My take on sex and romance stories.
I would like to talk about that.
What prompted this post was a long series of reviews, and one final one I got recently from a reviewer who has read some of my titles, in a fairly narrow range. She mentioned that she was surprised by the story, which “wasn’t my usual” and the lack of sex.
I still don’t know if that is a good thing or not. Nothing else she said makes it clear whether she was disappointed or pleased by the absence of specified body parts and the departure in subject matter.
Nevertheless, her observations sat in the back of my brain, brewing. Now, a few weeks later on, I’m writing about sex. Not about that specific review, or any review or feedback in particular, but sex and how it relates to my stories. The reviews were merely activators that got me onto this subject.
How Readers See It
I’m about to make a series of bold, assertive statements, based upon several years of reader and professional reviews of my books.
- There are as many readers who hate my hot, sexy books, as there are readers who love the hot sex. All of them read my sex-filled books and praise or ding them, accordingly.
- There are just as many readers who like a book that focuses on the story and leaves the sex in the bedroom behind closed doors, as there are readers who think a book is incomplete without a bit of nooky, preferably a lot of it. This secoind group of readers read my books that gently by-pass the sex scenes, and find it disappointing in some indeterminate way.Note, I don’t think they consciously realize it’s the lack of hot sex that makes the story feel “inadequate” – but they’re savvy enough to realize that for them, something is missing.
- There are even more readers than the above who either don’t know I write hot, sexy books, or don’t know I write books without hot sex in them. (PS: There’s also a lot of readers that don’t know I write anything other than vampire romances.)
- Across all those sets of readers is a small subset of reader that will flatly refuse to read a book with(out) sex in it, even if the cover grabs them, the blurb makes their heart race, and it’s exactly their genre, sub-genre and the hero is blue-eyed and black haired, just like they prefer.
Clearly, how much sex is in a story makes a difference to readers.
Where The Divide Began
There seems to be a division between erotic romance and “normal” romance. Just calling non-erotic romance “normal” makes it sound like erotic romance is abnormal–a negative connotation–yet I see this tag used everywhere.
Unfortunately, this division began because of the history of erotic romance. It’s the new(ish) kid on the block, and when it was first introduced to Romanceland around the year 2000, frank sexual scenes were novel, naughty, and for readers who glommed onto erotic romance, the frank sex was the only reason for reading erotic romances. They could read just as many paranormals, historicals and romantic suspenses without the sex, but chose not to.
Publishers like Ellora’s Cave and the erotic imprints of other romance publishers encouraged this distinction by ensuring that the majority of an erotic romance story was focused on the sexual storyline.
Fourteen years later, romance readers have it pretty much tattooed on their brains that erotic romance is about the sex, with a bit of story thrown in to hold it together.
Erotic Romance Has Become A Major Division Of Romanceland
You get erotic romance, sweet romance and sensual romance – the big three divisions.
Underneath them, you get every sub-genre invented or about to be invented: Romantic Suspense, Paranormal Romance, Futuristic Romance, Urban Fantasy, Steam Punk, Historical, Time Travel and on and on and on. All three of the major divisions contain every single one of the sub-genres within it. (I believe Amish romances might be a rare exception, but having said that, I just know someone will email me to point out an Amish Romance title that is also erotic romance!)
Readers tend to stay within their preferred division.
What Sex In A Story Means To Me
Of course, I’m breaking rules. That’s pretty much the story of my life.
Way back when publication was a foreign concept for me, I started out writing sweet romances. That didn’t last long. I always preferred reading the heated, throbbing romances, so I swiftly shifted in that direction with each succeeding manuscript.
Finally, I began to write and publish with Ellora’s Cave, who required a very high level of sex in every romance. When I was writing for them, it was expected that (a) there would be a sex scene within the first 15% of the story, and earlier if you could manage it, (b) somewhere in the story the heroine would be penetrated in every orifice (that is, anal and oral sex were required), and (c) sex scenes would be fully developed and preferably longer than a page. (d) There were to be no closed door scenes at all (as in, don’t write; “he dragged her to the bedroom.” End of scene.) If the hero(es) and heroine(s) were having sex, it was to be described in detail.
One thing all that writing for Ellora’s Cave did for me: It cured me of any blushing hesitation over writing anything at all. I don’t duck scenes that need to be in my story – the sexy kind, the heart-wrenching kind, or the gross, horrible, or just plain horrifying kind.
It also taught me a lot about my own tastes in reading. It might be a surprise to you, but for me, the story is the supreme master. (This may not be such a surprise to you if you’re familiar with the imprint logo I use on all my books*). For me, Story Rules. I frankly don’t care how much sex there is or isn’t in my story. I want the story to be well-told, and preferably, highly emotional and satisfying to read.
I like romance to hold a strong part of the story. The Romantic Interest sub-plots that movies insert make me want to throw up. The token female makes sheep’s-eyes at the hero, then there is ten seconds of them kissing, then thirty second of her wailing about how he has to come back to her at the end of the movie, and at the end, they kiss again. This particular form of “romance” makes me break out in hives and hiss at the director. I usually try to avoid that writer/director after being subjected to one of these storylines. Top Gun came perilously close to this line, for example. Jack Ryan; Shadow Recruit was also superficial and very light on female characters.
If you’re familiar with the Bechdel Test, you’ll probably understand my complaint. Romances should be well told. Not tools to give the hero (who gets all the character development) a set of balls for the primarily male audience who think such things are meaningful (“look at the sexy babe I kissed/bedded/made fall in love with me! I am invincible!”).
Mostly, I do not watch movies for their romantic quotient. I avoid disappointment that way.
Because a well told romance is important to me, I consider myself a romance writer first and foremost, regardless of the division and subgenre I’m writing in. I want that fully developed romance storyline, complete with strong characters butting head-on as they fall in love. Anything less is just disappointing.
How much sex gets displayed on the way through the story depends on a number of factors – all of them story-related. I pretty much know going into a story how much sex is gonna show. If the hero(es) is/are so alpha they make your teeth ache (and paranormal romance is littered with alphas), then the chances are pretty good that if they stay in character, those alpha heroes aren’t going to show so much as a glimmer of warmth in their eyes anywhere someone might catch them doing it. That means, most of their vulnerability and the emotionally weighted scenes are going to happen during and after sex, when the alpha is feeling secure about his manhood and safe enough to reveal how he really feels. Not describing all the sex in this case means the reader is going to miss a big chunk of the romance story. This applies double to MMF romances: Nearly all the scenes that show the heroes being brought to their knees for love happens in and around sex, because that’s a guy thing.
Romantic suspense is similarly over-laden with alpha heroes; men in uniform, men totting guns, men being manly.
You can get beta and gamma heroes in these genres, absolutely, but it’s not as common, and a beta hero that is capable of expressing himself anywhere other than the bedroom means the demands of the romance changes the storyline. Sex becomes just another expression of love, and is de-emphasized as a result.
Then there’s the story itself. If the hero and heroine are physically running for their lives, they’re wouldn’t normally stop and have hot sex as soon as the bad guy turns his head. This is one of the issues I have with the high-sex-quotient expectations of erotic romance as a genre. It artificially skews storylines, makes some stories impossible to tell within the erotic romance division (even if the story demands really hot sex in order to show the romance properly developing). Worse, it absolutely guarantees that the whole plot will come to a screeching halt for dozens of pages while the appropriate amount of fucking takes place.
No, I am not a fan of erotic romance, per se.
I do like hot, frank sex in my stories.
As long as it makes sense.
A Spectrum, Not a Division
A few years ago, I wrote a post kvetching about the classifications used to box people into a sexual orientation. Bi-sexual, heterosexual, etc. These tags drive me crazy.
When I am writing my romances, I don’t think about sexual orientation at all. I don’t label my characters. My story people fall in love, and that love changes their lives. It just so happens that some of the heroes fall in love with another hero and with the heroine as well. They may have had same-sex relationships in the past. Or not. It doesn’t matter – just like any previous romances the heroine had in the past has absolutely no bearing on this romance (unless the previous asshole makes it difficult for her to commit – but that’s part of romantic conflict, and nothing to do with sex).
In that particular post I proposed the idea that who you have sex with shouldn’t require a label. It’s just sex. Hopefully, good sex. But ultimately, sexual orientations range across a spectrum, and even the most heterosexual human on the planet can be curious about their own gender. It just means they’re curious, not bi-sexual.
Drawing artificial boxes and trying to place people in those boxes is pointless. It also leads to a lot of confusion. I’ve had readers and reviewers mention they were “shocked” when a hero kissed another hero, because I hadn’t warned them the hero was bisexual earlier in the book. No, I didn’t carefully label the hero as bisexual (although I did actually hint that he wasn’t averse to taking men to bed, but they apparently missed the hint). I don’t think it’s necessary to label the characters. They are what they are – unique individuals who fall somewhere on the Kinsey scale.
Interestingly, when the Kinseys first published their Scale, they were careful to point out that anyone’s position on the scale could shift over time, or even from day to day. Sexual orientation is a moving target (like most women’s weight!). If it can change from day to day or from hormonal low to high, then sticking a permanent label on it is a waste of time. Wait five minutes and the label will be out of date.
It’s also dangerous, because the label sets up expectations and creates barriers. It also generates unwarranted prejudice in people who rely on those labels to classify others and judge them according to the label they add.
Sex In Romanceland Should Be A Continuum, Too
So, if sexual orientation is a sliding scale (or, a moving target), then the amount and quality of sex in stories should also be a sliding scale, shouldn’t it? I don’t see why there should be divisions that say “this book has the word ‘cock’ in it, so it’s erotic,” or why lots of sex scenes makes a book erotic. Or this book here slides over the sex scenes, so it’s a normal romance.
I actually hate the word “erotic” – it comes with so many negative connotations, because the world generally misinterprets what “erotic” really means. Many of my books are shoved into the “erotica” dumpster because there’s two heroes, and there’s frank sex.
I would argue that my books, and quite a few books by other authors find they’ve been shepherded into the erotica department actually don’t belong there at all. It’s only by virtue of the sex in them that they’ve landed there. But lots of sex or a lack of sex, or frank sex should not be the measure of whether a book is erotic romance.
If a measure must be used at all, the sole measure should be how much the sexual sub-plot affects the storyline. If the sexual subplot provides the major romantic conflict, and everything focuses upon what happens between the protagonists, then that is an erotic romance.
On the other hand, for example, a romance that is set in the future and spends most of its time focused upon the time-travelling adventures of the heroes and heroine, but also has a lot of sex happening between the three…that is not an erotic romance. The sex is hot and plentiful because most of the romance and relationship stuff happens during the sex. But the plot doesn’t fall apart if the sex is removed (although the characters become very flat and boring and the romance itself suffers badly, if not permanently). It’s a futuristic romance or a paranormal romance (or both), that just happens to have a lot of frank sex in it.
If the sex in a story is shoe-horned in, arrives early and seems gratuitous at times, then that’s an erotic romance, probably written to meet a publisher’s guidelines. The publisher’s name and the imprint on the spine can also be used as a guide to erotic romances.
Erotic Romance is a sub-genre of Romanceland, and it’s not going to disappear anytime soon, no matter how silly I think the artificial division might be. Like all the other genres, it helps you, the reader, find stories you want to read and will enjoy.
I, however, will continue to ignore the divisions and write stories with or without sex, genre mashing as I see fit, and using subjects and settings that enhance the romance and makes the story a great read.
For that is my artificial division: Great romances…and not.
[* You’ll see my personal mantra, which has become my publishing imprint, on all my books, including the title page of the ebooks: Stories Rule. Turn your head sideways and read the logo: ]
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