Sex, Love, and Women’s Fiction

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Love ? I love love love you.

Love ? I love love love you. (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

I’ve been reading a lot of women’s fiction lately, and reading it with a more critical eye than is usual for me. As I contemplate the novel query stage, I’m analyzing how my book fits into what’s already out there. There’s a lot of really good writing out there: great character depth and engrossing storytelling. But one thing I just don’t get is the approach to sex.

That’s not exactly accurate. I’m not an idiot. I’m well aware that my outlook on sex, as an integrated act melding both body and soul, is way, way outside the mainstream. And I know that even after fourteen years of married life I’m still very sheltered. I find things revolting that others think are not shocking at all.

But recently I’ve encountered one character having oral sex (really? what possible attraction can that hold for the woman?), and another who repeatedly has sex with one guy as she’s becoming more convinced that she belongs with another. And Guy #2 knows about it. Eventually, Guy #2 and main character decide they’re perfect for each other, except they aren’t sure they’re “sexually compatible.” So into bed they hop, just to be sure before they get engaged. (Because no one can learn to give another what they need. You’re just s-o-l if you don’t get it right the first try. Puh-leeze.)

Do people actually act this way?

I suppose they do. But if they do, it’s no wonder our level of relational dysfunction is as high as it is.

I suppose it’s not surprising that contemporary literature for women would involve a certain cavalier attitude toward sex, since that is the reality of the culture we live in. And I suppose it’s no surprise that my formation, first as a sheltered Catholic girl and then as a woman who learned intimacy through the lens of an integrated, holistic sexuality that includes both body and soul, stands at odds to that. But frankly, having experienced the latter, I can’t imagine why anybody would find the cultural standard the least bit attractive.

A few years ago someone made a comment on a romance writers’ site that went something like: “And what is wrong with a man and a woman in love showing their love for each other through sex? If you’re honest with yourself, nothing at all.”

I suppose that’s a true statement, if it’s real love. But real love is revealed over time. You can’t front-load a relationship with sex and just call it love because you have an overpowering emotion. That overpowering emotion is not love. Love must be tested and proven.

It is a commitment made through choices over the long term. Yes, I know that’s really fuddy duddy, but anyone whose marriage has actually lasted would say the same. The sex is a response to and an intensification of a mind-and-soul unity that came first. Not a gateway to unity.

I don’t understand how women can not feel that this most intimate act loses value if you just pass it around to everyone you like. Frankly, it gives me the heebie jeebies to think about having sex with anyone other than my husband, whom I knew, long before we were intimate, has always had my best interests at heart.

And then there’s this question: If you know Person You’re Attracted To has just been sleeping with someone else, would you really want to be intimate with them? Isn’t there a huge “ewww” factor in that?

I just don’t get it.

But I think I have a totally different vocabulary surrounding this subject. To me, sex is a gift, and it’s intrinsically tied to personhood. It’s not something you can classify as “casual.” Sex has …well, consequences, for lack of a better word, although that has a negative connotation which is not what I mean. How can it be satisfying if it’s not experienced in the context of a 100%, no-holds-barred commitment? Which presupposes that the commitment came first?

Love and marriage is the central theme of my novel: when you grow up believing marriage is forever, and then you realize you made a big mistake, what do you do? How far do you go to salvage it? How much of yourself are you willing to sacrifice?

I worry sometimes that my view of the world is so outside the mainstream that it won’t resonate at all. But words are the tool I’ve been given to try to make the world a better place. So I have to try. Novel query stage: bring it on.

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14 thoughts on “Sex, Love, and Women’s Fiction

  1. I think we live in such a broken world. Girls grow up believing it shows a high self esteem and confidence if they “flaunt what they got” and if they assert themselves sexually. Boys grow up with little guidance at all — no role models to show that they should value the woman that would become a wife so much that they save this most precious gift for her. And, sadly, boys expect that girls will assert themselves sexually, and when it doesn’t happen, they often go find girls who will. It’s such a mess out there…really. It was a mess when I was a kid…and I was raised in such a way that I had a well-enough-formed conscience to know the things I did were wrong, so I eventually came around to doing things “the right way” but there’s still a lot of emotional baggage I carry around.

    Do you write your novels under this same name? I keep thinking I should look for some of your books to read, but I often end up reading whatever plops in my lap (i.e., recently, whatever my 7th grader is showing interest in — so I can stay ahead of her…)

  2. So many thoughts on this. As usual, I agree with some points and disagree on others, but I will say that the ‘bed hopping’ in fiction drives me crazy and makes me lose interest in characters. I find this is more true in TV shows than in novels (maybe because novels have more time to elicit my emotional connection?). My husband and I are both fairly liberal when it comes to sex on TV, but when characters start to bed hop, we both lose interest. Ditto for sex on TV solely for shock value. If sex in a book or TV serves a purpose (drives the plot or develops character), then I don’t mind if I personally disagree with it. The more I travel, the more I realize that somehow, Americans are both obsessed with sex AND prudish about it. How we’re both is beyond me.

    I found the other comments here interesting as well. In regard to teaching our kids about the value and role of sex (whatever your values are), I agree that boys need as much guidance as girls, and are often not given it. We’re starting into that territory with a teen and tween boy, and so far, candid communication and dispelling of ‘myths’ they see on TV has made the most impact.

    • Americans are definitely both obsessed with and prudish about sex. That’s something I’ve learned in trying to promote NFP, when the discussion of what actually happens in a woman’s body makes people squeamish. How can people be so obsessed with an activity that they know so little about? Very weird. I agree with you about candid communication. I think that very prudishness feeds on itself.

      I like your thoughts on forwarding the plot, too. That really describes my thoughts as well.

  3. As you know I read a lot of romance novels, not all of them in the “clean” category. I’ve been known to say that sending characters to bed is a cheap easy way to show attraction; authors who can’t/won’t do it have to work hard to show that “spark”.

    I have to say that I experienced my share of sexual temptation back during my dating days but I also have to say I was never tempted to hop into bed with a guy I didn’t know, or on the third date (what Cosmo was saying was the right time back in the day).

  4. i hear you loud and clear. Since i became a committed Christian at 16, a literature major and then such a busy mum that I only had time to read spiritual literature, I found that I had never read romance..after a couple of years of diving right in I am in the excat same place as you and I bet MANY women are

  5. Excellent point about Americans being both obsessed with and prudish about sex. C.S. Lewis said he lived in a nation of “apostate Puritans”, and I think this is a good description of our culture as well.

    As much as sex is everywhere, it’s a very sterilized, sanitized sex. A growing number of young men are unfazed by any and every sexual act, but think pubic hair on a woman is gross. In discussions of NFP, “liberated” “sex positive” women are squeamish about their own bodily functions and wonder why anybody would do that. Popular culture demands that women be constantly sexually available, but women’s sexual desire is still very taboo.

    I think the trivialization of sex in popular culture is part of this apostate Puritanism. If we can’t make sex go away, then we can reduce it to a recreational activity—all the titillation, none of the meaning. But this shows a fear of sex, not an embrace of it.

  6. I’ve been married 39 years, so I guess I AM an old fuddy duddy. I shopped at Osh Kosh this spring for shorts for a 3-year-old. Girl shorts: ALL short shorts (N0). Boy shorts: Bermudas YES) In a size 4T??? I’m ready for the pendulum to swing back toward covered up!

  7. pearledoysters

    I am intrigued by the theme of your novel. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who find themselves in such a relationship. God uses it to save our souls, if we allow Him. Good on ya!

  8. Leslie H.

    Thanks for opening this topic up for discussion! I think it’s very important for more books to promote the idea of postponing the lust and sexual aspects of a relationship and focus on building it up on a non-physical level first. The physical aspect of a relationship usually distracts you from what a person is really like early on. I was lucky enough to come across a book that does just this! My book recommendation has to be “Come Fly With Me” by author Judith Whitmore (http://www.judithwhitmore.com/books/come-fly-with-me/). “Come Fly with Me” focuses on Kate, a beautiful, intelligent, go-getter who unfortunately, is stuck in a loveless one-sided marriage. Her husband is a workaholic and a cheater. Kate uses her love for flying as a means for escape and when she isn’t pouring her heart and soul into an organization she created for at risk youths she is in the air, escaping. Kate wants to become a certified jet pilot and trains under Rick (her soulmate!). The two face many obstacles and embark on quite the unexpected adventure. I grew to love these characters and their story. They work hard for their relationship and their night of passion is well deserved. I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a unique love story with an inspiring woman lead!

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