Disclaimer: This article deals with sexual intimacy in some detail as it relates to Romance Writing.

To write really sensual, sexy books, you need to understand the basis of the sex drive, and how extremely powerful it is – not the birds and bees part of it, but why we make love as we do. You can’t write about sex and intimacy until you understand it. You can call them love scenes, or you can call them sex scenes. It doesn’t really matter what you call them, so long as you understand enough about the genre to know that emotional attachment has to be there before your two main characters become physically intimate.

Everything we do today in the mating ritual has its basis in the survival instincts of our ancestors’ thousands of years ago. Regardless of our culture, we are still working with these same instincts the human race had when it lived in caves. It starts with the survival of the species. This is the single, most powerful instinct in existence. Sex is part and parcel of the survival of the species and until you understand that, you underestimate its power. The male has to coax the female into trusting him enough to mate. The progression of human intimacy can be divided into twelve progressive stages, and each stage is unconsciously analysed by the participants.

If the female likes the male, and if she is receptive to a small intimacy, the male will progress to a bigger intimacy, but he has to constantly monitor her reactions. If anything he does is unattractive to her, then by subtle signs she withdraws from him, and the courtship is usually broken off without comment. Pay attention to these twelve stages because these are the gestures used to heighten the sexual tension and level of intimacy in our books.

  1. Eye to Body – You may think the old once-over-look is pretty blatant stuff, but that’s an exaggeration of this stage. Normally, the first eye-to-body contact takes only a fraction of a second and in that time we sum up the physical qualities of the other person. Just like that, our brain discerns sex, size, shape, age, colouring, status and mood, and makes a grading on a scale from extreme attractiveness to extreme repulsiveness. If the person is unattractive to us, that’s the end of it. But if the person is attractive, we move to the second step.
  2. Eye to Eye – Sometimes when you make eye contact with a stranger, both of you quickly break it off. Eye-to-eye contact is sustained only by intimates. In fact, prolonged staring between unfamiliar adults is an act of aggression. Too close to stalking. If a stranger continues to stare after eye contact had been made, the other may become acutely embarrassed or angry. Two strangers normally watch each other in turn, rather than simultaneously, to avoid this eye contact. If one finds the other attractive, then the next accidental meeting of glances will include a slight smile. If the attraction is returned, so is the smile, and eye contact is gradually extended. If the first smile is met with a blank look, that usually stops further development of intimacy. We’ve put it in our books. The hero stares at the heroine, maybe across the famous crowded room. It’s an act of aggression. She freezes him out. Being our hero, though, he ignores the signals to stop and presses ahead with the process of intimacy. What we’re saying here is that he wants her too much to stop, that what he’s feeling is so strong, he will continue despite her negative signals.
  3. Voice to Voice – It’s usually just small talk but it permits the reception of a further set of signals. Dialect, the tone of voice, accent and use of vocabulary are all fed into those parts of our brains that make snap decisions. This is still a very public, very casual contact. It’s still easy for either side to retreat if they find anything unattractive. We use this stage by setting up situations in which our characters don’t use social small talk, but overstep the bounds by making more intimate statements. We, humans, are easily shocked. All it takes is for someone to either skip one of the acquainting grades of intimacy or push it beyond its normal bounds. Our hero who stares aggressively at the heroine across the room may walk up to her, isolate her in a corner and say something suggestive like. “I want to go to bed with you.” He has shocked her, he has shocked the reader, and according to which way she subconsciously reads him, he has either totally repulsed her or propelled her several stages further towards intimacy than she wants to be. In our books, of course, it’s always the latter. He has forced her to notice him and has instantly made their relationship sexual.
  4. Hand to Hand – Hand contact sounds innocent enough, doesn’t it? But think of the degree of trust it demands. A hand in perfect working order was necessary for the survival of our prehistoric relatives. A hand extended to an enemy could be bitten, crushed, mangled, cut, or otherwise injured. In caveman days, that meant whoever owned the damaged hand was unable to hunt or defend himself Remnants of this instinct remain today. People greet each other and seal pacts with a handshake, a mutual signal of trust. That explains why hand contact is so important, not to mention that the human hand is extremely sensitive. Just think how the blind see with it and read with it. Our hero pretends that the woman needs his aid as a pretext for touching her, and the woman pretends she needs it as a pretext for letting him touch her. Either person can still withdraw from further involvement without hurt feelings or loss of face.
  5. Arm to Shoulder – Up to this point the bodies have not come into close contact. When two people let their bodies touch, an important threshold has been crossed.  When a man puts his arm around a woman’s shoulder to pull her closer, he is using an embrace that is not likely to threaten her, because it’s also an embrace made between non-sexual friends. At the same time, however, he is bringing their bodies into contact. Our hero may have skipped hand-to-hand contact and gone directly to the shoulder embrace. You have to watch men like that!
  6. Arm to Waist – There is no disguising that his arm to her waist is a sexual embrace because heterosexual men don’t use this gesture with their male friends. In heterosexual relationships, this is the male/female embrace. It’s a direct statement of sexual intimacy because his hand is now that much closer to the female’s genitals. A man will sometimes put his hand on the small of a woman’s back as another of those ‘guiding’ gestures, but now we know what he’s really doing, don’t we?  It’s a possessive, sexual touch, and women subconsciously recognise it as such. How many times have you seen a woman gradually move away from such a touch in social situations? A man puts his hand on her back, and she takes a half-step away from the contact, just enough to break it without being obvious that she’s giving him the do-not-touch signal. It’s so instinctive that we do it without being aware of it … unless it’s our mate who touches us. Then we make eye contact for a split second of intimacy, smile, and take a half step closer to him. Remember the controversy when Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating touched Queen Elizabeth on the middle of her back while guiding her to a function? It was innocent enough. I’m sure he didn’t mean to but he used an intimate gesture when he shouldn’t have.
  7. Mouth to Mouth – Kissing on the mouth, combined with a full frontal embrace, is a major milestone to intimacy. For the first time, there is the chance of strong physical arousal. Repeat the kiss, or prolong it, and you can pretty well count on arousal. Does our hero kiss the heroine right off the bat?  Sometimes he does. That’s shock tactics. It usually frightens her. You may think a kiss isn’t that earth-shattering until you consider how high up on the intimacy ladder it is and how often it results in a male erection. Treat a kiss with the respect it deserves.
  8. Hand to Head – contact usually occurs during a kiss, and thereafter, if the partners accept it, may be performed without kissing. This is a signal of extended emotional bond and trust. This is even more important than extending the hand. We instinctively protect our heads. An injury to the head is one of the few injuries that can cause instant death. Men may think a woman ducks away from a touch on the head because she doesn’t want her hair messed up, but the truth is that it’s a survival reaction. When anyone allows their head to be touched, it’s a gesture of trust. When a couple is breaking up, or quarrelling, the head tends to become off-limits again, because the bond of trust is weakening.
  9. Hand to Body – This contact may be when he touches her breasts and she touches his shoulders and chest and from here on activity is usually strictly in private. If a woman hasn’t yet decided to fully trust a man, if she doesn’t match his level of attraction, this is where she usually calls at least a temporary halt. If intimacy goes much beyond this, intercourse becomes very difficult to avoid.  A man may call a woman a tease for letting it get that far before stopping, but he’s farther along the road to arousal than she is. Remember, the female is very, very wary of the male, and if she still doesn’t fully trust him, this is the stopping point.
  10. Mouth to Breast – At least partial nudity is involved and from here on, intimacy is concerned not merely with arousal, but with arousal to climax. For the man, blood is rushing to a certain part of his anatomy, and folks, it isn’t his brain. His thinking pretty much goes on hold here and he operates on automatic pilot, caveman level.
  11. Genitals to Genitals – Each stage of intimacy has tightened the bonds between man and woman, but making love carries the bonding to such a degree that the couple will want to stay together even after the sex drive has been reduced. The face-to-face contact of human lovemaking is unique – the identity of one partner imprints on the other, so they associate each other with trust, affection and pleasure.

– Linda Howard. Reproduced for educational purposes.