Scenes that explicitly feature sex are notoriously difficult to write, which is another reason why authors often choose to avoid them. When a work of literature does involve an explicit sex scene, this event almost certainly contains layers of meaning beyond sex (if a sex scene only means sex, then this is likely pornography). Although authors have not been able to write explicitly about sex without getting censored for very long (only a few decades, in fact—and such writing would still, in many contexts, warrant a book being banned), ways of describing sex have quickly become clichéd.
The reason why sex is difficult to depict in literature may be because of our enduring hang-ups about sexuality, which perhaps result in lingering embarrassment and awkwardness. On the other hand, some people argue that sex is one of the human experiences that cannot be articulated—it is beyond words, and any attempt to describe it in literature fails to accurately capture the experience.
There is a famous sex scene in John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), in which the narrator describes the sexual act as lasting “precisely ninety seconds” from start to finish. Foster argues that in specifying this length of time, Fowles is neither ridiculing the male character’s virility nor suggesting that all Victorians had extremely quick sex. Rather, in the context of the novel, the woman in the scene represents the temptations of a freer, more modern life, unbound from restrictions of Victorian society. It is these layers of meaning that make the man panic and become unable to perform.
Foster’s interpretation of this scene is just one of many; other critics will have other arguments for why Fowles describes the sexual encounter as being so short. However, the broader point Foster makes is that authors tend not to judge characters—in a sexual context or otherwise—in the same way that we might judge people in real life. Rather, characters behave in a particular way for a reason—a reason that is usually symbolic.
Two controversial books from the mid-20th century, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1958) and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange (1962), center around sexual perversity—“evil” sex. Foster argues that A Clockwork Orange is far more concerned with violence than with sex; Lolita, although much more focused on the theme of forbidden sexuality, similarly contains few explicit descriptions of sex. There are examples of writers, such as Angela Carter, who depict more detailed and visceral accounts of sex acts in their books. However, sex in Carter’s work is always symbolically meaningful, complex, and “wildly disruptive.” While it is not always clear what sex scenes mean, it is almost guaranteed that they signify meaning beyond the sex itself.
Foster’s argument here is oppositional to what a Freudian would claim. Where followers of Freud tend to declare that everything ultimately has a sexual meaning, in this passage Foster suggests that some supposedly sexual novels are actually primarily about issues other than sex. Although these arguments are oppositional, note that in both cases the critic is concerned with pointing to something beyond the surface-level meaning of the text.