I started this piece thinking of all of the M/M romance I’ve read (a not insignificant amount), and so often (every time that penetrative sex isn’t simply presumed, in fact) one of the protagonists assures the other that penetrative sex isn’t necessary for their happiness, lots of people don’t do it, and it’ll be fine just as long as they’re happy together. This is great! Talking about comfort levels? Acknowledging that there are ways to have sex that don’t involve penetration? All great.
The ultimate expression of physical love and intimacy in romance novels is still—you guessed it—penetrative sex. I don’t think I’ve ever read a M/F romance that was open-door and also did not include penis-in-vagina sex, though I think Holly has read one or two. (Before posting, Holly reminded me that I’ve read The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan, which doesn’t include PiV sex, so I guess I’ve read one.) And when vaginas are involved in any romance novel coupling, in my experience there’s always penetration, be it with fingers or toys or penises. If we consider that there’s less taboo for vaginal penetration than for anal penetration, this makes sense. But back to all those M/M romances in which protagonists are falling over themselves to reassure each other that anal penetration is totally unnecessary…
I recently finished listening to Rebound by L.A. Witt, which I figured I’d try as I browsed through Scribd because it’s an age gap romance featuring a pro hockey player and a single dad (sports romance is my comfort place right now, IDK why given I don’t do sports). The second time they have sex, Asher, who is younger, less experienced, and fresh out of an abusive relationship, worries that this time Geoff will want penetrative sex and confesses that he doesn’t like anal play at all, and it’s not because of any trauma or anything, he just doesn’t enjoy it. Geoff is on board immediately, and I think he even says he’s been in prior relationships with partners who didn’t enjoy it either, but Asher has been pressured into anal sex by past partners so much that it takes him a while to trust that Geoff really means what he says. And I was immediately struck not by this conversation per se but by the fact that, even though all the M/M romance heroes say they’re cool with having exclusively non-penetrative sex, they all still have penetrative sex, and most of the time they also think of it as being as close as you can physically be to another person, which creates a sense that sex involving one person being inside another person is somehow more meaningful than sex that does not involve penetration.
To be sure, there is a lot of (at least the possibility for) intimacy and vulnerability where penetrative sex is concerned, so it’s not a completely unreasonable approach to those sex acts. BUT there are many other ways to show vulnerability and to create intimacy. I’d say Witt was pretty successful in Rebound. Not only do these protagonists have no penetrative sex, there’s no further back door action of any kind, and the romance was still full of growing intimacy and fun sexytimes.
The next closest story I can think of is Annabeth Albert’s Knit Tight, in which Brady enjoys penetration but Evren doesn’t enjoy either penetrating or being penetrated, and they work around their conflicting desires by sometimes using toys for Brady during sex. This is slightly derailed by the bonus epilogue sequel (that Albert released separately, so you don’t have to read it) when Evren tops Brady on a special occasion. In real life? Yeah, people are in the mood to do different things at different times, and sometimes they do things that aren’t their fave because their partner wants to, and that makes it pleasurable. The trouble, of course, is when the reality becomes amplified fantasy, and the fantasy leans only one direction: toward orgasmic penetration as the ultimate form of intimacy and closeness. (As with, say, the celebration of an engagement.)
Most of the time, the protagonists have the conversation because one is inexperienced while the other is not. (I would have to go back and do a proper analysis, but I’m also pretty sure that this is invariably a conversation when the inexperienced one is the one who might be stereotypically expected to bottom.) (Even though it also feels like everybody’s vers, which is, I suppose, a post for another day.) The point of the conversation seems to be more like reassurance that they can take their time and figure out what feels right than agreement to stick to specific boundaries in the bedroom. For examples, look to not only L.A. Witt and Annabeth Albert, but also Eden Finley, Saxon James, N.R. Walker, and so on. Or, for a more drawn out example, I offer the Executive Office series by Tal Bauer.
In book one, Enemies of the State, Jack has a bi-awakening, he’s probably demisexual given that he’s never been attracted to anyone but his deceased wife and Ethan, and he feels overwhelmed beginning a sexual awakening at 45. Ethan is fearful that any wrong move is going to send Jack running for the hills. When they agree to give a relationship a try just before the halfway point, Jack tells Ethan that he’s not ready for sex, and Ethan, hopeful but also desperate not to lose Jack, sidelines his personal desires (he was a toppy playboy before Jack) and finds happiness in what they do together (lots of handies and frottage, and some blowjobs from Ethan). It’s not until just before the 90% mark that Jack asks to top Ethan, who hasn’t bottomed in decades. Jack also gives his first blowjob at this point; clearly Jack is moving much more slowly than those more adventurous bi-awakening heroes who hear their partners say, “We don’t have to…” and immediately reply, “Get in me, now.” Jack and Ethan are a prime example of protagonists who want the relationship they’re building more than a particular kind of sex. That said, in the second book, Enemy of My Enemy, Jack is confronted by Ethan’s exclusive top past, decides to try bottoming, and there’s nothing in the text from there on out to indicate they ever look back. Apparently, now that they’re past the getting-to-know-you stage, the normal state of their sexual relationship is: Ethan tops, Jack bottoms, and sex is penetrative.
Sometimes books I’ve read will cite a statistic—it might be Annabeth Albert’s books I’m thinking of—and I’ve always wondered 1) if that statistic is even true, 2) how it was obtained, and 3) if 30% (or whatever it is) of men who have sex with men don’t have anal sex, why are approximately 100% of my M/M romance heroes having anal sex?
To a certain extent, I’m sure this falls within the scope of fantasy and wish fulfillment, as romance does. That can get dicey when these books are being written by ostensibly straight cis women, but I do make a point of reading M/M romance written by men and non-binary authors as I find them, so I can, at least, assure you it’s not exclusive to one group of writers. I mean, how many men orgasm from penetrative sex with only prostate stimulation? Probably fewer than in romance novels… (Same song, different pairing…we can talk about the prolific orgasms of romance in general in another post.) Sexual fantasy and wish fulfillment is all over the place in romance. But while wish fulfillment and smoothing out rough edges (I mean, is douching sexy? Apparently not, because—while showers are prolific—these guys never do it.) is one indisputable component of genre romance, it also often contributes to certain groups of readers feeling invisible. Fantasy is great and all, but sometimes it would be nice also to stop the barrage of input that maybe something’s broken because one hasn’t met one’s perfect Romance Novel Partner yet, and that’s why one struggles to orgasm / doesn’t enjoy penetration / doesn’t enjoy sex at all / fill in the blank.
If you’re looking for books with lotsa sexy boning, there are scads of them! But if you’re looking for books that involve no penetration, our options are much more limited to the few that are Doing Something (Rebound, Knit Tight) or novellas and closed door romances that don’t delve deeply into the sexual aspect of the relationship.
Here are a couple of pieces I found interesting, especially the comments from interviewees, while reading for this post:
MEL Magazine, “Meet the ‘Sides,’ Gay Men Who Don’t Like Anal Sex”
Vice, “Beyond Anal Sex: Why Some Gay Men Call Themselves Sides”
And here’s the study I believe (?) people are referring to when they cite that “lots of men don’t have anal sex” statistic. At least, it’s the closest thing I found.
Books Erin discussed in this piece:
12 thoughts on “Penetration isn’t necessary, they say…and then it always happens”
Really interesting. I get especially frustrated by the rhetoric of “we haven’t had sex yet” by characters who have done all sorts of sexual things but haven’t had anal intercourse, as though it’s the only thing that qualifies as “sex.”
Kaje Harper’s novel _Love and Lint Rollers_ is not especially good but is interesting because one of the MCs has Crohn’s disease and tells the other, “Look, assholes will never, ever be sexy for me,” so anal is off the table, and it’s no big deal.
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Perhaps a better example is KJ Charles’s _Rag and Bone_, which IS a good novel (I love everything she writes), in which the two MCs just don’t enjoy anal sex and have plenty of good times otherwise.
But the fact that I’ve been thinking and thinking and have come up with only two examples is telling and confirms your analysis!
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I haven’t gotten all the way through Charles’s backlist yet, but I’m definitely looking forward to several of them that I’ve already heard synopses of. She seems like one of those authors who’s willing to tackle ideas, which is awesome.
And my TSR colleagues and I have often discussed books that are definitely good (well written, thoughtful, well plotted, etc.), but the Doing Something component of the story redirected our attention from the Big Feels Romance, which is not something that necessarily happens if we’re swept up in a story that’s fantasy wish fulfillment, so I understand why authors (and readers!) like to focus on issues that are “sexier.” But yeah…it’s really something! I’m planning on doing more intentional tracking of a larger variety of aspects of how authors are writing sex, so I can get some data for trends I’m noticing, but that’ll be a process. 🙂
One of the reasons I read genre romance is the “righting of the universe” aspect: the main characters are happy together at the end of the story (it can be HFN, it can be committed to work on a relationship that’s barely gelling, it can be repairing a relationship that’s floundering, it can be the proposal, it can be…you get where I’m going).
However, I often feel like the ‘fantasy’ most romance readers are chasing, and that so many authors are writing, have nothing to do with my own. Mind you, genre really can’t help “chasing trends”, because we all (writers and readers, and writers/readers) that that’s what sells, that that’s what the market is hungry for, and even the most “I’m committed to my art!” artist both must eat and wants their stuff read. So it’s understandable how things become tropes and get used and reused, until the next “it” thing comes along.
The problem is how often old things that in fact, few of the readers truly wanted, remain as part of the ‘core’ (some will say ‘canon’) of the genre as we know it today, and those things, cumulatively, can make readers feel…not invisible as much as unwanted, on top of broken somehow.
Thank you for the thought provoking post.
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Boy do I hear you on that!
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as in, “we all are told”
(lost that bit in the parenthetical, sorry)
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That is such a good point about the “righting of the universe.” I definitely appreciate that component, even as my non-romance reading friends cry “it’s unrealistic!” Um, yeah, I want that! lol.
As we’ve worked on this blog, and I’ve thought more intentionally about what I’m reading/want to read and what I’m seeing/see too much of/would like to see, it has definitely been interesting to note how there are ways that the genre both helps spur conversations that lead to new understandings and self-discovery, but it can also create that sense of brokenness or invisibility. (Orgasms aplenty because she’s finally met “the one” is a real doozy off the top of my head, but there are many others.) It probably doesn’t help that I read hundreds of books a year. 🙂
Anyway, thank you for reading and commenting! I love getting to have a dialogue about books!
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I like to believe that it isn’t completely unrealistic, which may be why I prefer my romance less escapist on the whole and more grounded in reality.
I’m happy that the near death of the big T seems to have caused a small resurgence of blog conversations! I think so much of romance history is kept in these blogs, though alas sometimes they disappear completely.
Sometimes I think I read all over the place! But I was more thinking along the lines of “the bad guy gets his comeuppance, and everyone gets the recognition they deserve” (or the like) which may or may not happen in real life but pretty much always happens in stories with happy endings. 🙂 I have been reading many romances in which the relationship arc itself does usually feel very genuine and natural. But sometimes I really love just absolutely bananas stories. lol
I think we all prefer the blog format over here, too. We all seem to have decided independently but at the same time that we needed a socials break…
The “righting of the universe” language comes from Wendy the SuperLibrarian, but it’s a perfect way to articulate what I look for, and need, in my reading (not just romance, of course).
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One of my biggest pet peeves is books that seem to be fairly ordinary, even lighthearted and then at the very end something horrible happens and everyone dies. Just hit me that this is “wronging of the universe.”
Also, books in which good people who are trying to help wind up killed. Way to put terrible energy out there.
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