Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sex v. Romance

Regency Wedding, image by Louish Pixel, via Flickr
I was once interviewed by a local newspaper reporter who asked me why, as a romance writer (a species he all too obviously despised), I didn’t write sex scenes. Not expecting the question, I gave a snappy answer off the top of my head: “I’d rather do it than write about it.” Naturally that was the only thing I said that he quoted accurately.

A more thoughtful answer would have been: To me, romance is getting to know each other, falling in love. Going to bed is the end product, the culmination, not part of the process. As it comes after discoveries, difficulties overcome, and in fiction the author’s efforts to keep lovers apart for 75,000 words or so, it’s an unnecessary coda to the story.

After all, as a neighbour of mine said, we all know what happens after they close the bedroom door. Maybe my attitude is old-fashioned, but my historical setting encouraged my view. Zeitgeist strikes again!

In Regency times, contraception ranged from ineffective to non-existent. Sex, licit or illicit, was almost certain to result in babies, and giving birth was dangerous. (I went into this subject in The Babe and the Baron.) Besides the physical cost, the societal cost to the individual was enormous. If the woman was lucky, an illegitimate pregnancy would result in a forced marriage. If no husband could be found, willing, bribed, or coerced to cooperate (v. Lydia Bennett), as Goldsmith put it:
When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can sooth her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?

The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom—is to die.
Poorer women would probably end up on the streeta short life and a miserable one. Among the middle class and the aristocracy, with whom Regency romances are chiefly concerned, an unmarried girl would be ruined forever, shunned by society, hidden away by her family.

Wild, free, passionate sex was not gloriously romantic, it was a recipe for disaster.

The nearest I ever came to writing a sex scene was in Scandal’s Daughter. For various reasons, the hero and heroine travel together from Istanbul to London. Though not planned that way, the book turned out to be a sort of Regency Perils of Pauline. At the end of almost every chapter, James and Cordelia are in dire danger, only to be rescued in the next. One of the dangers, as far as Cordelia is concerned, is James’s seductive technique, but something always happens at the last moment to save her from the fate worse than death. At one point, it’s the arrival of Greek partisans attacking the Turkish troops who have captured the pair. I had such fun writing that book.

As far as I recall, only one of my heroines ever had sex before marriage. In the teeth of both families’ opposition, Alicia and Peter—friends since childhood—were heading for Gretna Green to get married. The night before, they were forced to share a room at an inn and they anticipated the next day’s ceremony. Their brothers turn up and whisk Peter away, telling her he’s deserted her. She’s married off to a rich, elderly gentleman, but as a widow she meets Peter again, and all ends happily, as a romance novel requires.

That novella, Pirate Pendragon, was originally published in a multi-author anthology, with one of the only two book covers I’ve ever had that misleadingly suggested “bodice-ripper” contents. (The other was the Hebrew version of Mayhem and Miranda.) Pirate Pendragon is now in an e-book anthology, A Second Spring (all the stories have heroines considerably older than the usual 17 to 25 year-olds).

Contrary to what some believe, none of the four publishers for whom I wrote Regencies gave me a formula to follow, and none required explicit sex scenes. So I didn’t write any.

Carola Dunn is author of the Daisy Dalrymple Mysteries, Cornish Mysteries, and multitudinous Regencies.


  1. I agree without reservation. If I want to read all about sexual encounters, I will choose one of the many "how-to" books available on the subject. If I want to read a great story, I will choose something by a writer who respects the fact that not everyone wants all the bedroom details. Neither objecting to innuendo nor denying that sex is an integral element of human relationships, I just have no desire to be a peeping Tom. Great post, Carola!

  2. For me, the tension lies in the breath leading up to the kiss, the yearning and longing, it's what comes before the "bang." Once they are screwing, and so often nowadays it is the first time they meet, then what is there to look forward to? I get that some people really enjoy hooking up with strangers, perhaps even people who don't need therapy. But to my logical mind it is stupid. We don't let total strangers into our houses or pickup hitch hikers or give them access to our children or credit cards. Why would you let total strangers into your most sacred places, especially when the risks and price are so potentially high?

  3. "...we all know what happens after they close the bedroom door." Bingo, Carola. I totally get the difference between romance and sex and I've never really thought of sex as a spectator sport ... much rather 'be on the field' than read about it (or watch it, for that matter).

  4. Actually, no we don't know what happens after they close the bedroom door. Sex is as individual to each couple as conversation or behavior is. I've been writing sex in my historicals since the start, but it's always dicated by the story, not the other way about.
    And in the Regency, without going into details, contraception was quite sophisticated. Much more than we are given to believe these days!

  5. I like romance. I like sex. When you combine the two, sometimes it can be magic. When a story needs romance and sex, it should be written. However, sex for sex's sake, can take away from a story. It's all about the story.

  6. debby turner harrisFebruary 11, 2015 at 7:14 AM

    In today's media-driven celebrity culture, courtship seems to be in danger of becoming a lost art. Hooray for romance writers for helping to keep tradition alive!

  7. I've written sex, both as me and my alter ego. I have a disclaimer on all my books to warn those people who might be offended. My advice to them: don't read this book. That said, other than the erotic romance I write under a pseudonym, I hope I write romantic sex scenes.

  8. Perhaps I should make it clear that if other people write graphic sex that's fine with me. I just have no wish to write it and I get bored reading it--so I tend to skip passages which does the story no good if they've been properly integrated. Same goes for graphic violence. Chacun à son goût.


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