Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Rant Rant Rant - Sex in Romance

Warning: this post goes into Just the Sexiest Man Alive and other romance novels in detail. You have been warned.

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:

Hero: Sex?
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.

Good Examples:
  • 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
For bad examples, well, sex scenes that serve only to tell us things that are a given (i.e. that the hero/ine's good in bed) or things we already know (the hero/ine is smokin' hot), really don't need to be stretched out that long.

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?


  1. Great, great, great post. I've been lurking around your blog for a while but you inspired me to comment because I completely agree with you. Sex is nice and everything, but it's usually unnecessary and as you say, can be boring. It's one thing to use it to further the plot or if it happens once or twice to show how the characters feel, it's another if the romance is based around the physical rather than emotional relationship. That's one of my biggest issues with romance sometimes. I don't mind at all if the author chooses not to include it or if they only mention that it happened. It perplexes me that someone would downgrade a book just because it didn't have overtly described sex. Everyone's tastes are different, but I thought erotica was the genre that was guaranteed sex all the time, not an ordinary romance. Most have it, but the absence isn't something that bothers me, and I applaud authors who can write believable love without resorting to only physical temptations.

    I'm not going to lie, I enjoy a well-written sex scene as much as the next girl, but I read these for emotional pull and for the love story, not because I want to read sex scenes.

  2. Laura1:12 PM

    I don't think a book needs to have a sex scene to be considered a romance. There are Christian/inspirational romances that don't contain sex scenes. And Silhouette has (or used to have) a line of books that didn't have sex scenes. Does that mean they weren't romances? Not at all. They were still romantic stories.

    I'd rather read a book with no sex scenes than a book where the characters have sex just to have sex.

    And I agree with Meghan--I too read romance novels for the emotional pull and the love story.

  3. Since you, AnimeJune, do review romance fiction for so many readers, I suggest that you inform your readers about each novel's sexual explicitness.

    A three-grade scale would suffice, such as A) not explicit, B) explicit, C) very explicit.

    I assume that each reader has some preferences. As you read in those other reviews, some readers do not like not-explicit novels, and certainly some readers do not like very explicit novels.

    Since you are spending the time and effort to read and review a novel, you might as well provide that information, which most readers would appreciate. That doesn't mean that you have to address that quality further in your review.

    I'm curious: When you wrote that particular review, did the thought occur to you that the novel's non-explicitness was unusual and that you should mention this novelty in your review? Were you really so suprised that other reviewers would make such an issue about it?

    I read few romance novels, but I have the impression that the very-explicit quality has become the standard. If the novel is non-explicit or just moderately explicit, then the novel might be considered to be some other genre -- perhaps rather an ordinary historical novel, an artsy novel, a light-fiction novel, a detective novel or something else besides a romance novel.

  4. Anonymous4:34 PM

    "I read few romance novels, but I have the impression that the very-explicit quality has become the standard."


    Very explicit is not standard. Julia Quinn is a leader in historical romance, and some of her books contain only one sex scene, and often it's not that explicit. When I finished reading Mr. Cavendish I Presume, I thought, "There were no sex scenes in this book. Oh wait, yes there was." It was a strange love scene, but I wouldn't call it explicit, and it was a small part of the novel compared to everything else that was going on.

    I don't like overly explicit love scenes anyway. I like sweet romances.

  5. I probably should retract my comment about explicit novels becoming the standard.

    My opinion probably is a relection of my own choices when I do read such novels.

  6. a reflection of my own choices

  7. I read this one a while ago and had to go back to the review I did to see what I said about the lack of sex scenes - and low and behold I didn't even mention that there weren't any. I knew going in that there wasn't going to be any as I read it on another blog but this fact wasn't a part of the review.
    Now - in trying to follow my own thinking here whilst I type this out - the fact that I didn't even mention this fact (except for a tepid rating in which I DID say I often very much enjoy coffee or tea when it's cooled down, the fact that I didn't say anything else and gave this book a 4.5, proves that, for me, no indeed, a romance does NOT need sex in to be considered a pretty damn good romance.
    When I first came back to romance after a hiatus of a number of years, my Very Favourite author was Patricia Veryan and there was NO sex in her books and yet I found them to be very, very romantic and unquestionably "romance" books. On the opposite end, I've read books where the book has included a sex scene or two and they were so awkwardly written and came seemingly out of nowhere that I actually downgraded the mark BECAUSE of the added sex scene. I felt the book would have been much stronger without it.

  8. I agree that romances don't have to have sex scenes to be romances. ha. Kind of funny to assume they do.

    I read a lot of Christian romance (I read romance with explicit sex scenes as well) and those stories can be just as romantic without the explicit sex. What's most important to me in romance is that the writing keeps me engaged and that I want hero and heroine together and happy.

    Anyway, interesting post and thanks to Meghan for pointing it out to me!

  9. Meghan --> Exactly. Whenever I come across an historical whose plot has something about an infamous brothel and how a woman wants to sate her fantasies or whatever I just put it right down. I don't even read it. There's definitely room for sexual stories in literature, but it's not to my taste, and I dislike the fact that sex scenes (particularly in historical romance) now seem to be, well, arbitrary - as if put in to meet some sort of quota.

    Laura --> I know that Inspired romances don't have sex in them, but I haven't heard of that Silhouette line.

    But yes, I want the sex scenes to have a point and to be about emotion. With few exceptions, I always get a little irked by historical romances where the heroine jumps into bed with the hero within the first chapter for some ridiculously anachronistic reason - like, "I deserve one night of passion," and I want to scream "WHO TOLD YOU THAT? WHO GAVE YOU THAT EXPECTATION?" I mean REALLY!

    Mike --> Eh, I'd rather not put an explicitness grade. Generally, I review and enjoy books based on how well-written they are, and sexual explicitness isn't really a factor on how well written a book is. If the level of sexuality in a book is consistent with the theme and beautifully written and fits in the plot, it won't bother me, usually, so I don't bother to mention it. Besides, I already have so many doodads on my reviews I don't want to add another one. Thanks, anyway.

    As to noticing the lack of sex in "Just the Sexiest Man Alive," - that's the thing, I DIDN'T. The story was so complete and well written that I never felt anything was missing.

    I also have to tell you that "very explicitness" is not the standard, I should think, from what I've read. They're certainly increasing in number (examples - hoo boy Elizabeth Hoyt), but the general description of sex scenes I've come across is relatively descriptive but not graphically so, I should think.

    And NO - I don't think that explicitness guarantees a romance is a romance. NOT AT ALL. That's what my entire post was about.

    Anonymous --> Same here, I prefer sweet romances. However, if the sex has a definite point to the story, I can enjoy that too. ^_^

    Kristie J --> Yes - that's what I hate. Arbitrary sex scenes. They usually come in somewhere around the end and seem to be there because the author forgot she needed a sex scene. One of the worst examples was "Gilding the Lady" by Nicole Byrd - the hero and heroine, a chapter away from the end, decide to have sex WHILE TRAPPED IN A ROOM COVERED IN DYNAMITE because they think they have only an hour to live. How contrived!

    Lisa Kleypas, while she writes some excellent scenes, is one of the worst offenders of pointless sex scenes. Gee, if only her books ONLY had two of those - usually they have, like, six or seven! If the hero and heroine are horny, fine, just don't describe EVERY TIME THEY DO IT!

    Amy --> welcome to the blog! I have to say, I'm glad that I'm not the only one who doesn't feel disappointed when the protagonists don't have a sex scene. Sometimes I doubt and wonder if I'm reading the right genre if the general opinion is sex scenes are necessary. Over at Eloisa james' messageboard I brought up the subject once and a bunch of users said they felt cheated if they didn't get to read the hero and heroine have sex, and I just didn't understand it.

  10. Anonymous11:51 AM

    "Lisa Kleypas, while she writes some excellent scenes, is one of the worst offenders of pointless sex scenes."

    Stephanie Laurens is another one.

  11. Vorkosigrrl2:26 PM

    Great post, AnimeJune! There are writers I've stopped reading, because of the fact that their sex scenes are about as emotionally involving as, "Insert tab A into slot B. Repeat every few pages." It just becomes so much yadda-yadda-yadda.

    Your point about the historical setting is well taken. I started out reading Georgette Heyer (who didn't?), and I was Shocked -- Shocked, I say! -- to start exploring other authors and seeing how the mores and culture of the time are sometimes completely ignored. Why does almost EVERY historical heroine engage in pre-marital sex? A great deal of the fun of reading an historical novel is to feel transported to another time and place.

    I totally agree that the writing is the most important thing. A good writer can make anything work. The only question is, can she get published? I believe Diane Farr (my favorites of hers is The Fortune Hunter and Under a Lucky Star) stopped getting published because she doesn't write sex scenes. But boy, nobody writes Desire like Diane Farr, IMHO.

  12. Vorkosgrrl --> about Diane Farr - REALLY? She didn't get published because she wouldn't put sex scenes in? That's terrible! I head that Lynn Kurland had similar problems with her editors - but her books sold well, so I guess she was given a pass.

    Really, that's terrible. You know, a lot of times it seems the parts of romance that are the most made fun of (the cheesy titles, cover art, and sex scenes) are exactly the parts of romance that are out of the authors' hands and are dictated by other people! What's up with that?

  13. Just to pick up on the question of Silhouettes, since I'm late to the conversation, in the guidelines for the Harlequin Romance line, which replaced the Mills & Boon Tender Romance line and is called "Mills & Boon Romance" in the UK, and merged the Silhouette Romance and Harlequin Romance lines in the US, it says that:

    "Couples can make love — before marriage, just as they do in real-life, but this should be within an emotional context and not described explicitly. It's fine to shut the bedroom door and leave them to it! However, if you don't feel comfortable with your characters making love before marriage, that's fine, too."