Sex scenes were a major barrier to entry when I was first getting into romance novels. I’d been bamboozled by a mindset, common among English majors, wherein fictional sex and any non-contemptuous perspective on embodiment were well beneath the notice of the serious reader. In fairness to my younger self, the tenor of the sex scenes historically allowable by the literary establishment is grim, my friends. It’s all abjection and solipsism and mortification and derision; it’s all ableism and sizeism and misogyny and discrimination. Sex scenes in literary fiction are often designed to highlight the risibility of living inside a flesh prison (as compared with the lofty and un-embodied life of the mind), and one major litmag invented an entire award whose explicit purpose was to shame authors out of ever writing sex scenes at all. Exceptions to this rule exist to the precise extent that folks of marginalized identities, particularly queer writers, have been able to carve out space for themselves as writers and decision-makers within the genre and the book industry.
Sex scenes in romance novels aren’t some magical utopia where all the euphemisms are on point and every type of body finds acceptance. But they are a rebuke to the idea of bodies as flesh prisons, and at their best they are a truly joyful celebration of the liberatory potential of embodiment and pleasure.
Writing duo Kit Rocha recently released the third and final book in their Mercenary Librarians series, Dance With the Devil, which follows a group of genetically enhanced women fighting to save their community in a post-apocalyptic America. Nina was engineered to be a supersoldier defending the all-powerful TechCorps; she was the fighter in her clone set of three (her two sisters, a tactician and an empath, are long lost to her). Maya’s brain was altered to give her perfect recall as a data courier, keeper of the company’s secrets, which makes her a high priority for the company to recover now that she’s living a life free of them. Finally, Dani was genetically enhanced and mentally modified to make her the perfect bodyguard-cum-assassin as part of the Executive Security team for TechCorps. Now free from the company, the three women have scraped together a community of mutual aid, protection, and care. All they have to do is hold onto it.
Enter the Silver Devils, a squad of TechCorps supersoldiers who have gone rogue from their handlers. Like our heroines, they have been genetically modified to suit the purposes of the company that employs and owns them. Like our heroines, they are hot and competent: Knox, their leader; Gray, the sniper; tactician Rafe; plus a tech guy you don’t have to worry about because he is not getting his own book (at least not right now).
It’s become a truism that trauma lives in the body, but for Nina’s and Knox’s crew, that’s literally true. Each of them has been subject to experimentation, torture, modification, and control, and they are all grappling with what that means about who they are and who they can be. Building community offers one path out of their traumatic history; sex and romance another. Just before Nina and Knox have sex for the first time—Knox fully aware that he plans to double-cross Nina’s team in order to protect his own—Nina says this:
Don’t you ever get sick of being the steady one? The one who’s never allowed to fuck up? Don’t you ever get tired?
Both of them are devoted leaders of their crews, both aching with guilt and regret over the people in their lives they haven’t been able to save from the evil powers that tried so hard to break their bodies and minds. In each other’s arms, though, they’re able to set down all of those things. When Knox mentions that he typically has to hold back during sex, to avoid doing damage to ordinary mortals with his super strength, Nina reminds him, “It’s not so easy to hurt me,” giving them both permission to enjoy the full experience of sex.
Nina and Knox each come to realize that they can want something–or someone–for themselves without that want becoming a liability. Instead it’s a strength: When they’re forced into a show-fight where one of their lives is (supposed to be) forfeit, and their physical intimacy gives them the edge they need. “He felt every move she was going to make before she made it, as in tune with her now as he’d ever been in bed,” Knox reflects, just before he and Nina sent a silent signal to their teams to attack the bad guys in a climactic showdown. Their mutual trust and familiarity is exactly what makes it possible for them to keep leading their teams.
The Devil You Know’s Maya does not have Nina’s responsibilities. Instead, she’s grappling with a mind that’s been altered to give her perfect recall, which comes with a side of sensory processing issues. She’s never had sex, in part because she hasn’t made it a priority, but in part because she doesn’t know how to experience the sensory pleasure of sex without becoming overloaded. On top of that, the last man who cared about her was tortured to death in front of her, as a means of making her comply. It’s not exactly a recipe for satisfactory boning. Despite the ticking clock counting down the days until his untimely demise, Gray is willing to wait as long as it takes for Maya to feel comfortable.
Her relationship with Gray isn’t exclusively, or even primarily, about sex. Their shared scenes often take place in the training room, as Gray teaches Maya to use her super senses to defend herself. For most of her life, her genetic modifications have made her vulnerable, but under Gray’s tutelage, she begins to see how she can reclaim her body and mind and use them for her own purposes. When they do the deed, Maya is cognizant of every one of her senses—smelling “a hint of pine” from dish soap, “the salty taste” and “shock[ing] heat” of his skin, the memory of music they danced to, “the low bass throbbing through her,” and “the abrasion from the hair on his chest.”
“Is it supposed to feel this good?” she asks him, experiencing for the first time the potential pleasure of her heightened senses, rather than simply being aware of how they limit her. Sexual desire, and ultimately its consummation, gives Maya the entry point she needs to stop fighting against her heightened senses and eidetic memory, and instead to turn them to her advantage. Ultimately, when Maya and Gray are captured by TechCorps and their lives are on the line, it’s their time together (in the training room and the bedroom!) that makes Maya capable of defeating the bad guys and getting them both free.
By contrast, Dance with the Devil’s Dani is accustomed to fast, exciting, one-night-only sex. If it hurts, it doesn’t even matter because her TechCorps training has inured her against feeling pain. The only reason she hasn’t boned Rafe already is that their lives are so entangled that she fears what will happen in the fall-out if things don’t work out between them. It’s part and parcel of the years she’s spent thinking of her body as a weapon, finely honed to do as much damage as possible in the shortest amount of time. Rafe discovers that, despite and because of Dani’s history of speed and immunity to pain, she’s hungry for tenderness.
He licked the tips of her fingers, savoring the way she shuddered as he let his teeth scrape over her index finger. Soft touches, that was the key to Dani. Her body had built defenses against pain, but she melted under the gentlest graze of teeth or a fingernail tracing over skin.
During her time in Executive Security, Dani was required to put herself in the line of fire to protect her clients. Though she left that life behind long ago, she retains the instincts of protecting the people she’s responsible to and for, to the point of risking herself unnecessarily rather than accepting help. Her time with Rafe reminds her that the world offers different, lovelier, more expansive options than those TechCorps had in mind when they designed, altered, and abused her body. They can choose tenderness. They can choose hope.
In Rocha’s dystopian world, our characters’ bodies have been put to use by—in Nina’s case, specifically created for—the wealthy and powerful. This extreme of instrumentalization is the logical endgame of a system that puts the bodies of marginalized people in service to upholding inequality (unsafe labor conditions to maximize profits; deliberate, unregulated pollution of Black communities; restrictions on reproductive freedom; I could literally go on forever).
Rocha’s characters have spent much of their lives defined by TechCorps’s plans for them, yet they insist on carving out a liberated space within which they are free to use their bodies exactly as they want to: lots of violent revenge and lots of fun sex. Sex allows them to step outside of the purposes for which the bad guys designed, created, and modified them. Romance novels remind us that we don’t have to accept a grim vision of mind-body dualism where minds are for power and bodies for subjection. Bodies are not another person’s possessions; they are our selves.