Questionable: Love Scenes, Sex Scenes, Erotica

S said:

I would love to hear more about the difference between making love, having sex and erotica in a romance novel. What exactly makes them different from each other? . . . I always hear it described as ‘different levels of sizzle or heat’ but it seems to me that there is more to the grading than that. . . . Are there market expectations now re detailed sex? Romance novels seem to be getting more and more graphic (or maybe those are just the ones I’m buying!) I noticed in the [comments to the favorite love scene post] how few people listed a love scene that had any sex in it – I think I spotted one that took place in a bed. That’s interesting.

Sex is in the eye of the beholder.

Let me put that another way.

What’s sexy is subjective. Sex scenes that some people think are tame are considered porn by others. Therefore, there really aren’t any clearcut guidelines for telling the difference between romance novels with sex scenes and erotica because it’s a combination of writer intent and reader reception, the most important being reader reception. The closest I can come is that in a perfect world, all sex scenes in romance novels would change character and advance the plot and thus be an intrinsic part of the story and not there to titillate the reader. In that same perfect world, all erotica would be written to deliver sexual titillation to the reader without diluting the erotic charge with plot and character change.

That is, romance novels would be mostly about the stories, and erotica would be mostly about the sex.

In the real world, the distinction, like sex, is a lot sloppier.

There are romance writers who drop sex scenes into their stories because they think readers want sex in their stories, and so they don’t much care if the sex moves the plot or arcs character, they’re just trying to write hot sex to satisfy readers. And there are erotica authors who spend time on story because they think that a role-playing context makes their stories more erotic. Neither of these groups of writers is wrong because there are as many different kinds of readers as there are writers, and somebody will buy and enjoy their books.

So the difference between romance novels and erotica? It depends on who’s reading the book.

.Within the world of romance, the distinctions continue to be subjective. Generally a romance described as “sweet” has no sexual content at all. After that, my assumption would be that the content would determine the level of heat, but the characters in my books all have vanilla sex–that is, nothing that’s surprising or shocking or even all that interesting–and I’ve still seen my books labeled as hot.

(Okay, small time out here for a story I have to tell about sex scenes in my book and the fallout thereof. I come from a small town in Ohio, and a couple of years ago a women’s group invited me to speak. My best friend from high school, Gretchen, e-mailed me and said, “You almost got blackballed from (name of club withheld here because they were lovely people).” You have to hear that sentence in Gretchen’s voice–rich and full of laughter–to appreciate how funny that line is. Apparently a woman named Beany (last name withheld to protect her privacy) said that I should not be invited because there was oral sex in my books, and the rest of the club overruled her. YAY. Then I made the mistake of telling my mother that, my mother who tells me she’s read all my books:

Me: “Beany (last name withheld) didn’t want me to speak to the club.”
Mother: “Why not? Your books are wonderful. I’ve loved every one of them.”
Me: “Because there’s oral sex in some of them.”

She was also sure my daughter was a virgin birth, but that’s another story.)

So honestly, I have no idea how the industry assigns hotness, and I have a feeling the industry doesn’t, either. To paraphrase Justice Potter, the industry can’t define it, but it knows it when it sees it. I never worry about it; I just write the story the way is needs to be written and let everybody else sort that stuff out.

Now let’s move on to more practical stuff: How are you going to handle sex in your novel.

If you’re writing erotica, any plot you’re using is a scaffold that supports your sex scenes because people who buy erotica want to be turned on, and there is nothing wrong with that. Nobody should do the literary equivalent of slut shaming: erotica is just another genre. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about it because I don’t write it or read it. My GUESS is that any plot you choose should provide an erotic context to heighten the tension in the scenes without adding so much detail that the power of reader arousal is undercut, but again, I don’t know anything about writing erotica, so never mind.

Romance novels, I know. My advice there–and this won’t be new to longtime readers of the blog–is “Don’t write sex scenes.” Instead write scenes that move plot and arc character, and if those characters are having sex, have at it. If you write a scene in which the characters have sex but the plot stays in the same place and they’re the same people after the scene that they were before, cut it. The sex in that case is garbaging up your story in the same way too much story can garbage up the erotic part of erotica. Decide what you’re doing and focus on that..

So how much sex do you need to put into a romance novel? It depends on the romance novel. (Yes, I know this isn’t much help. Ask easier questions next time.) How much sex a story needs depends on what happens during the plot and what happens during the plot depends on the kind of characters whose actions are driving the plot. Character is the reason the sexiest scenes may have no sex in them at all, while some explicit sex scenes are about as erotic as a shopping list. That’s because actions without context have no emotional impact; that is, unless you’re invested in a character who’s invested in the action and who is experiencing emotion because of that action, you can write detailed sex scenes that leave your reader yawning. But if your character is invested emotionally in the action, and if that action does change her, then your reader will be affected by that action, too, so you can write vanilla sex scenes with very few details that have a highly erotic charge because your reader is invested. A single glance across a room or a brief kiss can be hotter than a stereo-instructions-insert-Part-A-into-Part-B explicit sex scene because of the emotional impact on the reader.

That means that the key to writing sex scenes in romance is to write what your characters feels, not what she’s doing. Anybody who’s reading your book has either had sex or seen it on cable TV; she does not need instructions. What she wants is what every reader in every book wants: to experience the story through the protagonist, see what she sees, feel what she feels, become a part of the story vicariously. Adding detail can make a sex scene less arousing because it undercuts reality. Think about the last time you had sex. How much detail did you actually notice? How much inventory did you take of your physical surroundings including the other person’s body? Generally speaking, if you’re really turned on, your thoughts tend to scramble into a driving blur, interrupted only by sensation. That’s why, when I’m writing a scene in which the sex is not working, my characters notice detail and have complete thoughts: They’re not turned on. (This is where I should point out that the sex scenes I’m most known for are Bad Sex Scenes, which means somebody else should probably be writing this post.)

So right now I’m working on a novella in which two strangers are locked in a vault, fight, and then knock off a quickie fueled by a lot of conflicting emotions. They have sex, they don’t make love, because they’re not in love. Because they’re both so tense, the sex feels great, and because they’re not emotionally involved, it doesn’t change either of them during the act. Here’s the sex scene:


Yeah, I didn’t write it. I wrote the scene before it in his POV and I wrote the scene after in her POV, but I didn’t write the act because nothing of interest happened during it. They had good, fast sex to blow off some steam and that was it. Absolutely no reason to describe it.

I’m working on another book (yes, I have a focus problem) in which two people go back to his place and have sex, and while they’ve only known each other for two days, they do know each other, they have friends in common, they’re part of the same community, so the stakes are higher. Neither one of them thinks it will be Forever, but they like each other, so there’s some investment there. And things happen when they have sex that surprise them both, small things that need to be on the page and so, as much as I do not want to write a first person sex scene, as much as I would do anything to duck that sucker because writing that much emotion and sensation using “I” always sounds like Too Much Information to me, I am going to have to cowgirl up and write that scene because it moves plot and shifts character.

The character of the people in your stories not only dictates the frequency of sexual activity in your story and the emotional impact of the sex, it also dictates the kind of sex they’ll have, especially the first time. Sophie the con woman from Welcome to Temptation got conned into sex on a dock, art forger Tilda from Faking It faked it, and Cranky Agnes from Agnes and the Hitman had angry sex. The way a character makes love is character, and it changes depending on the character he or she is having sex with.

That means that if a sex scene is so generic that it can be dropped into any book, it’s death for your story because it’s going to flatten character. As Lord John Whorfin says, “Character is what you are in the dark,” and if your characters are in the dark, naked, meshing body parts with somebody they care about, you’d better believe that character change is happening because that sex is going to embody who they are at their deepest levels, their fears, their secrets, their darkest needs, their strongest yearnings. Sex scenes are boring; scenes in which your characters have sex that only they can have because of who they are, and that changes their characters and shifts the plot lines are fascinating. A lot of readers skip sex scenes; if you write your romance so that every word counts, they can’t; they’ll miss too much story.

As long as you remember that the sex in your story has to happen because of the characters in your story and that what they do has to result from their hopes and fears and needs, from who they are, you’ll be fine. Don’t worry about whether it’s not hot enough or too hot and definitely don’t worry about what people will think of you (except for Beany, she’ll judge), just write the scene the way your characters demand, and you’ll be fine.


Standard Disclaimer: There are many roads to Oz. While this is my opinion on this writing topic, it is by no means a rule, a requirement, or The Only Way To Do This. Your story is your story, and you can write it any way you please.

For more Questionables, go to the Questionable Table of Contents.

35 thoughts on “Questionable: Love Scenes, Sex Scenes, Erotica

  1. What’s this? No comments? I take it everyone’s struck dumb by the topic? Naaah.

    Anyway, “[not] all that interesting”?? Your sex scenes? Are too. Big time.

    1. I usually follow your blog, but never commenting, as I’m no writer. I had to say this though, the sex scene on the dock in “Welcome to Temptation” is in my opinion the hottest sex scene ever written.

  2. OK, clearly completely off topic, but I am still stuck on the “generic sex” image, because am I wrong, but aren’t the feet on the bottom the guy’s feet…?

    1. Maybe not traditional missionary, but still, generic is Slot A engulfs Tab B. The second feet position is definitely showing some gymnastic ability (if they really are having sex). Makes me giggle.

    2. I believe the feet with the toes pointed up are male and the feet with the toes down are female. Therefore, I would guess they either finished and are resting, or we’re back to the oral sex that Beany disapproves of.

  3. They could be (and that’s fine) but they could also be large women’s feet. I have long skinny feet – 9 1/2 N.

  4. In the immortal words of Bette Davis (who knew a little sumthin sumthin about sex/sexy) “I often think that a slightly exposed shoulder emerging from a long satin nightgown packs more sex than two naked bodies in bed.” However, she said nothing about bodies on a dock, standing against a wall, in the backseat of a car, with a dinosaur/yeti/robot …

  5. This is an excellent post, Jenny. It is true that writing sexual scenes into a book just to fill the pages does not improve the book, the character or the reader’s appreciation. One of the best scenes of seduction I have ever read is in Agnes and the Hitman. Shane is doing his job-guarding Agnes. Agnes is doing what she loves-cooking breakfast. He is asking questions, she is answering him but all the time he is slowly being seduced by her –the way she moves, the way she uses the utensils, the smell of the food. And, he is changed-from an angry man who did not want to return home to a man who wants to be in her kitchen, eating her food, protecting her and her way of life. Wonderful!

    1. Super perceptive Karen; exactly why Jenny, all modesty aside, is the girl goddess genius of her genre…. Jenny, if Ida been your mother, you wouldn’t be so humble!!!

  6. I’ve read a lot of romances and there are only a handful of sex scenes which have been memorable to me (although the memorable ones have been great). I’m now usually a sex scene skipper, mostly because they feel obligatory to me, and that’s not exciting. I often have an image in my head of the author making a note “insert sex scene here” when I get to them. Your Bad Sex Scenes are actually some of my favorite, particularly from _Welcome to Temptation_ when Phin throws the clock (or lamp, whatever). Just thinking about it cheers me up. I’ve tried erotica, and the most interesting part of it to me was that it didn’t do anything for me at all – apparently I need the emotions (or maybe the emotions and a couple of details 🙂 ).

  7. I find it so much easier to write sex scenes in first person, because that way I have the filter of “what I want to tell you” rather than supposedly objectively recording what happened.

    I love your sex scenes because they are so individual and character connected — a lot of sex scenes are very stylised and don’t seem to have much to do with experience so much as certain expectations. Like the feet pictures, they’re almost a ritual signifier.

  8. I love your sex scenes, too. I read a lot of steamy romances and erotica and I like the titillation, and I’ve always thought your sex scenes were hot. It wasn’t until a few rereadings later that I realized that your sex scenes are short on graphic details and long (ahem) on sensation and emotions. It must be these deep (ahem) changes to your characters during the sex that makes the scenes so hot. Because I have come (ahem) to skip the sex scenes in Nora Roberts, J. D. Robb, and Jayne Ann Krentz novels because the scenes aren’t that interesting. They feel like “insert sex scene here” scenes and they bore me. Even the erotica I like tends to need a component that changes/strongly affects the participants.

    Good post.

  9. There are some interesting examples of sex scenes vs plot and character arc in Linda Howards’s “To Die For”. It’s one of my favorite choices for romance panels at SF conventions, because it so clearly illustrates Jenny’s point about sex scenes needing to move the plot and character, not just the body parts. At one of the early turning points, where Blair can’t resist Wyatt and he can’t live without her and has followed her to the beach, the jockeying for position, foreplay, sex, afterplay, dinner etc. goes on for entire chapters. And it’s really hot. Toward the end, where the murder mystery plot is in high gear, and Wyatt has just proposed, there is yet another sex scene, which lasts the length of a subordinate clause. Not even a full sentence, and zero details. The surrounding paragraph is full of details with extreme emotional significance, but the sex is completely glossed over. The sex scene does have to be there – these characters could not possibly have a proposal fight in a kitchen without having immediate make-up sex on the floor – but the character arc is in the emotional reaction to the proposal, and the plot demands that the sex part be really short. Same characters, same author, but at different points in the plot and character arc’s you get two completely different sex scenes.

    I tend to view sex scenes on a sort of kinsey scale for books, with sweet romance at one end and pornography at the other. Erotica is in the middle, where the author has an balanced interest in both the character arc and the sex. Think Georgette Heyer on the sweet end, Cecilia Tan or Emma Holly in the erotic middle, and John Cleland (“Fanny Hill”) on the pornographic end.

  10. Such a relevant post for me right now. I actually did some research on erotica vs. erotic romance last week because a publisher offered me a contract on a novella. I knew I needed a different pen name for this stuff because it’s very unlike my prior work, so in designing my new persona, I needed to define what I was writing. The best distinction I could find between the two was that erotica tends to be about one character’s journey (sexy sex sex) and there’s not necessarily a HEA/HFN. Erotic romance emphasizes the relationship, has sexy sex sex, and does normally have a HEA/HFN.

  11. Laurell K Hamilton lost me big time when she literally lost the plot and went for all-out erotica. I don’t know if her books are any different now, but it felt like it reached a point where all I was reading was an escalating catalogue of writhing bodies: “We’ve had her do it with three werewolves, a vampire, and a goat in the bathroom… now, how can we top that?” Boring.

  12. I’m not normally a sex scene skipper – I figure even if it’s bad there’s entertainment value there, of a sort. But I will back out of a story if the author dives straight into the huffin’ and puffin’. I like erotica, but even in that genre there’s got to be some kind of lead in.

  13. I’ve never considered myself to have a very strong food fetish (I’m not a fan of doing laundry, and chocolate and sheets just seems like a huge chore) BUT. *Bet Me*. I love the way you connect food and sex and nurturing there. Now that I think of it, it kind of reminds me of that 80s Japanese film, Tampopo — the one about the Japanese trucker cowboy and the struggling ramen shop owner, intercut with some really bizarre food/sex scenes (the gangster feeding his moll, for example. Whoa.).

    These are really primal issues — the base of Maslow’s pyramid.

  14. Ooh, how is the bank vault story going? Looking forward to reading it all since I enjoyed all of the opening scenes.

  15. Fascinating post, Jenny! You’ve actually put a lot in there that will be useful in talking to a teenager about when to make the plunge from Virgin Territory to Explored Territory. I know… you’re just talking writing here, but I see some application in other areas of my life.

    As you so aptly said,

    “That means that if a sex scene is so generic that it can be dropped into any book, it’s death for your story because it’s going to flatten character. As Lord John Whorfin says, “Character is what you are in the dark,” and if your characters are in the dark, naked, meshing body parts with somebody they care about, you’d better believe that character change is happening because that sex is going to embody who they are at their deepest levels, their fears, their secrets, their darkest needs, their strongest yearnings. Sex scenes are boring; scenes in which your characters have sex that only they can have because of who they are and that changes their characters and shifts the plot lines are fascinating.”.

    I love how you teach! Thanks!

  16. I read erotica as well as romance & I’ve always found Jenny’s sex scenes hot. Some of them are funny too which works for me.

  17. Hadn’t thought about it, but I do skip sex scenes. My imagination is generally much better than the writer can put on paper. I also do not like graphic scenes when I know exactly what is going to happen. One such was in Kite Runner. If I can picture it with a few words because the story developed clearly, I don’t need the gritty detail. A bit of a shoulder or the hint of strong forearms is plenty. And so I agree with Betty White.

  18. I agree with the distinction between romance and erotica, but I do have to emphasize that they both need to be well written.
    As in, romance should make you feel like you’re falling in love too (and feel panicky/sad when things are maybe going awry).
    Well written erotica? It should at the very least not make you feel like you are losing brain cells.

  19. I don’t read erotica, but I like hot sexy scenes in my romances. Explicit sex, even with kinky details.
    Nevertheless, some of my favourite romances have no sex at all -Georgette Heyer, for instance. Secondly, I agree with this statement: ‘Character is the reason the sexiest scenes may have no sex in them at all, while some explicit sex scenes are about as erotic as a shopping list. ‘
    Some of the sexiest scenes I remember are in ‘Lord of Scoundrels’ -one involves a glove and the other one a kiss in the rain. On the other hand, the last novel I’ve read -I don’t give names here- had pages and pages of sex that I skipped in order to know what happens next, because those scenes didn’t move the story forward.
    So, as a reader I’d say: write the best story that you can. You should put the sex that is required by the plot and/or the characters, nothing more and nothing less. But if you put sex in it, it’s better when it does not come out of the blue. I love it when the author builds the sexual tension step by step and in a very subtle way.

  20. I think the most erotic moment I’ve read in a book is in Robin McKinley’s “Rose Daughter,” which was her second whack at the Beauty & the Beast story. Beauty has cut herself on the Beast’s roses’ thorns while trying to bring them back to life:

    “She stopped and looked at him.
    ‘You are less kind to yourself than you are to my roses,’ he said. ‘Like this.’ Before she had time to think, he had fumbled at the sleeve catch of her nearer wrist, and it fell open, the light material of the sleeve falling away and leaving her arm bare, pale in the candlelight but for the dark lines of blood. He dipped his own fingers in the pot — one at a time, for the pot was small and his fingers were large — put his other hand over the tips of her fingers, and ran the ointment in one long luxurious swathe up her hand to her arm and shoulder and down again. The long dangerous talons did not reach past the deep pads of his fingers; the glittering tips never so much as grazed Beauty’s skin. He picked up her hand, turned her arm over, and smoothed more ointment down the tender insides of her wrist and forearm and elbow, to the delicate flesh of her upper arm; then he stroked the arm all over, back and front, again and again, till the ointment disappeared. His fingers and palm felt like suede, and the warmth they left was not wholly that of friction.
    ‘Turn towards me, that I may do the other,’ he said gruffly. Half in a trance, she turned and held her other arm out towards him, leaving him to unfasten the wrist catch before he drew more ointment delicious over her skin.
    He leant towards her, the shaggy hair of his head falling low over his forehead so taht she could no longer see is dark eyes, and pulled her arm gently straight, till he could tuck the hand against his own round shoulder; she felt his warm breath stirring the fine hairs on her forearm; his long mane brushed the back of her hand. How could a Beast smell so sweetly of roses? No, no, it must be the sharp smell of the ointment that was creeping into her eyes, drawing two tears from under the lids to spill down her cheeks.”

  21. Love this! One of the sexiest sex scenes of your that I’ve read is the kiss in Bet Me. OMG! I have yet to read a kiss sexier than that scene. Brilliant and totally backs up exactly what you said here. Love you, Jenny!

  22. This is really helpful. I always worry if the sex I write is gratuitous – but I suppose if it’s essential to explaining character development, it’s not. And if it isn’t, I’ll cut it. Easy peasy 🙂

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