One of my favourite activities after posting a review on my blog is to go around other blogs and review sites and read what other people think about it. It helps give me an idea of how my tastes mesh with others, and that comes in handy with book recommendations and such. For instance, more often than not, I agree with the All About Romance folks (we often share the same letter grade, even) while I disagree with others.
So after I posted my review of Julie James' Just the Sexiest Man Alive, I went looking around other websites and was disappointed by what I read. Not disappointed in the grades that people gave it - but rather the attitude towards the sexual content in the book. You see, Just the Sexiest Man Alive has no sex scenes. None. The characters have sex eventually, at the end, but not in a described, individual scene. However, several reviewers seemed to take issue with that, and that, in turn, made me a little angry.
The most egregious review, sadly, came from All About Romance's Sandy Coleman. She gave the novel a B-, and stated that, while she liked some parts, in the negative column she put: "in a shocking twist, there’s no sex – and I really mean that – and I definitely felt the lack. For a book being marketed as a romance, it’s an odd choice." And she wasn't the only one who made a similar complaint. Are you serious?
This is where my big beef and the reason for this rant comes in: now, I'm a creative person, and by no means am I opposed to sex in romance novels - books can (and should) come in all flavours of the rainbow, and a genre cannot thrive if people want to restrict the content.
What I, personally, do not like, is the increasingly prevalent belief that if the protagonists don't have sex (or a sex scene) then the novel isn't a romance. That's why I'm pissed off with reviewers like Sandy Coleman, who was apparently puzzled that Just The Sexiest Man Alive was marketed as a romance.
Really? So the fact that Taylor and Jason feel for each other the way they've never felt towards anyone else doesn't make it a romance?
So the fact that they engage in flirtatious banter doesn't make it a romance?
So the fact that the novel's central plot revolves around how Taylor and Jason overcome their personal fears and develop emotionally to understand and accept their love for each other doesn't make it a romance?
REALLY? So all it takes is a pen0r in a vajayjay and you have a romance?
Again, allow me to reiterate that my beef with reviewers like Sandy Coleman isn't the fact that they didn't like the novel because it didn't have sex in it. Everyone has different preferences for the books they read, just as everyone has their own particular Off Switch that kills their interest in a novel. My beef is with people who believe that sex is integral to the romance genre.
It is not.
I'm going to let you in on a little secret - most of the time, I couldn't care less about sex scenes in a romance. Mostly, I'm bored. At worse, they bog down the novel. In a few rare cases, they can be wonderful. But in 85% of the romance novels I read, the sex scenes are something I tolerate as inevitable, rather than enjoy as a part of the story itself. They don't really contribute very much to the development of the romance for me, and most of the time I don't care if they're there or not. Here's my rundown of how I, personally, evaluate sex scenes in a romance:
Is the Fact That The Characters Have Sex Necessary to the Narrative or the Realism of the Setting?
This is something that is often, at least to me, dependent on the time period of the romance. I read a lot of historicals, and because they often work within a time period that has strict social codes against premarital sex (at least against women), the narratives are not based on sex - they depend often on how the heroine and hero verbally spar, or on intrigue, class distinctions, and social or historical commentary. The way social situations and leisure activities were arranged in Regency and Victorian times, it's quite realistic for characters to fall in love without needing to have sex - and it often rings very false to me whenever Regency or Victorian heroines feel inexplicably unfulfilled because they haven't had sex yet.
Now, as far as contemporaries are concerned, in this day and age, committed relationships often do involve sex. So, if the fact that the characters aren't having sex by a certain point in their relationship causes readers to doubt the realism of the characters within the contemporary setting, then yes, of course I understand why the fact the characters have sex would be relevant. Similarly, in historicals where the protagonists are married (and I mean real, in-for-the-long-haul-married, not pretend-married or married-only-for-a-short-time-so-I-can-continue-my-life-married), sex is realistic and understandable.
In the case of Just the Sexiest Man Alive, Taylor and Jason don't have sex right away, and I believed it, because Taylor was depicted as a confident and controlled woman who nevertheless had severe trust issues with Jason's womanizing reputation. I totally understood how she wouldn't want to have sex with him if she couldn't trust him.
If the Fact That the Characters Have Sex is Necessary - Is the DEPICTION of The Characters Having Sex Equally Necessary?
This is what I usually have the most problems with - not the sex, but the sex scene. And, I think, this is what most reviewers had a problem with in Just the Sexiest Man Alive. Taylor and Jason do have sex - after Jason and Taylor admit their love for each other at the premiere of Jason's movie, they flee the scene and proceed to have sex on just about every surface of Jason's house. The reader knows this because the author hints at what they are doing through their dialogue and actions when they, er, come up for air. But she doesn't actually describe Taylor and Jason actually going at it. Again, I didn't find this objectionable at all, but other reviewers seemed to be bothered by it.
My question - why? Every writing class and critique group I've ever been a part of has repeated this mantra - if a scene does not contribute directly to the narrative of the overall story, it shouldn't be there. Lots of times I'll submit a story and people will tell me that this or that scene doesn't really fit, or, it's not relevant to the story and should be cut. Stories and manuscripts need to be streamlined. If the story already establishes the fact that the characters are having sex, why does there need to be a scene depicting it?
In many romances, the characters finally having sex is depicted as proof that the protagonists have moved to another, more intimate level of their relationship. In this case, the fact that the characters have sex is necessary to the novel because it shows the progression of the romance between the hero and heroine. But - but - but - what does the depiction of the protagonists having sex contribute to the narrative that the fact that they have sex does not?
I think of it this way: most characters in romance are human beings and eat, so naturally it's a given that as human characters, they will need to relieve themselves. While the fact that the characters need bathroom breaks is important in the sense that it tells us the characters are human beings, we don't come across very many scenes in books where the act of taking a dump is described in detail. Why? Because it's not necessary to the narrative at hand.
So many romance novels I read have sex scenes where nothing relevant is contributed to the story that wouldn't have been performed just as well with a cut-off scene of the characters walking into a bedroom (as an example). Again, 85% of sex scenes are this:
Heroine: Yes please.
Hero: Left boob, right boob, downtown, sexx0r.
Heroine: That was awesome.
Hero: Yes it was.
That's it. This is why irrelevant sex scenes can be a detriment to a novel, because they subject the reader to a portion of the book where nothing happens, where the plot takes a 5-10 page pause in favour of lovingly depicted fun bits. It's like the literary equivalent of a commercial break - where the interesting show you're watching is interrupted by random pretty images.
That's not to say that sex scenes cannot be relevant - there's just needs to be a reason for why we need the detail.
- if the heroine's virginity or lack thereof comes as a surprise to the hero (or supports his suspicions)
- if the scene confronts and deals with a character's fears that are provoked by sex. I found this while reading the lovely sex scene in Sophia Nash's A Dangerous Beauty: Rosamunde endured a terrible marriage to an abusive husband who treated her like an object he owned, in the bed, and out of it - which left her with a terror of being touched by a man's hands. Hero Luc's solution? To undress and sexually pleasure her - without using his hands. The description of the act made this scene for me and was completely relevant to how Luc and Rosamunde react to each other.
- if something revealed during the sex scene (a birthmark, a nervous tic, a certain preference for how the act should be performed) is relevant to the the story later on. I encountered this while reading Welcome to Temptation, where not only do we discover something new about Sophie's personality in the sex scene, but the dialogue the two have during the scene comes back to haunt them later on. Temptation's also a good example of judicious sex scenes because Sophie and her hero Phin have lots and lots of sex, but very few sex scenes - only the ones that matter to the narrative are the ones that are described.
- if the way the sex is performed affects how the characters relate to each other later on. One example is the deflowering scene in The Secret Pearl: it isn't just the fact that Adam and Fleur have sex that's important - but the way Adam looks, touches her, and behaves during the act that explains her fears of him later
The point I'm trying to get at here, and how I deal with sex in romance, is that sex is a part of romance, but it's just as important as every other part - such as the protagonists' emotional compatability, their dialogue, how they relate to each other, their common interests.
Similarly, the sex scene can be a part of a narrative - but it should be treated the same as every other part of the narrative. Every other scene and line of dialogue in a romance novel has to justify its presence in the narrative. For me, the sex scene has to do the same. I won't tolerate a 6-page scene describing the quality of the heroine's china cabinet if it doesn't relate to the story, and that means I won't tolerate a 6-page scene describing how the heroine and hero have sex if it's not relevant. It also means that a sex-scene-less novel doesn't disqualify it as a romance in my eyes, if adding a sex scene wouldn't have contributed anything anyway. But this is just my ranting opinion.
Now, I'm more than a little eager to hear what you think. What do you expect from a romance in terms of sex scenes? What do you prefer in how your romance novels depict sex? Do you care? Are you disappointed by romance novels where the characters don't have sex, and why or why not?