What exactly is defined as ‘sex’ in a romance novel? ~ Outside the Margins with Susan Mac Nicol

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I had an interesting review on my latest release, Damaged Goods, recently. I posted about it on Facebook and was gratified to see the responses. This was the gist of my post.

In a review for Damaged Goods recently I saw this written by the reviewer –
‘here I am reading and reviewing a book with no sex. Go figure. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of sexy time, just not any penetrative acts…yet. But with young and oh so horny Jax, I doubt that will be much longer. Dare is just too chivalrous to do more at this point.’

This made me think. For me the word ‘sex’ denotes any kind of sexual intimacy, whether it be oral, frottage, mutual masturbation, or whatever else happens to get the participants off to feel as if they’ve had sex with someone else. I don’t see the penetrative act as being the sex in a story. I do understand though that to others perhaps it’s the penetrative aspect that counts as sex to them. There is no right or wrong answer obviously- everyone has an opinion and they are entitled to it, so there should be no criticism here about anyone’s expressed views. It did make me wonder what everyone else’s view of ‘sex’ as an act was though when reading a book. Care to share your thoughts?’


The reason this reviewer said this about the book is because in Damaged Goods, the one main character is Jax, a young, gay, visually impaired man of eighteen. He’s never had a relationship, yet is wanting to have one so badly. The man who becomes his boyfriend, Dare, is older than him and doesn’t want to be the man who pushes Jax into anything too soon. Jax himself isn’t particular keen on the act either. As a result, there is no penetrative sex in this book at all. Lots of other hot and sexy stuff, but no actual dick in arse action. My thoughts are outline above, and some of the comments I received were quite enlightening.

Here’s a few of the responses:

For me, if it involves genitalia and deriving pleasure from said genitalia, then it’s sex, penetration or not. Requiring penetration limits what sex is and can be between partners. I write m/m, and not all gay men enjoy anal sex, full stop, and I’ve written books where there is no penetrative anal sex. But they still have sex, it’s just done in other, equally satisfying ways.

Sex can be anything you want it to be that brings one or both parties (or all parties if that’s what you’re into) to orgasm.

To me, sex has always been penetration. It’s something I think I was brought up believing. Everything else kind of has its own category/label

Usually when someone says no ‘sex’, they mean sex-sex. Yes, foreplay, oral, and frotting is sex, (the reader/reviewer know that too), but those others sex acts have their own words too. Sex (penetration) only has the one word> SEX. So if there is none, you say: ‘there was no sex’.

So many people seem to equate penetration with sex. Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t in part because of the mind-set of “well, if he didn’t penetrate me, I must still be a virgin.” I like writing about BJs, frottage, docking, and more. It’s frustrating to hear that one of my stories ‘didn’t have much sex’ in it because there were few penetration scenes.


I thought it was a worthwhile topic mentioning here so I can ask people out there what they think about the whole debate? It certainly sparked off some reactions, all good of course.


~Susan Mac Nicol


Title: Love You Senseless (Book 1 Men of London)
Author: Susan Mac Nicol
Publisher: Boroughs Publishing
Publication Date: 10/09/2014
Cover Artist: Chris Keeslar-Boroughs
Genre: Gay Romance


An award-winning chef with his own restaurant and an inexhaustible passion, Gideon Kent once had everything. Then came tragedy. It stole more than Gideon’s home. He hasn’t cooked since.

Until Eddie Tripp. Fun-loving and vivacious, the Norfolk redhead’s a real up-and-comer in Gideon’s kitchen—and other places. Slim where Gideon’s broad, easy-going where Gideon is growly, he and Gideon seem polar opposites, and yet Eddie conjures flavors that would tempt anyone with a taste for perfection. The sauce of love is already simmering, and this pair is about to dine on the most delicious dish they’ve ever prepared. Because Eddie’s been Gideon’s missing ingredient all along.


Love You Senseless (Book 1 Men of London) on Goodreads
Boroughs Publishing
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA

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3 thoughts on “What exactly is defined as ‘sex’ in a romance novel? ~ Outside the Margins with Susan Mac Nicol

  1. I personally consider sex to be any intimate act where one or both (or all) of the participants intentionally orgasm. Penetration of any sort is nice if it’s there, but it’s not a reading requirement for me.

  2. I agree with you that sex does not equate penetration. I kind of feel that idea (penetration = sex) reinforces that old idea that sex is for procreation only. Also, not all men (or women) derive pleasure from being penetrated, but might from other sexual acts. In a story, I would rather the sex part be true to the characters and the story arc, such as with your example in the post.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. First of all, let me start by thanking you for writing a m/m romance story without full anal intercourse. As others have said, there are plenty of men out there who love each other fully with little or no anal sex, so it’s nice to see that reflected in the genre at least once in a while.

    Let me add that while I enjoy reading male/male romance, I understand the genre is not written by or for me, and that writers should write what their inspiration tells them, and readers should read what they enjoy. I am also not trying to be hyper-critical, nor cast aspersions on the entire genre. Clearly there are excellent and caring writers and readers, and I think I will continue to enjoy the range in the genre from moving, supportive and meaningful stories to simply hot ones.

    That being said, your post finally made me rethink my reaction to how sex is portrayed in the genre and finally let me understand the critique of the genre that it “fetishizes” gay men. I never bought into that critique before, and I don’t think understanding it better will stop me from continuing to enjoy the genre, but now I get where those critics are coming from.

    If one combines the fact that some don’t consider anything but intercourse to be sex with the fact that most (almost all?) m/m romance writing doesn’t seem to consider a sexual relationship to be complete/fulfilled/entirely consummated until there is anal sex, the fetish argument begins to hold water for me. If one is basically putting a heteronormative template onto the physical relationship, and simply making it two men instead of a man and a woman to make it “hotter,” that is fetishizing to me. I never thought I would buy into that argument, but now I at least understand it.

    Thank you again for helping reflect part of the reality that m/m physical love is often not about full-on anal intercourse. Overall I have found the community of (mostly straight?) women writing and reading about queer male love has yielded a environment and genre that is supportive and fulfilling and hot all at the same time. I do hope and think that many/most readers like at least a little reality and education along with the sometimes “fetishistic” heat.

    Details of my reaction: https://locolibros.wordpress.com/2016/06/11/fetishizing-queer-men-in-mm-romance/

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