Wed
Aug 5 2015 8:40am

Let’s Talk About Sex, or Not: Sexual Tension For the Win!

Sweet Agony by Charlotte Stein

As long as the romance genre has existed, it has had unimaginative critics.  Sometimes even before the word “trash” is uttered, we get “Mommy porn.”  Women should know their place.  If it’s something you enjoy, if it’s something you take pleasure in, it must be wrong, and nothing screams wrong quite like dismissing readers and suggesting they are “dirty” for liking something.  What these critics are really reinforcing is the old adage that women shouldn’t like sex, talk about sex, and heaven help them, they shouldn’t want sex.  The truth is that if these critics asked a large sample of romance readers why they enjoy the genre, “I read it for the smokin’ hot sex!” is pretty far down on the list, if it’s on the list at all. Oh dear, silly, hopeless naïve critics. We don’t read romance for the sex. We’re looking for all the delicious things that lead up to sex. The tension, the chemistry, the foreplay, two characters who are beginning to realize that taking on the world together is ever so much better than taking it on by themselves.

To illustrate this point, all three of these recent releases, of wildly varying heat levels, illustrate that it’s the not the actual falling into bed we love – it’s the journey the characters take to get there.

Charlotte Stein writes erotic romance, a sub-genre that one would think would be “all about sex.” Except, of course, that it isn’t.  Good erotic romance knows that it takes more than pages of kink and fetishes to make a story “hot” – to make the romance work.  In Sweet Agony, Stein takes anticipation to a boiling point featuring a young woman looking to escape poverty and despair and a young man with a mountain of entitlements emotional stunted by a past he’s unable to break free of.  So haunted by a traumatic past, our hero is emotionally crippled at the mere thought of basic human touch.  Which makes navigating a sexual attraction particularly tricky, but leads to a story filled with tension.  That old saying about the brain being the biggest erogenous zone?  Yeah, that.

He just did the equivalent of throwing everything in on a pair of jacks, so sure I would back down that he barely saw the straight flush lurking in the river. He was too explicit, too rude, too eager to say that word: spanked.  He should never have said spanked. Maybe he could have to someone else, someone who cares only a little, someone less like him. But I am not nearly so closed off, nor so silly.  And when he pushes, I push back.

I glance over my shoulder. I meet his gaze. His face is so pale it could pass for a fainting lady’s. And I say with the most relish I can muster: “Would you like me to leave my dress down, or do you prefer a bare work surface?” followed by the longest silence the world has ever known. It goes on and on and on, and the longer it does, the worse it gets. If nothing happens in the next thirty seconds I am almost definitely going to die.

The Fighter and the Fallen Woman by Pamela Cayne

In The Fighter and the Fallen Woman, Pamela Cayne is working within a sensuality landscape that is fairly typical for the historical romance sub-genre.  It’s in that middle ground between just-kisses and erotic romance.  What this story features is a forbidden sexual attraction between a boxer/hired thug hero and a prostitute/mistress heroine who both happen to work for the same dangerous crime lord.  The tension between the two hits a boiling point even before the reader is out of the first chapter, when our villain suggests his mistress kiss his fighter for “good luck,” something the hero, King, is reluctant to do.

“Come, King, it’s only a kiss,” Lady said, deliberately pitching her voice low. She would give the kiss and pray her trembling barriers would hold, keep her safe against the desire to close her eyes, breathe in his scent, and feel for one moment that a fighter and a fallen woman had a future together.

“Lady, you should know when it comes to you, it’s never only anything,” he whispered so that only she could hear.  “It’s everything.”

He grabbed her hand only for an instant, but it was long enough to brand his touch on her skin before he let go. Lady pulled back and her eyes drifted open, her held breath slipping from her mouth and into his. King was right. This would never be only a kiss.

Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist

Deeanne Gist started her career writing inspirational historical romances, but her most recent books have moved towards secular Americana.  This has been a move that has not been met with enthusiasm by all of her fans, and there is criticism, in some circles, that Tiffany Girl is “pornographic.”  This is laughable for the most part since the only love scene fades to black while the hero is helping the heroine out of her wedding ensemble….on their wedding night.  But upon closer inspection, these critics have somewhat of a point.  Gist does more with sexual tension in a “just kisses” historical romance than some erotic romance authors do with an encyclopedia of fetishes and a chest full of sex toys.  Things heat up for our hero and heroine when they agree to help a photographer take a series of photographs of them dancing so he can make a phenakistascope.

Now they were cheek to cheek. Flossie’s face, nearest the camera, shielded his. Her ear lobe peeked out from beneath her coif and was within an inch of his mouth. He resisted, resisted, then could resist no more. He took a gentle tug with his lips.

She closed her eyes, her lips there for the taking.

He didn’t so much as breathe.

“Okay. Ready?” Holliday settled himself beneath his shroud. “Just a few more shots.”

Holliday took them through the rest of the dance, one step at a time. When she had her face shielded by Reeve’s, she blew across his ear.

The stairwell was silent. The hallway was silent. The rooms were silent. He didn’t know where everyone else was on this sunny Sunday afternoon, but he was thankful they weren’t around.

He followed her back down to the first floor, narrowing his eyes. Were her hips swaying just a touch more than usual? Or maybe he was simply too attuned to her every move. When she began to enter her room, he grabbed her hand, hauled her to his room, shoved his door closed, pulled her against him, and took her mouth with his.

All of these authors employ the use of tension to increase the personal stakes for their characters.  Cayne introduces it to the reader from the very first chapter, in a first kiss scene the simmers and boils through the remaining early portions of the book and carry the reader to the eventual consummation.  Stein and Gist both go a different route, keeping their characters apart by circumstance.  Stein, with a hero who abhors anyone touching him and Gist with the social restrictions and mores of the time period. However, in the case of all of these books, something has to give.  All of these characters are mere mortals, after all, and tension can only go on for so long until someone eventually snaps.  It’s those delicious moments that lead up to the snapping that keep romance readers coming back for more.

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Learn more about the books mentioned in this post: 

Sweet Agony by Charlotte Stein  
The Fighter and the Fallen Woman by Pamela Cayne  
Tiffany Girl by Deeanne Gist  

 

 

 

 

 


Wendy the Super Librarian also blogs at WendyTheSuperLibrarian.blogspot.com. So dig that library card out of your pocket and head for the stacks.

 

 

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4 comments
Sonya Heaney
1. Sonya Heaney
I don't consider myself religious, but I've read a lot of inspirational historicals recently. Critics of the genre wouldn't believe me if I told them those books never contain any sex scenes!

I can think of exactly ONE time a romance book's most memorable scene was a sex scene (for other readers - I haven't read the whole series) and that was one of Jeaniene Frost's Night Huntress books.
Teddy Pierson
2. TeddyP
It is not about the destination... it's about the journey.
willaful
3. willaful
I'm currently in the middle of Stein's Forbidden, and ohmigod, what she does with the tiniest touch! I normally loathe "mental lusting" but she makes it an art form.
Wendy the Super Librarian
4. SuperWendy
Sonya: Me too. I know authors put a lot of working into writing them and probably don't want to hear this - but yeah, sex scenes tend to fade into the background rather quickly in my memory. Even with books I really loved. The one sex scene that has stayed with me over the years is one in I Do, I Do, I Do by Maggie Osborne. And folks who have read that book probably immediately know which scene I'm talking about :)

Teddy: Exactly. Some of my favorite books in recent memory have featured long, drawn-out tension filled scenes and we get, maybe one or two actual sex scenes. That's it.

Willaful: Oh Lord, I know right?! You need to read Sweet Agony, that book damn near killed me D-E-A-D. I got to the point where I was like, "OMG, when are they going to DO IT already?!?!?!" She does have her writing ticks, and I can understand readers not digging all the mental lusting and stream-of-conscious moments - but Lord she writes some of the best darn sexual tension in the business.
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