Today, I want to talk about love, sex, and writing romances.
I’ve been trying, in my own romances, to lead my hero and heroine in the direction of consummate love, which I’ll talk more about soon, but I’ve also been reading a few romances recently in which the couple seem to have little between them except lust, or when the success of the relationship depends on one of the pair subsuming their will to the other. That bothers me. It bothers me a lot.
Then, during the week, I was in a Facebook writers workshop event where the topic was clean romance, which meant (of course) that we talked about sex. And someone astounded me by asking how you could stop the story from being boring if there wasn’t any. (Any sex, I mean.)
And the third factor triggering this post was the conversations I’ve been in since the #metoo campaign went viral across the Internet. I’m not going to repeat any of them here, but let the following four worrying threads of argument suffice.
- Men do this sort of thing. You shouldn’t take it seriously.
- What was she wearing? Doing? Why was she there?
- Yes it’s bad, but not as bad as (pick the victim group of your choice).
- Only monsters do such things.
In other words, excuse the abusers, blame the victims, set one group of victims against another, and reject responsibility for making a change. And if we want change, then everyone of us is responsible for changing ourselves first, and then for challenging those around us.
The need for intimacy
Which brings me back to writing romances.
We’re occasionally told that sex is a basic human need. It is certainly a basic biological need, or we wouldn’t be here. But we can choose what to do with our appetites in a way that has not been observed in animals. Animals in the grip of the mating urge cannot resist it but must be physically confined. We can go and have a cold shower and a cup of tea. We are capable of crimes of lust, but also of celibacy. Animals who pair bond, as humans tend to do, are unable to pair elsewhere. We are capable of betrayal (but also of faithfulness).
So sex is a physical urge for an individual and a biological imperative for the species. But our driving need as humans is not sex, but intimacy, of which physical intimacy is just one of five aspects, and sex just a small element of that aspect. The other aspects are emotional intimacy, mental intimacy, experiential intimacy, and spiritual intimacy.
Babies denied intimacy will die. Children denied intimacy grow up wounded. Adults denied intimacy spiral into despair.
Those who think sex with strangers will fill their emptiness are doomed to disappointment. They mistake sexual intimacy for physical intimacy, and leap from there to assuming emotional intimacy. They are climbing a ladder, but it is leaning against the wrong wall.
I will never write a romance that has the couple in bed at first meeting, and from then they know they have found The One, and all the obstacles are external. Certainly, love can grow in such an unlikely seed bed. But I strongly believe that having sex before true intimacy in other aspects is more likely to be a barrier to developing a real love than to promote it. If my lovers start off in that way, their biggest obstacles to true intimacy will be internal.
The five aspects of intimacy
And I will write romances that look at couples who, in their journey towards intimacy, are progressing in all five aspects.
So what do I mean by that?
In a real romance, the hero and heroine support one another.
They are, of course, because this is a romance, physically intimate. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have sex all the time, or on the page. They express their feelings for one another by touching, hugging, holding hands, or whatever other physical expressions are appropriate to their culture. They are each aware of the other’s body, and they understand how to give pleasure each to the other. They know the shape of one another’s hands and ears. They are at ease in one another’s arms. They each know how the other will react to particular touches, and they know the taste and smell of one another.
They are emotionally intimate. They have shared their darkest and dearest secrets, their most terrible and precious memories. They are honest about their feelings, their desires, the instincts and experiences that drive them. They have bared themselves, each to the other, and have found acceptance.
They are mentally intimate. They share their thoughts and ideas. They can discuss anything with one another, not always agreeing, but always respecting and listening, and working together to agree at least an armistice on issues that might otherwise divide them.
They have experiential intimacy, which means they spend time together doing things together. They build memories. They are friends who enjoy being with one another.
And they are spiritually intimate. What that means depends on the couple. If they share a religion, they might worship and pray together. Non-believers might make time as a couple to open themselves to the awe-inspiring, because spirituality is not just for the religious.
(Some people put financial initimacy in as an extra aspect. I think it is just one more issue, about which the couple need to be honest. Like many issues, it has mental and emotional implications, so comes into both of those aspects.)
So that’s my challenge as a writer. How do I write a realistic journey that allows my characters to challenge one another, trip and fall, and pick themselves up and learn?
Respect is key
I write men and women who respect one another, and who suffer consequences when they don’t. A character who seeks to get his intimacy needs met at the expense of another is doomed to fail in my stories, and will either learn from the experience before he gets his happy ending, or will become a villain and get his just desserts.
I love fiction. Real life villains are harder to dispose of, and impossible to reform. (They may reform themselves, but that’s a different kettle of fish entirely than being saved by the love of a good woman, which is a terrible and dangerous myth.)
Consummate love is the ultimate goal
Let’s get real. I’m talking a lifelong journey. By the end of my story, all I can promise is that the hero and heroine will have made sufficient progress on all five types of intimacy for you to feel confident of their destination. Happy Ever After means the reader’s sense that even if life goes to hell in a handcart, they’ll be okay as long as they’re together.
The real achievement is consummate love, that special kind of love described in Robert Sternberg’s Triangle.
So take no substitutes. As a writer, give me characters who build one another up and create a love to last a lifetime. As a reader, measure the books you read against Sternberg’s triangle and ask yourself if this book boyfriend is worthy of the special person that you are.