Kiss and Tell

kissandtell I read Surrender of a Lady recently, and as I read it, the heroine’s past really stuck with me. For those not familiar with Tiffany Clare’s debut, it centers on a heroine sold into slavery in a Turkish harem. Her owner runs a pleasure garden, and the girls are expected to entertain the men who bid on their favors. This heroine is no faux courtesan; she really does have multiple partners including her owner and various men who have bid on her favors over the years.

While the fact that our heroine was no virgin harem girl caught my eye, what really stood out to me was the manner in which the author differentiated her encounters with the hero as opposed to her encounters with other men. The first chapters of the book show readers how this woman came to live in the harem and we learn that she was expected to spend her first year there as the partner of her owner, having sex with him and learning the ways of the harem. We then see references to her having relations with other men thereafter. However, no real details are given in any of these scenes. It is not until the hero enters the picture that we see any truly explicit sex scenes.

At first, I wondered if this was yet another example of the sexual double standard. After all, while we sometimes just see mentions of heroes having a mistress or ten, anyone who’s read a number of historical romances has probably seen at least one scene(usually before the h/h meet) where the hero is lollygagging in bed with his mistress. Almost immediately after I thought this, I stepped back a little. It’s easy to simply assume the old double standard is in place since it seems to be there in plenty of other romances. However, this particular book challenges that double standard in ways and so I wondered if the lack of detail about the heroine’s sexual past was by design for another reason.

As I got further into the book, I saw that the author’s choice to reserve sex scene details for the hero and heroine’s relationship could also serve another purpose. By showing only this relationship in great detail, the author may not be adhering to a cultural double standard but instead showing readers that this is the relationship that actually matters. The heroine and hero may each have a past, but it is their relationship with each other that will actually have the greatest importance in their lives, and the explicit details of every past encounter just aren’t needed.

I don’t know which interpretation was intended by the author when she set up her story this way, but it certainly does make one think. And it’s something people grapple with outside of romance reading as well. Any casual glance through women’s magazines or relationship sites will yield articles talking about how much one should tell one’s partner about sexual pasts or whether one needs to give a specific number of past partners, etc… For myself, I like it when an author doesn’t flinch from revealing that either one of her lead characters has a past, but I can see why readers wouldn’t need to relive every last gory detail. How about you?

- Lynn Spencer

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17 Responses to “Kiss and Tell”

  1. Tee says:

    Lynn said: “For myself, I like it when an author doesn’t flinch from revealing that either one of her lead characters has a past, but I can see why readers wouldn’t need to relive every last gory detail. How about you?”

    First of all, from your description of the book, I’m not sure it’s one that I’d enjoy. But you never know. Second, in answer to your question, I agree with you completely. I don’t need gory details of past affairs and specific couplings. Usually, it’s on the side of the hero where this is done. It does turn me off. I don’t mind a mention of a past, just as you said, but then let’s stay in the present for the rest of the story.

  2. dick says:

    Yes and no. IIRC, one romance author seemed always to open her books with a sex scene between the hero and his lover, mistress, courtesan, whatever. (Nicole Jordan, maybe?) In a way, although seemingly gratuitous sex for the sake of sex, that procedure served to differentiate between those encounters and subsequent encounters with the heroine and quite often suggested differences between making love and having sex, a showing rather than telling or implying.

  3. Tumperkin says:

    Assuming the book is a romance then, no, I wouldn’t want to read detailed scenes setting out the heroine’s past sexual encounters – unless there was perhaps one particularly important scene from her past that informed her character in some way. But that preference is nothing to do with how I would view her character – it’s to do with the fact that I don’t want to spend large portions of a romance book in the company of characters who are not the protagonists, or visiting their past (unless it is a shared H/H past, in which case, bring it on). I personally like at least 80% of the action to feature the H/H. However, if there is history that – judiciously revealed – informs the characters in a significant way, then I’m happy with that provided it doesn’t go on too long.

    So for that reason, it sounds to me as though this author made the right call.

  4. Tumperkin says:

    Assuming the book is a romance then, no, I wouldn’t want to read detailed scenes setting out the heroine’s past sexual encounters – unless there was perhaps one particularly important scene from her past that informed her character in some way. But that preference is nothing to do with how I would view her character – it’s to do with the fact that I don’t want to spend large portions of a romance book in the company of characters who are not the protagonists, or visiting their past (unless it is a shared H/H past, in which case, bring it on). I personally like at least 80% of the action to feature the H/H. However, if there is history that – judiciously revealed – informs the characters in a significant way, then I’m happy with that provided it doesn’t go on too long.

    So for that reason, it sounds to me as though this author made the right call.

  5. willaful says:

    I don’t read sex scenes for the sake of sex scenes. If it’s not part of the relationship or integral to the story in some way, I’d just as soon not read it.

  6. chris booklover says:

    Dick: I think you are referring to Susan Johnson, not Nicole Jordan. It may or may not be a coincidence, but Johnson is far more realistic in terms of her depiction of male sexuality than are most of today’s romance authors, who often feature heroes who remain celibate for YEARS after a relationship has ended, or heroes who are “physically unable to perform” with other women simply because they love the heroine (even though they are not at the time in a relationship with her). Not very plausible, IMHO.

    With respect to the more general issue of how much to reveal about the hero and heroine’s sexual pasts, my answer would be a firm but wishy-washy “it depends.” Since characters’ sexual histories tell us something about them, it often helps the reader to have some general information on the subject (although I have read great romances in which the issue has not been discussed at all). In general, however, it’s not necessary to have detailed, blow by blow descriptions of past trysts unless the episodes in question advance the plot or provide critical information about the character.

    Most readers want to focus on the developing relationship between the hero and the heroine. Detailed scenes involving either with a third party tend to dissipate that focus.

  7. mq, cb says:

    It’s not the heroine’s sexual past that would bother me but the fact that, in this case, her previous sexual experiences would have been forced. The same would bother me if it happened to a man. You have to write very sensitively about that sort of subject to do it justice.

    To give an example of the stuff that I hate: I read a story in an anthology last year which involved current day Vikings living underground in Alaska and Canada and kidnapping unwilling women whom they then auction naked as wives, dose with Spanish fly and shag into delirious oblivion, all of which is described in great and boring detail. Needless to say, the women fall in love with their husbands after all this Viking sex. It is this sort of thing that gives romance a bad name. I only read through to the end because I kept hoping that someone would find an icepick and truly nail the blond galumph, ideally through his thick blond head. That book got hurled across the room with great force.

  8. roseisa says:

    I have “Surrender of a Lady” on my TBR pile. The premise of being sold into slavery and living in a harem caught my interest.

    Lynn wrote “As I got further into the book, I saw that the author’s choice to reserve sex scene details for the hero and heroine’s relationship could also serve another purpose. By showing only this relationship in great detail, the author may not be adhering to a cultural double standard but instead showing readers that this is the relationship that actually matters. The heroine and hero may each have a past, but it is their relationship with each other that will actually have the greatest importance in their lives, and the explicit details of every past encounter just aren’t needed.”

    I do not care for detailed encounters of either the h/h’s past lovers – information is necessary when the past relationship(s) explain characteristics of either party.

    A romance, historical or contemporary is about the h/h’s relationship and it sounds from Lynn’s write up that Tiffany Clare hit the nail on the head with this debut in an exotic setting.

  9. dick says:

    @chris booklover:
    Mmm. I don’t think I’ve read any of Susan Johnson’s books, but as I’ve not the most trustworthy of memories, I could very well be incorrect in naming Jordan.

  10. Xina says:

    I have read nearly all of Susan Johnson’s older books and she opens a great number of them with the hero having sex with a woman who is not the heroine. And in a few of her books she writes the hero with antihero woman after he has met and slept with the heroine. I don’t mind the scenes with the women before heroine, but the scenes with other women after the hero has walked away didn’t always work for me, although there were exceptions. At any rate, the love scenes with the hero and heroine were more highlighted.

  11. Em says:

    I read Surrender of a Lady purely by chance– before any reviews or discussions came to my attention–and I really didn’t care for this book at all. It was not necessarily because of the harem setting, as there have been other books which touch on this milieu. (I can’t think of the details right now, but there are several historical accounts of a Frenchwoman who rose to great power in the Ottoman Empire via the harem by giving birth to the eventual ruler of the Empire, and by being better at palace intrigue than her rivals.)
    However, it was the harem/plot that in the end made this a rather distasteful romance for me. I couldn’t get past the initial sheer brutality of her sale into slavery, and the coercion that followed. And the fact that it was intended as pure sexual slavery made it even worse. Her relationship with the hero, IMO, was totally overshadowed by this reality.
    I felt that the author absolutely HAD to gloss over her subsequent sexual experiences in the years before she once again encounters the hero, because not to do so would have created a fairly unpleasant picture of what was essentially a “white slave trade” of the time. Her past sexual experiences don’t really fall into the old “double standard “paradigm, since she was forced into all this by her feckless husband, slave traders, and a harem owner who is basically a pimp.

  12. chris booklover says:

    It’s a bit surprising that no one has mentioned Bertrice Small. In several of her early novels (published 25 to 30 years ago) the heroine is sold into the harem of a man who may or may not be the eventual hero. Unlike Tiffany Clare, Small describes the heroine’s sexual experiences in detail, even if her owner is not the hero.

    It’s an interesting comparison, for it shows how much romance novels have changed over the past two or three decades. Tiffany Clare is not adhering to an established double standard – in fact, in the less PC days of the 1980′s it was far easier for authors to describe sex outside the hero-heroine relationship. I doubt very much if Small’s earlier novels could be published in unaltered form today.

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