Romance, Sex and Context: A Theory

I’ve been thinking about sex in romance novels lately. (This is going to ramble some. My Deep Thoughts often ramble.)

I used to get reviews that said my romances were pretty hot. I reread a couple of those books recently and compared with what’s out now, they’re barely lukewarm. That’s fine with me, but I’m wondering now what the blurring of the lines between romance and erotica means to the genre. That is, how is it redefining romance? I have no problems with erotica, but it doesn’t have the same aims as romance, any more than women’s fiction is romance-centered. I’m not even sure chick lit is romance, but then I’ve never really been sure what chick lit is. The point is, romance is the only genre that’s romance centered, so what happens to romance within the genre is important.

And I think sex is mugging it.

At this point somebody will call me a prude. Nope. I’m a wonk, that’s worse. To take this out of the romance context, I once got into it with a guy on a pop culture board over one of the last scenes in Kingsman, the one where Eggsy ignores people in trouble to accept anal sex from a imprisoned princess. The guy mansplained to me that many people enjoy anal; I said I knew that, but as Eggsy had been carefully set up through the movie as someone who was devoted to protecting the women in his life, the idea that he was ignoring a female partner stranded on a remote arctic plain, not to mention not knowing what’s happened to his mother who was last seen menacing his baby sister with an ax, all in order to have sex with a woman who had been portrayed earlier in the movie as sophisticated and bi-lingual and who was now in a cell at his mercy and talking baby talk to him, all so the director could get off one “dirty” joke (Eggsy smirks as I remember) REALLY pissed me off as a writer. I don’t care how much anal Eggsy gets, just don’t destroy his character for a stupid joke. That is, it’s about the character, not the sex.

Where was I?

Right. In the same way, don’t destroy the romance for a lot of pointless sex. Erotica is a fine genre, go over there, but remember that romance is about the power of the relationship, not the power of the moving finger or penis, which very often in real life moves on. Convince me the romance is real, and the sex becomes an illustration of that, not the end itself.

Then I reread Georgette Heyer’s No Wind of Blame because I posted about it here in the comments, except I just skimmed through for the Vicky and Hugh parts. It’s one of my favorite romance subplots ever though Heyer is very subtle about the way she puts it on the page, the two of them gravitating toward each other, the excitement when they see each other disguised as banter, the final scene that shows how perfect they are for each other, and yet not only is there no sex, they never kiss. I don’t think they ever touch, aside from Hugh handing her out of a car now and then.

And then there’s Connie Willis’s Take a Look at the Five and Ten, a novella (not much time to develop a romance) that takes place between Thanksgiving and Christmas about two people who also never kiss but instead develop a strong friendship based on the memories of an old lady who’s smarter than they think. It has one of the most optimistic and cheering thematic endings ever, but the romance ending is just as strong, no marriage proposal, no protestations of undying love, just the very work-focused hero saying to the heroine “We’re going to be stuck going to dinner there and putting up with Sloane and her mother every year, aren’t we?” It’s one of the best commitment lines ever because he doesn’t say, “I’m with you forever,” just betrays his commitment with the assumption that they’ll be together for the far distant future.

Both of those romances are in my favorites list, while a lot of the hot-and-heavy new age books turn out to be DNFs, so what I’m thinking now is that a lot of sex in romance novels obscures the romance, the need to put the physical cues on the page overwhelming the emotional cues. Please note, this is not about morality, this is about page real estate for genre.

The problem is that if the only thing pulling the lovers together is the physical attraction, that’s not convincing. Physical attraction can go pretty quickly. On the other hand, physical attraction is a large part of courtship, so there has to be a balance there, something that grounds the physical passion in something stronger and deeper.

What I’ve come to believe is that physical attraction is contextual in a successful romance novel (successful by my definition only).

For example, the lovers in The Flatshare don’t meet for most of the book, they communicate only in post-it notes (he works nights, she works days). But the way they get to know each other, understand each other, care for each other is on every page. She bakes for him, he cooks for her. She worries about her ex, he worries about his brother, and then she worries about his brother and he worries about her ex. By the time they meet by accident, the fact that he’s naked (shower) and she’s in her underwear (going to shower) has a huge impact on them, but not just because they’re undressed; it’s because they know each other so well, they like each other so much, they’ve connected so strongly through the post it notes, that the context of their (almost) nudity raises the intensity level to eleven. Without the months of post-its, they’d still have been attracted to each other, they’re both attractive people; with the post-its, their brains melt and run out their ears. This isn’t two naked people, this is Tiffy and Leon and they’re naked. And freaked out.

The lovers in The Year We Fell Down have more awareness of each other as attractive people, but it’s set in a context of shared disability: he’s temporarily coping with a badly broken leg and she’s in a wheel chair because of a permanent spinal injury. He’s got a girlfriend so they start as friends, playing digital hockey because neither of them can play the real thing (her spinal injury is from hockey); talking about the problems of coping with crutches, stairs, distance; helping each other navigate the university and their own issues about being hurt. They don’t just hang out, they connect. So when his girlfriend stands him up and he invites her into the bedroom, the sex scene there is more about disability and exploration and recovery, they don’t whisper words of love to each other, they talk about her fears and his hopes for her future; it feels like a logical extension of their friendship. Except it’s more than that so when the relationship finally evolves into the Real Thing with a Real Thing sex scene, it’s clear that it’s more than “god you’re hot” sex; they’re connecting in a context that takes things beyond lust into mature love between two people who understand each other and the relationship they’ve developed over time.

I think context is always the key.

I think the fact that modern romances are so much more explicit can skew a writer’s focus away from establishing the romance, shifting it toward establishing nudity without understanding that the nudity is only story-telling if it reflects and arcs the context.

I think that the first thing a writer has to do is establish the context of the sex, that is, establish the emotional relationship that’s the backdrop to the sexual relationship because that’s what gives the sex meaning beyond orgasm. Nothing against orgasm, but it’s not romance.

I remember doing this on purpose in Charlie All Night, starting with a one night stand, followed by a celibacy bet, followed by sex in the context of the relationship they’d established. And then I did it again when I started Anna, playing with the trope of the one-night-stand-who-turns-out-to-be-part-of-her-life. I think one of the reasons I stalled on that one is because the relationship that follows is built on banter–good banter but still just banter–instead of connection, that the banter has to show the arc of the connection. If the context doesn’t change, the relationship can’t arc and intensify, and the sexual relationship can’t arc and intensify, and it becomes just body parts meshing again and again.

I have no idea if I’ve done that in my work (aside from Charlie All Night where I did it deliberately for another reason), but I think it’s going to be key in everything I do from now on. (Oh, wait, I think I did do it in Faking It, since it started with bad sex and then okay sex and finished up with great sex after they trusted each other.) What it really comes down to is that a romance has to be about the arc of the emotional relationship first, and the sex has to be written to reflect that context.

And now that I’ve come this far, I’ve realized that’s a big DUH, OF COURSE. But still, I’m thinking deep thoughts and knew you’d want to know.

Note: Bob also has a theory of writing sex (aka YEC, Yucky Emotional Crap):

Email from Bob last week:
Just wrote
and now some YEC stuff in manuscript.
Moving on

Reply from Jenny:
You wrote YEC?  And you’re still alive?

Reply from Bob:
I didn’t write YEC.
I just literally wrote
and now some YEC
the reader can figure it out.

So there’s another approach to writing sex. Over to you, Readers.

+23

65 thoughts on “Romance, Sex and Context: A Theory

  1. In my first drafts, instead of writing out the sex scenes, I put “oh baby, or baby“ and then I carry-on with the story. Then I go back and write the sex scenes after I have more of the character and relationships-building arcs on the page.

    So, kudos to Bob. 😀

    +11
    1. Yes, kudos to Bob. The issue came up in the alt.sex.stories.d {ASSD} discussion group nearly twenty years ago. It turned out that many of us just tucked in a “and then they fuboinked.” until the rest of the story was more developed. Even if it wasn’t what they did, it made a placeholder.

      +5
    2. There is definitely some sense to writing important scenes when you know the characters better.
      I think it’s a urban legend, but supposedly a Mills & Boon author used to write something like “put fiddly bits here” and come back later to work on the sex scene. One day she accidentally mailed it onto the editor without going back to that part. . .
      Like I said, I suspect it’s an urban legend, but it rings true to human nature.
      Anything I don’t want to write I put TK b/c it’s not a letter combo that comes up often in English so it’s easy to search for later.

      +9
  2. It depends on what matters to me – emotional intimacy or physical intimacy. Since one is often a bridge to the other, in both directions, I prefer emotions in actions on the page and, yes sex on the page.

    Neither needs to be leading the reader by the nose or having the literary equivalent of foam arrows pointing to it. But it being there enhances the depth of the emotional commitment for me.

    +11
  3. I do not expect ever to write a novel of any sort, but it’s great fun and enlightening to read these posts. I’m re-reading Charlie All Night now, because I wanted some Crusie last night and it was one I had here; I hadn’t ventured out into the cold for a library run or anything else yesterday. I am eagerly awaiting all these novels in progress!

    +9
  4. I think more than the romance genre getting sexier, it’s bifurcated.

    There is a huge market for “clean” romances (I hate that phrase but you know what I mean). Mostly Christian, some not. Harlequin has a few lines that don’t have explicit on the page sex. I know a lot of adults who read Young Adult (and maybe some New Adult) romance partially b/c they want romance with no (or very little) focus on sex. And it’s not just books, people love Hallmark movies. Yes, plenty of people love them in an “oh god, let’s get drunk and mock this” type way, but I think they do have a genuine fanbase and their squeaky clean image has not hurt them in any way.

    And then on the other side of the market, there’s a lot of stuff that is very sexy. There’s not a lot of room for stories in the middle ground to stand out any more, which is a shame, b/c that’s generally my favorite type of story.

    And now my ramble on sex scenes –

    I actually wrote a sex scene in the last year, which I almost never, ever do. And I sat down and asked myself “what do some of my favorite sex scenes have in common?” I went back and read a lot of my favorite ones (including some Crusies!) which was very fun. And I thought. – Grounded in reality, grounded in emotions, not necessarily love but a base level of respect for each other, and always a little bit funny and maybe even awkward at times b/c that’s how I’m personally wired. And definitely with some dialogue. I read an author say once she doesn’t like dialogue in sex scenes and I thought “I’m never going to read one of your books. I’m not your reader.”

    Specifically, I think one of the things that makes sex in Welcome to Temptation and Faking It (two of my favorite Crusies) so interesting is that Phin and Davy are always tuned into what is going on and they’re willing to talk things through when it’s not working. That is sexy to me and coincidentally makes for good long term relationships.

    One of my pet peeves in sex scenes and romance in general is what I called the laundry list. Going down a person’s body (usually the man’s but sometimes the woman’s) and mechanically listing eyes, hair, mouth, body parts and how amazing they all look and how this is the hottest person ever. You can go through the whole anatomy textbook, if there isn’t a sense of growing emotional connection, it will not matter. I often feel when a writer goes on and on about the how sexy the characters are or how sexy the sex is, they don’t trust their readers and I’m being spoon fed. Pick a few parts of that person that feel specific to the character or that the other character has a strong reaction to, bring that up occasionally. That’s enough. Let your reader do the rest. They might have a very different vision of what sexy or attractive is.

    I always go back to what Jenny said 🙂 about Arrow and the beginning of Oliver and Felicity. Do these characters have an impact on each other? Will they change each other? That’s where the juice for your story is, not in what their bodies look like.

    It’s a bit spoilery (especially since it’s not a romance) but in the Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom series (duet?) by Leigh Bardugo one of the major characters (Kaz) has a complete aversion to touch. He also happens to be in love with someone. How these two things are resolved is an arc that goes over the two books and isn’t resolved until the very last pagse of the 2nd book. There’s no sex, not even kissing, but that ending is one of the most romantic things I’ve ever read. And it was a huge change for that particular character. That was more important than what body parts looked like or what touched what.

    +15
  5. Thank you, Jenny, for explaining why that final moment of Kingsman bugged me so much. Go have all the anal you want, but that felt like a betrayal of the arc of the character and I’ve never been able to put it into words.

    +14
    1. Same here. She’s not offering it because she wants to, she’s offering because she’s desperate to escape. It feels like prostitution and they play it for laughs. And that Eggsy even considers it…ugh. It’s a bizarrely creepy moment in what is otherwise a good film. I think the screenplay was written by a woman so I was doubly surprised.

      +12
        1. I also heard it was the director. I watch or read mainly for the character. The character seemed charming and I hated that ending. And I watched the sequel. I ‘m not sure what was worse a human hamburger or Eggsy putting a microphone in a vagina. Merlin was good.

          +4
    2. I enjoyed that movie up until the end. I was so betrayed by the last scene that I have never and will never watch the movie again. It’s been a while since I saw it, but I agree – it felt like someone had cut in a scene from an entirely different movie and it just ruined the whole thing.

      1. That’s actually not the last scene. The last scene plays over the end credits and it is excellent: Eggsy goes back to the bar where Harry first locked the door and took out the thugs with his umbrella. He tells his mother that he’s moving into a nice house (Harry’s) and there’s plenty of room for her and his little sister so she can leave the abusive dickhead she’s been living with. The dickhead objects and all his thug friends get up and Eggsy locks the door and says the same thing Harry did as he picks up his umbrella. It’s a great coda since it finishes Eggsy’s arc of rescuing the women he loves and puts a lampshade not only on all he’s learned from Harry but also that he’s become Harry. I love that scene.

        This is the Colin Firth scene:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ewq1kVhc0SA

        Last scene over end credits:
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vknl2oVwd8I

        +2
  6. Loved both the two long, intelligent, analyses on this page so far.

    But lord, Bob’s male armor never fails to amuse the hell out of me.

    7-jinx

    +15
      1. Jinx, every time I comment, there’s the option to change my details in the boxes beneath (Name, Email, Website). Won’t it let you type Jinx instead of 7 in the Name box?

        +9
        1. I don’t know, Jane! I always assumed this was just what the system specified. I will try that!

          +4
          1. Yay! I forget all about those boxes until I accidentally uncheck the ‘Save my name’ box below, and have to fill them in again – once in a blue moon,

            +8
          2. I sometimes comment on GrrlPower comics. Their system doesn’t forget any name or address ever used, so I get a drop-down box with all those choices. Since I only ever want to use the same choices, all the attempts to be cute (or just plain mistakes) haunt me. I seldom comment there anymore. The mean girls have taken over the comments, and while Jenny sometimes gets a hundred, they seldom get less than three hundred

            +3
          3. Oh darn, I thought Jinx was trying to tell us that she was going to be the new James (Jenny) Bond. Guess you’re not a secret agent after all Jinx….or are you?

            +5
  7. Marian Babson mentions this in Please Do Feed the Cat, where in book collaboration between 2 authors, one does the historical setting and the other chick lit author gets blind drunk and writes a lot of embarrassing love scenes to be inserted in where convenient

    +9
  8. I absolutely agree with you, Jenny. And even romances that have good, character-driven sex scenes often have too many of them, repeating the same points, I find. But this week’s read of ‘Winter’s Orbit’ by Everina Maxwell was frustrating for its avoidance of any sex scene at all: the romance is central, and one of the characters has been in an abusive relationship, which his new partner (it’s an arranged marriage) is unaware of; so how their physical relationship developed would have added real depth to the story I think, and its absence was a hole in the plot.

    It did make a change to be wanting sex scenes, since in many stories I find them uninvolving and/or irritating. They’re often the point where I take a break from reading – which I imagine is the opposite of what most writers expect their readers to be doing.

    +11
      1. I just read it and really liked it and I didn’t feel like the sex was missing. We see how they get from misinterpreting eachothers attraction to them to being willing to have sex and a few moments at the start of sex where they navigate miss understanding abd then afterwards where they are cautiously comfortable with each others bodies. And a very powerful scene later about their feelings.

        +6
  9. I have had reservations for several years now about the use of sex scenes in romance novels. I have no problem with graphic sex when it serves both character and romance, but far too many times I’ve felt it undermine both.

    But I also grew up on Georgette Heyer and so many great matchups. Vicky and Hugh are great together. The romance in Behold, Here’s Poison as well — though I suspect I enjoy that one more because of Randall than the romance itself.

    I also get that there is a strong overlap nowadays between romance and erotica. There’s a lot of romances on Kindle Unlimited where the sex scenes are really the point.

    That said, there are times that the sex scenes in romance novels completely work. I loved them in Faking It — because that bad sex to great sex transition was all about the relationship, and also funny and witty. I love them in Sherry Thomas’s Not Quite a Husband because it gets to the heart of both what was wrong and right in their relationship. Lots of books where I think it works.

    I suppose what it comes down to is that I read the romance genre for the romance — for the banter between the characters, for the way they fit each other and get each other in ways that enlarge them both.

    +10
  10. Totally of the topic, but, I have been smugly yes smugly sitting here all week no snow here hehheh (Vancouver Island) hehheh. Woke up this morning it had been snowing All Night and now All Day. Alas!!

    +12
    1. We’ve somehow missed all this week’s snow, too – for once it hit the east of Britain rather than the west – and I was caught out this afternoon when it started snowing steadily just as I was about to go for a walk. Pretty confident it’ll be gone tomorrow, though – it’s not much more than an inch.

      +8
  11. I’m pretty much left cold by sexual descriptions these days, but I will get into it if the emotions are involved. I think the best sex scenes I’ve read of late is in Applied Electromagnetism by Susannah Nix–very warm and emotional and she mentions him taking care and it’s just AWWWW, plus also hot.

    I really liked Sarina Bowen’s Ivy Years series (a lot more than her later books with adults, I’m sorry to say) because they had really compelling situations for the characters to be, like in The Year We Fell Down. I prefer that SO much better than “nice girl meets nice guy and they eat nice food in Vermont,” which is forgettable to me. But if there’s something unusual/gripping about each of them and how they come together…it’s hot.

    Another interesting dynamic (even though the sex is vague, and also teenage, and one of the characters is recovering from sexual assault) is Brittany Cavallero’s Charlotte Holmes series. I love their dynamic, even if I didn’t like how the last book ended so much (sigh).

    +7
    1. Her heroes fall flat for me in a lot of her adult work. The hockey guys make terrible decisions for silly reasons in my opinion. The new adult stuff is much stronger. The heroes are just better fits for the heroines.

      I did really enjoy her series with Tanya Eby. Man hands, Man Card, etc. The first one is pretty standard, but you have to read it for the backstory for the second, which I adored. The third one has an age difference, with the man being younger, a trope I love. Then the fourth one is meh. Light and fun, but those middle two are really great for character development.

      +5
      1. Yeah, I have the same reaction. I think the first three Ivy Years books are really solid romances. Once she gets them out of college, she loses me.

        1. I feel like that too mostly but I do like Beautiful a lot and that has adults.
          And actually her first trilogy written before the Ivy years is about adults and works for me.
          Funnily enough I really dislike a college age heroine in one of her books about the professional hockey team .

  12. When I left teaching high school English in 2010, I was determined to read books by women which featured female characters I enjoyed and whose stories were interesting and intelligent. A friend suggested a bunch of authors. Discovering Jenny Crusie’s stories — starting with Bet Me — was a fabulous release after decades of presenting kids works by men which stuck to the 300 +/- page limit that fits the school calendar. (Okay, there were a couple by women and a few which were longer than 300 pages, but not many.)

    The sex scenes were a large factor in my sense of release from male bondage. Of course, Bet Me doesn’t have the number of sex scenes that Faking It and Welcome to Temptation do, so perhaps that was a perfect way for me to break into Jenny’s kind of romance writing. Also, the condoms in Crusie books were something I started telling people about I was so impressed. But mostly it’s the fun — the character building and the pleasure people get from friendships and romances — that was an epiphany for me.

    No more Hemingway. No more Steinbeck. Yay!

    +12
    1. It was Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Hester Prynne who did it for me.
      CAN’T ANYBODY HERE HAVE SEX WITHOUT DYING??? (Yeah, I know Hester did, but what a life.)

      +13
      1. I wondered why the world came to an end for Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina too when it didn’t for male characters.

        When I saw Jane Eyre on Oprah Magazine’s Best Romances list with Bet Me, it reminded me of a professor saying that Jane Eyre was probably the first erotically charged heroine in literature. And Charlotte Bronte conveys eroticism between Jane Eyre and Rochester without explicit sex scenes.

        I thought Hem’s A Farewell to Arms was romantic but tragic.

        +7
        1. Also, Jane Eyre is so firm despite the power inequality. Love that. I read it for the first time in my early teens and it definitely changed how I viewed things.

          Can’t stand Wuthering Heights though.

          +6
          1. I’m with you, Lupe, on Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

            I love Jane’s doggedness, her righteousness, her toughness, and the fact that she isn’t pretty. If Jane were a pretty girl, she would be called courageous, of high integrity, and strong-willed.

            +4
          2. I love Wuthering Heights. Cathy is such a nutso in an impossible situation, and then Catherine comes along and says, “This is my LIFE, you jerks” and defeats them all and ends up with everything, totally in charge. Catherine is Cathy’s do-over.

            +1
        2. “I wondered why the world came to an end for Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina too when it didn’t for male characters.”

          Patriarchy.

          +4
      2. I read a Judy Blume interview where she said her daughter had commented that teenagers who have sex in books only do so as a prelude to Something Bad happening. So she set out to change that a bit.

        +11
          1. Yeah. When a far more useful lesson would be: have sex in the woods, get twigs in uncomfortable places.

            +8
  13. My sister introduced me to Mills and Boon when I was sixteen years old-because she was too embarrassed to go into the shop to buy the books. I remember buying a Betty Neel novel and we joked that her romantic characters were lucky if they got to hold hands. Now, decades later, if I still read Mills and Boon, I would probably enjoy those novels more.

    Sometimes a sex scene is put into a story to get people to read the book or watch the show. I was bought the box set of Game of Thrones, and didn’t get passed the first season; I’ve never used the fast forward button so much. I don’t mind a sex scene but it has to be organic and tell me something about the relationship of the couple or the people engaged in the sexual act if they are not in a relationship. Sex for voyeurism does not appeal.

    I still don’t understand why Fifty Shades of Grey was so popular. E L James’ character Anastasia Steel acts like a fourteen year old girl discovering a boy for the first time, rather than an adult woman at university attracted to another adult. I stopped reading on the second chapter when Anastasia blushed for the fiftieth time because she was in the same room as Christian Grey. I’ve never watched the films so I don’t know how they ended up having sex.

    I’m not a writer, but I do wonder if publishers are asking authors to put more sex and romance into books. I recently stopped reading a female crime novelist, because she was putting more romantic dialogue into her novels. The first book she wrote was ninety-five percent crime novel and five percent romance. The last book I read, it was a fifty/fifty split. She writes brilliant crime/psychological thrillers, but her romance prose is awful. The strong female lead turns into a blushing idiot when the romantic interest enters the scene. She also used the word ‘turgid’ to describe the male penis. I thought that word died in the 1980s.

    In other news, my childhood library was demolished last week. My mother, (God rest her beautiful soul) took me into that library when I was three years old. It was housed in an old Victorian building. After you went up five steps, you would enter a short, dark passage and have to open two very heavy doors to enter a brightly lit area full of magical books.

    +13
    1. Galway Tes,

      It is less that publishers are asking authors to put more sex into books, and more that they are mostly buying the books that already have more sex, so authors write those books. Also, I have a lot of author friends who have turned Indie (often because they were midlist authors who could no longer get contracts) and what sold to readers was sexy sexy stuff. So that’s what they wrote. This isn’t true in all cases, but from my point of view as an author, that’s a lot of it.

      My first contract with Berkley (for my paranormal romance series based on an updated version of Baba Yaga) specified that I include two sex scenes. That’s what was expected in that particular line. Thankfully, they didn’t care how long the scenes were or how spicy, as long as they were in there, so I was able to write my kind of sexy (which isn’t very). But yes, I had to have at least two.

      As a reader, I have gotten really tired of the super sexy books. A few of my favorite authors switched from romantic comedy to what I would consider erotica, and I just stopped reading them. I have nothing against it–it’s just not my kind of thing. I mostly just skip those bits, so what’s the point?

      I love the way Jenny writes sex scenes. They make sense with the characters and don’t jar me out of the book.

      +11
      1. I don’t think anybody ever told me to add sex to the books.

        No, wait. When Bob and I were first collaborating, I told my fabulous agent, Meg, that there wouldn’t be any sex in the stories. We weren’t having any in real life, so I didn’t see myself talking dirty to him in fiction. Meg said, “Jenny, if I’m going to sell this collaboration, there’s going to be sex in it.” So I went back to Bob and said, “You’re going to have to write a sex scene,” and he said, “No.” We both ended up writing sex scenes (his is the hero with the actress early on and it’s funny as hell) including sort of collaborating on one at the end. We lived.

        +6
    2. Bringing up “turgid” made me reach for an old essay. With permission of the author, let me present:

      On the Subject of Penises…
      by Sailor Jim

      Jim pauses in his latest endeavor and frowns. After a moment’s contemplation, he saves his work and firmly closes his new fantasy G4 titanium PowerBook. After a meditative sip of his drink, he addresses those around him.

      “There are some literary subjects that have become total cliché and attempting to describe an erect penis is one.

      “I am writing a sex scene and my hero is now crossing the room while fully erect. So, basically, his stiff dick is bobbing like a demented conductors baton as he crosses the room … however, one cannot simply write, ‘He crossed the room, his stiff dick bobbing like … ‘ and so forth. Well, one could if one was writing that sort of scene (and one was half plastered), but this one cannot.

      “To write anything referring to his ‘turgid manhood’ is also somewhat tacky. Hell, just the term ‘manhood’ to describe the penis strikes me as idiotic. A dick is no more one’s ‘manhood’ than a hymen is one’s ‘maidenhood.’

      ‘He strutted across the bedroom, his hard manhood pointing the way’ sounds somewhat he owns a badly named seeing-eye dog. ‘Sit, Hard Manhood … good boy.’

      “Just describing the state of erection is tough. It is a simple matter of erectile flesh and hydraulics, but damnably difficult to put into terms romantic. ‘His penis, reacting to his viewing her naked flesh, achieved satisfactory erection, proving good vascular response and socio/psychological adjustment.’

      Oh, yeah … baby, baby.

      “Terms like ‘throbbing,’ ‘pulsing’ and all other variations of this nature make it sound as if the silly thing had a blood pressure cuff wrapped around it. ‘His fleshy organ quickly surged into full alertness, throbbing and pulsing and otherwise scaring the shit out of him.’ When I envision something throbbing, I imagine an action somewhat akin to a bullfrogs throat sack as it croaks. THROB! Frankly, with this in mind, if my dick ever took to throbbing, I’d call a doctor. Matter of fact, I would think that any woman, faced with an actively throbbing pulsing penis, would be somewhat concerned as well. (I don’t know this for a fact, though … Dian says that in certain situations, the sight is somewhat exciting, but the first time she experienced this situation, she looked for a stick to kill it with.)

      “And then there is the matter of size, shape, color and texture. Well, he’s the hero … I suppose it should be heroic, but somewhat shy of practical joke size. Shape, now, there’s another difficulty … as well as color and texture. Hell, let’s face it … a dick is a fairly funny looking, if not downright ugly, piece of equipment. Veins, bumps, ridges and all that; a color that never matches the sheets, much less the surrounding flesh (or any flesh, for that matter); an overall look of a plum precariously balanced on a badly whittled rod. Let’s not even mention it and simply stick to the concept of a literary description of my hero approaching the heroine.

      “Okay, he’s naked and fully aroused … does he stride? Stalk? Strut? Strikes me as a situation that calls for something more than ‘walk,’ but something less than ‘bound.’ I could have the silly sod moonwalk across the floor, but the resulting mental image … damn, too late! Oh, well…another round of therapy.

      “And what does the erect penis actually do while he crosses the floor? Does it bounce against his belly, producing its own applause? Does it wave about in some sort of vague response to his stride? Would it be feasible if I simply had him hang a towel from the damn thing and skip the entire description?

      “And what about the heroine? She is languidly reclining on the bed…and doing her level best to not bust a gut laughing, I suspect. Should she stare? Gasp? Giggle? Ogle? Chant ‘boingy, boingy, boingy’ as he approaches or whistle the ‘Elephant Walk’ in time to the swaying? This is supposed to be a moment of strong passion and deep emotions… but a bouncing, throbbing, column of manhood slowly moonwalking forward…damn, gotta stop that image … strutting towards her cannot be what every woman dreams of in her fevered imagination. I want this scene to be equally stirring to both men and women, but fear that this is impossible.”

      Sailor Jim stares into the fire for a moment, then opens his PowerBook once more. “Screw it … or, rather, let’s not. I’ll simply segue from her starting to slip out of her clothes to the morning after. Y’know, the standard story cop-out. Thanks for letting me talk this one through.”

      +12
    3. I have never read 50 shades, but did have an interesting discussion with a friend about it. It was for a specific demographic, it started out as fanfiction, but I have always thought it was a grown up version for all those fan mothers of fans who were into reading the Twilight trilogy… Since it came out on kindle, people weren’t embarrassed to read it (modern version of brown paper covers) which added to it’s popularity. Kind of a guilty pleasure.

      +4
    4. I tried Fifty shades of grey and couldn’t finish it because I didn’t like the heroine. Also, the sex really wasn’t that hot.

      But here is what I think the book did that was ground breaking: it made it acceptable for a main character (especially the male lead) to be a survivor of abuse. Up until that point in my experience, it is something that happens to a minor character or almost happens to the heroine, but then she is saved. I think that it is important to have mainstream examples of people coping with the trauma, instead of it happening to a “less important” person.

      I also think that that book made it more socially acceptable to admit to reading sexy books. Lots of people do, but it was a very private thing. I would hide my choices and use the self checkout at the library. Now it’s ‘normal’ to talk about reading erotica.

      +5
  14. Wonderful deep thoughts that made me realize why I have such a strong aversion to pointless sex scenes like in one of the books I read last week and why I lately tend to prefer sex scenes to be absent. Far too often they seem to be obligatory additions instead of integral part of character development.

    Which made me check out the Heyer book immediately and the Crow-YA-title 😉

    +6
  15. I think that overly sexed books, light on plot, have their place in the world. They are easy, quick reads, and comforting in their own way.

    Also, to be honest with you, it’s been my experience that my generation, the Millennials, struggle with sex.

    Of the young woman who I am close enough with to talk about it, there are a lot of video game widows. The women have to be the sexual aggressors in their marriages all the time and that gets exhausting. It also does a number on your self esteem to feel like your partner is uninterested in you physically while you are in your prime health and fitness.

    So I think that the very sexy novels where there isn’t a lot of emotional heavy lifting are a fantasy. Women in their thirties are tired of struggling with intimacy. They want fast, easy instalove where the man is (unhealthily) obsessed and they don’t doubt his attraction. It’s a reaction to feeling like they are always fighting for attention from their significant others.

    +8
    1. It isn’t just a generation thing, back when I bought secondhand books from a stall in the market ( I miss that market, closed 🙁 ) A lady who worked in a care home would drop by weekly to pick up a load of romances for the residents and resell the ones they’d finished with. The care home ladies had no problem with graphic love scenes, it was just a nice bit of escapism for them

      +8
      1. I was surprised too, with our culture so sure that men are the more assertive partners for sex, but it just kept coming up over and over from different sources.

        +3
    2. OMG yes. I love my husband, and we were red-hot lovers in the beginning, but after five years? I am Gen X and I really thought I would get more than five years of great sex during my lifetime. /TMI

      +6
  16. Re: ‘The Flatshare’ – I stayed up till 3 a.m. reading that the other night (good thing it’s a long weekend). Will undoubtedly be on my list of 10 Favorite Books Read in 2021 and will undoubtedly be re-read many times. I thought the MCs were completely adorable and every single plot thread was resolved well.

    Some notably well-reviewed books of 2020 were low on sex. ‘Red White & Royal Blue,’ ‘Beach Read,’ and ‘Boyfriend Material’ all come to mind.

    I read a lot of books last year and about half were Very Sexy. I was glomming down entire backlists and it was interesting to see which authors defaulted to Much Sex and which employed sex differently depending on the characters. And also which used what was, in my opinion, Too Much Sex. I don’t need an on-the-page sex scene every time the MCs encounter one another. Allude to it, sure, but then move the relationship (forward, sideways, or back; doesn’t matter).

    It occurs to me that I’ve read quite a lot of romance (and not only M/M romance though that was the majority of last year’s reading) in which lack of communication between the MCs is the primary conflict. And instead of having the MCs deal with their relationship (i.e. figure it out) through interaction with each other or with side characters, some authors have sex scenes bracketed mostly by internal monologue.

    Internal monologue has a place, too. But Sex > IM > Sex > IM > Sex > HEA can be monotonous if you are a person who likes reading dialogue as much as you like reading sex scenes. Especially if the IM is always about the same thing, i.e. why the POV character isn’t right for/can’t be good for the other.

    My preference is for a book in which the physical relationship is a) important, b) on the page, c) illustrated as part of character and relationship development, and d) subordinate to all the other factors and stresses that affect whether or not a relationship has good odds of success.

    On the page does not have to mean graphic. It only means I want to see how the characters react to each other physically, how they experience their attraction.

    +3
    1. The thing about the main characters in The Flatshare is that they’re good people in bad situations doing the best they can. They have good support groups/friends/coworkers, they’re well developed, but they have real problems, not will-they-or-won’t-they. The characters really make that book.

      +5
  17. I read a book this week that had such an improbable sex scene. The heroine was wrongfully accused and convicted of murdering a mother & child. Time goes by, new identity etc.
    The husband/father eventually tracks her down and they have consensual sex in the course of their FIRST meeting. I was flipping the pages back and forth thinking that I had flipped more than one or that pages were missing but no. This story already had taken “suspension of disbelief” liberties but this took the cake.

    +3
  18. Thank you Jenny! I loved that!
    Yes! No Wind of Blame!! Heyer is the queen of subtle romance! I have not read all of her mysteries but the ones I have read seem to have a lovely romance tied in.
    Yay context!
    Yay relationship building!
    I loved this (article/blog/spiel?)😍🤗

    +3

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