The Power of a Judith Krantz Sex Scene

A ‘90s romance novel offers a glimpse of queer possibility and illuminates the complications of writing about queer love.

Kristin Sanders | Longreads | October 2020 | 12 minutes (2,551 words)

Decades later, the paperback edition of Spring Collection still arouses me: A tall, thin woman who is clearly a model strides across the cover, wearing a glamorous white ‘90s dress, slit open to the top of her right thigh. Her white high heels are dated, but everything else from the image, which cuts off just above her nose as if to prevent her from appearing as a real woman, is timeless in the way that images of objectified women usually are: just boobs, legs, and arms. The book has the one Judith Krantz sex scene I still remember, have always remembered, between the character Maude and a girl whose name doesn’t matter, a girl who should have been me.

I must have been in seventh or eighth grade when I found my mother’s copy on our bookshelf. It was published in 1997, so I would have been 14.

Back then I liked to flip through my mother’s romance novel to find the sex scenes. I was skilled at spotting the right ‘90s sex scene word: nipple, kiss, or breast, everything veiled in polite mystery. Around this time, I also found, hidden in my mother’s toiletry bags under her bathroom sink, a few editions of Letters to Penthouse, which was like eating bubble bath — soapy and excessive, the images burning my throat — and clearly some man’s fantasy. Even I could see that. Letters to Penthouse did it for me and opened me up to a lot of new words, like “clusterfuck,” used in the literal sense and not to imply something just really hard to navigate, although those clusterfucks did seem hard to navigate and I have not had a real one with which to compare.

In contrast, routinely searching for that sex scene placed just over halfway through the paperback copy of Spring Collection was exactly the right amount of effort I needed to make the payoff satisfying. We don’t want anything too easily; we want to do a little seeking, to thumb through pages thinking, it was right here last time, I know it’s here, Maude, where are you?

Fine, the girl’s name is April — I have never forgotten her name, either.

***

Maude has sex with April, who is young and a model and has never been with a woman before. I’m not sure how old Maude is, but come on, her name is Maude; has a young Maude ever existed? I never fully grasped the novel’s plot, though I understood it had something to do with American models in Paris. But what I really liked was Maude and how she makes April wait when the moment finally arrives. No, Maude thinks, “she wouldn’t be rushed, she wouldn’t let April do anything to get it over with, as she had with men” and somehow I knew, I mean 14-year-old virgin me knew, that sex with men would be a rush, as it had indeed turned out to be, as very few of my lovers have had the patience to be generous, and they think mostly of their own orgasm, which makes me remember Maude and her absolute refusal to rush.


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To crystalize Maude’s sexual prowess and April’s metamorphosis into a lesbian — the crux of this sex scene — Judith Krantz wrote a line forever imprinted on my brain. It’s a line April thinks while cradled beneath Maude, suckling Maude’s breasts, April “abandoning herself utterly to the realization of a fantasy that had always, she now admitted to herself, lurked at the back of her mind […] imagining hazily that she was a baby, imagining that she was a man, until suddenly, she realized that she was a woman and she wanted to be fucked.”

***

I wrote a poetry book in 2017 called Cuntry exploring and challenging the male gaze, limiting gender roles, debasement of women, and self-objectification I learned in equal parts through online porn, country music, and Letters to Penthouse. My book became a lens through which to view potential lovers: There were the men who didn’t read my book, and the men who did. There were the men who thought the line “stop getting fucked” on the first page of the Amazon book preview meant I get fucked a lot, by so many men, I’m so experienced, that they should stay away — as if to be “fucked” can be taken only in the purely literal sense. There were the men who felt curious and asked questions, the men who became uncomfortable but wanted to know more, and the men who didn’t ever become uncomfortable because they didn’t ask.

There were the men who wanted to kiss me, who wanted to buy me dinner and drinks, and who never bought me anything. There were the men who disappeared and the men who stayed, the men who thumbed through the pages of my book with curiosity, who had never felt shame, who had never thought about sexuality that way. There were the men who wanted to keep talking about porn, who had never talked about porn with a woman before, who sent inappropriate messages on Instagram asking about my sex life.

There were the married men who wanted to know what my breasts look like after all this time having never seen me naked, and the men who knew what my breasts look like and the rest of me, too. There were the men who never texted or called again, the men who got what they wanted, and the men who didn’t get what they wanted. The men who gave me what I wanted, who made me come, who did not make me come, who got inside my head, who I wrote about, and the men I didn’t write about because they bored me, as men often do.

***

I used to tell my friend Ben that I wanted to meet a hot older lesbian who would say, “I’ll show you everything!” As in, she would show me how to have really good, highly orgasmic sex, which was something men were not giving me.

It was sort of a running joke: “I’ll show you everything!”

I was looking for Maude.

***

I met her, I met my Maude — not the first woman I’d dated, but the first with whom it felt like that — and she didn’t let me rush through it, just as I knew she would not. She was like sunshine each time I saw her, dazzling, 12 years older than me with short blonde hair that smelled like Aveda products. I had never felt so understood or respected by a lover.

She helped me with my car, took me out to dinner, listened to me, shared articles and novels with me. We lived in a small California town and I found it thrilling when we went out together, watching the looks on men’s faces as they realized she and I were together, as we touched or kissed at the bar, waiting for our drinks. At the same time, I felt ashamed for liking the attention, as if I was getting excited by the wrong thing.

Of course she read my book. This woman, who not only read my book but spoke to me about it, who wrote, who called, who loved me, who said she couldn’t stop thinking of me, who said she thought about things differently now, who said I had gotten under her skin and she would never be the same.


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We also fought; we fought on her front lawn and in our cars and sometimes on the phone, through long pauses more than words. We ended things, said we were just friends, and then we were kissing again, making out on the floor again, in an endless cycle that seemed to stretch out into years but was more like months. I had not been prepared for the fighting, for talking out and working through emotions, made all the more intense by how I constantly pulled away, ever since the moment I initiated things to begin with.

***

Judith Krantz died last year and the literary world did not say much. I held my own vigil. Because I had always remembered Maude, I wanted to re-read the scene that felt, when I was 14, like it unlocked some kind of secret.

Other than the steamy sex, Spring Collection wasn’t a book that captivated me; the rest of the novel existed only as a vehicle for this one scene between April and Maude. How were these two books, these two early sexual experiences — on the one hand, Letters to Penthouse, with its excessive male gaze fantasizing, and on the other, Judith Krantz’s steamy queer fantasizing — powerful enough to shape my sexuality? Why did one strike me, even then, as performative and fake, while the other became deeply meaningful?

As it turns out, Maude is only 39 or 40 in the book. That I thought she was much older seems, now that I’m 36, particularly cruel. She dresses flamboyantly in ruffled blouses and vests and has short blonde hair. All of these are details I missed 20 years ago. April is a Midwestern blonde, almost six feet tall. She feels pigeonholed by her staid, traditional beauty; she wants to have what Kate Moss has, what she calls “funk.”

By the end of the book, all of the models and modeling management fly back to New York after their time in Paris. Each of the straight characters has found love. Someone also found their dad. A Swiss billionaire and a young model with a 30-year age difference have decided to get married. April has brought along her new lover, Kitten.

Then there is Maude, “sitting alone, as far away from them as possible, working steadily on her laptop.” She is, after all, a writer — yet another detail I failed to gather 20 years ago.

After her experience with Maude, April cuts off all her hair and arrives at a party in a tattered dress barely clinging to her body, where she comes out by kissing Maude boldly, publicly.

Everyone is changed from their experience with Maude. She helps you see yourself — the version you realize you are — but she doesn’t get the girl in the end.

Everyone is changed from their experience with Maude. She helps you see yourself — the version you realize you are — but she doesn’t get the girl in the end.

***

I wanted such a transformation to happen to me. It didn’t.

I tried to love her, but I was so scared. Scared because on some deep, cellular level, it will always be men for me — men I want to impress, be loved by, whose heads I want to turn toward me. Despite what April feels in the Judith Krantz novel, in that dreamily written lesbian sex scene, I was not changed forever. The love of a woman is a gift but not one I was ready to receive, knowing as I did that I could not put aside my complicated, deeply ingrained desire to be a woman men find pleasing.

***

Our romance has morphed in the last few years into a friendship of mutual support and tenderness. I pet-sit for her dog when she goes on vacations. I sent her flowers at the start of the quarantine, just because. We send each other articles and book reviews.

It’s a similar story with my best friend, a beautiful, femme Costa Rican lesbian; we tried to date for a few months but gradually became best friends. Ours is also a friendship defined by its queer love story.

I will always know there’s something I missed out on by running away from the difficulties of romantic intimacy with a woman, the exact intimacy many women I’ve met yearn for and find lacking in heterosexual relationships. I have an ambivalence to my own bisexuality; in a way, I feel I failed. But then I think of these friendships, and I know I love women, and am loved by women, and that is more true, more long-lasting, than my romantic history of fumbling toward intimacy with men.

***

Judith Krantz was not a lesbian. I can’t say for sure — who knows the private life of any person — but I don’t think she was bisexual. She married at 26 and stayed married for 53 years until the death of her husband Steve, with whom she had two sons. She didn’t publish her first book until age 50, and retired at 70 with 10 books to her name. Although she spent time in Paris as a fashion publicist after graduating from Wellesley, one wonders how much of her foray into queer sex was speculative versus experiential. She worked as an editor at Cosmopolitan, where women’s sexual fantasies, tips, and tricks are culled into marketable, digestible articles. Margalit Fox wrote of Judith Krantz in a New York Times article after her death: “Ms. Krantz’s novels embody a sexual politics at once feminist and retrograde.” As evidence of that, one of her apparent rules for the formula of her novels was that a character must lose her virginity.

But then I think of these friendships, and I know I love women, and am loved by women, and that is more true, more long-lasting, than my romantic history of fumbling toward intimacy with men.

I assume it’s because she wasn’t lesbian, probably wasn’t bisexual, and did have retrograde notions of sexuality that Spring Collection doesn’t quite capture the spirit of queerness I’ve been lucky enough to experience, despite my failures — how, even after the romance goes sour, there is still friendship. It’s Maude typing away at her laptop, eyeing April and Kitten with jealousy, that I don’t buy.

***

I am speaking of queerness from a privileged place — as a white woman who appears straight and mostly dates men — and, like Krantz, getting it wrong. My privilege makes me blind to many things. I don’t know what it feels like for a lesbian who has spent her life negotiating her gender and sexuality in straight spaces. I don’t know how it felt for her when I pulled away.

For her, Jen. That’s her name, and it matters that I tell you this.

There is something there that I’m drawn to, will always be drawn to — some truth I could have known. It’s probably pretty good. Judith Krantz attempted to put it into words, but it was ultimately her own fantasy that I inherited, secreted away, and found meaning in.

In Spring Collection, Judith Krantz did and did not accurately capture what is sacred about queer romance, did and did not get things right. But whoever gets it right when writing about something so complex as sexuality? In contrast to the lurid, male-centric fantasy world of Letters to Penthouse, at least I found the female-centric, if not also Disney-esque, world of a Judith Krantz romance novel. Yet it was through my early encounter with Krantz’s novel that I caught a glimmer of queer possibility, and saw for the first time what it means to be loved romantically by a woman. Judith Krantz introduced me — and, I would assume, a number of other readers — to two women, one who refused to rush, and one who was ready to begin the process of becoming, to see herself fully for the first time. There is what you see when you are ready to search for it, and what you will never see, no matter how hard you try. And then there are the Maudes, the Jens, who remain patient and generous, offering to show us everything.

***

Kristin Sanders is the author of Cuntry, a finalist for the 2015 National Poetry Series, and the chapbooks This is a map of their watching me and Orthorexia. Her work has appeared in LitHub, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Bitch Magazine, The Guardian, and more.

Editor: Sari Botton