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Sex and Redemption in Romance

I’ve been thinking about sex lately.

It’s Cara McKenna‘s fault, really: I read another one of her books, Ready and Willing, over the Fourth of July weekend, and it made me all thinky, as her novels are wont to do.

Then I read this blog post by Jane over at Dear Author about whether courtship is disappearing from romantic fiction, and that made me even thinkier, and so here I am.

What I’ve been pondering is this: What does sex do in romantic fiction? What is it for? In particular, what is it for in erotic romance, which is what I write?

I mean, it’s obviously there in part for the sheer voyeuristic thrill of reading it, and that’s no small thing. But I think anyone who reads a lot of erotic romance and/or erotica would have to agree that a badly done sex scene is not all that thrilling to read. Unless you haven’t read a sex scene in a really long time and you’re simply gagging for it, sex scenes that don’t have something going on beyond the sex — something to do with character and plot development — are frankly dull.

So, given that the sex scenes in erotic romance aren’t there merely for the wank, I ask again, what are they for? What is their function?

If romantic fiction has an urtext way back in its distant past (for the record: it doesn’t), I imagine it as a category novel with a boatload of sexual tension, a few steamy kisses, and an artfully euphemized sex scene at the end. In such a novel, the function of the sex scene is to seal the deal on the romance. Love has already been achieved. Courtship is complete. Romance and happily-ever-after are confirmed and consummated. The sex scene is the romantic end punctuation (ideally an exclamation point).

If we then imagine that urtext evolving to a new, racier form, we find a novel wherein the sexual tension builds to a peak around mid-book. The hero and heroine have already fallen for one another when they get busy, but maybe they don’t know it yet. Their sexual relationship complicates their existing emotional relationship, making them fall deeper and harder in love than they’re ready for, but eventually they work it all out, and the conflicts in the novel resolve in the happy ending. In a book like this, the sex is a catalyst. It helps the hero and heroine figure out what they’re too stubborn or conflicted to understand otherwise.

So, if you’ll indulge my categorizing of all romantic fiction into narrow confines a little longer, perhaps now there is a third form, much more common in the past decade or so, in which the characters get down to business in chapter 3, or chapter 2, or even chapter 1. Assuming we’re not talking about a buddy romance or a book about estranged lovers/spouses, the hero and heroine haven’t had time to fall in love yet. They’ve skipped the courtship altogether.

Do we lose something important in a story like this? Are we trading off a believable love story for more-fully-described orgasms?

I’ll confess, these questions make me slightly antsy, because my characters tend to get down and dirty pretty quickly. Reading blog posts like Jane’s make me fret that I’m simply no good at writing sexual tension, and so I jump right on the spicy bandwagon and do my readers a disservice.

Perhaps. But.

I think maybe there’s something else going on here. I think, on my part, the decision is an attempt at verisimilitude in the midst of what I freely admit is a fantasy world of almost-perfect man-hunks and near-effortless multiple orgasms.

Without turning this blog into a confessional, I guess what I want to say is that I think, in real life, among women of my age and general social profile, sex happens. It happens without a seven-date build-up, it happens without a boatload of forethought, and it happens even in the midst of doubt and moments of weirdness. Unattached people who find each other attractive have sex. They just do.

It’s what happens after the sex, and what happens to the sex as two people start to fall in love, that I find fascinating. (Okay, yes, also the during is of interest.) It’s the whys of why they’re having sex, the what-they’re-not-admittings, the oh-man-what-have-I-dones, that I particularly cherish.

And so the attempt to write about these sorts of people and their sorts of problems leads to a very different sort of book, in which sex functions in a very different sort of way.

Here’s where Cara McKenna comes in. Cara writes erotica, so her characters are naturally going to be getting it on early and frequently, and that’s why we love her. (That was the royal “we,” by the way.) But she also writes happy endings (at least sometimes — I haven’t read all her books) in which terribly flawed characters who have been nailing each other to every available flat surface slowly, painfully come to the realization, Whoa. Hey. We might actually have a future together. We might, in fact, love each other. Okay, no, not yet, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but maybe-someday-eventually. Perhaps we should go out for coffee and chat about our favorite TV shows.

And it feels true. Not the crazy erotica parts with the three-ways and the dirty talk — for me, at least, that part’s just for fun. But the tentativeness of the emotional commitment as contrasted to the openness of the physical: yes, this happens, and yes, I enjoy reading about it.

It’s all ass-backwards, of course, but sometimes life is that way. Romantic fiction is, by its very nature, about people and their flaws and their ability to transcend them with the help of other people. It’s also about sex and love and the redemptive qualities of both. I like to think that in the sort of books I write, and in the sort of books I love to read, sex is one of a number of different ways that people get to know each other, to get to know themselves better, and to find their way from a less-good place in their lives to a better one.

What does sex do in romantic fiction? Lots of things. But one of the things it does is redeem. It lets the characters be vulnerable, and it helps them figure out how to help each other. It helps them fall in love.

That it also makes for smexy-fun reading is just a bonus.

22 thoughts on “Sex and Redemption in Romance

  1. Hey Ruthie, love the post and think you are spot on. I think when two people are having sex is when they’re at their most vulnerable emotionally (well, and physically) and I think the point of our books is that it’s very difficult to write about sex without love, because one tries very hard to follow the other (like a certain two year old when his mum goes to the cafe to write!) You are tthoughtful as ever (ooh stuttered there like Sean.) Glad you are my CP.

  2. A-freaking-men! That was like sitting in on an awesome debate speech in favor of sex in romantic fiction. If anyone who is of the mindset that romance needs to have “closed door” scenes to keep the integrity of the story reads this, they’ll for sure be swayed to the side of good (which is of course, our side, the ones who believe that relationships without sex or viewing those relationships without viewing the sex is just plain wrong).

    I’ve said it before, Ruthie Knox, and I’ll say it again. I love your brain.

  3. Oh yes, yes, yes, for the love of god yes! All of this, and also I think I use the sex as a character development crucible (no, wait, stay with me here, I’m being semi-serious). Sex is a situation in which, like it or not, we tend to feel strong emotions. We have to reveal or conceal parts of ourselves we normally wouldn’t, to achieve our goals within the sex–and the tension in sex scenes builds as those goals move from the physical to the emotional. Because it’s an intense interaction, the emotional progress is compressed and accelerated; the characters are pushing at the limits of their own ability to connect with another person.

  4. Thanks for the comments, ladies. I think I might have overexcited Del. But I do like that “sex as a character development crucible” idea. Nicely put. I’m pleased that at least three other humans are on the same page with me.

    1. Okay, so call me cray-cray, but I was thinking about this post as I was eating my deliciously seasoned pork chop for dinner and came up with this super silly analogy…

      An author who writes a romance book without sex (or who uses the “closed door” scenes) is like the host of a cooking show who walks you through mixing all of the staple ingredients of a wonderful main dish, but then says to you, “Okay, now add the correct combination of spices, and….voila!” but doesn’t actually tell you *which* spices to add or how much. It could be any number of infinite combinations, and even though you get to taste her finished product (in this scenario, you’re part of a live studio audience) you’ll never truly know what the mystery ingredients are.

      In other words, when an author basically says, “and then they went into the bedroom and had a night they’d never forget,” the reader is left to wonder what it was about the experience they’d never forget.

      Did they have the most passionate, slow-motion, exploratative sex ever known to man? Did they try things neither of them had ever done before? Were they so crazy and fierce they broke two table lamps and incurred enough bruises on their bodies to rival Bella after having sex with Edward in those nutty Twilight books?

      And what were the characters thinking, feeling during those intense moments? Because depending on the characters and how they are with each other and what their inner conflicts are, possibly combined with trying to overcome external conflicts as well, depends on their emotions and how they react to all of those delicious combinations.

      Hence, if we aren’t shown those precious vital ingredients, we can only guess at how the characters were affected behind the doors to get to their final product.

      Me? I’ve always been a strict recipe follower myself, and I’d never want to be in a position where I had to guess. So if I can help it, I’ll never put anyone who reads my books in that position either. 🙂

      1. In case this analogy came off as a bit “bashing” of other types of romance, let me be clear: I would never in a million years take away from other sub-genres or heat levels under the romance umbrella. Just because a book doesn’t show the sex scenes doesn’t mean it isn’t a great book. This analogy was simply a way to show why *I* prefer to see the sex (other than the obvious supah-haht voyeuristic reasons) in my romance.

  5. I agree with you Gina, and with Del. Going into the bedroom in a romance seems vital to me to develop fully the characters and their relationship. Obviously there are books that are sex with a bit of plot, and that’s okay too, if you’re in the zone for something racy and non-committal. And I’m glad there’s a market for “sweet” romances too, because it’s horses for courses, (or, whatever lights your candle) and depending on upbringing and the society they live in, some people aren’t comfortable with the intimate details of erotic romances/erotica. The important thing is that those people who don’t read romance don’t slag the rest of us off for liking a bit of fruity fun. I don’t like blood-curdling horror stories, but that doesn’t mean I call those people who read them demented and evil. As Ruthie says, nowadays women of our age are much more open about sex and that should be reflected in what we read and write. And stuff the pompous prigs who are determined to drag us back into the nineteenth century and demean us because we enjoy a good romp!

    1. “Horses for courses”! “Bit of fruity fun”! I love it when you bust out phrases I’ve never heard before. I’m totally going to adopt that one.

      But yes, I agree, different strokes for different folks, and I don’t have the least urge to run down other sorts of romance. I like “courtship” books as much as anyone (provided they’re not TOO slow). Romance is a big tent. There’s room for all! Horses for courses! (Had to say it again.)

  6. That was a fantastic post and it really got me thinky (loved that word!), thank you very much for all your hard work and a real well thought out, argued and interesting post.

  7. I write steamy romances, and my slutty conjoined erotica-writing twin is the aforeflattered Cara McKenna. I write explicit sex under both of my names, for both the same reasons AND totally different ones.

    a) I like writing explicit sex and I suspect I’m pretty okay at it.

    b) I like reading explicit sex in romances, and am disappointed when it’s not there. I mean, I adore Kristan Higgins’s voice like WHOA, but she keeps the bedroom door closed, and if I had to choose between her and Kresley Cole for a weekend’s read, I’d go with Cole because her sex scenes are guaranteed and nasty-hot. So, I write what I enjoy reading.

    But the dynamic is definitely different between the genres. As I’m constantly trying to warn people, I write erotica, not necessarily erotic romance (yes, they’re different, and no, erotica isn’t porn, though porn is swell, too). There’s usually a romance at the core of my erotic stories, but aside from my books featuring married couples, my characters never end the story with a guarantee of forever-after. For the sorts of situations I explore and with my pragmatic view of real-life courtship, it’s unrealistic to me that two people could know they’re going to be together forever after a few days or weeks of hot monkey fucking. Especially if they’re still actively lust-stoned. So in my erotica, the relationships orbit and form around the sex, because sex is the throbbing, turgid heart of erotica. And lust to me is interesting enough to warrant writing and reading about, whether lasting love is a foregone conclusion or not.

    In romance, the sex orits and forms around the relationship. Unlike with erotica, I’m prepared to imply a happily-ever-after to fulfill genre conventions and satisfy reader expectation. So I need to leave the reader trusting that the characters are meant for each other…at least for, say, five years. I’m not crazy-attached to the concept of permanence being the only indicator of a “successful” relationship. Five happy, horny, fun years spent in a relationship aren’t wasted, in my opinion, even if the two people don’t grow old and die together.

    Tangent, sorry.

    But why is sex important in romance? Well, I think it’s important to readers who value sex. Not everyone does. Some people value companionship or other kinds of partnership far more, people to whom sex is at best a bonus, or at worst, a duty. I don’t write for them. I write for frisky, nosy readers who want to see the GOOD stuff, the most intense and intimate scenes in a courtship, and who value those moments in real life, on par with all the other important elements that make committed relationships worth working at.

    For me, a romance with no [meaningful] sex scenes is a tease. I’ve read plenty of fine romances without open-door sex, totally worthwhile books (Higgins) but I won’t lie—I felt a little cheated, as a reader. The heroine lets me ride along for all these tumultuous emotions, then slams the door in my face right when it gets to the hot-ass shit! It leaves me cold, like I was deemed unworthy of witnessing that ultimate intimacy in action, after all the other stuff I got invested in.

    I’m not the heroine’s friend, when I’m reading an engrossing romance—I’m basically her. And I want to get laid! I mean, hell, I fell for that guy, too! I want to know what he’s like in bed!

    ** As a brief aside, I’m not implying that writers who close the bedroom room are prudes in real life, nor that readers who shy from explicit books are sex negative. Those are utterly valid, personal choices. I’m speaking merely from my own pervy philosophical point of view. **

    1. Awesome comment. Thanks, Meg-Cara! I think my favorite part is this: “And lust to me is interesting enough to warrant writing and reading about, whether lasting love is a foregone conclusion or not.” Yep. Me too.

      Thanks, too, for bringing in the point about heroine identification. It made me laugh, and it’s so, so true. “I’m not the heroine’s friend. … I’m basically her.”

      This is fun. Clearly, I should write meta-posts about erotic sex all the time. That will endear me to potential publishers, no doubt.

    2. “the throbbing, turgid heart of erotica”

      Call a cardiologist, STAT!

      And I agree w/ you so, so much about feeling cheated if you don’t get to find out what the hero’s like in bed.

  8. I think Cara hit it on the head for me. I want to see the most intimate moments of the relationship. I want to see the hero and heroine make themselves vulnerable to love in a romance novel and that moment is often a sex scene. But for me at least, it doesn’t have to be. Because it isn’t about the sex. Or it isn’t just about the sex.

    I’ve been reading some of the new to me Heyer titles this year. They are quite chaste, but there is still those moments of intimacy that I find satisfying. It’s about that moment of closeness.

    Of course the best books do both. Cole is a great example of that. Crazy hot sex, but also that rapport between hero and heroine that makes me believe in a HEA.

  9. 19 comments Ruthie, wow! You can see what everyone likes to talk about 🙂 I love all these comments. I think we basically all agree that romance is cool, “sweet” is lovely, “erotic” is better, and we all like sex! Woo hoo! Goddess bless the modern woman. We so rule.

    1. I know! This was such a fun conversation. I’ll have to find other such exciting topics for the future. (As for a ‘like’ button — hmm. Couldn’t find one I liked…)

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