A riff on love, UST, and “X”

by Sherwood Smith

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, looking for media about romantic love seems a natural. From there, many happily add imaginary spice and make the jump to sexy stories . . .

Or  . . . not.

I once did an unofficial poll among mostly young adult readers. The surprising thing is, the greater percentage of them found UST, or Unresolved Sexual Tension, far more interesting than X, or up-front sexual content.

I’d done this poll expecting older folks, especially those of us who were raised with the double standard of the fifties (Don’t do what I do, do what I say, and Men can do what they like, but the women they do it with are trash, unless they’ve managed to get a ring on their finger first) to favor UST over X, but actually most tended the other way. Of course it could be that those being polled had already self-selected for media that favored UST over X.

Those who favored UST gave various reasons, including the obvious one about guilt and shame, and feeling that intimacy is only legitimized by the marriage bond. Aside from the moral issue, which I don’t want to debate here as no one ever convinces anyone else, it just takes longer and escalating tempers to reach that impasse, I’d like to move straight to what works and why.

For many who prefer UST, this generalization might serve: in either fiction or movies, a finger trailing down a back and over a hip is far more enticing than clinical depictions of the mattress tango. Many females added with some asperity that far from finding filmic sex a turn-on, they find it uncomfortable, because the camera is burrowing in to reveal far more of the woman than the man: the point of view that is important is the het male gaze. The woman thus becomes the object for the male gratification on the visual level, even if the storyline insists that the partnership is balanced.

An aspect of the discussion that I found interesting was that not everyone agreed about the degree of UST or X images or scenes in the media involved. Some were okay with more revelation in books than in film, as it’s more difficult to escape the immediacy of image (and it lingers longer in mind for some) and others felt just the opposite. This made it clear to me that people process image differently, as well as text.

Because those participating in the discussion were primarily het females, the subject then shifted to what they found attractive in males. Some stated that they were sick of the ubiquitous broody, PTSD dangerous male, with or without two-day stubble.

“If I see anyone like that in real life, I’m outa there,” one said. “But in fiction? I’m all over it. I guess I like danger when it’s not up close and personal.”

“I hate them in fiction as well as life,” another said. “I think the only readers who like those ultra violent guys are teenagers who’ve actually never been in a dangerous situation.”

And a third said, “This kind of fiction makes me uncomfortable because it’s a reverse of the male making women sex objects for their imaginary gratification. Women othering men for their sexual gratification might seem like equal opportunity, but how much closer to understanding, or real love, does any of that bring us?”

“It’s recreational,” a fourth scoffed. “You don’t watch spy movies then go out and start snooping around embassies or blowing up cars.”

My thought was that the dangerous man that the woman tames through love is an enduring trope, Beauty and the Beast. Byron understood that very well—and all the Brontes who lived long enough to write seem to have been inspired by him, just to name a few. Georgette Heyer used to call her brutal hero the Mark I type. There was a pop song when I was young, wherein the girl band crooned, “I want a cave man, I want a brave man . . .”

Male writers have also written about powerful, dangerous women. I don’t know if the Beauty and the Beast thing works the same way for them. More often the woman has been an unattainable object, her beauty being her primary power, instead of physical strength or political (or intellectual) prowess. The story is really about the striving between the various men who try to win her. (Or win her and discover the game was better than the prize.)

Another observation I’ve made from my own experience: the sight of a woman going ballistic, whether in fiction or real life, tends to cause concern, laugher, even scorn, among men. When a man goes ballistic, women will watch in fiction, but in real life, there’s this shockwave of fear. I’ve never witnessed anyone enjoying the sight beyond creeped-out fascination. If your experience counters this, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

But that’s wandering far from UST. I think it works because the imagination is engaged, because the tension between the personal boundaries and the intimate can be fascinating. Because there is also a balance between the individual and the potential for that romantic attachment. Hardcore X is seldom about character, or emotions, it’s all about the mechanics.

That brings up the element of time. In a story in which UST is successful, the medium (text or film) has developed the characters so deeply that we’re engaged with them on an emotional level to such a degree that that touch, finger to hip, carries a mighty charge. Psychological time is a different measure than clock time: Proust and Joyce made brilliant use of this awareness. X—the mechanical approach—barely introduces the characters as individuals before the clothes fly off and they get down to business.

Really, I am convinced that psychological time is what makes stories linger in memory, especially when the characters do find love. But feel free to disagree.



A riff on love, UST, and “X” — 31 Comments

  1. URT for me every time–although I don’t mind if the couple does get together in a way satisfactory for the story eventually.
    Who said this: “Make ’em laugh, make ’em cry, make ’em wait”?
    So too much too soon and I go meh.

  2. This is an interesting one; I’d say that choosing between the two is the wrong question for me, as I don’t care for too much of either. Too much on the unresolved side gets annoying– possibly because I usually class it with other kinds of problems that could be easily resolved if the characters would just *talk* to each other. But I’m also not usually interested in knowing all the intimate details of a fictional relationship either; if I wouldn’t share something about my life, it seems a bit rude to demand it in my fiction.

  3. Pilgrimsoul: there’s a lot said for the make ’em wait.

    But Thanate has a point. If the UST is bent around the Great Mis (the stupid plot where hero and heroine misunderstand something early on, and spend the rest of the book angsting instead of talking like adults for five minutes) I’m out of there.

    But plots wherein there are genuine reasons for the UST–especially as feelings are metamorphosing, that I enjoy. (The lust at first sight plot, which I also don’t care for, tends to lend itself most to the Great Mis, because if it’s one glance and Love 4 Ev urr, then where do you go from there?)

  4. I’m for some UST and some scenes leading up to sex or implying it, but I rarely like explicit sex scenes. Mostly I find them gratuitous and uninteresting, in both books and movies. Even when the fact that the people are having sex is central to the plot, you don’t have to show all the details for us to figure out what’s going on. There are exceptions in which it might be necessary for the story, but they’re not common.

    And I don’t find explicit sex on screen to be a turn on. I saw The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo last night, and while both rape and consensual sex are important to the plot, they spent too much time showing it. Rape scenes are unbearable to watch. As for consensual sex, let’s face it: People having sex look funny. Mostly we don’t notice this when we’re doing it ourselves (though I can think of occasions that led to uncontrollable laughter), but it’s pretty obvious when you’re watching it.

    One of the hottest scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie is in Tequila Sunrise when Mel Gibson and Michelle Pfieffer look at each other across a table. If Mel Gibson looked at me like that, I’d melt on the spot, and I’m sure those attracted to women would say the same of Michelle Pfieffer. Their much ballyhooed hot tub sex scene later in the movie (complete with Mel’s bare ass) paled by comparison.

    Once years ago I was at a party with a man when our relationship was at that point where we knew we were going to end up in bed, but hadn’t made it yet. At some point, the party organizers decided it was time to have an “orgy” — meaning everyone should get naked and pretend to be sexy. Peter and I kept our clothes on and kept dancing. I guarantee you there was more sex going on between us than with any of the naked people. (We resolved the UST about three or four hours later.)

    I don’t like leaving things unresolved — it’s nice to know the lovers get together — but I don’t have to see them making the beast with two backs to know what they’re doing.

  5. Nancy Jane, I agree, with the caveat that there are some writers who can write sex scenes that are part of the story and evocative without being funny. But I’ve noticed that those ones are all about the inside of the head more than slot A and tab B.

    Onscreen sex? No thanks. Funny, fake (I am ultra aware of actors trying to act) or else it reminds me of enforced showers in gym class back in high school–blargh.

  6. Sounds like there is a strong vote for UST here! I agree with that — I’m extremely private about sex and emotions, part of why I don’t write romance. Don’t like watching people fake it on the screen. And as several said — sex is rather funny, even when the two people on the screen are giving a good imitation of a good time. (I remember one sex scene where the idea was that they were so involved they were trashing the room, knocking pictures off the wall — it was wildly funny.)

    But I have an idea for a series of fantasies where a relationship grows slowly, and I want to see if I can do sensual well. It’s important that it be an undercurrent, without detracting from story. That’s what I like to read, and I’m gonna give it a shot. Sort of saying thanks to the people who have done it well, but not slowed the story.

    I find I enjoy Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson novels. The relationship has grown slowly, she ended up choosing and being chosen, and the attraction and playfulness of it matches the characters. It’s sorta like watching a friend fall in love, and enjoying the good vibes coming off the couple.

  7. Resonant wrote an essay with some related ideas: http://trickster.org/res/howtowrite.html (NSFW! beware!)

    It’s for writers of fanfiction, so it presumes readers are already invested in the characters prior to the scene, but it does have some cool ideas about how to give sex scenes some of the same enduringness and heat that the best UST can have. I like the suggestions about making sure there are unresolved emotional issues between the characters when the sex scene begins.

  8. Sprat: thanks for the link. Yes, it seems like Resonant is developing the idea that sex in fiction needs to be part of the story, instead of stopping the story so that sex scene can be inserted. Like a monster fight.

    I figure if any scene, sex, monster fight, or whatever, could be lifted out and inserted anywhere in the book without causing a ripple, then it probably doesn’t belong.

  9. Seems to me that the Great Mis can only work when the characters are too juvenile to understand what’s happening; like you said, 2 adults would just talk it out. So the development revolves around the people growing up to the point where they can realize just what they spent the last few (hundred) pages arguing about.

    But what do you do when even “grown-ups” are too vested in their ideas to realize that they have Mis’d? Even putative adults have blind spots, yes?

  10. I once saw a man go ballistic in real life (verbally, not physically) and felt comforted rather than afraid or withdrawn. In that particular context, the object of his anger had been harassing me and making me feel threatened, and my friend’s verbal aggression and visible fury got the other man to back off and gave me a chance to escape from the situation.

    Intellectually, I am not so thrilled by the implications of the dynamic, and my friend felt very apologetic about it and as if he’d crossed a line – but my gut emotional reaction at the time (and even now) was that I felt safe, and relieved. His anger was clearly protective.

    Usually, though, I do react with some level of fear or anxiety when someone blows their top – male or female.

  11. Yogi: there are some writers who can make the Great Miz believable, but most of the time, it seems to be relied on as a convenience.

    Believable iterations usually involve one or both having to keep a secret, which can actually become interesting, if the characters have private and public lives, for example. Or if the issue of trust is out on the table.

  12. Quite apart from anything else, not-yet-acted on attraction and tension are exciting because all the potential is still there, no disappointments yet, both in real life and in stories.

  13. OTOH it is possible to drag the UST out too long. I am currently reading the Lydia Chin/Bill Smith mystery series by S.J. Rozan. In book one it’s unresolved, and by the time we get to the most current book 9 the relationship has not progressed one inch. She is still coy, he is still faintly pursuing, and the occasional red herring still trails by, in the form of a more eligible male. C’mon, you two — enough is enough. As the diehard romantics among us say, it’s time to shit or get off the pot!

  14. It seems I have a lone vote for both X and UST — but in different books/contexts.

    I don’t like X in movies, because while watching movies I’m purely an observer so watching X feels awkward because it feels like I’m intruding. But in books, I’m a cross between an invisible extra character and the POV character, so X doesn’t feel like an intrusion.

    The amount of X and UST I want in different stories depends on the type of story and plot. In a Romance Novel I want more X than UST; I call those books cotton candy and sometimes skim the “real” story parts. In a book where the romance is the central plot-line (but there is a strong sub-plot of adventure/mystery/whatever as well), I want UST with a payoff of X. I want the same thing when there is a main plot that is not romance, but the romance is a strong sub-plot: UST with a payoff of X. In a book where the romance is a minor sub-plot and generally peripheral to the story, I want just UST.

    But, like mentioned above, X doesn’t have to be “insert tab A into slot B.” It’s more interesting/enjoyable (especially in my second and third categories) when X is more psychological than physical.

  15. I like UST a whole lot, but eventually it has to be resolved, with or without an explicit sex scene. If the UST drags on for too long without any developments (a problem with some book series and a lot of TV shows that thrive on UST) I lose interest, especially if the supposed obstacles aren’t very big after all. Even worse: There is UST, often several books or TV seasons worth of UST, but there is no consumation or even acknowledgement, the UST just fizzles out and vanishes as if it had never existed. Or someone dies before the UST can be resolved. All of this is infuriating.

    As for X, there seems to be something in the zeitgeist at the moment, because I’ve seen debates about the necessity of sex scenes crop up in various places online. Personally, I believe that sex scenes should be integral to the story and further plot and/or character development. I’m not a fan of “Stop the plot to insert a sex scene”. And if there is an explicit sex scene, it should take the individuality of the characters into account. A lot of romance novels are afflicted with generic sex scenes that seem like someone took a scene from a How to write sex scenes 101 book and just changed the character names. I also like a bit of humor in my sex scenes, because let’s face it, sex can be pretty ridiculous at times. But that’s rare.

    As for filmic sex scenes, comparing the comparatively few that I enjoyed with those that were a turn-off or just bored me, I notice the following similarities. All of the filmic sex scenes I enjoyed were preceded by a lot of UST. Indeed, the sexual tension was far from resolved and there were plenty of reasons why having sex was not exactly a great idea at that point. In all cases there was a lot of chemistry between the actors and the interaction looked natural, because these people were obviously comfortable with each other. All of them focused as much on the male as on the female body (or on both partners in the case of gay or lesbian sex), so there wasn’t the male-centered gaze that is reminiscent of porn. In quite a few, the woman took the initiative. There was often an element of humor and/or surprise involved. I’m not a fan of the slam against the walls or furniture sex often found in HBO series, because it looks painful and offputting. Finally, British or German filmmakers seem to be a lot better at shooting appealing sex scenes than Americans or French filmmakers.

  16. Pingback: Interviews, politics, celebrity deaths and sex | Cora Buhlert

  17. Another observation I’ve made from my own experience: the sight of a woman going ballistic, whether in fiction or real life, tends to cause concern, laugher, even scorn, among men. When a man goes ballistic, women will watch in fiction, but in real life, there’s this shockwave of fear. I’ve never witnessed anyone enjoying the sight beyond creeped-out fascination. If your experience counters this, I’d be interested in hearing about it.

    Tamora Pierce’s Emperor Mage has a part where Daine “loses her temper” and levels a palace. Her true love (on whose behalf the temper was lost) seems more impressed than anything. But that’s Tamora Pierce, who’s pretty much known for her badass heroines and equal-opportunity heroism, and not at all the general rule.

  18. K.Taylor: that was in fiction. My remark was my experience in real life. But that aside, Tamora Pierce is a terrific writer, and she definitely gives her heroines a ton of agency.

  19. The main thing UST has going for it is the opportunity to linger over the small things, things that in POV can be sexier than actual love-making. This goes for just kisses as well sex, in some cases.

    In YA I’ve rarely seen a book where the kisses start early and stay interesting to me, it’s a hard thing to do without an increasing pitch, a build-up of tension.

    On the other hand, there are some writer who manage to make the lingering over small things even after a sex scene very compelling.

    Part of it is finding it more interesting to the narrative when there’s a strong barrier that has to be overcome to reach that point of intimacy… and yeah, I don’t mean cardboard-plotpoint misunderstandings, either.

  20. With written stories, I’m in the “happy with X when that’s what I’m reading the work for; otherwise, depends how it’s handled” camp. Movies, eh, I’d just as soon stay with the UST (and wait for a good fanfic writer to produce the X, because it’ll almost certainly be better than the screen version), for many of the reasons given above.

    There’s one fanfic series I’ve been reading that did an incredible job with the UST, and still maintains the tension and interest even though the characters have finally started having sex. One reason it works so well: the emotional tension is very much maintained. There’s still mental barriers on both characters’ parts to overcome; there’s still revelations they haven’t made to each other. So even when the characters become more physically and emotionally intimate (and always in an in-character way), the tension still isn’t defused.

  21. I thought the OP was a bit too firmly set on either/or; I’m glad the comments are not. Because both have their purpose, both have their failure modes, and there’s a lot of middle ground between all UST all the time and all sex all the time.

    I love UST, when it has good reason for being unresolved, and gets resolved when the good reason is removed. I also like to see couples who actually do X, and whose relationship continues to develop in the page after it’s been done. (And not just “Until they agree to live together/get married / requisite romance novel HEA. Substituting the endpoint of “having sex at last” for the endpoint of “agree to get married” misses the point, which is that relationships continue.)

    I’d vote for more sex and less UST (even though I love well done UST with good reasons for remaining unresolved) if I absolutely had to, because I want to see more established couples.

    And yet, too many sex scenes are bland, and even people who’ve written super-hot (or super-funny, or otherwise well-done) scenes sometimes fall flat. Jennifer Crusie has made me laugh out loud AND bored me silly, though never simultaneously. And there’s a fanfic writer whose sex scenes I think are exemplary half of the time, at least readable 40% of it, and Bleah, why am I reading this crud the other 10%. I think that’s the highest I’d give any writer. AS often as not, I think the fade to black has become underused.

    So, it comes down to, it depends.

  22. Now, I like X. I like reading it, and I like writing it. Sometimes even watching it, but that’s rarely done well.

    But the participants have to be people, and not just bodies with genitalia, and the description has to pull emotion. I’ve read bad porn. I’ve read some great erotica. I much prefer the latter.