Sex and intimacy

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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? 

Sincerity.

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…)
  • Screaming
  • Crying
  • Soap used as lubricant
  • Ditto hand lotion
  • Smirking
  • 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.

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21 Comments

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21 responses to “Sex and intimacy

  1. helenajust

    “Josh Lanyon, often writes fairly low-key sex scenes, but I find them amongst the most effective and satisfying ones I’ve read”; I think it’s because they’re relatively low key that his sex scenes are memorable. They are real, the participants stay in character. It’s surprising how often that doesn’t happen – an author can be very good at having her characters act consistently throughout the book bit when she writes the sex scene it’s as though she thought about it in those terms: it’s a sex scene, better make it sexy – rather than: it’s my guys, how would each of them behave and what would he say? How can I reveal something special about them, something which might not become apparent except in these very intimate circumstances?

  2. Ann

    What a wonderful post! I agree wholeheartedly.

    I’ve been a fan of yours since The Spymaster’s Lady. A couple of years ago I gravitated towards the M/M genre, partly because I grew weary of mechanical sex scenes and that genre seemed to offer something new to me.

    For some reason, I find it really delightful that one of my absolute favourite authors is a fan of some of my newer favourites, such as Josh Lanyon and K.J. Charles. You’re all in good company! 🙂

  3. AJH

    Eeee, looking forward to reading what you have to say about those books. I’ve only read two of them – obviously I’m repulsive KJC fanboy, and I loved CoP (even more than Magpie, which is saying something) but I found UNBOUND very intriguing, but then I usually find McKenna intriguing, and I think she does a lot of quite bold, challenging things with power, sex and intimacy. There were some aspects of it was uncertain of, so I’d be super interested to read your take on it.

    I don’t really have anything intelligent or exciting to say about sex scenes – I have Ideas About Things And Theories, but I’m slightly too English to actually put them in public spaces, unless somebody holds me down at interview point.

    Having spent the best part of year basically mainlining romances, I think part of what complicates things is … the expectation of sex, almost? Like there will be a part of the book when sufficient criteria have been met and consequently shagging will follow. And I tend to find disengaging when I read because it’s like the scene has been flown in by heliocopter from the sex warehouse. And while there’s nothing wrong with sex qua sex, and it’s neither wrong nor inferior to have scenes that are primarily there to … ah … inspire a response … for me, as you say in your post, I want them to do something in the narrative as well. Develop relationship, establish character, make me a cup of tea, I don’t really mind 🙂

    • I really loved Unbound, on which more, later. I know what you mean about some sex scenes feeling shipped in. I think some people naturally write them well. L B Gregg for ex. At the risk of in inviting hilarity, there is a pacing thing, for me. Some just go on and on and on and you think Enough now!

  4. My hates:

    – Smirking, God yes. I am on a one-woman crusade to eliminate smirking. Hateful word.
    – Synonyms. Look, there are only so many words, we all know this. I used to edit category romance and we had a list of ‘never use this again’ terms that included ‘pebbled nubbins’ and ‘silken cleft’. Just call a cock a cock and have done.
    – Sex always being perfect. There’s a lovely Lanyon scene, I think Adrien English book 2, when Jake and Adrien get it on for the first time, and they keep bumping into each other and generally make a shambles of it. Sometimes it’s awkward or it hurts or both parties don’t want the same thing from it, and dealing with that is a fairly significant part of the relationship’s progression.
    – Scenes that don’t advance the plot or relationship. I love a well written sex scene, but if it hasn’t served a story function *as well*, it’s just porn, and it feels like that.

    • I’m sorry, but there MUST always be a place for ‘pebbled nubbins’. That’s delightful! one of my fave category writers, Lynne Graham, always refers to ‘pouting nipples’ which always used to make me startle when I read it.

      There are quite a few reviews on goodreads complaining about frank language in my M/F books so. I can see why people resort to coy euphimism

  5. You can’t win with sex. There’s either too much or not enough. I prefer to read books with something other than one sex scene after another, but too low key and I lose interest. The problem is all the books are lumped together as romance – well there might be an erotic romance section but to be honest the ‘straight’ romances that don’t grab the label ‘erotic’ are often just as hot, they just have less sex scenes. So horses for courses. Good writing trumps everything. For me – sex without humour isn’t going to work. I don’t think I could write it without some element that will make me and hopefully the reader smile. Dark, sinister BDSM is not going to work for me.

    • It’s interesting to see how different places rate your own books, isn’t it? Whenever I see my books rated as ‘scorching’, I think “No, they’re bloody not!” But then, my idea of scorching is James Lear. Good heavens, that man writes sex scenes like no one else AND they’re full of humour, if that’s what you’re after. And the man writes like an angel too.

  6. Oh, I meant to say: Whaddayamean Hero and Sherry struggling to have sex? They’d be at it like knives. (Isn’t it vaguely hinted that Hero’s pregnant at the end?) The couple I worry about are Gilly and um, the incredibly drab girl whatsername from The Foundling. Cousin Gideon will inherit the Sale titles yet, I think.

    • Ros

      I think the hint is that Hero would like to have a baby and they are going to start having sex to make that happen. I don’t think their marriage has been consummated up to that point.

      • Yes, that’s how I read it – and Sherry’s such a little shit, I always imagine he’d be crap in the sack. Except, that’s where my imagination steps in and I start to think, hmmmmm…..

  7. It is really interesting to me that I agree with you completely about Lanyon’s scenes being memorable. I think it must be because they are always so important to the story and because they have so much emotional content. That said, I can’t say I find them Sexy, as such. Same thing for Meghan Hart.

  8. Christie T.

    Really enjoyed this post. Guess the sex content in writing is like everything else for me–the amount and type depends on my mood at the time 🙂 Sometimes I like raunchy and explicit and sometimes too much description is just boring! Okay–I’ll also admit I’m prudish about some things as well and I avoid certain stories when I know I’ll find the sex bits not to my tastes. [Among them–spanking. I don’t get spanking as a sexual turn on.]
    And I agree with you about Josh Lanyon; the Adrien English books had enough sex to show you what was developing between the characters without being pornographic and that happens in his other writing as well.

  9. Pingback: Links: Tuesday, February 11th | Love in the Margins

  10. OMG…yes, Static by L. A. Witt! Wonderful book…I bought a few copies for my friends and relatives last year for Christmas because I wanted to share my love of that book. I laughed at some scenes, winced at others, and cried in at least one scene. That’s what I look for in books…characters and situations that make me feel like I’m a part of it so much that my emotions are totally engaged.
    That’s how I write also. If I cry writing a scene, then a reader tells me she cried also, I know I achieved author-nirvana.

  11. Ooooh – i’m going to hold off for my next post before setting out my views on Static!

  12. Pingback: Valentine’s Day: There’s No Such Thing as a Happy Ever After | KJ Charles

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