A reader is hooked when reality shifts. When time in the corporeal world seems to stand still, and the world of the novel takes over. She no longer hears the trample of feet on the stairs or the barking of the neighbor’s dog. Instead, she has become a voyeur of the most intimate kind, eavesdropping on conversations, peeping into bedrooms, opening the medicine cabinet in the bathroom. She’s privy to a world that is complete.The term 'voyeuristic', though, can be used rather loosely. Here's a legal definition, taken from part of the section on voyeurism in the UK’s Sexual Offences Act 2003:
VoyeurismThe book that got me thinking about this topic in relation to sex scenes, was Barbara Delinsky’s Through My Eyes. The title may suggest that the reader is looking through the heroine’s eyes, and what occurs is therefore not voyeurism, since the reader is vicariously a participant not a voyeur. Nonetheless, the heroine, as the title suggests, retains a distinct identity which is separate from the reader’s. Her eyes remain hers, not those of the reader. This is a story told in the first person by the heroine, Jill. When she returns home after a trip to New York where she’s had sex with the hero, Peter, she thinks, during a conversation with her friend Swansy:
(1) A person commits an offence if-
(a) for the purpose of obtaining sexual gratification, he observes another person doing a private act, and
(b) he knows that the other person does not consent to being observed for his sexual gratification.
I didn’t really want to tell Swansy that Peter and I had spent the better part of our time together in bed, because I was afraid she’d get the wrong idea.Given that Jill is addressing the reader directly, it’s disconcerting that she can tell the reader things that she won’t tell her best friend. If something is sacred and, as Jill seems to imply, should therefore remain secret, why has the heroine previously narrated the sexual encounters in considerable detail to the reader? This passage raised the issue of voyeurism because the heroine is explicitly stating her right to privacy. And yet, not many pages before, and not many pages later, she describes her sexual activities, in the first person, to the reader. I have to admit that I wasn’t particularly engaged emotionally anyway by the characters, and this was enough to pull me completely out of the story, thus putting me on the outside, looking on. I finished the book because (a) I usually do finish books and (b) I wanted to blog about that passage, and I don’t like the idea of commenting on a book I haven’t read in full, but it made me feel awkward and self-conscious about what I was reading.
Then again, it wasn’t the wrong idea. It was exactly what we’d done. But what Peter had taught me about lust would burn Swansy’s ears.
Then again, maybe not.
But where a man and a woman were concerned, some things were sacred. (1989: 195)
As one romance reader mentions, reading a sex scene in a romance may seem voyeuristic:
Linda Howard is my all-time favorite romance writer, and it is in part because she doesn't skip over the sex and simply have the man and woman wake up together the next day. Linda Howard makes it very plain how the hero and heroine feel about each other and that is what I love to read about. I feel like I miss some of the emotion when I am not 'there' for their physical love. Call it voyeurism if you will.As this reader notes, however, the romance reader is interested in emotion (though there is often also an element, stronger in some sub-genres than others, of interest in physical acts for their own sake) and this is significantly different from what interests the true voyeur. The voyeur, it seems to me, is watching bodies, whereas the romance reader is given access to the characters’ emotions. In that sense, the romance reader is inside, looking out, whereas the voyeur is outside, and looking on. The difference between the two positions is illustrated in the prologue of Claire Thornton’s The Defiant Mistress. Gabriel, the hero, thinks he knows what he’s seeing:
A spyhole! [...]The reader, however, knows why the heroine is allowing this to happen: Frances has been made to believe that if she does not, Gabriel will be executed for treason. The reader, then, can 'see' both Gabriel and Frances, and understands what the scene truly means, but Frances does not know Gabriel is there, and Gabriel does not understand why Frances is behaving this way. What Gabriel sees does create strong emotions in him, and what the voyeur sees creates sexual excitement in him/her, but in both cases their experience is unlike that of the romance reader, since their feelings are not based on an understanding of the emotions felt by the person they are watching. In The Defiant Mistress the actual misunderstanding, caused by lies they’ve both been told, is resolved relatively early on in the novel: it is the gradual re-establishing of a loving relationship and of emotional intimacy between the hero and heroine which forms the majority of the novel. This mirrors the way in which sex scenes in a well-written romance are not primarily about the facts of which body-part goes where, but about the emotions the characters feel during the scene, what the scene reveals about their relationship, and how it moves the plot forwards. True understanding doesn't come from observing from the outside, but from understanding what's happening emotionally, on the inside of the characters.
the man turned Frances and began to unlace her bodice. She allowed him to remove it and made no protest when he fumbled at the neckline of her chemise. The man exposed her breast and bent his head to lay his mouth against the soft flesh.
Gabriel broke free from his horrified paralysis. He reared up and around, nearly blind with outrage and the pain of betrayed love (2005: 19-20)
As Rosina Lippi says:
The basic truth is this: any and every scene needs to earn its place in the narrative flow, and sex is no different. No matter how much I love a character and a story, I'm not interested in following them everywhere. The author can safely leave out bathroom visits, cutting of toenails, the phone call about the electric bill, the spilled coffee, the songs on the radio while the character drives to work. Unless something significant happens [...] this stuff doesn't belong in the story. In the same way, you end up with generic, boring, unnecessary sex scenes stocked with color by number orgasms unless there's a compelling reason to include the scene in the first place.[In August 2004 Rosina selected a number of sex-scenes and analysed them. It’s fascinating (at least, I found it so) and all the entries can be found via this page. By 2010, Rosina had taken down most of her blog's pages, so they aren't visible any more. However, thanks to the Internet Archive some of the pages are still available: Introduction; Crusie's Welcome to Temptation; Ivory's Untie My Heart. ]
Carefully constructed, thoughtful sex scenes are one good way to show what's right or wrong in a relationship; it's in high tension situations that characters let go, and really, what else is sex about? Where else is character revealed in such a direct way? It's not the only way to do this, but it can be a very effective one.
Another difference between the voyeur and the romance reader is that although fictional characters do not generally give consent (though they may do so implicitly if the story is told in the first person), they are not real, and it is the author who gives consent for his/her characters to be observed. However, given the way in which a good author makes the characters come alive, this may seem more like a legal distinction than one which reflects the experience of reading a romance.
Another important distinction is that however good a reader’s visual imagination may be, words are not images, and so a reader cannot truly be said to be ‘observing’ the characters. This point was made in a response to a letter to Salon, when the letter writer had stated that ‘To my mind, there is little difference between romance novels and girlie magazines -- they are both a form of sexual voyeurism’. The response of Salon’s Camille was that:
Porn prose, even by the Marquis de Sade, is slow and linear and will therefore never have the neon impact of a visual image, which hits a different part of the brain with atavistic, animal force.Despite the distinctions I’d draw between voyeurism and reading a sex scene in a romance novel, there are times when I feel uncomfortable about what I’m reading. Because I don’t like this feeling, I’ve tended to put the book down, so it’s hard for me to analyse exactly what caused me to respond this way to the book, but I think it occurs when the writing is less than engaging, so that I feel as though I’m standing outside, looking in on the activities being described.
Anyone else felt this way? And do you think I’m right in the distinctions I’m making between voyeurism and the processes involved when reading sex-scenes in romance?
Delinsky, Barbara, 1989. Through My Eyes (Ontario: MIRA).
Thornton, Claire, 2005. The Defiant Mistress (Richmond, Surrey: Harlequin Mills & Boon).