Sarah Madison – How Much Sex is Too Much: Defining What’s Just Right, Goldilocks?

We all know the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Our very particular heroine finds her way into the home of the Three Bears, for various reasons that have evolved and changed over time. The important part of the story is how, when she examined and tested the belongings of the bears, in each case, she found fault with the porridge, the chair, and the bed. The first item would be too hot, too big, too hard. The second too cold, too small, too soft. The exact terms of her dissatisfaction aren’t important. All you really need to know is that whatever she found wrong with the first item, the second item she tried would be diametrically opposite in its wrongness. At last, she would come upon the same item, but belonging to the littlest bear, and decide it was ‘just right’, claiming it for her own.

And so we run into that same dilemma within romance stories. By the very nature of the genre, readers expect some degree of romantic involvement between the main characters. The degree of which varies among all the subgenres in romance—from the so-called ‘sweet’ romances, or religious ones, in which nothing more than a chaste kiss is bestowed, to the erotic romances, that might be little more than one sex scene after another. Reader expectations are important. You can’t write cozy murder mystery and have your Miss Marple-type character drinking whiskey straight from the bottle or getting into a grisly shootout with the vicar. That would be all wrong for the genre, and the readers (quite rightly) would bay for your blood. You have to understand your audience.

But within the genre expectations, there is room for variance. For the sake of discussion here, let’s stick to M/M romance. As a niche within the romance genre, M/M romances also run the gamut of stories with discreet, fade-to-black sex scenes to the extremely explicit, but they tend to lean toward more sexual situations and more graphic depictions of sex itself. In fact, it might be fair to say your average M/M romance isn’t your grandmother’s Harlequin! But to be honest, neither is today’s Harlequin. Times have certainly changed since the days when a ‘good girl’ heroine had to be forcibly taken against her will in order to prevent her from being viewed as a slut. When it comes to M/M romance, the expectation for sex is high (to the point that if it is not there, the reviewer frequently apologizes on behalf of the author and tells you why you should read the story anyway). The question of what is ‘just right’, however, boils down to individual tastes and expectations.

And there’s the rub. Because if you’re writing in a genre where there is a high expectation for many explicit sex scenes, then it may be difficult to figure out what is just right for the reader. Instead, as the author, you have to figure out what is just right for you.

By far and large, I am happy with one or two major sex scenes per story, and a couple of smaller, anticipatory ones, with the rest implied. I’m all about the quality over the quantity! I think the scene should tell you something about the characters. After all, we are our most vulnerable during sex! I’m not a big fan of Olympic-style sex, where each scene has to be more athletic and more spectacular than the one before. I prefer my scenes to be realistic. Hot, yes. I want it to be smoking. But even that comes back down to the Goldilocks effect. One person’s hot button kink might be another person’s ‘meh.’

Recently, the sex between Special Agents John Flynn and Jerry Parker began changing in its dynamics. Some of the changes between them are inevitable, as that moment of intense can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other settles into an established relationship. Initially, in Unspeakable Words, Jerry was convinced John was straight. Even when it became apparent John wasn’t as straight as Jerry thought he was, Jerry was always conscious of the fact that, had it not been for the extraordinary effects touching a mysterious museum artifact had on Flynn, they might not ever have gotten together.

In Walk a Mile, the newly forged relationship takes some major hits as Flynn wants to do anything possible to return to ‘normal’, while Jerry fears that could be the end of their relationship altogether. So I was astonished when I found a degree of BDSM creeping into their sex. This is something neither character has shown an interest in before, and I think they will be feeling their way into it, even as I am trying to understand it! Dom/Sub relationships are another ‘test the porridge’ situation. People either like it or they don’t. But the nature of sexual relationships is that they seldom remain static. They are always evolving and changing, even as the characters themselves do.  I do run the risk of upsetting some readers that might not enjoy the changing dynamics between the characters. Do I refuse to give in to my characters’ desire to explore their sexuality in different ways?

No, I don’t. I’d rather run the risk of upsetting some readers with surprise!BDSM-lite sex than to serve them a bland dish of lukewarm porridge, so mild and tasteless that it appeals to  no one. Because no matter what I do, someone’s going to cry, “That’s too much sex!” while another sighs, “There’s not enough sex.” The sex will be too kinky or too vanilla. I will know, however, that the scene is really about the characters deepening their bond with each other, and not a desire on my part to ride current trends in the genre.

I’m just going to have faith that my ‘just right’ will be someone else’s as well, and that those readers will gravitate toward my stories over time.

WalkAMile500

TH2014Blurb

Six months after starting their hunt for a serial killer who is still at large, FBI agents Jerry Lee Parker and John Flynn are partners in every sense. But Jerry has serious doubts about their relationship and whether they would even be together if not for the way Flynn changed after touching a mysterious artifact in a museum.

Flynn hates the extraordinary power bestowed on him by the artifact and wants nothing more than to have a normal life again. Jerry fears that without the unusual connection they forged, Flynn will no longer want or need him. Chasing after a similar artifact takes them back to Flynn’s old stomping grounds in Washington D.C., where his newfound abilities uncover long-buried secrets, the kind people would kill to protect. But they aren’t the only ones looking for these powerful relics, and what they discover will threaten their relationship—and their lives.

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TH2014Excerpt

 (NSFW)

Flynn was waiting in the middle of the room.

Jerry had no idea how long he’d been there or what he might have picked up on as Jerry had showered. He had a rumpled look about him that went deeper than usual. His expression on seeing Jerry come out of the bathroom was bleak, almost angry. Jerry couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d been waiting impatiently, however. Expectantly. Almost needy.

Jerry pulled up short at the sight of him.

Not taking his eyes off Jerry, Flynn tugged at his tie until it came loose. “I need you to fuck me.”

Jerry gaped at him for a second, and then plunged all thoughts into the soundproof booth as he rapidly processed them. Flynn rarely bottomed—not that Jerry minded. He often thought he was getting the better deal. But even when they’d been going at it like rabbits, Flynn had never asked for sex. It had just happened. Like spontaneous combustion.

 Jerry felt his eyes narrow as he fought to keep his thoughts hidden. Flynn looked exhausted. His hair and clothing were damp—he must have been walking in the rain. He seemed to want to be punished for some reason, and he had chosen bottoming as the means of achieving self-flagellation. What that said about his feelings toward sex with Jerry wasn’t to be thought of right now. What mattered was giving Flynn what he wanted the way he wanted it without ever having spoken about it before. Jerry had only one shot at getting this right.

“Fine,” he said, when he’d found his voice again. Frost chilled his words. “Strip.”

Flynn raised an eyebrow.

“You heard me.” Jerry spoke in the clipped tones he reserved for the truly stupid co-worker. “I’m not going to ask twice.”

He buried the internal sigh of relief when Flynn shrugged out of his jacket and began unbuckling his belt.

“Yeah. That’s it.” Jerry felt an astonishing rush of power come over him. His cock approved, slowly filling to tent his towel. Flynn undressed carelessly, his underlying anger causing him to tug at his shirt buttons in a manner that normally would have pained Jerry to watch. This time he felt a simmering excitement at the knowledge that Flynn was pulling roughly at his clothing at Jerry’s command.

For once, he was in goddamned control. Unexpected confidence surged through him and he cast aside his towel. He planted his feet firmly and stood as though he expected to be worshiped, and by God, for once he felt as though he should be worshiped.

Flynn watched him with flattering attention, to the point that he fumbled with the buttons on his fly.

“Stop.” Jerry infused the word with all the authority he’d developed from years as an agent and was gratified when Flynn froze and looked up in confusion.

“You can’t take your pants off before your shoes.”

TH2014Author

Sarah Madison is a veterinarian with a big dog, an even bigger horse, too many cats, and a very patient boyfriend. She is a terrible cook, and concedes that her life would be easier if Purina made People Chow. She writes because it is cheaper than therapy.

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5 Comments

  1. I love your attitude, Sarah. For me, I’m good with however explicit (or not) an author wants to go. The only problem I have with sex scenes is when they are done poorly, either not written well or including them when they really have no place, just feeling tacked in because they’re expected. I feel like authors are pressured to include them and then it weakens the whole story.

    • I hear you, Carolyn! I was discussing this with an author a few years ago, and she was wearily complaining about having to stuff another sex scene into her story and she couldn’t figure out what to write. I asked how many scenes she had already and she said seven! That just boggled my mind! About the same time, I read a big thread on Live Journal (I’ve since lost the links, darn it) in which hundreds of readers chimed in on what they liked or didn’t like about stories and I was frankly astonished at the number of people who said they skipped the sex scenes. It was a LOT.

      Which got me to wondering, why do we include them? Why do some publishers consider them mandatory, to the point of saying, “There must be a kiss by page 30, and they have to be in bed by page 150, and there has to be a declaration of love and a proposal by the end of the story.”

      I was stunned by the discussion thread because we were talking romances here. People wanted to know that their favorite couple got together. The presumption was they had sex. But for many, many readers, the sex scene itself wasn’t mandatory. That certainly doesn’t feel that this is the case with M/M romance. But I have read stories where I started skipping the sex scenes because there were too many, or they occurred under improbable conditions, so I can see the point of these readers.

      I think one of the great advances of the digital era, however, has been a greater freedom on the part of e-publishers and self-publishers alike to set their own standards. Otherwise every heroine would still look like Barbie. :-)

  2. Thank you for hosting me here today, Charlie! You always have the loveliest layouts, everything looks so awesome when posted on your site! I would love it if readers chimed in with their thoughts–what are you looking for in a romance story? How much is too much? Where are your Goldilocks limits? 😀

  3. Thank you so much, Sarah! And thank you for being a guest! I agree about the sex scenes. For me, they have to serve the story, even if it means sex doesn’t come in until the later half of the book.

    Unless the story is labelled erotica, I don’t think it should be assumed there will be sex. <3

    • I agree completely, Charlie, but I frequently see the ‘lack of sex’ or ‘sex not exciting enough’ as a complaint on many different book reviews. It kind of makes me wonder what reader expectations are for a genre and how they’ve changed over time. I can remember reading stories when I was younger in which the sex was implied, and never missing it–but I wonder if I would feel the same today–and how much of that has to do with more openness about sex in entertainment or whether the industry drives trends. I’m always thinking about weird things!

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