Taking Books to Bed: Amber Belldene on How Reading Shapes Our Sex Lives

photo (7)I’m delighted to welcome Amber Belldene to Wonkomance today. Amber, thank you so much for guest-posting!

Amber writes paranormal and contemporary romance and is an Episcopal priest and student of religion. To quote Amber’s bio, some people think it’s strange for a minister to write romance, but it seems perfectly natural to her because she passionately believes desire is divine.

I love talking to Amber about reading and writing. She’s thoughtful, vibrant, and funny, and she inspires me to delve deeper, think harder, and give more. These are the best kind of writer friends! 

The first time I had sex, it was at least partly just to get it over with, and the whole time a significant portion of my brain was imagining that the bed would roll away and I would drop straight into hell. Otherwise, it was pretty good, as first times go (I’ve only had one, so it’s hard to compare. But like most of you, I’ve read about a bazillion firsts in romance novels and those are my points of reference).

That’s pretty much the thesis of this post. What we read shapes our experience of sex. Not by itself, of course. We absorb all kinds of values, expectations, and norms, long before we even realize we are doing so.

Somehow, under these influences, we construct meaning from a crazy intense animal physical encounter that might simply remain a blurry mishmash of grunts, thrusts, and neurological explosion. What we are thinking, feeling, and choose to do during sex is very much constructed and I’m interested in the way the genre of romance is part of this construction for its readers. For example, we all heard about the run on certain sex toys following the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.

Much of what shapes our sexual selves is initially unconscious. But reading romance and erotica is a conscious, active exploration of our values. By entering into the experience of a character—we try on his or her feelings, actions, etc. Personally, I think this is profound, but I’ve only got my own experience and anecdotal evidence from others to support my thesis. I’m also very curious about your experience too, and I hope you’ll share in the comments.

Here’s mine: As a young woman, my primary texts were the Bible and romance novels, and they were basically running in my head side by side. It was specifically the letters of Paul which endorse married, straight sex as a stopgap measure for those who can’t handle celibacy until the second coming, alongside stories of people whose desire and connection to each other were so strong they could overcome immense internal and external obstacles to love. There was probably a third text too—what I absorbed at large from peers, parents, sex-ed class, etc. That’s the set of values and vocabulary I brought to sex and they remained my primary texts for a long, long time.

I’m convinced that, of all of these, romance novels served me the best. They taught me that passion, mutual pleasure, and a kind of ecstasy were things to seek out. They gave me words for sensations, metaphors for previously vague longings, taught me that my desires and the physical expression of affection were good, holy even; that sexy men like sexual women; and they nurtured an inkling that St. Paul was wrong about some things. I am profoundly grateful that I brought all of that to my first fumbling experiences, and to my later deliberate ones.

But this was the second half of the 1990s, and so the (mostly historical) romances I’d read also taught me that true love magically stimulates vaginal orgasms, that all good girls have hymens, and probably taught me to like pushy alpha males more than I might have otherwise developed that taste (oh, who knows, maybe that’s nature, not nurture).

Years later, when I got back into reading romance (and first met erotica), the genre had changed so much. The sex was more explicit and gritty and realistic and hot. Things about my sex life that felt like failures or limitations were suddenly cast as erotic, and the power and vocabulary to find paths through them were an unexpected gift. I couldn’t get enough.

During both periods of my life, I found romance incredibly sexually empowering, even those old-fashioned ones with the limitations we all know about. I suspect this empowerment is what people subconsciously fear about the genre—whether they are dismissing romance on intellectual grounds or moral ones—the idea that LOTS of women might know what we want and feel entitled to it, that we might expect our partners (and ourselves) to be heroic, if also flawed, and that self-determination and pleasure aren’t only for men or certain elite women. Sadly, those ideas are for many people still revolutionary, and they are at the heart of nearly every romance novel. Hurrah!

Yikes. When I put it that way, its starts to feel like an immense responsibility upon the writer. Maybe it’s good I never think about that when I start a new story.

Back when I began writing, sex scenes were my favorite. They felt so alive to me with both kinds of power—the fraught, frustrating, sticky, sweaty, AND the self-shattering, self-revealing, transformative, transcendence of sex. I was so excited to write the sort of book that had done so much for me.

Nowadays, writing something feminist or sexually empowering isn’t at the forefront in my planning, but I assume those sensibilities will seep into my work because I hold them dear. It isn’t until I start revisions that I ask myself (and my critique partners) if my characters’ actions and choices point to the values I hold dear—that desire is divine, that we sometimes go astray in our search to fulfill it, and that the story of this journey (desire, wayward search, and fulfillment) is gloriously fun and sexy and good for us as human beings.

I’m a pantser and write from the gut, with a lot of hope and not a lot of planning. So, I don’t always nail those values in the first draft. I think if I tried, I might not be able to write a word. And I’m immensely thankful for all the people who read my drafts and help be sure I’ve written something that actually says what I want it to.

So what about you?

  • As readers, have books constructed the way you think about yourself as a sexual person and/or engage in the act of sex?
  • Any books in particular help you find the big O you wanted?
  • As authors, do you consider this potential influence on readers as a responsibility when you write?
  • Or would that burden your creativity?

Amber Belldene grew up on the Florida panhandle, swimming with alligators, climbing oak trees and diving for scallops…when she could pull herself away from a book. As a child, she hid her Nancy Drew novels inside the church bulletin and read during sermons—an irony not lost on her when she preaches these days. She lives with her husband and twin kiddos in San Francisco.

Find Amber: Website | Twitter | Facebook

About Serena Bell

Serena Bell writes stories about how sex messes with your head, why smart people do stupid things sometimes, and how love can make it all better. Read more >
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10 Responses to Taking Books to Bed: Amber Belldene on How Reading Shapes Our Sex Lives

  1. Alexis Hall says:

    I just wanted to say I really loved this post – and your writing in general. I find discussions of spirituality and sensuality (and sexuality) really fascinating, and I love how they interact, usually in quite subtle ways, in your work.

    I’m obviously pretty new to the romance genre in general (though it’s pretty much all I’ve read for the past two years, so there’s an extent to which that is becoming less and less true every time I say it) and my experiences with it in the formative sense where quite oblique – I read a lot of Heyer as a teenager, as my grandmother had a box of them in the attic. And while I think they do have a quiet sexuality to them, they mainly fostered in me a desire to own a quizzing glass, and possibly a saucy bonnet with a high poke and several ostrich feathers.

    I think you’re absolutely right, however, that what we read shapes and changes us in innumerable and often barely noticeably ways. I don’t mean to sound like a zealot but I feel a near constant diet of romance has changed the way I act and express myself. My partner kind of jokes that 2013 was the year I cried all the time … and it kind of was. Partially over things that upset me, like a normal human, but partially in response to things – books, a lot, (I cried all the way through FLOWERS FROM THE STORM) and art in general. And I could count on the fingers of one hand (literally) the occasions I’d cried previously – it was not appropriate behaviour in my household growing up, and I’d internalised that very deeply even while rationally recognising it wasn’t actually a universal behavioural truth.

    Sorry, you’re talking about sex, and I’m talking about crying. Way to kill the mood ;) But I think the power of romance, as a genre, is the way it normalises/engages with/celebrates a lot of things that are socially suspect: love, emotions, sex, vulnerability, trust. And as a reader (as a human) it’s hard for me to untangle those into a specific response to specific texts. I just feel … in general … more open-hearted as a consequence.

    • *swoons at the complement in your first paragraph*

      Wow! Thanks!

      And yes, I cried all the way through Flowers in the Storm too, so much that I haven’t read another of her books even though I loved it so much, because I don’t want so much crying. I especially loved Maddie’s spiritual struggle in that book, and what Christian says in the meeting at the end. Gah! So good!

      At the risk of creating a mutual admiration loop here, I read your post on the Gay For You trope yesterday, and I think what you say there about the possibility sexuality is dynamic and not an essential quality is fabulous. If we say that about gender, then, duh, right?
      And stories about that dynamism are exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about here–stories that help us discover something new about ourselves and attain greater freedom and joy through the discovery.

      Lastly, I love what you said about romance making you more open hearted. I think it makes me more mindful, more tuned in to my partner and what it means to live with gratitude for a happy ever after–to not take the romance and chemistry between us for granted.

  2. Amber,

    What a wonderful post! I love your views on spirituality and I think that your philosophy, of desire being divine is something that would change the world, if we all embraced it.

    I didn’t read romance when I was young. I wish I had. I think that since sex education falls so short in our schools, the least we could do is make romance required reading. But, alas, I have to say that the books I read did not inform me sexually and help create who I was as a sexual person. I wish they had. I think that all of us need that sort of guidance and permission to experience desire.

    I used to want to write things that changed people’s lives. When I was young, the movie “Dirty Dancing” completely changed my life. I always wanted to give that gift to my readers (and viewers), but my initial attempts ended up too preachy.

    I learned (through much more error than trial) that if you write a great story, your beliefs and values come through. You don’t need to preach. You don’t even need to set out to write about a particular moral. If your story comes from your heart, it will be there.

    So, like you, I just tell my story and then I look back and see what came through. I just finished a short romance story. After I wrote it, I thought: “I wish that’s what my first time had been like.”

    If a young girl were to read my story and become empowered and informed, that would be the highest reward I could imagine.

    • Samantha, you are so sweet. I’m immensely grateful for conversations we’ve had about sex in the course of being critique partners! You are one of those people I can count on to keep me in line with values you know I have and to point out mechanical improbabilities :-)

      And yes, I think you are right. It’s so much more effective to show those values, not tell them.

      I was recently reading a non-romance by an author I love–Connie Willis–set in WW2. There were all these small moments where secondary characters did astonishingly heroic things and sometimes died. They always made me cry, evoking a near religious feeling for me about the nature of courage and sacrifice. All of which is happening in the back ground, and she never really says an explicit word about those themes and yet those moments were what stayed with me from the book.

      I aspire to write like that!

  3. Great post! So many thoughts.

    I started reading romance when I was about 11. I was raised Catholic and sex was a major taboo subject in my house, so I learned more from reading than anything my mother told me. She let me read whatever I wanted, and I read romances by the truckload. She also had a book of sexual fantasies, maybe a Nancy Friday book? I read that in secret.

    From older romances I learned that vaginal orgasms were the “right” kind, and from my upbringing/society I learned not to talk about sex, it’s a shameful secret etc, so I struggled for some time with feeling abnormal in silence. I also noticed a change with the rise of erotic rom–more explicit, clitoris mentions! Rejoice. But it wasn’t until I started writing that I worked things out in real life.

    I wouldn’t say I felt a responsibility or obligation to readers. I have a *desire* to portray sex the way I experience it (no vaginal orgasms) and in a somewhat realistic fashion. I do think about feminism and female empowerment when I write, but I try not to let anyone else dictate to me what that looks like (we won’t all agree), and my main focus is entertaining readers with a good story.

  4. Fiona McGier says:

    How refreshing to hear from a “person of God” who believes the obvious, that good sex is a gift we’re all meant to enjoy–why else were we given bodies with the capacity to feel such intense pleasure? Everyone is still so afraid of female sexuality, from the men who fear if women have a say they’ll never be able to measure up (hence, slut-shaming, all the way up to female circumcision)…to the arbiters of society who fear that females are too powerful and that society will crumble if women are allowed to control their own bodies (hello, SCOTUS, we’re talking to you!)

    When I started writing I was astounded by the vehemence of the reaction I’d get from people who would be interested that I was a published author until I told them what I write. I used to rush through saying “erotic romance”, hoping for a different reaction; but no, everyone would grimace, “Who reads THAT stuff?”, or act like they’d stepped in something disgusting and change the subject. Or they’d say, “Like FSOG?” with a wink and a nod, as if to gain my complicity in enjoying females being totally humiliated by a rich man who’d show them what pleasure really was, because they were too stupid to find out themselves. Sigh…

    I have a link on my website (http:www.fionamcgier.com) to a short video that insists that reading romance is STILL a revolutionary act for women. And even more so for men, because it forces them to realize that the brain doesn’t have to be totally ignored and turned off when the “little brain” takes over. It’s possible to fall in love with your mind as well as your genitals…in fact that’s the only kind of love that will last.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  5. Angie H. says:

    YES! Once again, you’ve put into words exactly what some of my realizations have been over my past 46 years on this planet. Thank you! (And the comments thus far have also been excellent) Not sure if this addresses your specific questions, but I can’t help but note just how lacking all of my info about sex was as a child. Mind you, I had young, borderline rebellious and liberal parents, who never restricted my reading and/or writing pursuits per se, especially compared to most of my friends’ parents. It’s just that the YA books that I was exposed to and/or were readily available for me either involved very timid, very abused or very misunderstood young women…and left even less to be desired when it came to the young male characters. Fast forward to me being a happy, confident, loved and loving wife and mother. Our daughter is five (already!) and thank God, truly, that the world is her oyster when it comes to finding exemplary female “leads” in books. What would I have done differently if I grew up believing, because of examples that I had read, that sex was NOT necessarily awkward, confusing and/or abusive, but exciting, profoundly intimate and a source of pure joy? What will she do differently because she will have every opportunity to relish in the knowledge that her body and her mind are things to be treasured for their strengths instead of feared for their weaknesses? Thanks for sharing your personal story.

    • Angie—so sorry for the long-delayed reply! Thanks for these comments. I esp love this:

      What would I have done differently if I grew up believing, because of examples that I had read, that sex was NOT necessarily awkward, confusing and/or abusive, but exciting, profoundly intimate and a source of pure joy? What will she do differently because she will have every opportunity to relish in the knowledge that her body and her mind are things to be treasured for their strengths instead of feared for their weaknesses?

      What a vision to hold for our daughters. Mine is 3 and I do think about this a lot. Perhaps randomly, I also love the relationship my mom and I now have about romance novels, she is my biggest fan and all her friends love to read the sex in my books!

  6. Julia Kelly says:

    This is a fantastic post, Amber, and you’re asking some really important questions.

    What I tell most people who ask (usually between giggles) about “dirty books” is that romance doesn’t teach you how to have sex so much as it teaches you that the act of having sex is okay. Long before I ever had sex, the romances I was reading taught me that a woman’s pleasure is just as important as her partner’s. Not only that, she can speak up and ask for what she wants and that doesn’t make her slutty or promiscuous or any other horrible words that women sometimes get labeled with. Basically I learned that my own sexual empowerment is awesome. How cool, important, and subversive a lesson is that?

    I’m glad you brought up the question of responsibility and burden when writing. I hope that what I write conveys messages of consent and communication because that’s what I’m intentionally putting in there. I’m not just talking about mental consent that the reader gets in a character’s POV but an actual exchange of words between a couple. It can be brief, but I want it to me there. Now that little exchange might slow down a sex scene for some (or even seem unnecessary), but it’s important to me so I’m keeping it in.

    • Julia, Thanks for these comments. It sounds like our experiences match up quiet a lot!

      It’s interesting that you note explicit verbal consent. I can’t say that’s always crucial to me when writing, but I found myself adding it to a scene just the other day, perhaps because of the way this post had me thinking about responsibility. :-)