Sex and the Believable HEA

By Laura Vivanco on

Susan Ostrov Weisser suggests that

the value we now put on sexual pleasure requires that we validate passion as the starter yeast for the long-term relationship, with the "meant to be" narrative guiding the tricky transition from mysterious passion to rational choice. If it doesn't go well ... you guessed it; it wasn't meant to be [....]. That is, "first comes the passion," then a more "mature" version of romance, which will develop out of the first stage, and which will be permanent if the object is the One. In other words, the magic comes first, and that enables the rational relationship. Few of my students seem aware that historically this is a rather novel idea. [...] The initial stage is supposed to have features very much like passionate sexual desire: intense, spontaneous, inexplicable, beyond control. The "mature" second act is more akin to friendship, stressing liking, mutuality, compatibility, and loyalty. (8-9)

This may have become "the chief ideology of Anglo-American romance" (51) but

the nineteenth-century press shows deep conflict, apparently fascinating to the Victorian public, about the essential nature of love itself: Is it instinctual or voluntary? Is it under our control, or is it what one writer called a "master passion" that cannot be constrained by choice? [...] The most dominant anxiety in the nineteenth-century press is that love is a desire for gratification, a strong and universal instinct that overrides judgment - analogous to, if not rooted in, sexual desire and other egotistic longings. In this view romance is said to lead to no good except pleasure. (53-54)

In other words, there were concerns that an uncontrollable sexual passion was more likely to be a recipe for disaster than the "starter yeast" for a long and happy marriage.

That there are still differences of opinion about the relative importance of friendship, similar outlooks and beliefs versus that of passion, is evident in popular romance fiction. For instance, in a short story Joanne Rock wrote for the eHarlequin website, her heroine has just been dumped by her fiancé, Ben, who seemed a sensible, rational choice of partner, and promptly gets back together with Myles, a man with whom she had a one-night stand two years before:

He was pure fantasy. The kind of man that had no business in Kasey’s life since, even though she’d always been a bit of a romantic, she knew that lasting relationships should be based on more practical grounds like fundamental compatibility, common interests and values.

That’s what made her so successful as a casting director. She knew how to put believable characters together on–screen. She put together people like her and Ben — both successful, career–oriented people with common goals and dreams.

Her feet paused on the planks of the wooden boat dock, the soft swish of rhythmic waves and the swirl of Saturday morning marina activity fading into the background as she wondered how she and Ben could look so great on paper and still fail so miserably in real life. What if she’d been basing her relationships on all the wrong things? (9)

Just a couple of days, a few sex scenes and only a very limited amount of conversation later, Myles has gained the

knowledge they were meant to be together. [...] For him, nothing was more important than keeping Kasey in his life — now and always. (18)

My impression is that, over the years, popular romance has attempted to identify the necessary ingredients and the order in which they should be mixed, to create a believably happy ending for the protagonists. While one may be able to identify an overall trend in the baked items they produce, the flavourings, cooking times etc can vary considerably from one author to another:

beginning in the 1960s, when sexual attraction began to be depicted as the initial magnetism drawing the protagonists together, there are authors, such as Mary Burchell, who do not follow the trend. This is still the case, with some authors downplaying its importance, and concentrating on other aspects of love. Examples include Jane Donnelly, who sees love as the recognition of one's other half; Betty Neels, who emphasizes the growth of love over time and Leigh Michaels, who stresses the friendship aspect of love. (Dixon 172)

What I conclude from all this is, firstly, that whether a reader finds a romance's happy ending believable may depend on (a) the reader's beliefs about the most important ingredients in a long-term relationship and (b) the author's receipe for love. If one believes, for example, that passion is a pre-requisite for intimacy, and that the first will inevitably lead to the second if the passion is strong and special enough, then a series of sex scenes followed by a declaration of ever-lasting love will provide a convincing HEA. If, however, the reader believes that shared political, religious and moral beliefs are very important to a lasting relationship, or that a shared sense of humour is vital in a marriage, the same HEA is likely to leave the reader unconvinced.

Secondly, I wonder if changing beliefs about the importance of sex in creating and sustaining long-term romantic relationships might help explain the increase in explicit sexual content in the genre from the 1970s onwards. Some readers undoubtedly do read romance primarily for their erotic content, however this is not necessarily the sole or even the main reason for its inclusion: the increasing number of sex scenes can be understood as a consequence of the assumption that passion is the "starter yeast" for long-term relationships and the stronger the starter yeast, the stronger the relationship.


Dixon, jay. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s. London: UCL Press, 1999.

Ostrov Weisser, Susan. The Glass Slipper: Women and Love Stories. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2013.

Rock, Joanne. "Girl Gone Solo." eHarlequin, 2004.

Interesting, Laura!  My students are divided on the "passion-first" or "desire to love" sequencing in recent romances. Most like that structure, and find it realistic, but a steady few are quite put off by it, either because they prefer a "friendship-first" structure, or because they want the attraction between the protagonists to be something both less physical and less prosaic: a magic moment, a "click," a meeting where the two "just know."  That last group tend to find both the passion-first and friendship-first structures insufficiently romantic, or so they tell me in and after class.

"Friends-to-lovers" stories are still going strong in romance, so there's obviously a fair number of readers who want a HEA with firm roots in something other than passion.

On the other hand, I was somewhat amused to find this in a recent review of Valerie Weaver-Zercher's book about romance novels with Amish protagonists:

By chapter six, I was very curious about details, such as exactly how chaste are the characters in these novels and how can they be romantic without portraying some form of sexual desire? How far do their typically virginal characters go; hand holding, kissing, or what? And of course, if there is very little romance in these novels, what do they offer instead? (402)

It seems pretty clear that the reviewer just can't imagine "romance" without sex. I've seen people make somewhat similar comments about Georgette Heyer's romances: they don't find them romantic (or really believe in the HEAs) because there aren't sex scenes.

This does suggest to me there isn't likely to be much of a market for romances featuring asexual protagonists, although perhaps they'd find readers among the group you mention, who're looking for "something both less physical and less prosaic."


De Gaia, Susan. "Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels. Valerie Weaver-Zercher. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2013. 315 pp. $24.95." Journal of Popular Romance Studies 47.2 (2014): 401-403.

A very interesting post. It makes me think about the kind of books I like and if what I believe about relationships in real life has really something to do with my reading preferences.

I tend to prefer sexually explicit romances, but for instance I love Georgette Heyer and I don't miss the sex when I'm reading her novels. And I can enjoy an easy and 'white' novel. If it's romantic and very well written, I think we readers would accept 'romances featuring asexual protagonists'.

In real life, I don't like that over-sexualization of relationships, and I think those 'friends-to-lovers' stories are the ones that last in real life.

I'm not saying that what people believe about relationships in real life is always what they want to read about in romances but I suspect that when it comes to assessing whether something in a romance is believable, people's beliefs about real relationships will come into play.

Another thing that occurs to me is that all novels are selective in what they show the reader and so while some conversations and events are described in detail, there will be areas where the reader has to fill in the blanks. Now, some omissions and also some inclusions, will annoy different readers, depending on their preferences and the importance they place on the thing which was omitted. For example, if there's no reference to the use of a condom, some people will assume it was used and others will assume it wasn't. Some people will be glad it was omitted because they think that makes the scene seem more passionate, whereas others will start wondering if there's a "secret baby" plot under way or may feel the protagonists are being irresponsible if they don't use a condom on a first date.

I have a suspicion that the reason I'm quite happy to read romances without sex scenes is that basically I think it's a lot more difficult to find someone who's compatible in terms of outlook on life, aesthetic values, sense of humour, ideas about child-rearing, etc than to find someone with whom (maybe after a bit of practice) it's possible to have enjoyable sex. So if a romance can show me that the characters are people who are emotionally/intellectually compatible, that's a lot more important than showing me something I think they could work on later.

If, on the other hand, a reader starts from the position that a relationship must grow from a very strong sexual attraction, seeing that attraction on the page is going to be much more important.

Eric Selinger (not verified)

Tuesday, 29 April, 2014

Your thoughts on emotional / intellectual compatibility vs. immediate sexual compatability, Laura, make for an interesting contrast with the advice that I've often heard on podcasts from the very popular American sex advice columnist Dan Savage.  When asked for advice on relationships that are going well in other ways, but which don't seem sexually compatibile (in terms of differing levels of desire, or simply different desires and tastes), he usually recommends that the couple break up, or negotiate their way to some kind of non-monogamous solution.  I can't say how widespread his views actually are in American culture, but this might be information of use for your book of essays, in terms of how the romance genre might be reflecting ideas that are in circulation over here.

Obviously I'm a bit old-fashioned.

I think if I started working on this topic in anything other the speculative way I have here, I'd be setting myself up for a huge amount of work: first of all I'd need to investigate the relative importance of passion in the genre (how would I go about selecting texts?, how many would I need to read?, how would I assess its importance objectively?, what about differing sub-genres?) and then I'd need to find out how representative Savage's ideas are (and unless someone's already written a book about this, I'm not sure I could).

That said, I think Savage's Skipping Towards Gomorrah could be very useful, so thanks for pointing me in his direction.