It’s cold out. So let’s talk hot.

Specifically, sexual tension and arousal hot. The kind of romances where the sexual tension builds and builds to the point where if the heroine and hero don’t get naked you’ll probably combust from reading the pages. The kind where the tension is sustained and elevated in realistic fashion so that there are no dumb reasons for them Not to Do It, but real and frustrating obstacles that prolong the tension, delay the gratification and make the final combustion quite an explosive event.

 

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It is no secret that romances contain sensuality. Some contain kisses, others contain extended scenes where characters get to second or even third base, and still others contain scenes that are so explicit and acrobatic, you can’t believe it’s not butter—or that butter wasn’t somehow involved in the making of those scenes. 

Romances are about intimacy, and sexuality is part of intimacy. Ergo, many romances contain exceptionally sexy scenes. Among the most popular subgenres of romance right now are those that contain explicit sex, and wherein the plot hinges (ha) on the desire of the protagonists to bring in the noise and the funk and possibly some toys and accessories as soon as possible. These are known as erotic romances. They are, to put it bluntly, hot—both in sales and in content. 

Crucial to the erotic content is the sexual tension between the protagonists, and I think that excellent sexual tension is often much, much more powerful and erotic than the actual sexual depiction itself. In some books, the reasons for not doing it are as flimsy as the heroine’s ability to keep her undergarments dry. It’s like the sexual equivalent of a last-minute misunderstanding, or the surprise secret twin, or the heretofore unknown jealous ex-girlfriend showing up at the last minute, only in erotic romance, it’s a “Wait, another reason We Can’t Do It?” obstacle that really cannot be believed. Sustaining the tension at the plot’s expense is just as bad as forgoing the plot so the main characters can get it on once more with feeling.

The popularity of erotic romance doesn’t show any signs of diminishing either. Among the most popular types of erotic romance is the ménage, where there’s more than two—and possibly a baker’s dozen—of individuals in the bed, the shower, the barn and/or the living room. Usually ménage romances focus on three people—and a happy ending is established for all. It’s a tricky balance, both of physics and emotional power. Plus, the additional tension of a whole other person with a full set of body parts to choreograph makes for a lot of narrative creativity, and the accompanying emotions can amplify the tension and suspense. But not every ménage I’ve read has come across as hot and steamy—some are painful, particularly if one of the parties involved in the ménage (or the quartet or sextet—hey, why isn’t sextet ménage more popular? It’s a name MADE for erotica!) is doing so out of debt to one of the others.

I like ménages when they are emotionally balanced—and when the sexuality is as important as the emotional satisfaction of the characters. If it’s a source of sorrow or rage, or hurt or pain for one of the people participating, it takes any turn-on potential right out. Balance is everything. Whereas a third party used to be a catalyst for destruction or enhancement of a relationship, in ménage romances, the third is an equal party in the love, affection and sexual desires of the first two. I have no problems wrapping my fiction-loving brain around polyamorous happy endings with three parties living in connubial and co-nookial bliss forever and ever. There are some cases in romance where more is most definitely merrier.

Curious about erotic ménage romance? I can recommend some excellent ones, but be aware these titles are extremely explicit and acrobatic. I also queried folks on Twitter and have included their recommendations, too: 

Long, Hard Ride and Rough, Raw and Ready by Lorelei James (Samhain Publishing, 2008; 2009)

Second Chances by Lauren Dane (available in digital form from Carina Press, 2010)

Strange Attractions by Emma Holly (Berkley, 2005)

Undercover by Lauren Dane (Berkley, 2008) (This book was recommended by so many people in less than four minutes on Twitter that I had to download a sample.)

Songbird (2009) and Stay With Me (2008) by Maya Banks, which appear in the anthology Linger (Samhain Publishing, 2010)

Tempted by Megan Hart (Harlequin Spice, 2008)

Menage by Emma Holly (Black Lace, 2001)

 

Sarah Wendell is the co-creator, editor and mastermind of the popular romance blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.