I’ve been thinking about sex lately.
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.
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.