Most romance has explicit sex in it, but where “explicit” sounds – I don’t know, naughty? sexy? breathless? the sheer volume actually strips sex of its appeal. Nowadays when I read about a hero sucking a heroine’s nipple, it’s as bland as drinking milk. (Wait – milk is delicious.) It doesn’t move me in the slightest.
Nipples are quite amazing in real life. Nipples, as a body part to be checked off some foreplay list – not so amazing.
Some writers, of course, can make the same sex acts feel new and thrilling and touch some nerve of recognition. I just read The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas – a seriously freaking amazing book – and she has this particular superpower. For the rest of us, I think we should take a step away from the naked human body and look at other ways to bring sex in.
A fetish object is something that’s imbued with power – often power displaced from something else. A sexual fetish object is something that’s imbued with sexual power, again often displaced from the more common, everyday fetishisation of the body (although it can itself be a body part, of course). According to Freud, a fetish object is the mother’s castrated penis so that dudes don’t have to deal with vaginas or something.
In the narrative examples I’m thinking of, the fetish object has some sexual power for the characters, but acts far more strongly on the reader. The sexual narrative that’s drawing the reader in is redirected through this object, which makes it more powerful than if it had remained in the everyday body.
Here are the ways this method’s really worked for me as a reader:
The first is from Ember by Bettie Sharp. The story is a retelling of Cinderella, where Cinderella is Ember, the wicked witch and her sisters and stepmother are courtesans, dearly loved by her. Prince Charming has been cursed/blessed that all who see him love him. The first time Ember sees him is at a parade when she’s nineteen. She’s destroyed by lust. Charming smiles and throws coins into the crowd that are stamped with his likeness; Ember finds one between two cobblestones once he’s passed.
His profile winked sunlight at me from the silver surface of the coin. I raised it to my lips and kissed his likeness’s metal cheek. Licked it. I slid the coin into my mouth, tasting the tannic flavour of his glove above the metal and beneath the grime.
With the silver likeness of the prince clamped between my lips, I turned and hurried back inside. I could not close the door fast enough to suit the drumbeat of desire in my blood. I hadn’t the patience to climb to my chamber and dream of him in private. Indeed, I barely managed to squeeze into a broom closet and shut the door before my hands were pulling up my skirts and parting the hot, slick folds of my sex.
I ran my tongue across his likeness on the coin as I thought of him. I thought of his eyes on me, his hands on me. I imagined the sublime joys of his touch, the taste of his skin, the feel of his cock between my lips.
She goes on to imagine dying from the force of having her maidenhead taken, and him weeping over her because he’ll never love another. (She gives the reader permission to laugh at her youthful fantasies.)
As sad as it is to admit it, I must tell you this melodramatic imagining was the thought that gave me my first taste of womanly pleasure. My body seized, climaxing with a ferocity that made me stumble to the floor. I gasped for air, only to feel the cold bite of the silver coin lodging in my throat.
I panicked, coughing and gagging, trying to force a decent breath around the silver barrier imprinted with the prince’s face. My death flashed before my eyes and in this scenario, I was not a noble virgin sacrifice, but a silly girl, crumpled on the floor of a broom closet with her skirts rumpled and her hands stinking of sex.
There are a couple of reasons this worked so well for me that it’s stuck in my mind ever since. The prince’s curse has already powerfully disrupted the sexual narrative. Ember doesn’t look at him and feel a natural response which she can choose to act on or not; his sexuality is a force that makes objects of everyone who sees him – it is already displaced.
This sexual power is then concentrated in one small object: the coin. For me as a reader, there’s something so much more unexpected and exciting about Ember pressing her tongue against a likeness of his face and experiencing the full force of her desire, than if she’d had access to his person.
Maybe it’s because he can be fully “objectified” – it’s a purely sexual transaction. Charming is present, but the scene isn’t really about him. There’s something powerful about the coin generating her florid sexual fantasy – and then choking her at its climax, which utterly changes how she perceives herself in that moment. Both feel sexual to me, the arousal and the shame.
Probably the crux of why the coin works for me, actually, is that it means Charming is so freaking hot an inanimate imprint is enough to bring Ember to her knees. Is that bad?
The second example comes from a real source: the diaries of Maud Rittenhouse in the late 19th century. I haven’t read her diaries in full, just Jodie McAlister’s wonderful recaps at Momentum Moonlight. Maud chronicles her romantic adventures and disasters and refuses to let romance define her. Her thoughts are almost hypnotically charming.
In the penultimate volume she’s just met Earl Mayne who – well, in her own words:
Mr Mayne. Everybody in town knew him but me. He is deliciously bright and well read and talks like a fairy story set to music…
He’s younger than her and you get the feeling he’s a bit rough around the edges. Her infatuation burns up the page, and then there’s this:
Well and the Adorable came, and dined with us, and oh! oh!! he eats with his knife. Positively it gave me a queer feeling way into my hair. I was so afraid he’d cut his lovely mouth or jam one of his white teeth. His knife! The “one altogether lovely”, eating with his knife! I know he must have some real good scientific reason for doing it, but it made me look the other way. How can such an Adonis do anything so plebeian even with reason.
This moment gets at me viscerally the way any amount of “he’s so wonderful” doesn’t. She’s repulsed by him eating with the knife, but as a reader I feel the depth of her sexual attraction within her repulsion. Like Ember’s shame on swallowing the coin, the shame and fascination around this object feels decidedly sexual.
His “lovely mouth” feels so much more significant when it’s threatened by his knife.
It also happens to be one of my favourite romantic mechanisms: his action breaks the social mould through which she perceives everybody and everything. This sets off an overwhelming sensation in her that she doesn’t know how to interpret. She interprets it as embarrassment; I don’t.
The last example is from The Luckiest Lady in London. My favourite part of this book was how explicitly honest the hero and heroine were with each other – and how that didn’t leech the tension at all. It’s an electrifying, exciting kind of honesty.
But – ahem. Before I get carried away fangirling all over the place, I’ll get back to my point. Felix has asked Louisa to be his mistress, and they’re playing a kind of game of chicken with their attraction and what they each want. In this scene they’re alone in a carriage.
He lifted his straight rod of a walking stick and, holding it near the base, set its handle on her lap, a frightfully intimate, invasive gesture that made flame leap through her.
The terrible thing was, the more he revealed himself to be dangerous and warped, the more she fell under his spell. And the more she fell under his spell, the freer he felt to reveal even more of his true nature.
His eyes met hers again. “Let me give you everything you’ve ever dreamed of.”
But he couldn’t. Or at least, he wouldn’t.
For she could no longer be satisfied with an expensive telescope, an exemplary spinsterhood, or his sure-to-be-magnificent body – or even all three together.
She was a woman in love and she wanted nothing less than his unscrupulous and very possibly unprincipled heart, proffered to her in slavish devotion.
She set her fingers on the handle of the walking stick, still warm with the heat of his hand. At first she thought it was but a knob made of heavy, smooth-grained ebony, but as she traced its curve with her hand, she looked down and realized that the handle was actually in the shape of the head of a black jaguar.
“Very fine specimen you have here,” she said, a little shocked at both her words and her action.
She was *caressing* the part of him that he had chosen to extend to her person, her fingertips exploring every nook and cranny of the handle. His gaze, intense and heavy lidded, traveled from her face to her uninhibited hand and back again.
“You like it?”
They throw some double entendres back and forth and get extremely lustful about each other. Then:
…she raised the handle of his walking stick, leaned forward, and kissed it on the tip.
“You make me do such unspeakable things,” she murmured, looking at the jaguar’s head.
Slowly, he pulled the stick from her grasp. He examined the handle closely, then glanced back at her, his gaze heated yet inscrutable.
The walking stick is quite obviously standing in for his man bits in this scene, but that’s not where I think the sexiness of it comes from. In fact, I would find it even sexier if the parallel weren’t drawn at all.
What I love is the “intimate, invasive gesture,” and the “part of himself he’d chosen to extend to her”. It’s in his character that he wouldn’t just give himself over to her, so instead he does something he thinks will be safe – he touches her with an inanimate object. But she makes that object part of him, and so he can’t remain unaffected by her touch. It becomes incredibly exposing.
Gah, it’s awesome.
This method is more about the reader than it is about the characters themselves. I’ve become somewhat desensitised to sex as a reader, but diverting it through an object makes me feel it again – it becomes unexpected, a pleasure.
It also happens to be a powerful tool for writers; it means we can bring sex into any scene, without being explicit. If Maud were a romance heroine, watching her hero eat from a knife, I would believe her when she kissed him later.