February 4, 2008 - Issue #293

From the Desk of Robin Uncapher:

Sex by Chapter Two

Lets say that you are 28, single, and have been continuously disappointed by the romances in your life. Tomorrow you are going to meet the great love who will change everything. Yes, you are about to meet the love of your life. This gorgeous man will answer your prayers, worship the ground you walk on, and father your children. What do you think you will want to do for the first few hours you are together?.

I know! Have sex!

Oh right, this column is for women. Okay have sex and then regret it. Yes, that’s so much better.

Not long ago I read Genie Davis’ Five O’Clock Shadow, a witty book about Jessie, a DJ who runs for city council to help a friend whose business may be destroyed in a redevelopment plan. Part of the fun of the book is Jessie’s discovery of the annoying details that go along with running for a local office and her hilarious opponents. They give the book the feel of being set in a real place, not romanceland. But all is not what it seems and soon Jesse is threatening someone who wants her to drop out of the race. Naturally she needs help from a handsome cop, who is just about the complete opposite of every lackadaisical musician she’s ever dated.

In the opening chapters of the Davis' book, Jessie meets the guy in question, a police officer. Chuck’s, a tall handsome guy, with a sense of humor, the kind of straight up guy you want to get to know . He seems attractive, and potential hero material, but he didn’t bowl me over. Jesse and Chuck have one of those chance encounters that often stay in a woman’s memory. They meet, like each other, and have no real reason to pursue the relationship. At the end of the conversation, one of them should probably have asked for the others' phone number, but they didn't. As it turns out, that’s okay because Chuck is interested enough to follow Jesse home and, um, have sex with her.

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Huh?

Yes I know, not that sex with someone lovely isn’t a nice thing. But from Jesse’s point of view at least, what’s the rush? These two weren’t being attacked by terrorists (like the couple in Brockmann’s Everyday, Average Jones, or overtaken by phobia, like the heroine of Mary Balogh’s old trad, The Notorious Rake. Jesse had not been secretly hankering for Chuck for years, the way that Zoe Clare, the heroine of Emma Holly’s recent Fairyville, longs for Magnus Monroe. Chuck was a complete stranger! They also hadn’t been meeting in dreams like Makayla and Gage in Kelly St. John’s Ghosts and Roses. This would have at least explained them not feeling like strangers. They weren’t travelers trying to take advantage of a chance encounter. They weren’t trapped together in a mountain cabin needing to cuddle together naked for warmth. They were both single, and lived near each other.

The reason of course, is that Chuck and Jesse are in the throes of lust at first sight. Lust at first sight is a common romanceland malady fostered, no doubt, by the constant chant by the Greek chorus of romance novel editors to “make it hotter.” But does sex within two hours of meeting a man, make it hotter or does it just make it easier to check the word “hot” on the sensuality scale?

When I asked Laurie this question, she made the valid point that almost all erotic romance begins with sex. It’s true. When I read it as erotica, sex within a few hours of meeting doesn’t bother me. Scary sex in my view, is part of the fun of reading erotica. But I haven’t read erotica in a while. That “good” shock doesn’t hit me most of the time. Too much of the sex in erotica was just plain dull. Is anything worse than boring erotica? But in well written erotica the sex is, well, erotic. That’s the whole point.

I liked Five O’Clock Shadow, but I can’t say that the sex was particularly erotic. It was romance novel sex. The book is light and funny. The heroine is bright. Meeting and having sex with a man she barely knew seemed to be another kind of “meet cute,” device. As in so many romance novels, the sex creates more of a barrier between the heroine and hero than a basis for understanding. That part, at least, is realistic. But it didn’t make that opening sex, sexier. It just made for an interesting story.

For an early sex scene to work the I have to feel the force of attraction, not just be told about it - and I suspect I am not unusual. Under normal romance novel circumstances, a love scene is the payoff for a lot of waiting. During that waiting the reader gets to know the hero and heroine and feel the attraction between the two of them build. For me, early sex scenes seldom work unless there is a compelling reason for the couple to be having sex so soon and attraction doesn’t really explain that because few people want to have sex immediately when they are attracted. The first stages of attraction are wanting to be with the person, talk with him, dance with him maybe.

There has to be a good reason for the timing of sex to be pushed up, which may be the reason why Laurie so enjoyed Mary Balogh's A Christmas Bride, another trad Regency. The hero and heroine meet at a ball, discover an intense lust for one another and behave completely out of character; after he takes her home, she invites him into her bedroom. What follows is one of the most intense love scenes Laurie's ever read, and as a result of this experience, the behavior for this twosome throughout the entire book is set. It's not that the widowed Lady Helena experiences her first orgasm, or that Edgar Downes, for the first time in his life, finally treats a woman with as much strength and mastery as he does. This couple ends their coupling on a sour note because of the power issues between them. Lady Helena determines to keep Edgar out of her life while he, at various points through the book, questions why he has such strong sexual feelings for a woman he doesn't particularly like. The book is far more than the typically overt battle of the sexes wherein a heroine fears losing power to a hero; yes, there are some highly charged scenes, but there's a great deal of subtlety involved as Edgar attempts to unravel Helena's volatile and often contradictory behavior.

The timing of sex is also accelerated in arranged marriage stories and stories in historicals involving a couple who has no choice but to have sex. In Jo Beverley’s trad, An Arranged Marriage, the heroine, raped by the hero’s brother when she was unconscious, might be pregnant. When the rapist’s brother marries her, he is extremely gentle. But he persuades her to have sex on their wedding night to ensure that any baby she has might be his. I loved this scene and I have loved almost all similar Regency Romance scenes. As in An Arranged Marriage, most of these wedding night scenes are followed by a long period of sexual abstinence, during which the bride remembers the romance of the wedding night and wonders if she imagined it all.

But contemporary writers are at a disadvantage in that there really are no situations in modern American life where sex is required.

An example of early sex working in a contemporary is Erin McCarthy’s You Don’t Know Jack, which Laurie suggested (along with another McCarthy contemporary, Smart Mouth). Jack just retired after making millions as a trader, and Jamie is a social worker. They meet on, of all places, the New York City subway when she bumps into him and a jar of spaghetti sauce he is holding spills all over his shirt. Conversation ensues, as well as a plan to meet for dinner the next night, after which they return to his apartment and act upon their incredible attraction throughout the night. This scenario, plus the obvious differences between the two - some of which Jamie remains unaware for some time - make a good basis for a romance. In addition to this being a romp (an important reason why both of McCarthy's books worked for Laurie), prior to meeting Jack on the subway, Jamie's cross-dressing psychic friend tells her she will meet her true love that day, that he will have light brown hair, and the meeting will involve food. Does this mean every woman who has a one night stand has to know the guy is “the one?”

In romance novels the answer is …probably.

Most romance novels seem to be saying that knowing the guy is “the one,” is what makes it all okay. In Lori Foster’s 2003 Impetuous, schoolteacher Carlie McDaniels has sex with Tyler, the sophisticated hero, while disguised as a harem girl at a party. Tyler doesn’t recognize Carlie, but Carlie knows him as a man she’s admired for years. Carlie stays in disguise throughout their encounter and leaves Tyler wondering about the mystery woman. But unlike Tyler, Carlie has not had sex with a stranger. She knew all about Tyler, which is why she goes along with it.

And guess what? Tyler is hooked. This seems to be another theme. Guys who have sex just can’t stop thinking it's really love. (What a great concept - somebody alert Playboy immediately!) In You Don’t Know Jack, the hero suffers from the same affliction. After the sex he can’t stop thinking about Jamie, who, when she discovers Jack's true identity, decides to cut the relationship short. But Jack just won't give up, and that gives us a good story.

I've concluded that at least one theme of romance novels with very early love scenes is that of a man enchanted by sex, and falling into romance because of it. Unconvincing as I find some of these love scenes I have to confess that the premise charms me no end. Would that it were true!

Imagine for a moment a new twist on Romeo and Juliet. After meeting Juliet briefly at a dance, Romeo gets to her balcony, climbs up, and the two have wonderful anonymous sex. Later Juliet, who is embarrassed by the sex and regrets it, finds out that Romeo just killed her cousin. Talk about a dilemma! Or imagine that after that disastrous first proposal in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth decides to take advantage of poor Mr. Darcy - have wild sex with him on the turkey carpet in front of the pianoforte and then throw him out! Or imagine that in Gone with the Wind, instead of listening to that line about her being "no lady," Scarlett O’Hara had sex with Rhett in the drawing room at Twelve Oaks.

Of these three I can only imagine Romeo staying in the game, primarily because Romeo is probably a virgin and the whole sex thing is too novel to give up. It’s hard to imagine Mr. Darcy not assuming that Elizabeth was exactly the kind of low class person he feared. As for Rhett, he would have disappeared permanently, perhaps ending up with Melanie Wilkes, for whom he had far more admiration.

All fantasies have a basis in real dreams I think, and one of the fantasies women have is that men can be as hooked by early sex as they often are. In the last few years, science has told us that a young woman’s chemistry actually changes with an initial sexual encounter. Whether she is attached beforehand or not, she will probably feel some kind of attachment to the man with whom she has had sex. This made a lot of sense to me when I read it. I think that the idea of completely casual sex is mostly a wive's tale when it comes to a woman's feelings. Whether it's the chemical release of the oxytocin hormone or not (that's the same hormone, btw, that floods into a woman's body during pregnancy, and helps create bonding between mother and child even before the child is born), that feeling of post-sexual attachment can make it tough for a woman not to equate those feelings with love, or at least close to being in love. One thing that the HBO series Sex and the City did not explain well was this simple fact. For most women sex changes everything.

Like most romance readers I am hooked on the idea that the right man will overcome anything to be with a woman he loves. This includes sex that might prove embarrassing later on. But I have one request for the romance novelists who try to make this work. If you are going to have two people jump each others bones within a hour of meeting each other please, make it sexy.

Questions To Consider:

What romances have you read that feature early sex scenes? Talk about the books, which ones you liked, which you did not, and if the early sex played a part in your enjoyment or lack thereof.

How does early sex in a contemporary romance differ from early sex in a romance with an historical setting? One-night stands are almost as common these days for women as they are for men, so in that respect one might expect to read them often in contemporary romances. On the other hand, is early sex all that romantic?

Unless a wedding occurs early on in an historical romance, how realistic is early sex among the aristocracy in the 1800s when laws involving the transfer of wealth from one generation to the next promoted the need for virginity among young women? How much does this bother you, if at all, when you are reading a sex before marriage scene in an historical?

After reading two Erin McCarthy contemporaries, Laurie concluded that the early sex in both books worked because they were romps, in which reality was suspended to a great degree. How does that conclusion fit with your reading experience? On the other hand, the two Balogh trads mentioned in the column were anything but romps and the early sex was a dramatic catalyst in setting these books' tones in unexpected ways. If you've read either book, what was your response, and if not, what other romances featuring early sex made such an unexpected impact upon the characters?

Robin is of the firm belief that casual sex is never completely casual for women. In past ATBF discussions, that notion has been challenged by younger readers. What do you think? Robin also has a tough time believing that men fall in love after a night of great sex. What do you think...and ladies, ask your husbands or boyfriends for their honest answer on this question and report back to us.

Robin Uncapher

 

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