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I suspect that by now pretty much everyone in the online Romance community has read Alan Elsner’s sneering dismissal of Romance in the Huffington Post, in which he proclaims confidently that
In the romance novels I have read, love is expressed through sex and only through sex. The fact that the hero and the heroine can provide each other with tremendous orgasms becomes proof positive of their undeniable love for one another. If the sex is that good, the love must be real.
His sample, which amounted to "a stack" of books he checked out of the library, gave him the presumptive authority to tag Romance as pornography (while generously allowing us ladies our indulgence in such), and marking a critical difference between sex and love, asserting that "…love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life."
Despite the many openings Elsner provides for a comprehensive rebuttal, that is not my aim here. Besides, Smart Bitch Sarah Wendell already did a bang-up job of that. And honestly, I’m not up to fighting against an avalanche of approval from the non-Romance reading public for an opinion like Elsner’s. Let’s face it, even many Romance readers persistently deflect potential criticism of their reading choices by only half-jokingly referring to Romance as "beach reading" or "trash" or even "smut."
But here’s the thing Elsner doesn’t get about Romance: the genre is about the expression of love on multiple levels, including, and perhaps especially, depending on the subgenre, the physical level. To ground love in the mind, as a primarily intellectual process, not only undermines the multi-dimensionality of romantic love, but it also feeds into a pernicious moralizing about women and women’s sexuality with which the Romance genre (and society more generally) continues to struggle.
I still remember vividly an online debate about a certain contemporary Romance in which the heroine has anonymous sex with a man who eventually becomes the hero of the novel. A number of readers determined the heroine’s behavior to be unacceptably slutty (especially since she had a boyfriend at the time) and refused to consider reading the book.
Now I’m not suggesting that readers abandon their moral values for the sake of a Romance novel. But I do want to suggest that the genre has a conflicted relationship to female sexuality, such that virgin heroines can be paired with affectionately dubbed "dukes of slut" in even the most traditional genre publishing lines and houses. In the meantime, courtesan heroines are still viewed with suspicion, with some authors going to great lengths to salvage the moral stature of their wayward heroines. There was much debate, for example, about Loretta Chase’s latest novel, in which the heroine was a very sexually knowledgeable former “harem girl” who, miraculously, it seemed, was still a virgin. The somewhat unbelievable circumstances of her intact status could, I suspect, be easily overlooked in the name of comedy or fantasy, so that she could remain a "worthy" mate for the demoralized hero. And in that contemporary I referred to above, the heroine practically leads the life of a saint following her sexual "indiscretion" – the perfectly faithful wife, perfectly doting mother, perfectly compliant citizen, etc. Once her sexually restrained husband dies and the hero re-enters the story, she is free to reconnect to her sexually uninhibited side, because she’s safely with her true mate.
Any therein lies the real issue I have with Elsner’s argument that the sex in Romance makes the genre unromantic: in a genre where a woman’s romantic worth has so often been associated with her sexual purity, associating sexual freedom with the absence of love seems particularly specious and regressive.
I’d be lying if I said that I found some of Elsner’s criticisms of the novels he read to be completely devoid of merit. I’ve certainly done my fair share of complaining about the boring prose in numerous Romance sex scenes, and I have read more than one book where I thought the author relied on sex as a romantic shortcut. But there’s quite a difference between finding fault with the extent to which a novel engages the reader and declaring a whole genre devoid of romantic value based on the representation of sex in a literal handful of books.
What frustrates me most about Elsner’s piece is not his insistence that love has to struggle for survival; after all, the obstacles and challenges life throws a couple generate a novel’s dramatic crescendo. What frustrates me is that his argument seems more about distancing himself from Romance than about constructing an authentic analysis of what makes for a powerful depiction of love in romantic fiction. And the pretension he employs not only suggests a certain moral judgment on the sexual candor in Romance (namely that it’s porn for women), but it also holds against the genre one of its more subversive elements, namely that even women who love sex are worthy of True Love. And if you are not convinced that such an equation is still being challenged within our societies and within the Romance genre, just think about the robust attention paid to distinguishing among Erotica, Pornography, and Romance.
But besides the continuous debates over what "erotic" means when combined with Romance, just look at mainstream titles in the genre. The contemporary I was referring to above, Susan Donovan’s Public Displays of Affection, is a perfect example of this struggle around the heroine’s sexual desire. The heroine struggles with feeling like a "slut," and the hero must convince her that it’s okay to embrace her inner vixen. But within the confines the genre, how often can a heroine fully express herself sexually outside her relationship with the hero? Think about all the almost virgins in the genre, for example (Shannon McKenna was famous for a while for writing these). You know what I’m talking about – the almost virgin is the woman who’s had one or two sexual encounters that were wholly unfulfilling, perhaps even incomplete, and it takes the hero’s special mojo to bring her to full acceptance of her sexuality.
Even Megan Hart’s Dirty, Broken, and Stranger feature heroines whose sexual desire and expression is primarily, if not exclusively, limited to the hero. And for all the envelope pushing work of an author like Pam Rosenthal, her romantic protagonists are – at least on page, during the course of her novels – sexually faithful. In fact, her novella, A House East of Regent Street, manages to reunite its courtesan hero to her first love (and, not coincidentally, her first sexual experience). For all of its progressive, even subversive tendencies, there is a deeply conservative ethos in the Romance genre, one that continues to celebrate the social centrality of the nuclear family.
And I am not suggesting that this is, in and of itself, a bad thing; after all, a sense of belonging, of community, has always been central to the thematic project of Romance (I haven’t even touched on GLBT Romance, which both challaenges and conforms to traditional hetereosexual genre norms). And I would never suggest that infidelity is a romantic ideal. However, I do think the genre still struggles with the extent to which sex and especially female sexuality can be expressed freely without appearing immoral. And a criticism like Elsner’s – that sex makes Romance unromantic – plays right into the idea that "real love" is above all that. Because it’s not, and Romance is a genre that expresses the truth of love as physical, emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual. That doesn’t mean every Romance novel must explicitly show the physical aspect of a romantic relationship, or that readers may prefer a closed-door policy, but to diminish the importance of physical love is to deny the defining difference between romantic love and other kinds of love, and therefore between Romance and other genres.
Ultimately, I’d like to see women in Romance have even more sexual freedom than they currently enjoy, or at least be less limited by the moral double standard that tolerates much more sexual freedom in Romance heroes than heroines. But most of all, I’d like to see Romance celebrated as a genre that can embrace sex and sexuality without shame, both on the part of its heroines and its readers.