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Morality and Romance

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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.

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

58 Comments

  1. neva
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 05:22:07

    Interesting. This is just my little opinion here. I don’t mind reading novels where women have a sexual past however I do prefer those sexual pasts to have been in monogamous relationships. I don’t like reading about prostitutes and I am sick of “woe is me” courtesans with the let me justify my decision to sell my body. You can just get away with it in a historical only because of the limited career choices available to women but outside of that genre it is definitely not my cup of tea. To get personal: have I had a one nighter? Yes. Did I have trouble looking at myself in the mirror the next day? Yes. For me sex and a long term relationship are interlinked. That relationship might last two months or two years but it is a relationship. Nora Roberts seems to write books with heroines that have a sexual past that is neither good, bad or indifferent. So do some other authors. I think this is what I ultimately prefer.

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  2. JessicaP
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 06:59:19

    I wish I’d discovered the romance genre earlier in my reading life. I liked mysteries, thrillers, and sci-fi primarily, all from an early age. I’m a complete bookaholic, so I’ve read a lot. However, I disdained romance as somehow unworthy of my attention, possibly because my mother never read it. When I did decide to try romance, in my forties, I truly was shocked at how explicit the sex was, compared to the other books I’d read throughout my life. But it has become my favorite genre, I think in large part due to the emotional connection between the characters and each other, and then to the reader.

    It *is* fundamentally conservative that the hero and heroine must cleave only to each other, if you will, once their relationship is established. However, the fact that sex can be part of that relationship, whether or not they’re married, and that it is a part of the expression of their feelings for each other, was truly a revelation in my reading life. Some things have always caused a bit of eye-rolling – the virgin who always orgasms in the hands of the skilled lover, the spinster who wants to experience physical love at least once before she dies a dried up husk, etc., – but romance as a whole depicts a far healthier emotional and sexual dynamic in fiction than most other genres, where relationships are often more shallow, used as only a plot point but not a fundamental part of a character, or are absent altogether.

    I think romance also often expresses the ideals women hope for, within a good story (hopefully). Love, fidelity, and respect (which I think must have killed the bodice-ripper) are all found in abundance in romance, even though the path to get there may have been rocky and full of obstacles. Or not. They’re what I have in my own life, and when I think of the alternate paths my life could have taken, I’m so very grateful things worked out the way they did. I think romance resonates within women, whether they are in a good relationship or not, because at heart it illustrates what we all hope to have. It celebrates these things, and even if you had to go through a box of tissue to get there, at the end there’s hope for a positive future, together, for the characters you’ve walked with through the book. If there was some good sex along the way, so much the better.

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  3. jmc
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 07:10:25

    Thought-provoking post. I’d like to let it sink in before I comment further, but this caught my attention:

    virgin heroines can be paired with affectionately dubbed “dukes of slut”

    Other readers may use that term affectionately, but I don’t. A duke of slut is not an admirable character to me, and I have a hard time believing in his HEA, or being sold on the idea that the Magic Hymen has cured his wandering penis.

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  4. joanne
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 07:58:46

    What frustrated me about Elsner’s comments is that he took a random sampling, of his choice to use as his examples. I said it on SBTB and I’ve said it other places and I’ll say it here: If you don’t read the romance genre and all it’s sub-genres, SHUT UP. Critics who have only seen war movies wouldn’t be given any credence at all if they panned an animated film. Or at least, they shouldn’t be given any credence.

    We are fortunate now, today, that authors are being allowed the freedom to explore female sexuality openly and that readers of every and any age and sexual persuasion can go along for the journey if they choose to do so.

    I remember when it just wasn’t that way. If an author stepped outside of the box she got her ears boxed by critics and readers alike. Except for those small number of readers who loved the work. We may slam a trope but we accept (or should accept) that the trope works for someone else.

    RE: The Chase book. I bought it, her virginity wasn’t miraculous, her husband was incapable of having sex and the hero thought she was experienced and loved her without giving that aspect of her much thought. He loved her and married her without knowing she was a virgin. (loved the book, can you tell?)

    My standards are pretty much what they’ve been for decades; what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. I may not want to read about it but that’s certainly no reason to dis the author or the work or the reader who buys the work.

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  5. cecilia
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 08:10:49

    I have to leave the house right away, so I don’t have time right now to finish the whole article (which is very interesting), but I wanted to say something about the Loretta Chase example. Personally, I have often found the I-can’t-believe-she’s-still-a-virgin storylines rather silly and clearly hung up on the view of she’s-only-worthy-if-she’s-pure.

    This one I feel differently about, because of the circumstances. Not because the harem-husband was incapable, which is clearly just a device, but because she was abducted when she was so young. If she had not been a virgin, the whole thing would have been too traumatic for words. And probably for her, too.

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  6. RStewie
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 08:13:46

    I do think the genre still struggles with the extent to which sex and especially female sexuality can be expressed freely without appearing immoral.

    I just got done reading Meredith Duran’s Bound by Your Touch and, while I LOVED reading the book, and I do have hope for the hero and heroine, I can’t stop myself from thinking about what is he going to DO now? The hero spent so much time drinking and whoring and partying…how is he–are THEY– going to reconcile that with the heroine’s academic pursuits and more sedate lifestyle? Once back from their honeymoon…what’s he going to do all day?

    Anyway, that’s one particular (excellent, BTW) book, but I find myself more and more open to sexually experienced heroines, while at the same time growing tired of the “man-whore” heroes that so over-populate the genre. I’m actually a little chagrinned by Nalini Singh’s virgin heroines, although I see the point, and of course it’s only the Psy that are that way, so it makes sense. But I’ve become so accustomed to not reading about the “brief pain” or “sharp tear” or whatever way they describe the tearing of the hymen, that it’s a little jarring to read about it.

    So I embrace the more experienced heroines, the courtesan heroines, and the sexually active widow heroines with open arms. Hell, one of my favorite series is Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series, and I don’t think there even IS a virgin in that series, except Joscelin …yummy…

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  7. Sarah
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 08:21:52

    Between this post and the one on SBTB, you’ve summed up my feelings better than I ever could have.

    Its one of the only problems I had with Loretta Chase’s book about the courtesan, it felt so subversive only to about face by the end. In fact, many of the books that seem subversive seem to do this…

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  8. Mfred
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 08:27:01

    Slightly off-topic, but I think relevant to the virgin-heroine trope– I just read this fascinating article about the hymen on jezebel.com:

    More importantly, the booklet points out that the hymen has little to do with virginity. There is no such thing as “breaking” the hymen. The corona can be torn slightly, or experience minor trauma, but since the tissue is elastic, it is never entirely ruptured. Contrary to popular belief, the book claims that the hymen also can’t be broken by a bike seat or riding a horse. RFSU secretary general Ã…sa Regnér explains:

    “The vaginal corona is a permanent part of a woman’s body throughout her life. It doesn’t disappear after she first has sexual intercourse, and most women don’t bleed the first time. The myths surrounding the hymen were created to control women’s freedom and sexuality. The only way to counteract this is by disseminating knowledge.”

    Reading this really made me re-think a lot of the sexxoring in romanceland.

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  9. Magdalen
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 08:29:34

    Another problem I had with Elsner’s simplistic analysis was the presumption that Love = complex relationship, while Sex = animalistic physiology. I’m with you, Janet, in agreeing that we’ve all read our share of badly written sex scenes in romances. But when they work — and we’ve certainly read some that have! — they’re also about complex relationships. More importantly, they bring an added dimension to the complexity of the basic romantic relationship.

    Sex — all sex — is more in the mind than in the genitals. The alchemy of sex + love requires a character to respond to all he/she knows about the partner. Ultimately, it’s the author’s responsibility to convey what’s going on in her characters’ minds. What’s she conveys, and how she conveys it, makes all the difference between a sexual relationship that illuminates the emotions, and one that puts Tab A into Slot B.

    Plus, Elsner’s decision not to write sex scenes, while a valid choice, rather falls back on an old skool approach to romance novels: True Love = Good Sex. And that’s even more disingenuous than the romances Elsner scorns.

    Characters, like real people, operate in several spheres. One of those is the moral realm, which is where we find the double-standard of what’s good for the goose (virginity followed by a tiny bit of monogamous sex prior to meeting the hero) is not good for the gander (who should be virile, experienced, and competent at engineering more than his own orgasms). We define morality by the characters’ sexual backstories — or, rather, we define the heroine’s morality by her sexual backstory.

    There’s a simple reason for that: Women (in real life, yes, but definitely in books) are more likely to engage their emotions when they have complicated sexual relationships. So a heroine with a lengthy sexual resume prior to meeting the hero either loved a lot of guys in her past (something the reader might feel calls into question her ability to love forever more the hero and only the hero), or she’s more like a guy in her ability to have sex without having “feelings” for her sexual partner (something the reader might feel calls into question her ability to love forever more the hero and only the hero).

    The author wants us to believe in the HEA, which means she needs to present her characters as capable of committing emotionally to each other, and to being sexually monogamous. In real life, this happens all the time but the divorce rate is 50%. In fiction, divorce isn’t an option with an HEA, so the reader really really has to believe that the couple is in the other 50% — the couples who never divorce — and are in the even smaller proportion of couples who are genuinely happy for ever.

    Wow. No wonder Elsner won’t write sex scenes.

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  10. Carolyn Jewel
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 09:05:39

    Thank you for this brilliant and thought provoking post.

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  11. HK
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 09:18:14

    Thank you. I have entered my current WIP in a few contests and each time I have gotten numerous comments on a ‘rule’ I have broken: The heroine meets another male before the hero AND finds that male attractive.

    Each time the judges have helpfully informed me that although they can see who the hero is, I need to make that first male less attractive. Oh, and I really should have her meet the hero first.

    This isn’t a category with a shortened word count and what’s wrong with noticing an attractive male? She didn’t have sex with him or think about sex with him, she noticed how good looking he is. I notice good looking males all the time, that doesn’t mean I’m unfaithful to my husband.

    If it was about the writing or the story I’d be ok with the comments. But, her meeting and noting an attractive male (that’s not the villain)?

    Now I guess I have a possible explanation for the comments.

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  12. Rebecca
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 09:42:30

    @HK, I have had similar issues with a WIP of mine… and what happens if she, God forbid, finds the villain attractive? I mean, what girl doesn’t have a bad boy fantasy on some level? And villains are often attractive as well, right? I have had a crush on Sean Bean for most of my adult life, and until Lord of the Rings, he never played a remotely “good” character. So I admit to my bad boy fetish. And sometimes, in romance fiction, I find the villains sexy (sexier than the hero? that’s one I don’t know about).

    I hope this particular facet of the industry will gradually morph. Perhaps not change completely. I will admit that I enjoy the thought that a woman could meet the man of her dreams and get married and have no relationship baggage in her past. That’s a fantasy I will admit to having. But it’s also nice to read Jennifer Weiners sometimes, where the heroines have had sexual relationships that made them the delightful women they are, and still end up happy in the end.

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  13. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 10:05:51

    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.

    THIS!

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  14. LauraB
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 10:06:28

    This is a debate about love that has been happening for thousands of years: is love spiritual or physical? In the Western Canon the emphasis on love has been that it’s purest form is spiritual. There’s always been a counter pull where the mind hasn’t been split from the body.

    Plato’s Phaedrus is a great example of this problem: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/phaedrus.html

    My favorite literary treatment of this “issue” is the Pygmalion story as told in Ovid. I’ll summarize: Pygmalion is disgusted by female lustiness and sexuality. Sculpts a statue of the perfect woman: pure, virginal (she’s a statue) and mute. He falls in love with his statue. Is disconsolate b/c he can’t have sex with her. Venus makes her real and finally Pygmalion is happy b/c he can boink his statue lady w/o being too much of a deviant. Of course, the woman’s sexuality is still circumscribed by his desires and attitudes (I mean he created her right). Ovid follows this story with the tragedy of Pygmalion’s grand-daughter, Myrrha, who has an incestuous relationship with her daddy. (read Book X of The Metamorphoses). Go figure.

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  15. Mary Anne Graham
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 10:20:19

    I particularly disliked Elsner’s patronizing attitude, especially since I don’t think he “gets” romance. He equates love with thought. Let’s get real – what woman would ‘decide’ to take on the extra work of caring for a man, raising the children and working in and out of the home?

    As to women in romance having more sexual freedom and being less subject to a double standard, I absolutely agree with the theory. In practice, as a reader and a writer, I find myself falling into the traps of wanting the women limited in some ways and the men in others. Perhaps it’s a question of where my personal comfort zone is located.

    I agree that we all need to push the boundaries. In the indie writer revolution, I think that will happen naturally. I just think I’ll have to work on “the woman in the mirror” first.

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  16. jody
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 10:21:55

    Well said, Jane.

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  17. Kathryn Smith
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 10:36:39

    I really wish there was more acceptance of non-virgin heroines. For one thing, doesn’t it make the hero’s prowess all the more grand if she’s been with other men and he’s still the *one* who gets her motor revving the fastest? I like experienced heroines. I like courtesans. There’s something about the jaded woman, or better yet, the sexually powerful woman, that I really enjoy as a character.

    Then again, I don’t enjoy either character when they’re a slut. Generally I try to attach consequences to that kind of behavior, but a person’s reaction and attitude toward sex says so much about them as a character that I think the industry really needs to loosen up — just a little.

    What Mr. Elsner doesn’t get, IMHO, is that sex is also an act of vulnerability. When coupled (pardon the pun) with real emotion, sharing bodies is the ultimate act of letting someone in — literally.

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  18. RRRJessica
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 10:38:11

    Even Megan Hart's Dirty, Broken, and Stranger feature heroines whose sexual desire and expression is primarily, if not exclusively, limited to the hero.

    I can’t resist adding: In Hart’s Tempted, Stranger and Deeper, the female protagonists have sex with men besides the one they love, after their relationship is established. Does this disqualify them from being romances?

    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.

    I agree, but I also think there is a big difference between more feminine sexual freedom and less moral punishment for it, and abandoning the core — yes conservative — value that animates the genre: there is one special romantic partner for each of us, and sexual fidelity is part of that deal.

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  19. dick
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 10:41:33

    I think one of the things that the romance genre does exceptionally well is elucidate the yin/yang symbol in human terms–otherness brought into union. There is even, in the presentation of the so-called “duke of slut” paired with the virginal heroine a kind of biological/physiological truth which again is almost archetypical, and again a joining of otherness. Sex is certainly part of that presentation: In what other human activity is the yin/yang principal achieved? To make it even more archetypical, the whole thing proceeds through a plot pattern akin to the passage of the seasons which plot ends with an HEA, usually one which suggests marriage and fruitfulness will follow, a reenactment, if you will, of Adam and Eve and the Garden.

    But, I also think it takes authors of better than average ability to present sex in such a way that yin and yang become one and in a plot which makes the sex more than one aspect of the union. The romances with sex of those who don’t have that ability, it seems to me, can readily be classified as erotica to elicit prurience. And those romances I think may be comparatively immoral because they are thus based. It’s unfortunate that Elsner’s sample evidently contained only that kind.

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  20. Stephanie Draven
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 11:05:40

    I’m so glad someone addressed this. Romance is starting to challenge some of the sexist paradigms about female sexuality, but it’s still happening slowly.

    One of the reasons I enjoyed Sabrina Darby’s “On These Silken Sheets” is precisely because the book was just a bit transgressive. For example, the heroine of the first story is actually turned on by watching the hero have sex with another woman. While the hero never touches another woman again after they come together, the fact that the heroine enjoyed watching is never dismissed or ignored. Certainly voyeurism may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it doesn’t have to be.

    A heroine can have an unusual sexuality and still be a good and worthy person who deserves to find love. I would much rather read more books about women whose sexuality doesn’t conform with social norms, than be continuously preached to by the romance genre about how virginity establishes a woman’s worthiness.

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  21. Katie
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 11:07:24

    Why does it even matter what anyone thinks of your reading/writing choices?

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  22. Anne Calhoun
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 11:15:40

    Excellent post. What I found interesting about Elsner’s post, however, is that he checked out a selection of romance novels, then proceeds to dismiss the entire genre as naughtynaughtyfluidexchange without naming the books he read. I’d love to know who he did read. Did he read Nora? Did he read Lora…Leigh? What spurred such disdain for an entire genre of books?

    The other thing I find truly hilarious is that it’s not often you find a male author taking the high road on romance, of all things. “But mostly, I don’t do sex because I’m more interested in love — and love takes place in the mind where it has to fight for its existence against all the other challenges presented by life.”

    I nearly fell out of my chair laughing at the sheer audacity of putting his own work above an entire genre devoted to a Happily Ever After that always includes declared, mutual love. And love takes place in the mind? I disagree. Thinking about how much you love someone hardly compares to acting like you love someone (and marriage research backs this up – long-term marriages thrive in part because partners do little things for one another, not because they THINK about how much they love one another). I think love takes place in daily actions. It’s in getting a cup of coffee for your lover, or shoveling his car out after a snowstorm, or buying a favorite author’s next book, or in saying, “Love the new sweater.” And yes, it’s in sex, in that shared, intimate connection/action.

    Ultimately, romance novels from inspirational/sweet to their most erotic describe love through action. Restoring the B & B together. Finding the murderer/villain. Choosing a property for a day spa. Getting the hero out of the insane asylum and restoring his title. Saving the hero or heroine, emotionally or physically. And yes, having sex. It’s about acting together in all the ways that people do, not just thinking about it.

    At least that’s how I see it!

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  23. AQ
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 11:28:21

    Very nice article, Robin

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  24. Candice
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 11:38:58

    I think this dude is clueless about why women read romance. Sure, the love scenes can sometimes be steamy, and portray the ideal that when you’re in love the sex is HAWT, but there’s a lot more to a romance novel than that. All I know is that when I want porn, I don’t open a romance novel, I just watch porn! He’s dumb and probably runs around making a lot of ill informed judgments. Romance novels probably aren’t the first, nor will they be the last of his things to target with less than a half-assed effort at giving a well rounded report. He’s too dumb to be worthy of my outrage.

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  25. hapax
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 12:07:58

    I’m all for doing away with the sexual double standard, and allowing more scope for sexually experienced, powerful, and comfortable heroines.

    I just wish there was some more scope for doing away with the OTHER end of the standard, and a wider selection of heroes who were sexually chaste, inexperienced, unfulfilled, or even (gasp!) virgins, without having to put up with the preachiness that infests so many of the Inspirational titles.

    Of course, I’m more likely to be able to indulge my fantasy of short, chubby heroes than to see some without the Widely-Traveled Wonder Wang.

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  26. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 12:46:09

    I just wish there was some more scope for doing away with the OTHER end of the standard, and a wider selection of heroes who were sexually chaste, inexperienced, unfulfilled, or even (gasp!) virgins, without having to put up with the preachiness that infests so many of the Inspirational titles.

    How about Julia Ross’s Games of Pleasure? Virginal hero and courtesan heroine. Plus she's just a damn good writer!

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  27. Robin
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 13:21:35

    Wow, what great comments! I am so enjoying this discussion and I thank everyone for your thought provoking insights.

    @Mfred: Thank you for that link!

    @LauraB: I was trying to sustain my focus on the Romance genre, but I totally agree with you about the many implications of the mind/body split re. love.

    One point I wanted to make but decided against is that in many societies, especially those with a strong sense of shame, there is a perception that the body is weak, and especially for the female, the flesh is dangerous and uncontrollable, in need of education, restraint, guidance, etc. Because the dangers presented by the temptation of the female body makes women untrustworthy.

    And I think this really informs the way Romance often constructs the female body and female desire. In fact, I think it informs the way the genre constructs male desire. How many heroes feel so attracted to the heroine that they need her ‘beyond their control.’ Some authors, like Anne Stuart, may present this in a way that recognizes the threat to the heroine (the hero threatens or does some sort of violence to the heroine because he cannot control his desire for her), ultimately converting that threat into a mutually consenting love relationship.

    So instead of the woman and her sexuality being this evil temptation, it is converted to a good thing through the hero’s desire coupling with the heroine’s innate virtue (which is often physical, or if not, it is symbolically portrayed in other ways). I think that’s another, deeper, element of this ambivalence we see in the genre, and while Romance can both conform to and subvert this “woman as untrustworthy’ myth, IMO the struggle is a ubiquitous subtext in the genre.

    @RRRJessica: For all Hart’s work is classified as not Romance (and IIRC, Hart herself refuses to classify her work as Romance), IMO so many of her books conform to the Erotic Romance subgenre. Just look at where Elle and Dan end up. And even in Stranger, where Grace is paying for sex, she ultimately cannot sustain any real intimacy with two men, a move that for me marks the book even more strongly as romantic rather than purely erotic.

    @dick: Hi dick! Long time no see.

    We’ve had a couple of variations on this debate already, so I think you can anticipate where I’m going to stand on the question of otherness and sexual/gender archetypes. IMO many of these so-called biological or natural oppositions are merely paradigms of social behavior, in which women are socialized toward “innocence” and men are socialized toward “experience,” and the match is perceived as natural simply because it meets the oppositional structure of yin/yang.

    As for what constitutes prurient novels, I think that’s primarily a reader-based judgment based on the reader’s own context. This issue has been raised, for example, around straight women who write m/m Romance. Are they merely fetishizing homosexuality for the sexual titillation of other straight women or are they writing authentic GLBT Romance? Despite the extremely compelling nature of the question, I think it’s unanswerable in any universal way.

    @hapax: WORD on the call for more inexperienced heroes.

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  28. Caligi
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 13:52:19

    What irked me most about this article was the blatant sexism. He so graciously proffers his permission for women to enjoy porn. I guess a man’s right to do so is implied? Beyond that, his assumption that sex is porn is also sexist. It assumes that only the male perception of sex is the real one. Since men disassociate sex and emotion, any attempt to tell an emotional story using sex is both fantasy and thinly veiled titillation. Nevermind that women quite famously equate sex with love. He craps all over that. Since men don’t do that, women’s perceptions are wrong, and romance is trash by extension.

    What it comes down to is his, and the rest of the literary patriarchy’s, inability to entertain narratives that are uniquely female. In his mind, only the male narrative can be literary.

    I think it’s fair to say that for the vast majority of women, sex and love are very closely intertwined. I can read a romance devoid of sex, but it will always feel incomplete to me. I need to see how they relate. It’s not me wanting to be a voyeur or get turned on, and I really dislike gratuitous sex scenes. Leaving out the sex leaves out half of a relationship.

    I think of A Precious Jewel by Mary Balogh and how tightly integrated the sex is to the romantic plot. His finally considering her pleasure in bed, after months of basically using her as a complex right hand, is striking evidence that he’s begun to care for her as a person. Or think of Hot Under Pressure by Kathleen O’Reilly where they go from awkwardly rolling away from each other after hooking up as total strangers to snuggling closely after making love once their relationship advanced.

    To a woman’s mind, sex tells much about a relationship’s romance level, and there’s no shame in this. A woman’s life is different than a man’s, her narrative will value different things from a man’s but it is absolutely its equal.

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  29. Victoria Janssen
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 15:45:41

    Excellent post. Thank you.

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  30. SarahT
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 16:02:52

    Excellent post, Robin.

    It reminds me of all the controversy over the character of Molly in Victoria Dahl’s Talk Me Down. Molly is unabashedly sexually confident and many readers seem to have taken exception to this. Both Romantic Times and All About Romance slammed the book, with the RT reviewer going so far as to liken Molly to a dog in heat. Perverse soul that I am, the RT review made me laugh out loud and I knew I had to read the book! As it happens, my reaction to Molly was the polar opposite of the RT reviewer’s.

    Romance heroes are expected to be sexually experienced to the point of promiscuity. Most readers don’t object to Dukes of Slut and playboy billionaires. Why are the expectations for heroines so very different?

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  31. Jackie Barbosa
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:03:56

    I mentioned on Twitter that I’m 90% sure that the primary reason the book my agent and I shopped over the summer didn’t sell because the heroine was sexually experienced. The irony is, I think I could have gotten away with it if she’d been a courtesan, but because she was a countess and had engaged in numerous affairs during her marriage (for good reason and with her husband’s unspoken blessing), she was irredeemable and unlikeable in the eyes of most of the editors who read the book.

    Now, this isn’t a plea on behalf of my book in any way, but the personal experience does highlight for me that there really is a huge double standard in romance. If the hero had been a widowed earl who’d cheated on his wife, I doubt editors would have blinked an eye. That the heroine should be redeemed in some way by love seems to be out of the question.

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  32. Kinsey
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:08:41

    I loathe the sexual double standard, even as I unconsciously and quite unwillingly buy into it. As much as I try, I just don’t view promiscuous men the same way I do promiscuous women – I’m not talking about women who have sex early in a relationship, but women who do a lot of casual sex. Is it my age? I’m only 46, and I wasn’t a virgin when I got married, but sometimes I think my sexual resume probably looks Victorian to a young woman in college today. (Or am I buying into a false stereotype of the coeds who copulate like bunny rabbits? I don’t know. Gadzooks, I feel old).

    I know the double standard is pernicious, but it’s ingrained in me. And when I read a romance where the heroine is casually lusty – The Big Bad Wolf Tells All is the last one of these I read – I’m instantly a little bit distanced from the her, even if I really like her (and I really liked the heroine of TBBWTA).

    I can’t seem to write casually lusty heroines, either, which bothers me. I understand that we all like to read about characters with whom we can identify, but as a writer I’d like to think I could crawl into someone’s head who was very different from me. And I’m not sure I can.

    But as a reader, that’s what’s so great about the state of the romance genre today. Although the chaste heroine is still common, as is the sexually reserved heroine, it’s not like it was thirty years ago when I was reading the virgin-has-an-orgasm-first-time-out-of-the-chute bodice rippers. You can find just about any kind of heroine you want these days – I think it was over at SBTB where I read a review of a book featuring a drug kingpin’s moll and a hit man? I like how more and more transgressive heroines are making their way to page and pixel. I plan to expand my romance horizons.

    On These Silken Sheets is a marvel, BTW. Not at all your standard historical characters.

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  33. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:29:01

    I mentioned on Twitter that I'm 90% sure that the primary reason the book my agent and I shopped over the summer didn't sell because the heroine was sexually experienced. The irony is, I think I could have gotten away with it if she'd been a courtesan, but because she was a countess and had engaged in numerous affairs during her marriage (for good reason and with her husband's unspoken blessing), she was irredeemable and unlikeable in the eyes of most of the editors who read the book.

    My debut, Lord Sin, has a sexually experienced and sexually aggressive heroine who is not a courtesan (no adultery though; mine took lovers once she was a widow). I never got any guff about her and the book was even nominated for RT's Reviewers' Choice Awards.

    Ok, that's not strictly true. There's one review site out there that loathed her (the reviewer hated everything about the book though, from my voice to my grasp of history, so I had a pretty easy time shrugging it off *rolls eyes*).

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  34. Jackie Barbosa
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:36:53

    @Kalen Hughes: Right.

    I think the fact that my heroine was MARRIED during her affairs (albeit to a much older, impotent husband who a) didn’t love her and b) had done something very evil to her) made her unacceptable/irredeemable. I knew I was going out on a limb with a character like her, but it was an important part of her character arc to learn that she is worth loving, not just having sex with.

    Ah well, what’s done is done :).

    P.S. Congrats on your recent sale. Have you decided on a name yet?

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  35. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:39:27

    Pam Rosenthal’s The Slightest Provocation has a hero and heroine who have been separated and have BOTH been committing adultery with great frequency and enjoyment. And it was a RITA finalist.

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  36. Jackie Barbosa
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:42:14

    @Kalen Hughes: And Sylvia Day’s THE STRANGER I MARRIED had a similar theme–married protagonists who’d cheated on each other in the past.

    I’m not saying such stories are not out there. It’s just a very difficult line to walk, and I obviously didn’t walk it well enough.

    ETA: Didn’t THE SLIGHTEST PROVOCATION win the RITA that year? Or am I thinking of another year?

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  37. Stephanie Draven
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:42:21

    @Kalen Hughes:

    I don’t really care for adultery, but the rebel in me is suddenly very interested in reading these books that Kalen Hughes is recommending ;)

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  38. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:48:52

    P.S. Congrats on your recent sale. Have you decided on a name yet?

    Still playing name roulette with sales and marketing, LOL! The first book doesn't come out till May 2011 so there's still plenty of time to create a “new me”. *grin*

    I think the fact that my heroine was MARRIED during her affairs made her unacceptable/irredeemable. I knew I was going out on a limb with a character like her, but it was an important part of her character arc to learn that she is worth loving, not just having sex with.

    This is one of those things that I just don’t get. These are the kinds of books I WANT!!! I’m so annoyed that it got turned down . . . my brain won't stop thinking of ways to repackage it (was it being pushed as “erotic romane” like Pam's?).

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  39. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:54:06

    The Edge of Impropriety won last summer.

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  40. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 17:58:03

    I'm not saying such stories are not out there. It's just a very difficult line to walk, and I obviously didn't walk it well enough.

    I don’t believe that for a minute! I’m thinking it just didn’t find its way to the right editors (or the right “lines”). Pam and Sylvia both write “erotic romance” (and so do I, really; Hilary always said my books should have been Brava not Zebra).

    I don't really care for adultery, but the rebel in me is suddenly very interested in reading these books that Kalen Hughes is recommending ;)

    If you haven’t read Pam Rosenthal, do it!!! I just adore her stuff. The one that won the RITA last time round has a sexy professor as a hero. Yum!

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  41. Jackie Barbosa
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 18:08:29

    @Kalen Hughes: The trouble was, it really wasn’t intended as an erotic romance, but a more traditional (if quite steamy) one.

    I honestly think it went to the “right” editors. Judging by the rejections, it just couldn’t find a home because the heroine wasn’t “sympathetic” enough. I put that down to me not doing a better job of making her someone the reader could connect with (although, ironically, unpublished contest judges almost universally loved her when that manuscript was on the circuit).

    At the same time, I do think it might have been easier for the editors to like her if she hadn’t been promiscuous in her past. But that was an important part of her character arc, and so, it wasn’t something I could change without significantly altering the entire book.

    P.S. Lord Sin was great!

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  42. Jenny Schwartz
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 18:09:36

    To me, romance novels are about relationships and character growth and a journey to intimacy (which is scary and involves major trust issues–probably why we want our duke sluts to become monogamous and not break our hearts). Sex is part of building that intimate relationship, and it’s pleasure a pay-off for the leap of trust. It’s not porn. It’s about saying loving someone and sharing yourself (sexually and otherwise) with them is worth the risk. To say romance novels lack morals is ridiculous. From inspirational to erotica you choose the heat level, etc that matches your reading tastes and moral values.

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  43. Luna
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 19:38:56

    “…love takes place in the mind”

    Yeesh, I feel sorry for his wife, if he has one.
    “Hey Hon, up for thinking about some love later on once the kids are in bed?”

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  44. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 15, 2009 @ 22:12:26

    @Jackie Barbosa: Well it still makes me grumbly that I won’t be getting to read it! I didn’t intend to write “erotic romance” either (and I still don’t think I really do), but my editors all think I do, so I bow to their greater knowledge of the market.

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  45. dick
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 10:18:02

    @Robin (et al)
    If there is no objective way to recognize prurience, how can we use the word at all? That an individual may enjoy erotica which elicits prurience doesn’t change it to something else.

    If men and women are different–sexually, emotionally, physically, biologically–then the standard is also only different not double. And aren’t there practical reasons for that? Isn’t the so-called double standard employed in romance more complimentary than insulting?

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  46. Jackie Barbosa
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 10:21:00

    @Kalen Hughes: Aw, thanks Kalen. You can’t possibly know how much your grumbliness means to me. (Well, then again, perhaps you can, lol.)

    The irony is, the book that was released in an erotic line (Aphrodisia) has gotten dinged by some reviewers for not being erotic ENOUGH. And I’m not overly surprised by that. It’s HOT, but relatively tame by comparison to many other books in the Aphrodisia line. (It probably should have been a Brava, too.)

    When we went out with UNASHAMED, my agent felt it was limiting to pitch it as an erotic romance, especially given that in construction, it was far more “traditional romance” than erotic. It wasn’t as if the heroine’s past sexual conquests were described on the page in blow-by-blow detail, after all. That said, NOTHING she did in the story would have made sense if she hadn’t had a sexually adventurous past. To eliminate or even tone it down would have meant tossing out the entire story and writing again from scratch.

    Anyway, thanks again for being grumbly. You kinda made my day :).

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  47. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 11:51:38

    When we went out with UNASHAMED, my agent felt it was limiting to pitch it as an erotic romance, especially given that in construction, it was far more “traditional romance” than erotic. It wasn't as if the heroine's past sexual conquests were described on the page in blow-by-blow detail, after all. That said, NOTHING she did in the story would have made sense if she hadn't had a sexually adventurous past. To eliminate or even tone it down would have meant tossing out the entire story and writing again from scratch.

    This would not have been a problem in the 70s and 80s (possibly 90s?).

    We’ve regressed a long way, baby.

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  48. GrowlyCub
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 18:47:53

    @dick:

    The fact that there are biological differences between the genders does not negate the fact that cultural imprinting is alive and well. If one gender gets to have indiscriminate sex and the other doesn’t that’s a double standard regardless of whether one gender’s biology might predispose them to it. Especially, since we pride ourselves of not being ”all animal” but civilized and able to overcome our instinctive behavior.

    Nature only goes so far, especially if one considers the wide variety of behavior within societies; within classes; within families; and within each gender.

    Nurture plays a significant role in overarching societal mores, rules and attitudes and the fact that I wholly enjoyed the several one-nightstands I had without the slightest twinge of guilt shows that variety of gender attitudes towards what one considers healthy sexuality.

    Does that mean everybody else has to feel the way I do? No, but it does mean that they don’t get to tell me what I did was wrong because they felt dirty for having done the same thing.

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  49. kirsten saell
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 21:44:23

    In many ways, morality and nature coincide, especially in romance novels. Millenia of evolution has programmed males and females with distinctly different mating strategies because of the disparity in personal investment in their offspring. Men, sow widely. Women, sow carefully. (And in the distant past, this resulted in 80% of women being serially monogamous and reproducing with only 20% of men, heh.)

    To stabilize this, society constructed an implied social contract within marriage. A man fails his part of the bargain when he doesn’t provide for his family. A woman fails her part when she doesn’t ensure the family her husband is providing for is actually his. The combination of evolutionary psychology and this social contract ccreated the biased acceptance of male infidelity as unfortunate but unavoidable and mostly harmless, while female infidelity is the WORST THING EVAH!

    Bring in the pill, unchain women from their stoves, and there are now two opposing forces with women being squashed in the middle. To the point that romance readers hate virginal heroines with magical, rake-taming viginas, but can’t embrace the whore with the heart of gold just yet either.

    Will we get past this? I don’t know. I don’t know if eliminating all constraints on female sexuality is good for society. But I’m still gonna write stories about women with pasts, women who love sex even when they’re not with The One, women who defy the limits of their reptilian brains and rattle the bars society puts around them.

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  50. Kinsey
    Dec 16, 2009 @ 22:00:32

    Kirsten – that’s a freaking brilliant post, every word of it. Thank you.

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  51. dick
    Dec 18, 2009 @ 10:28:12

    @growlycub

    I don’t disagree with what you wrote, actually; society does impose constraints on its members. The question really is whether society develops those constraints, given the biological, emotional, physicological differences between men and women, because they are pragmatic recognitions of those differences or because it wants to give women fewer opportunities for sexual expression. Society is composed of both genders, after all; the constraints society imposes thus aren’t imposed by one gender only, despite the accusatory implications of “double standard.” Is it a double standard when youth below the age of 18 are prohibited from drinking when adults are not? Or is it a recognition of differences in maturity, judgement, etc.?

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  52. hapax
    Dec 19, 2009 @ 12:02:43

    Janet, I don’t know if you’re still monitoring these comments, but you might be interested in this post about tentacle porn (probably NSFW). I know, it’s Not My Kink either, and all that, but if you can get past the EEEWWWW there are some interesting things here about how erotic fantasies are read by women cross-culturally, which very much applies to the broader topic here.

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  53. Moriah Jovan
    Dec 19, 2009 @ 12:31:08

    @hapax:

    Heh. Now that makes my fondness for forced seduction with a human look downright vanilla, except without the little bean specks.

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  54. Kalen Hughes
    Dec 19, 2009 @ 13:15:26

    but you might be interested in this post about tentacle porn

    When my little brother was a tween and just getting into anime, the oft spoken rule at the video store was Nothing with tentacles on the box!

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  55. Robin
    Dec 19, 2009 @ 23:38:56

    @hapax: thanks for posting that link. I have a ton of theories about these forced scenarios, but I’m not sure they’re all of the same type. Definitely something to think about more carefully, though.

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