Recently on Facebook, I saw three separate conversations, all about the same thing. One was an author asking how much sex was appropriate for a book of X length (basically, did it need more than she’d written). Another was a different author asking if a book needed depictions of full penetration, or if other sex acts were enough given the length of the title in question. And the third was a reader saying she was X percent into a book and the MCs hadn’t had sex yet, but she hoped they would soon.
Spot the lowest common denominator?
It makes me laugh when I read threads of people saying sex content in romance doesn’t matter to them; that they like sex if it advances the plot but they’re not interested in PWP, and they’d rather have thirty chapters of meaningful dialogue and emotional growth than a single hard cock. It makes me laugh because I know it isn’t true.
I know it isn’t true because some of my books carry reader-to-reader warnings because they’re non-explicit. Because my bestselling book of last year was the one with the most sex, the worst-selling was the one with the least, and those in the middle lined themselves up in a row too uniform to go unnoticed.
I know it isn’t true because sex content is mentioned in my reviews more than any other aspect. Too much, too little, not enough of [insert specifics here], the MCs didn’t have sex early enough, often enough, in enough detail. Whatever.
Now far be it from me to police readers’ (especially women’s) desires. Female sexual agency is already over-regulated and misrepresented, and if I can get off half the housewives in the northern hemisphere with my words, that’s something to celebrate. Women should be free to enjoy what turns them on without censure or comment.
I just wish we could all be a little more honest about it.
There are thousands of books out there which will provide the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am you’re looking for if all that matters is how quick someone’s thrown across the back of a sofa and pounded until their teeth rattle. And yes, plenty of them have more plot than the plumber arriving to fix the washing machine. The beauty of the ebook revolution is the explosion of novellas now available, and no format better fits erotica than the novella: long enough to provide a bit of foreplay; short enough you’re not bogged down in chapters of plot when all you really want is some good old-fashioned angsting and lots of bodily fluids.
I say that with love and without judgment. I know there’s still a stigma attached to erotica, but when it’s on your Kindle it all looks the same, from Dickens to somebody getting a good dicking.
Obviously, what we’re in the mood for changes day-on-day. Some days I’ll fancy Regency, but that could mean powering through Ava March’s searingly-hot Bound series (and if you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for?!), or opting for Restraint (don’t be put off by the fact it’s fanfic, it’s utterly brilliant), which is considerably longer and doesn’t get to the first sex scene until more words have passed than in the entire first book of March’s trilogy, but oozes stomach-churning angst of the finest quality from every tortured sentence.
What I don’t do is read Restraint then complain about the lack of sex; or read Bound and moan it’s barely a couple of steps removed from PWP. I enjoy them both for precisely those reasons.
We should all read whatever makes us tremble, be that 5k PWP, erotica novellas, or hundred-thousand-word novels with two or three tender scenes. And we should start by being honest about what we want to read. Honest with ourselves, if not in public.
What I think lies at the root of the dissatisfaction I see with a lot of romance novels (because this is something that’s damn-near universal) is the sense of guilt too many women suffer from when it comes to their sexual desires. We want to read sex. Some more than others, and on some days more than others, but that fundamental desire is there. That’s why romance and erotica are so popular to begin with.
We’re constrained too often by what we think others will think of us if we admit that, which is why we end up buying books and counting the pages until the first sex scene. Noting how many chapters it took to get there, how long it was when we did, and whether or not the author was coy about drawing the curtain just as things started to get interesting. That’s why it’s perfectly normal for me to see on my Facebook newsfeed on somebody talking about a book that’s erotic, but not erotica, in terms of how long it’s going to be until they get to the good stuff.
We need to liberate female sexual desire, bring it out of the shadows and own it. Too often, romance is met with indulgent — and knowing — chuckling and nudging that makes us defensive, that makes us want to argue that No, it’s not porn. But sometimes it should be, and sometimes we should tell our detractors to STFU and let us enjoy it. Maybe then, we actually would.