How Steamy, Exactly? Expectations About Sex in Romance Novels

I’ve been a romance reader from the time I was old enough to buy my own books — or, to be honest, from the time I was old enough to convince my dad that I needed a book instead of a comic when he took my two younger brothers and me on an evening “expedition” to Mayfair News (probably to give our mother a break).

Mayfair News was full of newspapers from all over the world, an enormous selection of comic books and magazines, and a wire carousel of romance and suspense novels. There was also a glass-topped freezer chest full of Popsicles and Fudgsicles and Creamsicles and Revellos. I loved those late-night adventures with my dad and brothers; in retrospect, we were probably home for bedtime at nine, but it was dark out.

I’m pretty sure my dad has never read a romance novel, so I’m assuming he had no idea what went on inside those shiny covers with their embossed swirly titles and partially-dressed couples. He probably didn’t even look at the covers too closely, being more interested in The New York Times and The Guardian, and in any case, the comics my brothers chose must have provided some camouflage.

But there was nothing terribly shocking in those old-school romance novels, anyway. Oh, some throbbing members and moist centers, most likely — enough to make a teenage girl blush and giggle. Still, as I recall it, the sex was mostly vanilla and not that big of a deal. I coveted those books for the love stories and the feelings and the drama, and the happily-ever-after endings they guaranteed.

How Steamy, Exactly? Expectations About Sex in Romance Novels

As romance readers, we all want to ride that love story roller coaster and disembark into the warm glow of happily ever after.

But what about our expectations of sex in romance novels?

When you read a romance novel by a new-to-you author, do you go into it with preconceived expectations about how much sex there will be? How explicit/descriptive do you assume the sex scenes will be? How kinky do you expect it to get?

We’re obviously not talking about Christian romance or inspirational romance here. I think everyone recognizes that those are firmly planted in the “sweet” category (where the sex is closed-door, saved for marriage, maybe even saved for an implied honeymoon after the book ends at “you may kiss the bride”). Definitely no whips and handcuffs. I’m sure exceptions to the rule exist, but the general comfort level is clearly defined.

We’re also not talking about erotica, because the expectations there are pretty clearly defined too. There’s nothing wrong with erotica — it is, and has always been, fiction focused on the sexual journey of the protagonist (self-discovery, awakening, exploration, healing, whatever that happens to be). As such, the nature of the genre is explicit and the exploratory nature of it invites boundary-pushing.

So, let’s say the book you pick up is a contemporary romance (I’m thinking about contemporary because that’s where Rock Star’s Heart fits in, but the same question applies if you’re into romantic suspense, paranormal romance, or historical romance). It’s a given that the main characters fall in love and develop emotionally, but what do you expect from the book in terms of sex scenes? Are you disappointed, or do you consider that the book has failed you, if it doesn’t meet those expectations?

I have to admit that I’m a little worried about this, as a writer. Many medium-heat romances (at least, what I’d consider medium-heat) seem to all but carry warning labels letting readers know they won’t be getting a barrage of steamy scenes, while others (that strike me as similar in heat) are labeled 18+ or Adult. One-star reviews for both “too much sex” and “not enough sex” are common, because there’s no standard scale to measure what you’re getting in advance. And everyone has particular words they love to hate, too — clinical and anatomical words, euphemisms, slang terms, and descriptive words that trigger ick rather than yum.

How can I describe the steam factor of Rock Star’s Heart in terms that will mean something to you, the individual reader? There’s sex, but not on every other page, and not till well into the book. It’s not kinky, because these characters didn’t develop that way, but it isn’t all tender and slow either. Body parts and fluids are mentioned on a couple of occasions, but not in, ah, veiny detail. Like Goldilocks and the porridge — is it too hot? Not hot enough? Just right?

Add Rock Star’s Heart to your Goodreads TBR now!

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Red Herring Jealousy

Three of the last five romance novels I’ve read have had jealousy as the major source of conflict that keeps the couple apart… and in all three cases, the jealousy was unfounded, a total red herring to create plot where there isn’t any.

Obviously, there has to be something standing in the way of the couple’s happiness. There wouldn’t be much of a story in a chance meeting that results in a kiss and all those nice tingly feelings, logically followed by a courtship in which the pair get to know each other and only uncover good things, followed by a sweet love scene and/or wedding (order of events to be determined by the type of romance & readership involved). So yes, we need conflict. But I’m starting to have a problem with stories where only unfounded, undisclosed jealousy is keeping two otherwise sensible and loving adults apart.

Idiotic Assumptions

It’s one thing when one character jumps to conclusions about the other on relatively solid evidence — things seen or overheard that a reasonable person would interpret as signs of an affair. I’m relatively tolerant of these “misunderstanding” scenarios, particularly if there’s no opportunity for the couple to actually talk to each other about what really happened, and even more so if the character development makes the wrongful assumption more likely.

The idiocy comes in with the idea that any opposite-sex contact must mean an affair.

Even leaving aside the heteronormative and reductionist aspects of that idea, it’s such a weak reason to keep two madly-attracted people apart (particularly when they choose not to discuss it or try to work it out). I mean, when Annie is so distraught she’s unable to eat or sleep because Bobby had a midnight phone call from a female voice she refuses to ask him about, or Bobby is ready to give up on love and enlist in the army that very minute because Annie was seen talking in a corner with an unidentified man — gah!

Which brings me to…

Pride As A “Flaw”

Okay, too much pride is a real flaw, when it causes the person to do things like look down on others and even treat them as lesser beings… self-satisfied pride in oneself, that is, especially regarding born-to-it attributes (see Pride and Prejudice if still not clear). But pride as in having self-respect and dignity? Not a flaw.

Red herring jealousy can only function as a plot device if the couple can’t or won’t talk about it. The minute Bobby tells Annie that the phone call was from his estranged half-sister, or Annie tells Bobby that her best friend’s husband just wanted help planning a surprise party for his wife, there’s no problem and they can move on to happily-ever-after. Now, I guess it can be tricky for the author to arrange circumstances so they can’t talk to each other about what’s bothering them, but far too many romance novels jump right to won’t talk, usually because of pride, of the s/he’d-tell-me-if-it-was-innocent-and-I’m-too-proud-to-ask variety.

Reason #1 that this irritates me: because pride-as-a-flaw conveniently allows the author not to give the character(s) any other more serious flaw. Oh, often it will be combined with “temper” — as in spunky, fiery personality, adding spice to the passion and all that (not a real needs-anger-management-classes kind of temper flaw, of course).

Reason #2 that this irritates me: because the resolution demands that the aforementioned pride be trampled on to sort things out. I’m pretty sure that very few authors intend the message underneath to be ugly, but ultimately it says your instincts are wrong and can’t be trusted, you need to lose your self-respect and dignity in order to be loved, and you need to end up humble and even submissive to qualify as a properly romantic character. Sorry, massive ick factor there.

And all the angst turns out to have been wasted and unnecessary, which is why I say…

Give Me Some Real Roadblocks

Three hundred pages of unnecessary heartbreak? Avoidable if only they’d just talked to each other and trusted each other? As a reader, I end up feeling that I’ve jumped through the author’s hoops like a circus animal — for nothing. Cheated. Miffed. It also makes me want to smack the characters for not talking and trusting like sensible people. As both a reader and a writer, I like real challenges for my characters. When they finally get to that happy embrace at the end, I want them to have earned it.

Even if it makes them not quite perfect, or even really not perfect. With all the communication and trust in the world, overcoming an addiction is a serious roadblock to happily-ever-after. So is rebuilding trust when there really has been an affair or betrayal of some sort. Or what about discovering that you’ve fallen for a con artist or thief or assassin?

And then there are countless ways in which outside forces can cause trouble. Serious illness? Financial devastation? Family conflict leading to a hard choice between love and kin? Military draft and deployment? Career advancement that would mean longer hours, a lot of travel, or a move to another city?

Not to mention all the potential conflicts of values and passions — the road won’t be smooth if the couple are on opposite sides of a polarized issue or hold opposing beliefs. No matter how deep and genuine both people are, how much they trust each other and care for each other, something will have to give somewhere if they’re campaigning for opposing political parties, or one wants a church wedding and baptized babies while the other is a committed atheist.

With so much rich material available, why settle for plots created with red herring jealousy?

As a writer, I’ve definitely come up with ideas that go there; it’s safer and easier than getting my precious characters into real roadblocks or finding anything truly sketchy in their psyches or pasts. But from now on, my reader-self is telling my writer-self to step up… and leave the red herrings where they belong, in mystery plots.

Jealousy is a green dragon, not a red fish.