While romance novels can be written in a variety of ways, with countless combinations of settings, time periods, cultures, and conflicts, the genre is generally bound by two ironclad rules.
One, the hero and the heroine must live happily ever after.
And two, the hero must be an unrivalled god in the sack. Doesn’t matter if they’re in space—he’s experienced with zero-G lovin’. Doesn’t matter if he’s born into a time when female sexuality was ignored—he’ll be gifted with an insatiable sexual curiosity and a Teflon dick that resists all possible transmitted diseases. Doesn’t matter if the heroine was genuinely in love with her deceased husband—by the time the hero’s done with her, she won’t even remember her dead hubby’s name.
This isn’t an inherent weakness of the genre. Far from it; it’s important to show that the hero and heroine are sexually as well as romantically compatible. But who’s to say the hero has to start the novel as a sexual dynamo?
The more popular approach to romantic heroes is to introduce them as sexually proficient. They are almost always experienced, some to the point of squeamishness (dear historical writers: please tone down the orgy pasts—they’re gross). They know what they want in the bedroom and they know how to get it. The rare, lovely Virgin Hero usually makes up for his innocence with a faultless sexual intuition.
However, a few romance writers have taken a risk on a different tactic: writing a hero who is terrible at sex.
Take Sir Gerald Stapleton from Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel. He has very specific sexual tastes—he requires the heroine, Priscilla, to lie flat and unresponsive while he does his business. Despite his regular visits to her brothel, he’s never even kissed a woman before.
Another example is Rees Holland from Eloisa James’s Your Wicked Ways. He’s so ignorant about sex that his first sexual encounters with his wife Helene were terrible enough to result in their marital estrangement. Even his mistress cracks jokes about his hasty and selfish performance.
And then there are the heroes who, while sexually experienced, either can’t or choose not to push the heroine’s buttons. Mary Balogh gives us a thoroughly unpleasant and traumatic sex scene in the first chapter of The Secret Pearl, in which the hero, Adam Kent, takes and uses a prostitute who just happens to be the heroine on her first day “on the job.” He doesn’t go out of his way to make it unpleasant, but he takes her roughly and selfishly with no concern at all for her pleasure. The result is a horrific experience that leaves the heroine terrified and repulsed by him for more than half the novel.
Another example is Fletch from Eloisa James’s An Affair Before Christmas. While sexually experienced, he has the misfortune to marry an ignorant, gullible heroine who’s been raised to hate and despise sex by her despicable mother. Poor Poppy just wants the act over with, and doesn’t understand why Fletch wants to do more—and the two experience four whole years of terrible sex before Poppy gets her much-much-needed sexual awakening.
Finally, we have Theo Mirkwood from Cecilia Grant’s spectacular novel A Lady Awakened. The heroine, Martha, pays him 500 pounds to impregnate her with a false heir, but intentionally refuses to derive any enjoyment from the act. Their initial sex scenes are clinical and unpleasant, and so empty of emotion or involvement that Theo actually finds it difficult to pursue the activity.
So why are these novels still enjoyable? Why is The Secret Pearl a classic, and A Lady Awakened one of the best-reviewed romance novels of 2012?
The answer is simple: Because in these books, the sexual aspect of the relationship develops on a parallel course with the romantic aspect. The physical intimacy between the characters has to grow and develop the same way (and often because) their emotional intimacy grows and develops.
In Your Wicked Ways, as Rees’s feelings for his wife deepen, he’s no longer satisfied that their sexual encounters please him more than they please her, so he endeavours to learn, and in the process, learns more about his wife as a person. A Lady Awakened’s Theo tries a different method—he tries to impress Martha by involving himself in his landowning duties instead, so that he can ask her for advice. Not only does this earn him Martha’s admiration, but it improves him as a person by giving him goals, ideas and ambitions. Theo’s growing confidence and social awareness, coupled with Martha’s developing fondness for him, results in more successful sex.
For romance novels that follow the more popular route, the sexual compatibility is instant, often established during the first sex scene (if not the first instance of passionate eye contact), and is depicted as miraculous and inexplicable. The hero no longer feels attracted to any other woman. The heroine experiences sensations she’s never felt with another man.
These reactions aren’t really realistic or explained, but they’re part of the essential fantasy framework of romance. In poorly-written romances, it’s contrived and annoying and leads us to question the protagonists’ judgment. In well-written romances, this contributes to the wonderful “fated” aspect of their relationship, the idea that their bodies know the essential truth before their hearts and minds do.
However, the novels that exist outside this norm share a special place in my heart because they offer two stories instead of one—the story of how they learn to share their bodies as well as the story of how they share their hearts.
Can you name any other romance novels where the hero and heroine aren’t immediately successful in the bedroom?
Elizabeth Vail hails from Alberta, Canada. A book reviewer and aspiring YA writer, she currently runs the review blog Gossamer Obsessions under the screenname AnimeJune.