Depictions of sex in the genre have come a long way since the days of questionable consent and improbable enthusiasm. Jennifer Crusie’s Welcome to Temptation and Faking It, published in the early aughts, contain classic examples of hilarious (and very edifying) failed sex.*
But perhaps you read romance because you want to read about beautiful people doing wonderful things to each other in gorgeous settings. You don’t want to read about excessive sweating, or flop sex, or queefing, you say. Quoting Edmund White completely out of context, you add, “I think literature should be a gift to the reader, and that gift is an idealization.”
Fine, say I, but perfection gets monotonous. There comes a time when the flawless pistoning of hips starts to resemble a factory. Failure adds spice and interest, as well as believability, and it makes the happily-ever-afters so much sweeter. So, in the interest of making it all better in the end, let us examine recent historical and contemporary romances which portray sex in all of its awkward, agonizing glory: the painful deflowering, the jackrabbiting, the ouch sex, the mess sex, and the not-even-bothering-to-fake-it sex.
“A battering ram,” is how Abbie Harewood describes her lover in Juliana Gray’s Victorian, A Duke Never Yields, while in Eloisa James’ fairy-tale Regency, Once Upon a Tower, the honeymoon and subsequent attempts are so bad that the protagonist locks herself away from her husband.
But Courtney Milan’s The Duchess War, the story of how clever Minnie Lane and Robert, Duke of Clermont, figure out marriage—and the marriage bed–while reconciling themselves to their pasts, contains one of the most deflating wedding night scenes ever:
He yearned for something magic to come out of her flesh—some secret that would transport them. Something that would make this more than good for him, more than bearable for her. As it was—he tried to suppress the terrible thought with her body so wary under his, but couldn’t quite—he’d have preferred his left fist to this.
Those illusions do crash down rather noisily, don’t they?
Courtney Milan slays the clichés of romantic fiction—in this case, the joining of the flesh as transcendent moment—but still writes love stories of incredible power. In The Duchess War, Minnie Lane, a deliberately innocuous young woman with a notorious past, allows her cover to slip, attracting the attention of the equally secretive, politically radical Robert.* Milan writes sharp characters and deft dialogue. And only she can pull off a heated courtship scene which involves handbills, paste, and public health notices.
Is That All There Is?
Elizabeth Hoyt’s Georgian historical, To Seduce a Sinner, also paints a disappointing wedding night. To be fair, Jasper, Viscount Vale, is trying to take it easy on his new bride of convenience, Melisande. He offers to wait a month or two to know her better. But she is eager to get down to business (she doesn’t tell him that she isn’t a virgin), so he lubes her up, leaving her clothes on, reassures her it’ll soon be over—and it’s all too true: “And then he thrust. Once, twice, a third time, heavy and hard. He gritted his teeth, made a sort of choked coughing sound, and slumped over her.”
I used a stopwatch on this passage, because, you know, science. The investigation involved reading slowly and lots of pauses to reproduce approximate plunge speed. I accounted for the moments it took final the final grunt and withdrawal. The experiment was repeated three times. The mean: 14.61 seconds.
Hoyt writes funny and filthy equally well, and Melisande and Jasper’s story takes wrenching turns. The lessons of To Seduce a Sinner—stick with it, go deeper—would serve anyone well.
Pain marks the first time between Rose and Drew in Amber Lin’s contemporary novella, Tempting Fate. Rose has foregone intercourse after an assault several years ago. Rose’s difficulties during their encounter come to Drew’s attention, but in her desire to forge ahead, she utters the irresistibly sexy phrase, “Please, just continue.”
Drew manages to resist that siren call. Best of all, his penis isn’t magical and sex doesn’t “solve” the problem of Rose’s residual trauma.
Similarly, the protagonists of Sarah Mayberry’s contemporary romance, The Other Side of Us, also deal with physical discomfort. Mackenzie has sustained serious and permanent injuries in a car accident. She has taken a leave of absence from her demanding job as a writer for a soap opera. She suffers from nausea, headaches, weakness in her limbs, and her body is scarred. When Mackenzie does seduce her neighbor Oliver, the pain threatens to swamp her:
“What just happened?” he asked, stubbornly refusing to move.
“My range of movement isn’t what it used to be.”
His face was concerned as he studied hers. “Okay, what if you were on top?”
“No, no this is fine. I can handle it.”
“It’s not supposed to be an endurance test.”
In fits and starts, they figure it out. That Oliver and Mackenzie’s (and Rose and Drew’s) eventual pleasure is hard-won makes these books about adults recovering from physical and emotional scars all the more poignant.
A similar theme follows Heidi Cullinan’s contemporary, Dance With Me. Ed’s career as a semipro football player is over after a serious injury that continues to dog him. Laurie has tried to put his performing days behind him after a disastrous attempt to bring same-sex dancing to the ballroom world. In this case, the shagging is excellent, but the post-coital reality proves embarrassing:
This was the part he had resented, he remembered now. The mess. The slight squickiness of sex, the sometimes serious squickiness. The awkward part where everyone cleaned up, where he’d stand and find himself involuntarily expelling the air that had gone in with his partner’s cock and then, inevitably, had to come back out.
Is post-sex farting a bridge too far? Maybe, but also appropriate for a story about messy, painful aftermaths. Ed and Laurie’s lives will never return to their earlier states: Ed will have to live with chronic injury and the loss of his career, Laurie will need to find a way to work again. The fits and starts of their courtship are adorable, and the account of their attempts to find happiness after both having lost the work that defines them is poignant and all-too believable.
She’s Just Not That Into It
A baby-making scheme results in marathon bad sex in Cecilia Grant’s Regency historical, A Lady Awakened. Martha Russell, a prim recent widow, needs to quickly produce an heir in order to keep her late husband’s estate from falling into the hands of her brother-in-law. Luckily, young Theo Mirkwood has been recently exiled from London by his father in order to clean up his wild ways and learn to manage his property.
Martha proposes that Theo try for a month to get her pregnant so that she may pass the baby off as her late husband’s. Because of Martha’s moral distaste for her deception (and because she doesn’t want to acknowledge any attraction to the feckless Theo) she refuses to enjoy it.
During their first encounter, when Theo asks her to touch him, she complies:
She did what he asked. And then he wished she hadn’t. Her hands fell at random places on his back and stayed there, passively riding his rhythm like a pair of dead fish tossed by the sea.
Just think, 30 days of floppy fish fucking to look forward to!
Martha starts off as uptight and somewhat self-righteous. Theo is immature and used to coasting on his charm. Eventually, over tenant betterment, roofing, and discussions about sheep and crop rotation, the two start to respect and, yes, enjoy each other.
Time (four years, in this case) and maturity also change the relationship between mathematician Leo Marsden and his estranged physician wife, Bryony, in Sherry Thomas’ Victorian romance, Not Quite a Husband. Leo goes to India to retrieve Bryony, but as the two try to make their way back home, they find themselves caught up in the Swat Valley uprising of 1897.
Their current predicament is interspersed with flashbacks of their disastrous marriage, and the strained marital bed:
He never imagined she’d be like beneath him like this—stiff as a log, her teeth ground together, her face turned so far to the side that the tendons of her neck trembled with the strain.
Some may find the excruciating fucking in Thomas’ book really fucking excruciating to read. But here, as in most of the books mentioned, the bad sex is a metonym for the larger relationship: in scene after scene it becomes clear to the reader–and to Leo–why, despite being in love with him, Bryony seems to barely endure his attentions, and why she leaves. As Leo finally finds out why his marriage disintegrated, their current struggle to survive changes everything.
Not Quite a Husband nearly caused my e-reader to short-circuit because of all the tears I wept. I lost my shit. I should probably add some sort of critical analysis of Sherry Thomas’ prose style, or marvel at the beauty of her prose (so good! And Chinese is her first language!), or say something about the colonial setting, or female physicians in the Victorian era—but I can’t. This book, people, this book. It takes the characters apart to rebuild them, and it shows the work, the pain and the talking, the give-and-take, and the sheer stubbornness required to create a connection. The happy ending? They’ve earned it.
Questions for discussion:
What’s the worst-best or best-worst sex scene, in any genre, that you’ve ever encountered?
Have you ever been so puzzled by a sex scene that you had to draw a diagram? Would you share it with the rest of us?
Which cliché of romantic fiction would you like to see banished or at least subverted forever?
Amber Lin, Tempting Fate (Amazon)
Heidi Cullinan, Dance With Me (Amazon)
*My personal favorite by Crusie is an abortive love scene from her novella Sizzle, in which the main character’s hair gets caught in the gentleman’s sleeve while he’s trying to grope her rear. She yells, then gets teary. He thinks she’s touched by the beauty of the experience.