I’ve been musing a lot about sex scenes in romance novels lately. What function they serve. When they’re good and important, and when they’re not important at all, though possibly good – or not. When they just feel superfluous. And in musing about this I’ve noticed stuff in many of my recent reads that relate to this. Initially I planned to talk both about my general thoughts and the particular books I’d been pondering in this regard, but the general part ended up being a bit longer than I originally envisaged, so I’ll come back to the particular books in a subsequent post.
Some romance readers are very specific about what they like and/or tolerate sex-wise in their reads. Not so for me – I like books across the whole spectrum, provided they’re well-written and the sex scenes serve some kind of purpose. That’s not to say the purpose has to be serious – the purpose can be nothing deeper than a cheerful romp – so long as it works with the overall direction and theme of the book, I can get with it.
What I’m not awfully keen on is entirely sex-free romance novels – I like sex to be present, even if at a low level. For me, a romance novel with absolutely no sex in it at all lacks something. When I re-read old and much-loved Georgette Heyer novels, I occasionally worry that the whole relationship’s going to go south as soon as the MCs try to consummate it. I loved Friday’s Child when I was 15, but now I can’t imagine Hero and Sherry having sex. (Actually, that is a lie, but I do have a vivid imagination).
That’s not to say that I need the sexual content of a novel to be a huge and graphic element of the narrative – I absolutely don’t. One of my favourite writers, Josh Lanyon, often writes fairly low-key sex scenes, but I find them amongst the most effective and satisfying ones I’ve read – I actually remember them, which is saying something, isn’t it? When you really think about it? All those thousands and thousands of identikit, paint-by-number sex scenes that have been written? You read them and some are good and some are awful but most fade away very quickly. There are Lanyon ones I remember years after reading them, because he did something that was genuinely meaningful in terms of plot or character development and it stayed with me.
It’s not just about the volume and detail of the sexual content either – it’s about approach. The extent to which romance authors use genre conventions and the ways in which they sometimes disrupt or play with those conventions. Take the clichés around ascension of intimacy. You see this both at individual scene level (*clears throat* I think you’ll find you have to the suckle the nipples before you go down there…) and as part of the overall story structure (*clicks pen and smiles brightly* So, we’ll be starting with a handjob, then a blowjob before we finally move onto the penetrative sex!).
These cliches are used because they work – both conventionally and unconventionally. That is to say, used conventionally, they can be a useful and satisfying way of showing (or mirroring) the slow breaking down of the barriers between the MCs and the growth of trust. Used unconventionally – say, the highly sexed MC who is incapable of emotional intimacy e.g. in Dirty by Megan Hart – they can challenge our ideas of what intimacy really is, what it means to share yourself with others.
Beyond all this though, you know what I’m looking for in a sex scene? And beyond that, in romance itself? You know what I actually crave?
Really good romance – and really good sex scenes – don’t wear a sneer, not in my book. Fundamentally, for me, romance is about ripping away all the protective layers and exposing the pulsing, vulnerable, bloody heart beneath. It’s about making a tough old beast (or beasts) willingly roll over to expose the soft little underbelly we all have. It kicks wise-cracking and eye-rolling in the teeth and asks – no demands – that the reader believe something – love something – that the World is generally inclined to mock.
My favourite sex scenes are usually a mix of the expected and the unexpected – something that honours the genre with a little bit of realism to dirty the edges. Or something fresh that chimes with me, at a sensory level. A new simile or sound effect can truly delight me when I’m traversing this most well-trodden of literary ground.
And what do I like least? (This is a personal list, feel free to disagree).
- Paint by numbers sex scenes that read like a collection of worn out sentences that were thrown at the page
- Mechanical choreography
- Plodding observation of the proper use of sex toys and other hardware (if I want a manual…)
- Soap used as lubricant
- Ditto hand lotion
- Coy euphimisms
- Bodily fluids that taste like nectar
The books that I’ve been reading – and loving – that I want to talk about in another post are:
– My Heartache Cowboy by Z A Maxfield
– Unbound by Cara McKenna
– A Case of Possession by K J Charles
– Static by L A Witt
More to come. Meantime, I invite your wisdom.