When Sex Gets Boring

Yes, really. In certain circles, there seems to be a general malaise with the standard tropes of m/m sex. Anyone who’s dabbled even slightly in the genre will know exactly what I’m talking about – a trope best described as 1-2-3-lube. If you don’t know, don’t ask!

Sometimes, it seems like every book contains the same damn scene. And while it might have been hot as hell the first time I read it, after the hundredth it’s just…boring.

Sex has essentially the same mechanics however you write it – insert Tab A into Slot B. Making that seem fresh and new and exciting has been a challenge human beings have been striving to meet since the beginning of time – because no matter that we all know how it goes down, we have an insatiable appetite for reading about it. And when we read about it, we want it to be different; special; unique.

That’s a pretty tall order.

Yet it is possible. We’ve all, I’m sure, read scenes that were just plain hot. But what starts as hot soon leaves us cold if it keeps getting repeated. And in m/m in particular, I’m afraid, I’m left cold more often than not. And it’s not just me. Dip into the reviews on Goodreads sometime, you’ll see the same comments over and over – I skipped the sex scenes; It was the same old scene again; I’m getting bored of reading this…

I think there’s a couple of reasons why this is the case. Firstly; most of the authors of m/m are not gay men. Their experience of how men have sex together is, by default, limited. So what they write is an act cobbled together from received wisdom – how they think anal sex between men goes down. Which is where we get the 1-2-3-lube trope from. In fact, I’ve seen authors slated in reviews for not following that trope – I’ve seen reviewers who I’m certain have limited – if any – personal experience of the act in question denouncing an author for writing it any other way. When, in fact, that very trope is inaccurate. I don’t want to get too far into TMI territory here, but if you’re relaxed you’ll find that Tab A will fit into Slot B without too much difficulty, and certainly does not necessitate forceful stretching of said Slot prior to insertion of the Tab. After all, you don’t stretch yourself open before going to the toilet, do you?

But more than that, the perception seems to exist that anal penetration is the primary sex act for gay men – that unless a dick is inserted in a hole, they’re not really having sex. All the rest is foreplay.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I know many gay men who rarely – if at all – engage in anal sex. There’s a hundred and one reasons why that is the case: whether it doesn’t turn you on, or it’s too uncomfortable, or you don’t know or trust your partner well enough at that particular point, or you’ve had a big dinner and you don’t fancy someone rummaging around down there quite just yet, or you simply aren’t in the mood. Doesn’t mean there’s not a hundred and one other things you can do that satisfy you both and make you squeal.

The good news is that the backlash against this type of scene is starting, not only in reader circles, but among authors. I’ve been privy to a dozen conversations where groups of authors writing m/m – male and female, gay and straight – are pushing back against the imperative to write such scenes. Because sometimes it does feel like an imperative – for every reader saying they skipped the scenes because they were boring, there’s another crying bloody murder because you dared to mix it up. (And which of the two do you think leaves the lower review???)

It’s something I’m playing with myself in my own fiction. Both the Victorian pieces I’m writing at the moment have characters who won’t have penetrative sex. In my first pair, one character will suffer from PE; in the second, one of my guys is so screwed up about his body that even holding hands seems positively deviant. Sex isn’t a cure-all, as it sometimes seems to be in fiction. All your problems won’t miraculously melt away just because you’re presented with the right dick. Finding a way to navigate your insecurities and your problems and – yes – your sexual inadequacies, is perhaps the most romantic thing of all. Finding someone who loves you and will work with you to attain mutual satisfaction in the bedroom when you’re simply not capable of swinging from the chandeliers.

We are at a point in our evolution when we understand more about diverse sexuality than at any time before. More and more people identify as asexual, for example. Doesn’t mean there’s more asexuals out there now than there were a hundred years ago, but they’re more visible, and they’re getting more representation in literature. There seems to be a move in romance and erotic fiction circles towards pushing boundaries – more of everything is the order of the day – harder; faster; longer; kinkier. Polyamory and BDSM are two elements on the rise in fiction of all heat levels. I wonder sometimes if the growing m/m market isn’t also part of that trend.

So it thrills me that I don’t seem to be alone in calling a halt to the relentless gallop towards the-same-but-bigger that seems to be happening in other areas of erotic fiction. I began this move quite unintentionally with the character of Fenton in my Lost Realm series. My asexual vampire has divided readers like no other character I’ve created. But I’ll happily take a hundred – a thousand – 1* reviews from readers who want more from him than he can offer, in return for a single email from someone saying that it was only by reading that book that they began to understand their own (lack of) desire; or that for the first time they’d seen their life reflected in fiction. I grew up queer and I know what it feels like to endlessly devour books that even vaguely address your own feelings, desperate to find somewhere that you fit in. I’ve had those emails, and more besides, and it’s the greatest feeling in the world to know that as an author you’ve created something that not only kept someone entertained for a little while; but maybe even changed their life.

Sometimes I think those who are sexually other, whose desires are simpler or just don’t conform to the ruling norms, must feel terribly left out in the annals of fiction. Worse, when every experience fails to reflect your own – when it looks infinitely better by comparison – when the characters can all get it up and keep it up, when they don’t come too soon, when they are free and easy with their model-perfect bodies and have spectacular sex every which way – it must leave you feeling terribly insecure and inadequate.

And who said you need penetration for sex to be sexy anyway? Who said you need sex? A lot of romance readers I know – myself included – devour the angst, the emotions, the UST, above and beyond the actual acts. It’s the connection with the characters that we really want, we’re emotional vampires feeding off their agonies and their ecstasies. We don’t (necessarily) need to read about fluids and slapping skin to do that. One of the hottest scenes I’ve read recently was a piece of m/m fanfic where one of the MCs was impotent. But lawd, did those guys let it hold them back? Not on your life.

I intend to take romance back to basics. To show the joy and the pleasure that can be obtained through little touches; small intimacies. The brush of fingers against the palm of your hand or the inside of your wrist. The slow build up, extended foreplay, kissing for its own sake, not because it’s the done thing to get you laid. There won’t be any BJ-swollen lips or relentless poundings where I’m going. I’m taking two very different couples on a journey towards exploring, understanding and accepting each other, and learning to love best what an outsider would consider a fault in their beloved. I hope, when the time comes, you’ll come on that journey with us.
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Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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12 replies on “When Sex Gets Boring”

  1. There was a reason I didn’t feature any penetrative sex in the first book of my trilogy (I was actually quite proud of doing it that way, even though it got me some “there was no rea sex” sort of comments, which made me steam at the ears a bit.) I made a very deliberate point of showing the characters having other kinds of sex and eventually deciding to branch out into anal. And then afterward I made a point of including scenes where those characters still engage in non-penetrative sex even after they’ve decided to incorporate that into their repertoire, to avoid giving the impression that it was some sort of peak they were working toward, the ultimate goal.

    I do admit, so far in my books I’ve used some finger-stretching in a number of sex scenes, but that was because the character is new to teh buttsecks. But I’ve also made a point of bypassing stretching with characters who are experienced bottoms.

    I recently had a fun time writing some fail!sex between two young men who were completely ignorant about lube. That was a good time. 😀 I also have a scene in a manuscript I’m presently at work on describing what happens when a character who is “hung like a bull elephant” is someone’s first partner. Realism FTW!

    • Kate Aaron says:

      lol is it TMI to say that’s how one of my friends was, ahem, deflowered? Didn’t walk right for a week…

      Failsex is great when the partners involved are comfortable with each other, because I think we’ve all been there when something’s not gone quite according to plan. You need to laugh at sex, not take it so seriously.

    • Yeahhh my boy with the hung guy isn’t gonna be walking properly, either. The story, without getting into too much detail, is predicated on a fuck-or-die trope so he doesn’t even have the option of taking a few days to heal up afterward, poor guy.

      I feel terrible for him. Truly.

      And I love coming up with reasons for characters to laugh during sex! It’s one of the reasons why I was so glad Derrick decided he was a giggler in the afterglow. 😀

    • Kate Aaron says:

      *sigh* I do love those guys…

    • *hugs* Thank you! I do, too. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that I’ll be done with them soon.

    • Kate Aaron says:

      You think you’ll ever be done with them????? 😉

      Seriously, the closer I get to the end of my little fantasy series, the less likely I am to say “And that’s it forever!” Doesn’t help that half a dozen new characters came forward in the last book and all insist they have interesting stories of their own to tell, lol.

    • LOL well, if it were a book with any other characters, I would leave the possibility open, but the Impulse trilogy it’s a little more complicated.

      As I’ve mentioned in a couple interviews, Gavin is actually strongly based on a roleplay character created by a friend of mine (my character was the one who became Derrick; we played this ‘ship in the RP.) So as a matter of courtesy, I have to consult with her — and, really, allow her veto power — over anything I do with that character and thus, the pairing. Since we’ve already run into a couple issues that have made it clear I’m better off not giving anyone that sort of control over my creative process, I decided it would be better for our friendship and my sanity for Velocity to be the last book I write about the two of them. I might someday write some supplemental ficlets or short stories. We’ll see.

      So. Maybe someday I will have another pairing who lives entrenched in my brain as strongly as this one does, but yeah, I’m definitely done with writing stories about Derrick and Gavin.

    • Kate Aaron says:

      God dammit, another RP-er! It seems I have missed out on something the rest of the world and his wife have all been playing behind my back *pouts*

  2. mary grimm says:

    I love your long, insightful essays.

  3. Fenraven says:

    I started writing a book about an asexual man a couple years ago. I stalled out on it, thinking no one would be interested. I think you’re correct, though, about backlash being the impetus to create compelling new characters. Writers, me included, should be brave enough to buck the trend, whether it’s sexual or something else. That’s how new ground is broken, and also how new bestsellers are made. ;/

    • Kate Aaron says:

      I can’t say that writing about the fringe will – at the moment – earn you a bestseller; it’s still likely to put off more people than it attracts. I’ve lost count of the reviews from people disappointed that Fenton doesn’t just “get over it” (as it were) and start making with the bunnysex. But if that’s how a character comes to you – flawed but beautiful (IMO) – then that’s how you have to write them.

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