How important is sex in romance?

The F-word? by Arjan Einbu (via Flickr)Because sometimes less is definitely more, especially when authors have to resort to bovine metaphors.

I have a confession to make: I have a potty mouth, which I (mostly) keep under control, but I don’t often like reading the f-word in romance. I don’t have a problem with the f-word in general, but it’s very much a matter of context for me. Words I skim over without blinking in erotica or romantica don’t feel right in romance. When I want to read something down and dirty and explicit, I go for a romantica, but when I read a romance, I expect my sex to be a little bit prettier. That doesn’t mean it can’t be hot, just less sleazy in its descriptions.

When a long-time favourite contemporary author started using the f-word in the love scenes in her later books, I felt a little bit sad. Even though she is a mother in her 40s-50s with many published romances under her belt, it felt like she, or her stories at least, had lost their innocence.

Maybe it’s because the more aggressive slang words for sex and sexual parts (fuck, prick, dick, pussy) make such excellent insults and curse words. Those words already have such strong and negative connotations that they feel out of place in a scene meant to demonstrate a connection and further develop a relationship between a man and a woman who will fall in love and spend the rest of their lives together. In my more unguarded moments, I may drop more f-bombs than is strictly necessary, but the one word I hesitate to use is the c-word. Strangely enough, I don’t mind ‘cock’. (BTW, that last sentence right there should demonstrate the importance of context.)

Right now I’m reading a paranormal romance debut by a new author, which I enjoyed until I got about halfway through and reached the first real sex scene after all the teasing. Suddenly the c-word jumped out at me and it threw me out of the scene for a minute. I continued reading and got back into it by the end of the page. When I turned the page, there it was again in the first paragraph. I almost groaned out loud because it didn’t improve upon repetition. I didn’t think it even belonged in a paranormal romance the first time.

Gordon Ramsay - Make mine milk ad
What happens when you cross the f-word with bovine metaphors

My perseverance was rewarded by getting to read about the human heroine’s ‘ridged nipple’ (was the other one normal at least?) and when the hero ‘milked her clit’ (do I even need to say anything to that one?). I think the most disappointing part was when the hero dropped the c-bomb at the beginning of a new sex scene.

I accidentally killed a fairy with this book soon after I started it, so I already know some things don’t turn out the way I expected, but while I think I like the story enough to see this book through, I’m wondering whether or not I’m going to bother with the next one when it comes out. I guess it’s not just the language (even though it’s the biggest contributor) but some cringe-worthy sexual descriptions as well that are putting me off, which is sad, because the premise of the series is promising, the writing in all other respects is engaging and the hero has interesting brothers. I just don’t want them even thinking about sex anymore because in the third quarter of the book, I’ve counted 8 c-words, 2 pricks and 1 ‘tits’. This does not bode well for the romance.

How important are the sex scenes to your enjoyment of romance? Do you skim them, skip them altogether or is their promise a drawcard for you? Are there words you don’t like or do you call a spade a spade? And what happens when you read bad sex in an otherwise good book? Does it ruin your enjoyment of the story as a whole?

Photo credits:
The F-word? by Arjan Einbu (via Flickr)
Gordon Ramsay And Pixie Lott Back New Milk Campaign by Marion McMullen (Coventry Telegraph)

Decadence's fascination with vampires can be blamed on Anne Rice and although she reads urban fantasy, historical romance, romantica and crime, her first and undying love is paranormal romance. She works in a bookstore and gets no sympathy for the sheer volume of work she brings home, not to mention the TBR mountain that will never be surmounted. Her guilty pleasures include (in no particular order) chocolate, pizza, sleeping in and Alexander Skarsgard and she is a final assessment away from holding a full pistol licence.

11 comments

  1. I usually don’t skip sex scenes unless they’re boring by being play-by-play accounts.  Just like I don’t need a play-by-play of the character getting out of bed in the morning, I don’t need a play-by-play of sex.  For some reason there are authors who feel like if they don’t explicitly explain every part of the sex we’re not going to get it like we’re all virgins, morons, or have no imagination.
    For me the sex needs to be realistic.  If it’s supposed to be tender romantic sex then I certainly don’t want the f-word or c-word showing up.  On the other hand, if it’s rough or angry sex I see no problem with using rougher language.  Context is everything.  Oh, and I hate metaphors and ridiculous imagery in sex scenes.  Straightforward writing is best, especially when it comes to sex.

  2. Tez Miller says:

    Decadence, you and I must’ve read the same book recently, because I also saw “her [something] milked his [something]” not too long ago. Unless bovine metaphors are widespread in the erotic romance genre, in which case…I’m scared!

  3. Kaetrin says:

    I don’t skim a sex scene unless I’m not really enjoying the book – in which case I am probably skimming everything.   (Although, I confess, sometimes I skim up to the sex scenes and then start reading *grin*) I prefer straight forward descriptions and I don’t particularly mind strong language in the right context.  I don’t find the f word romantic, but even in a romance there can be a hot and dirty scene which is perfectly suited to the word.  I don’t really like the purple prose which can be found in some historicals especially.
    A skilled writer can make me overlook words I don’t usually like to see, in the right context but a bad sex scene can really throw me out of the story.  I’m not sure I’ve read a book I regard as good but the sex scenes were bad – I’m not sure whether that’s because that would be enough for me to rate the book as “not good” or whether a bad sex scene is an indicator of other problems in the book that I will downgrade.
    Some of the most powerful sex scenes I’ve read have been not terribly sexy or hot but have revealed new aspects of a character or relationship and been very romantic because of the emotional connection/sacrifice involved.  I’m thinking in particular of one in Mary Balogh’s Heartless where the hero has sex with the heroine (at her request) for comfort when she is scared – the understanding and empathy the hero showed in this scene blew me away and made me totally love him but it isn’t a scene which is “hot” or “sexy”, even though the sex is integral to what is happening. That may not make sense to those who have not read the book – but if you want to know more, I highly recommend Heartless (it is my favourite Balogh)!  :)

  4. Anna Cowan says:

    :-) I love the idea of a hero comforting a heroine by having sex with her. He would have to be understanding and empathetic to an astounding degree, if that were going to work…
     
    I don’t really mind language in sex scenes, as long as it’s doing something within the contest. (Decadence, your mini-course in context made me laugh!) A sex scene has to be first and foremost a scene about the characters – to reveal and further them and their relationship. Jenny Crusie said somewhere that she sees sex like an argument – someone wins, someone loses.
     
    I must admit, I’d be pretty disappointed if I read a romance to the end and there were no sex scenes. They definitely achieve that sense of emotional fulfilment (I guess because so much of the relationship build-up is done through unresolved sexual tension).
     
    I don’t like really esoteric sex scenes – like when Stephanie Laurens’s heroines leave the mortal plane for a few hours afterwards… I like straightforward descriptions, but it’s pretty boring when they all start sounding like variations on the same list of first this then that.
     
    The best sex scenes are also fraught intellectual and emotional “games” between the characters, so that the erotica or sexiness of the scene isn’t in what they’re doing, but in what it means between them.
     
    Er, who knew I had so much to say on the subject? :-)

  5. Decadence says:

    Hi Caethes :) How do you feel about the softer nonsexual words for sexual parts, like centre, arousal or core? They’re not specific, but they (IMHO, at least) get the job done. And I agree that a sex scene shouldn’t be like a how-to manual, there should be some feeling organically incorporated into the writing, both emotional and physical.
     
    Tez, I’ve heard of men getting milked and tried not to think of him being squeezed uncomfortably between a thumb and a forefinger, if that’s how they do it on farms that don’t have machines. But it doesn’t seem to be too widespread, thankfully. This is the first time I can ever remember reading about this part of the female anatomy being milked and I think either the author or I should refresh our knowledge of sexual response because it just sounds wrong.
     
    Kaetrin, I avoid historical erotica because of the weird words they use for anatomy. But then someone like Robin Schone can use some really ridiculous language (not necessarily during sex itself) when her characters talk about sex and she makes it work because she acknowledges the indignity that goes along with sex but still finds a way to create an intimate scene, often between people who, for whatever reason, have been denied sex or even attention.
     
    This isn’t quite the first book I’ve read that was good but the sex scenes weren’t always great. It’s by far the most extreme example and it got under my skin. I’ve already complained about the worst of it here. My final count was 12 c-words, 4 pricks and 1 tits. Having said that, the remainder of those scenes weren’t so bad, but I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t going to be ambushed again. My hesitation over whether to finish the book was that I didn’t trust the author to take me on her journey. I rave about JR Ward (as the most obvious example on this blog) because even though I’m not 100% certain about where we’re going, I trust her to handle it well because she has for the most part over 10 books in 2 series. I love V, but there are things he’s done that would be dealbreakers for me if it was someone else and a lot of that must be due to Ward. I don’t have that with this new author. My opinion overall is that the book as a whole didn’t suck, but could have used a little bit of tweaking in those sex scenes. And I didn’t quite buy the resolution of the romantic conflict. But that’s another topic.
     
    I haven’t read Heartless, but it sounds like one I should add to my list. The whole sex as comfort thing reminds me of Zane Mackenzie, from Mackenzie’s Pleasure by Linda Howard. His heroine Barrie had been assaulted rather than raped, but the care he took with her from the moment they met cemented him as one of my favourite heroes.
     
    Anna, I didn’t know I had so much to say about the subject until this word kept jumping out at me. It’s not like it’s widely used in paranormal romance, at least none I’ve read so far, so that combined with my general dislike of it makes me feel it was inappropriate. The author blogged briefly about this word, so I would assume she’s had some complaints, but the comments to her post were supportive. If I didn’t already know, it would have shown that the line in the sand is in different places for different people.
     
    I think Angela Knight also said basically the same thing you did: the sex has to advance the relationship somehow. I find Crusie’s view interesting that in a sex scene, someone wins while the other loses. (On a tangent, I’m convinced that Waterloo by ABBA is a veiled BDSM song, not least because of the line, “How could I ever refuse? I feel like I win when I lose.” I was just reminded of that, but don’t get me started.) I should really read her.
     
    Stephanie Laurens’ early Cynsters were hot. I reread Devil’s Bride after I reviewed The Taste of Innocence and I have some of the same issues that you do. The writing has definitely changed. Funnily enough, there’s another occasion of a phrase the icks me, although nowhere near as bad as the c-word. I’ll keep reading her books because she still has a good track record with me as a reader.
     
    The stakes involved in sex are also extremely important. It’s possible to make a game of Scrabble hot, with the right stakes (Seducing Mr Darcy by Gwyn Cready). Most of the erotica I gravitate towards features BDSM and someone described it online as a “psychological seduction”. There’s more to it than inflicting pain and that’s what makes it so compelling.
     
    Maybe you and I aren’t such different readers ;)

  6. Anna Cowan says:

    haha, I think we probably are, and we generally argue the little points. I mean, come on, we’ve managed how many conversations over the details of a single (very complex) relationship?
     
    you must read Jenny Crusie. So good.
     
    But yes, I think the psychology is by far the sexiest part of a sex scene (Elizabeth Hoyt does this really well, inside of conventional-ish bounds).
     
    I’m reading the Lymond Chronicles at the moment, by Dorothy Dunnett, and she has written possibly the greatest anti-hero of all time. He is a masterpiece in the kind of psychology that makes a sex scene good (with a lot of withholding/sadist kind of kinks!) It is well worth a read.

  7. Decadence says:

    There is a BDB December update in your future and I’m sure we’ll find plenty to discuss there.
     
    Have you read Bet Me by JC? Is it one of her good ones?
     
    I’ve checked out the Lymond Chronicles, but to be honest, I think the reading will demand more from me than I’m willing to give at the moment. From what I’ve seen, you have to have a really good knowledge of foreign languages, quotes and history to get anything out of the books. They’d be like recent Stephanie Laurens for me: good story and writing but you really have to work for it.

  8. Anna Cowan says:

    yeah, you definitely have to work for it! I didn’t understand any of the literary references and hardly any of the French, but the Lymond character carried me through. Still, had to be very switched on just to connect the dots of what was happening.
     
    I haven’t read Bet Me, but I think that was a very early one for her. My favourite is Agnes and the Hitman, which she wrote with Bob Mayer (I normally don’t like the sound of collaborations, but this one really really works).
     
    I don’t know if I can bear another BDB update… though of course I’ll devour every single scrap. Urg. Isn’t March here already???

  9. Decadence says:

    Is it like Stephanie Plum with more action?
     
    The BDB December update is now up and it’s a good one! Or a bad one, depending. The wait is always hardest right before a release and right after you’ve read it.

  10. R.L Jackson says:

    “The best sex scenes are also fraught intellectual and emotional “games” between the characters, so that the erotica or sexiness of the scene isn’t in what they’re doing, but in what it means between them.” -well put

What do you think?