Category Archives: Sex

punch an asshole in the face

It took me an age to realise something obvious about sex. Sex on the page, sex between characters.

I’ve thought a lot about how to make sex hot again. God, is there a new position on the face of this green planet? We have seen it all, read it all.

We experience something new to us differently, because our brains are processing information for the first time – it’s more intense, slower, more deeply felt. So how do we make the sexual encounter between two characters feel like something new, something that has only ever happened between these two people?

My go-to method is to sink deep into the romance and write from there: write pain, hurt, disruption, vulnerability, bliss and oh shit did I just realise I’m in love. It’s a pretty good method, on a pure-id level.

But for putting your critical brain to work on making what your id gave you ten times better, here’s the obvious: the characters aren’t having the sexual experience. The reader is.

It clicked when I was reading a romance with a tense sexual premise. The hero has a sexual kink that is the source of shame and self-loathing to him. He’s tried and failed to cut it out of himself. The heroine is sunny and somewhat naïve. The longer they spend together the more his sexual desires reach out to her, the more he loathes himself.

About half way through the book he finally confesses everything to her – and she is a wonderful person who listens and asks questions, admits when she’s confronted but takes it in her stride. Then expresses some curiosity in exploring the kink with him.

An amazing woman, and a total buzzkill.

I had been experiencing the hero’s emotional agony (which, up front, I love) – but more than that, I’d been experiencing this building sexual tension that was all wrapped up in his shame and his raging need. The self-loathing that came from wanting what he did only fuelled the desire, because it made it that much more unattainable. He himself was aware how the shame was part of the sex, for him.

So when the heroine ‘absolved’ him, I no longer experienced/read the desire as shameful and therefore I no longer felt caught up in the sexual heat. I was no longer experiencing the kink.

It’s a good distinction to make, between character arousal and reader arousal. Oh man, is that suddenly a bit confronting to talk about actively arousing the reader? No? Ok, get on with it, Anna.

Understanding the distinction means you can write a scene like, She gave him a blowjob and he was very aroused and he came, which leaves the reader unmoved, or you can write a conversation that works on the reader like sex, because all the elements of the relationship, the kink, the arousal are there.

This is so useful! Sex shouldn’t always be arousing, and if romance is really going to hit the reader in the feelings, conversations should be. It’s easier to manipulate these effects once you understand that the reader is the one having the sexual experience.

I’ve been reading a lot of Charlotte Stein recently, because she brings the id like whoa. I love this description of an orgasm in Curveball: It’s unbelievably good. Like squeezing a stress ball or punching an asshole in the face.

A lot of the time we rely on shared physical experience to arouse the reader. We describe licked nipples and pulled hair and the erotic associations the reader has with the acts trigger arousal. What I love about Stein’s description is that she adds to base physical arousal; she creates two distinct effects in the reader’s mind and body. Squeezing a stress ball has associations of release and pressure, and punching an asshole in the face conjures pure satisfaction, violence, disruption.

Another example of how this works is dirty talk. I love the idea of dirty talk. I always get excited when a character threatens another character with dirty talk. But it rarely pays off for me when it actually happens. Unfortunately, just like sex positions/acts, dirty talk is well worn. Pretty generic, really, when you read it on the page. So it’s exciting for the character who’s experiencing it, but not for me, the reader experiencing it.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to do dirty talk in a way that really works. I considered my expectations – what makes the idea of it exciting to me? What I want is for it to shock me, for it to be a pin prick, a cut with a knife. I want it to disrupt the narrative and reveal something hidden and unsafe about the characters.

So one answer to how to do dirty talk is to achieve this effect on readers through other means. I think this is what I was reaching for in Untamed when I had Jude say shocking, exposing things to Katherine in a way that was erotically fraught.

‘You’re here,’ he said, and covered her hand with his palm. The sensation touched him – his hand like a lover taking hers from behind. He pushed his fingers between hers, and they lay like that without speaking for a couple of minutes.

Then he said, ‘I miscalculated in so many ways, when I asked to come with you to the country. I didn’t understand how dark it would be, or how quiet. But the worst of my errors was not allowing for these hands.’ His hand flexed around hers, the only movement in the room. ‘I didn’t know you’d go without gloves in the country. And you don’t have easy hands, Katherine. At first they repulsed me.’ He was ready, and didn’t let her pull away.

‘When you handed me that first plate of food, and I knew these hands had made it, I could barely swallow it down. But the more I watched you, the clearer it became that your hands cannot be separated out from who you are. The parts of the world that fascinate you pass through your hands first. I thought at first it was childlike, before I suspected what wisdom was in touch. And then I thought about touching. And then I could not stop myself from imagining the rasp of your hands on my skin – those rough, truthful things rubbing me until I was uncomfortable and tender with it. Testing and tasting me in order to understand me. I began to long for you to understand me.’

There was a long silence, and their harsh breathing, and then she said, ‘You shouldn’t talk to people like that.’

Not quite ‘I’m gonna come in your hot little hole’, but it sort of made me catch my breath, to write something so exposed.

the fetish object

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.

feminist is one side of a shape

All those posts about romance and feminism last week kicked off some huge discussions on twitter. Where those discussions more or less ended up: It’s kind of irrelevant whether romance is feminist or not – I love reading it.

This gave me Thoughts.

As I said last week, my stance is that romance isn’t obliged to be feminist, and the most feminist thing about it is the critical discourse surrounding it. I’ve engaged in this discourse. I find the feminist readings of romance novels fascinating and enlightening. It’s helped me become a better, more engaged writer.

But I’ve been wondering whether we truncate our reading experience by not reading romance with the same level of critique in other ways.

Example: I recently read Pleasure Unbound by Larissa Ione. I found it cheap at a charity shop, and remembered being curious about the series years ago when I first discovered the particular crack that is paranormal romance. It was kinda fun, kinda forgettable.

The first sex scene between the hero and heroine is only consensual if you really, really squint. Through binoculars. She’s a demon slayer who’s been brought, critically wounded, into a demon hospital. The demon doctor heavily drugs her then patches her up. While she’s still off her face, the doctor’s brother gets inside her head with his special demon powers and gives her a really hot sex dream. (The brothers are incubi, natch.)

The doctor, summoned by her arousal, sends his brother off but then becomes overwhelmed by his own instincts. He “wakes her up” (she’s still off her face), and she, thinking this must all be a dream, tells him to take her. So, consent. But not really, because she’s injured and drugged and was just coerced into arousal while innocently sleeping.

They have really hot sex.

And the thing is – it is hot. These two sex-demons are taking full advantage of the woman, but it’s still hot. It’s even hotter when she realises she’s having sex with a demon – a race she hates – while he’s still inside her.

None of that is particularly yay-woo feminist. It’s not something that ever gets addressed in the book, like, he shouldn’t have taken advantage of her. But that didn’t stop it from being enjoyable.

It makes me think there are other critical conversations we could be having around romance – like about erotic power dynamics.

There’s been a lot of conversation about the slavery in S.U. Pacat’s Captive Prince. From what I’ve seen, the discussion has been solely about: What stance does this book take on slavery? And is it problematic? I’ve seen no discussion about the erotic dynamics of slavery – which wouldn’t cancel out the socio-political conversation, but would add another, equally important angle to the critical discourse. I didn’t read it as a book about slavery – I read it as a book about (sexual) power dynamics.

Whether romance is escapist or not, it is largely emotional and erotic fantasy.

I think this is the reason it’s so interesting to read from a feminist perspective. It’s a direct look inside female desires, largely undiluted by what’s correct or progressive. It’s a kind of snap-shot of what is.

But it’s also something worth looking into for itself. For what it tells us about fantasy, about erotics, about emotional desire. (I had written “separate to the feminist context”, but I’m not sure whether this is true or not. Feminist can sometimes feel restraining to desire, but that seems like a counter-productive statement to make, so I’m probably missing something.)

It’s totally possible these discussions are already happening, and I haven’t found them yet. Please point me in the right direction, if you know where the party’s at! For myself, I’ve enjoyed these thoughts, and the direction they’re leading me in both as a reader and a writer.

 

body/carcass

Sex scenes can be difficult to write. Probably the most ubiquitous piece of writing advice is: Make the sex further the characters. That is, have something emotional at stake between them. Have it develop and surprise and change them the way a conversation might.

That advice highlights for me that a romance is really two stories happening side-by-side: The love story of the body, and the love story of the mind. And if you get a really good writer it’s impossible to unwind one from the other.

I know I quoted this recently, but it’s so pertinent I have to quote it again. When Rochester is desperate to make Jane stay, and she won’t, he clutches at her and says, “But whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want.”

Bodies are alive. Bodies are dying, breath by breath.

I first started thinking about what a morbid thing this can be – this attempt to get at what’s inside the organic, breathing, dying cage – when I was reading KA Mitchell. I’d just read a medic hero followed by a surgeon hero. Because of their professions they come across a lot of physical trauma, which KA Mitchell doesn’t try to separate in the text from sex – physical penetration, raised heartbeat, blood and flesh.

In No Souvenirs Kim is a surgeon and his lover Shane undergoes severe physical trauma:

And even when the paddles and the hypo brought back the flutter of life, Kim couldn’t shake off that feeling like the emptiness was just waiting for another chance. It was there in every long space between the electric contractions of Shane’s cardiac tissue. Nothing as sure as the knowledge that they were all nothing but animated meat just waiting for the power to go out.

Then later:

At every stroke of Kim’s hands, the muscles under Shane’s wet skin rippled with that vital current, warm and alive. Kim couldn’t erase the memory of Shane cold and still on that reef, of the clammy, pale chest when he’d ripped open Shane’s wet suit to get the paddles on bare skin, but he could have this one to go with it, Shane’s heart pounding hard against Kim’s palm, breath deep and strong as he fisted Shane’s cock.

The body is how we can come close and express love, and the body is the thing that will betray our love by dying.

   

These images from Jacques Fabian Gautier d’Agoty’s 1746 “Anatomical Study” perfectly capture the body as a romantic object that is also a piece of flesh.

There was a study done last year on how arousal “makes everything less disgusting”. For my money, sex scenes could do with fewer perfect bodies, and more living/dying flesh made wondrous by love, by the urgent desire to keep on being – and by a healthy dose of lust.

the “first time” fallacy

I’m sneaking into this gap in the guest posts, to address something that bugs me: Why does it always hurt, the first time a woman has sex in a romance novel?

I know that for a lot of women it is an uncomfortable experience, for one reason or another, but losing your virginity isn’t inherently uncomfortable. But in all virgin-romances there’s this moment –  whether she’s into the sex or not, as soon as he’s “fully sheathed” it suddenly stops feeling good, and goes on being painful until he moves in just the right way.

I have two problems with this:

1) The first time I had sex was transcendental. Nothing had ever felt that good. Sex has been a lot more interesting since that chaste, naive thing, but almost never so completely good, so completely transporting, so completely free of anything but sensation and wonder. And I was 16, so it’s not like I was experienced, or even understood my own body or all the mechanics of sex;

and 2) When sex is uncomfortable, the man moving around all up in there rarely makes it less so.

Of course, sex is a highly subjective thing, so that could just be me. But as it’s highly subjective, I wish more female characters got to have more varied experiences. (And I’m not even touching on the Unalterable Truth that sex is always, always amazing for men.)

Why always this moment of discomfort? Is it to mark the transition from virgin to not-virgin? The pang innocence makes on its way out of the body? Is it because sex should never, ever be a purely pleasurable thing, and we must first pay the price for it?

Also – do you have any idea how hard it was not to put the ‘ph’ into that heading?

Note: every comment puts your name in the hat to win an accidental housewife e-reader cover!

define normal

ANNA

It took me a while to read Ruthie Knox’s Ride with Me, even though all of the internet loved it. Something about the bike-riding premise made me think lycra and bike helmets, and I just couldn’t get on board. I finally caved, because all of the internet.

I’m trying to think what I loved so much about it, and more than anything there’s a feeling about Ruthie’s books. Like her characters get inside your chest and are all warm and painful. She’s clever. And she can write.

I immediately started following her on twitter, and when one day she posted “Anyone want to read a first chapter for me?” I jumped at the chance. It was a happy day when Ruthie emailed me back to say, “Um, you’re going to have to get really good at saying no to me.”

My favourite thing about the writing community is its generosity. I love contributing to other writers, and I’m amazed at how willing other writers are to contribute to me. Ruthie is the embodiment of this quality. You wouldn’t believe the crazy hour she gets out of bed just to accomplish everything on her plate – and still she gives her time freely to so many other writers (and believe me we/they all appreciate the hell out of it).

It’s such a pleasure to begin my guest posts with Ruthie Knox.

***

RUTHIE

When someone you like and admire sends you an email inviting you to write about masturbation, you have to say yes. It’s, like, a rule.

So here I am, hoping I won’t sully Anna’s beautiful new digs too much with my scandalous masturbatory musings. I mean, I don’t think I will, but sometimes it’s hard to tell where the lines are. I have issues with “normal.”

As a child, I was obsessed with being normal, but I never quite managed it. These days, I accept my not-normalness as a given—so much so that I sometimes forget about it until events conspire to remind me. I mention this because Anna’s lovely post about the masturbation scene in Ride with Me was one of those reminder moments.

See, at the time I wrote Ride with Me, I thought I was writing a Harlequin Blaze book. (This is also true for About Last Night, which I wrote before Ride with Me, though it was released second.) That was my goal: write a Blaze. I was reading a lot of Blaze at the time, I liked them, and I wanted to write one. But the Blaze editor passed on both books, Loveswept ended up taking them, and after they came out, people reviewed them and said things about how “fresh” and “different” and “not-at-all-category-romance-like” they were.

Oops.

When I wrote the tent-masturbation scene in Ride with Me, the book was about twenty thousand words long, and nothing sexy had happened yet except for some tire-licking. I knew Tom and Lexie weren’t going to be able to have sex for many, many more pages. This seemed like a problem, since Harlequin Blaze books are verrah sexy.

So I was thinking, you know, Must cram in something sexlike, and there was Tom, doing his bike-mechanic thing, and there was Lexie in her tent, alone, with idle time on her hands.

Have you ever seen a good-looking, shirtless guy in a baseball cap grease a bike chain? There’s all this standing and crouching, arm-bracing and pedal-turning, oily-rag-stroking and peering-frowning. There’s the smell of the chain oil and the click of the gears and the turn of the pedals, the skin glistening in the sun, the whole sweaty-working-male-outdoors thing…

It seemed, in short, like the obvious scene to write.

At the time, it didn’t occur to me that female masturbation rarely appears in romance, much less in category romance. Nor did it occur to me that when female masturbation does appear, it’s usually in a context of shame—and that even male masturbation is usually depicted as a shameful, last-ditch sort of activity when his blue-ball situation reaches critical levels. Although once Anna pointed all of that out, I thought, “Huh. Yes. That’s true.”

Again, oops.

I should probably mention, in defense of all the gatekeepers who are imagined to be keeping female-masturbation scenes out of romance, that I didn’t get any pushback from anybody—critique partners, agent, editors—on that scene. The only question I got was actually about the content of Lexie’s fantasy: would a woman masturbate to the idea of giving a man a blow job, or is that a male fantasy?

Interesting question, indeed. I got all het up about it for a while, and then I ended up revising the scene slightly to emphasize that what was getting Lexie off was the idea of making Tom powerless by giving him pleasure—which makes sense in the context of the book, because he has most of the power in their relationship at this stage, and that drives her up the wall.

So in that sense, Lexie is having a classic oral-sex-as-castration fantasy while bringing herself to orgasm in a hot tent in the middle of the day, somewhere in Idaho.

God. I can see, writing that, that it is kind of weird.

But also sexy!

I think.

The dynamics of sex require the negotiation of power and desire, fantasy and reality, control and intimacy. For all its multifaceted appeal, sex is a tricky, messy business, and I like to get at least some of that tricky messiness into my stories.

At the same time, however, I’m writing genre romance—and there’s an obligation inherent in the genre, I think, to celebrate fantasy sex, rather than the sort where you get elbowed in the eye or have to reach for the lube or whatnot.

So it’s complicated. And then there are all these additional complicating questions like the ones Anna posed in her response to Ride with Me—questions about feminism and desire, woman-as-object versus woman-as-subject of desire, about desire and ownership, passion and principle, gender conventions and gender roles and how we define what’s sexy, anyhow.

In the end, I have to ask myself, after I’ve blurted out a sex scene onto the page, both Is this sexy to me? and Will this be sexy to (many, if not all) of my imaginary, unknown, mostly female readers who are buying this book at least in part because they want a pleasurable experience?

The first question is always easy to answer, but the second one isn’t—and generally, the more interesting I find a scene, the more I wonder about Question Numero Dos. In the end, there’s no reliable yardstick—there’s just what I know I like to read, and what I want to put on the page. What’s normal? What’s sexy? Who knows?

Let’s just have fun with it, shall we?

NOTE: every comment puts your name in the hat!

he makes me feel so feminine

When I started reading romance novels in earnest, about four years ago, I was drawn to the powerful heterosexual narrative. Actually, it’s more than that, isn’t it? It’s a really traditional sort of hetero-sex.

A big, hard man and a soft, curvy woman having sex – and reaffirming their genders by having sex.

Growing up, I never felt like a typical girl. (I’m assuming no girl does.) I let my body hair grow, because I didn’t see why I should waste all that effort shaving, when it was a losing battle. I wore some crazy outfits that were much more, er, aesthetically interesting than either feminine or sexy.

I did a Bachelor of Arts in my mid-twenties that further taught me to question everything. Turn any given dichotomy around. Subvert it.

I never felt entirely comfortable with straight-up hetero sexuality. The dominant paradigm always had to be confronted, questioned, investigated.

So there was something amazing about discovering romance, and letting myself read romance, and indulging in a simple man/woman relationship. It gave me permission to be a woman to my husband’s man in a way I hadn’t let myself before. I still think that was an important time for me, because there was a kind of guilt associated with “giving in” to traditional gender roles. To just being a woman as society constructs a woman. And that should, obviously, not be a guilty thing.

But I’ve come through the other end of it, and I’m back to questioning traditional gendering. (As you may have noticed.)

Now, the very thing that made me feel so comforted makes me pause. There’s one line in particular that I have read hundreds of times. When a man and woman have sex in a romance novel, the hero makes the heroine feel some variation of “soft and feminine”, because of how hard and different he is.

In that moment the hero and heroine reaffirm themselves as gendered.

I understand why the traditional gender roles are sexy – and hey, I might question it, but I mostly find it sexy too. We’re constructed that way our whole lives long, and our libidos are wired into it no matter what our rational minds might have to say on the subject.

But I can’t help wishing it wasn’t just the traditional genders being reaffirmed. “She felt so feminine,” is a hell of an ambiguous phrase. And just to prove that Arts degree wasn’t wasted, let me ask: What is feminine, anyway?

If the line goes unquestioned, “feminine” represents an amorphous thing that can be described by words like soft and rounded and gentle and giving. The default, traditional idea of feminine.

I gotta say, when I get ambushed by moments of feeling that sort of feminine it’s surprising and makes me feel a bit awkward and bashful and grateful. It’s an alien feeling – not something I experience myself as in a lived way.

Of course, romance is a kick-arse genre and many authors are exploring the different kinds of gendered relationships in their novels. Cecilia Grant comes to mind immediately, and I wish I had the book at hand so that I could quote it. In the climactic scene of A Gentleman Undone, when the hero is all tender and, well, undone, the heroine is a cold, implacable thing. Like a bird of prey. Something strong enough for him to break against.

I think this is part of why I love reading gay romance. Two gay men are allowed much more room to redefine their gender than a straight man and woman are allowed.

I recently asked Ruthie Knox whether she thought My Lady Untamed would have a chance in New York. I found her reply very interesting: “Definitely, the quality of your writing is there, but the hero is unusual enough (and here I’m thinking less of the cross-dressing than the gender dynamic of strong heroine, weaker hero) that it’s really hard to say.”

I’ve always known the cross-dressing would be a barrier, but it hadn’t even occurred to me that the gender dynamic could be more problematic. And even though this stuff is highly subjective, the many conversations I’ve had with industry professionals in the past week suggest that Ruthie’s comment was spot-on. (So not surprising.)

My problem is, I’m becoming more and more interested in the idea of androgyny. My KPop habit really isn’t helping, either. I mean, look at this guy:

 

I find G-Dragon’s androgyny incredible. It’s physically attractive, but it also seduces my intellect. There’s something about a man who is strongly, fully himself – and embraces a fluid aesthetic. He’s masculine, he’s feminine, he’s a man.

If my heroes are headed in this direction, I really don’t know what readers are going to make of it.

death is my independence

The dissolute rake falling for the pure virgin is a classic romance trope. In Romancelandia it means watching a man beyond redemption become redeemed through love. In the original rake/virgin novel…not so much.

Clarissa, written in 1748, is the story of a virtuous woman pursued by an irredeemable man, Robert Lovelace (aka Best Rake Name Ever). Modern romance readers are allergic to “bad” heroes, which means that all rakes must be Tragically Misunderstood for Tragic Reasons (see sympathy coupons). Not so Lovelace. He is a genuinely Bad Man. Also a Very Beautiful Man. (Here’s where I admit I haven’t read the book, only watched the BBC adaptation. Sean Bean in makeup and lace is a Very Beautiful Man, at any rate.)

He works outside of the morals of society, so he’s a powerful agent for change. He alone can help Clarissa escape her restrictive family. But the same qualities that make him powerful also make him unable to love her in the right way. For the first time he feels love, and it unsettles him as it should unsettle any rake. He reacts the only way he knows how, and tries to force Clarissa into marriage. Instead, he drives her to starve herself to death in obscurity.

The priest who’s caring for her tells her that the bible absolves her of any shame, and that she must choose to live. She says to him, “Death is my independence.”

This is apparently the longest novel in the English language, but I reckon that single line makes every other word in it worthwhile.

Historical settings are romantic to us romance writers because the social restrictions a woman has to overcome to choose a selfish, personal kind of love are much more obvious. Her journey to personal autonomy and sexual expression is clearer, because she exists in a context that doesn’t allow her these things.

But aside from the occasional fluke, I’d say Clarissa’s a much more realistic picture of what a woman’s emotional journey would have been if a more experienced man became infatuated with her.

It’s a kind of independence that’s mirrored almost a hundred years later in Jane Eyre when she withholds from Rochester the only thing that’s still hers to withhold. Her body is wholly in Rochester’s power – there’s no one to interfere on her behalf. But Rochester, despairing, says, “But whatever I do with this cage, I cannot get at you, and it is your soul that I want.”

Even if a woman found love with her husband, it would take a pretty extraordinary woman not to have been somewhat subsumed inside her husband’s desires and society’s expectations of her as a married woman.

Let me say here that I don’t want romance heroines to die for the sake of their purity. Er, no. Having a woman overcome the obstacles imposed by her gender is a wonderful allegory for modern women, whose obstacles are far more ambiguous. But I wonder whether the historical context could also be used for a story about personal independence.

There’s a romance trope that goes something like this: The wallflower, who’s fast approaching her late twenties *gasp!* with no sign of marriage on the horizon, decides to remake herself. She starts to follow her own desires. She becomes unreasonable, and powerful. And then she gets the man.

I get it. It’s a statement about the autonomy that’s necessary, even in marriage. It’s a clear declaration of the fact that you’re always at your most charismatic when you’re being purely yourself. But there’s also something in there that goes: Independence is one more trait you need to acquire in order to get a man.

The next romance series I plan to write will be five books long. It’s the story of an enigmatic man and his adopted children who drive Britain’s industry in the mid-1800s. The series begins when a genteel woman, Hadrienne, is engaged to the eldest son, Primus. Primus ends up marrying her companion instead, and Hadi gets engaged to the next son in order to stay with the family who have become her family.

My initial idea was that Hadi’s romance with the father would be the series-arc romance. The father has turned his back on his aristocratic beginnings, and Hadi is everything he thinks he’s disowned. She subscribes to very classic “female” behaviour, and as she comes into her own the father can no longer discount her.

Then the other day something happened. I realised that one of the kids’ biological mother is, contrary to popular belief, still alive. And that she’s the love of the father’s life. This felt absolutely right…but it left Hadi hanging.

Her engagement starts the whole series. Her story gives the series its arc. I couldn’t leave her romantically unresolved, could I, in a romance series?

My first reaction was a categorical No. And then I thought, Yes.

The more I think about it, the more right it feels. Her journey was always one to personal independence. It’s not easy for her, but she has to face the women’s movement and decide for herself what she thinks. She takes up photography and documents the lives of women. She becomes someone who would once have seemed disgusting to her.

And it’s right that her actions aren’t rewarded with a man, but with herself.

I recently came across photographer Clayton Cubitt’s portraiture project Hysterical Literature. He films women reading aloud and being brought to orgasm. They’re fully clothed, and they appear to be sitting alone at a table. Cubitt’s interested in catching genuine glimpses of people in an age that’s obsessed with self-documentation. He’s referencing the idea that female hysteria was once treated with medical orgasm, and the sensual relationship women have to the written word. He’s also interested in exploring concepts of high art and low art. The project obviously edges onto the space occupied by pornography – but is also wildly different.

He never explicitly draws the parallel, but to me the idea of high literature and low literature was so present in the videos – especially the uneasiness around what women read and the arousal that’s often part of what they read.

The videos are…not explicit in the pornographic sense. You see nothing. But you do watch a woman come to arousal and come. So don’t watch them if that kind of thing disturbs you.

I found them extraordinary. They depict a female sexuality that has nothing to do with a partner. It’s intensely personal. It’s something I’ve never seen so explicitly depicted before. It’s the kind of romance that I want Hadi to embody, so that her story is not to do with a man but is deeply, powerfully romantic anyway.

The Regency: when men were men

One of my favourite historical details about the Regency is that men used to cry in Parliament to express their sensitivity.

But I digress. Earlier this year I entered a whole bunch of the American contests, just to get my MS out there when it still wasn’t quite ready for agent submissions. The scoresheets have been coming back in dribs and drabs and giving me a pretty good cross-section of what reader reactions might be to my novel. A few mornings ago I received this:

Your Hero, and please do not take this the wrong way but use this as constructive criticism.  At points in your story I had to re-read some paragraphs.  Example When the Dukes friends were over after whites it sounded more like a group of women talking to each other call them by pet names.  My impression at that time was that the Duke was bi-sexual, not that I have a problem with that, but this is a Historical Romance Category.  I’m not impressed with his image at all for a Hero.[Note to self: bi-sexuals ok, just not in Historical Romance.]  Although the Duke suffers Panic attacks does not make a man weak.  His character or what I’ve read of it sounds like a weak, selfish and insecure Duke who thinks he is in love with one sister who is not the Heroine.  I would focus on a better Character for this Duke. [So what you're saying is - that Really Average Character I've given him isn't working?] I would not have him thinking he is in love and I would not have him sleeping with a married women who is your Heroines sister.  I would also not have him calling other men pet names.  He needs to be a little tougher like you had him acting at Whites, when the Earl of Benruin confronted him.

You also mentioned in your synopsis how he and Kit your Heroine had sex.  They should be making Love and Sex should be with the other women who shouldn’t be her sister….[I shall have to look into this "making love".]

Confusing once again due to the amount of characters introduced in the first few chapters.  Example all the dandies sounded the same with calling each other by pet names.  Try to maybe have one dandy and one who is Mr. Serious and the other a jokester. [Then the jokester can come out with lines like, "I don't know why they call him Mr Serious. They should call him Mr Seriously Can't Tie A Cravat. Because look at his cravat." Comic gold. I see where you're going with this...] This way your characters will all have a distinctive voice. [If by distinctive you mean hilarious.] Try and match a voice to your Duke.  Make him a man most girls would fall for.  Hansom, tough looking and can melt butter when he entertains the ladies and a mouth that shots bullets when talking with a man.  Distinctive. [Hmm, my husband doesn't really look tough, so I guess that counts against him. But on the upside he's very handsome and does occasionally melt butter while entertaining me. I haven't noticed any bullets shooting from his mouth, but who knows what he gets up to when I'm not around? Manly things, I suspect.]

Okay, so it’s a bit mean to pick this apart – and the truth is that I really appreciate the time and consideration this judge put into reading my entry. Nothing obliged her to read it but her good will and desire to support aspiring authors. And the other truth is that, should this book ever see the light of day, a large chunk of readers are going to react in exactly this way to my hero.

He is not, as the judge went on to say, A Hero.

He’s slight, and effeminate. He calls other men by pet names. He has sex with them. He’s having an affair with my heroine’s sister (though he never is in love with her – I think this judge read love where there is only respect and affection). He’s so clever he tangles himself up in it, and because he has no idea how to express intimacy like a normal human being he tends to be vicious to the people he loves the most. Oh, and he wears a dress – and not only that, he wears the whole persona of a gorgeous, charismatic, powerful Georgian woman.

Actually, her statement about what girls (and here let me say, mine is definitely a novel for women) really like in a man made me feel a bit sheepish, because this happens in my book:

“Wife!”

The single word was violent as a bullet shot through the house…

That’s BenRuin speaking – the cuckolded husband of my heroine’s sister (my hero’s lover. Keeping up?). He is big and tough. He’s handsome. He comes straight from the Alpha mould.

A lot of readers are also confounded by the fact that the book starts in his POV – and through his eyes the reader sees my hero as a frippery. The readers who are confounded by it tend to be the readers who would prefer to read BenRuin’s book.

I did that on purpose. BenRuin is A Hero. Darlington is not.

In a recent podcast, Dan Savage gave this advice to a young bisexual dude: Be confident in your sexuality and the ladies will flock to you to get some of that. (More or less.) I agree. I find the idea of a bisexual man really hot. And I get that some women don’t.

I’ve always known that as a fairly queer book (there’s a tertiary gay romance, too, that’s boiling away in the background) My Lady Untamed won’t be for everyone. But when I only knew that theoretically, I kind of couldn’t imagine how anyone would not just fall for Darlington completely. To me he’s heaven. So it’s great to have proof and be able to put a shape to how some people will read it.

But it also solidifies for me that the kinds of heroes I fall for aren’t what the judge described. And that’s really why I start my novel with BenRuin. He’s the old guard. He’s A Romance Hero. I wanted him to see and dismiss my hero, because my hero is something else.

In the most recent Dear Bitches Smart Authors podcast, Sarah Wendell, Molly O’Keefe and Stephanie Doyle talk about the women who are pushing historical romance to its limits: Cecelia Grant, Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran. They’re writing complex characters and redefining what sex is in romance. They are, without hesitation, the authors I aspire to stand beside.

the mother-daughter sex talk

When my older brother was fourteen and about to go on his first ever date, my parents sat him down and told him some things about respecting girls and always using condoms. The reason I know this is that my sister and I, in the next room, scrambled to the ends of our beds and listened in, trying not to giggle too loud.

Maybe a year or two later we were having a garage sale and my older sister lifted one of the books and hid it in her jumper. When Mum found it, the punishment was this: My sister had to sit and read the whole thing aloud. It was a “how babies are made” book, complete with illustrations.

The illustration of the woman giving birth showed her on her back, and I remember Mum saying, “Well that’s not completely accurate – you can give birth in all kinds of positions such as squatting or on all fours.” Like my sister wasn’t dying of embarrassment.

Mum used to give pre-natal classes and was wonderfully straightforward about those crazy, foreign, dizzying sex-related things.

I understood the mechanics, but until I read the incest-sex in Sleeping Dogs I hadn’t realised sex wasn’t a single act of penetration but something that happened over time. Until the first of my friends saw a real life penis at fifteen and drew the rest of us a diagram, I didn’t realise an erection didn’t stick straight out from the body. (I guess that kind of erection is easier to illustrate for the purposes of where babies come from.)

There were things I didn’t know, but I was happy to discover them slowly over time for myself. I felt prepared enough.

Yesterday I wrote a mother-daughter sex talk into my teen romance, and it ended up turning into a feminist manifesto. This is what I’d want to say to a daughter if I had the guts. It probably doesn’t quite fit into a scene in a light-hearted novel, though.

Did you suffer the sex talk? Did it make a difference? Have you had to give one?

Here’s Lexie suffering though:

Mum sat on the end of the bed, and wouldn’t look Lexie in the eye.

Oh no. Oh no!

Lexie buried her face in the pillow. “Please, please tell me this isn’t a sex talk.”

Mum cleared her throat. “You and Jerome seem serious, love. I don’t think I’d realised just how serious until I saw you together today.”

Well, at least there was irrefutable proof she was a hell of an actress.

“I am eighteen years old,” she groaned. “I know what goes where. Seriously, you don’t have to do this.”

“Trust me, I’m not enjoying it any more than—”

“Then don’t do it. I beg, I implore you.”

“Love, Jerome isn’t like the boys you go to parties with back home.”

No kidding.

“I just need to know you’re prepared.”

Lexie stuffed her face deeper into the pillow, and really wouldn’t have been surprised if her blush turned it red. “This is, like, child torture.”

Mum made an annoyed noise. “I can get Mum up here to give you the lecture instead, if you like.”

Lexie gasped and her head shot up. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Mum just raised an eyebrow and Lexie was forced to give in to her superior tactics. “Okay. Give me the talk. Wait – can you tweet it at me? 140 characters or less?”

Mum rolled her eyes and blushed a bit and looked really awkward again.

The irony was not lost on Lexie. All this trouble, when Jerome was the last man on earth she was actually going to be having sex with.

“Um, condoms,” Mum said. “No matter what a boy – er, a man – ever says to you, no matter how convincing he sounds, you never, ever have sex with him without a condom.”

“Well, duh,” Lexie said, which just proved how embarrassed she was. She was normally much more eloquent.

“I know you think you know about condoms, but, well, sex does actually feel better without one. You’ll probably even want to try it. Don’t. Just – please, don’t. It won’t ever be worth it.”

“Okay,” Lexie mumbled. Maybe if she just went with it, it would be over quicker.

“When you’re in a long-term, committed relationship then you can start thinking about maybe not using condoms.”

Dear God, argh! She was going to kill Jerome for putting her through this for nothing.

“But the most important thing I want to tell you is far less easy.”

Something in Mum’s voice – something serious and finally unembarrassed – made Lexie look at her.

“Lexie, as a woman you’re going to feel like you need to please your partner. Like all the pleasure in sex is about being something that he desires. You’re going to think you have to make certain faces and pull certain poses and that it’s good sex if he wants you. That’s all crap. That’s the kind of sex society has told you to have in a million little ways you can’t even see. The only kind of sex you should be having is the kind that gives you pleasure.”

So, on the up side Mum had remembered about feminism. On the down side Lexie wanted. To. Die.

“And I won’t ever do anything I don’t want to,” she said in a rush. “And I should only have sex if I think he respects me. Yep. Got it. We had Sex Ed in, like, year eight. I think that just about covers it, don’t you?” She gave a giant, panicked yawn. “So, um, I’m really tired. I’ll probably just go to sleep now. I’ve got to be up at 4:30. Goodnight!”

Mum shook her head, but looked relieved, too. “One day you’ll have to do this with your kids,” she said, standing up. “Then you’ll feel sorry for your old mum.”

Lexie had never heard a more convincing reason not to have kids in her life. Good thing her prospects for having sex with anyone were nonexistent.