Claire McEwen asks How Much Sex is Too Much?

IMG_2593 TU 2Thank you for welcoming me as your guest today!

Flipping through the Mailbag section in a recent issue of RT Book Reviews, I came across two letters from readers who were frustrated with the explicit sex in the books they were purchasing.  Both recalled times when romance novels were “tamer” and said that nowadays they tend to stick with authors they know and love, rather than try out new authors, whose books tend to be hotter.

The letters in the magazine made me think about the times when I’ve been surprised by sex in books. I remember one historical romance where the shy wallflower heroine suddenly left the ballroom to have sex in the garden with the hero, who she’d just met. It made no sense and pulled me right out of the story.  I never finished that book. 

I’ve thought a lot about how to write sex scenes because honestly, they don’t come naturally to me.  Give me beautiful scenery to describe and the words flow onto the page. But a penis?  Days pass while I figure out how to write about it!  I persevere because I don’t want to write totally sweet romance. I write contemporary stories with modern characters in their thirties – I can’t quite imagine my heroes and heroines abstaining from sex, or having it all take place “off screen.”

As a solution, I try to make sure that all my sex scenes are character driven. I want each sex scene to also feel like a love scene, with the emotional connection between my characters deepening.  And if I get it right, when my hero and heroine have sex, why they have it, how they have it, where they have it, should all make sense with who they are, or contribute somehow to their personal growth within the story.

In my first novel, A Ranch to Keep, a few readers expressed frustration that the hero and heroine didn’t have sex until almost the end of the book.  But my heroine is a rather repressed person who’s also been publicly and painfully cheated on and dumped, so there was no way she was going to have sex right away.  And my hero is a good guy – so when the heroine, toward the beginning of the book, tries to sleep with him for all the wrong reasons, he refuses.  I understand the readers’ desire for a steamier book, but I didn’t think that those characters were the right people to provide a steamy story. 

However, my third book, Convincing the Rancher, does have the characters and set up Cover, More Than A Rancherfor a little more heat!  It features a heroine who is very promiscuous.  After a traumatic childhood, she’s used her sexuality to feel powerful and keep emotional intimacy at bay.  She has also met the hero years before and they enjoyed a very memorable one-night stand. So in this story there is more sex, and it happens earlier in the book. I wrote the sex scenes a little more wildly and graphically because I felt it suited a heroine who was very sexually experienced, and the heat that already existed between her and the hero.

I’m no expert – I’m a new writer with my third book out soon – but I am also an avid romance reader who doesn’t really want to read graphic sex when it doesn’t make sense for the characters.  So I’m doing my bit to spread the word – that if we take the time to consider our heroes and heroines carefully, and let their stories evolve in a way that is true to them, I think our readers will be a lot more willing to accept – and enjoy – the evolution of their sex lives!

Do you feel like romance novels are getting too graphic in general?   Have you ever read a book where the sex feels all wrong?


Claire McEwen writes contemporary western romance for Harlequin SuperRomance.  She lives by the ocean in Northern California with her family and a scruffy, mischievous terrier. When not dreaming up new stories, she can be found digging in her garden with a lot of enthusiasm but, unfortunately, no green thumb.  She loves discovering flea-market treasures, walking on the beach, dancing, traveling and reading, of course! 

Twitter ~ @ClaireMcEwen1
Amazon Author Page ~


Claire McEwen asks How Much Sex is Too Much? — 11 Comments

  1. As a reader, I’ve found myself skipping the sex scenes on occasion (What? Another one?) As a writer, writing sex scenes doesn’t come naturally to me either. I agree that when sex happens, it should feel right, both in real life and on the page!

  2. Like Jana, I skip the sex scenes sometimes because they’re not what I like to read–I’m there for the story and sometimes hitting the sheets takes away from that. I do love that there’s plenty of all different stages of heat to go around these days.

  3. I agree! I have read books where I skip the sex after a while. It starts to feel repetitive! But Liz is right,the good thing is that there are so many different types of books these days. I have friends who write for Harlequin Heartwarming and I’ve enjoyed reading their books on occasion because they do a great job of building romantic tension without the sex scenes.

    And Liz, thanks so much for inviting me to visit The Cafe today!

  4. Welcome to the Cafe, Claire! This is a really interesting topic. I agree that in romance each intimate scene should move the story forward or deepen the relationship. I think that some of the difficulty for readers arises because there is no way to know how hot a romance novel will be. There is little difference in the heat found in a straight contemporary romance vs an erotic romance. Publishers that use heat levels help ensure that the reader gets exactly what he or she wants, whether that be a tamer romance or a smoking hot one.

    • Thank you, Reese,
      I think you’re right that readers don’t have a way of knowing the heat level of a romance. I’ve been surprised by how much sex can show up in a novel labeled “contemporary,” and have sometimes wondered what, exactly, is the line between contemporary and erotica? I also use reader reviews to try to determine how hot an unfamiliar book might be, sometimes I can tell from the comments.

  5. Great question! I do sometimes skip a scene if the couple has been there, done that, but I do find I miss the intimacy of the love scenes when an author closes the door.

    As for heat levels. What I write used to be considered erotic romance, but with nothing more than swapping a couple of words, my publishers are now calling it hot contemporary. I guess it’s like dipping your toes into a hot tub. Funny how quickly we acclimate. :)

  6. I remember a few years back, there was a real furor about the suggestion that romances be rated, like movies, for heat. I felt like a real curmudgeon because I loved the idea. Sometimes I like heat, but often I like the closed door without the book necessarily being an inspirational (which explains my love for Heartwarming). Mostly, I wanted everyone to be able to have what they want, without any wall-banging disappointments over the sexual content.

    Bad writing–that’s something else entirely; we can’t put ratings on that! :-)

  7. I just found this site and love your post, Claire! I’ve been reading romance novels forever, but lately I have been disappointed with the quality of the books being published. The problem seems to be that stories now focus more on the sex instead of the romance. Because I love the genre I wrote and epublished my own novel. Like you, the sex scenes do not come naturally to me. I can write dialogue all day, but when describing the heavy breathing stuff between the sheets I struggle for the right words. I agree that sex scenes should be character driven.

  8. I love this discussion! Maggie, that is funny that you got a whole new label – Hot comtemporary! Love it! Susan, thanks for sharing about your work. I’m sort of relieved to hear that other people struggle with writing sex scenes too! I rewrite them over and over, trying to put in just enough, but not too much. I guess I’m trying to write what I like to read. I love romance, and if sex happens too quickly in a story, or if it seems to be the main focus, I don’t get the same woozy, happy feeling I get when something is really romantic!

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