The Role of Sex in The Romance Novel

The Role of Sex in The Romance Novel
October 2, 2018 Maggie Lynch

Todays question comes from Darlene. She asks: “I’m a person who doesn’t like a lot of sex in my romance novels. I’m not a prude or anything but it seems too many books these days have too much. Is their a rule about how much sex you have to have or anything. I notice that in your sweetwater canyon books the amount of sex varies a lot. Your first one seemed the most. Your second one was medium. Your third one was zero. The novella’s were zero. How much sex is in the next one and how do you choose how much to write?”

Thanks for writing in, Darlene. You bring up a subject that is probably THE most discussed question among writers and readers. I have several responses to this question, so settle in with a bit of coffee. As you can imagine, it’s not a one size fits all question. :)

two covers, one depicting a bare-chested pirate (fabio) and a woman in long dress, with sleeves falling off to show tops of breasts and the skirt with a thigh high slit. Other cover with fully dressed couple in a canoe on a lake, despite title of Barefoot and Pregnant?Reader and Publisher Expectations of Portraying Sex in Romance

First, let’s talk about expectations from readers and from publishers. I’ve been reading romances for a long time–about 50 years. Mainstream romance has changed quite a bit over that time from the majority of books being what we call “closed door” sex (no matter the salacious titles) to the majority of books being “open door” sex. What that means is that in the 1960’s and 1970’s (when I began reading romances), if the story had the characters getting into bed together, it was hinted at but not on the page. Think of it like a movie where you see them going into the bedroom, then everything gets really fuzzy with romantic music or the scene cuts away. Beginning in the 1980’s the love-making did occur on the page but it was not the major part of the book and the most intimate aspects were spoken of in passing or euphemistically. In other words, body parts were not called by their actual names. Of course, there have always been erotic novels throughout time, but I’m talking about what I see has mainstream romance.

Something that continues to fascinate me is that contemporary romance tends to include fully clothed couples, no matter the salacious title (Barefoot and Pregnant? title with two fully clothed people in a canoe on a lake). The more “sexy” or suggestive covers tend to be relegated to historical romance or paranormal romance. In my mind, this treatment sends a clear signal that sex, at least for women, it is not attainable or acceptable in contemporary life outside of marriage. However, in historical context where most women had no choice it was not only attainable but had to be forced. Of course, in romance the forcing somehow becomes mutual respect by the end. The 1980’s Joanna Lindsey cover, Gentle Rogue, complete with Fabio as the male model is an example of that. This same cover design option continues on many of today’s covers in that contemporary romance tends to be fully clothed and historical, SF, and Fantasy/Paranormal titles tend to be not as clothed. This is outside of what I would call erotic romance novels which are either very explicit covers or with no people on them at all (think 50 shades of Grey with a necktie on the cover). That would be an entirely different post than this.

With the rise of erotic romance, some people prefer to call it “romantica,” I’ve seen a rise in the general heat level of mainstream romance as well. I would characterize the majority of today’s mainstream romance novels as “hot” but not falling into the erotic romance category. There is definitely an entire group of erotic romance novels and a large readership for them. Just as there is a group of novels without sex at all–usually called clean and sweet and often associated with Christian or spiritual novels. But all the novels in between these two ends of the spectrum tend to have sex scenes with a diverse range of description from gauzy semi-lit rooms with the focus on emotion rather than the act to fully explicit descriptions and choreography of the sex, but still focusing on the emotion and the meaning of it for the characters. Most of my current romance novels fall in the middle of that spectrum. If the five flame heat level indicator is used, where one flame is sweet and clean and five flames is erotic romance, I tend to be at a three.

middle-aged couple embracingHow Do I Make The Choice of Portraying a Lot of Sex or no Sex in a Particular Novel?

I believe that most romance novel writers choose to write sex scenes because they provide important character development in the process. Also, let’s face it, it is highly likely that any committed romantic relationship has sex as an important part of that relationship. So, leaving it out all together seems unrealistic (at least in contemporary romance). For most romance authors the sex is not gratuitous. It is critical to the resolution of the character’s woundedness and the ability to commit to a long-term relationship. I

I fit squarely in what I describe above. My novels are designed to be character-driven. That means that each character has different values, thoughts, experiences, expectations around the role that sex plays in a relationship. I design the encounters, the backstory, and the resolution to reach happily-ever after to reflect that in their journey.

One of the things that has always bothered me about many romance novels in the past 20 years or so is how easy it is for the characters to fall into bed. It seems they have a flirtation, perhaps a bit of chemistry and by Chapter 3 they are all over each other. I know that does happen for some people, but I don’t think it is that easy in real life. I think that sex is tied up in all kinds of life experiences and because it is the act of making oneself really vulnerable that it can be darn scary. On the other side of that, I believe that sex can be the most amazing, satisfying, beautiful experience two people in love can have. But the range of experience and trust between darn scary and amazingly beautiful is wide. Based on the thousands of articles written about “having good sex” I would venture to say that the amazingly beautiful or satisfying is also not as easy to achieve as we would imagine.

Usually at this point, someone says: “That’s why I read romance because it is easy and my fantasy includes easy sex, no strings, no weighing all the pros and cons.” I agree for many readers that is the case. For me, it’s not the reason I read romance and it is not the reason I write romance. Fortunately, there are a lot of readers like me too. :) I read and write romance that seems realistic to me and that shows the woman in the story finding that amazingly beautiful type of relationship–both spiritual and sexual–in spite of the fact that she has all kinds of baggage stopping her from doing that at the beginning of the story. For me, it is much more satisfying to take the journey with the woman to becoming a whole person in her own right before she can engage in a truly satisfying relationship and get to that happily ever after.

How My Sweetwater Canyon Characters Cope with Sex and Love in Their Journey to Happily-Ever-After

If you’ve read my books, you know there is a large variety of approaches to the characters romantic relationships and the role of sex in those relationships. All of my characters want to be in love. All of my characters want that special relationship where they are valued and know that their partner has their back. All of them want to trust completely and be trusted. But none of them begin the book that way because of their past experiences in relationships; and that includes their perceptions or experience with sex. In today’s world where so much of our perception of romance is tied up in images and movies of amazing, easy sex, I think it is highly unusual for anyone–even a teenager or young adult virgin–to enter into a romantic and sexual relationship without a lot of ideas about how that will go. Invariably, it’s not as easy or amazing as the movies.

Audiobook - Undertones by Maggie Jaimeson, narrated by Sonja FieldFor Michele, in Undertones, she begins the story about a year after an awful relationship where she was abused–not physically abused but definitely emotionally abused. And in that relationship the emotional abuse was all around her “needs” in finding sexual satisfaction. This means she is simultaneously wanting an amazing relationship with someone but doesn’t trust herself to be worthy because she believes she has what her previous boyfriend characterized as deviant needs. Of course, we find out that is not at all the case. It was his problem, his own failures, that he was covering up by blaming her. For that book, the sex needed to be prominent for her to understand her own needs and why they are okay. And then to trust someone to recognize that as normal and for her to reach for her own satisfaction without feeling guilty about it.

Audiobook Cover Healing Notes by Maggie Lynch, narrated by Sonja FieldFor Rachel, in Healing Notes, we find someone who reacted exactly the opposite way of Michele. After her divorce, discussed in Michele’s book, instead of pulling back and not engaging in sex at all she went the other way. Her husband cheated on her and her response to that was to prove to herself that she was more than enough for any man. In my upbringing, Rachel’s behavior would be called promiscuous. Today, I think for many adults (age 20-40)  it is more the norm. In engaging in this behavior, Rachel understood sex but she gave herself little to no chance at love because she too busy proving that sex had nothing to do with love. The book opens with Rachel in therapy after a brutal rape. So, now she no longer has the outlet she chose to avoid trusting and falling in love, and she sees her future for love and a relationship as very bleak. In this book, in many ways the sex needs to be withheld both for Rachel’s healing and for her to find out what love is without it first. There is consummated sex in the book, but it is very late in the book–well after she’s come to a place of understanding it within a relationship.

Sarah, in Heart Strings, has a core spiritual belief that keeps sex out of her life throughout the novel. Her belief is that one doesn’t have sex before marriage. This is a core tenet of many religious people. She also needs to learn about forgiveness and trust in order for her relationship to workout with someone who had betrayed that trust when she was in high school. Definitely a second chance love story, but with deeply spiritual meaning and repercussions for Sarah. In this book, I had to relearn how to write a romance without the consummation scene that had become critical for showing extreme vulnerability and acceptance in a relationship. Because Sarah’s struggle was a spiritual one, as well as a human one, her vulnerability to be exposed in both of those realms and she had to constantly make a choice as to which one had the best answers for her.

I distinctly remember a friend of mine who attended the same church I did. She was in her 40’s, divorced, and madly in love with a man she had been dating for more than a year. But her core belief was they needed to wait for marriage before having sex. I must admit, I was flabbergasted by this at the time. They’d both been married before and they were obviously in love and going to get married within a year. I didn’t know anyone who would make that choice in that situation. Yet they both agreed to abstain from sex. At that time in my life, I was also in my 40’s and divorced after a twelve year marriage. I wasn’t playing the field, like Rachel in hearing notes, but when I started dating my now husband–even before I knew for sure he was “the one”–abstaining from sex was never on the table for me or him.

What I didn’t understand at the time was what each of us women needed most in our life in order to be able to have a long term relationship in the future was different. For my friend, who really struggled with the central role of her Christian beliefs in her previous relationship, this waiting was very important to establishing the prominence of that role in her new relationship. For me, my previous relationship was one of a great friendship (more sister/brother relationship) with intellectual and cultural compatibility, but little to no sexual passion. So, we both had something different to explore and establish in our new relationships. As an aside, we were remarried within a year of each other and we did find our best happily ever afters.

Cover Two Voices by Maggie LynchThe Sweetwater Canyon series has two more novels to go. The next one is Theresa’s story, Two Voices. Being the matriarch of the band and long time divorced (nearly 16 years) her needs for passion and romance, and how she views her life into retirement and beyond will again be very different from all the other books because she has made the choice to be independent and without a man in her life for so long. I’ll be exploring two aspects of a romantic relationship as we get older. First, I’ll look at the decisions mature adults make around committing to a long-term relationship later in life. Second, I’ll look at how any of those expectations are changed if you are diagnosed with and living with cancer.

This is important to me because cancer is a part of millions of people’s lives. And the older we get, statistically it is more likely to happen before we die. It has been a part of my own life and in that of many friends. The good news is that new drugs and therapies have made it so that some cancer’s are curable. Other treatment regimens for certain types of cancer provide a good period of remission–sometimes long enough to live to a normal expected age. Yet others are definitely terminal with a shorter and distinct timeline. (Note: This book will not be about the immediately terminal kind because I don’t want to write that and I believe others have already done so well). Whatever the diagnosis it definitely impacts your romantic relationship and how you feel about your role in that relationship; and what you want to have happen.

The final novel in the series will be Kat’s story. We’ve already seen one aspect of Kat’s experience with sex in Healing Notes. How will that impact her ability to move on, or will it? She is young, adventurous, and has a very different personality from any of the other characters in the series.  Honestly, I don’t know right now where her story will take her. I have to get through Two Voices first. But I’m sure it will be different from everyone else, yet the same in that we all want a loving, caring, forever relationship. What that relationship looks like varies widely–more friendship, more separateness or more togetherness, more passion.

For me, the beauty of writing romance is the discovery of and acceptance of who we are as an individual first. That includes discovering our worth and believing we deserve to be valued for that worth. Once we know that and believe that, we can make the best decisions for all of our relationships. What about you? Do you read romance for escape to a world not based in reality? Or do you enjoy the journey to self-acceptance, finding a suitable partner, and all that entails? Is there anything you’d really like to see more of in romance that you haven’t found yet? I’d really like to know what my readers think is still missing in the genre.

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