Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Sex in Romance Novels

I have a confession to make: I skim through the sex scenes.* Sometimes I down-right skip them all together. I didn’t used to. For years I read every word, and then I started to get a little antsy that the sex was slowing down the action, the plot of the story. And so I started skimming over them, just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. But just recently I’ve started whole-sale skipping the scenes. I wish I could explain why. I think a big part of it is that they’re boring to me. I don’t really care about the sex, I find some of the scenes generic and often those scenes throw off the pace of the entire book.

When I first started writing romance and doing research, I learned that every sex scene needs to have a purpose (other than just sex). And I’ve definitely read sex scenes that did have a purpose: they exposed parts of the character we may not have seen before, we learned some important details. But more and more these days, I feel like the sex scene is just there because some readers expect it; I don’t feel like I learn anything or that it adds to the development of the plot or the characters.

I think I’ve become more aware of my change-of-heart because I don’t read as many romance novels any more. These days, I tend to read books that have romance, but in which romance is not the sole plot. So I’m not as used to the traditional romance conventions.

But I also feel like the trend towards erotica has played into my sex-scene-skipping state of mind. I really feel like in some books the sex is there just to have the sex because that’s what is selling. As I said before, it doesn’t feel like the sex is there to deepen any kind of developments in the book. I also feel like sex scenes have grown really really long, and to me 20 pages of sex in the middle of a plot intense book just throws me off. I just don’t need the level of detail that is required to have such a long sex scene.

I read one book this year* that had 4-5 sex scenes, each about 20 pages long. That’s almost 100 pages of sex interspersed throughout a 300-400 page book! I’m not prudish, I don’t care that so much of the book is dedicated to sex, I just didn’t feel that the sex in the book played any real purpose. This was literally the first time that I just skipped -- wholesale -- entire scenes.

And I didn’t miss anything by skipping those scenes! That’s how I know that they weren’t there to deepen the characters, plot, etc, because I missed nothing by skipping them. It’s just so hard to reconcile this with the maxim that every scene in a book must count, must pull its weight. I’d always thought that if you can skip a scene in a book and it makes no difference, then that scene shouldn’t be there in the first place.

So what role do these skippable sex scenes play then? Are they there because of convention? Because readers like to read about sex? Because I’m somehow missing something even though I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of romance novels over the years? I mean, it really could just be that I don’t get it -- which is fine.

But the other thing that’s frustrated me recently with the more erotic books I’ve been reading is that there is so much focus on body and sexual attraction. It used to be that a man might fall for a woman because of her wit, the way she carries herself in a ballroom, etc. Now I feel like it is always the hero imagining the heroine with her clothes off. Every time he sees her -- that is all he thinks about. I know this is supposed to make things steamy and sexually tense, but it honestly grosses me out a bit. Perhaps it is the feminist in me that wants to yell out “Hey! That chick is more than just a body under some clothes!”

One of the things that I have always loved about romance novels is that the love isn’t just about looks or how hot the heroine is. Julia Quinn was a master at this -- men falling for women not because of their looks but because the heroine is so much more than looks (remember poor Penelope?). I guess I feel cheated when everything -- every look, every aside, every thought -- is about mentally undressing the H/h and wanting to get each other in bed. Because I wonder what kind of relationship that couple can possibly sustain if its basis is just in sex.

Now, I have no problem with sexual tension -- yum! But I feel like even the tension has gone by the wayside. I mean, if you have to pack in 4-5 sex scenes, how much tension can you have before they fall into bed together? And then you often end up with stupid miscommunications being the reason they’re apart because once you’ve thrown the H/h in bed together you’ve erased a lot of obstacles to their jumping into bed together again in the future.

Of course, thinking back on some of my favorite books, it’s unfair of me to say that it’s the number of sex scenes that troubles me. But rather, I think it’s the overwhelming focus on sex that some of the books I’ve read recently have. Like I said, when the relationship between the H/h is so based on sex and nothing else I feel cheated. I like to watch the relationship develop. And sure, sex can be part of that relationship, but shouldn’t be a disproportionate part. Don’t misunderstand me, I have no problem with sex in any books; I’m just trying to figure out why some books I’ve read recently have left me feeling a little frustrated.

Am I over analyzing this? We all know I’m prone to that. But this whole issue has really been weighing heavily on my mind. It makes me wonder if I’m just done with romance novels, which was once the staple of my reading diet. Maybe I just had a bad run of books -- it happens. What do y'all think?


* To the extent that any books I discuss could be recognizable, I’ve removed them from my list of books I’ve read this year. So don’t be looking at my list of books I’ve read and wondering which of them spurred this rant, you aren’t going to find it/them listed there.


Celeste said...

I think this saaaame thing sometimes. Well said.

Diana Peterfreund said...

I recently had a debate with someone about a book we read. I loved it, she didn't. She also said she'd started skipping the sex scenes because they didn't add anything to the book. But I thought they had all of these tender moments of character development, etc...

My theory is that in skipping the sex scenes, she was skipping all of this stuff, and so the book itself felt shallow to her.

I never skip anything in books. It blows my mind that people do. All the parts are there for a reason.

Kris Eton said...

I really think it is just reading preference. Some people want very little sex in their romances, others want it all....and thus erotic romance was born.

I love the sexual tension build up in a romance...and if there is no sex in the book (or if I skipped it) I would have no emotional pay-off. Which is not why I read romance. I want ALL the emotions between the two characters, and that includes the sex.

However, the sex and the building up to the sex must be well done. Otherwise, I get a very empty feeling from the book.

There's nothing wrong with you, Carrie. Maybe you're just reading the wrong books for your tastes. The sad thing for you is that the current trend is toward MORE sex and more explicit sex rather than less.

Marianne Arkins said...

YES! I'm bored with reading them... to be honest, it's TENSION that excites me. Think of all the TV shows (like "Moonlighting" and "Remington Steele" -- I'm showing my age by my choices) that went downhill when the H/H gave into their impulses.

That said, I typically expect that same "tense" h/h to give in to their impulses by the end of the book. Just not over, and over, and over, and over, ad nauseum...

Erica Ridley said...

I'm an occasional sex scene skimmer, too. It depends on the book. I just read one recently that had 3-4 totally skippable scenes. I was more worried about the subplot than the romance and couldn't wait to get back to the external action. That says a lot right there. In other books, when the sex scenes do play an integral role in either the character/romance development or changing the plot, then I read every word.

Two people read the story I wrote right before TATTF and commented about its utter lack of sex scenes and mentioned I should sex it up if I wanted it to sell. My feeling was, that particular story wasn't about sex, and any I added would just be gratuitous. I am about to rewrite the story (changing the plot significantly) and will only include sex if it makes sense for the characters.

There are a couple sex scenes in my last WIP. The first one had a direct impact on the plot, and the second was (I hope) a major turning point in the heroine's emotional journey.

I think that's what it comes down to for me. If I'm reading a Regency and the h/h make love which subsequently ruins her in the eyes of Society, then that sex scene totally needed to be there. If I'm reading a suspense, and the cop and the woman he's sworn to protect boink like bunnies whenever the crazed killer ceases fire for 30 seconds, then that's gratuitous.

lacey kaye said...

I used to skip the sex scenes, back before I started writing. Then I fell in love with craft and started paying close attention to the sex scenes. I don't read erotica, though, because while I find nothing wrong with following a woman's sexual journey, I do read romance for the sexual tension, witty banter and luscious language that does seem to fall by the wayside with an increase in sex scenes.

I do love Elizabeth Hoyt's brand of hotness!

Not sure I added anything to the conversation with this.