Let’s talk about sex. You know, making love, rolling around naked, getting it on. As Wolf Mackenzie says in Linda Howard’s Mackenzie’s Mountain, “It’s hot and sweaty.”
But presumably because this is romance and not a how-to manual, many, many romance novels treat it as a clean, transcendental experience. I recently read a Regency
romance 1 that is typical in its approach.
Lost in his demanding kiss, she scarcely registered that he had scooped her up in his arms until she found herself lying on the bed with Liam stretched out beside her. Nor could she say how or when he divested her of her chemise and–good heavens–her pantalettes as well. A magician, he waved his wand and they disappeared....
The heat of Liam’s strong body enveloped her; the touch of his lips, his tongue, his wildly wicked fingers sent her soaring into the heavens as he’d promised. Higher and higher she flew on the wings of passion–until her body and soul fused into one glorious being of fire and light and joyous sensation.
Oh, puleeze. We’re adults here. Is this sex or an illusionist’s Las Vegas show?
In book after book, virginal heroines experience glorious climaxes their very first time, inconvenient articles of clothing vaporize, and stars blaze through the heavens. Perhaps some would consider this artistic license. I consider it ludicrous. For most women, sex the first time hurts, and only a male would think that “just as good as the first time” is a compliment. Clothes do not vaporize; except at a nudist colony, it takes a little time to get undressed. And unless you’re at a planetarium, the stars and planets stay right where they are.
As if the florid imagery weren’t sufficiently ridiculous, there are the euphemisms. They range from the innocuous to the frankly preposterous. Hardened thighs, pulsating loins, inner thigh, creamy globes, silken nest–the list is endless. We don’t use words like those with our three-year-olds. When an author employs absurd euphemisms to tell it like it isn’t (the infamous “manroot” and “love grotto” come to mind), it doesn’t romanticize lovemaking; it ridicules it.
Is it unromantic to want a little realism? So why can’t romance writers tell it like it is?
Well, a few do.
Far too many authors treat sex as some colossal force rendering the heroine mindless under the impact of the hero’s irresistible attraction--the heroine loses touch with reality while the hero methodically plods from point A to point B to point C. Fortunately, some authors allow their heroines to remain conscious.
Julia, the heroine in Victoria Lynne’s With This Kiss, expresses how agreeing to have marital relations with her husband doesn’t match her expectations. “I thought one was supposed to be swept away by passion, as though lost in a tumultuous sea. Not dragged there as though one’s coat were caught beneath the wheels of a railcar.” (Fortunately things get lots better very quickly. And they actually remove a legitimate number of pieces of clothing.)
There seems to be an unwritten rule in romance novels that sex between the hero and heroine must always be fantastic, that the hero’s technique is unfailingly sheer perfection, leading to mutual satisfaction of epic proportions. Jayne Ann Krentz skewers this standard in the opening scene of a recent contemporary, Soft Focus. She introduces the hero and heroine on the morning after. Jack knows that while he experienced an orgasm, Elizabeth did not. They quarrel over business dealings when Jack jumps to the typical male conclusion that their argument is really about the night before. Elizabeth responds, “Don’t try to reduce this to sex. What happened last night is the least important aspect of this entire affair. In fact, what happened last night was so unimportant and so unmemorable that it doesn’t even register on the scale.” (You tell ‘im, lady!)
Furthermore, some authors are even starting to use the anatomically correct words. Finally.
But most romance characters inhabit a world where beds never squeak, bugs never infest the grass, noses never collide, elbows never get in the way, and energy never flags.
How many times have you read passages like these?
A blinding burst of fire exploded within her, shattered the whole world, set pieces of it blazing through her, inside her. The stunning force of it brought a sharp exclamation from her throat as waves of ecstasy broke over her, cascades of heat that claimed her breath, her body, until she was beyond thought, burned to cinders. 2
(That’s gotta make it tough when she goes to climb out of bed.)
An X rating doesn’t necessarily signify that the sex is handled any more realistically than the most hands-off approach. Susan Johnson novels are populated by over-sexed studs of infinite capacity and hormone-charged women of endless endurance. You can just imagine them popping Viagra pills in their eighties–providing, of course, they don’t expire of utter exhaustion first. Bertrice Small’s books positively reek with sex scenes–rape, voyeurism, bondage, sado-masochism, sexual slavery, menage a trois, sodomy–nothing out of bounds. And all of it plastered with euphemisms in deepest purple.
From time-to-time you’ll read about a heroine who experiences twinges in muscles she never knew she had, but rarely does one say she’s too sore to go another round. Romance heroines practically never have their periods when the hero is ready for action (Sandra Brown’s Above and Beyond and Catherine Coulter’s Devil’s Embrace are two rare exceptions), and most romance heroes are totally oblivious to the heroine’s not having had a period in months. (Jamie Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s Dragonfly in Amber actually keeps count of the days, but he’s the rare one who isn’t math-challenged.) The hero may practice safe sex, but the nitty-gritty details of condom disposal are rarely a concern. Sheets may be tangled, and rooms are redolent with the scent of sex, but these beds don’t get wet spots. This isn’t realism–this is idealism.
The implication is that romance readers don’t want the real thing–we want it prettied up. That like a repressed Victorian maiden, we cringe at the basics of sexuality and need it camouflaged with cutesy images. An Emory University study, however, indicated that readers of romance novels have a more active sex life than those who don’t read them. In other words, we like it just the way it is and we like a lot of it! The satisfied smiles on our faces prove we can handle the truth.
All this verbal pussy-footing around tends to obscure what all romance readers know: the romance is in the relationship, in the bond between the lovers, not in the technique or the clinical details. In this, art reflects life. Without the relationship, it doesn’t mean much, and the most grandiose imagery can’t redeem it. The hero’s and heroine’s lovemaking should be the physical manifestation of the emotional connection. There have been far too many romances where the plot follows the I-hate-you-great-sex-I-hate-you-great-sex-I-love-you formula. This has never worked for me; it simply isn’t romance. The hero can be the all-time greatest lover with a money-back climax guarantee, but great sex isn’t going to compensate for the flaws in a relationship.
The heroine/narrator in Joan Wolf's The Arrangement puts it well when she states, “The mechanics of love are the mechanics of love, and I suppose what happens between one set of lovers does not vary so very much from what happens between another. What differs, however, is the feeling. What differs is the fire, the passion, the intensity. The tenderness.”
No disappearing clothes. No technicolor fireworks. No fused souls. Just a commonsense understanding that great sex involves the heart and mind as well as the body–the physical body, not celestial ones. That’s what makes a great romance.
So I appeal to all romance writers: Keep it real, folks. Hot and sweaty. A little raunchy. A lot undignified. But really really great.
1. Nadine Miller, The Barbarian Earl
2. Shelley Thacker, Timeless
But that's my opinion.
Readers, email The Romance Reader with your opinion. Have an idea for a Forum of your own? Let us know.
October 30, 2000