To you who may not know me,
My pen name is Chapel Orahamm. I am a slipstream lgbtq+ romance writer. I am AFAB, and I identify as pansexual non-binary with pronouns he/him-they/them. What does all this mean? I focus heavy on a story that works within action/adventure/sci-fi/fantasy and incorporate an overarching theme of character development in a romantic relationship that (for my writing) typically includes at least one sex scene, if not more. There’s some rule about as long as 2/3 of the book isn’t sex, it doesn’t count as erotica. Not sure how accurate that is, so I may or may not be an erotica author. I’ve read both explicit and inferred sex scenes within romance and outside of the genre and honestly couldn’t tell you that distinction.
I have some issues that I’d like to lay out for you, if you’re here reading this. This is going to be a couple complaints, a couple pointers, and a couple things I keep upper most in my mind when I’m writing scenes.
Tropes dealing with abusive characters and characters who “need saving”. Characters who the MC is meant to change. People don’t change like that. Not in the way a lot of heavy handed romance books take. A rough, course robotic character very rarely represents what a real person is. If a person, a real person, is abusive, its not going to be a one night stand and a home cooked meal that melts that characteristic. That’s going to require therapy, true therapy and a character willing to go that route. How often is that option discussed in a romance novel?
I know there’s the concept of “bad boy edge” – I like playing with that trope – Lunam from The Fire in My Blood and Fane Anson from Subject15 & Subgalaxia come to mind. But these characters need to be provided evident moral pillars on which to stand showing that they have lines and boundaries. Things that they will and won’t do. Things that really won’t change about them. If a character cannot exist without the heroine or hero swooping in to save the day, they aren’t believable. Very rarely does a long term, deep relationship begin with a blank canvas by which to mold your perfect partner. And if you’re molding, there’s something fundamental wrong with the relationship – that’s called control.
These are things to consider as romance writers that I think gets overlooked by a lot of readers who just toss our books aside as filth and trash. Maybe these tropes sell well because a lot of people end up in relationships where they think they can change their partner and slowly, frustratingly discover that isn’t reality. A part of romance people pay for is being able to achieve the thing they can’t have in real life. I’ll acknowledge that. But it’s doing a disservice to the industry and the genre to continue persisting the tropes.
It leaves a large portion of readers who’s only experience and education on the topic come from these books expecting that they can find the right looking person and be able to change everything wrong to them about said person. People aren’t old houses needing a bit of plaster and paint. Relationships take work, true. People need time to learn about each other, to find boundaries. But expecting to be able to “tame” some “strong willed” person because it happened in a book is more fantasy than believing in toaster dragons. There is a problem that romance novels ingrain that mentality into their storylines and their readers.
The United States has an atrocious sex education program. Flat out. There might be a week in seventh grade where you cover the reproductive organs and a week in ninth grade that covers zygotes, sperm, and eggs. I know of one half hour moment in my entire school career where educators were brought into the classroom to discuss sex safety. Half an hour. The most they told us, an entire pack of seventh graders, was that if we had sex, to use a condom in a very round about manner. They didn’t have one on hand to show us what it looked like – and blessed me, I had been raised in a religious school up to this point, so everyone else was nodding their head like they’d heard this speech before and I’m the embarrassed one who asks for clarification. Yeah. Try living that one down for the rest of your school career.
I slipped from reading fantasy to reading romance pretty quickly after this. I had no internet at home, so I wasn’t about to be able to find *ehem* information that way. Taking up drawing anime at least netted me a few books on human form. But most of my true sex education came from romance novels. They set up expectations. Not many of them set them up well.
You see, here’s the thing with romance novels. They are written for the express purpose of exploring an emotional connection between characters and every once in a while, usually past the 40 page mark, there might be a sex scene, because, well, I’m sorry, but when you’re getting deep into how characters interact in your head, you get horney. It happens. I will not be the only one to admit to this. And does it ever freaking suck when you get to that scene and you get interrupted. Talk about writers block and cock block at the same time. Thanks.
So, here’s the thing with writing these scenes. Most of them aren’t believable. Sure the parts match up – whether we’re talking gay, lesbian, hetero, or nonbinary representative. But, a lot of romance doesn’t account for reality. Not clinical. I’m not talking using the exacting words of cliteral hood, labia, penis, testies, etc.
What I’m talking about is what you don’t see in choreographed porn. What you’d see in an actual bedroom with actual people who actually care about each other. Consent. Respect. Clumsily falling off the bed. Randomly getting a charly horse in your calf. Over stretched tendons in your hips. Periods starting up. The fact that semen doesn’t just disappear as soon as it enters an orifice. The fact that uterus holders (I am not using women here because there are people who have a uterus and are not women, get over it) tend to take longer to reach orgasm. Be real. Orgasm at the same time? That is not something that happens every time sex happens.
Let’s talk the other trope. One that I particularly hate.
Refractory Period disappearance trope.
If you’ve read much in the way of hetero romance or gay romance and ran into the “they stayed up well into the wee hours of dawn making love until exhausted” – have you ever timed sex or understand how xy biology works? Sure, xx biology has the potential to orgasm multiple times. But xy biology doesn’t work like that, at least not at such a frequency as to be so prevelant in romance novels.
Romance novelists, serious ones, are trying to move away from the over used tropes of “perfect sex” to be more representative of reality. Not in a clinical way, but in expectations. In partners being honest with each other. Because we know we are potentially the first introduction to an entire group of individuals of how sex works. We are sex educators, whether or not that is what we set out to be when we just wanted to write two characters falling in love over coffee and a general commiseration of the physics teacher being weird.
Our genre tends to be called porn, smut, filthy, dirty, trivial, not real writing. That is frequent and vehemently told to us many times, in many forms. Worse so when it comes to lgbtq+ representative work. We are here to write about love, emotional connection, and in some ways, be the people that we needed and didn’t get because the government decided that talking sex was dirty and religiously amoral. We are the ones who stand at the gateway for people who know what sex looks like from an abused point of view and show them what is possible outside of that type of relationship. We’re here for the people asking what is wrong with me when they don’t want to go looking for a book written by a sex therapist. We’re that friend that gives anecdotes on walks through the park when you’re between therapy sessions. We give hope. We give courage. Not the ones to rule the world, to sit at board meetings, to make investment checks. We give the type of hope and courage that softens the touch, the one for people who want to feel accepted at that personal, intimate level.
We are responsible, upon picking up the pen and putting word to paper, for providing stories that won’t psychologically scar our readers expectations of reality. The number of times I have read couples reaching orgasm at the same time. Do you know how much that messed up my own love life and my own expectations for myself and my partner?
Romance writers. Ones who care. Ones who truly realize that they are potentially responsible for the education of the reader, take their time to create believable characters, believable situations, believable emotions. They aren’t teaching heavy handed morals. They are there to create expectations. Give advice on relationships. Show the types readers need to be wary of. The types that are problematic. They are the ones that stand at the door and say, “it’s okay to not know what you are doing. You haven’t been taught because the system is broken. Let me give you a story about a situation, maybe it can help.”
Romance is not filthy, or trivial.
It is a genre where we take responsibility for giving our readers information that they may take more seriously than they ever will in overthrowing a castle or taming a dragon. There is a separation between bravery and foolishness: equal parts wisdom and knowledge. The romance genre can be one facet of wisdom and knowledge. Sometimes it is the only facet that people ever encounter outside of their own relationships. There is being brave to the outer world, being brave to the inner world, and being brave to a person or people we want to be close with. We may not write how to become a strong voice for the outside world. But we try to help our readers be brave to themselves, to speak up for what they want to achieve in a relationship with another or multiple people.
If we haven’t done that, then what is romance?