by Irene Vartanoff
Sex is a controversial topic. But romance novels are by definition about the establishment of an intimate relationship, and intimate relationships involve sex. Thus it is proper and correct for some level of sexual expression to be included. How can you have a romance novel without at least acknowledging the age-old attraction between men and women? Deciding the level of sexual expression in your novel is the big question. And first you need to decide on your approach.
Which approach is best? One approach is simply to feel your way as the story is written, writing whatever sex scene seems appropriate at the moment. The downside is that you can get caught up in describing passion that perhaps doesn’t belong at that point in the story. Or even in the story at all. The opposite approach is to plan in advance exactly where a kiss happens, where there is lovemaking and so on. Both methods should be open to modification as the story actually takes shape. Sex scenes are not sacred and must be edited as ruthlessly as any other aspect of a story.
How much? There are many levels of sexuality common in romance novels today, from the squeaky clean type that is mostly about loaded glances, palpitating hearts and chaste kisses, to lushly erotic stories in which every scene is a sex scene and the story is an also-ran (see romantica). A lot of romance writers first consult the writers’ guidelines issued by publishers, to determine how much and what kind of sexuality should be expressed to fit the manuscript to their readers’ expectations. And writers also consult their own personal tastes. Some writers are not comfortable writing sex scenes and simply do not include them in their stories. This might be fine for some inspirational and what are often called Christian romances in which sex is discouraged. But for a blazing hot, spicy line of romances, avoiding all sexual contact or even sexual thoughts would be the wrong way to go. You have to choose. And then maintain the same level of sexual expression, whatever it is, throughout the story. No tacked-on sex scenes at the end if the characters never evinced any interest in sex previously!
A note about romantica. There is a popular romance subgenre that is all about the sex, but is still a romance. Some people call this romantica or erotica, and the distinctions are still being debated. Most people say that regardless of how sexy it is, a romance is primarily about relationships. And erotica is primarily about sex. In both kinds of stories, the sex is frequent, detailed and often unconventional. But a lot of romance writers believe that erotica should not be considered a subgenre of romance. Hence the temporizing term romantica to describe stories that incorporate a lot of sex but still have a strong romantic backbone. How a publisher wants to market the book may determine its official category, regardless of its actual content.