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. 🙂

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 between 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…