great sexpectations

So, um, I’ve got a kinky book coming out in June.

It’s one of those head-down, caution-to-the-wind type books. I wrote it – much as I write everything – because I wanted to read it.

The role and portrayal of sex in romance is something I’m pretty fascinated by. It’s kind of difficult not to be, really, because sex (for those who aren’t on the ace-spectrum) is part of life, part of how we communicate and express ourselves, part of who we are. It’s also something people in my bit of the world would rather dismiss and deride than explore. Basically, romance is one of the few fictional genres that allows (and encourages) open discussion not only of sex, but of a broad spectrum of sexualities and sexual behaviour.

That’s …. y’know … that’s awesome.

But not without issues.

Any fictional genre is built on signs and signifiers, tropes and expectations, and the way these shape our approaches and responses to fictional sex is something I spend a lot of thinking about as I read and as I write. It’s easy, of course, easy and cheap (a bit like me) to get all tangled up in the ways sex in romance novels is not “realistic.” If I wanted to visually represent what I would imagine about genitalia based on the way it behaves in romance novels, a penis would be like this:


And a vagina like this:


But I think, to some degree at least, focusing on (lack of) authenticity is to miss the point. Sex in romance novels is not mimetic nor, I would argue, is it meant to be. Realism is not necessarily the goal here. Representation is. And that’s what makes the ways we go about representing sex so super-interesting. There’s an essay in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (and, yes, my critical romance texts are old school, and I’m well aware that things have moved on since 1992, but I like to read this stuff) where Jayne Ann Krentz re-examines and re-frames romance tropes, not as the shallow clichés they’re usually dismissed for being, but as a complex series of signs that allow romance-familiar readers to engage with the text they’re reading. You meet a hero with steely grey eyes or a heroine with flame-red hair, and it communicates something diegetically (hey Emma Barry, look what you started) about the sort of story you’re going to get.

To me, the way we write about sex is very similar, in that we’re building a system of tropes and signs and, in essence, reaching a kind of consensus about what sex in romance novels looks like, what it’s for, and what it means. And this can be very liberating – romance novels tell us that pretty much all legal, consensual sexual activity is okay and not weird or immoral, that it’s good and right to enjoy sex and want to have lots of it, that it’s safe to share sexual fantasies and sexual vulnerabilities, and that our goofy orgasm faces are deliciously attractive to whoever we’re sleeping with. But because we’re passing tropes on, book by book, it also leads to the perpetuation of some pretty weird ideas. Like the hymen being … I dunno … a kind of adamantium barrier located about a penis-head’s depth into the vagina? Or the notorious fluttering anus, which is still seen in the wild, even today.

But here’s the thing, I’m not sure to what degree worrying about that stuff is also missing the point. As I argued at the beginning of this post, realism isn’t automatically the goal here. Tropes are representative and these two enshrined, um, anatomical impossibilities are no exception: the historical hero battering down his heroine’s hymen like Bolingbroke at Flint Castle is demonstrating his commitment to claiming her and a fluttering anus is, I think, meant to be a happy-to-see-you anus, receptive and excitable.

It’s not a straightforward matter to locate a genuine difference between tropes like these and the other things we perhaps not only take for granted but actively look for in our fictional romantic sex, like unflagging penii and perma-drenched vaginas. But I suppose, if I were to try to isolate that difference, for me it would lie in the difference between what you might call poetic license and actual misrepresentation. Given a kind of deep cultural unspokenness around women’s bodies and men’s arses, and the potential role of romance in challenging those (I would say harmful) silences … it feels to me counter-productive to keep fluffing the basics. Again, not necessarily because it has to be right to be valuable, but because I feel that misinformation about your own body in books that supposed to be for you (or at the very least about you) is the sort of thing that might mess you up. Women are not hermetically sealed virginity capsules. And the anus is not like the swamp in The Princess Bride.

And I do get why these ideas persist. Depending on who we are we might not have instant access to a hymen or a penis or a vagina (although we all have access to an anus, so there’s no excuse for that one) and so naturally – given the way genres build consensus and develop tropes – we inherit our ideas about how things work, or how things may be shown to work in fiction, from the texts around us.

But, this throws up new dilemmas when you move closer to the sexual margins and into areas where people may be writing about activities or behaviours of which they do not have direct experience. And please don’t get me wrong, I don’t think direct experience is necessary for writing abou.t anything or anyone (that’s what research and imagination and empathy are for). I can even think of occasions on which personal experience is not, in fact, helpful as it tends to lock you into a set understanding of The Way Things Are, as it is a very natural, human impulse to universalise from our individual experience.

By my usual torturous circumlocutions, this brings me back to my kinky book. The BDSM community has a pretty strong idea what BDSM is, some of which I agree with (we are not psychopaths) and a lot which I don’t (which I won’t go into here because it would take all day). And similarly m/m has reached its own consensus – partially derived from the BDSM community’s – about what BDSM in m/m looks like. And this where things start to get troublesome for me because I find this particular consensus quite rigid. As a simple preference, it’s no problem at all. But as a representation, I worry that it reinforces potentially damaging ideas about sexual identity and sexual behaviour and creates a sense that kink – especially kink between two men – has to subscribe to a certain forms to be perceived as authentic.

All of which pulls against much that is axiomatic to me, most particularly that sex is about context and power exists only where you choose to place it. To my mind, no consensual act or behaviour is inherently dominant or submissive, active or passive, empowering or degrading. And while I’m not trying to claim my kinky book is super-special and wildly different to all the rest of the kinky books, I did very much want it to reflect these ideas about love and sex and kink.

It has, however, also brought to me a dilemma. In basic terms, it’s a story about an experienced sub—a somewhat jaded thirty-seven year old surgeon—and an inexperienced dom, a nineteen year old university drop out. And, at least the first few times they have anal sex, the sub is the, ah, penetrator and the dom is the penetratee. Over the course of the book, the characters have quite a few conversations about kink, and the dom does spend some amount of time pondering the gap between the BDSM Scene’s understanding of what dominance is like and what dominance means for him … but something I quite deliberately shied away from exploring, addressing or even referencing was the power dynamics of the … well … the bumming. They just have sex— I would say romantic, kinky sex, but your mileage may vary—and whose dick goes where isn’t a relevant factor.

Except it apparently is a relevant factor.

A very trusted reader raised it and Chris, my lovely editor, mentioned it too. It struck them both as notable that the dom reflects upon and struggles against socially constructed notions of being a dom, but folds up like a deckchair for a good deep dicking. While it didn’t ring false to either of them in context, it also doesn’t adhere to either the m/m consensus or the BDSM consensus, and they were both concerned that it was something I should address because it wouldn’t be what readers were used to.

And, don’t get me wrong, I do see the point here. I even—to some extent—agree with it. It is, after all, my editor’s job to draw my attention to potential mismatches between what I’m selling and what readers are buying. And it’s mine not to pursue some solipsistic vision of my own ego, but to create something that readers can access and engage with and, hopefully, enjoy. I can also see that, in a book that spends a lot of time poking at social constructions of stuff, it probably seems a bit odd to avoid what to many people seems like a big one.

Ultimately, fictional portrayals of anything (including anal sex) come down to a careful negotiation of How Something Is, How The Author Thinks It Is, How The Author Would Like It To Be and What The Reader Is Expecting. And fucking up that negotiation can lead to something that reads as either inauthentic, implausible or alienating. So I don’t want to shove too hard against expectations, and certainly not to make some abstract point. I don’t want people to spend this book formulating a philosophy of buggery instead of, y’know, doing the sort of things people usually do when reading erotic romance.

But I’ve spent my whole life getting to a place where these sort of (I would say fucked up) ideas about sexual behaviour and sexual power not only do not challenge me but are profoundly irrelevant to me. And, honestly, as pathetic as it sounds, I’m kind of proud and glad to be here. Which is why it feels like retrograde step to be giving the question of power dynamics of anal penetration both consideration and page time.

In this book, at least, precisely because it is an erotic romance, and the focus is heavily on sex and sexual freedom. I do have characters who struggle with masculinity and queerness and bumming and blah blah blah, but what I’m resistant to is the expectation of struggle. That a pair of characters who are perfectly at ease with ceding and taking control, irrespective of what dick is where, require explanation.

Breaking through harmful expectations is important. But so is simply moving so far beyond them that they don’t matter—can’t can’t hurt us—any more.

The truth is every time I read a book that doesn’t feel the need to engage with these expectations, I feel my heart expand. For a little while, I can breathe and the air tastes good.

That’s how I want to write. I want to write in a space where the messed up shit is so completely irrelevant it might as well not exist. I want to create that space with my writing.

I want to build it with other writers and other readers. I want this to be our consensus.

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35 Responses to great sexpectations

  1. Christine Maria Rose says:

    Thanks for this insightful post Alexis. I hadn’t really thought about this concept before, of how our expectations of what kind of sexual interactions should be presented with respect to different genres of romance constrain an author. I’ll be keeping this article in mind when I pick up your upcoming novel.

  2. Moose says:

    This is a great post and I wish I had something useful to add, but mostly I want to know this: What is the name of this kinky book that is coming out in June and where can I preorder it?

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Oh thank you – it’s always nice when someone takes the time to tell you they liked something you wrote, usefulness be damned :P

      The book is called FOR REAL, and it’ll be available from Riptide Publishing at … uh … some point before then :)

  3. Pam/Peejakers says:

    Wow, *another* awesome post, really this is starting to get a little old ;-) #justkidding

    I gotta say, I love *your* “circumlocutions”, Alexis, which do not seem torturous to me at all, but rather elegantly organized. Everything supports & encompasses your point & leads back around, it’s almost like you’re laying down a snare & then you pull the string & gather everything up.  Very neat. As compared to my version, which is more like wandering lost in the forest, requiring a search party to be called in :P

    It’s one of my favorite things about your writing, about the thinking side of it anyway, or, well, basically just about your thinking, I guess: That I can always count on you to challenge pretty much *any* trope or reflexive way of looking at a thing, even – or maybe I should say *especially* – the ones I didn’t notice were there until you shined a light on them. But this kind of takes the cake: Challenging even the expectation of challenging a thing! I love it ;-)

    No, but seriously, I *do* love it; I love *this*:

    “Breaking through harmful expectations is important. But so is simply moving so far beyond them that they don’t matter—can’t can’t hurt us—any more.”


    But it’s sort of intellectually fascinating to think about that. That problematic concepts come into being & flourish because we aren’t paying attention, that the ways to confront & defeat them is to become aware, to think about, to confront & actively challenge them. But that in the end, the greatest measure of our success in doing that is being able to ultimately *stop* noticing & thinking about & engaging with them. Because we’ve sort of defused them, or maybe just . . . inoculated ourselves against their power with all the engagement that has come before.

    And I think I just repeated what you said, only in about 4 times as many words ;)

    Also this, yes:

    “That’s how I want to write. I want to write in a space where the messed up shit is so completely irrelevant it might as well not exist. I want to create that space with my writing.
    I want to build it with other writers and other readers. I want this to be our consensus.”

    You *are* doing that, my friend; you absolutely are. And we’re in it with you :-)

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Oops, totally forgot to say that I’m really looking forward to your book! Though hopefully you know by now that kinda goes without saying ;)

      • Alexis Hall says:

        Thank you :)

        And you’re too kind about … uh … circumlocutions. I tend to find writing things, and then talking about them, develops my thinking – so …longness sorta happens.

        When probalby I could just write the first paragrah and the last and cut the middle :)

        I don’t particularly see myself as some kind of trope iconoclast – I like literary forms and I’m interested in the ways we tell stories, especially genre-set stories because the way genres intersect with context and expectation is fascinating to me.

        But I do also like to poke at things – hence this post :)

        • Pam/Peejakers says:

          “I tend to find writing things, and then talking about them, develops my thinking – so …longness sorta happens. ” – Exactly, me too, I just like how it turns out when you do that, much better than when I do ;)

          Sorry, I didn’t mean to cast you in the role of trope iconoclast, exactly, but I definitely like your “poking” at things :)

  4. G.B. Gordon says:

    Despite the serious turn towards the end that cracked me up hard. I applaud your use of images, Sir. And of language. And structure. And I’ll scream approval of the message until my voice gives out. Chapeau.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you. I did have fun sourcing the images, and it’s easy to make sex sound amusing because, when you get right down to it, it’s a very silly past-time.

  5. Kat says:

    I think NOT addressing it is an explanation of its own. I find that sometimes explaining too much can come off as patronizing, and both as a reader and as a writer, I don’t like it. I’d rather trust readers as intelligent enough to ‘get it’ :)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Yes, I don’t like didactic texts myself – I mean, as a reader, I often get pissy if I feel I’m being talked-down at or explained at (but that’s obviously very subjective – some books are very subtly educative), especially if it’s something I feel I’ve already got the memo on.

      I think this, in particuarl, is a really difficult intersection between expectation and response and … personal preference. I often read reviews of m/m BDSM where readers will react quite strongly to particular characters either as doms or subs, and how they imagine/prefer doms or subs to be. And while it’s totall okay for any individual to personally prefer emotionally volatile twinky subs and strong, icy doms … it’s not the only way for those roles to play out. Just one.

      But, yeah – I’m probably not going to explain the bumming. Only because I can’t find an easy way to, forgive the expression, slip it into conversation ;)

      • Darla says:

        I totally don’t think you should explain the bumming either! And, that’s my thought on that after, you know, thinking.

  6. Mel says:

    The truth is every time I read a book that doesn’t feel the need to engage with these expectations, I feel my heart expand. For a little while, I can breathe and the air tastes good.

    That is exactly what you do to me! Thank you :-)
    I can’t wait for your book. Just tonight, I finished the last book of yours that I hadn’t read yet. *sniff*

    • Alexis Hall says:

      That’s so kind – thank you :) I would love to be able to write books like that – books that felt safe and generous to other people. I have a handful of authors I can rely on make me feel this way.

  7. Jenn Burke says:

    I kinda love this post.

    The idea that sex in the romance genre is about representation and not necessarily realism—yes. The idea that the representation should still have some basis in reality and avoid propagating harmful suppositions—hell yes. Romance readers do have expectations that are formed after reading dozens/hundreds of romances, but that doesn’t mean they should never be challenged. Ultimately, a romance novel is a fantasy, but if the author can straddle that fine line between representation and realism just so, it strengthens that fantasy and intensifies the experience for the reader.

    Where I think romance authors need to push (and keep pushing) is the roles of characters in a sexual relationship. Like what you’re doing with your upcoming book, Alexis. We don’t need to perpetuate roles we’ve seen repeated in dozens (hundreds) of other books. The repetition doesn’t make it true or real. Let’s see other representations that could be just as true, and just as real, and let our readers build new pictures of representation and realism.

    Thanks so much for this post. Lots to think about. Also, I want your book now! :)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      Thank you :)

      I’m really interested in that space you articulate between accepting the point of *writing* sex isn’t to somehow portray physical sex as realistically possible but, at the same time, to avoid inadvertantly feeding into ideas that may not be harmful on their own terms but can be if the become expectations.

      I still remember being totally blown away by Cecilia’s Grant A Lady Awakened because the heroine doesn’t orgasm through penetration. And while on paper there’s nothing individually wrong with orgasming via penetration or clitorial simulation or making balloon animals … when every heroine reacts exactly the same way, I could see it just being … incredibly depressing to read, especially if you were, uh, if you had different physical responses. And obviously I only have anecdotal evidence but, of the women I’ve slept with, I would say probably more than half were more responsive / more likely to come to clitorial stimulation than penetration. And wow, expressing it that like that really takes the fun out of it :P

      • Jenn Burke says:

        LOL! You know, this is one of the things I love about the romance community—the fact that we can talk about sex and the mechanics of it without giggling (much).

        (Who am I kidding, there’s tons of giggling involved.)

        Anyway, yes. This is a really good example of how things had once been exclusively portrayed—women climaxing from penetration alone. I’ve noticed in recent years more and more romances have women fondling themselves or being fondled during sex in order to achieve climax, and I think this is a reflection of the broader, enhanced knowledge of what’s “normal” during sex. Those books are changing the representation of reality, so now it’s “okay” (acceptable/welcomed) to have a woman play with herself in a sex scene in order to get off.

        • Christine Maria Rose says:

          I’ve definitely noticed that too Jenn and Alexis, the difference in how women’s orgasms are achieved in literary fashion now versus even 10 years ago.

      • Lotta says:

        Not to mention that there are also women (outside of books) who can’t handle penetration at all (or only rarely, and certainly not vigourously), but still enjoy sex. But this is not something I think I will get to read in regular romance anytime soon.

  8. Liv Rancourt says:

    Yesterday on FB I saw a blurb for an m/m – shifter – pregnant man novel, which is apparently selling okay on Amazon. After reading your post, I think it’s a pretty good example of how meeting reader expectations trumps grounding your story in reality. I don’t really have more of a point than that, except to say that you’ve given me a way of thinking about something that struck me as pretty far-fetched. So thanks.
    (And I mean no disrespect to anyone who read the book I used as an example. If it works for you, I’m happy.)

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I … I don’t know what to say really.

      I’m aware that mpreg is … thing … that some readers are into.

      And, as you say, it’s fine.

      I wouldn’t really like to attempt to deconstruct one, though… I’m not quite sure what it would end saying/not saying, or what sort of tropes and stereotypes it would work within.

  9. Beverley Jansen says:

    Loved this post, ‘fluttering anuses’ and all. Though, I don’t think I shall be using the phrase ‘happy-to-see-you’ in the near future.
    I devoured swooning virgins with armoured hymen and strong, cloaked men with rippling penises when I was a teenager, but like my teen years my desire for that has long gone. I think the romance genre should reflect that many are in a place where we can accept a different frame of reference where sex and it’s representations are concerned, and not make an issue of it.

    As much as I grew tired of the romances described above I have also become a little tired of sex being about power dynamics. I look forward to kink, non kink, queer or not, realistic or not being about expressions of emotion and enjoyment and not restricted by expectations of a bygone era in romance writing.

    • Alexis Hall says:

      I always enjoy a good rippling penis myself. I tend to read this stuff relatively happily (happy like an anus) but I think it’s more … a … saturation problem, then any particular individual work being bad or doin’ it wrong. I mean, writing a book about a fey blonde who enjoys bottoming and a rough-but-kind biker who likes to top him isn’t inherently bad. It even sounds kinda fun and I might read it. The point is just when 90% of books have a ‘type’ of character who likes to be penetrated and a different ‘type’ of character who likes to penetrate … then you’ve got consensus and readers start to dismiss other configurations as unrealistic or implausible.

  10. Kaetrin says:

    From my perspective, I’m looking for… for want of a better phrase, how sex looks like for *this* couple. As long as they are both consenting adults, and they’re enjoying it, that’s probably enough for me. (I only say probably because there are some kinks which are fine for those who enjoy them but which are not for me and which I struggle to engage with from a readerly perspective – but they tend to be the more “out there” kinds of kinks and I don’t happen across them all that often in my general reading.)

    What bugs me about romance sometimes (any romance with any sexualities, any number of protagonists of any gender) is that there is some kind of rule book or hierarchy which comes from outside the book and is imposed on the characters. I want to see what works for these characters in this book.

    Which I guess is a long-winded (who knew?) way of saying go on with your good self. :)

    • KJ Charles says:

      “How sex looks like for *this* couple” pretty much sums it up for me. (Not to diss Alexis for writing 2K words, or anything.) I am firmly of the opinion that every sex scene needs to advance either the plot or our understanding of the character. That can’t happen if there’s a rulebook or a set of parameters, instead of the characters doing what works for their personalities and desires and interaction.

      • Alexis Hall says:

        Thanks :P

        No I agree “what sex looks like for this couple” is the ideal. But, as you say, it’s hard to isolate that from the expectations and assumptions and stereotypes of the world outside the book.

        And it’s very easy to go from that to … well … obviously this couple looks/acts like this … so obviously they’d have sex like this.

  11. Lotta says:

    I agree with both what Mel and KJ wrote in their comments.

    In the balance of “How Something Is, How The Author Thinks It Is, How The Author Would Like It To Be and What The Reader Is Expecting,” and when reading, I love that there are books that challenge the tropes by adding more of How the Author Would Like It to Be. I love that there are writers out there, writing the books they want to read, and that those books are brilliant and fills a hole that I didn’t know was there. It feels something like a heart expanding.

  12. Darla says:

    I absolutely LOVED this post. I cannot wait for your kinky book to come out–June is too far away!

    I don’t seek out much BDSM in romance – it’s okay, but it’s so much all the same, these rigid patterns that are sort of cartoon-like in my opinion. Plus, it seems like in the romance genre, the BDSM is so much the same that, yes, it gives readers like me, these sort of tepid expectations/assumptions, oh you’re a Dom so you must always top, etc., ideas. It’s like I don’t get very engaged in thinking about what is going on because the patterns are so laid out.

    I’m not a BDSM lifestyle person so I only know about BDSM from what I’ve learned on the Savage Love Podcast and the romance genre. Also BDSM has never been interesting enough to me to google stuff about it to learn more and be more of an educated reader. I have a very excited feeling your kinky book is going to blow BDSM up for me–squee!

    I just know that you are going to hit this trope right outta the ballpark! I have to say I think you are lifting the romance genre up to another plane with your cracktastic and thoughtful writing. I CANNOT WAIT–FOR REAL! Ha! And Thank you for sharing the title with us–I’ll be scouring GR for it obsessively so I can add it to my to read list.

    • Pam/Peejakers says:

      Yes! —–> “I have to say I think you are lifting the romance genre up to another plane with your cracktastic and thoughtful writing.”

  13. Jackie Horne says:

    Thought-provoking post, Alexis. Made me think of Alex Beecroft’s latest, TROWCHESTER BLUES, in which the “almost camp” character prefers being penetrated, but is also the one who likes to be in charge, to direct the sex and the relationship, while the more burly, “masculine” guy penetrates, but enjoys having his lover be in control. Three cheers for sexual variety in romance!

  14. I really loved this post. As someone who is writing outside the normal BDSM tropes I so get what you mean. Will people reject my book because they see it as an unexpected and therefore “unrealistic” manifestation of kink when actually there is no rule book when it comes to individual kink and relationship dynamics that move people sexually, erotically? But like you….these are the stories I want to read. I look forward to your book Alexis.

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