Romance Books and Sex Representation

Sex: defined for so long, by most, as a penetrative act between a man and woman. Books push the boundaries of this restrictive, reductive definition, and open reader’s minds to a wide range of sexual experiences- both healthy and unhealthy. Books have the power to educate and misinform, so the representation of sex within them is important- especially in romance novels, which many read for the steamy action.  

Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient strikes the perfect balance between tension and smut. Stella Lane’s autism can make sex difficult in a world designed by and for neurotypicals, so when a handsome male escort takes the time to listen, learn and fulfil her needs (in more ways than one) she (and Hoang’s neurodivergent readers) feels seen. The importance of breaking convention in terms of sexual representation is extended to those who do not feel sexual attraction in Oseman’s Loveless, a journey of self-exploration for a “fanfic-obsessed romantic” who had never experienced a non-fictional crush. Both these novels, though on opposite ends of the spice scale, convey the same message through their representation of sex: the importance of communication.

Authors don’t always get it right, with the likes of Call Me By Your Name having a reputation (especially with the rise of BookTok) for queer representation: “I began to feel we were not even two men, just two beings”. Though a sentiment many readers who’ve had difficulty coming to terms with their queer identity could empathise with, it felt hollow in its contribution to the romanticising of criminal activity in ‘subversive’ sexual representation: “it seemed there was absolutely no difference in age between us, just two men kissing”. The paedophilic, predatorial nature of the relationship is completely overlooked by many, who cling to the rare shameless gay sexual representation. Understandably so, as most LGBTQ+ representation in romance novels takes a modest approach- it is a rarity to find a healthy dose of queer smut, especially between two women or non-binary folks. 

Romance books reveal the ordinarily veiled indulgence of sexual connection: women orgasm without shame, disabled folks are sexy, queer people find love. There is more than a sexual fantasy between the pages of a great romance novel: there is truth. 

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Libby Hargreaves

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June 2022
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