Or, Sex in a Context
I alluded at the end of my last post—about how sex in a romance novel should be presented as part of the characters’ emotional journey together—to the expectation that romance novels contain a sex scene or two, even if it is not integral to their falling in love.
This is an issue I struggle with as a reader and as a writer. When is the sex right, and when is it there because a romance novel is “supposed” to have a sex scene or two? Does it matter whether the sex scene really furthers the journey if the author makes you wait the entire book for it? Should it be there at all, if it comes in only at the very end? Is it appropriate to the context (i.e., historical period) to have it before the end, if the ending is, for example, the wedding?
I have read plenty of romance novels where I felt like the hero and heroine had sex before they got married simply so the readers could enjoy that with them. I don’t exactly mind this, since, as one of those readers, I do enjoy the sensuality of sex scenes, but there is a discomfort for me as well when I see no good reason for the characters to behave that way. In the social context of their time, it seems almost unthinkably reckless, and also shockingly…amoral?
I want to be clear: I am not a Puritan. I do not believe you need to wait until marriage nowadays, and I don’t exactly have a problem with sex outside of marriage even in a historical context, if it’s the right context.
But in historical romance novels there is an epidemic of well-bred young ladies deciding to have sex as soon as their husband-to-be proposes—and yes, she knows and he knows and we knows that they really are in love—but this seems…off to me. Too modern a view of morality, perhaps. Too much “if it feels good do it”/“If it comes from love it must be moral” attitude. It also smacks of an inability to wait patiently or maintain self-control (and yes, that is a criticism of impatient and poorly self-controlled decisions and actions on anybody’s part, including my own). It…kind of makes me think less of all parties involved, even as I enjoy their consummation. It’s weird, I know.
But then you also have the flip side of this, where you read a romance novel full of sexual tension (or at least a build into finally a good sexual tension near the end), only to have the characters reach the end of their journey at the altar and not have had sex yet. Some authors simply leave be, and don’t include it—and those who do often make it quick and described in a paragraph, not a fully explicit scene. And this sometimes bothers me, too.
I have two cases I’m thinking of, specifically, and in one it worked and in the other it didn’t.
The first is Jo Beverley’s The Secret Duke. I enjoyed the fact that these characters were so relentlessly moral. That they wanted to jump each other’s bones, but chose not to until after they had been married. Their journey did not need the sex to be whole; there was nothing broken in either of them that required a good sexual experience in order to be comfortable in a marriage or a relationship, and they fell in love with each other quite capably with sexual attraction being an element of their courtship but not a catalyst. There was no reason they needed to have sex before marriage to bring them to the point of marriage, and they didn’t. So while it was a little bit annoying to me to not get the sensual scenes, I didn’t mind it in the overall context of the book.
The same could not be said for Mary Balogh’s Seducing an Angel. Boy, wow, was the sex mishandled in this book. The characters have sex a couple times, not particularly enjoyably, because she is trying to manipulate him. He vows off it unless and until she marries him, which is quite admirable—including the fact that he sticks to it—except for one thing: if ever there was a heroine who needed a truly positive sexual experience to make her not fear marriage or men, she was this widow. I hated the plot device of her having gotten pregnant from those first times being what brings her to accept him. I think his vow should have been worded differently, like “not until you love me” or “not until you actually want to have sex with me” instead of not until you marry me when she fears marriage and sex and without anything to widen her realm of experience would quite probably never have married him if she didn’t get pregnant. So instead of the quite lovely sexual healing there’s just a huge sexual build in the second half of the book that is summarily ignored, and it was disappointing. Not just because of the lack of sensuality, but because for these characters it should have been part of their relationship earlier, but was not…in this case the need of the one character should have trumped the morality of the other.
So where does that leave a writer who wants the sensuality of including that sexual element in relationships but does not want to have characters behaving out of character, so to speak, for their time/value system or just wait till the end and have a lame “it was wonderful” summary of it?
I’ve seen a few different strategies for balancing this.
One is to have the characters marry by necessity and fall in love afterward.
Another is to have them marry partway through the book for love (or at least lust) and then get sidetracked from reaching the happily ever after by interpersonal drama or emotional baggage.
Another is to have a fairly major secondary plot—often a mystery—that must be resolved before they can have their happily ever after.
The last one (that I can think of, anyway) is to simply not include the sex.
This might be tricky, since a lot of romance fans explicitly want that sexual payout in a story, so in my opinion it works much better for novellas than for novels. 25,000 words of unfulfilled lust is a lot easier to shrug off than 75,000, and just be satisfied with the emotional connection. Also consider that a story should have some balance between emotion, plot, and sex; in a novella a 5,000 word sex scene is a huge chunk of the narrative, versus the percentage of the narrative it would be in the 75,000 word book (1/5 vs 1/13, if I am doing my division right).
Obviously the one kind of story that really suffers from a dearth of options is the virginal heroine whose story ends with either the declaration of love/proposal or the marriage. There aren’t too many ways around the cultural barriers, there—sorry.
So to sum up: sex has a proper context, even in romance novels. Don’t stick it in just for the sake of sticking it in. Have some other, better reason for it…it really does make it better.