Sex in the Romance Genre

Updated: Jan 4

Clean romance, steamy romance, fade-to-black, and erotic romance . . . What to choose? What do they all mean? Should sex be shown in romance? Should it be behind closed doors only? Should fade-to-black scenes be allowed? Lots of ponderous questions and weird thoughts. It's another Kilmari rambling. #sorrynotsorry

One of the most hotly debated topics in the world of literary romance is that of sex scenes. While some people enjoy them--a lot of people if the figures are to be believed--others despise them. Romance Writers of America stated that the three most popular genres of romance are Suspense, Erotic, and Historical (RWA, 2017). So that begs the question: if erotic romance is so popular, why are shown, explicit sex scenes still frowned upon?

The answer lies mostly with society. This issue extends far beyond the world of books. Look at how much shock Game of Thrones got in the first few seasons because of the explicit sex scenes, that scene in Marvel's Jessica Jones on Netflix, and not to the mention the bad rep the pornography industry gets. Anything to do with sex is shunned, brushed under the carpet, and ignored. We all know it's there, on everyone's minds, because we're all human, but no one wants to talk about it. No one wants to admit that its one of the few things that brings us together; one the few things we all share. Regardless of gender, orientation, race, or any other differentiating factor, we all desire intimacy. With the exception of some of those who identify as asexual, that intimacy we desire is often sexual.

There is a lot more to romance than sex, of course. We also have emotions, cuddling, understanding, and the first time we fart in front of each other, but ignoring sex is like ignoring periods or puberty or erections or any other number of things we choose to ignore just because it embarrasses us to think about. And that doesn't even begin to consider how embarrassed we get talking about these things. Even I'm writing this on a blog because I find it easier. We have to talk about periods? WTF? Yes, guys, we do. It's important. Because 50% of our population bleed from their vaginas once a month (or have done or will do at some point). Sex, for me, is a similar topic. It's something we would all benefit from talking about more often. Because if we can talk about something we all do, that we all take pleasure in, we can talk about things like marital rape, sexual assault against men, the 1 in 3 women who experience difficulty achieving orgasm (NHS, 2019), normalising masturbation, and a dozen other things that need to be talked about if we're going to have any hope of helping.

Talking is helping.

Imagine how much easier talking would be if people felt comfortable sharing what they enjoy? Like how much they love dark mafia romance or how much they love reading about BDSM and want to try but are too afraid to bring it up with their partner? Enjoying sex isn't a crime. In fact, I think you'll find it's pretty normal. So why does it bother us so damn much? Why are there people out there shaming others for enjoying reading sex scenes? Why are there people out there who think only men should be watching and reading porn? (I promise to try not to go down a feminist rabbit rant). Given that 82% of romance readers are women, the fact that I've lost count of the number of posts, comments, or ideals that have suggested sex is something men enjoy more than women should bother you. And if it doesn't, then I hope this rant will encourage you to be bothered by it. Because that is the biggest pile of horse shit I've ever heard.

Is Romance Without Sex a Problem?

This is where I'm going to lose some people, and that's okay. This is just an opinionated rant. You don't have to agree with me. I just want people to start talking about it more and thinking about it in a more serious light.

While I'm totally okay with clean romance, especially the sweet kind, which I often read as a pallet cleanser between deeper, more intense reads, fade-to-black sex scenes bother me. They've always bothered me, but it wasn't until I started really reading into sex positivity and how important it is that I finally understood why. It's because fading a sex scene to black, in any genre, is saying there's something wrong with showing sex. It's saying that it's something to shameful of, to be kept behind closed doors, and even if you claim not to be a prude or any number of other words that I find quite insulting, if I'm honest, not showing a sex scene because you don't want them in your work is "prudish". It is inherently sex negative. Some people's argument to that is that it's not necessary to the story, so it doesn't need to be shown. But if it's not necessary, then why show any of it? Why not just cut the build up entirely and have it 100% clean? Because it is important. The intimacy, the fact that these people are at a point in their relationship where they're ready for sex, the physical connection they're going to gain from it . . . It's all important. You just don't want to admit it. Because you don't want to be that kind of author. You don't want your work marred or spoiled by an erotic scene.

But is that really a problem? Eanna, if these people don't want to write sex, then they don't have to write sex. Well, imaginary devil's advocate, you are absolutely right. No writer should have to write something they feel uncomfortable writing. It is their work, their life, and their choice. I personally love exploring difficult topics and writing uncomfortable, hard-to-write scenes, but not every writer does. Some writers just want to relax and write fun, enjoyable stories. And there is nothing wrong with that.

But why should that mean they have to cut sex out entirely? Does every sex scene have to be erotic? Is sex in real life always erotic? The answer to that should be no. It isn't always erotic. Sometimes sex is awkward. Sometimes sex is painful. Sometimes sex is embarrassing. And sometimes sex is emotional. My advice to anyone wanting to be sex-positive but not wanting to write an erotic scene is to ask yourself this: what is the sex achieving? If we're talking romance, typically, the sex is going to be achieving intimacy of some kind, or the next phase in the relationship. And this dilemma is easy. Write what I call a glossy sex scene. These are common in older teenage books (17-19 years old), where the author doesn't want an erotic scene but doesn't want to shy away from that first-time romance where having sex for the first time is a super big deal. They gloss over all the details but still show the scene. They'll talk about their bodies coming together, the kisses, the emotion, the looking into each other's eyes, the moment everything spirals out of control, and there will be no mention of cocks, pussies, nipples, or any other provocative terminology. The emotion is the key. The sex is just the tool to unlocking it.

And that's just emotional. What about comedy? Awkwardness? Painful? Lack of interest? Or a number of other reasons why a sex scene might be important to the character, plot, or tone of the book? These don't have to be detailed or erotic, but fading them out is harmful. It's adding to the stigma that sex is not okay. That it's this sacred holy piece of heaven we should never think or talk about. It's not. It's a mammalian engagement evolved for creating babies that happens to feel good for humans and a few other species. It's not that big of a deal.

Clean or Erotic? Where's the Rest?

You ever get randomly pissed off by something that maybe isn't a big deal, but it irritates the shit out of you anyway? People's idea that romance is either clean or the next 50 Shades is one those for me. Like, seriously people? There is a whole scale of steam between those two categories! You have books that are emotional and glossy and not overly detailed but with some measure of mild steam; you have the books with one or two shown sex scenes and that's it; you have books that have a few sex scenes in but the plot doesn't really rely on them; and you have the 50 Shaders, where the sex is imperative to the plot because the romance is very sex-focused. For the love literature, please stop making the assumption that steamy romance is going to be like 50 Shades. 50 Shades is an erotic romance, and not a very good one. Steamy romance is where the sex can be removed from the book and there is still a romance, plot, and decent character development; erotic romance is where so much of the plot is sex-focused that you can't remove the sex scenes for fear of the book falling apart. Two totally different genres. Both are a-okay to read, write, and enjoy.

So, to summarise: no sex at all is fine, sex written in any way (erotic, funny, emotional, or other) is great, but fading the sex scene to black is harmful. It's just an opinion, of course. And you're free to disagree, that's kind of the point of discussions, but I just wanted to open up the conversation. Because we shouldn't be embarrassed by talking about something as natural as breathing. And we certainly shouldn't be embarrassed about reading it for enjoyment or pleasure in the comfort of our own home. And women especially should be taking a stance against the sexist nature of it being okay for men but not for women. Grrrrr.

That's all I have in me for ranting today. Comment, chat, discuss, debate. But please don't argue. It's not healthy. You can discuss things without being insulting. Just be considerate.

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