Cassie Willnauer, LCPC, NCC
How Reading Romance Can Improve Your Sex Life
As a therapist who helps people work through issues in their sex lives I’m a huge proponent of reading romance. This is in direct contrast to the book snobbery I engaged in during my youth which was fueled wildly by my obsession with Gilmore Girls (but that’s a story for another time). So, anyway, I used to hate romance novels. They felt unrealistic and silly and foolish and they all seemed to be the exact same thing over and over again. Often the writing wasn’t very good and I’d find major plot holes or things that just didn’t make sense for the characters that drove me crazy.
Here’s the deal though, some of that is still true, but I fully endorse the idea of reading them.
There’s something for everyone in the romance genre. If you’re looking for something incredibly spicy to reignite your sexuality or you want something that’s a little sweeter to rekindle your desire for love and affection with a long term partner–you can find it in this genre. Reading a couple books won’t suddenly change the foundational parts of yourself, but it can help you to shift your perspective on sexuality and push you to develop a new understanding of your own sexuality that aligns with your core values.
Improving Sexual Satisfaction - The Emotional
The phrase “we are what we repeatedly do” comes to mind when thinking about the role reading romance can play in your life. If you’re trying to find a way to prioritize your sex life and sexuality, reading romance is a great way to get you there. The more you read sexy smutty books, the more you’ll be thinking about sex. You might even read one where the affection or emotional connection between the two love interests feels so powerful it rekindles your desire for your partner emotionally as well as sexually.
Something I tell clients all the time who are struggling with feeling connected and wanted by their partners is to think about the beginning of the relationship and identify what was different then. Did your partner willingly engage in your hobbies despite uncertainty or even not liking those activities themselves? Did you engage in theirs? Did you take more pictures together? Did you spend more time just talking about bigger life goals and aspirations? Did you listen with curiosity when your partner talked about their childhood? Did you share more stories about your childhood with them?
My clients most often report that sex was the best in their relationship in the beginning. Obviously some of this can be explained by the brain chemistry involved in the limerence phase of relationships, however, some of it comes down to the fact that we’re usually our best selves when we’re in a new relationship. We’re being the person we want to be. Then once we settle into those relationships a lot of our old habits surface and the excitement of the new relationship wears off and before we know it, we aren’t putting as much into the relationship as we once did.
Sometimes reading a romance novel that really speaks to you can remind you what that new relationship excitement feels like and it can make you want to create that feeling in your own relationship. Sometimes this is done through rekindling your sex life, but it can also be done by considering all the ways you can show up as your best self for you partner as well.
Improving Sexual Satisfaction - The Physical
Reading romance doesn’t just get you thinking about sex more often, it allows you experience arousal more often and with varying levels of intensity. Often I’ll hear from clients that they feel disengaged from their genitals. Some compare the sensations they get from sexual touch to the sensation you might get from someone touching your elbow or you knee. Obviously, that’s not exactly what we’re hoping to feel when we’re having sex.
There are a lot of different factors that might contribute to a feeling of disconnection with sexual sensation. A huge factor can be medications. Often people are not made aware of the potential sexual side effects of the medications they're prescribed. This is more true for women than men, because, patriarchy, of course. If medications aren’t the issue other factors might be sexual shame, a history of assault or abuse, or a lack of emotional or physical safety in your current relationship. There are countless reason why you might struggle to experience arousal or the full spectrum of sensations that contribute to sexual pleasure, but there are also lots of ways to combat this. Reading romance can help increase your ability to recognize sexual arousal when it happens and hopefully get more comfortable with the experience.
People with clitorises tend to experience arousal differently than those with penises. Most people with penises need to have a desire for the kind of material they are viewing. It has to be something they can imagine themselves into and also want. For most vulva owners, just about any sexually related stimuli will elicit a physical arousal response. This means that you might get aroused by something that you’re also completely disgusted by. You might also experience arousal at things that are sexually related, but you yourself with your own anatomy cannot replicate. This is why so many women watch gay male porn. We aren’t imagining ourselves into it, we just think it’s hot and it does the trick for getting us going.
So, if you read some romance, you’re going to get some ideas about what you might like to try, what just turns you on to think about, and what turns you on inexplicably because you also find it entirely unappealing. Either way, you’re going to experience arousal which can be a way to get your head in the game for partnered (or solo!) sex before you even get to the bedroom. This can increase sexual satisfaction because it’s like fore-foreplay. You’re already aroused before you’re naked and vulnerable so it’s easier to let go and enjoy the sensations without your nervous rational side taking over and making you self-conscious.
I think we all know that representation matters. We’ve come a long way in the past decade towards representing greater diversity in all forms of media, but books are still leading the way on this front.
If you’ve ever felt like you weren’t the right kind of woman to be a main character–if your appearance, body image, etc ever kept you from feeling like you deserved love and sex and pleasure and attention, then let me tell you–romance novels are you friend.
Romance novels are authored by a myriad of diverse people and contain characters that look and think like you do. That’s powerful stuff when it comes to learning acceptance and increasing your ability to receive and advocate for your own pleasure sexually.
If you’re a person who typically doesn’t see themselves as worthy of sex or sexual pleasure, get curious about where that idea came from. Did you grow up religious? Did you spend a lot of time believing all the media that ever told you women are meant to be pretty and kind and tend to the needs of others? Do you tell yourself you’re not allowed to be sexual, but everyone else can and should be if they desire it? Why are you the exception? Do some of this soul searching, then go read some romance for a fun outlet so you can start restructuring your expectations and beliefs about your sexuality in a way that actually suits the life you want for yourself.
When we think about books being ahead of that game on representation, they’re also ahead of the game on depicting shifting cultural attitudes and expectations more generally. I see this over and over again in romance novels in two ways: the first is how feminism shows up on the pages and the second is how issues of consent are depicted.
Feminism shows up in issues as simple as showing women who are outspoken, women who have no desire for children, and women who reject the common beauty standards of our culture. Think of it like this: if you hate the process and social imperative of body hair removal, but also still harbor some fear that you aren’t sexually worthy if you don’t shave your pits, bits, and legs then seeing characters with body hair get all the sex and love and attention can really be empowering.
Consent is a complicated topic even for people in committed safe relationships. My clients will often say they want more passion and more spontaneity and more variety. Then their partners will respond that they’re trying to be respectful and not seem pushy about sex. This is another of those issues that might seem incongruent with our core values. We want to be “ravished”, but we also want bodily autonomy and consent and equality. This is why it’s so important to talk about sex more often outside of the bedroom. You need to be clear about desires, expectations, and boundaries so that once you’re in the heat of the moment, you can both feel safe and trusting enough that you're not going to harm one another emotionally due to a misunderstanding. Even so, small moments of consent seeking are important during the act itself. It's unlikely that you mapped out every single part of the activity and even if you did, things will come up. Maybe you get a cramp and need to switch positions? That's a great opportunity to communicate with your partner and seek consent.
Romance novels offer excellent examples of ways that partners seek consent from one another without losing even a degree of heat between the characters. This can help you realize ways that you want your partner(s) to seek consent from you before and during sex in order to increase trust and intimacy between you.
Learning What You Want
Once you fully commit to reading romance and you’ve accepted that you’ll be reading some sex scenes, you’re making the commitment to stop avoiding sex and your sexuality! Congratulations! But here’s the thing–it’s low stakes! You’re doing this on your own, by yourself. Only you, your librarian and/or Amazon know what you’re reading. No one knows what your internal experience is while you’re reading and no one experiences the exact same books in the exact same ways. So breathe, this is a low stakes commitment–it’s not like choosing your baby’s name. (Which everyone in the world will, in fact, judge you for.)
Countless women come into my office and say that they don’t even know what they want sexually. Sometimes they’ll say their partners have said they just want them to enjoy sex but that just makes them feel pressured and stressed.
When you read a romance novel you might be titillated by it, but that’s not the only thing you can glean from it. You’ll see how different people initiate sex, how they communicate during sex, how they might joke about sex or talk about sex outside of the bedroom, and how they experience and expect pleasure during their sexual encounters. While the characters are fictional, the writers themselves are real people offering real perspectives and possibilities. It’s not a how-to manual, but it can serve as a kind of exposure to different ideas about what you might want sexually. What might be pleasurable for you. What might excite you and how you might want to experiment with your sexuality.
If you choose to dive deeper beyond the excitement of reading something and feeling turned on, you can allow yourself space to consider whether the various things you’ve been introduced to through romance are things you want to actually do or if they’re just fun things to read and think about and get turned on by. I like to think of this as being either the flame or the logs in a fireplace. Your sexuality in this metaphor is the fireplace. If you read something and you decide you want to include it in your sex life (maybe its a sex toy, maybe it’s kissing during sex, maybe it’s dirty talk, etc etc) that’s the flame. If you read something and it turns you on to read it, but you have no interest in incorporating it in real life, then it's a log. It’ll keep your fire burning, but it doesn’t make you feel alive with need. Now, there will be the occasional extinguisher here and there. Not everything you read will be your thing. Different strokes for different folks and all of that. But–once you find the right niche within the romance genre for you, everything will be either a flame or a log.
When Core Values + Sexuality are Contradictory
One of the major themes I see in my practice as a therapist is shame. Not a single one of us is free from the grasp of purity culture and patriarchy and when it shows up in our sex lives, it usually manifests as shame. So, how can a romance novel counter this shame? Romance novels often offer depictions of desire and lust without shying away from things that are considered taboo. They put a magnifying glass right over the very things that are usually hidden or avoided in “polite” society.
If you’ve ever felt shame for a fantasy you’ve had, seeing characters that you’ve developed a connection with engaging in sex acts that are taboo can lead you to feeling less shame for your own fantasies. Because we live in a culture that doesn’t talk about sex a whole lot, we can be left to figure these things out for ourselves without any framework to do that processing. Reading these scenes in romance novels can be a way to see into the minds of the characters as well as the authors. Someone had to write those filthy ideas down, right? That means someone thought them up and deemed them worthy of being written for you to read. It’s a very normalizing experience to see other people's fantasies written down when you’ve struggled to even allow yourself to enjoy your own.
As previously mentioned, some contradictory themes come up when reading romance. Things like sexism and patriarchy will pop up every once in a while, but you might find that you still enjoy the story or find yourself experiencing arousal at a character who embodies these themes. This allows a space for us to work to find peace with things that lie in the gray area between our core values and our sexuality. Because romance tends to be genre by women and for women, there’s a sense of safety in exploring some of the themes that might turn you on, but also go against your core values in everyday life. For example, do I want a man to have any power and control over me in my day to day life? No, I don’t. But can I be turned on by a bondage scene where a man has been given complete control over a female character? Yep, sure can!
Reading romance is a way to allow for more gray area in your thinking about sexuality and life in general. Things aren’t so black and white. If we are to fully reject the tenets of purity culture and patriarchy we have to learn to let go of the prude versus slut mentality and dig deeper into our actual values around sexuality. We can want full autonomy and also enjoy the play-acting of power and domination within BDSM. Sex is supposed to be fun–so make space for that by doing the work of challenging the messages you’ve been fed about sexuality so you can feel at ease with the gray areas and eventually you might really relish the tension within them.
Cassie Willnauer, a therapist in Kansas City
I'm a Health at Every Size® aligned therapist specializing in providing therapy to individuals, couples, and partnerships. The clients I work the best with are usually wanting to improve their sex lives and/or body image.