All About Romance just posted about revising their heat ratings, and the pursuant discussion on The Passive Voice blog (which was where I saw the link to the post) got me thinking about the way I view sex in romance novels.
So let me get a few caveats out of the way first. One, despite the title above, I don’t actually consider myself a prude. I am generally broadminded and have had a lot of friends over the years who were involved in one counterculture or another. I don’t find myself shocked or offended by what people do, or need, in order to achieve sexual satisfaction, even though most of it is not something I need to do. It’s like how I feel about drugs: legalize them all. Alcohol will still do me just fine when that happens, but if you need something else, go for it.
Two, I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with the sex in my romance novels. On one hand, for my literary aesthetic I need it to be part of a larger emotional arc and serving a purpose (sex can be a bonding mechanism, and the bed can be a place where the power struggle in a relationship plays out, and sometimes sex is a catalyst for part or all of the plot). On the other hand, I do love me some hot sexy times, presented as a sexual fantasy I don’t have to spend my own imaginative resources creating, and sometimes hot sexy sex doesn’t fit as anything except a pandering add-on…and I do not always care when it sneaks into a story in that capacity.
So I never really expect to open a romance novel and be shocked or put off by what I find in it. There are times when I am, all the same. Stealth attacks where someone sends a finger up a butt without any warning (or lube!), for example, tend to pull me out of a sex scene. Heroines who refuse to take charge of their own sexuality is another trigger for me. By that I mean women who simply “give in” or get “overwhelmed” by the hero’s seduction and just sort of go along with it without ever making a conscious choice to engage in a sexual act or do anything to make the actions her own. I’ve seen heroines even in coercion situations empower themselves, so the ones who can’t really piss me off. Admittedly I don’t read much beyond historical romance (though I went through a paranormal spell a few years ago), and at its worst historical romance tends to be rapey in its kink, so I might find quite a lot to be turned off by if I venture out of my little corner of the genre.
All that being said, I have to confess I felt thoroughly vanilla and old-fashioned and, yes, rather a prude despite my awareness of subcultures when I read AAR’s suggested revised ratings and saw that “warm” (basically 2 on a scale of 1-4 where 1 equals no sex) includes “unlimited amounts of male/female ‘straight’ sex.”
Um. Say what? I have read plenty of romances over the years where there is no anal, no bondage, no toys, no threesomes, that I would not rate as 2 of 4 on the sexual content scale. Christine Feehan comes to mind–she has books wherein every other chapter from about chapter 4 is a sex scene. Anne Stuart’s Rohan series comes to mind…that sex is not “warm” rating in my opinion. To me warm is like…one or two sex scenes that are relatively straightforward. If I were in the mood for a book that didn’t have a lot of sex and picked one up that did, because it was rated “2 for a lot of ‘boring’ sex”–the same rating my expectation of a sex scene or two, at most, got–I’d be pretty angry. That’s a deceptive rating.
I like the idea of a scale for works in a review site or even in a retail designation (if lingo could be agreed upon either formally or informally). As a reader I have been disappointed when I picked up a new novel by an author I’d enjoyed before only to discover something unlike her past work, either because of too little sex or because of way too much. I just think a 4-point scale where 1 is “no sex” and 2 is “unlimited sex as long as it’s only PIV” (penis in…yeah…) is not quite nuanced enough. Five points would work better.
And if I never want to read–much less write–beyond a 4 on that scale (or, who knows, maybe even a 3, depending on what 3 and 4 encompass), that doesn’t make me a prude. It just makes me a woman who prefers fantasies that align more closely with my real life than with the wildest fringes of the human imagination.