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The Vanishing Closed-Door Romance

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A while back I was listening to an interview on Hard Talk, the BBC World Service interview show. The host was talking with the director of a new film version of Great Expectations. When pushed, the director said his movie was better than the classic David Lean version even though that film is a “sacred text.” When asked why, he said that it was because his movie had sexual tension, and Pip is not as nice a guy.

It sounded to me as if the director was treating the absence of expressed sexual tension as the absence of the feeling. But sexual tension doesn’t have to be overt to be present, let alone to be imagined. And was David Lean’s Pip really a nice guy, or just one whose not-nice qualities were not overt, but were conveyed through hints to the audience? I don’t remember the movie well enough to say. But I do think that people would have understood that someone could be complex without every aspect of his personality being spelled out. Was it a totally white-hat, black-hat movie? Unlikely.

That exchange made me think about the discussions we have about sex scenes in romance novels. I think everyone would agree that explicit sexual content in romance novels has increased over the last decade. Some readers say that they now skip sex scenes, but many other readers feel cheated when they’re not there, or when the scene stops at the bedroom door. I saw a review recently where a reader gave a historical romance a good grade but added the caveat that she wished there had been a final scene with the couple in bed, or an epilogue with a similar scene to solidify the sense of HEA. And some readers think the whole point of NA is to add sex scenes to YA (I don’t, but I’ve seen that comment often).

Commenter Lynn M made a remark here at DA about YA and closed-door romances, and it really made me think. She said:

as a reader – an adult reader – I hate when I’ve invested a lot of emotion in a building relationship only to have the door closed in my face when the couple has finally managed to connect. I’m not looking for explicit descriptions, simply to be allowed to share that moment in a small way. So when it comes to writing YA, I pull back from explicit but feel that fading to black is cheating the reader from part of the reading experience.

I think what Lynn expresses is shared by quite a few readers. And as an author, if she feels that fading to black is cheating the reader, then she should absolutely include sex scenes in her books, at the level of explicitness that she thinks is appropriate to the story and the characters. Omitting them when she feels they are important would be like going back to the Bad Old Days, when euphemisms and elliptical references were required.

But I don’t think every sex scene in every book is required. And in addition to the higher number of sex scenes in non-erotic romances and the explosion of the erotic romance genre, we even have publishers releasing “sexed-up classics.” Yes, it’s true that had Jane Austen wanted to included explicit sex scenes in her books (I know, I know, but just go with me here), she wouldn’t have been able to do so. But to write them in, as if she had no other way to signal sexual attraction and tension than by explicit descriptions, seems ridiculous to me. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are stuffed with sexual tension; is that enhanced by knowing exactly how sex between Jane and Mr. Rochester would have worked?

My visceral reaction is no (actually it’s Hell No), but erotic romance sells well, and even the sexed-up classics seem to be doing OK. So it would seem that a lot of us feel cheated if the door is closed, or the scene fades to black. Why?

I don’t have an answer because I don’t feel cheated, so I hope some of you will suggest reasons in the comments. Meanwhile, let me tell you why I don’t feel cheated a lot of the time, and bear in mind that I’m only speaking for myself here and describing a personal, idiosyncratic reaction.

I think the desire to read books where the sex is closed-door has to do with reader taste and the way a reader approaches a book, not prudishness, which is the usual way it’s understood. Undoubtedly there are people who object because they are prudes, i.e., they are uncomfortable with explicit discussions of sex. But why assume these are the majority of the complainers? Especially when you see these kinds of discussions at sites like Dear Author and Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where the non-prude ratio is pretty high. In the past there were readers who wanted more explicit scenes who put up with a low number because romance without was still better than no romance at all. Why shouldn’t there now be readers who would prefer less but are putting up with the high number for the same reason?

People read closed-door books for years and years, and it’s not as if they weren’t having sex or finding erotica to read if they wanted that. I read a lot of erotica from my late teens well into my late 30s, and it included everything from “classics” like Anaïs Nin to reprinted Victorian and imitation-Victorian-porn paperbacks that you could buy at airport bookstores. Some of it was really well written and thought-provoking, some of it was merely titillating, and some of it was terrible. I also read romance through most of those years, and it ranged from no-sex-please-we’re-Betty-Neels to no-sex-but-lots-of-UST to explicit scenes.

Eventually, I burned out on erotica. There are only so many ways to describe anatomical behavior, and the human imagination seems to have certain built-in limits. They are expansive limits, but read enough and you’ll hit them. When I started reading m/m I went through the same cycle: sex scenes were new and exciting at first, but then they started to look the same, and eventually I settled on a strategy of only reading books where the sex was necessary to the storyline and/or character development. That cuts out a lot of books, as it turns out.

In my experience, it is now almost as difficult to find sex-light romance as it used to be to find explicit romance. The assumption then was that if people wanted to read it, well, they shouldn’t, and the assumption now is that if you don’t want sex scenes you shouldn’t be reading romance. Or you should be reading inspirational romance, as if the only difference between inspies and non-inspies is the amount of sex on the page.

When I read a book with a lack of explicit sex, I don’t automatically feel left out of the relationship or feel I have an inferior understanding of the romantic journey. I use my imagination and construct a scene in my head that fits with the characters as I have interpreted them. Other readers want to see the description on the page. It doesn’t mean they are less imaginative in general, just that this is a place where they want direct information. They don’t want to imagine or infer in this particular reading experience. And there should be space in the genre for all of us. But these days, I’ve seen enough authors talk about the “need” to write sex scenes (whether the need is that of the reader or the publisher), that it seems to be increasingly the case that sex scenes are mandatory in romance. I’m all for explicit description where it’s warranted. As I said before, I don’t want to go back to the Bad Old Days. But if authors who want to write closed-door romances can’t get them published and sold today, then we’ve potentially closed another, equally important door.



Sunita has been reading romances almost as long as she has been reading. Her favorite genres these days are contemporary, category, and novels with romantic elements. She also reads SFF, mysteries, historical fiction, literary fiction, and the backs of cereal boxes. As of January 2015, all the books she reviews at Dear Author are from: (1) her massive TBR, (2) borrowed from the library, (3) received as gifts from friends/family, or (4) purchased with her own funds.


  1. Kate Hewitt
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 04:08:09

    Interesting post, thank you! I am not a huge fan of long, explicit sex scenes because they often feel repetitive or seem too much about the mechanics. But I’m generally not a fan of the completely closed bedroom door, either, because that feels, as others have said, like cheating the reader. If you’re writing a romance, it’s understandable that your reader would want to see the completion of that romance. It seems now like books are being sexed up simply because they sell well, and that doesn’t sit well with me at all. One of the most sensual and erotic scenes I’ve ever seen (in a movie, not in a book) is when Daniel Day-Lewis unbuttons Michelle Pfeiffer’s glove in Age of Innocence. I think we run the risk of cheapening the incredible intimacy of sex when writers just toss it into their books for no apparent good reason.

  2. Jen
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 05:55:53

    I too dislike closed-door romances. Maybe it’s because I read too many of them as a teen? Now, when I see one I end up feeling like it’s old fashioned and not as much fun. Sex is such an important part of most romantic relationships. Obviously there are many exceptions in real life, but in my fantasy world what I want is guaranteed good sex, so that’s what I like to see in my romances. Some books take it too far and make the sex exist outside the character and relationship development, of course. Piles of emotion-less sex scenes doon’t add anything to a book for me personally. That’s when I tend to skim the sex, as I’m not really learning anything new. When the sex demonstrates something about the characters and their story, though, the scenes are a pleasure (har har) to read.

  3. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 06:28:35

    I like both. Really.

    I love a closed-door romance when that’s the right way to tell that story for those characters. Not every romance is about the sexy times. I mean, I assume that every HEA will include the sexy times and I don’t want to be left wondering whether that will work out for the couple or not. But there can be conflicts and relationships and stories where there’s no reason to doubt that and where showing the sex isn’t a necessary part of the story. There are also certain historical or cultural settings where it’s extremely unlikely that sex would actually be part of the courtship process. I think often it’s a failure of imagination when authors override this to fit in with contemporary expectations. Courtship-without-sex can be much more erotic than falling into bed – the glimpse of the forbidden, the stolen touch, the longing gaze. Give me that and I’ll be a very happy reader indeed.

    But I’m also very happy to read romances which do have open-door sex scenes, so long as those sex scenes are part of the story. Show me how the sexy times are progressing the relationship and revealing the characters and I’ll be hanging on your every word. Paint-by-numbers sex I’ll skip, thank you very much.

    What I genuinely don’t understand is readers who demand a certain heat level in every book, whatever the story, the setting or the characters. I’ve seen people saying exactly the kinds of things Sunita’s talking about – that they feel cheated if a book is closed-door, or even equating all romance with erotic romance. It’s true that an author can cheat readers by writing a story that demands a sex scene and then not giving it to them, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. I’m reminded of the confusion that’s been expressed about the M&B Riva/Harlequin Kiss line because some of those books have sex and some don’t. To me, that makes total sense. I like that line because I like the tone and setting, and I don’t care that there is a variety of heat levels. But clearly for many readers, that’s missing the point.

  4. Persnickety
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 06:28:46

    If the sex advances the story, it works. But a lot of the time it does feel just included because there has to be a sex scene at the 3/4 mark. It also tends to suck a lot of the sexual tension out of the story. There are stories where the characters are getting it on almost from the beginning, but the strength of of the story allows this. There are others ( Stephanie laurens) where the characters get together and all of the conflict in the story comes from the non romance plot. This is not as strong, if I wanted a mystery, or a crime story, I would be looking in the mystery section.

    One of my favourite movies is “it happened one night”. The whole story would fall apart if the characters had sex early on. Closed door romances had to rely on other tactics for the reader to feel the sexual attraction. I think not having to exercise this means that writers don’t feel they have to show that attraction as well, sex will do it. it’s a shortcut, and it produces lazy writing. It also produces romances that rely on insta lust. The romances I keep have varying levels of sex scenes. What they all share is close and growings relationships between the characters that are demonstrated through mechanisms other than sex.

  5. Carolyne
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 07:05:28

    I’m with those who say it depends on the story. I’m not looking for a specific “heat level” when I look for something to read, but for a story that’s told well, romance or otherwise.

    But, I have tendency to default to picking up the steamier stories when I (often) don’t have confidence in an author to tell any other part of the story well except the sexy times (or confidence in the publisher). I am, unfortunately, looking askance at m/m in general here (and, as I dig around in my memory, it occurs to me that way back in the prehistoric print fanfic days “closed door” slash wasn’t unusual).

    And I do wonder if the flip side is that some authors feel a pressure to put all their energy into the sex scenes and they skimp the rest (complex plot, character development outside of bed). I happily welcome a story that’s equally strong on either side of the door. I’m just not good at finding them.

    I was recently pleasantly surprised when a story I thought would just be sexy-times fluff turned out (so far, I’m only halfway) to have one oblique sexual situation at the beginning and the rest is all plot and slowly growing UST. Maybe lots of Resolved Sexual Tension wouldn’t have hurt it, because the author is a good storyteller, but I’m happy with the book just being what it is.

  6. Lil
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 07:10:13

    I’m with Persnickety. What matters about sex scenes isn’t whether they are present but whether they work in the context of the story. I’ve read too many books where the sex scenes are just so much filler, generic scenes that could be dropped into any book.

    There are some writers whose sex scenes really do matter. Jo Goodman leaps to mind here. But others I might have found interesting when I was 15 and was curious about the technical information they presented. Now, they’re just kind of boring, a lazy way to pretend the sexual attraction exists.

    Closed doors, and a need to find other ways to express sexual tension, can be far more interesting.

  7. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 07:14:08

    I think the desire to read books where the sex is closed-door has to do with reader taste and the way a reader approaches a book, not prudishness, which is the usual way it’s understood.

    It’s definitely not about prudishness for me, because if I’m reading analytically I’m entirely comfortable analysing a sex scene in detail.

    However, when I’m relating to a text emotionally, I bring with me lots of real-world expectations and although intellectually I know these may not be relevant criteria to apply to all works of fiction, I often can’t shake them off and enjoy the fantasy/short-hand elements in fiction.

    For example, if I’m emotionally engaged with a book and the characterisation is good enough that the protagonists feel real and I care about them, that makes them feel like friends/close acquaintances. Given that my friends/close acquaintances would not share most details of their sex lives with me, it can feel a bit wrong to be intruding on this aspect of the characters’ lives without their consent.

    If a sex scene is there, I’ll read it. I am, after all, often intruding on thoughts the characters have, so to some extent I’m impinging on their emotional privacy even if there are no sex scenes. That said, in my experience people are generally more willing to talk about their feelings than about the physical aspects of their relationships, so knowing their thoughts feels somewhat less intrusive. And if a sex scene is necessary, I’d rather it was kept short.

    Another aspect of this is that sex in romance often seems to be immensely and unrealistically good at revealing characters’ personalities, changing their ambitions/worldviews and superglueing them into a relationship with someone who may not really seem very compatible other than sexually. Maybe this is more convincing if one’s convinced of “the incredible intimacy of sex” but it seems to me that in real life, sex is not necessarily very intimate at all. In other words, it seems to me that romance often uses sex as a symbol of/short-hand for true intimacy and if I don’t accept the short-hand, I’m not going to find the happy ending very believable, because I won’t be convinced of the long-term viability of a relationship in which sex takes the place of having the kind of conversations in which people open up to one another emotionally.

    P.S. Has the “subscribe” function gone missing? I can’t see it and I don’t know if it’s a problem with the site or with something at my end.

  8. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 07:14:29

    I’m very much with Ros and Laura in this. Although I write and mainly enjoy romances with sex, on my keeper list are all Georgette Heyer’s romances, where you’re lucky to get a kiss at the end, but the sexual tension is often off the scale, although so subtle you have to work for it. From Sophy daring Charles to a shooting match in his living room, to Beaumaris’s sudden and jarring realisation that Arabella, stoutly defending a chimney-sweep is the woman for him, it’s there.
    On the other hand, “Gabriel’s Woman” by Robin Schone would be much diminished by leaving out the wrenching, almost heartbreaking sex scenes. Joey W Hill’s “Natural Law” is about characters coming to terms with what they are primarily through sex and BDSM.
    A book ideally should have the sex it needs, from the requirements of the plot and the characters. If there are sex scenes, they should add to character or plot development, or both. They should earn their place like any other scene.
    Ideally. I’ve read a lot of books where the sex is unnecessary, and sometimes nonsensical. When you know that the sex is only there because the author or the publisher thought it would sell more books. And it did for a while. The “50 Shades” phenomenon of last year must have a backlash, after the scads of sex-saturated millionaire/waif stories.
    There are stories that need sex scenes and stories that don’t. I do appreciate the freedom authors have now of adding sex scenes or not, but when the pendulum swings violently one way, it will inevitably swing back.

  9. Keishon
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 07:17:07

    I agree with you Sunita, sex scenes should only be included when it’s warranted. Having that build up there for almost the entire book only to have the bedroom door closed, yeah, you’ll feel like something is missing. Some authors can convey sexual tension between characters that if there are no sex scenes you don’t feel it’s missing. Hard to explain but I prefer those books. Kathleen Eagle back in the day was known for her sexual tension, where the characters would have some of the most heated conversations that the bedroom scenes later would feel almost unnecessary. Whereas Sandra Brown’s type of sexual tension would have you anxiously waiting for them to hit the sheets. Ultimately for me, the inclusion of sex scenes is up to the characters and the story. I read Victoria Holts backlist in my early years of reading romance and wasn’t bothered by the closed bedroom door. As readers you can tell when love scenes are just tacked on and when they are a natural part of the story. Enjoyed reading your article. Thanks. I had no idea they were sexing up the classics. I would never want to read that. I find it kind of twisted to assume that NA was created for readers who want sex scenes added to their YA stories. People who make such claims completely miss the point.

  10. Ashlea
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 07:21:06

    I’m in between. I feel a little irritated when the door shuts but tend to skim if the scene lasts more than 2-3 pages or there’s too many scenes included. It’s best when it moves the plot along.

    The problem with increasing detail in the sex scenes is the same problem I have with erotica – if it’s semi-vague, I fill in what’s hot to me. If it’s too detailed, the likelihood is increased that you’re describing something I either find meh or a turnoff.

    Though just be be contradictory, I read a couple sexed up classics and thought they were fun. Yes, authors used other things to show sexual tension, but sometimes we’re not in tune with their cues. Also, I think it realistic that something was going on then, too other than meaningful glances.

  11. AnimeJune
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 07:49:43

    To me, if a sex scene doesn’t have a specific character or narrative point (and it can’t just be to show that the hero and heroine are good together – that’s redundant), then it shouldn’t be there.

    I don’t mind sex scenes, but if they aren’t specifically integral to the character development or story, I get bored with them often. Like Sunita said, to me, there’s only so many ways to describe sex, and so many of them sound the same to me. Right boob, left boob, downtown, hero heroically holding it in, then sexytimes.

    And while the knowledge that they have sex can definitely be important to the story (in terms of demonstrating the couple has come to that point), it doesn’t necessarily mean DEPICTING it is necessary – at least to me. I’m speaking from a narrative standpoint. I think readers can safely assume that the hero and heroine will have the Best Sex of Their Lives, so showing a boring sex scene just to show they’re good together (that doesn’t establish character or story) seems redundant and slows the pacing to a crawl. Every other scene in a novel is required to establish something important – why does that not count for sex scenes?

    I remember reading Anna Campbell’s Untouched, with an isolated virgin hero. The first and even second sex scenes were important to be depicted because it was the hero’s first time and and it didn’t go so well. But then there were parts where they had 3 back to back Super-Fantastic sex scenes. What? Who cares? That’s 20 pages where nothing happens! Boring!

    Similarly, I read and loved Julie James’ debut novel “Sexiest Man Alive,” which didn’t have ANY explicit scenes – it simply hinted at a lot of good stuff at the end. I didn’t feel pulled out of the story at all, but some reviewers said it shouldn’t even be CALLED a romance if it didn’t have sex scenes! But what would the sex scene have accomplished? The “hinting” scenes easily established they were good together.

    At the same time, though, good, relevant sex scenes can still be entertaining, but they are rarer to me than hen’s teeth. Victoria Dahl’s historicals come to mind – the sex scenes in those are AMAZING at establishing character, at revealing the hero’s and heroine’s insecurities and fears. Sex is a intimate act, so using a sex scene as a way to reveal the deeper lives of the protagonists is lovely.

    To me, sex scenes shouldn’t have a free ride – they need to justify their existence in the narrative.

  12. Selma
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 08:07:41

    As a reader I don’t dislike sex scenes, but I’m not overly eager for them. I’ve spent some time thinking about it, but I’m still not sure why. Maybe it’s because as a reader I’m more interested in the story moving forward than enjoying the steamy parts. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex scenes, but it’s just not a big focus for me personally. Also, I think I just enjoy making the characters suffer by having the tension drawn out interminably :D

    I find that I write the way I read – I tend to skim over sex scenes when I read, and I do the same when I write. So far at least, it just doesn’t flow naturally for me to include them, so I leave them out. I haven’t received any complaints about doing so (so far!) but it wouldn’t surprise me if somebody did feel disappointed, because a higher heat level is definitely the norm these days. I agree with your last point in particular, Sunita – I wish there was a bigger market outside of the inspirational genre for closed-doors, if only because I always appreciate having a wider range of choice.

  13. library addict
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 08:25:34

    Classic romances like Jane Austen do not need to be sexed up to be enjoyed. (I am so not a fan of all the P&P retellings, sequels, etc).

    There’s a good mix of sweet romances on my keeper shelf. So long as the author takes me on a convincing emotional journey for the characters I’m good. There have been a few closed door books where I think “Oh I wish we’d gotten to see the h/h happily together” but I’m not sure that’s always due to the lack of sex. Sometimes it is just because the hero was a jerk up until the last two pages when he confessed his actions were all due to his being in love and there just isn’t enough time spent with the h/h being happy together. (I’m thinking of a lot of early/mid-80s first person romances).

  14. Lindsay
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 08:34:52

    I agree with a lot of folks here, that it really depends on the book and the author. I’ve read books where the sex scenes made no sense to be happening (in the middle of suspense, people trying to kill the protagonists, when they’re supposed to be rushing to someone’s rescue) but I’ve also read books where there is character development that just couldn’t have been explained behind closed doors (Escorted, A Lady Awakened, I believe it was The Governess Affair scene with the hair pins…). I believe that it really has less to do with explicit content and more to continue the story and have sex not just be the reward or the goal or just the lessening of tension. It (can be) a major part of human relationships, so there’s nothing wrong with that being included or even emphasized in books… about relationships.

    I also think it varies wildly depending on what heat level I’m looking for. With authors I love and trust I will read a book that is one long bedroom scene because I know I’ll fall in love with the characters anyhow, but I also enjoy authors where a touch between the protagonists is just as rewarding.

    However I do like that there is more open-door in romances as women are still told to not be sexual creatures (while still being sexualized), so honestly, I’m okay with this development. I hope authors don’t feel pressured to have sex in their books if that’s not what they want, but I’m pretty sure that the ones that I really enjoy stick with their comfort levels, and those are all over the map with my keepers.

  15. SAO
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 09:09:14

    I find I often skip through the sex scenes if they are too long. They tend to be predictable, showing that the hero is heroically endowed and a superb lover only interested in his partner’s pleasure. To be interesting, they either have to be short or be a part of the plot development.

    Historicals should be a place where there is little sex. The plight of Lydia Bennett of P&P and Maria of Mansfield Park demonstrate the extent to which indulgence in extra-marital sex can ruin a woman’s life. I get annoyed when heroines in historicals act like the consequences of non-marital sex in the 1800s are the same in our modern era of effective contraceptives and no shame for bastardy.

    On the other hand, I find “sweet” romances tend to be too sweet and, although I haven’t read one, I can’t imagine anything more irritating than a inspirational, given that I find belief in religion to be pretty irrational.

  16. cleo
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 09:12:17

    Count me among the non-prudes who don’t require explicit sex in my romances. In general, if I’m in the mood for reading sex, I’ll read erotica not romance. I’m a big fan of sexual tension, fulfilled or unfulfilled, in romance. As someone else commented, sometimes having a lot of on page sex flattens the ST. Bet Me is an example with a lot of ST that I think needed to have that final sex scene / payoff. But Dee Gist is an inspie author that I think writes great sexual tension and I don’t mind the door closing at the end. I probably would feel cheated if I didn’t get to read about them kiss, though.

    I agree that a romance should have the right amount of sex demanded by the story and characters. I am a sucker for romances where the h/h have to figure out how to have great sex together. Those are maybe my favorite types of sex scenes.

  17. Moriah Jovan
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 09:30:59

    Three things:

    1. Good article, Sunita! I write fairly explicit scenes, but there are stories rartling around in my head I know are “sweet” at the outset. And, yes, I know they’re a tough sell.

    2. I would like to see this word “prude” unpacked. Because I write religious characters who have sex on the page, I’m particularly plagued by one faction’s obsessive need for “clean” books at any cost, even if that cost is a badly written book. It’s not prudery OR taste. It’s an ingrained judgment on what is and is not acceptable to be read. I would also like “prude” versus “taste” unpacked because…

    3. To me, the broader point is that yet another option/trope for romance readers is vanishing, further homogenizing the genre. Now, we’ve discussed homogenization before (I think Jane’s column on why we read the same things all the time was the most recent), but I think it needs to continue to be discussed. One by one, the options disappear. This article just highlights the latest one somebody noticed was missing.

  18. Rebeca (Another one)
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 09:44:06

    Count me as one who likes both. Candice Hern has written some “traditional regencies” and I found them refreshing, because the women weren’t jumping into bed with men. In the regency period it seemed right. You didn’t sense a publisher standing in the background saying we are 3/4 through the book, so there must be a sex scene. But Shelly Laurenston’s shifter women are tough, modern women who I expect to have sex, and I like that too.
    I agree with what everyone else said, publishers shouldn’t assume that every romance must have X, Y, Z elements to sell. An individual reader will buy many different types of books. Writing only one type of book, especially when it isn’t true to the characters just turns us off.

  19. cleo
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 09:53:12

    Couple more thoughts. I read Jane Eyre in college, for a Women’s Lit class. A lot of us had read it previously too. I remember a discussion of some sexual subtext in the book, and there was a lot of omg-that’s-about-sex? I-read-this-when-I-was-14 and I-never-ever-got-that type shock. Sexual tension is present in the classics, but you do have to know how to read them.

    My personal interest in reading explicit sex seems cyclical, and not always in sync with the larger, cultural cycles. I read romance almost exclusively for the sex in my teens, in the 80s, when there wasn’t a lot of explicit sex (at least in what I had access to). But by the time romance got more explicit, I had a RL sex life (plus, I’d discovered erotica) and was more interested in reading about relationships and character growth than sex in my romance.

    I did glom onto bdsm romance last year, during all the 50 Shades hype. It was fun, and after a few months, I was over bdsm romance. I tried another one this weekend that had a femdom and a hero with ptsd – the portrayal of ptsd was spot on, but the sex scenes were so, so boring to me that I couldn’t get into it.

  20. Emma
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 10:12:47

    I agree with so much of what you and the other commenters have said here, Sunita. I want the right level of heat for the story, which is sometimes a lot (Anne Calhoun), sometimes nothing on the page (some Julie James, Susanna Kearsley), and sometimes just loads of tension (Austen, Heyer).

    The one thing I’ll say is that I’m not sure I buy the argument that the presence of sex is inherently inappropriate or inauthentic in a historically-set novel. While it certainly wasn’t as common as in the present, plenty of people were having pre and extramarital sex before 1950. Yes, there were serious consequences for doing so, particularly for middle class virgins who hoped to marry, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Historians like Stephanie Coontz have estimated that in some periods in American history, half of children were born either out-of-wedlock or fewer than 9 months after their parents married (in other words, not all that different from now). Many romances are set in the Regency and Victorian periods when morality was particularly constrained (again, particularly for white middle and upper-class women), but there’s nothing inherently ahistorical about sex.

  21. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 10:29:16

    @Emma: I agree that sex isn’t ahistorical! Obviously. ;) But I do think that in certain settings, and in certain cultures and at specific stages of a relationship, it was much, much less likely to happen than most romance novels suggest. Given the right characters with the right opportunity and motivation, then sure. But not for everyone all the time without question. I’d like to see authors think a lot harder about whether the characters they are writing would really be leaping into bed without a second thought. And if they wouldn’t – well, there’s a plot point and a conflict and a way to make your book more interesting.

  22. lawless
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 10:50:20

    There’s an aspect to this hardly anyone has touched on, and that’s the way in which sex is equated to and used as a shorthand for relationship development, especially in contemporaries, leaving very little in the way of story. I wrote something of a rant about this on Jackie Horne’s Romance Novels for Feminists blog.

    I also agree with @SAO that there is way more sex in historicals than is believable given the risk of pregnancy and the social shame that follows. Conversely, I often find non-procreative sex in historicals implausible as well because of the mores of the time. The idea that so many characters would be okay with going down on each other during an age of greater religious faith and social mores boggles my mind, especially considering that even today there are women who find performing oral sex demeaning and men who find it repulsive.

    Personally, I’d like less sex in general in everyday romances (this varies based on the story, of course) so the story can come to the forefront. If I want to read sex scenes, I’ll read erotic romance or erotica. M/f sex isn’t that interesting to read about anyway; it’s harder to write well than m/m and I already know something about it from experience, so it can easily get boring or feel rote.

    My idea of a great romance is a well-written story that depicts a full, well-rounded relationship where being together enhances each partner’s individuality. I’d rather read books like Mary Stewart’s novels of romantic suspense, which as far as I know (I’ve only read three or four) don’t have any on-page sex period — forget the door!– or anything by Austen (also completely closed door and off-page sex) than the vast majority of today’s romances.

    M/m is a special case for me. With m/f, a lot of on-page sex can come across as kind of creepy (plus it’s not why I read a story that’s not erotica or erotic romance) and “she has to put out for the relationship to be meaningful.” Given the societal belief, whether or not it’s true, that men are more sexually needy and the fact that gay men report having more partners on average than straight men, straight women, or lesbians, it’s easier for me to believe that men who have sex with men are going in many instances to connect via sex first. Also, it’s easier to write well and it doesn’t completely replicate my own experiences, and thus is not as much of a bore to read.

    However, there are definitely m/m stories and authors who pile on more sex than is necessary — one example is K.A. Mitchell, whose sex scenes might be necessary but often need not be as detailed and lengthy as they are. (And Mitchell is one of my favorites.) Then there are authors like Sarah Black, probably the most talented writer in m/m today based on pure writing ability, who writes quirky characters and stories and often comes close to keeping the door closed, and is less popular than she deserves to be as a result. Someone like Jordan Castillo Price gets it about perfect, though her earliest books probably relied a little too much on heat; stories that require a lot of sex, like Channeling Morpheus, have it and stories that don’t, like Hemovore, don’t.

  23. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 10:53:44

    @lawless: Why do you think m/m sex is easier to write well?

  24. Jorrie Spencer
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 10:59:32

    I just love those two cats :)

    Great column, and lots of interesting comments. I’m in the camp where if the book demands it, I want it, and if it doesn’t, I don’t. However, I also think that call is extremely subjective and varies from reader to reader. I mean I guess I’m stating the obvious; I’m just trying to say that one reader may be disappointed by the closed door and feel the author opted out, whereas another reader may find it was handled beautifully as is. I suspect, though I can’t really know, that the increasing explicitness and length of sex scenes has primed a lot of us, me included, to expect more, and to feel shortchanged where we might not have been years ago.

    Coincidentally, I recently read The Echo by Sarah Lockhart, and only realized there was no sex on the page after reading your review afterwards. So obviously that book worked just right for me!

  25. Emma
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 11:14:33

    @Ros: I totally agree and didn’t think you were arguing that it was. ; ) I was trying to preempt an argument I’ve seen articulated previously in discussion of heat level in romance, something along the lines of, “And sex in historicals isn’t even realistic,” which I don’t buy. Sex can be used carelessly by writers of both historicals and contemporaries; it should always grow out of character and motivation and give us information we can’t get otherwise.

  26. lawless
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 11:16:07

    @Ros – It’s a combination of better and more useful terms and the exterior/interior nature of sex engaged in with male vs. female bodies. I’ve seen m/f sex written well, but mostly in erotica/erotic romance or fanfiction, and I find I can only read so much m/f erotica or erotic romance before I need to read something else, since in my experience sex is not the primary way most men and women relate to each other, even when romantically involved. (I’m married, not single, and over 50, which probably has some bearing here.)

    There are other things at play here; I dislike most m/f BDSM (which is what a not insignificant percentage of the sex in m/m I read amounts to) because the man is usually the dom and the woman is usually the sub, and I usually find that reinforcement of societal biases tiresome. With m/m, BDSM becomes more specific to the individuals involved and less about their gender and gender norms.

  27. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 11:30:15

    @Emma: Exactly!

  28. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 11:32:32

    @lawless: Thanks. I have never tried to write m/m sex and am unlikely to, but that is interesting to know.

  29. Susanna Fraser
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 11:33:51

    I’m another reader who’s equally happy with very explicit or very chaste, though I like explicit scenes to feel character-driven and relevant to the plot rather than, “Hey, we’re up to p. 150, so we’d better hurry up and fit in some sex scenes.”

    Basically, if two characters are having sex, I need to believe that they really would be doing so in their place and time–i.e. premarital sex in a historical has a higher bar to clear than in a contemporary, but I know very well it happened, so I’m willing to be convinced as a reader, and to write it myself when it makes sense for my characters.

    And if the protagonists are having sex, I want to know enough about it to know what it means for them and their relationship. That can mean getting the play-by-play, and in romance it often does. But I’ve also read fade-t0-black books where I felt like I knew all I needed to know–e.g. Busman’s Honeymoon convinced me that Peter and Harriet were passionate and mutually satisfied in bed, and I totally believed that Ivan and Tej in Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance were having fun, adventurous sex.

  30. Sunita
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 11:41:51

    Oh my goodness, what fantastic comments.

    I am mired in day-job stuff at the moment, but I just wanted to pop in and say thank you so much!

    I’ll be back with substantive responses in a bit, but in the meantime, don’t stop!

  31. Marianne McA
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 11:55:22

    Even though sex was always with us, I’d love to feel the sex was from the time period in question. For example, there’s a romance from 1910/1912 ish where the hero is a doctor, and he’s sitting beside a nurse and their legs touch through their clothing and he gets this electric thrill just because she has legs. And he thinks to himself how stupid that is, because as a doctor he’s well acquainted with womens’ bodies. And it’s both erotic, and a window into a different mindset. And, as the author was himself a doctor, probably an accurate window.

    But if it was a historical romance set in 1912, you can’t help but feel he’d bundle the nurse into an abandoned ward and have generic sex. And that’d be much less exciting, much less memorable.

    As for Heyer, I’d love a sex scene in April Lady. I always enjoy rereading it, but can’t quite imagine how the sex worked at the beginning of the story.

  32. Kate Pearce
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 13:28:58

    I’m probably known more as an author of erotic romance, but as a reader, I read everything from Inspirational, to sweet, to erotica, because I think I can learn from all those authors as to how to make a scene better-how to decide whether the scene needs explicit sex or if I can learn from my peers and write it without. Each book has to work within its own comfort level. To write a book with no sex scenes in it requires a skill level equal to writing one with sex. It can be done and it can be done well if the writer has the skill.
    I always feel bad when I hear authors being told they have to make a book ‘hotter’ or ‘sexier’. If that’s not your thing and you write that scene anyway, it shows and that doesn’t make the book better it makes readers skip the sex scenes.
    I think there’s room for everything here.

  33. donnas
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 14:43:45

    Great post. I dont think either way is bad. But if the sex scene has nothing to do with the story or character progression I will skip it. If it adds to the story, then by all means put it in, but if its just there to be there, then I have too much else to read to waste my time. If its not there and the door shuts I have no problem using my imagination to see what I hope is happening behind that door. Of course this is just my opinion and it will work differently for everyone. I dont think there is a right or wrong, just what the author wants to write in their story.

  34. Sunita
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 15:36:16

    I think we have a number of points of agreement: most of us will read explicit sex scenes if we feel they are integral to the story, and a lot of us will read anything from closed-door to explicit depending on what seems to fit the story. And I think we agree that if an author thinks a sex scene of a particular type belongs in her book, she absolutely should include it.

    Readers who seek out hotter books and feel cheated when the story doesn’t include sexy times don’t want sex scenes that feel mailed in or extraneous to the story if they’re reading a genre romance any more than anyone else does.

    I agree that oftentimes sex scenes seem like a shortcut to explaining the relationship, but I doubt a lot of authors mean to be doing that. It’s just that if authors feel they have to put them in, those scenes are going to eat up both creative energy and wordcount, leaving less for the other stuff. Which can then make readers feel they’re even more unsatisfactory.

    The author side seems fairly straightforward: don’t ask authors to write sex scenes on demand, or according to some preset idea of “what sells.” But it’s harder to state the readers’ side with much precision beyond “it needs to fit and make sense.” Partly that’s because as readers, we want different things at different times. Partly that’s because readers vary in both what they want and how vocal they are in asking for it, so whatever position is expressed the most intensely or in the greatest number might seem to be the consensus position.

    I think Jorrie Spencer’s point that we are all used to more sex in our romance now is important, because if our sense of “normal” shifts, then so will our sense of “less” and “more.” I wonder if that’s part of what is happening; we associate closed-door with the old days and subconsciously think something is missing even when the author uses other techniques to communicate the same emotions and relationship aspects. And that ties in to Ashlea’s comment; as we see less often read the subtler ways of communicating, we become less attuned to the cues. And of course, if the cues are culturally specific, we’re even more likely to miss them if we come from outside the culture.

  35. DeeAnn K
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 15:42:26

    I’m in the camp of take it or leave it. A well written romance does not have to include a sex scene. What I want to see is intimacy(emotional and physical) between the couple. Unfortunately, there are a lot of books out there that replace intimacy with sex.

  36. Sunita
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 15:43:23

    @Moriah Jovan: I think prude is basically a word that shuts down conversation rather than opening an avenue for discussion, which is why I invoked it and then dismissed it. I’m sure there are people who read romance who don’t want to read about explicit sex (I know some and I think you do too), but I am not in a position to know whether it is prudery or taste.

    What I mean by taste is that people have dispositions to read/not read certain tropes, etc., and explicit sex could be one of those. I like using my imagination, but I also like seeing the authors’ ideas. Some readers may only want to use their own, for the reasons Ashlea gave. Some readers may roll their eyes at seeing the 1-2-3 that AnimeJune described, because it totally takes them out of the moment, while for others that sequence functions as a comfort-read moment.

    I totally agree with you on the homogenization issue. And I hate the word “sweet” (even though I use it). I know what SAO means, but it winds up being used to describe books that are not sweet in any other way, and so people that might have been willing to read them shy away because they associate absence of explicit sex with other attributes they avoid.

  37. Isobel Carr
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 15:45:37

    As an author and history buff, I have no problem imaging plenty of circumstances under which historical characters would engage in pre-marital* (or simply ex-marital, in the case of widows and divorcees). If you read biographies and journals, you’ll come across plenty of examples of real people who did so! It’s pretty clear that some girls really were naive enough to believe that their seducers were promising marriage. For example, Julia Johnstone (a famous courtesan) started out as a well-born girl being raised at Hampton Court. She was seduced by an army officer there when she was a teen.

    As for the issue of oral sex not being historically accurate, the pornographic prints of the day are full of it. So people certainly knew what it was and were enjoying it. Casanova talks a lot of mutual masturbation (he presents it as a safe gateway activity with virgins!).

    *I will say that I do sometimes wish for a little more realistic motivation on the part of virginal daughters of the ton. In some books it just seems to be utterly missing, and for that I do fault the authors. I understand their conundrum though. It’s part of why I mostly write bad girls (widows, divorcees, fallen women, etc.).

    Edited to add: As I understand it, Erin Knightley writes “no sex on the page” historicals and her books are doing quite well.

  38. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 15:53:57

    @Sunita: I don’t know what SAO means! Enlighten me?

  39. Sunita
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 15:55:30

    @lawless: I’m not sure I agree that m/m sex is easier to write, at least if it is easier, a lot of authors seem not to have figured that out, because so much of the sex described in m/m is at least as routinized as the predictable scenes in m/f. And the ritualized role of anal sex in m/m, most obviously in Gay4U/Out4U setups, makes me uncomfortable because it feels ported from m/f First Time sex. I also don’t think m/m escapes gender norm issues in sex roles (BDSM and otherwise), the issues are just gendered in different ways.

    @Marianne McA: and also @Ros and @Emma: With regard to sex in other historical time periods and other cultures, of course people were having sex (as you’ve all remarked), it was just contextualized differently. That’s as true for sex before marriage in 1950 as it is for 1850; neither is really all that accessible to people today who don’t have personal memories of it. For me, one of the joys of reading books written contemporaneously in those earlier periods is seeing what constituted sensuality or sexual expression. Marianne’s example is wonderful. I love passages like that. So many writers who couldn’t write directly about sex wrote extremely evocative, passionate books, and I feel as if they don’t get credit for that anymore.

    @DeeAnn K: You can have sex without intimacy and intimacy without sex, and you can have them together. But all of those circumstances should be described, not assumed, and we mostly get the third. I’d love to see more of the second, and even more of the first (although I’m not holding my breath for that one).

  40. Sunita
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 15:56:41

    @Ros: Sorry, SAO is a regular commenter, I was referring to her comment at #15. I should have added “in her comment” after “means”!

  41. Evangeline Holland
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 16:06:25

    I remember being super thrilled whilst reading Patricia Gaffney’s Forever and Ever because Gaffney chose to fade-to-black for the first sex scene between Sophie and Connor. The emotional intensity between the two up to that point was such that it felt wistful and sweet to give them their privacy on their wedding night. I find that I write super hot in the first draft or two, and when I revise, I end up cutting lots of action and spreading the tension across the entire book–guess I need to get it it all out, haha!

    That said, the expectation surrounding sensuality levels in romance are aggravating because if your first book is a certain level, you are expected to maintain that same level in every book you write (this expectation hit me in the face this weekend as I began writing a new MS…*sigh*). This is probably the culprit behind books where the sex scenes feel tacked on.

  42. hapax
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 16:16:59

    As someone who nearly always skips “sex scenes” — because if they are necessary to plot or character development, they are NOT “sex scenes”, any more than other activities are “talking scenes” or “eating scenes” or “running around blowing stuff up scenes” — I’m baffled at readers who “feel cheated” if they don’t get to see the “culmination of the romance” … which is apparently Tab A going into Slot B.

    You know what makes ME “feel cheated”?

    Protagonists who fall into bed in the first chapter, and the rest of the story is about some conflict or other, interspersed with athletic interpersonal interludes.

    Protagonists who fight and hurt each other and fail to even TALK to each other, but I am supposed to believe that it’s True Love Forever’n’Ever because of the quality and quantity of their orgasms.

    Protagonists whose behavior and personality is clearly described in the non-sex portions of the story, who turn into somebody else completely when touched by the Magic Wang or Glittery Hoo-Ha.

    Bedroom door open or closed, I don’t really care. I just want believable characters; otherwise, it’s like taking naked Barbie(s) and Ken(s) and smacking them together.

  43. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 16:17:23

    @Sunita: Oh! Now I feel really dim. ;)

  44. hapax
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 16:21:45

    …a-a-and I spent so much time typing that up on my balky computer that thirty other people said it already, and much better!

  45. Isobel Carr
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 16:41:09

    @hapax: But your naked Barbie and Ken image is priceless!!!

  46. Carolyne
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 16:46:06

    @Evangeline Holland:

    The emotional intensity between the two up to that point was such that it felt wistful and sweet to give them their privacy on their wedding night.

    I’ve read some books that successfully evoke that feeling (though I can’t think of any offhand). It’s very satisfying to be in the hands of an author who can lead you to that moment where you smile knowingly and let the happy couple go off for some privacy. It’s like sitting back with the author after the wedding feast for leftover cake and wine and having a quiet chat and deciding to come back and see how they’re getting on at brunch. That approach of course doesn’t work for every story, but it’s nice when it does. Dare I say it, it’s sweet.

    The first time an editor asked me to add a sex scene was a whole 15 years ago. (Mind you, I’m only newly returned to writing in this genre, and you will all be the first to hear me screaming like a maniac if I ever get published.) I obediently/rebellious added one lone, enormous sex scene precisely, mathematically in the middle–and in spite of myself made it the narrative hinge of the story, changing (so I like to say) everything before and after it. So, I have to thank the editor, although I think all she meant was, “readers expect hot-hot-hot sex for their money” in m/m. I’m sure my offense at being made to revise (by an editor! yegads!) changed my attitude toward sex scenes, and about what I want to read, irrevocably.

    you are expected to maintain that same level in every book you write

    I personally promise to be a better reader when it comes to unfair expectations and always expecting an author to fit a certain box/scratch a certain itch/etc./etc. Then authors get stuck in having to use different pseudonyms for different types of books, and I’ve always thought that was too bad. Not to mention confusing.

  47. Lada
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 17:00:59

    I find it interesting that pretty much every single person in the comments have said they only want to read sex when it’s important for story/character development yet it seems to me there is an overabundance of erotic romance with sex happening early and often. I agree (hope) with someone above that there will be a backlash from the FSoG copycats currently saturating the market.

    I’ve certainly enjoyed being in the bedroom with a number of characters (that sounds strange) but lately find myself missing real sexual tension and a good build-up. Nothing turns me off more than insta-lust. It’s interesting that so many of the examples of well done sexual tension the commenters mention are for classic authors like Heyer and Austen. I think one of the reasons I enjoy series that feature the same main characters so much is because we get a better chance to watch relationships build slowly and often have to wait several books before we get to the bedroom. This doesn’t work well for straight romance, of course, because readers expect the HEA by the end of the book.

    This discussion reminded me of a movie I saw a while back called Sweet Land about a mail-order bride coming to settle on a farm in MN in the 1920’s. You never see the couple do more than hold hands but watching two people who can barely communicate fall in love was flat-out one of the sexiest I’ve ever seen. I remember wondering back then where the books like this movie are. Thanks for the great article, Sunita!

  48. Selma
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 17:08:45

    @Sunita “And I hate the word “sweet” (even though I use it). I know what SAO means, but it winds up being used to describe books that are not sweet in any other way” yesssssss this is definitely a problem for me. I avoid using the term because “sweet” has so many implications that I don’t really feel fit realism-based romantic suspense. Even “closed-door” has some of those implications. Because hotter romance has become the norm, our perspective has shifted so that we assume there must be a *reason* for it if sex scenes aren’t included. That isn’t necessarily a good or bad assumption in and of itself (since I don’t want to stigmatize hot romance either), but sometimes it’s misleading.

    I think there’s a possibility that, especially with self-publishing and small presses becoming so much more prevalent, eventually things will even out a little as the wake of 50 Shades fades. So we might see more niche labeling pop up. We already have a bit, what with separating out New Adult and erom v. erotica.

  49. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 17:27:37

    On historicals – from my research, what there is available which is precious little, it appears that they were more adventurous, not less. Reason? Because the possibility of pregnancy was so much more possible and scary. after they got through childhood diseases and survived epidemics, the biggest killer of women by far before the modern era was childbirth. Not to mention social death. So even in healthy, monogamous marriages, a couple might engage in alternative methods of satisfying each other sexually.
    Virgins who wanted to preserve their virginity could have it “put back” or they could avoid losing it by engaging in other forms of sex. Social death could be complete ruin, not just for the woman concerned, but for her family, as the person whose word could not be taken wouldn’t be trusted in business deals either.
    When I was asked to “spice up” “Tom Jones” I did a lot of research. I was quite surprised to discover the variations.

  50. Ros
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 18:45:12

    @Lynne Connolly: Of all novels, I should have thought Tom Jones is the least in need of spicing up.

  51. sula
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 19:03:53

    Hmm, I guess I’ll be the lone contrary voice and say that I emphatically don’t like books that close the door, fade to black, etcetera. I purposefully avoid them. Granted, different levels of description and explicitness fit different books and characters, but if I wanted to read a story without any sex whatsoever, I’d check out the children’s section.

  52. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 19:12:43

    Ros, you’d be surprised. It was published the same year as Fanny Hill, which caused such a scandal when it came out in February that Cleland published a censored version later in the year. Fielding, ever with an eye to the main chance, could have cut parts of Tom Jones. Could have. I decided he did (G). My brief was to write in his style and add bits, but take nothing away or alter his words. Insane, but not something i wanted to pass up on doing.

  53. Lil
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 20:34:49

    @Lynne Connolly: I agree that “adventurous” sex is not out of place in historicals. I doubt that anything new has been discovered in that area in the past 3000 years or so. I think where writers err is in having their characters—particularly their “innocent” heroines—ignore the consequences of bearing an illegitimate child or decide that it is no big deal. And the ignorance of young unmarried women as recently as 50 years ago is hard for many to believe today.

  54. Isobel Carr
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 21:27:20

    @Lil: But if you look at historical sources, I have to side with Lynne. I don’t know if it was ignorance, or willfulness, or what have you, but just as teens misbehave today, they misbehaved then.

  55. Sunita
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 21:30:25

    @Evangeline Holland: I find that kind of strange. Why should every book be the same? They’re not expected to be the same in other respects. Not that I’m asking you to explain, just voicing puzzlement.

    @hapax: I agree, obviously, but I think that there are non-trivial differences in how bad a scene has to be for some readers to skip it. Just as I have a pretty high threshold for mystery plots before I complain, others have a high threshold for sex scenes before they complain. That’s what I’m interested in understanding: the different expectations and preferences readers bring to this particular aspect of romance novels.

    @Lada: Oh, I can imagine that was very sexy. Like Kate’s reminder of the scene in Age of Innocence upthread, or when the Wall Of Jericho finally comes down in It Happened One Night. They are powerful because of the subtlety (OK, the Wall of Jericho isn’t subtle, but you know what I mean). I really don’t want to lose those, or to have authors who would be great at writing those be talked into writing more explicit scenes because that’s the expectation now.

  56. Susan
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 21:49:21

    Agree that there’s a time and place for sex scenes, and it all boils down to expectations for me. I love trad Regencies and expect a closed (or mostly closed) door for the most part. But if I’m reading a PNR with sharpshooter, I’m pretty much counting on some growly sex going in and it would be weird if it didn’t happen.

    For a less-is-more example, I’d cite Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series (although they’re not romances) where almost every interaction between Toby and Tybalt is yowza.

    When open door sex does occur in books, there’s a line between enough and overkill, also depending on the genre. (For the latter, Elizabeth Powell’s marathon sessions come to mind. I liked the books, but was both exhausted and bored by the lengthy descriptions.)

  57. Fiona McGier
    Sep 03, 2013 @ 22:36:32

    My mother and my aunts used to trade romances by the bagful. They all complained about the absence of any sex scenes, but that was in the 70s and 80s. I also felt cheated when the book faded to black. So when I began to write, I wrote what I like to think about, and what they wanted to read. That being said, I allow the characters and the plot-line to dictate when and how often anyone is doing the nasty. My most recent book didn’t have any sex until the middle, the sequel starts out in the second chapter with a bang, but that’s because the heroines are totally different. The third book that I’m writing now, I’m on chapter 12 already and still there’s no sex, but the hero and heroine are in their 50s so no one is in any hormonal-driven hurry.

    BTW, I recently saw a promo for a “rewritten” version of “The Sheik”, claiming to have been written by E.M.Hull AND the other author. So now there’s gonna be actual graphic sex scenes? What a travesty! I own an ancient copy from the 30s that used to belong to my Mom, and the pages are crumbling and yellowed. But I can still remember devouring it as a young teenager while panting, though there were no explicit scenes. Why can’t people leave the classics alone?

  58. Lynn Rae
    Sep 04, 2013 @ 17:45:48

    I’ll add to the chorus admiring this post and the comments that followed. I’ve just started in this business and the categories and ‘heat levels’ and semantics of erotica, erotic romance, and romance are fairly new to me.
    In my experience with my first two published books, my editors made no comments at all about the length or detail of the sex scenes I wrote. The next two fell in between erotic romance and ‘sweet’, so I had to decide to tone it down or heat it up. The decision was easy for me, there was no way the characters I wrote would rush into sex, so these stories are going to be sweet. That isn’t to say I would never write something more erotic, it’s just that I haven’t created those characters yet. I have to be true to my characters first and foremost, not the market or the trends.
    My books aren’t based on any of the popular tropes and I don’t anticipate a huge fanbase as a result, but publishers have been willing to take a chance on my stuff and I appreciate it.

  59. Kim T
    Sep 05, 2013 @ 09:12:39

    This from @Lada: I find it interesting that pretty much every single person in the comments have said they only want to read sex when it’s important for story/character development yet it seems to me there is an overabundance of erotic romance with sex happening early and often.

    Most of DA commentors are authors and we are trained to think this way–the oh it depends on the story and characters (I mean, I hear this EVERY DAY from authors, agents and editors) yet, readers are the ones who want the sex. If they didn’t, erotica wouldn’t be as big as it still is. They want sex early and often; they want m/f, m/m and f/f , m/m/f and combinations thereof; they want BDSM, werewolf and vampire sex; and variations and so on.

    I want romances where sexual tension is so thick I can feel it but I don’t care to see them commsumate. I’m over the moon when I find those, so so few, and those become keepers.

    As others have said, there are only so many ways to describe the act and frankly, most of them gross me out instead of hot which is why readers read sex–we wnt to be turned on. Heck, I don’t read it much but when I do and find one that makes me turned on, I know I’ve got a good one. But that is too far and few in between.

    Give why we read erotica any other reason, but at the core, when most of us read erotica, it’s because WE want to feel, er, wet and turned on. That’s why erotica is popular, that’s why it will continue to be popular in a society that thinks closed doors equals shame and prudishness. Societal mores have changed–good or bad depends on each individual but no one can deny they have which makes open door sex so popular. DA ladies, I’d love to read an essay on how much society has contributed to this–bet you all have thoughts on that.

    Been reading you all for years–still lovin’ it.

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  61. Evangeline
    Sep 05, 2013 @ 14:15:36

    @Sunita: Marketing purposes and audience expectations, I suppose. If reader A loved Author X’s first book because it was hot hot hot, but then Author X’s second book is kisses only, reader A is going to be steamed (no pun intended). And then, if reader B picks up Author X’s second book and loves the lower heat level, they will be upset if they read the first book and discover the sensuality level is higher then they expected. For a sub-genre like historical romance in particular, where books are given clinches and man titty whether it be sweet or scorching, readers have no method of discerning what is what. As a result, authors are asked to keep the heat levels the same across the board so as not to rock the boat.

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