Unmarried people of faith don’t seem to get laid—at least not in commercial literature. Sure, there’s a peck on the cheek, or a meaningful smoldering glance, but more than that? Unlikely. And then, imagine the clouds opening up, a beam of light shining down upon Sally Rooney’s newest book. If you haven’t read Beautiful World, Where Are You yet, the book is peppered throughout by a long email chain between the two female characters, Eileen and Alice. But this essay is not about Eileen or Alice, who are similar to Rooney’s prior heroines in their aloof, biting wit, and uneasy harmony with a capitalistic culture they love to critique. Instead, we’re here to talk about Simon, Eileen’s friends-to-lovers beau, with whom she enthusiastically (and frequently) has sex in Rooney’s novel.
Simon is introduced into the plot early as the literal boy-next-door. He’s a respectful, quiet young man who picks up the habit of going to Catholic mass while he’s at college, even though his parents didn’t raise him to be religious. Simon is your everyday, average devout Catholic, who genuinely seeks to follow God’s word but is also really into his girlfriend. In other words: Relatable. Despite the church’s teaching against premarital sex, he has it—a lot of it—with his girlfriend, yet he still doesn’t come across as insincere in his faith. What do you do with a romantic hero who chooses both God and sex? Love him, or at least that’s what I did.
Christian people have sex—which you could probably guess since more Christian people keep being born and they have to come from somewhere. And despite what the Bible might instruct, not all of those Christian people have sex within marriage, or even within the confines of what their religious institution thinks is moral. Many evangelical Christian denominations participate and propagate “purity culture”—abstinence pledges, purity rings, True Love Waits, and so on—and Catholicism reminds the faithful from an early age that sex outside of marriage is wrong. But that ideal is divorced from the reality of life in 2021. As a recent survey from Pew Research showed, half of all U.S. Christians think that casual sex is okay, so, regardless of whether or not we agree with it, why don’t we see more Christians having sex in romance novels?
I’m not here to cheer on premarital sex. I’m a boring, married, and monogamous, though politically liberal Catholic lady. I’ve received all of my sacraments, I participate in mass weekly, and I volunteer with my church. For me, faith in God is the simple part; faith in the institutions and their guidance is much more complicated. I’m also a novelist who reads an awful lot of books, especially romance novels. And Simon is the kind of nuanced Christian character I seldom see. He’s not the cruel, self-flagellating monk from The DaVinci Code or some sort of outwardly pious, but secretly corrupt, villain like Hilary Faye in the movie Saved! He’s also not in a cult; The Incendiaries and Godshot, two recent novels I adore, are about Christian faith gone off the rails, but they depict faith pushed to its extreme, not daily reality.
In Rooney’s novel, Simon’s religion is an important characteristic of his character, rather than being a stand-in for the whole of his personality. Simon used to have epileptic seizures; he works for a non-profit; and he is more than willing to let Eileen have the kind of sex that she wants to have. And Simon believes in God. Rooney writes a scene from Eileen’s perspective on the morning after they have sex for the first time, and she goes to Sunday mass with Simon. Eileen expects to be embarrassed by the whole thing, or to see Simon in a completely new light. Instead, she’s surprised by how consistently ‘Simon’ he is, both in church and away from it. Simon isn’t perfect; he is as messy as Rooney’s other characters, but his faith leads to him literally love his neighbor throughout the book (not always just the sex kind of love, though definitely that, too).
Romance novels are booming to 47 million units in the past year, but none of the books listed in the Goodreads nominations for Best Romance Novel in 2020, nor in the top sellers for 2020 at The Ripped Bodice, had faith mentioned in their blurbs as identifying character information. Sure, there are “Christian Romances,” but my preference for characters is more sex-positive than those novels tend to skew. Sex-positive romance novels make me feel better about my body, and rather than leading me into temptation, they make me think more actively about faithful love and romance than I probably would otherwise as a stressed, married person. I also desperately want to read sex-positive romance novels written by people of other faiths.
Authors are starting to respond to that desire. Besides Rooney’s novel, several other books have come out this year where the main characters are actively juggling sexual attraction with religious and cultural expectations. Accidentally Engaged by Farah Heron, released in March 2021, is about what happens if you actually fall for the man your Muslim parents have tried to arrange a marriage with. The novel dives into cultural mores of Muslim life, including drinking and gambling, but while there’s no sex, there is foreplay, and Accidentally Engaged doesn’t shy away from showing how sex, love, and religion are intertwined. At first, Heron wasn’t sure there was a market for books delving into her culture and religion. In an interview with Kathleen West, she said, “I honestly didn’t think there would be anyone interested in the light, frothy romances and women’s fiction that I wanted to write, if the characters were South Asian Muslims like me.”
Where Heron’s book is a rom-com, Rosie Danan’s The Intimacy Experiment takes a more serious tone. The novel, which came out in April and which the feminist Jewish culture site Alma listed as the Best Jewish Romance of the Year, follows Naomi Grant, a sex worker, entrepreneur, and academic, who is recruited by a local (young, cute) rabbi to start a speaker’s series at his synagogue about modern intimacy. The rabbi, Ethan, predictably has to deal with the politics from his community about being seen with Naomi, and Naomi has to search for what she actually wants, and questions for the first time since she was a child if faith is on that list. This novel is not only sexy, but sweet and challenging, too.
These novels aren’t just in adult literature, either. Never Saw You Coming by Erin Hahn came out in September in the young adult sphere. Hahn’s main character, Meg, came from a sheltered, conservative household and is taking a gap year in the Upper Peninsula before starting college. Micah, a local former-pastor’s son, steps in to help fill some of that gap for her. If that sounds dirty, well it mostly isn’t—but yes, Hahn writes Meg having an orgasm on the page. There are lots of great novels wrestling with evangelical faith, but Never Saw You Coming checks all the boxes of a sex-positive young adult romance, with two characters who don’t lose their faith in God or each other by the end of the book.
Talking about religion and sex in the same breath can feel like a third rail, but these books prove it can be done. Faith is a part of life, and according to the 2020 Census data, only 23 percent of the U.S. population is religiously unaffiliated. Reflecting the messy realities of people of faith in finding love and sex is important. In the author’s note at the end of her book, Hahn stated that she had pitched “safer” concepts for her next novel, but her editor took the chance. The result: a book that doesn’t shy away from taking the topics of #MeToo, purity culture, and faith head on.
Weaving faith and sex can be awkward, and authors may feel awkward bringing those authentic parts of themselves to the page, but with support from editors and publishing teams, readers of all faiths (and no faith) can enjoy seeing a wider lens in the romance genre. The best thing we can do is to support and show a market for romance that complicates, rather than simplifies, religion and its connection to sexuality. More Simons, please!
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