Some Like It Hot: The Literary Function of Sex Scenes in Romance

One-handed reading. Mommy porn. Naughty books. Guilty pleasures.

As a romance reader I’ve heard it all. I wonder if critics realize how those terms demean women’s sexuality and (further) colonize women’s fantasy lives. Or if they understand there’s no sex in a lot of romance fiction. Or that it’s 2015 and if a woman wants porn she’ll get, you know, actual porn. Or that if some readers do use romance for stimulation, it’s zero business of theirs.

All of those are important things to say. But in this post, I want to focus on how sex helps fulfill the genre’s literary aims. How does it make for a better book?

By popular romance fiction, I’m talking about a commercial literary genre that focuses on a central love story and ends in an emotionally satisfying, optimistic way. Typically, that means the main protagonists are in a positive, committed relationship at the end. There can be other key characters, other significant plots, but the development of the romantic relationship is the most important. If the whole novel is the Himalayas, the romance plot is the Everest.

Given what the genre is, the argument for including sex in romance should be obvious but I’ll state it anyway since so many people focus on the imagined effects of sex scenes on the reader instead of their literary function. Romance novels are about romantic relationships. A significant part of romantic relationships for most people is sexual attraction leading to sex. Therefore, it makes sense to include sex in popular romance fiction.

Like any novel, a romance is supposed to connect you to a narrative outside of your own life. Making fun of romance readers for having feelings when they read makes about as much sense as making fun of horror readers for feeling scared or thriller readers for feeling thrilled. You can’t be aroused, horrified, or thrilled unless you care. Making you care about things that aren’t happening to people who don’t exist is the magic of fiction. It’s what all good writers do, and what all readers expect.

But isn’t the sex in romance novels just ridiculous? Over the top? No. And to see why, you have to stop looking at romance novels as some weird alien entities and start seeing them as, you know, novels. It is definitely true that the sex in romance fiction, whether it’s a kiss or a detailed explicit bedroom scene, is intense. Author Sandra Brown calls the connection between the protagonists “exaggerated awareness.” Recalling the connection in romance fiction between love and sex, the characters feel every look, touch, and, yes, thrust, to an unusual degree because the person who’s looking, touching or thrusting is (or will be) someone they connect with more intensely, and more permanently, than anyone else.

But “sex” shouldn’t be interpreted narrowly. Some of the sexiest scenes in romance are the least overtly sexual: a dance, a heated stare, a brush of hands, a first kiss. The significance of sex in romance has very little to do with how detailed or explicit it is. The question is how much the sensual moment means to the protagonists and the plot.

Is the sex in romance fiction the best ever? Usually, yes. We can talk about whether true love and great sex go together in real life, but romance is built around the idea that they do. Like lots of genres, romance is part fantasy. Complaining that the sex in romance is too good is like asking whether Harry Potter really has to be that talented a wizard or Robert Langdon really has to be so clever. Or think about fight scenes in superhero stories. It’s pretty hard to find combatants who are too out of shape or inept to have a thrilling go at it. This stuff is a great pleasure to read, and we respond to it viscerally, but like all good fantasy, it tells us something about ourselves and the world in which we live.

In porn, depictions of sex are meant to quickly and intensely arouse the reader/viewer and that’s about it. The situation is very different in romance fiction. In romance novels, sex should do something literary. It might reveal something about the characters, move them to the next stop on their journey, or further the plot. Great sex can symbolize how wonderful the relationship could be if the characters overcame the barriers they face outside the bedroom. And unsatisfying, awkward or angry sex can highlight the character’s helplessness or isolation. Sex can help a protagonist understand herself, surprise herself, see himself as worthy or beautiful. In romance, sex is never just physical, even if the characters believe otherwise. 

We often think about emotions as psychological, but romance fiction recalls us to our lived bodily experience, and nowhere more so than in sex scenes. Emotions in romance aren’t private mental entities that one can choose to share or hide. The body doesn’t “reveal” emotions locked up in the head. Instead, emotions reside within and between bodies, forming the stickiness of our connections with each other. A character becomes aware of herself as a subject and an object. She sees herself both from her own point of view and through her lover’s eyes, and she knows her partner is doing the same. Sex is an integral part of the attunement and mutual recognition that constitute a successful and convincing romantic relationship.

Of course, some writers do this well and some don’t. Sex scenes in romance can be boring, cliched, repetitive, ridiculous, pointless, offensive, or ineffective. Avoiding badly written books and finding great ones is a major reason I hang out in the bookish internet. But I’ve tried in this post to talk about the big picture, at least as I see it.

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