A lot of people ask me variations on the same few questions: Why do you write books with sex in them? and Why is romance novel sex always so good—isn’t that unrealistic?
I’ve been a romance reader since the days when I was young enough to have to sneak the dirty ones into the house and read them by flashlight after my parents went to bed. As of this month, I’ve been a published romance author for five years. The books I’ve enjoyed reading since I was a preteen all have sex in them. The books I write all have sex in them. Why? Because I like sex.
There, I said it.
I. Like. Sex.
This is not news to anyone who knows me.
It’s not news to anyone who’s read my books either.
Why do I like sex? Lots of reasons. It’s visually appealing, emotionally exciting, physically arousing, but one of the main ones is that, done right, it feels good. I like feeling good. I like making other people feel good. I like watching people make each other feel good. So, yeah, in my books my characters tend to work really hard at making sure their partners are having a really good time in bed. Or on the couch. Or by the pool. Or on the roof.
Is every sexual encounter between real people magical? No, of course not. In addition to having friends who have a tendency to tell me graphic details of their sex lives, and a sex life of my own, I also interned as a sex therapist while getting my MSW. I’m very well aware of the good, the bad and the ugly where sex is involved. I’ve had mind blowing sex, meh sex, bad sex and, unfortunately, non-consensual sex. I spent two years teaching AIDS prevention classes in inner city schools. I spent a year counseling college students on options regarding unplanned pregnancies. I know it’s not all sunshine and afterglow. But for the books I choose to write, I opt to focus on the positive.
But what about realism? Why does romance novel sex skip over all the realism? It doesn’t skip over all of it. Just the boring stuff. The same way the other boring aspects of life are skipped over or only implied in most novels (not just romance). Most people pee 6-8 times a day, on average. Can you imagine a book where every time every character peed the author had to mention a pee break? That would be absurd and irrelevant and I’m pretty sure that the fact that the vast majority of books don’t ever mention anyone peeing hasn’t caused mass concern from anyone as to “OMG, WHY WHY WHY ARE THEY NOT PEEING?” It’s just not something we need to see on the page.
The same goes for a lot of the less pleasing aspects of sex. These are things your average reader knows happen in the real world and doesn’t need to see unfold detail by detail in their sex scenes.
Now, that doesn’t mean perfect sex on a puffy cloud every time. I’ve read and written plenty of sex scenes that mention the wet spot, or the hiccups that crop up after an orgasm, or the hair tangled in the watchband, or the orgasm that is so close but just doesn’t happen, or the heroine peeing after sex so she doesn’t get a UTI, or the gag reflex when a blowjob gets too vigorous—-all examples from my own books—these are all parts of real life that when sprinkled into a sex scene add realism.
But there’s nothing wrong with focusing on the more enjoyable moments. Is the heroine multi-orgasmic? Yes? Good for her. Not all women are, but let me assure you that those of us who are tend to be a very grateful bunch. No reason not to have us exist in a romance novel. Men with quick refractory periods? Varies from guy to guy and age to age, but guys with a short recovery time also exist. No reason for them not to exist in romance novels. Geyser-like cum shots? Maybe not every time and certainly not every guy, but even if you haven’t encountered this yourself a quick stroll through Tumblr will show you amateur and pro dudes who have quite a trajectory and no shortage of supply. No reason they can’t be in a romance novel either.
The thing about sex is, the more turned on you are, and the harder you’re working at making the sex last a long time and be as good as possible, the better result you’re going to get in the end. So that earthshattering orgasm the characters had within minutes of each other after two hours of edging and some very active fucking, yeah, it’s gonna be a good one for both of them. And that doesn’t make them freaks or an anomaly, it makes them a couple who’s had some good sex.
Does everyone have to like sex? No. Does everyone have to want to read about people having good sex? Of course not. There are sweet romances and mystery novels and literary fiction novels that don’t have sex in them much or at all. If steamy, erotic depiction of sex is not your thing, that’s cool. But if it’s not your thing, choose books with lower heat levels. There are lots of them and their authors want readers too!
Some groups in romancelandia seem to think that the portrayal of sex is only a problem in m/m romance novels. It most certainly is not. The same exact complaints are raised in the het romance world and have been since forever. The reality of the situation is that both male and female romance authors exist and are currently writing smoking hot straight and LGBTQ+ sex without it being about anyone fetishizing anyone. It’s about liking sex and wanting our characters to explore that together as part of their consensual relationships.
The key to writing good characters who tug at your heart strings and make you yearn for them to get their HEA is let readers get to know them at their most vulnerable. To show them with all their desires and fears and longing exposed. And if you’re telling a story about their love life, sex scenes are often the single best way to do all of that, while showing how they interact with their partner. Yes, it’s fun to write hot scenes for the sake of being sexy, but those scenes usually (or should) have a point, and that point is that they tell you something about the characters as individuals and as a pair. That’s what helps make them real and allows readers to get to know them on a deeply personal level.
Romance novels are not how-to guides. They’re glimpses into the moments in relationships that take your breath away, that wreck you, that give you hope, that make you worry, then make everything all right. They’re about the interpersonal struggles that make us all real people trying to find someone to spend our lives with. And, if you like sex, someone to have great sex with as well.
Romance writers are all about the HEA in the book and in the bedroom. We want our characters satisfied. There’s not a damned thing wrong with that. It doesn’t show a lack of knowledge about the pitfalls and down side of real sex. It shows a healthy respect for the miraculous, wonderful moments of sex when you lose yourself in the pleasure and in your partner. If you’ve never had sex like that, that’s okay. If you’d like to someday, keep trying, I’ll bet you will. But in the meantime know it exists. It’s real. There are people having real life good sex. And romance characters are going to keep letting you see them have the best sex they’ve ever had. Even if it makes a wet spot and causes multiple loads of laundry and a second shower to take place. And even if the orgasm is so strong someone gets hiccups. Because like my log line clearly states, I write novels about love…like real life, only hotter. Although sometimes real life can been romance-level hot and I never give up hope of having it be that way all the time.
Karen Stivali is a prolific writer, compulsive baker and chocoholic with a penchant for books, movies, and fictional British men. She’s also the multiple award-winning author of contemporary and erotic romances. She writes novels about love…like real life, only hotter.
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You can hear Karen and writing pal, Santino Hassell, in audio in their podcast series (which will be returning…Oct 3rd!): Authors in Audio