By which I mean, let’s ramble discursively about the problematically different weights that our culture attaches to different forms of sexual activity and how it relates some of the choices made in the structure of How to Blow It with a Billionaire.
I will confess, one of the many things I felt slightly apprehensive about when I turned in the manuscript for Blow was that its emotional climax takes place in a scene where the only sexual contact is a handjob. The thing about writing is that it’s very much an exercise in navigating expectations, and I’m pretty sure one of the usual expectations is that your payoff is going to involve a bit more than a guy touching another guy’s dick for a bit. But stay with me. I think I knew what I was doing. I mean, I hope I did. Oh dear.
Romance, at its core, is built on emotional escalation. The characters start the story with one relationship to each other (they’re friends, they’re rivals, they’re strangers, they’re in an arranged marriage etc.) and end the story with a deeper, more intimate relationship, which is usually some variation on “they are in love and together.” And this is all well and good, and perfectly reasonable, but it brings you inevitably to the question of how you demonstrate that progression. Thankfully there are lots of answers: they can fight zombies together, or support each other’s dreams, they can share things like confidences and vulnerabilities or jokes or experiences, and they can save each other from loneliness or assassins or their own worst impulses. Also, if they are characters inclined to express intimacy that way, they can bang.
The problem with this is that it often (implicitly or explicitly) conflates certain patterns of sexual behaviour with escalating emotional intimacy. At the risk of over-simplifying it’s essentially like the “bases” that TV and 80s movies have taught me are the universally understood way of discussing sexual matters amongst American teenagers. In the sense you have kissing at the beginning, penetrative sex at the end, and a couple of hazily defined interim stages in the middle. And, obviously there are variations from subgenre-to-subgenre, like some romances borrow the prostitutes-don’t-kiss-on-the-mouth trope that, for what it’s worth, was completely made up for Pretty Woman and bears no relation to actual sex work, in which case the kissing goes at the end. And if the book has kinky elements then you tend to escalate the kink throughout the book and end either on the kinkiest scene that ever kinked or the one vanilla sex scene to show that the protagonists’ relationship has progressed to the point that they “don’t need that stuff any more”. And I’m absolutely not saying that all books are like this, or that being like this wrong, and in fact I’ve already articulated at least two or three variations on this structure that are widely used in different contexts. But I do think that there’s a general tendency to treat, say, manual stimulation as less intimate than oral sex which is less intimate than penetrative sex, which then becomes the bottom wrung of an adventurousness scale which is itself seen as either identical with or antithetical to intimacy, and rarely as separate from it.
To put it another less verbose way: there’s a sort of a broad consensus, in both life and fiction, that some types of sex are more valid than others. And it’s this, in particular, that I find troubling. I strongly believe that sex, especially fictional sex, is context. I don’t see the value or power or emotional impact of a sex scene as coming from what bits of whose body intersect with what bits of who else’s body, as much as from who the characters are and what they’re expressing to each other. And, for me, the (and, again, I really need to find a better word for this) climactic sex scene in a book isn’t the one where the characters have the best “type” of sex (be that the kinkiest sex, the sex that’s closest to traditional PIV sex, or the one where you kiss the prostitute on the mouth), it’s the one where the characters are most able to express what they need to express and to receive what their partner is expressing. For example, the lemon meringue scene in For Real is the most unabashedly kinky scene in the book, but it’s not really the emotional climax because even though Laurie and Toby are very in synch sexually there are still aspects of their relationship that haven’t been resolved on an emotional level. Toby has just lost his grandfather and is very uncertain about his future, and Laurie has consistently attempted to limit their intimacy to the sexual rather than the emotional. In that scene, they go further sexually than they have done previously, but Laurie has still not given Toby the emotional support and reassurance he needs. To me, the actual emotional-sexual climax of the book is a somewhat “tamer” scene later on, where the characters have finally reached a point where their understanding of each other’s emotional needs matches their sexual compatibility.
The scene in How to Blow It with a Billionaire in which Arden gives Caspian a handjob (you do remember this is about a handjob, right?) represents a brief moment when Arden is able to clearly signal both his love for Caspian and his willingness to respect Caspian’s boundaries, and Caspian is able to understand and accept that. And I was aware when I was writing that scene that the expectation would normally be that those kinds of signals should be sent through an act of penetrative sex, usually one in which the character who is expressing vulnerability takes the receptive role. I very much didn’t want to write the scene in that way because, honestly, I find all of those assumptions really difficult to deal with. I’m very keen not to reinforce the notion that particular sex acts are tied to particular emotional states or that people who have been hurt are obliged to overcome those hurts in a way that allows their sex life to conform to some socially mandated template of normality.
I appreciate that I’ve spent a lot of this post saying that things trouble me but I am, well, troubled by the tendency (in life as well as in fiction) to assume that the only healthy response to a traumatic experience is to live your life as if that experience had never happened. This is especially true in the sexual arena where it’s often taken as axiomatic that if your experiences prevent you from being okay with a particular kind of activity you owe it to yourself and your partner to become okay with that activity. Whereas I’d far rather tell people that they can lead full and happy and satisfied lives having the kind of sex that works for them, whatever that sex happens to look like.
The truth is that sex, like love, is diverse and complicated and can be many different things to many different people. And we do it, and ourselves, a disservice when we insist it has to be the same for everybody. And that’s why that scene’s a handjob. Because there are times when wanking someone off can be more meaningful, more intimate, and more special than doing them up the bum.
To celebrate the release of How to Blow It with a Billionaire, Alexis is giving away, to a random commenter, one e-copy of the book where it all began for Arden & Caspian, How to Bang a Billionaire. Giveaway runs from 12th Dec – 17th Dec and is open internationally :)
Alexis Hall is a full-time heel, a part-time book fairy, a some time blogger of Hugh Grant movies, and a many times Instagrammer of pictures of the world’s most malevolent duck. He also likes to write kissing books.