A reader who asked that she remain anonymous, so let's call her Janet Smith, says that romances helped her understand that it was absolutely acceptable for women, as Blake pointed out, to have s.e.xual desires: "Romance novels did have an influence on my relationships, and it was mostly a positive influence. My mom was open in talking about s.e.x with me, so I knew all about it. And I'd decided that I was going to hold on to my virginity until I was married. And mom had made it clear that it was a boyfriend's role in a relationship to push for s.e.x and my role to say no. So you can imagine my surprise when I was feeling attraction. I hadn't been prepared for the idea that I would want s.e.x. I muddled through that mess on my own and decided that even though I was some kind of weird s.e.xaholic (I thought) girl, that it was OK to do it with my boyfriend, because we were going to get married.
"I was in college by then, but didn't have girlfriends who were having s.e.x and sharing details. Then I discovered romance novels. And you know what? The women in the novels? They liked s.e.x! They wanted it! I wasn't a s.e.xaholic; I was probably pretty darn normal. Go figure!"
Catinbody echoes Janet's comments about discovering her own s.e.xuality and h.o.r.n.ypants: "Practical things aside, I think discovering your own s.e.xuality is a healthy part of development that helps tremendously once you're in a s.e.xual relationship. For me, reading romance was a part of that development. I remember having it very clear in my mind at fifteen that while I didn't want a man to love me for my body, I wanted to experience a man loving my body. This seemed to be a fairly subversive idea both for someone well-ensconced in her church youth group and who was growing up in an area with strong feminist influences. But it's nothing more than what we all want-to be desired and to be loved. Romance got me honest about this and down off some of the pillars of ideology (both religious and feminist) I'd been standing on."
"Mom had made it clear that it was a boyfriend's role in a relationship to push for s.e.x and my role to say no. So you can imagine my surprise when I was feeling attraction. I hadn't been prepared for the idea that I would want s.e.x...Then I discovered romance novels. And you know what? The women in the novels? They liked s.e.x! They wanted it! I wasn't a s.e.xaholic; I was probably pretty darn normal. Go figure!"-ANONYMOUS, A READER
Romance helped Nadia in many respects, especially in her marriage: "I learned a lot early on about what's good for a female, and that s.e.x can and should be good for the female, and applied it in real life. Now, in the middle of my second decade of marriage, we are still benefiting from my reading habits. Something new and interesting to try comes up now and again."
Reader Elemental admits that he "initially read romances as a teenage boy for the naughty bits. But even then, there was something useful. They planted the ideas that women can be just as s.e.xual as men, that things like oral or foreplay aren't 'unmanly,' and a bit of sensitivity and willingness to communicate honestly can avoid a lot of aggravation later on. The actual s.e.x-ed material I got elsewhere was all about the bare mechanics, so romances were largely my introduction to the emotions that accompanied the act, and confirmation that, yes, women actually enjoyed s.e.x as much as men did."
"I learned a lot early on about what's good for a female, and that s.e.x can and should be good for the female, and applied it in real life. Now, in the middle of my second decade of marriage, we are still benefiting from my reading habits. Something new and interesting to try comes up now and again."-NADIA, A READER
A reader who asked that I not reveal her name says that romance helped her get her adventure-s.e.x merit badge (I only wish there were such a thing): "Reading romances really opened my eyes to the infinite possibilities of location. On more than one occasion my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I availed ourselves of the woods in a public park, in every room in every apartment or house we've had (including laundry room and kitchen), in parked cars (and vans), in swimming pools and hot tubs, on conference room tables (oh, if his bosses had any idea...), and, most memorably, multiple times in the attic window of a campus building at the Naval Academy with my bare a.s.s perched on the window sill."
Author Eve Savage found the s.e.xuality of erotic romance had a lasting effect on her marriage, even before she began to write. Savage said that as her "life and reading tastes evolved, I started reading erotica which opened up a whole new world to me and my husband. Things we'd thought, but never had the guts to talk about or try, were now described in black and white. They helped us add new joys to our s.e.x life and brought us closer together in the pleasure we give one another. Thirteen years of marriage and it's only getting better!"
"The actual s.e.x-ed material I got elsewhere was all about the bare mechanics, so romances were largely my introduction to the emotions that accompanied the act, and confirmation that, yes, women actually enjoyed s.e.x as much as men did."-ELEMENTAL, A READER
Even if the s.e.xual possibilities seem impossible or downright uncomfortable in a novel, exploring your own s.e.xuality in fiction can be very liberating-and, I won't lie, quite t.i.tillating. Jess Granger says that she "started reading romances at the age of thirteen or fourteen, right when I started getting curious about everything, but I wasn't quite sure what to do with myself, literally and figuratively.
"At the time, romances were fairly Old Skool, and some of them were over the top. One scene in Johanna Lindsey's Savage Thunder in particular stuck with me, and it wasn't until I was much, much older that I had the mental capacity to ask the question, 'Where would the saddle horn go?' Then I realized that probably wouldn't be very comfortable.
"I love the idea that s.e.x in romance novels encourages us to explore new places. Okay, I'm not in a hurry to be that couple caught on the JumboTron at the ball game humping in the stands, but there's something to be said about a bit of controlled risk."
One of the more empowering and, in my never-humble opinion, awesomely excellent things about s.e.x in romance is that the woman is not punished or ultimately harmed for being curious or even a.s.sertive about her s.e.xual needs. Even in the Old Skool days of forced seductions and other questionable scenes, the wages of s.e.x were not death, ostracism, misery, poverty, and complete moral turpitude. Getting some didn't mean giving yourself away-and it didn't mean you were done for once you did the deed. s.e.x has always been one of the major focuses of romance, even if an individual book contained only the chastest of kisses, because romances are about the heroine, and about her self-discovery and her happiness. That has to include s.e.x-and the exploration and enjoyment thereof!
"s.e.x in romance novels encourages us to explore new places."-ANONYMOUS, A READER
Jess Granger says reading the spicier romances, even those with s.e.xually aggressive heroes, helped her as a young woman in immeasurable ways: "As a young girl discovering her s.e.xual self, it kept me out of a lot of trouble. Since I could explore those issues and feelings through the books, I did not have the urge to try to figure them out with some pimply-faced awkward boy in homeroom. Let's face it. None of them were Fabio. Also, in a lot of those books, s.e.x was scary! Oh, the pain! Not to mention the fact that so many of those poor heroines seemed to end up pregnant after one go.
"I didn't end up losing my virginity until I was nearly twenty-two and by that time romances were coming into the golden age of less rapeyness. Yay! At that point, I had discovered my s.e.xual agency. The things I did, I did because I wanted to do them for me. They were my experience, not something I did to impress or cling to some schmuck.
"I had a sense of what I wanted from a man. I'll be honest-I wish I'd known that when I first encountered the opportunity, the means, and the possibility of having actual s.e.x. I'd have saved myself a lot of misery-but then, I wasn't reading as much romance then."
Granger was also wise in the Romance as s.e.xual Research department. She says that reading romances "really contributed to s.e.xy fun times...I had expectations there that were probably a tad unrealistic, but I knew that they were unrealistic so it wasn't an issue. It meant that I knew what I wanted and that I was comfortable asking what he wanted and saying what I wanted, and I don't think I would have been that relaxed in the situation if I hadn't read so many romance novels."
Research-devoted folks reading romance get a double-whammy of education. A reader named Pharaby explains that she "was fascinated by the s.e.x, of course, and since I was a nerdy little bibliophile, I had research skills at my command to look up 'climax' and 'bordello' and 'erection'-using real books and paper card catalogs, no less.
"Also, 'tumescence.' Tumescence was very popular in the '80s. (I didn't learn the term 'whiskey d.i.c.k' until I was in college, and that was, alas, not from a romance.)"
Another fringe benefit to reading s.e.xually charged books with strong romances and strong heroines? They make you want to kick a.s.s, take names, and have make-up s.e.x afterward. Sharon S. says that "reading a really romantic and s.e.xy book will put me in the mood for some lovin'. I just started reading paranormal romance and urban fantasy romance over a year ago and I could kick myself for not starting earlier."
Reader Milena agrees. While she reads mostly science fiction and fantasy and very Old Skool romances with the perspective that, as she puts it, "this is fun but n.o.body would want that in real life," she says that modern contemporary romances have proven quite useful: "s.e.x in modern romances is in fact much more interesting...and yes, more informative."
Another fringe benefit to reading s.e.xually charged books with strong romances and strong heroines? They make you want to kick a.s.s, take names, and have make-up s.e.x afterward.
Reader James Lynch specifically mentioned attention to s.e.xuality, or, as he put it, "kinkiness," in an online discussion of heroic traits. s.e.xuality, from Lynch's perspective, can be heroic: "There's one trait that hasn't been mentioned, and may not be a strict requirement, but is nevertheless fun: kinkiness. This lack may be due to so many heroines being naive innocents (while the men are s.e.xually experienced-a literary standard going back to Tom Jones), but it's fun when the characters realize that there's more to s.e.x than a bed with him on top.
"It's also fun when the heroine realizes that she's s.e.xy. So many male characters ooze confidence and certainty while the female characters have no idea how beautiful/s.e.xy they are but are instead rather shy and modest. There's a nice scene in Love in the Afternoon by Lisa Kleypas where the normally modest-dressing heroine gets a s.e.xy bit of lingerie for her wedding night and shows herself off to her husband-leaving him stunned." One problem with discussing romance and the s.e.xual and physical elements in each novel-and the reader response to those elements-is that it possibly adds fuel to the nasty fire of accusation that romances are nothing but p.o.r.nography for women. This is categorically not true. Romances are not p.o.r.n. But they do contain s.e.x. So did NYPD Blue, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, and the BBC's Coupling-and those are not p.o.r.nography either. The presence of s.e.x does not equal the definition of p.o.r.n.
"I was frequently, even from the age of about eight, just as attracted to the women in the romance as the men. And it and a few other things helped me to acknowledge my s.e.xuality and be OK with it. Romance helped me learn that the emotional journey in any relationship is just as important, if not more so, than the s.e.xual destination."-CAITLIN, A READER
But then again, is frank discussion, depiction, or even description of s.e.x automatically p.o.r.nographic, or automatically a bad thing? I say no on both counts. Open and honest s.e.x is a good thing, especially as depicted in erotic romance. Sonya agrees: "I know that some people hate the p.o.r.n/romance novel comparison, but I've used both to introduce s.e.x-related subjects with my boyfriend. 'Is this something you'd like?' 'We could totally do that position.' 'Those stockings would look really s.e.xy on you.' 'I love it when you do that.' Romance and erotica aren't as good as p.o.r.n for introducing positions or outfits, but they're much better than p.o.r.n for role-play or toy suggestions and introducing kinkier subjects."
Professor Sarah Frantz says that, "yes, romances totally taught me about s.e.x. They taught me about owning my own o.r.g.a.s.m. They taught me about experimenting. They taught me about BDSM s.e.x, about a.n.a.l s.e.x, about public s.e.x, about making sure both partners enjoy it. They taught me about having fun during s.e.x. About talking about s.e.x and during s.e.x. I may or may not have practiced some of what I learned, but it's all important knowledge."
Reader Caitlin saw her own s.e.xuality in romance, and says it helped her understand her true self: "I was frequently, even from the age of about eight, just as attracted to the women in the romance as the men. And it and a few other things helped me to acknowledge my s.e.xuality and be OK with it. Romance helped me learn that the emotional journey in any relationship is just as important, if not more so, than the s.e.xual destination, and I think they helped with my self-respect in relationships later. Also, the well-written filthy ones really turn me on, which is good."
Seeing your own s.e.xuality, and your own s.e.xual self, in a novel can be tremendously liberating, and intimate. Merrian says that "the s.e.xuality of modern romance novels has been a big help to me in reclaiming my own s.e.xuality, which has been damaged by disability. Romance novels normalize desire and physical pleasure as a central part of love relationships. They have helped me strengthen my sense of ent.i.tlement to this. I feel more s.e.xually confident because reading romance novels has helped me set boundaries, defining what is in, as well as what is out. They have also at times been a practical guide."
One benefit to the explicitness of romance is that, unlike movies or other visual media, the reader can imagine the people getting funky in funky positions-and can perhaps picture herself doing the funky without actually doing so. It's, as has been stated earlier, a safe s.p.a.ce to explore without taking a risk or, say, entering a club devoted to BDSM with no knowledge of that practice or how it works. It's a lot less intimidating to read and experience in a book before one views and experiences in person that which is s.e.xually challenging and alluring.
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But then, even discussing s.e.xual desires openly can be challenging, and certainly isn't a skill or talent that is cultivated easily. There are few easy manuals or patterns to follow for honest relationships or even for s.e.xual encounters.
How does good romance s.e.x happen? Same way good real-world s.e.x happens: communication and experimentation.
When I say "be explicit" about what you want, I don't mean to start talking like you just took b.o.n.e.rp.o.r.n 101 and want to use every possible word for the p.e.n.i.s in one sentence.1 Just because erotic romances like to do this does not mean you should! I mean that you should and that you can say out loud what it is you wish your partner to do to you physically. Sometimes-often times-this is a very spicy turn-on for both parties. You hear yourself saying what you'd like to happen to your body, and then, it happens.
Some romance heroines can teach us plenty about owning one's s.e.xuality-over and over again. Molly Jennings, the heroine of Victoria Dahl's contemporary romance Talk Me Down, is an erotic romance author who returned to her hometown with a major case of writer's block, only to find that reconnecting with her high-school crush, Ben, was plenty of inspiration to crank her engine, creatively and literally. Molly is definitely someone who takes an active interest in all matters s.e.xual, so when it came time to write about s.e.x in romances, I asked Dahl to ask Molly if she had any advice for the readers of this book. Ha! As if she wouldn't.
I don't mean start talking dirty out of the blue and telling your man to put his Aer Lingus in your yoni while you're having brunch with his grandparents. I mean, specifically, say what you want.
Above all, Molly recommends that you start your own motor, so to speak:
"My advice is simple: When it rains, it pours. If you're feeling lonely and s.e.xually frustrated, there's a simple solution to the problem. Don't be. Take care of it yourself, ladies. There is nothing more appealing than a woman who's already plump with satisfaction. That's why men approach more often when you're happily involved in a relationship. You're confident and satisfied and s.e.xy. Men can see that. They can feel it. It's oozing out of your pores. So make it ooze on your own. Wait...that didn't sound right. What I mean is that you should take your s.e.xual satisfaction into your own hands. Buy a toy. Buy several toys. More importantly, use them.
"The next time you walk into a party by yourself, you'll look like you have a s.e.xy secret. Best case scenario: men will be buzzing around you like bees. Worst case scenario: you're already relaxed and happy, so who cares what the men do anyway?"
-Molly Jennings, heroine of Victoria Dahl's Talk Me Down Keely McKay from Lorelei James's Rough Riders series is also, well, open to and about s.e.x. Keely is adventurous and experienced in the exploration of multiple venues for s.e.xual pleasure. In other words, more than one man? Not a problem at all. The Rough Riders series is among the most erotic, explicit, and emotionally deft collections of romance, and since Keely is present in several other stories until she gets her own romance in All Jacked Up, I figured she had plenty to say about s.e.xual confidence and women with s.e.xual experience. James was kind enough to query her, and heh, I was so not wrong:
"There's no such thing as a s.l.u.t. That term p.i.s.ses me off, like it's a f.u.c.kin' sin to love s.e.x if you're a woman. How in the h.e.l.l are you ever supposed to get good at something if you don't practice it? A lot? And who made up the asinine rule that you can only be with one guy, at one time? Puh-leaze. There's something very empowering about bending two men to your will-or bending over for them and seein' how fast those belt buckles fly. It's the ultimate rush being the sole focus of two mouths, two sets of hands, two c.o.c.ks. Every woman should experience that a time or twenty in her life.
"But if you are a woman who insists on a one-on-one connection with your man, that doesn't mean it's gotta be boring, shut the lights off, missionary position, is-it-Sat.u.r.day-already type of vanilla s.e.x. Getting nekkid with him should be your priority. It'll drive him crazy when you take the lead and f.u.c.k him stupid. But don't expect your guy to be a mind reader. Tell him exactly what you want him to do to your body in as explicit and simple terms as possible.
"For G.o.d's sake, don't buy him a book on how to s.e.xually please a woman, because what man willingly reads any kind of how-to manual? Even if there are raunchy step-by-step pictures. Be bossy. Be bold. Break out the p.o.r.n and the s.e.x toys to provide examples.
"That said, if you're used to being in charge in your life outside the bedroom, there is power in surrendering your body and your s.e.xual will to your lover completely. Relying on him to provide you with what you crave in bed is not about love or companionship, but gorging yourself on as many banging-the-headboard o.r.g.a.s.ms as you can take.
"Who doesn't want a s.e.x life that causes your secret smirk and his s.e.xy swagger? I do. You should too. And darlin', the only way to get that well-f.u.c.ked feeling, is to make it happen."
-Keely McKay, heroine of Lorelei James's Rough Riders series Bottom line (pun intended): Excellent s.e.x, much like happiness, is something most everyone wishes to attain. And much like happiness, excellent s.e.x takes some effort, though the payoff is absolutely worth it.
1 "Take your mighty w.a.n.g sticky pants doodle, and holding your one-eyed yogurt-slinging trouser snake, batter up with your sword o' mighty lovin'."
We Know How to Solve Problems
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