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Having brought up the topic of sex in romances, and because the recent discussions of the controversy that homosexual romances have caused within the RWA reminded me of last year’s controversy surrounding graphical standards and the continuing sense that many writers of erotic romance have that they’re not entirely accepted within the RWA I thought I’d take quick look at some of the ways in which sex in romance can be educational. In the interests of full disclosure, I should make it clear that I’ve not read any inspirationals or any erotic romances, though I have read some romances with strong Christian elements, such as Cheryl St. John’s Saint or Sinner (Mills & Boon Historical Romance 2004) and I’ve read plenty of romances with fairly explicit sex scenes. I should also add that I don’t think sex scenes are essential in a romance: Austen and Heyer, to name just two authors, managed very successfully without them, and in fact, I have a feeling that sex scenes in Austen would be incongruous given the formality that her heroes and heroines maintain (though we know they take place ‘offstage’ between unruly characters, such as Lydia and Wickham, and Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford).
The fact that sex can and does take place ‘offstage’ in romances leads Monica Jackson to argue that:
Romance has sex. The most staid inspirational romance is about establishing a relationship that is going to lead to luscious, hot monkey sex, even if the sex happens to take place outside the covers of the book. There’s sex in romance, whether it’s an implied promise or frequent and graphically described variations. That’s why the controversy over romance sex is sort of silly. It’s as if folks were arguing over sweetener in chocolate. You can eschew sugar in favor of artificial sweetener or honey or use less–but if you’re eating palatable chocolate, it’s going have some sweetness, even if only a hint. If you read romance, it’s going to be about sex. If your characters don’t care about establishing a relationship that will eventually lead to some sort of sex, then you don’t have romance.
Clearly she has a point, since marriage has traditionally been, at least according to the Book of Common Prayer, ‘ordained for the procreation of children’ and ‘to avoid fornication’. Quite whether the activities involved in this would always aptly be described as ‘hot monkey sex’, though, is another matter. Can you really imagine Fanny and Edmund Bertram engaging in ‘hot monkey sex’? I can’t (though it could be that this is because my imagination is lacking).
The crux of the matter is not whether or not people have sex, but whether sex should be depicted in romances, and whether, if implied/depicted, it should only take place between two married people. It’s clearly a highly controversial issue, and rather than get embroiled in an argument about the morality or otherwise of depictions of sexual activity (and the Bible itself can get pretty explicit, with lines such as ‘A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts’ (Song of Solomon 1:13), I’d like to take a look at a few ways in which romance novels can play a role in educating people about their bodies and in shaping attitudes towards sexuality.
In Lucy Monroe’s Blackmailed into Marriage the heroine is the not uncommon widow-who-has-never-had-an-orgasm, and the hero, of course, manages to awaken the heroine’s sexuality, but the twist is that this heroine’s got vaginismus. The treatment for this condition is described in some detail, and forms an integral part of the love-scenes and the author added a note to readers:
I wrote this book for the tens of thousands of women who suffer in silence believing there is something wrong with them. Only one in ten will seek treatment and of those, less than thirty percent will be willing to undergo physiological treatment such as the dilation procedure for vaginismus. I hope that if you are one of the women suffering in silence, you will be silent no longer, but most of all that you will realize that it’s not your fault. (2005: 187)
This is perhaps an unusual example of very specific information on a gynaecological problem being presented in a romance, but it seems to me that it’s an indication of the possibilities offered by romance. In general, romances may give some basic information about the mechanics of reproduction, and though the incidence of contraceptive failure seems extremely high if one looks at romances as a group, as do the numbers of secret babies produced as a result, the depiction of the use of contraceptives during sex scenes, particularly of condoms, suggests to readers that condom-use is not incompatible with passion and enjoyment. Romances also challenge attitudes towards women’s sexuality. As Crusie says, according to ‘conventional wisdom’:
Women shouldn't experience a lot of sexual encounters [...] because that would soil them, and it's not in their nature anyway. Men who had a lot of sex and enjoyed it were studs; women who did the same were unnatural sluts. [...] God forbid a woman should know more about sex than a man. Romance fiction not only says women want that knowledge and have a right to it, it often gives it to them explicitly on the page, telling them it's not wrong to want a full sexual life and showing them how to get one.
Whereas novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles tell a woman that, if she’s raped, she’s degraded, the modern romance genre, even with its rather high number of virgin heroines, does, on the whole, assert that a woman who has been raped or otherwise had sex outside marriage is still attractive, is still valuable as a person. Rather than condemning her, it celebrates her as a person. Some romances feature heroines who are/have been prostitutes, such as Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel, and Diane Gaston’s The Mysterious Miss M. Balogh writes that:
Priscilla Wentworth in A Precious Jewel [...] is a working girl at a brothel and a regular of the hero's until he takes her away to be his mistress. [...] Why do this? Just to give myself an excuse to write more sex scenes? Purely for titillation purposes? Emphatically no! Sex is surely not very joyful--and probably not very skilled or erotic either - between prostitutes and their clients. I did it to show that strong women can prevail over even the most dire and degrading of circumstances. [...]
There are sex scenes, of course, involving these women and their clients, but generally speaking they are either ugly or bland and emotionless. Those scenes provided me with a marvelous opportunity to write the contrasting scenes of love and joyfully erotic sex later in each book. I am firmly of the belief that sex can only be truly beautiful when it is combined with love. And so my books are love stories, not just sex romps or even just romances.