Monday, January 18, 2010

Bob, May I Present Mrs. Palme and Her Daughters?

Dear Author had an interesting discussion recently that touched on the value of including masturbation scenes in romance novels.  I have an irrational and a rational objection to this, but first, I want to give the best argument in favor that I can.

{If the word masturbation bothers you, you won't want to read any further.  But there's nothing more explicit than the word itself in this post, and frankly, reading the phone book might be sexier.}

Romance novel heroines should be smart, sexually confident and self-fulfilled, which means that they masturbate.  There are situations of sexual frustration in many romance novels where the smart thing for a character to do (male or female) is relieve that frustration for themselves.  While it may be romantic for a protagonist to think that only sex with the other protag will satisfy the craving for intimacy, that's not true when it comes to the purely physical sensation of orgasm.  And for women, in particular, it risks being insulting to suggest that she can't bring herself to orgasm and needs the hero to accomplish that goal.  Therefore, it's evidence of her sexual autonomy to include a scene in a romance novel that demonstrates she does know how to get the job done when alone.

If I have missed something, or you feel that's not an adequate argument in favor of masturbation in romance novels, let me know in the comments.

There is one other argument in favor, and it's a subjective one:  Readers may find it sexy.  I don't (personally), and I do think that's a point people will know for themselves.

My irrational objection is also aesthetic.  In the 60s black & white movie, Rachel, Rachel, Joanne Woodward masturbates (not very explicitly) with the voice-over line: "It's just to make me sleep."  It's such a sad scene, with Woodward's character so lonely and bereft, and it has stayed with me for decades.  It doesn't make me think less of masturbation; it makes me think less of masturbation scenes.  (You may need to see the film to know what I'm talking about.)  I'm not sure I'll ever be able to detach the melancholy of the movie version when I read a masturbation scene in a romance novel.  (Not true with erotica, I hasten to add.  Where the characters in a book are striving for better and more varied sexual experiences, masturbation can be a nice addition to the mix.  But where characters are striving for a romantic connection, as in a romance novel, masturbation seems counterintuitive to me.)

Here, now, are my rational reasons for not favoring masturbation scenes in romances.
  • Romance novels are about two people striving to form an emotional connection.  It's not that they mustn't masturbate while they're working toward that end -- and I completely agree that scenes or internal monologues that suggest that the protagonists wouldn't dream of masturbating or that masturbation "wouldn't work" are silly -- but how does a scene in which one or both characters masturbate (separately but perhaps unintentionally in unison) further the story of their coming together romantically?  
  • Similarly, romances tend to leave out certain bodily functions (also nouns ending in -ation) because while clearly the characters need to do those things, the reader doesn't need to read about them.  There are exceptions to this rule based on public health concerns, most obviously the use of condoms (although the noun is not "condomnation").  The point at which a condom should be used does arise in sex scenes and not to mention the couple's use of protection might suggest they magically don't need to.  That would be an unfortunate message to readers, as all sex (in romances and in real life) should be safe, and pretty much universally the characters in romance novels don't yet have reason to be certain unprotected sex would be safe.  (Verbal assurances are not enough.)
  • We have good reason to believe that women know how to masturbate successfully and don't need pointers or reminders.  According to Shere Hite's research in the early 70s, 97% of women surveyed were able to masturbate to orgasm.  Her sampling methods have been questioned with respect to other conclusions, but I don't know of anyone suggesting she got that specific number wrong.  And the intervening years, that number is unlikely to have gone down.  If women in real life know how to masturbate, it seems safe for readers to assume that romance novel heroines know how to masturbate.
  • If readers know how to masturbate, and characters can be presumed to be masturbating, and if reading about masturbation in a romance novel isn't sexy (we have no way of knowing what percentage of readers think it is), and it doesn't emphasize much more than that Character A thinks Character B is hawt, why put it in?
Okay, so I finished Arm Candy by Jo Leigh last night.  If there was a check-list of plot points, scenes, and internal monologues designed to show that a romance novel heroine is fully capable of taking care of her own sexuality, this novel ticked all the boxes.  Jessica masturbates (coincidentally achieving a simultaneous orgasm with the hero when he masturbates elsewhere), she talks about masturbation, she tells the hero her favorite masturbatory fantasy, and she owns a "Bob" (acronym for Battery Operated Boyfriend).

Here's I didn't find in Arm Candy:  enough romance.  They're a lovely couple, but the relationship was 65% about sex, 25% having sex, and 10% analysis of how the relationship should go on.  All the "mushy stuff" happens off-screen at the very end of the book.  In the last ten pages, we learn that they miss each other, they think about each other, they have a hard time staying in the negotiated format for their relationship . . . and then, boom, they're going to marry.  If romance novels had soundtracks, this one was missing the swelling strings and Celine Dion singing, "My Heart Will Go On" at the end.

Still, I'm a proponent for a wide range of romances and novel types to be available, and one that ticks all the boxes on the Sexually Self-Fulfilling Heroine check-list clearly has its place.  As do masturbation scenes.  I won't file Arm Candy on my keeper shelf, but it's enough that others will.


  1. I think it can be great shorthand for presenting an intelligent, savvy choice from a heroine in an historical. Like Diana in Rothgar's book by Jo Beverley.

    Contemps: really, sometimes it can be a fun part of the plot -- especially if distance separates the h/h. I'm not the writer: anything pretty much can be done well ... and the reverse!

  2. Great topic!

    Although I understand where an author is coming from - no pun intended! - when she includes a masturbation scene in a romance, I must admit that I tend to skim them, even in erotic romances. The masturbation scenes just don't interest me, especially when they feature the heroine. I perk up a bit more when they feature the hero, but my enthusiasm usually wanes if the scene is drawn out.

    I have no issue with the inclusion of masturbation in romances, either as a detailed scene or a reference, but I prefer erotic scenes to include both the hero and the heroine.

    Re: the romance and sex ration in 'Arm Candy': I haven't read it yet, but I believe it's a Harlequin Blaze. If this is the case, I would expect the emphasis to be on the sex. That's pretty much what differentiates Blaze from the other Harlequin lines.

  3. Sorry, that should be: "the romance and sex ratio". No edit button here. Sob!

  4. I don't think it is necessary for them to be in all romances, or even to be in full detail when they are in there.
    But in the context of discussion where it was originally brought up, it is just one way to have a heroine owning her own sexuality, or at least acknowledging it exists and still have her meet the near virgin-ness which seems to be a requirement of the romance heroine.
    If that makes any sense - really must stop posting on blogs when half dead.


  5. Janet -- I agree it can be done well, and I suspect Arm Candy was better done than most. (I don't think I've read that particular Beverley yet...) But is it the best way to telegraph the heroine's intelligence and self-reliance? Does anyone doubt that these women are masturbating?

    Okay, there wasn't a Shere Hite in the 1820s to tell us, and I think there were some pretty barbaric practices, like putting kids' hands in metal mittens to prevent them "touching" anything, but those practices weren't universal.

    Here's the thing -- if it wasn't the widespread cultural norm then that it is now, having the heroine masturbate becomes much more about her being Different and Rebellious and less about her being Smart and Sexually Self-Reliant. As you say, if it's done well, that's great. But I find in contemporaries, I just assume the heroine knows how and gets the job done, and in historicals, I assume her intelligence will come out in other ways.

    Sarah -- I absolutely agree that Blaze has a higher proportion of sex to other stuff, but it's still supposed to be a romance. They can roll around all they want, but in the end they actually have to fall in love, right? That was the part that seemed more like an epilogue in Arm Candy. Other Blaze novels I've read, e.g., Kathleen O'Reilly and Sarah Mayberry, the sex scenes taper off in favor of the romance portion of their relationship around 3/4 of the way through the book.

    Edie -- I completely agree that we all benefit when there is a wide range of approaches to all questions, including this one. I see you're tying this back to the near-virginity issue, which you've commented on elsewhere, so I'll go there to respond on that topic.

    But while I support the "rainbow coalition" approach to full representation of all types of romances, I reserve the right not to be a fan of the masturbation scene. Thinking about it, I would favor a chat with a girlfriend about how best to get a recalcitrant lover do things they way the women want as real evidence that a) heroine is NOT a virgin, b) heroine knows what she wants, and c) heroine will darn well make sure boyfriend does it right.

  6. Oi, I is not trying to switch anyone to loving the handy scene, just stumbling through an attempt to explain and refresh the context of why there was some call out for it and part of my appreciation of the handy scene.

    Plus my usual dig at my romance hot buttons. ;)


  7. I can think of a couple of ways you could use masturbation scenes in a non-erotic romance.

    The trick would be to integrate it into the relationship and the characters' concerns. For example, physical separation, as mentioned above, or emotional separation because of a falling-out - the masturbation could demonstrate physical longing for the absent partner, attempting to assuage physical or emotional loneliness. It could be included when both characters are present, particularly in a historical when they might have fertility concerns. Or masturbation could be used as a consequence of the relationship - character is "taking the edge off" for whatever reason, or alternatively, preparing themselves for an encounter with their romantic partner.

    Any of those scenarios could be approached with varying degrees of explicit detail. I also think the tone of the scene would affect the reader's interpretation.

    Interesting post!

  8. Edie -- I appreciate that people either like them or not, want them in their romances or don't: it really is a matter of personal taste. And you and I can continue to debate the hot button issues with pleasure! (At least, I'm enjoying our disagreements...)

    Victoria -- I don't disagree that it can be done, and in the *cough* hands of a gifted author, it can be done seamlessly and in a way that advances the story and character arcs perfectly. But until I read that book (which may be out there -- I'm still playing catch up with the best romances from the past 15 years or so), I don't favor masturbation in romances.

    But you give me a funny image of a "very special" contest for some truly brazen RWA chapter to run: Best Masturbation Scene in Non-Erotic Romance. Don't think I'd enter, and I know I wouldn't want to judge it, but I'd still laugh if it showed up in Chap-Link...

  9. Always happy to argue with you Miss M!

  10. Always happy to be argued with, Ms. E!


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