define normal


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.



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.


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!

Comments 15 Responses

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  2. Lauren James

    What a wonderfully refreshing topic. Sex is such a personal thing, and in writing, it can be hard to approach it with a fresh outlook. What one person finds sexy, others may not. I know that I quake a little before writing a scene, but I think if there is a realistic and sincere motivation for the character’s behaviours, emotions and physical reactions, then (hopefully) you can’t go too wrong.

    I am intrigued by the premise of Ruthie’s story, and will be sure to check it out.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Sex really is one of those topics we’ll talk about forever and never solve. Makes for great conversation, though, which is much more interesting than killing the topic by solving it.

      I think your approach to sex scenes is spot-on. We all understand sex as a vulnerable context, so a sex scene can be powerful when characters are in their vulnerability, and all the confrontation that entails – or when they’re cut off from vulnerability altogether, which brings interesting tension. Among about a million other permutations!

  3. anna cowan Post author

    When I wrote that post about the masturbation scene I was just starting to think critically about sexual dynamics in romance – and I think I had the naive idea that all romance heroines should be champions of the feminist cause, and let no patriarchal desire near them! I’ve since realised it’s a lot more complicated than that :-).

    One of the things I loved about that scene, that I only articulated to myself after I’d written the post, is that Lexie doesn’t feel like she’s taken something from Tom by fantasising about him. (And who wouldn’t fantasise about him??? It’s just sensible, really.)

  4. Merrian

    Fascinating stuff – I haven’t read the book cos I have a mental block with most contemporary m/f romance and clearly should get over myself.

    I am really interested in Lexie doing something for herself in this masturbation scene. I think most female masturbation in the sorts of PNR or UF I most often read is presented as a substitute for the partner who the woman doesn’t have or have access too and most often she fails to orgasm because of this construction. As a general thing in the genre it seems to me, a woman’s sexuality is not able to exist on its own as its own thing, nor be autonomous.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      This scene is fully autonomous, which is why it had such an impact on me. She’s fantasising about Tom, but not “stealing” something from Real-Tom. I know that reluctance to read certain sub-genres, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. We only have a finite amount of reading time! But this is the kind of book to venture out of bounds for.

  5. Lege Artis

    Hi, Ruthie!

    I adored both About Last Night and Ride With Me. Your work was actually revelation for me, ’cause I felt a bit let down with majority of adult fiction following the formula of Fifty books. I knew immediately your work and me are going to have nice relationship. (…and that didn’t sound strange at all…)
    Heh, you’re right. Apparently, female masturbation has same reputation as showing bare ankles in Victorian England did: Everybody are doing it, nobody talks about it and every man who sees that immediately becomes overwhelmed with lust. 😉

    1. Ruthie

      Hi, Lege Artis! Thanks for reading, and I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the books.
      Everybody’s doing it? THANK GOD I THOUGHT IT WAS JUST ME.
      You’re right, though — that’s funny. 🙂

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  7. Kaetrin

    Well, as I only read (and loved) Ride With Me about a week or so ago, I remember this scene pretty clearly! What I liked most about it actually was that Tom knew what Lexie had been doing and was turned on by it. It only made me like Tom more. It fit Lexie pretty well too actually because her character is set up to be able to take care of herself – so why should she not be able to take care of herself in this way also? And, women do fantasise – it’s not just a male thing. So there was all that. And, until I just wrote it all out here, I hadn’t realised I’d given it that much thought. Well. How about that?

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I loved the fantasising element, too. Especially because she wasn’t punished in any way for “using” Tom. She wasn’t impinging on him in any way. And it’s so gorgeous how she’s embarrassed when it’s obvious to him what she’s been doing, but that doesn’t make her feel bad about doing it.

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