Jan 10 2013 1:00pm

It’s Not the Size of the Boat, It’s the Motion in the Ocean: Bad Sex in Romance from Balogh, James, and Grant

Look what you had, Laura Linney, it could have been so good!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.

Your Wicked Ways by Eloisa JamesAnother 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.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia GrantIn 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.

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Jamie Brenner
1. jamieloganbrenner
Elizabeth, I'm glad you wrote about this. I'm working on a novel now, a re-telling of Lady Chatterley's Lover. In the original, the heroine's husband is literally impotent from the war. In my modernization, he's simply lost his mojo in the bedroom. But writing the scenes is challenging because I worry about losing the reader's empathy for him and losing the reader's interest in them as a couple/believing in them as a couple. So I'm interested in these examples where it seems the author has explored this successfully.
2. pamelia
In Jennifer Crusie's "Welcome to Temptation" their first crack at sexytimes is followed up by the hero proclaiming something like "no-- I'm way better than that -- let me show you" and he does.
In Courtney Milan's "The Duchess War" their first time isn't anything to write home about either although they quickly sort it out.
I really hate to admit I read "Mr Darcy Takes A Wife", but I did and they had some pretty bad initial sexytimes there too.
Amber Belldene
3. AmberBelldene
Great post, Elizabeth. I find my favorite romances are the ones where the sex is awkward, fraught, and messy at first. That's real life. And I don't buy it when the conflict between the characters goes on pause for the sex and starts up again once they get dressed. I love the scene in Cecelia Grant's A Gentleman Undone, when the hero gives up trying to be noble in bed with the heroine.

I have kind of a high tolerance for what you've called "bad sex." As a writer of paranormal, I write sex that's necessarily dark and sometimes dangerous. Thank goodness for critique partners and editors to tell me when I've gone too far!
4. MelissaW
It's the last Burgundy Club novel, Confessions from an Arranged Marriage by Miranda Neville. When Blake and Miranda get around to consummating the marriage it doesn't go so well. There's pain, and definitely no "O" - it takes several tries spaced out over the book to get it working right. It mirrors the personal relationship, too, where the two characters get over their pre-conceived notions of each other to learn who they are as real people.
Olivia Waite
5. O.Waite
Awkward sex is so much fun for the reader, if not the characters. There's potential for comedy, tragedy, and the kind of heart-punching moments that definte romance at its very best.

I much prefer awkward sex to the kind of sex that's good for the characters but terrible for the reader -- sex that seems like a dubiously good idea, or an outright bad one. I read a scene in a novel today that was totally orgasmic for the characters, but the whole time I was yelling at the heroine: "He's aggressive, he's arrogant, he's jealous -- and you met him one hour ago! He grabbed you without asking in the bar! You tried to ditch him and he wouldn't let you! Why are you now having sex in his truck?"
6. JacquiC
I love this and am frantically taking notes here. I think there is a place for the books where the sex is off the charts to begin with. It is probably a lot of women's fantasy that when they meet "the one", he will know instinctively how to make sex earth-shattering without any awkward, embarrassing conversations or disasters in the bedroom. I find that hot.

However, I also find the opposite refreshing and hot in its own way. People are widely varied in what they like and what turns them on. It goes without saying that it should take a few tries to get sex right, even when you are madly in love with the other person. I figure being madly in love gives you the incentive to keep improving the sex, and when they get it right, it feels like a bigger emotional payoff in the story.
Carmen Pinzon
7. bungluna
Another Jennifer Crusie that has an initially auckward sex scene is "Faking It" The heroine cannot relax and enjoy the act until she gets to know the hero well and until he actually knows her.

There are several old category romances that had bad initial sex as part of the novel, especially in case of arranged marriages. Joan Wolf's "Margarita" is one, and Mary Balogh's "A Masqued Deception" is another.

I enjoy this much more than the instant-O fated mates kind because it allows me to take the journey of discovery with the characters. At the end of the book, the hea is more believable and satisfying.
8. willaful
My first encounter with bad romance sex, still a favorite, is the wedding night in To Wed a Stranger by Edith Layton. Layton was known for her more realistic first times, but generally they happen when the couple is already in love, so there's pleasure in the intimacy, etc, if not entirely in the act. In TWaS, as the title implies, they are married but essentially strangers, and the lack of any feeling between them leaves them both depressed.
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