Why Sex Scenes Are Not Only Feminist, But Necessary
Elissa Sussman on the Literature of Pleasure and Joy
I love a horny heroine.
When I pick up a romance novel, I want a heroine who’s lusting over the hero’s pecs, lats, and also his butt. I want a heroine pressing her knees together over the sexy barista who knows exactly how to froth milk. I want a heroine losing their mind at the sight of her surly neighbor flashing their dimples for the first time. Hell, I’d take a heroine getting hot and bothered over her love interest’s credit score—just as long as she’s horny for something.
The point is that I want a heroine who wants. Who sees their romantic partner for their wonderful personality traits but also wants to rip their clothes off and have multiple orgasms with their assistance.
Because here’s the truth: I read romance novels for the sex scenes.
Yes, I love a good plot and great character development and fun banter, and I am most definitely expecting a happily ever after, but my number one concern has always been: how’s the sex?
Is it good? Is it descriptive? Is it ON THE PAGE?
I’m not saying there’s anything fundamentally wrong with a closed-door romance. Authors should write what they feel comfortable with, and readers should pick up whatever floats their boat. What floats my boat? A good, lengthy… sex scene.
Am I making you a little uncomfortable? That’s understandable.
Think about the novels you had to read in high school and college. I would bet that most of us read more descriptions of women being raped than we did of them experiencing any kind of sexual pleasure.
This is not a coincidence. We are more comfortable with women experiencing violence than we are of them having orgasms, and that’s because women’s bodies are seen as something to be feared and controlled. There’s a long history of society policing marginalized bodies and all of it comes from the same mentality. Teaching abstinence-only sex-ed (which does not work) to unrelenting attempts to ban abortion to the horrific, inhumane attacks on the LGBTQIA community—these are all ways of maintaining control and power over bodies that don’t fit a particular—and particularly narrow—standard.
I am not comparing the attacks on our fundamental rights to our societal squeamishness around sex scenes, but I do believe they are different shades of the same problem. Both are the product of a culture that aims to erase an essential part of our humanity, to make us feel guilty for feeling desire, and to make us feel dirty for being sexual.
In our society, where cis-male desire is placed at the center of nearly everything, the rest of us and our needs are treated like a joke, or, worse, something to be feared. What romance reader hasn’t heard their beloved genre belittled as “mommy porn” or something made for “horny housewives”?
And if you write romance? Well, everyone’s going to want to know how your parents/coworkers/spouse/neighbors feel about it. Do they even know? There’s the implication that what you should feel is embarrassed and maybe a little ashamed. There’s a reason people call romance novels “smut” or “trashy books”.
It’s the sex. All that dirty, dirty sex just out on the page for everyone to see.
I’m not embarrassed about my sex scenes. I’m proud of them. I want you to read them. I want you to enjoy them.
These are painful, traumatic times. We’ve experienced so much loss—collectively and individually. Our fundamental rights are being debated and restricted. Times are tough, and if you’re a woman, they’re pretty damn depressing.
We deserve a chance to escape. To let ourselves experience and celebrate pleasure and love and desire. We deserve to feel good.
Sex is important. Depictions of sex are important.
Women have desires. Those desires are natural and normal. They’re common. There’s a reason Turning Red has struck a chord with so many women: many of us remember vividly being that age and feeling those feelings for the first time. It’s the same reason everyone lost their mind over season one of Bridgerton. Women are horny. We want. We desire.
Sex is a very specific kind of intimacy. Showing that on the page and showing it as joyful and fun is vital. In my own work, sex scenes are essential to character development, to relationship development. Closing the door on that would feel like denying my readers an important piece of the story I’m trying to tell. In FUNNY YOU SHOULD ASK, the sex is both embarrassing and affirming. It can be messy and weird and hot as hell. I hope it turns readers on.
Romance novels are not perfect. The bulk of the books being published today are still mainly portrayals of sex between heterosexual, white, Christian couples with an obsessive (and often medically inaccurate) representation of virginity. But they are also one of the few reading experiences you can have that centers a woman’s desire. Where a love interest’s worth is not just about treating the heroine like a human being, but also getting her off.
(If this sounds like an unreasonable expectation to have of your partner, you either need a new partner or need to be a better one. There is, after all, no great self-burn than listening to a man complain about how romance novels set unrealistic standards.)
A really good sex scene can do so much. It can validate and illuminate desire. It can make a reader feel seen. It can make a reader feel.
Thankfully, romance (and romcoms) are getting hornier and hornier. I particularly like the deliciously sexy work of Tia Williams, Alisha Rai, Rebekah Weatherspoon, Talia Hibbert, Alexis Daria, and Rachel Lynn Solomon to name but a few. Because everyone deserves to experience pleasure. To feel sexy and sexual. And we all deserve books that celebrate that.
Sex isn’t everything, but it is something. And we lose something precious when we try to sanitize romance novels—when we sanitize life—implicitly agreeing that desire is not necessary. That it’s not important.
But it is.
And if someone says that sex scenes are tawdry and gross and “real women” aren’t interested in them? Fuck ‘em. But not literally because they’re probably terrible in bed.
Funny You Should Ask by Elissa Sussman is available via Dell.