Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Twelve Stages of Intimacy

Whether or not we know it, we romance writers are writing about biology. Unconsciously, we’ve honed in on the biological imperative for humans to mate and reproduce. We just do it in a very entertaining way.

A while back I took Mary Buckham’s online class  “The Twelve Stages of Intimacy”. Mary showed the link between this biological imperative and writing with sexual tension that leaps off the page.

Mary explained that since survival of the human species is the name of the game, the male’s job is to convince the female to have sex with him.

Through courtship, the male coaxes the female into noticing him, responding to him and if all goes well, to mating with him. He monitors her subtle responses to him as they move up the ladder of intimacy. If she gives him clues that his advances are not welcome, she is telling him that the party is over. Three-fourths of the twelve stages of intimacy, from stage one through nine, can be and usually are conducted in public, for no other reason than to increase the trust level of the female.

While the male human’s objective is to have sex with the woman he desires, the female’s objective is to protect herself. A liaison between a man and a woman is much more costly for a woman since it could result in a pregnancy, or in past generations, a loss of reputation. She must be much more cautious before agreeing to have sex. In modern novels where birth control and reputation are not an issue, some other obstacle must stand between the lovers. When the reasons for them not to have sex are even stronger then their desire for it, sexual tension results. And it’s this push/pull of sexual tension that gives romance novels excitement and zing. Ms. Buckham says: “Sex itself creates conflict—when to have sex means physical risk, to deny sex means emotional risk—thus conflict.”

It’s the romance writer’s job to constantly raise the tension between the hero and heroine. Mary Buckham says that the best romance writers recognize this. They acknowledge the twelve stages of intimacy and note the passages along the way; the first meeting of eyes, a first kiss, a warm touch.

Here’s an example from writer Tami Hoag. Her heroine sizes up the hero in her novel “Still Waters”:  "He had what she called the “lean and hungry look”—a tough athleticism, a certain predatory animal magnetism that radiated from the hard planes of his face and the angular lines of his body, and charged the air around him. He didn’t much look the part of a sheriff in his pleated tan Dockers and lavender polo shirt, but there was no mistaking the air of authority. Uniform or no, he was the man in charge, the dominant male."— Still Waters—Tami Hoag.

Ms. Hoag zeroes in what women look to first in a man, his position and authority. Biologically speaking, she is checking out his potential as a provider and protector for future offspring. Men tend to check out a woman’s looks first to see if they appear healthy and young enough to bear children, again biologically speaking. 

Romance writers ignore the steps of intimacy at their peril. If a significant moment of intimacy is glossed over and not given the attention it is due, the reader is not given that build up of sexual tension so needed for a satisfying read. If steps in the intimacy process are completely skipped, for instance eliminating touches and gazes and skipping straight to a kiss, the reader will unconsciously know something is missing, even if she may not be able to put her finger on it. She will leave the book unsatisfied. The steps of intimacy between a hero and heroine might not always occur in the exact order set out by anthropologist Desmond Morris, but they must occur for the love story to feel ‘real’. Mary Buckham says the best writers of sexual tension celebrate each stage: “They linger, dwell, focus a reader not only on the physical action of each stage, but the emotional reaction, the impact of each stage on the key characters.”

So what are the steps? Without further ado, here are the Twelve Stages of Intimacy.
1) Eye to Body
2) Eye to Eye
3) Voice to Voice
4) Hand to Hand
5) Arm to Shoulder
6) Arm to Waist
7) Mouth to Mouth
8) Hand to Head
9) Hand to Body
10) Mouth to Breast
11) Hand to Genital
12) Genital to Genital

Do you take the twelve steps into consideration when building the relationship between your hero and heroine?  Mary Buckham will be teaching her class on sexual tension called "Sex on the Page" at Writer's University in September 2011. This class will use the ideas of the 12 steps of intimacy. I highly recommend Mary's Buckham's class to any writer interested in learning to create sexual tension in her books.


  1. Excellent post, Jana. Those sound like great classes. My favorite books do what you've described and practically bleed sexual tension. I haven't purposefully used the 12 step progression in the past but will certainly keep it in mind for the future.

  2. I think all good writers instinctively use the stages of intimacy to create higher and higher tension. I really recommend Mary's class. She's a fabulous teacher!


  3. Great post Jana. Can't believe I'm only just discovering your blog now. Love reading your books! Also just discovered that you're a fellow Canadian :-)