I thought I was writing a contemporary romance until the hero pressed the heroine against her office door and fingered her while her administrative assistant worked less than ten feet away. Then I realize it was actually an erotic romance. Not because there was anything particularly kinky about the scene, other than the danger of being caught and the possibility of being observed, but because the heroine’s character arc was absolutely and completely tied to her experience of sex. There was no way she could have had the set of realizations she needed to have without engaging in messy, semi-public sex with this particular, complicated hero. And by extension, there is no way I can tell her story, no way I can convince you of what she has learned and how deeply tied in it is to her as a character, without showing you exactly what happened between them.

But then yesterday I wrote the book’s dark moment, and I realized that I’m not writing an erotic romance, I’m writing a contemporary romance. Because the messy, semi-public, complicated sex is actually just a metaphor for the messy, semi-public, complicated nature of love. All the sex scenes I’d been writing, they were not about her coming into her own sexually. They were about her coming into her own as a person capable of love.

The point I’m lurching towards here is that there’s no clean way to define the different between the two, because there’s no way to separate romantic love from sex. By romantic love (or sometimes we even call it erotic love), we definitionally mean something physical. It’s how we recognize it, it in fact, how we know the difference between friendship and something much deeper and more life altering. At the moment the body enters into it, the territory changes, and with it, a huge number of our expectations.

I had a conversation the other day with my walking buddy, who is also a romance writer. She’s written a lot of erotic romance, and she said that she thought that the kind of erotic romance that has become most marketable, romance where a particular kink or fetish takes center stage, was troublingly inherently unromantic. Because fetish, by definition, means that there is a thing or act that is the focus of sexual need, not a person. And for romance readers, who want to see a connection between people (not between a person and an act), that’s not satisfying.

Unbound_medI pointed to Cara McKenna’s Unbound, which is one of the best books I’ve ever read about how this doesn’t have to be true. Unbound contains an extremely compelling argument (to borrow language from a discourse recently elevated by Mary Ann Rivers here and Ruthie Knox here and here) that loving someone who needs a physical object or act to get off doesn’t have to diminish the intimacy or intensity of the love. And this makes intuitive sense to me, because the kind of love we care about as romance writers and readers already puts an object and an act between us and the beloved—the body, and sex. And it shouldn’t matter how much more complicated you make this body or this act, how thoroughly you tattoo it, how you restrain it or bind it, what fantasies you introduce, how you flirt with what is social unacceptable or even (some would argue) legally dubious—what matters is the nature of the love and the way the body becomes a vehicle for its expression.

I didn’t spent a lot of time arguing with my walking buddy, because she’s written, like, twenty erotic romances, and I have, by most definitions, written exactly zero, but I still think she’s wrong—kink and fetish aren’t inherently unromantic. They’re only unromantic if we let them distract from rather than amplify the emotional argument of the story—just as, in life, they’re only unromantic if they distract from, rather than amplify, our growing intimacy with another vulnerable human being.

I started this post disingenuously, in a way, by making as fine a distinction as I could between what it means to write contemporary and what it means to write erotic, but ultimately, what I’ve decided is that for me, there’s no distinction. Because for me, there’s no distinction between romantic love and erotic love, no distinction between loving someone romantically (which is to say body and soul) and erotically (which is to say body and soul), no distinction between revelations you have about your physical needs and those you have about your very human craving to find someone to respect and revel in and grant those needs.

Writing romance, for me, is about exploring exactly that place where those things bleed over into each other.

(If you’re interested in this topic, and you haven’t yet, you should read this “Wonko-Weigh-In” post in which we tried to break down the definitions of erotic romance and erotica.)

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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12 Responses to LoveSexLoveSexLoveSexLove

  1. Amber says:

    The thing about the that kink argument is what could be more romantic, more fulfilling, than finding a partner who pleases you sexually as well as emotionally? Without the sex it’s a friendship. I think that viewpoint might stem from the idea that kink is an optional thing, but for (some) kinky people, it’s really not. I think most vanilla readers don’t consider orgasming as optional for a heroine with a hero, for a satisfying end, and in the same way kink is not optional for a kinky heroine and hero.

    What interested me was when you said that because the dark moment is not about sex, then it’s a contemporary romance and not erotic romance, but I’m not sure that’s true. (Okay, with the caveat that this is all semantics and labels and not as important as the primary goal of telling a good story.) If the hook or first turn or start of their relationship is about sex, then I think it’s an erotic romance, and the fact that the dark moment hinges more on the romance does not nullify that because an erotic romance is still ultimately, and primarily, a romance. What that does mean is that it’s not erotica, where each major point of the story would be about the sex (or personal growth related to the sex) even if there’s also a side plot of romance. Okay, that’s enough from me about that :)

    • Serena Bell says:

      I definitely feel like in the last two books I’ve written, somehow the sex has gotten more fully integrated into the story. Like I figured out that every sex scene is totally inevitable and belongs exactly when and where it is, in the same way that all the other story elements do, as opposed to something you have to slot in (um) to fill a quota. I mean, I never really thought that, but I guess I hadn’t *internalized* it somehow. And then that led to all this thinking about, yeah, like you said, how accepting someone’s sexuality is a deeply loving act, and in some ways, the kinkier it is, the further outside your comfort zone, the more loving an act. I guess I sort of came to appreciate erotic romance more, by accidentally stumbling into writing it.

      • I remember with my 1st book (yes, that would be 10yrs ago) being told “We’d like you to add another fully realized sex scene” and thinking, “Ok, guess I can put that in somewhere near the end.” But like you said, it really was something that got slotted in (although I think I wrote a scene that ended up really working for the story) and didn’t grow organically from the book.

        Now, My 1st m/m romance (not out til the end of the year) has a LOT of sex in it. But every scene grows from the two MC’s, who are both pretty damaged and need to find ways to connect physically that won’t hurt them further. I definitely felt that each sex scene–erotic as hell, I think–is equally a dirty hot sex moment AND an exploration of trust and caretaking between the two of them. It’s a much deeper book than most of what I had written before that point and I think a lot of the power of it comes from the honesty in the erotic.

        Great post, Serena! This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, so thanks for doing the work for me. ;)

        • Serena Bell says:

          Oh, man, I can’t wait to read it! I do think there’s a way in which reaching for that honesty in eroticism does tend to take a writer out of the conventional and into wonkier territory. Because honest sex is not always very “romantic” (in the sense of existing at the core of what genre readers want/expect :-)). It’s dirty, messy, confusing, lurching, painful, weird, etc. I still find it tough to figure out how far I want to go towards honest and how close I want to stay to mainstream.

          • Yup. I think with my lgbtq series, I’m going to have to hope mainstream moves a little closer my way. :) I’m enjoying the honesty though. It meant I got to write about how one character, after this couple does something in bed that they haven’t done before, doesn’t want to do it again after that. Their relationship is suffering and he feels to vulnerable to open himself up again like that while he can’t trust that he’ll be treated kindly. It was a feeling I hadn’t ever written about before. Interesting stuff.

          • *Too* vulnerable. Couldn’t just let that sit there… :)

  2. Mia West says:

    I do see a distinction between romantic love and erotic love, mainly that I think romantic love is primarily mental and emotional in its origin and manifestation, and erotic is primarily physical. Maybe “romantic love” is a phrase that’s become synonymous with the other, but I feel a strong urge to argue the basic semantics. For what that’s worth.

    For me, a distinction also exists between a story that is categorized as romance first (whether contemporary, historical, sci-fi, etc) and erotic romance (no matter the setting), and that depends on the direction of influence between emotion and sexual acts (with the understanding that I don’t consider sexual acts inherently loving.) If an emotional change between two characters leads to sex, I consider that straight-up romance (name the setting and heat level), and I find that the sexual arc reflects the emotional arc back to the characters.

    On the other hand, if a sexual act catalyzes an emotional change (in the direction of love or at least deep empathy), I consider that erotic romance; I find this especially satisfying to write and read because the changing emotional arc often changes the kind of sex characters are having, making it increasingly intimate on a non-physical level.

    I hope I’ve articulate that clearly. I understand my approach in my gut, but when I try to put it into words, I almost need to make chemical equations to explain it!

    • Fiona McGier says:

      “On the other hand, if a sexual act catalyzes an emotional change (in the direction of love or at least deep empathy), I consider that erotic romance”…Yes! This is what I’ve been trying to express when people ask me what I mean by “erotic romance”, since I don’t have anyone being tied down and flagellated in my books. Not all damaged people need a side of violence with their sex. Some just need to feel loved enough to be open to the transcendent experience that sex can be.

      And to me, contemporary romance means we’re in the present-day, and there’s readily available birth control, so no need for those silly “secret babies” tropes. Having raised 4 kids to adulthood, let me tell you that if the relationship isn’t strong BEFORE the kids are born, it won’t get any better with them in the picture. Raising kids is the most trying, frustrating and exhausting experience I’ve ever had…and I’d do it again in a heartbeat! But you have to have a partner who grows with you, along with the kids. Babies don’t cement a relationship unless it’s already on solid ground.

      That being said, making the time to fit in erotic encounters while there are babies sleeping in the house demands a level of creativity and flexibility unlike anything else.

    • Mia West says:

      After rereading, wanted to clarify my use of “erotic love” (1st paragraph). I get that much of eroticism happens in our brains; I just wanted to use the same terms Serena did in her post, so I’ve equated erotic love with physical acts.

      Thanks, Serena, for initiating this discussion!

      • Serena Bell says:

        I really like your definitions, Mia (and yes, you made sense :-)). I *think* what I’m saying is that for me personally (and as a writer), they’re inseparable (not that they’re semantically identical). And I’ve encountered quite a lot of people who share that view–try this thought experiment: You tell a random person that you’ve just discovered you have a romantic attraction to your good friend; they’re going to assume instantly that you mean an attraction of an erotic nature. It would actually be kind of nice to get the distinction back–it would make way for more nuanced relationships!

        So thanks for making me rexamining that fine line, actually! I think it will help with this book, and future books.

        Fiona, I’ve got a secret baby book coming out in June. It was actually a real pleasure (and a huge challenge, as you suggest!) to try to work with the trope and to make it feel as contemporary and uncontrived as possible. We’ll see what readers think. :-)

  3. Jessi Gage says:

    Unbound is up there on my list of best-ever reads. I LOVED how this book (and no other) brought fetish and affection together so the relationship couldn’t happen without both.

    Serena, I love that you feel the way you do about intimacy in a story. It’s not just a philosophy you’ve come to understand but an integral part of your voice. When I read you, I know I’m going to get something smart, introspective, and beautiful. I know I’m going to get some heat and a lot of heart.