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.
Kate Aaron is the bestselling author of contemporary and fantasy gay romances.
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