The Great Smut Debate (with debate inked in cursive by a fountain pen)
The Great Smut Debate

Let’s Talk About Sex (Baby)

A recent Twitter interaction:

Us: Retweets promo image of a romance novel that looks intriguing

Author: Oh hey, based on your user-name, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a good amount of sex in this book!

Obviously, readers have preferences about sex in romance novels. Some people are tickled by the ridiculous sexcapades that authors dream up. Some people skim over the sex scenes to get back to the plot. Some people find mentions of genitalia off-putting. Some people roll their eyes at purple prose.

The problem comes when the dogmatism arrives. The sweeping statements that a book must have a sex scene by the halfway point, or it’s getting chucked in the Women’s Fiction bin. The assertions that a book with more than 2.5 tasteful sex scenes is not proper romance, but must be locked in the erotica dungeon.

Our goal with this series is to explore the boundaries of romance—the places where romance might transition into other genres for various reasons—and, given that sex is so intrinsically entwined with (at the very minimum) people’s perception of romance, we couldn’t omit a discussion of sex in romance, now could we?

The Great Smut Debate

Since we’re talking about sex, we’re going to start with the word “smut.” We are The Smut Report after all. 

Our decision to use the word “smut” is something of an acknowledgement and a reclaiming. If, when we were teens, no one had ever described our books as “smut,” we wouldn’t have the same connection to the term, but we decided to wear our reading choices as a badge of honor then, and we’re doing the same thing now. The term is tongue-in-cheek, so for us it’s inclusive—whether it’s no sex or more sex than plot, we’re using “smut” because romance novels are derided the same way no matter where they land on any romance spectrum. Go ahead and call it smut, we think, we won’t shy away from that discomfort, and we’ll find all the angles to argue our points in favor of reading romance novels without quibbling over that word. 

That said, it’s indisputable that the definition of the term is pretty clear, and the connotation is not particularly positive. Here’s what Miriam Webster says:

Smut (n): obscene language or matter

It’s easy to understand why many people push back against the term “smut,” because it seems to reinforce the notion that these books are nothing more than “mommy porn.” A single term to describe an entire spectrum of books lumps together those “trashy” “junk food” books like Ruby Dixon’s Ice Planet Barbarians with the “high brow” “smart romance” books like Beach Read by Emily Henry, which people may not like either because they don’t want to be associated with the “trashy” books or because they don’t want to treat one subset as especially “elevated.” Further, some worry that using the words “smut” or “porn” might have legal ramifications in obscenity censorship proceedings. (We might argue that trying to differentiate varieties of explicit content such that one is more appropriate or acceptable than others doesn’t actually solve the underlying censorship problem, but that’s a discussion for another day.) And then there are those who might be put off by the notion of “smut” because they’re squicked out by the idea of reading about sex.  

Varying viewpoints all stem from the fact that words have power, and certain words cause discomfort. That’s why some people say it’s a deal breaker and declare they’ll never read an author who announces, “I wrote a smut!” But all the meaning behind that word is also why that same author (and the three of us) uses the word in the first place. And, frankly, depictions of sex can cause the same conversations.

The Spectrum of Sex

Before we get to the way sex is used as a tool, we want to talk about the different quantities and qualities of sex that might appear in romance novels. 

Ayesha at Last book cover

A romance can absolutely be effective without a single kiss. For example, Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin features only one scene where the protagonists touch each other—and the moment when Ayesha brushes the crumbs out of Khalid’s beard is so sexually fraught precisely because the characters have kept a physical distance between them throughout the whole book. However, the no-kiss romance is a rarity. 

More common are kisses-only romance. These generally come in two flavors: the ones where the romance develops early and the characters kiss often but go no further (commonly, but not exclusively, encountered in the young adult romance space—think To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han), and the ones where the characters have that magical, life-altering, Hallmark-movie kiss at the end of the story.

Moving along the sex spectrum, many romance feature closed-door or fade-to-black sex scenes, where the sex between characters is implied but not shown. The classic move here is showing the couple climbing into bed, perhaps exchanging a few lingering kisses, perhaps removing a few articles of clothing—and the scene ends. Of course, within this category, there’s a range. In some cases, we are simply told that the couple entered the bedroom (take, for example, the inspirational romance A Sensible Arrangement by Tracie Peterson), whereas in others, we might get some heavy petting before the lights turn off (in Would You Rather by Allison Ashley, they get naked before the fade). 

Explicit sex scenes up the ante a bit more. The reader sees the sex, though this does not mean that the sex is frequent. In fact, many romances with explicit sex may include just one sex scene at the end—what we call the obligatory, “I’m writing a romance novel and need a sex scene!” sex scene. Explicit sex is also not necessarily detailed or high heat. For example, when the protagonists of Two Rogues Make a Right by Cat Sebastian have sex, it’s intimate, but not particularly explicit. The scene builds the connection between the characters, but doesn’t include a lot of detail about the moving pieces. 

Of course, there are plenty of romances with multiple explicit sex scenes, as well as plenty of romances that include both explicit and fade-to-black scenes.

And then, at the far end of the spectrum from the no-touch romances, we find Double Penis Pound Town. These are your high-heat, triple-chili-pepper-emoji, lotsa-flames erotic romances. We’re thinking sex aliens (oh hey Planet of Desire series by Robin Lovett) and sex pacts (Seducing My Guardian by Katee Robert) and, uh, people who are falling for each other just going at it like bunnies (Release by Suzanne Clay). If you want to get literal with the Double Penis Pound Town analogy, there’s lots of fun to be had in the land of erotic menages—including a scene in The Golden Rush by Ariella Talix where both men simultaneously penetrate the heroine’s vagina (including an extensive discussion of the kind of preparation necessary to make that pleasurable for everyone involved).

Regardless of the myriad ways that sex might show up in a romance novel, there is one common factor: that sex is one tool in an author’s toolkit to write a successful romance novel. Sex scenes, whether absent, implied, or in your face, do work in the story.

Sex Is a Tool

If you’ve spent any time in this space, you’ve probably heard that sex scenes should be Doing Something for the story. Gratuitous sex that could be removed completely from the story and cause no problems or changes is [poorly written/pure erotica/fill-in-the-blank]. We’d argue that any sex in a story is Doing Something, and whether it hits or not is dependent not on the gratuitousness of the depiction but on the success of the author to use this tool as needed/with intent in a given moment in a narrative.

Sex can show the developing intimacy between characters. A single sex scene can indicate to the reader that the characters are moving towards their happily ever after; this is the primary role of the single explicit sex scene at the end of the novel. Alternatively, multiple sex scenes throughout the book may slowly up the ante between the characters as they move closer and closer together. This is what a good erotic romance does. (For more information, see Erin’s piece on erotic romance and what it is—and isn’t.) Katee Robert is especially skilled at nailing this dynamic.

The idea here is that sex can force people to acknowledge vulnerabilities, and allowing the other character to see those vulnerabilities fosters intimacy that allows the relationship to grow and develop into a satisfying romance. This might happen almost right away (see Erin’s piece discussing erectile dysfunction centered on L.A. Witt’s Aftermath) or it might happen over time because one or more protagonists begins by having sex with little vulnerability or intimacy, but the intimacy grows over time as the characters get to know each other better, and the sex takes on new meaning as that happens (The Professor Next Door by Jackie Lau). 

Sex can move the plot of the story forward. Just consider a good sex deal: in Devil in Winter by Lisa Kleypas, when Evie tells Sebastian she won’t sleep with him if he doesn’t first prove he can keep it in his pants, his desire for her leads him to perceive himself in a way he’s never considered before, and that creates space for him to realize how much he loves Evie. Or seduction and revenge can create a tension-heavy plot, as in Mary Balogh’s Slightly Tempted, in which Gervase seeks to hurt Morgan’s brother by seducing and compromising her. Sex driving the plot might not even be the most intense component of the story, but it keeps the characters together, as in Ravished by Amanda Quick, when the protagonists are trapped together for the night, succumb to their mutual lust, and have to get married when they learn the whole town is gossiping the next morning. 

And it’s not just a feature of historical romance; the entirety of Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is based on Stella’s belief that she needs sex lessons. Believe it or not, no sex can be a central plot conflict, too! Upside Down by N.R. Walker is all about two asexual men trying to find love with a partner who understands they aren’t interested in sex at all. 

Some of these plotlines might feel outlandish, but they all boil down to the idea that sex is a big deal for people (whether it’s happening or not), and figuring out how it fits in a personal story and in a relationship is a huge area for contention.

Sex can add or defuse tension between scenes. Think of the danger bang, a feature of romantic suspense novels where the protagonists find themselves in peril, but still manage to find time to make whoopie. While this may seem silly (or fun!), the danger bang gives the reader a mental break between intense action scenes, thereby slightly diffusing the tension before ratcheting it back up. The interlude in the cabin in Whiteout by Adriana Anders is an excellent example of a sex scene used to break up the potentially monotonous (if tense) story of Antarctic survivalism.

Another example is the explosion after a consistent increase in tension over time. When Will and Kim finally crash into each other in K.J. Charles’ Slippery Creatures, the release of all that sexual tension is cathartic, even though there’s plenty of tension still left in the unfolding mystery of the story. As the characters have their moment, the reader has a moment to let go of all that pent up tension before ramping up again for the next drama. 

And look—sometimes sex is just for funsies! And there’s nothing wrong with that! The desire of some romance readers to be titillated because it’s fun is real and valid. For the record, Ingrid posits that even in books that seem like pure titilation, the seemingly superfluous sex scenes serve a purpose in driving character development, plot, or tension—especially because there are moments when a pause or drop in tension is necessary to the flow of the narrative.

But sometimes it doesn’t work. Like trying to install a screw with a hammer, a misapplication of sex in a story can derail the rhythm, pacing, and building intimacy of the narrative. 

Too Much Sex

We would call ourselves pretty sex-positive romance readers. Even Ingrid, the most buttoned-up of the three of us, enjoys a good kinky read every once in a while. But sometimes, we read a book and say, “OMG, this was too much sex.” 

There may be a few reasons that a book feels too sex heavy—even if it doesn’t actually include more sex scenes than another book we enjoyed. For example, a book with too much sex may mean that there were too many pauses in the story, and we want more plot. Or perhaps there’s too much sex because what’s actually happening is that the sex scenes don’t gradually build up the emotional intimacy between the characters. Erin probably read The Perfect Lover by Stephanie Laurens more than ten years ago, but she still remembers feeling like the characters never actually got to know each other because they were just constantly having sex, and it was always the same kind of horny sex, so it was neither advancing the plot nor the emotional intimacy in the relationship. 

In short: sometimes the sex feels like too much when it’s not also doing other work to serve the goals of the story.

The Disappointment of the Closed Door

Sometimes, when the author closes a door on a sex scene, we feel disappointment. This is not necessarily because we’re sex junkies who want all the purient details. Rather, we miss that piece of intimacy. In a romance novel, a key piece of the puzzle is that we believe the compatibility of the characters—we believe that their romance is going to last. Ideally, a relationship includes both physical compatibility and functional compatibility. In books where the door is closed, functional compatibility becomes more important, as the explicit physical compatibility is not cemented in the reader’s mind. (Though the frisson of chemistry in a shared kiss or the tease of more physical intimacy is sometimes enough.)

The problem occurs when the chemistry between the main characters is not quite pushed all the way. In those cases, the physical intimacy is teased as a signal that the characters are coming together, but then the reader is left hanging. For example, in both Lucky Leap Day by Ann Marie Walker and The Second First Chance by Mona Shroff, we felt that a more detailed sex scene would have created necessary emotional connections that would have cemented the relationship in our minds—just as the sex (presumably) helped cement the intimacy between the characters within the narrative.

Lavender Prose

And sometimes, we come across a sex scene that just confuses us. Is it supposed to be erotic and titillating? Is it supposed to be showing a developing intimacy? Is it just in there because it’s a romance novel and some editor said it has to be? Back in September, we buddy-read a bunch of Old School romances, and the sex in Judith McNaught’s Night Whispers in particular confused us. It was lavender—not fully purple flowery euphemisms, but not especially descriptive either (not horny enough to qualify as a one-handed read)—and it didn’t seem to advance either the plot or the relationship. It was just…there. This particular book was published in the nineties, and attitudes have since changed, but our reaction to the sex scenes made us think about why we were left scratching our heads (well, Ingrid was left feeling a bit ragey, but refer back to the discussion for that). An author who is using sex successfully will not create that sense of doubt in the reader. 

The Many Faces of Intimacy

The whole point of us discussing sex is to evaluate how it relates to romance. And here’s the thing: one of the central components of a relationship is intimacy. A romance novel cannot be successful without some form of intimacy between the characters. People end relationships when they struggle to sync over physical intimacy, so of course we want to see our characters get it, too. 

Intimacy can look like a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so saying that it has to look a certain way is kind of demeaning because people engage with intimacy in very different ways. Some people are asexual (and even asexuality is a spectrum). Some people find closeness by engaging in kinky bedroom play. Some people engage in ethical non-monogamy. It doesn’t mean that their romance is less valid because they have different boundaries on physical intimacy.

By exploring the different work that sex can and does do in romance novels, we’re hoping to open up the conversation about the ways that people engage with each other more thoughtfully (and not just by having a cheeky blog title), because if we’re gatekeeping here then we’re limiting the inclusiveness of romance all around—and missing out on the endless and creative ways authors utilize sex as a literary tool worth discussing. If we explore the work that sex is doing in a story, then we can examine myriad different ways to have romance, and on a larger scale, we’re examining the role intimacy plays in the human experience.

3 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Sex (Baby)”

  1. Bravo! Another excellent article on complex nature of sex in Romance novels. I for one love your tongue in cheek blog name.

    I know there are many different perspectives from all sides about the sex issue in Romance, and I understand the sensitivity towards certain words which have been used negatively in the past. As far as I’m concerned, the way to eliminate or lessen the negativity of a word is to take it and embrace it and make it your own.

    When I hear some people say got the term bodice Ripper is demeaning to romance I disagree. Very few romances today would qualify as bodice rippers, even so I will defend the bodice Ripper to death, the true kind, that existed from the 1970s the late 1990s. Problematic issues and all.

    Fiction is a form of catharsism. We should be able to read a vast spectrum of stories and understand that in the fictional realm we are allowed to be entertained while exploring ideas that we would never conceive of in the real world.

    When it comes to words like trashy, raunchy, tawdry or smutty, I am embrace them as positive words. Words only have negative connotations if let them. Embrace smut!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are a reader after my own heart! I too will defend bodice rippers to the death—they feed my id in a way that very polite (if raunchy) books being written now just don’t. We ride at dawn!!!

      Liked by 1 person

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