Recently, I purchased a box of Harlequin romance novels from a flea market. One in particular, a book called The Sacrifice by Mary Hollins, written in 1969, comes to mind as a perfect example of what a writer could do with a story when explicit sex scenes were not an acceptable part of a mainstream romance novel. Sherry is in love with Tim, who fails to notice her, despite all the sacrifices she makes to prove her love to him. Eventually, she is forced to give him up and move on with her life. She gets involved with another man, Alistair, an aspiring artist that Sherry doesn’t love but feels obliged to take care of.
Though there are some plot twists a tad too convenient for the taste of more sophisticated readers, the story holds together remarkably well, despite its lack of sex. A few kisses are exchanged. That is it. And they are so well-timed that they have the same impact as sex scenes. Perhaps more so, because they come at almost no cost to the characters.
To keep readers—well—reading, you have to supply them with the hills and valleys of a budding romance. In the old days, these consisted largely if not entirely of misunderstandings that weren’t (completely) cleared up until the end of the story.
Sherry believes the man she loves impregnated her rival. The man she loves suspects he may have, though, as it turns out, the rival is pregnant from another man and it is unlikely our hero even had sex with her. He was hopelessly drunk and without any memory of the event. (This plot device is still hale and hearty in today’s romance stories).
We don’t see Tim’s mischief with the rival. There may not be any mischief to see. All of that happens off-screen. Today’s writer might be tempted to show it, because showing is better than telling. Ah—not in this case. Our sympathy should be with the long-suffering heroine. To achieve this, it is necessary for us to believe Tim is arse enough to put himself in a situation that deprives him of Sherry’s love. When we find out later that he was himself a victim, all will be forgiven and forgotten.
Sherry’s relationship with Alistair is platonic. They live together, for reasons too tedious to explain, but they live as brother and sister. Alistair is a good guy, who wants to marry Sherry. By constant importunity, he manages to wrangle a promise of marriage from her. Then Tim comes back into her life and Sherry has to decide between following her heart or keeping her promise.
This story only works because of its LACK of sex. Sherry’s feelings are simon-pure. She is a virgin. At least, we assume so, since she has loved Tim all her life—and ONLY Tim. She has become involved with another man, at least on a social level, who is pressing her to marry him, but she has been true to her first love. Emotionally, mentally, and physically.
Today’s romance writer might have been tempted to bed Sherry with Tim, straightaway, then create some silly misunderstanding that separates them. Then today’s romance writer might have been tempted to bed Sherry with Alistair, or at least made Tim think she had, to amp up tension between the parties. That would have been a horrible mistake. And here’s why—
A little thing called sanction patterns.
Sanction patterns are social norms.
A community forms. That community has certain preconceived notions of what is acceptable. These are not ideals, though they may initially be based upon them. Sanction patterns change over time. What was once considered objectionable may become acceptable. Or, at the very least, tolerated by the community. Bearing a child out of wedlock, marrying a person of the same sex, etc.
Any time your character deviates from a social norm, you risk losing your reader’s sympathy. I do not mean to imply you shouldn’t take that risk. Anything but. I point this out to make you aware of it.
If Sherry loves Tim, it may be okay for Sherry to live with Tim, even to sleep with Tim, in your story, but what will readers think of Sherry if she sleeps with Alistair, whom she doesn’t love? That will depend largely on Sherry’s reasons for sleeping with Alistair. If she is doing it to forget Tim, your readers might let her slide, but if she is doing it to hurt Tim, your readers may lose all sympathy with Sherry.
Why? Because GOOD girls don’t sleep with men they don’t love. If you do, you fall into that class of persons who treat sex as a commodity. Viz, prostitutes.
Occasionally, you will see a modern story that disregards this sanction pattern. The manwhore or the no-strings-attached career girl who only wants a good time. But the story usually ends with them falling in love. That’s because we believe, as a society, that true happiness (or contentment) can only be obtained if we find that one special person to love and cherish for the remainder of our lives.
Sherry has settled on Tim as her choice of life partner. Some obstacles stand in her way, but in the end she gets her man. The reader is satisfied, largely, if not totally, because Sherry’s desire for Tim is not gratified until the end of the novel (and presumably in the safe haven of wedlock).
It may be old-fashioned, but it works.by