I’m sitting next to Patrick* at a dive bar all the way across town from my cozy apartment and my cuddly dog. It smells like a mix of stale vomit and PBR. And I don’t believe Patrick at all when he says, “I just want to show you my sick condo. We don’t have to do anything.”
Even though my date hadn’t come off as creepy while we were messaging on Tinder, I had no reason to trust him because Patrick was extremely intoxicated. Also, his repeated suggestions that I go back to his place were still coming after I explained to him why I didn’t feel safe going home with a drunk stranger. The way he brushed off my concerns at the bar told me that he’d be trying to penetrate me moments after I crossed the threshold of his condo.
Patrick sulked as I finished my beer and called a Lyft.
My occupation is also a complicating factor when I’m dating. When men find out that I write romance novels, they usually assume that I am some oversexed man eater. I think they imagine me sitting at my desk, just waiting for dicks to suck.
Sadly, despite the fact that I write romance—where everyone who is having sex is enjoying themselves—my date with Patrick is typical of how my dating life has gone. Had I gone home with him, I would have had the same sort of sex that “Grace” detailed in the babe.net article about her encounter with Aziz Ansari or that Kristen Roupenian so poignantly depicted in “Cat Person.”
I know this because I’ve had that brand of icky, marginally consensual sex before, and I’ve been pondering the relationship between my life experience and the experiences in my books more and more frequently in past months. In this #MeToo era, women are becoming more open about sharing experiences that exemplify how our culture marginalizes the needs and wants of women. And it’s making people uncomfortable—including me.
Am I setting my readers up to have expectations that the men they date can’t or won’t meet?
The sex in my books has always been different from the sex in my personal experience, but it didn’t always bother me as much as it does now. By writing about sex that’s hot and fun and always welcome, am I setting my readers up to have expectations that the men they date can’t or won’t meet? In the course of thinking about how my work might affect people, I’ve been re-examining whether I can accept the status quo of troubling sex for myself.
Sean* and I met at a backyard party down the block from my apartment. I didn’t know many people there, just the hosts, but there was music, a bonfire, and boozy punch. We started out chatting and drinking. He made me laugh. By the end of the night, we’d stumbled back to my apartment.
Once we got inside, I realized that Sean was wasted. He tried to kiss me, missed a few times, and then took off all of his clothes as though that would improve his mouth’s aim. By the time he was naked, he had pushed my couch pushed askew and upended my rug. Had he been sober enough, would he have pushed me around with the force he used to rearrange my furniture? Regardless, in the moment, I was profoundly turned off by his drunken antics. But I let him into my bed and made out with him, hoping that he would fall asleep the entire time.
The next morning, Sean’s behavior was less charming than it had been at the party. In addition to making a mess of my apartment, he talked in an old-timey radio voice. Un-ironically. That was just how he talked. And I can tell you that nothing exacerbates a hangover or kills my lady boner more effectively than a man who smells of alcohol talking to me in an old-timey radio voice while trying to shove my T-shirt up and my underwear down. All while ignoring the fact that I’m telling him that I just want to go back to sleep.
Even years later, it makes me sad for my former self that I let Sean fuck me so that he would leave my apartment and I could take a nap. I’m not saying the sex wasn’t consensual, and I’m not saying that I couldn’t have said no. However, in that moment, it was much easier to just give him what he wanted—a hole to stick his dick into—than to tell him to get the fuck out of my apartment. Because, pretending to be asleep hadn’t worked. (Maybe he would have preferred to fuck me while I was asleep?) And, given that he’d shoved all my furniture out of place without a care, who was to say what he’d do to me had I refused? Sometimes fear is reason enough.
Writing about one-night stands in my books, I try to evoke a completely different experience—the best sex I’ve ever had, times ten. My One Night in South Beach series revolves around characters who try to have one-night stands, but end up with a happily ever after. The first book, Stroke of Midnight, features an overworked lawyer who meets a super-sexy veteran on New Year’s Eve at a club. Before she goes back to his hotel room with him, he makes sure she texts her sister to check in. (Because he has enough empathy to realize why she might feel unsafe and takes steps to make her feel safer.) And the hero actually fucks like a feminist. He realizes that his fun is tied up in his partner having fun, and he is all about her having a good time.
Stroke of Midnight was published a year ago, before the floodgates opened on revelations about sexual misconduct and abuse by powerful men. But even though times have changed, the message of my writing won’t.
Most of my lovers haven’t been as conscientious about my pleasure as my heroes are, but I don’t think that makes me a fraud.
On a subconscious level, I think I’ve always been concerned about consent in modern dating. Now that the full spectrum of sexual violence is at the center of a cultural conversation, I think my self-doubt about my work and how it relates to my life comes down to the fact that the sex that I depict in my books—hot, fun, and joyful sex—isn’t the problem. I’m not letting women down with too-high expectations. I’m showing what I wish we, myself included, had been demanding all along.
Hearing stories of women who’ve had bad sex, who have been harmed because they went home with a guy who didn’t treat them as fully human, has made me realize that I have to write more stories about good sex depicting what consent really looks like. Writing romance has given me the ability to contextualize my experiences—and recognize guys like Patrick and Sean for who they are. Instead of feeling guilty, I’m going to embrace the fact that my writing might be able to do the same for others.
No, most of my lovers haven’t been as conscientious about my pleasure as my heroes are, but I don’t think that makes me a fraud. In fact, all the bad sex I’ve had is precisely what qualifies me to write about good sex.
*Names have been changed.