Romance vs. Erotica: How much sex?
A gentleman romance reader recently emailed to say how much he enjoyed the ‘blowing the curtains’ scenes in my story, A Piece of My Heart. I’d never heard the phrase before, so I went to Google. While there aren’t any steadfast answers to what the phrase means, it was best described on Lights Film blog: “...a cheesy signifier of arousal is a shot of billowing curtains at a window; this isn’t so much a symbol of sex, as the feeling that some sensation has quietly and inevitably entered the room.” That’s to say, scenes where sex is implied. In a film, the couple is in the frame, and as they come together, the camera pans to an open window where the curtains are billowing, then the scene ends. Sex between the couple is implied, but not shown. So, going back to my reader’s email, it all came clear.
First, let me draw out today’s differences between romance, erotica, and porn:
Romance – These stories are traditionally about a monogamous couple who grow and develop their relationship together. If the writer decides to add sex scenes into their story, they must be an integral part of the story—a scene that advances the story and isn’t gratuitous. They’re usually not very graphic; sometimes prose can be very flowery, body parts are called by their real names. A really well written scene is more motive than physical, leaving the reader with the ‘aw factor’. That is to say, when the reader has finished reading the scene they say “Aw, that was wonderful!” The story was about their love; it was in their hearts, in their words, in their actions yet not graphically so.
Erotica – These stories are very similar to romance, especially if we’re talking about Romantica™ (romance + erotica = Romantica™, Ellora’s Cave), described as: ... any work of literature that is both romantic and sexually explicit in nature. The couple are still monogamous, but they author is allowed many more liberties for their characters to discover sex together, which includes using adult toys and the liberal use of graphic descriptions. Previously, erotica was just about titillation. One example that stands out was a short piece I read about a woman in a bath. The description of her bathing herself was written to whet the appetite, so to speak, and to get the imagination working. The reader was meant to get into the bath with her, imagine the feel the soap and cloth on her skin, imagine the feel the water’s heat and the way the bubbles...well, you get the idea. Titillation. Not so today. Today we’re constantly desensitized, thanks to the media and TV, so our romance has moved up to where erotica used to be and erotica has moved into the space previously occupied by X-rated material. Where does that leave X-rated material?...
Porn – The stakes are raised higher with this genre by the use of crude words, advanced sexual positions, multiple partners, and general nastiness altogether.
Over the years, the lines between romance and erotica have significantly blurred. Twenty-five years ago, erotica was about ‘blowing the curtains’—sex was a little more than implied and used as titillation. A good romance was about the development between the hero and heroine. And porn was at the far end of the spectrum and only sold in certain shops. While there are several avenues this subject can go, I’ll stick with just how much sex should go into a romance before it becomes an erotica. We can leave porn for another day!
First of all, consider the story length:
Short stories– These are meant to be condensed novels. There's not a lot of space for excess dialog and description, including intimate scenes. Unless the sole purpose of a short story is to titillate, the story must immediately focus on the characters and tell the story all within a set number of words, generally 1000-5000 words. Which means there is little room for going inside the bedroom with the characters. This is what's called 'leaving it at the door', or as above, blowing the curtains.
In my short story, "Dude Looks Like A Lady", Pam and Jake have made up after five years. When we come to the sex scene, I went with: “He rose and slid across the bed with her in his arms. He intended to start with kissing every inch of her. When he finished, he’d begin again. When he finished kissing her, he had five years worth of fantasies to catch up on.” We know they’re going to have sex, but that’s the end of the scene. We’ve left it at the door with the curtains billowing. It’s short and effective and does exactly what it’s meant to do...tell the reader that the characters have forgiven each other, love each other, and are ready to advance their relationship.
Novels and novellas – With longer stories, the author has the personal decision whether or not they want to include explicit scenes, and if they do, it's the publisher's and editor's job to be sure any explicit scenes enhance and advance the story rather than being just gratuitous or to pad the story for word count. We all know that sex sells. That’s fine, but if the writer wants a lot of sex in their story, they should be writing erotica and submitting erotica publishers rather than to romance ones.
In my novel, A Piece of My Heart, there are a couple of intimate scenes and one explicit scene. The intimate scenes are necessary as Mick and Kate are learning to trust each other again. They’re reforming their original bond. And frankly, touch is integral to love.
In real life, when touch is removed from a person's every day life, they grow distant. And not just with other people—mostly within themselves. They pull away from life because they don't feel worthy. A touch says a thousand more things than words ever can. The back of a finger wiping away a tear on a cheek exhibits tenderness. Cupping the cheek in the palm of a hand exhibits desire. A hand on a shoulder exhibits compassion and understanding. A kiss on the forehead exhibits empathy and also blessing. A kiss on the cheek exhibits friendship...etc. See what I mean? Remove touch from our lives and we and lose so much! But add touch into a blossoming relationship, where desire is involved and suddenly there’s hope and life. By the time Mick and Kate consummate their relationship, that explicit scene is integral to the story. It’s part of the natural progression of the characters’ development and the story. Leaving it at the door with the curtains blowing just isn’t enough...unless we want to talk about Christian romance, but that’s as much another topic as pornography, and best left for another day.
There has been a generation of women, and men, who wouldn't admit to reading romance because these books were, for a long time, known as bodice rippers. This goes back to the 70s and 80s when book covers had the traditional clinch cover and in the story the hero was just as likely to rip the heroine's bodice (top of her dress) open to expose her flesh, and everything else. Back in then, bodice ripping and forced sex were regular features, especially in historicals. I remember reading a story set in American Civil War times where the heroine’s family is forced to give up their Tara-like mansion to soldiers. They strip the farm bare of everything that’s not nailed down, all in the name of the war effort. The heroine is in the cornfield gleaning it to feed her displaced family when a soldier comes along and rapes her. The act binds the couple, so when the soldier falls in battle, his spirit seeks out the heroine to come to his aid. As this is a romance which demands an HEA (happily ever after), she goes to him and they fall in love. Today, this storyline would never see the light of day. Rape is forbidden in all but the most specialized pornography. Sex in all romance, erotica and port must be consensual.
Erotica is big business though. Look at ebook publishers at the moment. A majority of them cater to erotic writing...Ellora's Cave, Cerridwen, Loose ID, Quicksilver, Total eBound, Bold Strokes Books, Carnal Desires Publishing, etc. So, yes, there is a market for the more explicit story. Anyone who read romance in the 80s will probably still have some of the fears of being found out...reading romance! But today, by and large, most women freely admit they read romance. And a HUGE number of them will freely admit they read erotica and really enjoy it. Doesn't make them perverts though. Look at Black Lace Books in the UK. Their tagline is "written for women by women" because women know what women want.
In reality, most women never get 10% of what they'd really like at home and these books are great escapism. Men can learn more about what women really want or what they fantasize about, and hopefully put it into practice by reading erotica written for woman. Of course, the man has to be paying attention ;-)
Finally, you can always tell erotica written by women and that written by men. Women's erotica is 80% emotion and 20% graphic detail, as with men, it's 80% graphic detail and 20% emotion. Woman want emotion and men want graphic detail. I know I’ll get slaughtered for saying this, but this is why women are generally better at writing romance and erotica, and men are so much better writing crime thrillers.
So, how much sex should go into a romance before it becomes erotica? Well, that’s up to the writer and reader to determine. But I will say that there are a LOT of great stories out there that cater to all tastes.
My final article tomorrow: Shaking Your Tree