Even in gay romance, love does not always have to equal anal sex

WARNING:  What follows is a frank discussion about my views on the use of anal sex in the M/M genre.  If that sounds icky to you, don’t read it.

This came up when I was writing Billy’s Bones about a man who had repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse.  Since he had a history of sexual abuse, it would be ludicrous (and incredibly insensitive) for me to end with him and his lover having anal intercourse.  That is in fact something he might never feel comfortable doing, even if they remain a loving couple for the rest of their lives.

Yet this is a standard part of the M/M romance formula.  I’ve actually been criticized by readers for not always following this formula “correctly,” and it’s now become a pet peeve of mine.

The formula is basically this:  the couple meets and falls in love, often having various kinds of sex along the way—mutual masturbation, handjobs, blowjobs, 69s, etc.  And then comes the Big Moment, the moment where they truly share themselves with one another.  One man opens himself up to the other, allowing full anal penetration, and in the moment of orgasm, they are joined heart and soul and truly become one!

Yeah.  Right.

I’ve apparently violated this formula in two different ways.  The first was when I failed to get there fast enough.  I constructed a careful escalation of sexual experimentation that progressed through mutual masturbation next to one another (no touching) to masturbating each other t0 masturbating while kissing, etc.  I thought it was damned hot, but a reader dismissed it as, “It’s nothing but mutual masturbation!”

The next crime I committed (in the same story, in fact) was when their experience of anal intercourse occurred in front of other people, who offered them money to take it to the next level.  The characters agree and then discover that they really like it, forgetting about everybody in the room but each other.  This was apparently disgusting, because they would never agree to do something that intimate and emotional in front of other people!

Frankly I was shocked by both responses (from different people).  Mutual masturbation is my favorite sexual activity (Stop reading, Mom!) and even though I like anal sex, I’ve never liked it that much.  It’s just one of the many ways people can enjoy having sex with each other.  Given a choice, I think 69 is definitely the best way to go.  There’s a penis right there for me to play with, at the same time that someone’s playing with my penis!  It’s awesome!

As far as having sex in front of people…I had a housemate who was paid $500 to have sex with her boyfriend on camera.  She didn’t seem terribly traumatized by it.  I myself have had sex with a crowd of people watching.  (Shy?  Not me.)  Would I have been willing to try something new in front of that audience?  If it didn’t hurt, sure.  Why not?

Not all M/M novels are culminate with anal intercourse, of course.  But I’ve just read a couple more recently that promote this trope.  It didn’t ruin the novels for me, but I definitely find it irksome.

Somebody once suggested that the whole “anal sex is the ultimate form of love” thing is a holdover from straight romance novels, in which “going all the way” — i.e., full vaginal penetration — is reserved for special moments in the novel, such as the final love scene or even held off until after the novel, when our hero and heroine are safely married.  That’s not really the case anymore with straight romance, any more than it is with gay romance, but it seems to be embedded in the psyche of many readers.

The truth of the matter is, there’s nothing special about anal sex.  Yes, some people — both male and female — enjoy it.  Many even prefer it.  I’ve heard one gay man describe it as the sort of melding one reads about it M/M novels.  But for me?  No.  It was fun.  That’s it.  Angels didn’t sing.  Some of my previous boyfriends hated it, as do many gay men.  They thought it was filthy and disgusting.

Yes, that’s right:  a lot of gay men hate having anal intercourse.

Oh, yeah.  I said it.  We’re not all cookie-cutter robots who like the same things.  Go figure.

I do occasionally include anal sex in my novels, but not always.  It isn’t always appropriate.  Certainly it wouldn’t be appropriate in a novel about a rape survivor and frankly I think I would be offended by a plot in which his lover felt compelled to teach him “how to enjoy” anal sex, as if that was particularly “healing” and there were no alternatives they could engage in.  That possibility did cross my mind as I was contemplating how to end the novel and I immediately rejected it.

While I’m on the subject, I also recommend against including anal intercourse in YA novels.  Not because of the sex part.  I expect anyone writing a YA novel to hold back on explicit detail anyway, of course.  But in terms of what two teenagers would try on their first fumbling attempts at sex…?  It’s possible, but I would say they probably wouldn’t.  It’s kind of scary for young men who have never tried it before.  (I did in fact ask my first boyfriend to try it with me, when I was nineteen, because I was more adventuresome than he was.  It hurt; we stopped.)

So once again, I’m not necessarily saying everyone should stop using anal sex in M/M novels.  But I really think there’s a little too much emphasis on it, as if it represents the ultimate merging of souls for two men.  It can be that, just as any sexual act can be for two people who are in love.

But that’s just my point.  It doesn’t have to be anal sex.  There are other possibilities.

46 Comments

Filed under gay, Romance, Writing

46 responses to “Even in gay romance, love does not always have to equal anal sex

  1. *high fives* I always appreciate reading something (essay or fiction) where someone debunks the idea that “sex” must be defined as penetration. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Anal sex is only one of the commonplaces of M/M. Others annoy me more, like screaming out your lover’s name or seeing stars at the moment of orgasm. Or getting a hard-on when you see a cute guy in the street. Or beating off every time you’re in the shower. Or the tediously repeated one-two-three finger prep. Quite a few rape victims and men molested as children to enjoy receptive anal sex, but the idea that it “cured” them of the trauma is ludicrous. Also, anal sex does not necessarily involve penile penetration. Blowjob + 1-finger prostate massage is an awesome combo.

    • Yes, those annoy me too, as does the fragmented dialog that’s common in sex scenes. (A little is to be expected, but it often goes overboard.) I have in fact known some people who experienced molestation and/or rape and it made them hyper-sexual, rather than sex-avoidant. It’s one of the warning signs with children — if they start being too sexual with other children, sometimes it’s because they’ve been exposed to sexual situations too early at home. I’m certainly no expert. But I did try to represent the situation as complex. I have people reading it now to see if I did a decent job with it. As for anal sex not always involving a penis, I had a coworker who liked to tell me about his wife fingering him while they had sex. He figured, since I was gay, I’d understand why he loved it so much. 🙂

  3. I find nothing wrong with public sex – in the right venue. Ever been to a gay clothing-optional resort? We’re just 35 miles from one, and the very public things that go on in the room where porn films are running 24/7, or on the benches along the nature trails would amaze you. LL

    Come to think about it I had the main charcters in one of my books do just that.

    On the other hand, hasn’t the whole ‘repressed memory’ thing been pretty much exposed and discredited by mainstream psychiatry?

    • Yes, I have been to clothing optional resorts and some of them did get pretty sexual. I have no problem with it. I’ve also seen what goes on in the back of porn shops that have video booths. 🙂

      Repressed memories are definitely tricky. There were some court cases where it was later found that the memories had been unintentionally planted in the minds of the children testifying by the psychologist. I do bring that up in my novel. On the other hand, I have a relative who went through some very frightening repressed memory stuff that required a hypnotist and family members to piece together what had really happened. So I do believe it’s a real phenomenon.

  4. Hi Jamie, I’m really glad you chose to rant about this topic! I whole-heartedly agree. I write YA, and in my upcoming novel, the two main teenage characters have a brief (and awkward) discussion about this topic. The one doesn’t like the idea of anal sex and wonders if, because he is gay, he’ll be expected to do it. Anal sex is so prevalent (and seems deceptively clean/easy/pleasurable) in porn/movies/books, I imagine many people are disappointed by the reality of it.

    Obviously, there are many ways for two people to be intimate, and different people prefer different things. I can’t believe people complain about storylines that veer away from the “formula”. John Inman’s SHY, for example, is one of my favorite books that I read last year, and some of the reviews I’ve seen complained that there was too much oral sex in it. Give me a break!

    • Ha! 🙂 I went through that myself, when I came out. Do I really have to do this? Is this really the way I have to act? I went through a brief period of calling my boyfriend “Darling,” because that’s what they said in Gordon Merrick novels! Ugh. It so did not work for me.

      I remember a jock standing up at a presentation given by the LGBT group on campus at UNH. He’d just had a friend come out to him and he was cool with that. But the gay kid suddenly started acting effeminate and it was weirding this guy out. The person giving the presentation told him, “A lot of guys do that when they first come out, because that’s what they think gay men act like. Just give him time to figure out how he really wants to behave.”

      John’s book looks cute. I’ll have to check it out. 🙂

  5. Beautifully put. In our world there are a large number of gay men who don’t do anal, as you said. They spend a lot of time being extremely content with massages, hand jobs, blow jobs and cuddling. Although, I have nothing against anal sex, I personally think the world needs more cuddling.
    As a writer, I have also had people complain that some of my books don’t have sex, or the right kind of sex in them. If the story doesn’t need it, then don’t put it in. I still complain about a mystery I read one time that had a sex scene that nothing in that chapter did anything at all to advance the story, it was just a sex scene so the writer could say it was a gay book, it had a sex scene, so there. If a story doesn’t need sex, don’t put it in there. Stick to being true to your story…Now I need to go write a sex scene… 😉

    • The world definitely needs more cuddling. 🙂 I inserted a couple sex scenes into a story once, because I thought it was necessary to get it published. I’ve always regretted it, because they seem so obviously contrived.

  6. Thinking you have to act a certain way after you come out is common. In the seventies, most of the college-age kids I ran into seemed to think that in order to be gay they had to act as nellie as possible. I have no idea how they got that impression, but it was quite common back then.

    • I did try it. But I couldn’t pull it off. Probably for the best.

      • Sadly, we also learned during that era, that many of these kids couldn’t be trusted. They seemed to think that it was ‘fun’ or ‘cute’ to come visit you at your place of work and do the whole “girlfriend” routine. Not a good thing to have happen to you in the deep south of the early seventies. Or most anywhere today, for that matter.

        As a result, most of us learned to be really careful when we gave out personal details.

  7. I am so very happy to read this, because it’s something that more people (especially gay men) who write in the genre need to say. Sex does not need to include penetration to be good. (I can say this from personal experience, but don’t tell Mom. LOL.) Heck, the first M/M sex scene I wrote was a fanfic where the (young) couple opted for frottage over intercourse for their first time.

    A lot of people (men and women) love anal sex. A lot don’t. The same can be said for almost any sex act. It may be the “gold standard,” but many women find vaginal sex painful or even pointless. Don’t get me started on the unrealistic number of women in romance/erotica who have orgasms from vaginal intercourse alone. 😉

    Yes, yes, romance and erotica are fantasies, and so I don’t fault people for wanting characters to experience and enjoy everything possible. But it’s not unrealistic, wrong, or in any way “less” for characters to follow a different route.

  8. Good for you! I hate that I get told how people have sex. One book of mine was a letdown (or so I was told) because no one had anal sex… Well, *those* characters weren’t interested in it. Another book was wrong because the guys didn’t switch, and to be equal, guys have to switch. Um… really? I know guys who switch and guys who don’t, same with girls. Some people in the BDSM scene are pretty dang inflexible. Then another book is wrong because the guys do switch, and neither is manlike enough.

    I get so tired of this idea that there’s a right and a wrong. Hello!! I had a hell of a time coming out to my family because there are members of my family who still think that gay is wrong. Why are people so damn quick to create NEW right and wrong boxes?

    I wish I knew whether this was a holdover from straight sex or if straight people are the ones trying to make these boxes, but I’m pretty much going to ignore them. I’m so glad I’m not the only one out there getting crap. Of course, I’d be happier if no one got crap about this particular issue, but I don’t think that’s likely.

    • The crap I got was actually a relatively long time ago and I don’t really worry about it. But it serves to illustrate the point. There are no right and wrong ways to write sex scenes (well, I can think of SOME ways that might be wrong :-p ). I think you’re right — we should write about how THESE characters would have sex in THIS situation, rather than follow some kind of formula.

    • I’ve caught more than a bit of flak because in fully half of my eighteen books, there is no explicit sex. The characters talk about doing ‘it’ and they do ‘it’ a lot. However, we never follow them into the bedroom.

      Personally, I think what happens in those bedrooms is best left up to the imagination of the reader.

      IMHO

  9. Jamie, thank you for addressing this with. It makes me crazy that so many books treat anal sex as the definition of “real sex.” I’ve taken to writing everything but as a protest.

  10. Sarah_Madison

    Excellent post, Jamie! I was criticized once for writing a story in which two characters, new to the relationship, ‘only’ had a blow job as part of the major sex scene. I was rather taken aback by the criticism, to be honest.

    Sex isn’t an Olympic sport with judges and scores. Sex scenes should further the story, reveal something about the characters. Just as you said, it should be about how these specific characters act in the given situation. Sometimes fade to black is appropriate as well.

    I think it is going to take people continuing to write things as they think are right, and continuing to fight the tropes. After all, rape-turned-love was a common trope in traditional romance stories for a very long time–under the guise that no respectable unmarried woman would have sex otherwise.

  11. K. Z. Snow

    About time somebody pointed this out. Thanks, Jamie..

  12. Jana

    Excellent post, Jaime. One of the stories I’m working on right now does feature two young men who don’t particularly care for anal sex and I’ve gotten flak from the beta readers. I should point them to this post.

  13. Thanks for ranting about this, Jamie.
    I totally agree with you, but I too feel the pressure, and not just from “reviewers” (intentionally using quotes to reflect the opinionated readers as well as the (semi-)professional reviewers), but also from myself. It’s not easy getting past that idea that it’s not really sex unless someone sticks a penis into an ass (in M/M of course, it wouldn’t be a vagina, although it qualifies as well).On an intellectual level, I know, of course, but writing is emotional and doesn’t always allow itself to be dictated by reason.
    I now feel supported 😉

    • Oral sex also involves penetration.

      Most of my books feature anal sex. Not because it’s required, because I like it. A lot in the bedroom and sometimes in books. However, I never pretend it’s the be-all-end-all, the culmination of the relationship, and I don’t feel let down when I read a gay-themed book if there’s no anal sex. I take that back. Plenty of m/m without anal sex has left me feeling let down, but not because of the absence of anal. Hot sex scenes of kind could not have saved them. A good story well written would have helped immensely.

      Sex scenes are no different from every other scene in a book: They have to be there for a reason. That a book needs a sex scene is not a good enough reason. If a book can’t stand on its own without one means it’s not a good book. But sex can add depth to an already good book.

      In short, if a book sucks, no amount of sucking will make it better.

    • Zahra, I totally support you writing whatever is comfortable for you. I have a novel coming out soon in which the two MCs love anal sex and even have it while they’re discussing important issues between them. But that’s because it works for those two characters. The novel I just finished it totally the opposite and anal sex wouldn’t be at all appropriate.

  14. Awesome post, Jamie. 🙂
    I’ve thought about this for a long time and I’ve too come to the conclusion that it’s part of the straight romance thing from uh… forty years ago? More than that?
    Lately I’ve been marvelling at the amount of rimming in the new books I’ve read. I’ve figured it might come from the gay porn women watch? I mean, for someone who is sexually as open as I am, I get squeamish when some writer has characters just go at it (whatever it entails) after say, a hot day after working outside. Really?
    Another thing I’ve been wondering is, what if I actually wrote realistic anal sex. Like actually show what it can be like with the mess and whatnot, show the less romantic parts of it, would it ever make into a published book or would it all be edited out? Because let’s face it, it’s not all rainbows and unicorns and butterflies when it comes to erm, ass.
    Was it Anel who just said in the comments that the whole one-two-three of stretching annoys him? Yeah, annoys me too. I’ve actually had editors tell me I might want to show more than just mention that the prepping happened. Why? Haven’t we read that enough? Isn’t it common sense?
    Being newbie friendly and politically correct about everything does not good romance novel sex make, eh?

    • How about writing a scene about the guy who was “cleaning himself out” in the stall next to me at a gay bath once? Wouldn’t that be sexy? :-p (I was at the gay bath to use the bathroom, because my friend and I had gotten lost. I swear! 🙂 )

      I don’t see any reason to go into detail about the prep, if you don’t feel like it. You’re not writing a sex manual.

  15. Sam Kadence

    Agreed. I’m tired of the overuse of sex in m/m romance anyway. Isn’t it supposed to be about the couple? Frankly I get to most sex scenes and start skipping pages.

    And I am working on a YA novel where their big scene is mutual masturbation, and it’s only hinted at, not on screen. I’ve had betas tell me I’m cheating readers by not putting in the sex scenes. But I think if kids are reading it, they have a descent enough imagination to not need the descriptions. And if adults are reading it for sex they are reading the wrong damn book.

    I remember reading somewhere years ago in a GLBT magazine that less than 2% of gay men actually enjoy anal sex. That’s a very low margin in my opinion.

    • I remember when I was a teenager and a description of two guys looking at each other in the gym shower was enough to keep me going for days! Now things are a little different, but I’ve had conversations with a number of male teens who associate sexual explicitness with adult porn and just don’t feel comfortable with it in a story meant for teenagers.

      Is it really that low?

  16. Now, Jamie, i have it on good authority that ALL gay men love anal sex and want it CONSTANTLY – from everybody (but they especially like straight men who would never, ever participate in anal sex. Ever.) And certainly Mr. Falwell and Mr. Phelps know all there is to know about “the gay lifestyle!”

    Really, though, not only is it trite, it’s tedious to read.

  17. Great Post Jamie. There is so much more to relationships, especially ‘gay’ relationships than anal intercourse and I have to thank you for pointing out the stereotype. I wrote this type of intercourse into ‘Timber’ but even I hesitated to trade off the romance of the book . I mean, isn’t that, after all, the best part of sex? Foreplay, for me, the making out, the curious touches, whispered words, sighs, and all of that (sorry, I had to stop, was turning myself on LOL) is the best part of being with your lover. Sometimes hanging out around 2nd and 3rd base until you bring each other over the home plate, isn’t a bad thing and shouldn’t be criticized. If people want ‘anal’ sex that badly, either they need to go out and try it, or buy some gay porn.

  18. fefeeley412

    Great post Jamie. I think Anal sex, for these readers, unfortunately perpetuates a stereotype and I have to thank you for pointing that out. If that qualifies sex, if penetration must be involved, then what do they think about how Lesbian woman express their affections for each other?
    Intimacy, can be on any level. A glance, a whispered word, a kiss, and sure, lovemaking. Expressions of one’s desire toward another does not require intercourse. There is nothing wrong with hanging out around ‘third base’ if that is where both partners, and since characters are art imitating life, are comfortable.
    Should someone cry out in disappointment with the words “MORE ANAL” I would reply with either, “Try it yourself” or direct them to the nearest gay porn site

  19. Sue Brown

    I have a question here. You read these comments and the authors don’t want to be writing predictasex. So who is expecting us to write it? The readers? The publishers? Is this some sort of formula we’ve found ourselves trapped in?

    Gay sex/het sex – none of it should follow a pattern. Yes, you do see the same things over again, but is this by nature of the genre?

    I have to say I would be happy to never write another sex scene again. I want to write about my characters’ lives. Sex is fine but not the whole of the plot.

    • I think authors (and readers, and publishers) fall into all kinds of patterns/formulas all the time. We just hear more about it when it involves sex. (See also: women writing gay sex, virgins writing ANY sex, anyone writing BDSM.)

      The same acts and actions are going to crop up over and over simply because there’s a limit to the specific things you can do. The trick is, as you said, to make it not about the act but about the characters. A sex scene should be just as integral to the plot and character development in the story as any other scene. If it isn’t, then it needs to be revised until it is, or it needs to go.

      I love stories with graphic sex scenes when they fit the story. Sex is an intimate expression, and showing how characters approach it and react to it can tell you more about them than pages and pages of dialogue and exposition. But if a sex scene feels like it could be in any story, then I’m probably going to skim right over it (and wonder why the author or his/her editors didn’t fix the the problem before it got published).

    • I agree with ya’ll on this as well. Sex for me, is an extension and a physical representation of the way I feel about someone. Its a way to manifest intimacy, passion, etc. etc. I know that sounds PollyAnnish but so what? For me, For me, Romance, is so much sexier than sex. That angsty, love is hard on the knees, elevator going down too fast feeling in your gut when you see someone you care for, sweaty palms, word salad, and drop in I.Q level. That’s what melts my butter.
      Sue mentioned Predicta sex or formulations. Isn’t one of the downfalls of a relationship when sex becomes…routine, more of ….let me get my rocks off and roll over and snooze? So, with that in mind, there should be a certain level of intimacy between characters of different books? For instance, have you noticed that for different relationships your in “it” is a little different? The dynamics are always somewhat different? The sex is somewhat more ramped up or little more slowed down? Just a thought..

    • I gather that some publishers might have guidelines about what should or should not be included in sex scenes, but my publishers certainly don’t. And I don’t think readers get together and decide what must be included in a romance novel. But they have expectations based upon what they’ve read and liked before. So I think it’s ultimately up to authors to present good stories that show alternatives. There’s nothing wrong with stories that do include anal sex, and I’ve written stories that contain it too, but I think variety is good. From my point of view, the idea that all gay men are obsessed with anal sex is a stereotype and one I choose to push back against.

  20. charlaynedenney

    I totally agree with you on this, sometimes the story, and the characters have other ideas when you are working on a book. Not everything happens “HEA” the way the formulas say and that’s why we have different authors, different ideas. I get tired of reading stories that all follow a formula “girl meets boy, etc, etc, etc, happy ending.” Same when I’m reading M/M fiction, I want someone to surprise me, to not give me what I thought I wanted.

    I’m working on my first novel. I have three scenes in it (f/m). The first is consensual but ends badly. The second is “regular” with the whole fun/climax stuff. But the third is a rape, it isn’t happy, and in the end it changes the direction of each of the characters, some rather harshly. To make it another “happy” scene, to make it the formula where everyone gets an HEA would deny what has been going on with them since the beginning. Of course, I have two other novels outlined and the situation will, eventually, sort itself out, but it takes awhile. I figure I’m going to catch some serious flack about including a rape scene in a paranormal romance (and I’m not going to be graphic about it, that doesn’t have to be done) but to be true to the characters, I can’t give them the HEA in this one either.

    Stick to your guns. Do what you (and your characters) want to do to tell the story. Some will like it, others will hate it, but we would all look stupid wearing green socks; especially with sandals. (if you get my drift).

    • Rape and sexual abuse are always tricky to handle. After discussing the matter with another writer, I’ve decided I’ll probably have to at least include a warning at the beginning of my current novel, in case a scene like that might be a trigger for the reader. It may be necessary for the plot (and I think it is), but I don’t want to upset people who have suffered through these things in real life.

  21. “There’s a penis right there for me to play with, at the same time that someone’s playing with my penis! It’s awesome!”

    LOL!!

    Interesting to read about the flack you’ve received on your stories. I’m going to revise my huge novel (starting any day now…) and one of the things that I’ve worried about is, what if I leave out The Big A when such a big deal has been made out of one character’s fear/worry/curiosity (progressing through the story) about it? Kind of like a build-up with no payoff, in this case. I feel like they at least need to go through with it, even if it doesn’t end up in bliss. 🙂

    • I think you’re right. In this case, I’d say “Chekhov’s Gun” may apply. Chekhov insisted that, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” I don’t know your story, of course, but if your character is thinking about trying it throughout the story, then it probably would be best for him to try it at the end of the story. Maybe he’ll love it, or maybe it will be tragically comic and disastrous, but the readers will be expecting it.

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