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?