Does Sex Really Sell? Genre and Reader Expectations to Consider

78812398_8Today’s post was prompted in part by this insightful blog post on Sex Scenes by Theo Fenraven. If you haven’t read it yet, go check it out. We’ll wait here for you. πŸ™‚

It’s also a topic that my fellow authors and I have been bandying about lately. How much sex is too much? Too little? Just right?

I confess right here, I agree with much of what Theo says about the boredom with reading–and writing–repetitive sex scenes. I was participating in a Facebook conversation the other day, and I mentioned that I frequently skimmed sex scenes if I found too many of them in the story. I also skim them if they go on for pages and pages while the main characters participate in amazingly athletic sex, all while either maintaining painfully witty banter or else delivering the kind of dialog best suited to a cheap porn movie. One thing I have discovered by cutting back on the sex scenes is that I frequently get another 20 K words in which to tell my story. Given that I tend toward James Michener-sized novels (okay, not really), that can be a huge boon to me as an author.

The funny thing is, many years ago, I took part in a huge fandom poll about sex scenes in fanfic, and whether they were the ‘money shot’ of the story or something you skimmed. I was stunned at the time to find that the vast majority of readers said they skimmed those scenes, that they weren’t the most important part of the story for them. As Theo so eloquently put it, “What ultimately makes a story sexy is the relationship betweenΒ the main characters and the story being told.” This was obviously how many readers felt.

108267663_8I remember being taken aback because I assumed that’s what the majority of readers wanted–after all, fanfic provides the story they can’t or won’t show in the original canon, right? Isn’t it the reason people read romance? To see the characters get together?

I was also surprised because I work hard on my sex scenes. They aren’t just about the mechanics of sex, I try to instill in them something about the characters and how they relate to each other as well. I was honestly flabbergasted to find out so many of my fellow fans sort of breezed right through those scenes. I couldn’t understand why anyone would do that. If sex scenes were irrelevant, then why were the stories with ‘mature’ ratings usually read more often than any of the others?

Then I began reading stories where five to seven sex scenes per book were considered standard–and I found myself skimming as well. When I look back at my own stories, I tend to have one major sex scene and one or two minor ones, with the rest alluded to. I like sex. I think it is a part of most romantic relationships, and since I am writing romances, I expect to include some sex scenes. I just don’t need that many to get the gist of how the characters feel about each other. The M/M genre in particular seems to have a high demand for sex scenes, compared to other romance genres, but there are definitely subgenres that call for more or less sex scenes within M/M romance as a whole.

Some of it comes down to reader expectation, I believe. I read a review for a truly well-done Regency romance in which a handful of readers left nasty reviews because the story included graphic sex scenes. I think those readers felt blindsided by the inclusion of these scenes in a genre that typically doesn’t lend itself to them. I can see their point, to be honest. I frequently pick up Regencies because I know the formula and know what to expect, and there are times when I’m in the mood for any dalliance to be behind closed doors. But in this case, I thought the scenes were not only appropriate to the character, but the book was so enjoyable, I found it hard to understand why some reviewers would be so harsh.

I’m working on (among other things) a traditional M/F romance set in the 1950s that is also written in first person. My heroine isn’t very inclined to share her deepest most private moments with me (or the world) and I suspect any sex scenes will end up being fade-to-black. Appropriate for the story and the character, to be sure, but a part of me wonders if I will lose a large number of readers because of it. Maybe not, because it’s a historical. But maybe so.

M/M romance was a breath of fresh air to me because it didn’t come with a lot of preconceived notions of what constituted appropriate behavior. It didn’t have double standards for one half of the couple. The sex scenes were more likely to be free of euphemisms and purple prose. But I really don’t need to see my characters going at it like rabbits in every other chapter to understand they have the hots for each other.

146272154_8Which brings me back to the point of this post: does sex really sell stories? Or do we include it because it’s expected of us? Do you as readers skim sex scenes? How many sex scenes do you want to see in the average romance? What’s more important to you–having characters declare their love for each other or them having sex? Do you need a wedding or a promise of marriage–or are these leftovers from when ‘good girls’ didn’t have sex before marriage without the promise of a ring? Are we trying to model all romances on the original Harlequins (or Mills and Boone, for my UK friends) from the seventies?

Inquiring minds want to know…

32 thoughts on “Does Sex Really Sell? Genre and Reader Expectations to Consider

  1. I’ll be honest, I *love* a well written sex scene… but it’s mostly about the emotion not the athleticism. I don’t care about the gymnastics or the physics – give me the right chemistry and I’m sold. I’m just as likely to be fired up by an epic kissing scene as any penetrative act if you give me the emotional build up and show me the impact on the people involved.

    Nothing is duller than badly written, mechanistic sex scenes. Give me the characters desire, emotion and need and I’ll follow your writing anywhere.

    • YES. This. There has to be a connection between the characters–and if I love the characters, then I’m fairly blind to most story flaws too. I’ve run across one-too-many friends-to-lovers stories that jump right into the lovers part without showing me that these characters were indeed friends first. Or if they were, the kind of friends you didn’t really need! πŸ˜‰

  2. I think your idea about the number of sex scenes to include sounds about right. One big one, two minors. Sex is great. Sex is wonderful. But too much in a book really puts me off.

    Those scenes are really difficult to write well, too. There are only so many ways to say it, ya know? πŸ™‚ The fewer sex scenes there are, the less chance of becoming repetitious. πŸ˜‰

    • Sometimes I feel like readers are holding up scorecards (as though the scene was an Olympic event), especially when I get “the sex was just ‘meh’.” I wind up scratching my head and wondering what would have rated a 9.7 in the reader’s viewpoint. Then I shrug and accept that you can’t please everyone. πŸ˜‰

  3. I can’t come up with a hard and fast rule when it comes to sex scenes; not as far as my reading is concerned and not as far as my writing is concerned either. For me it totally depends on whether or not a sex scene fits organically into a story. A well written sex scene in the right place is wonderful. Sex scenes that feel as if they were forced into the story just because somebody is on some sort of self-imposed ‘sex vs others scenes’ schedule almost always put me off. If all I want to read is sex, I’ll turn to erotica πŸ™‚ It’s a good question though and an interesting discussion. I’ll be following it.

    • I know what you mean! The Regency I mentioned really handled it very well–part of the story was that the choices the heroine had made all throughout emboldened her to seek out the man she loved, if only for one night of passion. And they *did* discuss the possibility of pregnancy and what a disaster that would be. A different one I read, however, disappointed me when the heroine became sexually involved with the hero. It didn’t fit with my impressions of the character or the story, so I think context is very important.
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Does Sex Really Sell? Genre and Reader Expectations to ConsiderMy Profile

  4. My personal reaction to sex is ‘oh if you must’ and that carries over to my writing. I dislike writing sex scenes, they feel forced and false most of the time and I feel desperately uncomfortable, as though my mother is looking over my shoulder making noises of distress. But I’ve also seen so many readers say that books without sex scenes aren’t worth reading and I recall the Jessewave survey where it was clear that only 11% of readers buy less than a 4 or 5 heat rating. Since then I’ve felt that I should add at least a bit of explicit boinking to cater for that 89%.
    As for reading them, I get bored very easily unless the scene moves the plot forward or tells me something I don’t know about the characters – and even then I skim unless it’s funny.

    • *grins* Well, I enjoy a good sex scene, but some of my favorite stories, which definitely implied the characters were having hot, passionate sex, are all fade-to-black. I don’t think it is necessary but like the presence of sex scenes, I think their absence needs to be planned and handled just as deftly.

      I hear you on the heat ratings selling stories–and yet I do have to wonder why, given some of the things I hear readers say. I also have no idea how to quantify ‘heat ratings’. Is there some sort of basic guideline? As in kissing, no kissing, implied sex vs onscreen sex? What differentiates a 3 from a 4 or a 4 from a 5? I have no idea. If I include ANY onscreen sex, I feel that automatically makes it a 4, but I could be wrong. I never know how to categorize my own stories.

      And sadly sometimes it seems no matter what, it isn’t ‘hot’ enough. Which I take to mean, it isn’t different or unusual enough… but what is hot to one person is a major turn off to another, so who knows?
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Does Sex Really Sell? Genre and Reader Expectations to ConsiderMy Profile

        • Exactly, B. An arbitrary rating that means a large proportion of the potential readership won’t even bother to look at the blurb.

          Mind you, I’m just as bad. If I see an erotica tag or reviews dwell on how smoking hot a book is I give it a miss.

          • Aw, but you know, Elin, something can be smokin; and still not be chock-a-block full of sex. πŸ˜‰

            I do have to wonder how much of it is the fact that higher heat ratings tend to lend themselves to a specific kind of story–perhaps one a little more gritty and a little less sweet? I’m all for kindness and gentleness in my stories, but less so on undiluted sweetness (what we used to call in fandom ‘curtain’ fic–because the characters were setting up house together).

            But yeah, if it’s tagged erotica, I usually give it a pass myself. I have my own hot-button kinks, but erotica isn’t it. It’s funny, but there are some things I’ll grab on blurb alone, like ‘characters forced to live together’ and ‘pretend marriage’, and others that I have no interest in at all, like ‘secret love child.’ πŸ˜€
            Sarah Madison recently posted..New release by AC Katt: Marking KaneMy Profile

        • LOL! Exactly, Bee! And who decides these things anyway? What’s the scale?

          The sad truth, however, is that things like heat ratings seem to matter as to whether the reader will pick up the book in the first place, and possibly as to whether they will be disappointed if their expectations aren’t met. There is definitely pressure there.
          Sarah Madison recently posted..New release by AC Katt: Marking KaneMy Profile

  5. I found your comment about your M/F story really interesting because when I originally set out to write my novella Dragons, I had an entirely different story in my head. As it turned out, the characters, Will & Joey had a whole lot to say. They totally derailed my story and when it came time for them to get together, *they* were the ones that slammed the door. At that point, because of Joey’s physical deformity, to write that scene out for all to see would’ve felt completely wrong – like I was betraying him when he’d just reached the point he was willing to give someone a chance. Weird? Yeah. But some characters can be pretty persuasive once they get in your head! I was prepared to be roasted over the coals for the lack of explicit sex in reviews, but, surprisingly, most people seemed to feel the same way. They do comment on the fade to black, but acknowledge that in this case it fit and didn’t keep them from enjoying the story, which, I think, validates Theo’s point that it doesn’t *have* to be spelled out if you’ve made it clear how the characters feel emotionally.
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  6. First, I read mm romance because that’s how most of the mm books are categorized. And I read them in spite of the sex most of the time. I like a few sex scenes but I don’t want them to get in the way and they too often do. When I buy a 250 page book and realize I’ve skimmed 100 pages I get angry. By the same token, I don’t want to read YA. You do a great job of blending sex and story and I appreciate it. Regarding the ending, as long as a book ends with an ending that IS an ending, I’m fine with anything. What I don’t like is a book that leaves me hanging.

    • I confess, I’m not all that interested in YA myself. Mostly because I detested that portion of my own life, but also because I don’t find people (or their problems) very interesting until they’ve been on the planet a bit longer. I’ve read some wonderful YA (and I’d put Harry Potter firmly in that category) and some excellent NA, but for the most part, I’m more interested in what happens after college. Especially if there is some weirdness tossed in, like a little shapeshifting. πŸ˜‰

      You do a great job of blending sex and story and I appreciate it.

      Aw, thank you! That made me smile! Some days I get the feeling I don’t put enough sex in, but hey, I put in what the story seems to call for. πŸ™‚

      Regarding the ending, as long as a book ends with an ending that IS an ending, I’m fine with anything. What I don’t like is a book that leaves me hanging.

      I can understand that. I’ve had some people complain of cliffhangers in my series, but I like to believe I leave the characters more or less sitting on a ledge, resting up for the next bit of the climb. πŸ™‚ No, seriously, I find the balance of writing a satisfying ending while leaving enough loose ends to make someone pick up the next in the series challenging, to say the least.
      Sarah Madison recently posted..Does Sex Really Sell? Genre and Reader Expectations to ConsiderMy Profile

  7. With great respect, I’m not sure looking at what ‘sells’ is the only consideration. It’s always been my view that sex scenes should emerge naturally from the story being told – and if they don’t, then it’s a mistake to impose them. What two (or more!) people do in bed, and how they arrange themselves while they’re doing it, isn’t really the most interesting thing about them; their emotions are surely far more important, and the journey they take throughout the course of the book. Sex may well be a part of that journey, of course, but it probably isn’t all of it.

    • Well, in my convoluted and free-flowing thinky thought kind of way, that’s more or less what I was asking: why do we as authors feel the pressure to include a certain amount of sex in our stories? Sometimes it comes down from the publisher, though I work with an awesome press who says, “hey, if you want to to fade-to-black, that’s fine by us!”. Some publishers have a standard formula, however: a kiss by page x, in bed by page y, and a declaration of true love/proposal by the end of the book. Follow the formula or submit somewhere else. More often, I think it comes down to overall perception that it is wanted and desired by the readers themselves.

      It certainly seems to be re-enforced when you see stories with higher heat contents and more sex scenes sell like hotcakes, or when reviewers ding you for less than spectacular, over-the-top gymnastic events in bed (or as I had one author tell me recently, feel compelled to ‘warn’ readers apologetically that there isn’t much sex in the story, even as they leave nice feedback on it). The pressure–real or only perceived–is there.

      The thing is, I don’t see myself as changing. I do pay attention to the genre I’m writing in, however. As long as I’m writing M/M romance, I expect I will include my usual one major, 1-2 minor sex scenes because that’s what feels right to me. But I’ve included more or less based on the characters, their history together, and the story itself. I had one story recently in which the two MC were marooned on an island in the Pacific–but it wasn’t all hot sexy times because one of them was badly injured and they were focused on survival. When they got back to civilization however… πŸ˜‰
      Sarah Madison recently posted..New release by AC Katt: Marking KaneMy Profile

  8. I can’t write sex stories. I certainly don’t read them much any more – erotica puts me to sleep. Maybe it’s my age. These days a nice cup of cocoa and a choccy biscuit are as good as an orgasm or three.

    More seriously, I really can’t, and don’t want, to write stories that end up being an exercise in how many Olympic-gymnast level encounters can be crammed into a page. For me, there is a difference in approach to m/m writing (and since that’s what I do, that’s what I’m focusing on here) that can be broadly summed up as:
    – romance story-telling, where the characters appear to be defined by their sexuality, and where what matters is that they’re gay. It’s their principal characteristic. Not that they’re a rocket scientist or a terrorist or an FBI agent, but that their sexuality and their relationships are what’s front and forward in the story-telling;
    and
    – story-telling where the characters happen to be gay and some aspect of the story you tell might involve them in a sex scene. In this case, neither being gay nor the sex are the *reason* for the story, although they may be (probably are) integral to it. What matters is the FBI investigation, or the interstellar war they have to fight – their day jobs, if you like, that get probably more (or at least, equal) weight in the narrative than their relationships.

    Okay, I know that’s very broad and the clever people here can pick holes in it, but it’s how I’ve always seen the difference between the main m/m romance genre, which is huge and growing, and what I prefer to think of as genre sci-fi (in my case) with gay characters. Neither is better than the other. They’re just different in intent and treatment. All that matters, is our personal preference in reading and writing.

    I guess that it boils down to being grateful that these days we get the chance to exercise that preference.
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    • I love your distinctions here. I know I write M/M romance, and therefore the romance is going to be the main focus of the story, but I love plotty stories too, so there will be another element to drive the story besides the relationship itself. That’s why I seldom write uncomplicated contemporary stories–I want a major plot to motivate the characters.

      At the same time, I recognize I’m not a true mystery or sci-fi writer in the usual sense of the words. That part of my story is not likely to be as strong as someone who writes primarily in those genres.

      But I love the fact that writers like you are writing stories where members of the GLBT community are featured characters, but their sexuality isn’t the main focus of the story–it’s just a feature of the character, like hair color or whether or not they have tattoos. I love, love, love it. Because this is how we make progress: when we can stop attaching labels like ‘black’, ‘female’, or ‘gay’ to our characters and say, “This is Finn and he used to be a Stormtrooper, but now he works for the Resistance.” πŸ˜€
      Sarah Madison recently posted..New release by AC Katt: Marking KaneMy Profile

  9. I skim them a lot of the time when I am reading them and they are getting repetitive. I also get rather bored writing them, though I do try to make them relevant to the story.

    That being said, I have been encouraged by more than one publisher to increase the number of sex scenes in my stories and have disappointed at least one reviewer by not having a particular sex scene they had been waiting for included on page.

    It seems to me that it is a question of finding a balance, and I admit that I am still working on finding that balance myself.

  10. Well, I’m going to throw a bit of this into chaos. I don’t like stories that are exclusively fade to black. I tend to get frustrated with them. I *like* the sex. I like reading the sex and I want to see the two characters I’ve gotten attached to get physically and emotionally close.

    That said, there can be too much sex. It *is* a balance. That was the big thing I got from my first story. Even though it was erotica, BDSM, and about pleasure slaves, it was the single-biggest complaint. Having recently reread through the story, however, I have found places I could have faded instead. *shrug* Live and learn. I have, at times, skimmed a sex scene to make sure I’m not missing plot, when it is the *exact same thing*. That does get to me after a while.

    However, it is extremely rare that I don’t have some kind of sex in my books. I like reading it and I like writing it. The bottom line, though, is that I write the story that needs to be written. And that story will dictate how much (or how little) sex is needed. I have one story that has nothing but a masturbation scene in it and another that is a short story that has a full frotting scene. My paranormals have ended up being fairly light on the sex but, as expected, my BDSM novels have much more. It really depends on the story.

    In the end, for me, though, I don’t like “sweet” romance, as a rule. I like the sex, I like to read the sex, and I like to write the sex. I work hard to make sure there is variety in the scenes in my books, whether kinky or not, and that it focuses on how the character feels more than the physical stuff, though I do my best to make the physical realistic (like… not having witty conversations, for the most part, through the heavy parts of sex).

    Just my 2c, though. πŸ™‚

    • Which is pretty much how I feel too. πŸ™‚

      That said, it doesn’t change the fact that there is some pressure–imaginary or otherwise–to include perhaps more sex in a story than is probably necessary or even desirable for the average reader. But even then, the amount of ‘more sex’ varies widely within the subgenres. I would hazard to say BDSM readers on the whole expect more sex scenes and gritter sex scenes, than someone who habitually reads historicals, but I could be wrong.

      Part of the appeal of genre fiction is having a rough idea of what to expect when you read it. I suspect most of the people who are disappointed by a story are because the story failed to meet those expectations as much as the quality of the storytelling itself–but then that’s another topic altogether!
      Sarah Madison recently posted..New release by AC Katt: Marking KaneMy Profile

  11. I think if you are skimming a scene – ANY scene – it means something is wrong. I’m honestly insulted when people say they “always skim sex scenes.” How rude. Seriously.
    I trust the authors I am reading to write scenes which are important to the plot, reveal character, and are interesting. If that isn’t happening then I will not continue to read that author.
    Sex scenes are (or ought to be) just as important as any other scene. Following that logic, I can’t see how some arbitrary number of sex scenes makes any kind of sense. For some stories, two scenes is perfect. For others, maybe five scenes works. How can you apply the same rules to every character couple?

    I don’t think sex sells stories. (That is just a sour-grapes thing some authors say.) And I can only speak for myself but I certainly don’t only include sex only because it is expected. I write Romance, and so sex is a big part of it.
    As a reader, I have no perfect number of scenes, but I personally don’t care for fade to black. I am glad that there are so many different types of authors out there, all writing different “heat levels” to please the varied tastes of readers.

    • Sadly, there seem to be a lot of skimmers out there. Initially, I was upset (and astonished!) to hear that as well, but given what I’ve been reading these days, in both M/F and M/M romance, I can see why.

      I don’t think anyone is suggesting applying an arbitrary number across the board. πŸ™‚ I believe most of us have alluded to the fact that different stories seem to call for different levels of intensity when it comes to the portrayal of sex. I do think, however, that not fulfilling reader expectations (especially when it comes to the presence or absence of sex in a story) is fraught with potential disaster. I suspect disappointing a reader’s expectations is more critical than the actual presence or absence of sex, if you follow my drift here.

      The question I was really sort of mulling is whether or not the emphasis on sex scenes within romance novels (and particularly within the M/M genre) is as important as one would assume, given the general impressions from talking with other authors and readers. πŸ™‚
      Sarah Madison recently posted..New release by AC Katt: Marking KaneMy Profile

      • Disappointing readers is a problem, for sure. I think some of that can’t be helped, because readers of course bring their own very personal needs/wants with them and we can’t predict all that! But some of it is in our own hands. Cover, blurb, and category all feed in to reader expectations. So does plot. A story with a ton of romantic tension that never “pays off” with a sex scene is bound to disappoint readers. A bare-chested cover picture promises sex, as well.
        So I think there are a lot of ways we can help form those expectations, and hopefully have fewer disappointed readers. πŸ™‚

        I honestly don’t think it is the sex scenes themselves that most readers want. They want the chemistry, the tension, the spark between characters. Sex is the climax (lol!) to that buildup. Adding extra sex will not make more chemistry or a more powerful spark.
        But I do think sex scenes are important in Romance. I recently did a small survey on my blog and though I had less than 100 responses, zero people said they are okay with fade to black.
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        • Exactly! Though with regards to your survey, there may be some genre-bias there. I’m thinking about the reviews I read for a Regency recently that got slammed for a graphic sex scene. I thought it worked very well for the character and the story, but a couple of readers seemed to feel that *any* sex in a Regency was inappropriate–hence the reader expectations resulting in anger. Quite possibly a completely different audience there. πŸ˜‰
          Sarah Madison recently posted..New release by AC Katt: Marking KaneMy Profile

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