Sexual Compatibility in Romance

I read this post on sexual compatibility because Andrew Sullivan linked to it on The Daily Dish.  Here’s the part Sullivan quoted:

The fact is that virtually every couple will go through times when their drives, tastes, and bodies seem less compatible and times when they seem more compatible.  And, as most marriage counselors will tell you, in this their sex lives mirror the rest of their lives together.  The real problem about the search for “sexual compatibility” is that it abstracts sex from the broader relationship.  It makes good sex the result of a biological fluke rather than the natural outcome of a loving relationship. 

I met my husband when I was 21, and we’ve now been a couple more than half my lifetime.  Over that time, desire has waxed and waned and waxed again; sex has been both a point of conflict and a comforting bond. So these words of Brett Salkeld’s really resonated with me, and I clicked through to read the rest.

Which I didn’t love so much. It’s basically an argument against co-habitation (Salkeld is a Catholic). I found a lot of what he said interesting, though I did co-habit before marriage. What bothered me was this:

If every man is to hold out until he finds a woman with a sex drive to match his, only a select few males will ever find a partner.  Women’s sex drives are a different kind of thing than men’s.  They require different stimuli, they naturally vary over the course of a mentrual cycle, and they are much more easily affected by the seemingly non-sexual aspects of the relationship.  Sexual tastes and compatible bodies follow from this.  If a man doesn’t recognize how a woman’s sex drive works, her sexual tastes (cuddling, for instance) will seem foreign to him, and her body will not respond to his in the way he expects. 

So, according to Salkeld, men’s sex drives are a steady state (push the button and it goes); we wimminz are the complicated ones whose weird tastes for things like cuddling men must learn to accomodate.  Riiiight. Stereotypes ahoy! You can pick them apart for yourselves.

But this got me thinking about sexual compatibility in romance novels. 

1. In many romances, sexual compatibility works as an early sign of other kinds of compatibility. The hero and heroine respond to each other as they never have to anyone else, however improbable that might seen.  The regency rake finds sex with a virginal wallflower gives him the best climax ever. (She has one–or five!–too, even when it’s her first sexual experience). The might-as-well-be-a-virgin contemporary heroine discovers what she’s been missing when the hero blows her mind. Only later do these people realize that the sex was so great because they’re in love, or on the way. 

2.  Romance couples never seem to go through any “waning” stages (sometimes quite literally–those heroes wax and just stay that way all night, if you know what I mean). In the most stressful circumstances (a killer is after us!), they’re still ready to go. They never fight over sex. They always want each other.

Increasingly, this presentation of sexual compatibility bugs me. Can’t we have characters who need some time to learn how to please each other, or for whom sex causes conflict in the relationship? Can’t we have characters who have really loved sex with someone else in the past without diminishing the romance of their current relationship?

I think that sometimes in our insistence that romance is not porn for women (which it isn’t), that it empowers women with positive depictions of female sexuality (which it can), and that it takes seriously important areas of life–sex and love–which literary fiction sometimes ignores (yes it does), we downplay the extent to which it is offering a fantasy view of those things. 

Look, I read romance in part for the fantasy; I suppose I’d just like a little more variety in the kinds of fantasy on offer. There’ve been times in my life when seeing a fictional couple work through sexual incompatibilities would have been very comforting to me.

How do you feel about sexual compatibility in romance? Have you read a romance that deals with this issue in an unusual way?

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7 Responses to Sexual Compatibility in Romance

  1. Wendy says:

    Can’t we have characters who need some time to learn how to please each other, or for whom sex causes conflict in the relationship?

    I do find myself getting a little bored at times with OMG Best Sex Ever!!! first love scenes in romance novels – but realize this is probably part of the fantasy-appeal that the genre can have. Sex is great and sex is fun – but it can also be a little awkward at times. The only book that leaps to mind that gave me a funny slice of awkwardness was Lori Wilde’s License to Thrill. The couple gets frisky in a hot tub and quickly realizes all that hot, clorinated water can make the Sexy Times…..uh, not so sexy.

    As far as sex causing conflict? I’m not sure how this would work in the genre because so many romances are about the “courtship” phase of the relationship. The reader isn’t around long enough for the couple to start fighting about money, Little Hero Jr. failing math, or that things have gotten vanilla in the bedroom. Still….you’d think we’d see it a wee bit more in romances that feature reunited exes as the couple or Marriage In Trouble books.

    Can’t we have characters who have really loved sex with someone else in the past without diminishing the romance of their current relationship?

    OMG – Amen to this! I also am beyond sick of contemporary heroines who have only had sex one time (or with one person) and it wasn’t very good so therefore they think they’re “bad” at sex. OK, honestly now. I can roll with this a bit more in historicals, but in contemporaries it tends to get on my last good nerve. I expect contemporary characters to be a bit more “worldly” for lack of a better word.

  2. Magdalen says:

    Oh, you are so going to love my books — assuming I ever get published — because I completely agree. Not to the extent of having the heroine filing her nails during an intimate sex act, but rather that the sex is part of the way the couple relates.

    For one heroine, it’s good, even great, from the outset but as the relationship deepens and her own issues rise to the surface, the sex takes a back burner — they still have sex but the implication is that it’s not quite as special.

    For another heroine, the first time is nice but no fireworks, something the hero understands and addresses in a very non-judgmental way.

    Sex is — or should be — like dialogue: it shouldn’t all sound the same but instead should reflect the characters’ personality, mood, frame of mind, background, etc.

  3. avoriana says:

    I have seen lack of sex as part of the conflict in marriage in trouble stories. One partner is too stressed out to be interested and lack of sex is part of a general breakdown in communication. Sex in those stories isn’t the main problem but it’s an indicator. It happens in Prairie Wife by Cheryl St. John and Trouble in Paradise by Jennifer Greene.

    In romance, working through sexual compatibility issues would come after the falling in love, maybe? So that’s why we don’t see it?

  4. lizmc2 says:

    My guess about why we don’t often see sexual conflicts even in a marriage in trouble plot (or in the past of re-united exes)? In real life, these conflicts can be incredibly painful and pretty intractable (especially when having to do with mis-matched levels of desire, which often you just have to find a way to live with or split up). It would be hard to write well.

    But frequency isn’t the only compatibility issue, and the others could be explored with a more convincing HEA (if one partner is more adventurous or kinky, or they like different things, or one or both are inexperienced, for instance).

  5. brettsalkeld says:

    Hi Liz,
    Thanks for reading my original post. I’m sorry you found my brushstrokes too broad for your tastes. To be fair, though, I don’t think I characterized men’s sex drives at all, let alone the way you indicate. In any case, though I can certainly appreciate that everyone is different, I am wondering, do you really find my description of women’s sex drives that far out to lunch? I’ve only been with one woman, so I can’t use experience beyond that, but I’ve talked to a lot of other women (in fact, I wrote a book about sex with one of them) and, when I posted this on Facebook, the first 8 “likes” were women. I don’t think my description is so far fetched, though I would be happy to hear exactly where people who find it unrealistic see the problem.
    Thanks again,

    • lizmc2 says:

      Hi Brett, I used your post for my own ends (to lead into some things I’ve been thinking about romance novels), so I would say I characterized it in my broad strokes. I don’t think one needs a lot of sexual experience to comment on these issues; I tried to avoid TMI in my post, but my number of partners equals yours, and I agreed with a lot in your post, even though I’ve been married 17 years after a few “living in sin.” I like to buck statistical trends.

      I think that the second chunk I quoted from your post does suggest that women are more complicated to get started and want less sex than men (and that only women have fluctuations in their sex drives, which in my experience is not true, though women are more influenced by hormones. Growing older, among other things, has shifted the balance in my marriage). I’m not surprised a lot of women liked this post, because I think that in general and perhaps in more traditional relationships men have higher sex drives and women’s interest in sex is more affected by the other aspects of a relationship. But I suspect that individual variation is far more complicated and common than the generalization implies. I don’t find generalizations like this about gender difference to be particularly helpful. For one thing, they tend to reinforce people’s beliefs that they should fit those roles.

      I really liked your idea that compatibility changes and is renegotiated over the course of a relationship, and I appreciate your taking the time to come comment on a blog with a focus so different from your own.

      • brettsalkeld says:

        Thank you so much for a thoughtful reply Liz. I tend to agree with most of it, especially the concern that it could make those who don’t fit the “norm” feel awkward or guilty. I will also watch for the shifting of the balance as we grow older. Goodness know my writing is different after 5 and a half years of marriage and two kids than it was 5 years ago.
        All the best,

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