Sex in Romance: Wait for It

By Poison Ivy,

Surprisingly, a lot of romance manuscripts have too much sex and not enough romance. I like to say they don’t have enough kisses, because usually what they are missing is the sweetness of the falling in love part of a courtship—the kisses. When you think about romance, you do not think about sex per se. You think about flowers and romantic carriage rides and moonlit kisses. Or maybe you think about overheated dance clubs, lots of ingested substances, cockeyed vision, and attractive strangers and stolen kisses outside the ladies room. There’s more than one kind of romance.

But romance needs to happen. As often as writers try to push instant sex into a story, editors take it out and demand that the characters get a chance to know each other. They must converse, conflict, and reveal who they are to the reader. It’s pretty hard to care about a hero or heroine the reader does not know. Yet I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I have read that contained an initial sex scene between people who either were strangers to each other, or strangers to the reader. Each scenario is extremely risky for a writer. To demand that the reader become instantly engaged with these characters despite lack of knowledge about them is asking for too big a leap too early in the story. To demand that the reader become a voyeur of a sex scene between strangers is to risk offending or boring the reader looking for a story, not porn. Thus an early sex scene tends to be the reverse of ideal in a romance. (Yes, a few masterful writers have pulled it off, but that has spawned imitation by far too many writers who just aren’t that good and who fail miserably.)

There still are some would-be romance writers who think that romance is all about the sex. No, no, no. Not to put too much of a feminist spin on this, that’s a classic male point of view, not a female point of view. (And many men don’t think this way. Contrary to what some people say, they aren’t all pigs.) As the writers of even the sexiest romances today have repeatedly shown, the tease is as important as the act. Modern romances usually do have sex in them. But what makes it a romance is the getting to the sex: the kisses.

A few decades ago, a hero and heroine might be so unable to openly articulate an interest in each other, let alone in having sex, that they would have to stumble physically into an embrace. Then they would lose all track of their sanity and kiss and carry on. Until the phone would ring and snap them out of it, and they would retreat from each other. Or the dryer would buzz. Reading about a dryer buzzing, while living in New York City with its dearth of laundry facilities in most apartments, was always a hoot to me. Yeah, I guess the dryer buzzing might stop some people from having sex. But I doubt it. Plot devices have gotten a good deal more subtle since then, but romance writers are still tasked with the necessity of showing that their characters desire each other, but also limiting that expression in many scenes in order to create sufficient romance. To prolong the pleasurable excitement that delay causes. And to give the reader a chance to catch up to the writer in knowing and caring about the main characters.

Sex is important, but plenty of romances would be fine without it, as long as they actually had romance. Some writers still have an imperfect understanding of what romance is. It seems simple enough, but a romance is a courtship. It’s the development of a stable intimate relationship. Years ago, the institution of marriage itself was supposedly the happily ever after. Now, we take things further and ensure that the hero and heroine are suited to each other and likely to be happy together.

Back to kisses. Really. Kisses. In a truly intimate relationship, the desire to kiss is relatively constant. We see old married couples kissing each other frequently. And the impulse to kiss is also relatively unchecked. At least if one lives in a society that allows public displays of affection. What the writer is trying to create in a romance is a relationship that grows from two people each in their own private space to two people who are constantly visiting each other’s space in the most natural and affectionate and desirous manner: they kiss. We all have our personal boundaries. Romance is about those boundaries changing. And that’s another reason why sex as such is not as necessary as kissing is initially. But it also explains why sex eventually is necessary, because it is the ultimate in crossing physical boundaries.

As parents we often urge our children to wait for their pleasures. We try to teach them that instant gratification is not as deeply satisfying as delayed gratification. And the people we consider the most mature individuals in our society are those who master delayed gratification. So it stands to reason that in romances we also expect a delay in gratification, with a deepening of the central emotional relationship as the payoff. It works. Every romance has its own pace, but waiting for the culmination of a building relationship is one of the great pleasures in reading romance. And enjoying all the kisses along the way is, too.

So, when you’re considering writing a romance, make the effort to tell a story in more than one breath. Allow events to unfold at their correct speed, and save something for later. And meanwhile, put in those kisses!