous sensitivity. In his sex scenes, he’s all about the rhythm: he’s trying to make the words sound the way sex feels. Here’s a more explicit passage, from “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”:

All his blood-vessels seemed to scald with intense yet tender desire, for her, for her softness, for the penetrating beauty of her in his arms, passing into his blood. (…) Softly he stroked the silky slope of her loins, down, down between her soft warm buttocks, coming nearer and nearer to the very quick of her. And she felt him like a flame of desire, yet tender, and she felt herself melting in the flame.

Not only is he getting into the groove, so to speak, he’s making subtle shifts of perspective. He first describes what the man feels under his hand: the silkiness of the woman’s bare skin, the warmth. Then as he approaches that “quick,” he takes us out of his head and into hers, feeling the hand get closer. And who’s penetrating whom? Lawrence’s subtle alternation of perspective is seductive. Decreasing the distance between the reader and the characters, it emphasizes how dependent one’s pleasure is on the pleasure of another.

The other reason Lawrence’s sex scenes knock your socks off is that the emotional stakes are so high. In “Lady Chatterley,” Constance Chatterley’s desire for a child, her frustration with her paralyzed husband, her determination to preserve her independence, along with Mellors’s anger at class distinctions and fear of women, both lovers’ sensuality and unbearable loneliness—it’s the explosive feelings they bring with them that make the sex what it is. At one point Mellors tells Connie that she doesn’t have to love him to make love to him, but he won’t go in for “cold-hearted fucking.”

Now that sex has become a more ordinary part of life, it may seem that there could never again be as much at stake. And indeed, a fair amount of fictional intercourse is entered into in cold blood. But sex in fiction can carry as much emotional power as any other dramatic scene. It doesn’t have to be love or excitement. It can, as in a sexy scene in Jonathan Lethem’s recent Chronic City, be the regret and injured pride a man feels as he makes love to his girlfriend for the last time.

Martin Amis, when asked about the demise of sex in literature, told the Guardian, “With that tonnage of emotion on [sex], if there is going to be one thing you can’t write about then that would be it.” He’s not saying that writers don’t dare. He means that a good sex scene demands the utmost of their creative talent. A writer may be describing the most casual encounter or the three-thousandth time the characters have made love. The power lies in how much the writer can make it matter to the people involved.

 

In the aftermath of the sexual revolution, it’s hard to get away from the idea that all sex is good sex, and that more sex is better sex—that quantity, along with newness and variety, is enough to yield pleasure, in real life or on the page. But sex isn’t part of some capitalist program of unlimited expansion. It doesn’t get better if there’s more of it, or if it’s harder to get. The fundamental goal of the sexual revolution was, is, should be an egalitarian acceptance of all pleasures—including monogamy and the missionary position. Breaking taboos and setting boundaries are both merely means to the difficult end of understanding one’s own desires.

What makes the young people in Lawrence’s fiction so recognizable still, 90 years later, is that they are struggling to know what they want, to know themselves well enough to choose. Even now, the people to whom sex matters most, who—confused, frightened, tender, horny—have assumed the pleasurable, painful responsibility of discovering the nature and limits of their own sexuality, are the young. In a way, everyone who comes of age has to go through his or her own sexual revolution.

Lawrence paved the way for the great sexual discoveries of the sixties and seventies in literature, with Updike and Roth as the Beatles and the Stones of literary self-exposure. But I suspect that the great era of sex in literature belongs more to the readers than the writers. The best eroticism in fiction is what you discover at a tender age and use to shape your own desires. It doesn’t matter when it was written. Good sex in literature is what you find when it matters most.

Trouw, February 26, 2011. D.H. Lawrence, Women in Love (1920); Verliefde vrouwen, in a new Dutch translation by Barbara de Lange (Amsterdam: Athenaeum, 2011). The discussion of Lawrence’s life draws on Brenda Maddox, The Married Man: A Life of D.H. Lawrence (1994).