Raising the Sexual Acts Stakes (Part review, part rant)
There I was, sitting at my computer, reading a review copy of Pepper Espinoza‘s gay male triad novella from Samhain, Falling in Controlled Circumstances. I’m feeling pretty nifty that I’m reading a review copy-‘like, OMG, people are actually giving me free books in the hopes that I’d write something nice about it. And I’ve got that warm, flippy, rolling feeling in my stomach because the romance is THAT good, the characters that well-written, their story that heart-warming. I’ve got the beginnings of a multiple review post started in my head: I was going to suggest that the answer to the question that’s been bopping around Romancelandia in the last few weeks about “Where have all the good contemporaries gone?” was that they’ve all migrated to gay male romance e-books. After all, you’ve got Madelaine Urban and Abigail Roux’s Caught Running and Love Ahead, and Jules Jones’ Lord and Master series, and you’ve got this book, all fabulous, gentle, emotional, just plain GOOD romances. They’re not trying to be clever-‘they’re just trying to tell a love story. They’re not trying to make a statement-‘they’re just trying (and succeeding, of course) to show two (or three) people falling in love. No external conflict. No serial killers or spies or murders or blackmail or faeries or demons or undiscovered worlds with alien sexual cultures. Just two (or three) people, who all happen to be men, falling in love, learning a little about themselves, overcoming internal obstacles, and ending up happier together than they would have been apart. No worlds are saved, except if we all lived like this, perhaps the world would be saved. Fabulous.
Anyway, I was feeling all warm and fuzzy and pleased with myself and my cleverness and the writing ability of these fabulous authors, when I was completely blindsided and derailed (to completely mix my metaphors and split my infinitives) by this:
“Have you ever been fucked by two cocks at the same time?” Jim asked without lifting his head.
“You don’t mean sucking one of those cocks, right?”
Gregory [sic] throat tightened. He had occasionally thought about how it would feel to be double penetrated, but he never thought to ask, and he never believed either Phillip or Jim would suggest it. The thought of feeling both men at the same time, in the same way, made his knees feel watery.
“No, I’ve never done that.”
“Do you want to?”
Gregory hesitated and looked over his shoulder. Phillip didn’t even blink. “He does.” (85-86)
Wha? Okay, let’s try that again-no, it really said what I thought it said. No. Really.
My mind just stopped. Like, totally stopped while I tried to contemplate that.
The thing is, I know a little something about anal sex. The anus is actually a very versatile orifice and, given enough time, can be stretched considerably. So, technically, yes, double anal penetration is possible (and after doing some research-‘the Internet’s for porn (funny video), after all-‘I saw the pictures to prove it!). If done right, I imagine it can feel incredible, just as anal fisting apparently does. But fisting-‘and DAP, I imagine-‘is also hellava difficult: it takes a LOT of lube, a LOT of patience, a LOT of time, and a LOT of relaxation. So a casual, “Hey, lovers, how about some incredibly difficult, potentially dangerous double anal penetration tonight?” answered with a “Sure! Sounds like fun!” and a quick and easy performance of said act (“whoops, that slipped in right easy!”) really just stopped me in my tracks and completely yanked me out of the story.
When I mourned my descent from happy suspension of disbelief with SB Sarah, she reminded me, “on one hand the clinical details might be a turn off, but on the other hand, showing the actual care involved in completing such an act might demonstrate a lot about the characters, their motivations, and their caring toward the individual getting the action.” And I’m sure that might have been what Espinoza was trying to go for. DAP would be the ultimate act of sharing for the two sexual tops in the story, after all, and showing the care and patience that would need to go into doing it WOULD tell the reader about the characters and their relationship. But that’s not what happened. The story made DAP seem just as easy as all the other more “normal” things the men had already done as a threesome, so there was no special care, no indication that it was potentially dangerous, no indication that it might not work. The story brought in DAP completely unnecessarily, just because it’s something new and different (“Ooh, look! Shiny!”), rather than because it was necessary to the emotional arc of the story.
Let’s get this straight: I am the last person in the world to begrudge anyone any form of expression of their own sexuality. As long as it’s between consenting human adults, I really really don’t care what anyone might want to do. I’ve done, seen, or heard of some pretty strange sexual practices. I’m very close friends with some people who do some really whacked out things. But if it makes them happy and if everyone is practicing their version of “Safe, Sane, and Consensual” (sanity is relative, after all), go right ahead. It might not float my boat, it might not be something I even understand (and I have a long list), but I have no right to tell anyone that they’re wrong, that my sexuality is “better” or more “normal” than theirs (normal? HA!).
But that doesn’t mean I want to read about it purely for the shock value of escalating what I’m going to call the Sexual Acts Stakes at the expense of the believability of the romance. (Wendy calls it “oneupmanship” in Katiebabs’ post about this recently.) This story did not need the belabored symbolism of DAP as super-commitment between the men for the romance to be believable; it was completely unnecessary to the climax (harhar) of this story. This was a gentle, relaxing, emotionally heartwarming story about three men finding a way to make a triad relationship work. It had no suspense except the best type of emotional suspense. While it was obvious they were going to make it-‘in fact, this scene was their make-up sex at the end of the book-‘I still totally felt the warm fuzzies of a good, solid romance. The sex was hot, but not intense-‘nothing to indicate that DING!DING!DING! here comes the sexually ground-breaking scene of something strange and peculiar that very few people ever do! If the story had been all about edgy, strange sex I would have been more prepared and could have accepted it as a necessary part of the narrative and the character arcs, as something other than gratuitous Sexual Act Stakes raising. But this story was pure romance: a very well-written, well-told, well-constructed, successful (according to my gushy insides) romance. That is, the sex wasn’t the point, wasn’t the focus of the narrative. It was a bonus-‘a very nice bonus, mind, but purely a bonus-‘to the emotional core of the story. And yet, Espinoza felt the need to raise the Sexual Acts Stakes and have a completely implausible double anal penetration scene, pretty much ruining the entire rest of the book for me. As SB Sarah says in her inimitable way, “So when an author ups the ante by going up an ante in a whole new and utterly unrealistic manner (two dicks, one hole? no problem!), it causes me as a reader to question the reality of the rest of the story. I actually start to feel bad for the character that they got sent on a mission to Uranus when they were perfectly happy on earth.”
Why can’t romance just be about romance? That’s where the magic is, after all. That’s why we keep reading, for the magic of that connection between characters. If the focus of the book is sexual exploration as well as (and sometimes, unfortunately, instead of) the emotional relationship, then the denouement of the story should rightly be more and different and unusual sexual exploration-‘boldly going, and all that. But if the focus of the book is the relationship(s), then surely the denouement can be about emotional connection during “normal” sex (or whatever passes for normal in a triad). Raising the Sexual Acts Stakes, in my opinion, detracts from that emotional connection between the characters and between the characters and the reader in ways detrimental to enjoyment of the book. If Espinoza was trying to make the book better or more exciting or more interesting, she failed, because she forgot that she was, fundamentally, writing a romance.