Friday, August 04, 2006


For all that I said in the last entry about the positive aspects of the depiction of sex in romance, there can occasionally be something that feels a little voyeuristic about the reading experience. It’s not just the sex scenes, because as Jo Leigh said recently at Romancing the Blog:
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:
(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.
The 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:
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.
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)
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.

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 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)
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.

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.
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.
[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. ]

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).


  1. I guess I've never really analyzed the sex scenes in this way--as voyeurism. But in some books, which I call "sex manuals" I feel very uncomfortable with the scenes. It's almost like some movies which make me feel embarrassed for the characters because the scenes ring somehow false--and I don't necessarily mean sex scenes here.

    For me, the graphic scenes also have to fulfill a real purpose and not just portray sex for the sake of sex. I've now read of several writers who are being forced to increase the content of sex because that's what's selling. I think this is wrong because sometimes just a word, a hug, a soft stroke of the cheek can mean so much more than a detailed sex scene.

    Some writers boldly state that sex is romance. I beg do differ very strongly. It can be truly romantic, as I understand the word, but not necessarily. Sometimes less is really more.

    I have read erotic literature, especially French writers and one thing that most of the writers did not do was write a touch by touch by bite or whatever scene of the sex act. It came out in much more subtle and titillating ways. There was a sense of voyerism especially in domination scenes in which the woman was not really allowed to participate and therefore had to hide her emotions. I must say that that was one of the things that turned me off these books very fast. The woman really was only a sex slave.

    My thoughts are not completely formed here but maybe you can get some of what I mean.

  2. 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.

    I think there are many things we might not tell our best friends but might confess elsewhere such as

    Certainly in Britain, folks must have become used to a lack of privacy now that they're followed everywhere by little cameras. It's like believing in God but forgetting that S/He's watching all the time.

    In this age when celebrities, and non-celebrities alike, post photos and video of them having sex on the Internet, I cannot feel like a voyeur reading a novel. It's there for me to see, after all. If I feel uncomfortable by the scene, then it just comes down to a matter of my own personal taste, I think.

  3. Oh yes, personal taste is definitely going to be a factor. And when one's personal comfort zone is surpassed, then one pulls away from the story. It's at that point that one remembers one's reading, I think: I'd imagine that most of us who read a lot aren't particularly aware of the process of reading, until something like this happens to pull us out of the novel.

    Some novels may verge towards being metafiction in that they're 'A story that anticipates the reader's reaction to the story'. The novels I quoted from don't do this, but I think some romances may do so, particularly towards the more erotic end of romance, where the books seem to be exploring sexuality, and so there's likely to be an element of the reader being pushed to explore their own sexuality as they read about characters who're exploring theirs. Like I said, I haven't read any erotic romances, but I'm making a guess from what I've read about them, for example, this description of the contents of the Harlequin Blaze line:

    Launch author Julie Elizabeth Leto says that in future books we can expect stories about [...] exhibitionism, voyeurism, sex therapy, and crimes based on erotic literature.

    I see your point, Jennifer, about secrets. I suppose some people may have an urge to tell a secret that's very strong, and the only way they can gratify it and yet not face negative consequences, is to tell it to strangers. It sounds a bit like King Midas' hairdresser.

    I'm in the UK, and I don't even think about the CCTV cameras. There are supposed to be signs up, warning people when they're in a zone covered by the cameras, and their use is covered by the Data Protection Act. I suppose one gets used to it, just as one can get used to reading certain types of material, but in both cases, I appreciate being reminded from time to time, and thinking about the processes involved.

  4. Re: Harlequin Blaze...

    Why don't they just call it Harlequin Qinky? I especially liked the long description so that we the readers will know EXACTLY how erotic the books will be. "Warning! This book may contain bondage!"

    I'm a bit perturbed by the series categories of romance by Harlequin and Silhouette. Every category is neatly defined so that the reader will know exactly what to expect from the book they read. It's like they're not about the story or characters anymore, but about the expectation. A lot of women seem to read about adventure and taking emotional risks, when what they really want is safety, comfort and security.

    That being said (I like surprises, some people don't), perhaps in the future romances should carry some code that tells the reader how much sexuality to expect from the novel. 4 chili peppers: muy calienté!

  5. I believe that there *is* an element of voyeurism in reading Romance, and that such an element heightens the intimacy necessary to create an emotional response in the reader. IMO, so much of what makes Romance emotionally powerful is the moments of *private* interaction between hero and heroine, whether those moments be sexual in nature or conversational or whatever. That our connection to these characters grows based, in part, on the close proximity we enjoy to the process of their falling in love does, IMO, necessitate that we are, in part, voyeurs of their relationship. Of course it's more a symbolic voyeurism, since there is basically a contract between the characters (via the author) and the reader to open up this fictional relationship for observation and vicarious pariticipation, but I do think it's partly voyeuristic, nonetheless. And in some cases, I think authors actually amp up the tension in a Romance by creating a sense of illicit titillation in the sex betweeen hero and heroine, especially in more erotic Romance.

  6. I agree with your description of the process, Robin, but I think that the problem with describing romance as 'voyeuristic' is that a lot of people would then misunderstand and not realise that it is, as you say, a 'symbolic voyeurism'. Of course there are parallels with voyeurism as legally defined, since the reader is 'watching' someone else, and thus learns very intimate details about the characters, but there's such a prevalent, dismissive attitude towards romance, which categorises it as 'smut' and 'porn for women', that I feel rather averse to using the term 'voyeurism' to describe the process. And then, as you say, there are the erotic romances, which (and I'll take your word for it, since I'm sure you've read some of them, unlike me) deliberately create 'a sense of illicit titillation'. They're even more likely to be described as 'smut' and 'porn', I'd imagine, despite the fact that authors of erotic romance, such as Sylvia Day, draw very clear distinctions between porn, erotica and erotic romance.

    This does feel like a bit of a minefield, so I think I should clarify that the reason I haven't read erotic romances is not because I disapprove of them (I'm not sure how I could disapprove of a book/sub-genre I hadn't read, because then I'd have little or no evidence on which to base a judgement), but rather because I think they'd take me outside my personal comfort zone. I'm not even wanting to engage with the question of whether porn is wrong or not, because that's a different issue and one about which I know very little. I'm simply looking at the romance genre, and trying to untangle some of the issues which surround it.

  7. I think that what might be a very clear distinction to one reader or writer (e.g., Sylvia Day) may not necessarily be the same to others. I'm glade that I do know what to expect from Harl/Silh lines. That does not mean that I will only read from end of the spectrum. I may follow a writer to try a Blaze if I know her stories are good. But it might stop me from trying other writers. I'm very much writer-oriented anyway. There are very few that I've stopped reading because of the type of story they write but, yes, there are a few.

  8. Sylvia Day's the President of Passionate Ink, the 'Special Interest Chapter of Romance Writers of America for erotic romance writers'. So that probably means her definitions carry a certain weight, and her definitions are very similar to other definitions I've read. For example, Julie Elizabeth Leto says that

    Erotic romance employs some of the trademarks of erotica--the rawer, more explicit description of sexuality--and melds it with the conventions of romance. The intimacy. The emotions. The happily ever after. Again, it is usally written with more sensual language than some erotica and all porn.

    and Monica Burns' definition is that

    Erotic romance contains intense sexual scenes between two individuals who are falling in love or are in love. It MUST have a happy ending and love is the ultimate focus of the relationship and the work.

    So I think the writers are agreed in theory, but then, as mentioned by Sylvia Day, some publishers may market the books in ways which blur the boundaries, and that might well confuse the readers. Also, just because an author of erotic romances says that she's focussing on the love doesn't mean that all readers will interpret the story that way.

    I can see why you might follow an author, based on trust. If you know an author delivers stories which appeal to you, you're maybe more likely to let them take you into a new sub-genre (e.g. move from historical to contemporary, or to erotic romance) because you hope that at the core their voice/outlook will remain one that you like. Not all readers will feel that way, though, and I've read about some readers getting very upset about an author changing sub-genre. I can understand that too, because some readers are very attached to particular sub-genres.

  9. First off: I love this blog and I feel like I've been looking for intelligent discussion of romance for a long time and never imagined it existed.

    On the topic of voyeurism, I've been startled to find myself much more uncomfortable watching sex scenes in movies of late. I think because, as was pointed out, in novels you get to be inside people's heads during sex whereas in a movie you're just watching the act from the outside.

    I agree strongly with the assertion that sex in a romance novel (or probably any novel) must advance the plot or the character's emotional development otherwise it is pointless. Even uncomfortable sex, such as the bondage/domination scenes in Laura Kinsale's "Shadowheart." This sort of thing is not my cup of tea normally, but in her hands it's a vital and visceral glimpse into her characters' psyches.

    In most well-written romances, the sex scene is where the characters develop trust for each other. Even if their intellect doesn't want to trust, their hearts and bodies do. Eventually, the periods of trust outweigh the conflict or antagonism and you end up with harmony.

  10. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog, Kimber.

    Even uncomfortable sex

    I agree, and in fact I think that 'uncomfortable sex' (in the sense of disturbing or disappointing for the characters, but not in the sense of 'uncomfortable' because the author was trying to titillate the reader) can be particularly revealing. If an author goes down that route she/he can't rely on the great sex = proof of great love equation that some romances portray. The 'uncomfortable sex' perhaps springs from more unusual characters and more detailed characterisation. Of course, that's a generalisation, and someone could write a scene like that as a gimmick, to find something that might shock the reader, but then it probably wouldn't be the sort of 'uncomfortable sex' I'm meaning. I suspect it would be tend to be a provocative, designed-to-cause-discomfort-in-the-reader sort of sex scene, rather than a sex scene which derives from the characterisation and happens to cause discomfort to the reader.