How Do You Like Your Sex…In Romance Novels?
Recently, I logged onto my Facebook account and found that a forum administrator had just posted a new hot topic.* She described a sexual scene she read, and then asked about whether or not graphic sex in romance novels ever offended our sensibilities. For me, the answer to that question was simple: “No.” However for most of us, the true answer is a bit more complex and begins with, “It all depends.” Romance and Erotica are becoming more and more entwined, with lots of people liking both, but not necessarily at the same time. This is not particularly surprising, as choices of reading material often depend upon the reader’s level of maturity, preferences and mood. The topic of how and whether lovemaking should be portrayed in writing is not new, but has been with us since the inception of the printed word. Romance is merely the genre of choice for this forum, and so let us explore a few of the questions surrounding sex in romance novels.
Are the scenes age appropriate?Most fans of romance novels begin reading them as teenagers. My mother carefully screened my books, and heaven help me if she caught me reading an unauthorized novel. At the time, I resented that level of control. However, I now understand that she did not want my sexual identity to be shaped by romance novels, any more than she wanted my brothers’ sexual identities to be shaped by pornography. I’m not saying that sex in romance novels is pornographic, but both portray sex in an unrealistic manner: Perfect bodies, flowers and candlelight, hours of extended foreplay, zero consequences and satisfaction guaranteed, every time. In comparison, the reality can be a bit, well, underwhelming.
Does it fit the storyline? I recently read a novel with a strong, smart and sweet heroine who expressed her feelings in a thoughtful manner. She enjoyed a close relationship with her happily married parents, and each of her friends was carefully selected to be a member of her circle. She continually made good, cautious decisions and exhibited an uncommon degree of intelligence and ambition. Suddenly, the character told the reader about how she played guys and slept around indiscriminately. This was so incongruous with her otherwise careful, methodical personality that I simply could not reconcile these two sides to her character. I initially gave her the benefit of the doubt, but the novelist provided no explanation or motivation for the contrast between this choice and the remainder of her lifestyle. For me, she ruined an otherwise excellent novel by trying to force this character into a sex life that just did not fit her personality.
There is another way that an author can fail to fit the storyline. Placing a torrid photograph on the front cover, and posting sexually provocative advertisements for the book can create certain expectations for the reader, and it is quite strange to then read such a novel and realize that no sex ever occurred within the story. Rather, it is left to the reader’s imagination. I call this “the tease.” Some authors tease the reader from cover to cover, and never complete the act within the book. This can be just as disappointing for some readers as placing sex where is doesn’t belong.
Is it really romantic? After speaking with several readers, the opinions about whether or not graphic descriptions of sex are appropriate for the title “romance novel” are all over the place. Some people enjoy incredibly detailed scenes with plain speaking and explicit descriptions throughout the tale. Others prefer the use of euphemisms, and would rather use their imagination. Some feel that graphic descriptions remove a novel from the realm of romance, and make it purely erotica. Others believe that the use of euphemisms is unrealistic and even boring. The only thing these readers appear to have in common is that the feelings on both sides of this argument are strong.
Is it politically correct? Some people hold strong opinions for sociopolitical reasons. For instance, as authors of multicultural literature, do we have a heightened responsibility to not play into stereotypes about black women and sexuality? African American women have long been portrayed in the media as purely sexual beings, and not as people who are worthy of love, lovemaking and relationships. The exploitation of women such as Saartjie “Sarah” Bartman, whose physical assets were put on open display as freak show attractions throughout Europe under the name “Hottentot Venus,” has ensured that this history is burned into my consciousness. As a writer, I am keenly aware of the manner in which I portray black women in my writing. Yet, I am also torn. African American women should be free to explore our sexuality, and to read about the sex lives that interest us most. Forcing African American characters into any box, whether it be the graphic sex box or the vanilla sex box is, in my humble opinion, wrong.
Why so hot? While this argument is not new, the routine inclusion of previously taboo sex acts in mainstream romance has become more prevalent in recent years. Why are the sex scenes in romance novels becoming so explicit? These novels are not written in a vacuum. Rather, they have to compete with other types of books within the mainstream entertainment industry. As a result of books such as the Christian Grey series, romance novelists are responding to an audience whose appetite has been whetted for more imaginative descriptions of sex. Authors try and write the best books possible, and to remain true to our muse, but we still must consider our audience. Therefore, more authors are seeking more adventurous ways to explore lovemaking inside of romance novels. Vanilla audience members, do not despair. There will always be an audience for each level of steam, and there will always be books available for you. However, popular opinion is never static. Just as the pendulum of mainstream preference swings back and forth with regard to nudity and graphic sex in television and movies, the same will likely follow for the books in our genre.
Is it a bait and switch? Regardless of which side of the debate on which you fall, one thing remains clear: It is most important that the author not mislead the reader. If an author bills a book as a sweet romance, the characters should not suddenly engage in graphic sexual acts within the storyline. If the author bills the book as a spicy tale then the characters should not merely hold hands and kiss one another on the cheek. Adults should be able to decide whether or not they prefer graphic or vague descriptions of sex, or even a bit of both, without being judged harshly by anyone.
What type of sex do I prefer in my romance novels? It depends. Mainly I just want a good, well written story, with or without the sex. All types of descriptions are welcome, as long as they push the storyline forward. Whatever the level of steam in your novel, write enough story between the scenes so that it is believable that the characters know each other well enough to be in love, rather than in lust. In this way, even the most adventurous scene can be enjoyed with a sense of caring, rather than with a sense of exploitation. Otherwise, we’re left dissatisfied with the ending and wondering whether Book 2 will explore the characters’ divorce proceedings.
The moral of the story? If you are a writer, write the story that inspires you. If you are a reader, buy the story that appeals to you. Public opinion will change with the times, but adults should be free to choose, no matter the era. Imposing a single opinion upon the publishing industry smacks of censorship, and this cannot be tolerated in any free society. How you choose to entertain yourself is best left up to the individual reader, and so the only opinion that truly matters is yours.
Have you ever had to decide which man owns your heart?
That’s Aaliyah’s Dilemma. She has finally gained the interest of her long time crush next door, Gabriel, when she begins to see her best friend, Lucas, in a whole new light. Which man will she choose? Why do they seem to have a history that goes far beyond a single rivalry over a woman? Find out in Amended Hearts, Book 1 of the Chiming Hearts Series.
*Sharon Blount, founder of Building Relationships Around Books https://www.facebook.com/groups/116450438392988/
Gabriel looked at Aaliyah over Lucas’ shoulder, seeing the fury that had replaced the sweet smile on her face. He took a deep breath. “Aaliyah,” he began.
Noting her expression, Lucas stepped forward. “Not right now, Gabriel,” he interjected. “She’s not ready to hear it yet. Go take a shower and come back in an hour. I’ll make breakfast.”
With that he steered Gabriel out the front door and closed it behind him.
“How dare you invite that man back into my home? I don’t want him here,” Aaliyah bit out.
“Look, Liyah, you’re being unreasonable.”
“Unreasonable? First, he ignores me,” she began, ticking her points off on her fingers. “Next, he pays attention to me, but only because he thinks I’m someone else. Then, he thinks I’m sleeping with you.”
“I think he had a little help with that one,” Lucas admitted sheepishly.
Too caught up in her tirade to take note of that she continued, “Finally, I open up and show him who I really am, and he’s back to thinking I’m sleeping with you. What kind of person would I have to be to spend the evening with him and the night with you?”
Lucas sighed, shaking his head over her naiveté. “You’d be surprised at what people will do in the heat of the moment. He doesn’t know you, and you can’t expect him to judge you by anything other than what he sees.”
“He doesn’t have any faith in me.”
“Why should he?” he shot back sharply. When he saw that she wasn’t convinced he ran an exasperated hand through his hair, sighing before pulling her in for a hug. Just holding her for a moment, as he’d done on so many occasions, Lucas sought a way to explain. He spoke softly into the top of her head as he held her firmly in place with one hand at the small of her back, while smoothing the other up and down the indentation of her spine. “Look, don’t you think our relationship is just a little bit weird, looking at it from the outside? I mean, here you are, a beautiful woman, and I’m not exactly a slob. We get along well. I’ve shared more of my dreams with you than any woman I know. Most people who were in our position would at least be attracted to one another.”
Aaliyah raised her head at that, sucking in a sharp breath as their faces angled toward one another for a brief instant. Lucas was the first to blink, stepping backward before continuing his explanation. “Under circumstances like last night, a lot of them would have done something about it.” He reached out to playfully tug her ponytail as he‘d done a million times, smiling wryly. “He doesn’t know you‘re like my little sister, so when he sees me in your house, looking like I just got dressed, he’s going to think what any man would think.”
Lucas let that sink in for a few moments.
“I’m going to make breakfast,” he finished quietly, and then headed toward the kitchen. He turned the corner before leaning against the wall to take a deep breath and run a hand roughly over his face, willing his arousal to go away. Several minutes later, he slipped on his tee shirt before continuing on to the refrigerator.
By day, I am a lawyer by trade. However, if you are familiar with the field, then I’m sure you know that it is anything but satisfying to a creative mind and so by night, I write. A lover of all things written, spoken and harmonized, my home has always been found in words. I live in Columbia, SC and my work is in Charlotte, NC. Hello to my fellow light rail commuters! My chihuahua, Lady, is ridiculously friendly for her breed. No snapping, no growling, and so if you ever see us out and about at the pet stores, be sure to say, “Hi!” Most of my spare time is spent hanging out with friends and family and updating my stories.
My debut novel, Amended Hearts, arose out of my frustration with one simple question: “What’s it like to date outside your race?” I would explain that “It’s like dating a human.” Their race or culture never made them any less inclined to watch the American football game, or the rest of the world’s football game, rather than going to a museum or antiquing with me.
For some reason, the questioner would look at me with skepticism, as though I held some magic formula to dating Klingons and Werewolves, and so I wrote a story to explain. In the book the central character, Aaliyah, has to pick between two good men, Gabriel and Lucas. They happen to be from different backgrounds, but they all have a great deal in common. She must choose to follow her newest crush to Gabriel, or amend her heart for her best friend, Lucas. What about you? Are you Team Gabriel or Team Lucas?