Aug 3 2017 8:30am

Sex and Liberation, or Why Sex Scenes in Romance Can Matter

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Sex scenes in romance are a (excuse the pun) sticky business. They’re variant depending on the subgenre, they often rely on politics of beauty, and they’re mostly between two straight, cisgender white people.

Romance has clearly made efforts to go beyond the limited representation of what types of people engage in romantic and erotic sex. What’s perhaps even better is that the practice of these sex scenes, even for the characters that are not diverse, has an element of feminist thought. Specifically, sex scenes in romance can provide the heroine and, one can argue, the reader with an optimal sexual context.

Dr. Emily Nagoski, author of Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science That Will Transform Your Sex Life, defines context as such:

Context is made of two things: the circumstances of the present moment — whom you’re with, where you are, whether the situation is novel or familiar, risky or safe, etc.—and your brain state in the present moment – whether you’re relaxed or stressed, trusting or not, loving or not, right now, in this moment.

Nagoski then goes on to explain exactly how context applies to various aspects of sex. One key takeaway is that “perception of sensation is context dependent,” so the feeling of pleasure we get from something is relative to the larger environmental and personal factors surrounding the action.

SEE ALSO: Let’s Talk About Sex, or Not!

She uses several examples, one being the situation of spanking. Being spanked in a consensual sexual situation by a partner you mentally have decided to trust with that behavior is very different from suddenly being spanked by a random person on the street. Context is what changes those situations.

Nagoski also goes into how physical response, such as “getting wet” or “getting erect,” is often non-concordant with our personal ideas of pleasurable contextual sensations. So, humans can exhibit a bodily response during a totally unsexy time, or find something mentally sexy but have other barriers to that natural physical response.

While I could go on, as this book is a phenomenal treatise and guide to understanding sex as a three-dimensional element of cisgender women’s lives, I think y’all get the idea. Sex is complicated, and getting the right context with the right situation is rare in real life.

That’s where romance novels come in, and where the romance novel sex scene can be used to provide someone with a safe sexual context.

Creating an optimal sexual context in real life is damn near impossible. Nagoski defines us as having sexual “accelerators“ and “brakes.” A near-perfect context would be one with limited ”brakes“—lack of stress, full trust in a partner(s), self-body positivity—and access to our accelerators, anything from a hot bath with a partner to a roleplay scene to a stroke of the inner thigh. On top of that, accelerators and brakes are highly individualized, so exercising control over them isn’t always easy.

Romance novel sex scenes become a gateway to a controlled sexual context. For one, we know that romances have happy endings, and we know that the couple(s) introduced end up with each other. There’s an immediate sense of trust that the reader assumes upon the relationship of these characters as a result of this assumed happy ending. Where in real life there is a concern for the future, in romance there is an understanding that the journey leads to a happy end.

SEE ALSO: Turgid Rod, Dewy Petals: You’re Invited to the Euphemism Party!

This trust works in conjunction with the way the characters meet each other romantically and sexually. Not only is the reader able to read trust into their interactions, but the job of the romance author is to build a believable romance between the characters that expands upon trust and mutual compatibility. There is conflict that is often both internal and external, but that future happy ending allows us to ignore those conflicts as potential brakes in the presented romantic relationship.

Now, the actual belief of whether this succeeds or not is up to individual readers and their reactions to individual narratives. But, it says something that the very idea of a “successful” romance novel is a concordance in both a reader and authorial belief that the romantic and sexual lives of these characters are pleasurable.

Naked in Death by JD Robb

A great example is the Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb classic Naked in Death (Amazon | B&N | Kobo). While the extended series is equally grounded in both romance and mystery/thriller, the first book follows the beats of a traditional romantic suspense novel.

Naked in Death is a prime example of the romance novel of creating sexual contexts because of its heroine and hero. Eve Dallas is a heroine that is extremely skilled at her work and dedicates almost all of her waking time to it. Her main area of fulfillment lies in her police work. When she is alone with her emotions, she is still dealing with the aftershocks of domestic sexual abuse ad violence, which has contributed to her desire to be work-focused.

Eve Dallas is a character that has several strong sexual ”brakes." As a police officer, Eve often deals with people in situations of violence, including sexual violence. The beginning of Naked in Death visits Eve just after she kills a man that was extremely violent towards a young girl. Naked in Death also explicitly has a mystery surrounding a serial killer that targets sex workers. So, her work is giving her signal after signal for a sexual “brake.” In real life, and in the text, Eve Dallas is sexually still.

The difference between real life and the romance novel is that Eve’s sexual “brake” are able to slowly come undone in the context of the hero, Roarke. Roarke’s ability to be a total caregiver to Eve, a man above the law, above the class system, and effectively above/removed from the world Eve inhabits on the daily, makes him the perfect hero to provide her with a safe sexual context.

The thing is, the reader knows Roarke is a fantasy. We know he’s allowed to be both brooding and sensitive, simultaneously a pinnacle of emotionally stable masculinity and gender-breaking empathy. The hero’s ability in romance to occupy paradoxes that make him “perfect” for the heroine makes him a safe sexual context for her. After all, we often can’t trust even our most loved partners to occupy such paradoxes, but with a romance hero it’s expected within the genre.

Roarke is thus Eve’s catalyst towards finding her sexual accelerator. He’s a removal of the day-to-day world that reminds her so often of her trauma, Instead, he’s able to provide her with an unparalleled sense of both sexual and romantic desire that is assuredly returned. Roarke, being in pursuit of Eve long before she accepts her attraction to him, also gives her the safety net of knowing sexual contact will be welcomed and reciprocated.

SEE ALSO: Behind Closed Doors: Fade-to-Black Sex Scenes in Romances

In short: with Roarke, Eve has an environmental context of financial stability, removal from her day job, trust in mutual attraction, assuredness in Roarke’s empathy and masculinity, and, most importantly, a promise of safety because of his status as one of the world’s foremost security experts.

It’s her perfect sexual context. Eve, a survivor of extreme trauma, has a guarantee of emotional and physical safety, something that she would not have with nearly so much assurance outside of a novel.

What’s perhaps even more important is that the reader believes that Eve has this context. Roberts writes Naked in Death in such a way that proves Roarke’s ability to create and maintain an optimal sexual context for Eve.

As a result, their sex is more than just sex.

The sex scenes in Naked in Death are powerful accolades to Eve’s character and Roarke’s ability to offer her something literally no one else can. He provides her with the ability to have, receive, and give pleasure without hitting her sexual brakes.

 Genre romance will always be political because of the way others treat it based on its connection to women and femininity. While it is not perfect, or even close to perfect, in how it handles privilege and oppression, its status as a genre of femme origin and practice gives it the opportunity to be a radical space for sexual agency.

This also doesn’t mean that each sex scene in each romance novel provides a safe context. We’ve seen the publication of books that clearly replicate abuse dynamics, or unhealthy situations. Those books can work for some readers, some survivors, but not for everyone. We can, I believe, continue to advocate for and push romance to consider its sex scenes in a way that provides its readers with both (A) a place of comfort, and (B) a place of liberation through the process of context-exploration.

Some folks need comfort, some need a space to explore things in safe contexts, and some need both. I think genre romance novels are a radical way to create those spaces for each other, and why I believe the presence of sex (whether it’s closed-door or open, fade-to-black or deliciously raunchy) is a vital element of the genre, perhaps one of the most radical things about it.  

H&H Editor Picks:

Is Anal Sex in Romance No Longer Taboo?

9 Romances H&H Reviewers Loved in July 2017

August 2017 Romance Novels New Releases Shopping List






John is a student, reviewer, and editor with a taste for social justice.  He's queer/LGBTQ and has always loved a good romance novel.  A current student at Ithaca College, he is majoring in Integrated Marketing Communications and trying to pick up a creative writing minor on the side. If you observe him in the wild, you may see him reading—or find him watching reruns of The Golden Girls while sipping his first/second/third cup of coffee for the day.  You can find his reviews on his blog, Dreaming in Books, and listen to his random musings on Twitter @DreamingReviews.

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1. Make
I adore Emily Nagski's book Come As You Are!!
So much incredible information! Everyone should read it.

That being said, please correct the "break" comments to "brake"
the correct spelling for Emily's term of stopping or slowing sexual involvement. Your article will make much more sense that way.
Jennifer Proffitt
2. JenniferProffitt
Hi @Make, H&H moderator here--we've corrected the term to mirror Nagoski's use of the word. Thank you for pointing it out.
3. wsl0612
I was at Dr. Nagoski's presentation at RWA17 and it was excellent! She's straightforward and witty, the kind of person you would want to have in a discussion about sex :-)
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