Long ago (when mammoths still thundered across the icy plains) I picked up my very first romance novel, and looked at the cover—at the man (with his shirt half open, revealing a chest rippling with muscle) clutching the waist of a swooning woman (her dress askew to reveal her perfect cleavage, and one hand pressed against her forehead like she was checking her temperature). And I said to myself, “This looks like a good read!”
Yes, I was far too young to understand what a throbbing manhood was back then, but then again, context is everything. It didn’t take me long to figure it out. 😉 I soon got savvy to what all the euphemisms (and there were many) meant in these old-school romance candies novels. They were fun, non-caloric, and laugh-out-loud funny even when they didn’t mean to be. (Those euphemisms…lol)
I probably read waaaaay too many of those romances where intimate scenes were very carefully worded. As I got older, the writing changed and the hints about what the hero and heroine were up to were less carefully written. Then I started coming across books that did away with euphemism altogether.
At this point, I’d never delved into the genre of erotica, but some of those scenes seemed to be seeping into romance, chipping away at the overly flowery language used to only hint at sex. I was appalled, yet fascinated, yet embarrassed now to be caught reading one of these books in public. Fortunately, everyone in my immediate family views reading as inhumane punishment, so I didn’t need to worry about little eyes peeking at anything older than an iPhone 5. My husband probably would read romance if he knew though, lol.
Over time, I grew accustomed to the more graphically described sex scenes, and while some still bored me to the point that I was skipping pages and pages to get through them (yes, that’s way too many pages in my opinion, but this is all opinion after all), I no longer felt any sense of surprise when I encountered these scenes.
I also recognized the value these scenes sometimes add to the story. Hear me out! Believe it or not, these types of scenes do serve a purpose in a lot of romance novels—a very important purpose that involves deepening the characters and the stories. Even the “old school” romance writers knew this, which was why they twisted themselves into knots trying to describe those important scenes without actually describing them. We wouldn’t have ever seen funny euphemisms at all if these scenes could have been completely cut from the book and still left the story as rich and rewarding as it was.
The following is a list of reasons I believe a closed bedroom door or a fade-to-black scene actually diminishes the depth of the story and its connection to the audience.
–The hero or heroine is alien—both in culture and appearance
This is one of my personal favorite tropes. I love alien heroes! The less human they are, the better, as far as I’m concerned. There are some excellent science-fiction romances out there where the heroes aren’t human, not even by a stretch. These stories are rich in character development, deeply engaging, and offer profound statements on heavy themes. The scenes within them are not intended solely to titillate, or even satiate our desire to see the hero and heroine consummate their relationship, but rather, they are there to highlight the tremendous gap that is being bridged by the hero and heroine in the service of their love.
You see, if a hero has physical differences from the heroine, then leaving the bedroom door closed when it comes time for intimacy is like cheating the audience out of an important part of the story. We have questions! How do things work? What similarities and differences are there in that area? Can they even do anything other than gaze soulfully into each other’s eyes? If the door is closed, the audience never gets the answers to these questions.
I personally don’t need pages and pages of graphic description, but I want to be in that room with that couple, because I want to see the awkwardness and the fumbling and the wide-eyed staring at something the heroine (or hero) has never seen before. I want to know how the hero reacts to the heroine’s touch, and vice versa. Are they nervous? Confident? Downright terrified? Or is their love so strong at that point that all they see is beauty, no matter how alien it is? There is so much character depth that can be built in this one scene of intimacy. It is in no way gratuitous. If you cut it out, you lose all that emotion, and all those moments of discovery.
–The hero and heroine come from different cultures
I love multicultural love stories almost as much as downright alien love stories! Even if both the hero and heroine are human in appearance, there is a lot to be gained by showing intimate scenes between them if they come from vastly different cultures. The first scenes are especially important. Everything from the first kiss to the first lovemaking are important elements to deepen the portrayal of the cultural divide the two lovers must bridge in order to solidify their partnership.
Does she accept his way of doing things, or will he embrace her way? Or perhaps they come up with a different way that completely veers away from either of their cultural norms. Are there cultural taboos that one or the other might accidentally break? What kinds of emotions are they feeling as they discover what is acceptable, what is desired, and what is distasteful to their partner, due to his or her cultural background?
Removing these scenes from a multicultural romance just cheats the reader out of experiencing this wide range of emotions and insecurities. Since the premise of the whole book is probably about this multicultural difference, an important part of the story is missing!
-The hero and/or heroine is nervous or afraid of intimacy
This is another time when the culmination of the romance can be as sweet as the buildup. Anyone who’s ever read romance has encountered deeply wounded characters that are afraid of intimacy because of past experiences. This is actually a fairly common trope in romance. The other fairly common trope is the virgin, who will probably be, at the very least, nervous about their first time.
So what does a graphic scene add to this story? Well, leaving the bedroom door open shows us how their partner handles their hesitance. Are they patient, allowing the reluctant lover to set the pace, or are they dominant, leading the reluctant one past their apprehension and discomfort? What steps do they take to soothe, or seduce, their partner into relaxing and enjoying the experience? Are they tender, or oafish? Do you see how much can be learned about the characters of both the hero and the heroine from the answers to these questions? These are all questions that would have no answers if the bedroom door was left shut.
Scenes like this are far from gratuitous. Even if—say the heroine—thinks back on how tender and patient the hero was during their lovemaking, we only have her word for it. How do we know she’s a trustworthy narrator? How do we know she’s even remembering it correctly? Besides, who wants to be told what happened, when it’s far more engaging to be shown?
–When plot points are revealed during intimacy
Let’s say the hero has scars that tell a story about something terrible that happened in his life. Normally, he covers them up. In the bedroom, he tries to keep the light off, but the heroine is stroking her fingers along the skin of his back and discovers them. What happens then? I suppose if the door is left closed and we never see this scene, we will be told later (because being told is so much better than being shown. L ) People let their guard down during intimate moments, which allows things to be revealed naturally to further advance the plot, rather than having those moments forcefully injected into the narrative. Scars, secret confessions released during a passionate embrace, memories recalled, etc. All of these plot elements can be skillfully woven into a sex scene to the point where the execution of them comes off as natural and only enhances the story.
–When other aspects of a personality can be revealed during sex
Suppose the hero is naturally reticent and reserved. If the bedroom door closes on his intimate moments with the heroine, we might never find out that he’s adventurous in passion and likes to experiment and explore. We might only assume that he’s just as reserved in bed, unless the heroine later tells us otherwise (blah).
The same goes for the heroine. Let’s say she’s very shy and quiet in everyday life, but she likes to talk dirty in bed and reveals another side of her personality we had no idea existed. The depth of development that can be achieved in one sex scene cannot be ignored.
These are only five points where sex scenes in romance are not gratuitous. I know there’s a lot more, and I’d love to see if anyone else can think of any in the comments below.
I try to write my romances using a light hand on any scene that I don’t feel furthers the story or the characters in any way. Sure, sometimes, I like to throw in a “slice of life” scene so readers can get an idea of how the characters are living day-to-day, but even then, I want it to say something about my characters or world. I do the same thing with sex scenes. If they can be cut from the story without taking anything away, then I usually don’t add them in the first place, but if they provide more depth to the character and plot, I will gladly add them. There is so much that can be learned about characters when they’re behind that closed door.
I just wanted to finish this up by adding that I’m not against gratuitous scenes in romance either. Many people enjoy them for their own sake, and that’s cool too.
I write both “clean” and graphic romance, because I want everyone to be able to enjoy my stories, and I know that some readers aren’t comfortable with graphic scenes. However, with some stories, I’m just not comfortable writing without them. Much of my writing is intuitive. I add what “feels” right to me. To be totally honest, it’s much harder to write the romances “clean” than to add that additional heat. I have to be more deliberate about how I answer all the questions I asked in each of the points I mentioned above. Sometimes, those questions simply don’t get answered, and I feel like the story suffers for it.
Let me know what you think in the comments below. Do these types of scenes bother you in books? (Books that are clearly labeled! I fully understand why you’d be frustrated if you didn’t know they’d be in there, when you didn’t have warning.)