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Is there Such a Thing as Feminist Sex?

[Fleur] thought about Jake. His erotic pull on her grew stronger every time she saw him. She didn’t trust him, but she wanted him. And why couldn’t she have him? She turned the idea over in her mind. No emotional commitment. Just good, dirty sex. That’s all her attraction to him had ever been about. And wasn’t that the essence of real liberation? Women didn’t have to play games. They shouldn’t play games. She should look Jake straight in the eye and tell him she wanted to –

To what? “Go to bed” was too wishy-washy, “make love” had implications, “screw” was tacking, and “fuck” was just plain awful.

Was she going to buckle under just because of a language barrier? How would a man do it? How would Jake do it?

Why wouldn’t Jake do it?

Right then she knew she could never be the sexual aggressor, no matter how much she wanted him. Whether her reluctance was rooted in cultural conditioning and biological instinct made no difference, because women’s liberation got all tangled up when it hit the bedroom floor.

I absolutely love this passage from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Glitter Baby, because I think it eloquently expresses one of the central tensions in genre Romance – namely, the apparent conflict between principles of female “liberation” and sexual politics. On the one hand you have Fleur’s perception that “real liberation” means the ability to distinguish sexual desire from the sometimes twisted games of love and relationships. Then you have the ambivalence over language – how to express this liberated desire in terms not meaningless or already loaded with meaning. And then Fleur’s realization that she could never take the sexual lead with a man, which is tied to this incredibly cryptic logic at the end of the meditation, “women’s liberation got all tangled up when it hit the bedroom floor.”

But what does that mean, exactly? Does it mean that all the principles of what we tend to associate with feminism become moot when it comes to sex? Does it mean that we have not yet evolved to the point where we can separate sex from ideas of gender and from sexual politics and game playing? Or does it mean that feminism is all well and good but there is something in the “nature” of men and women that means our sexual desires will always run up against our principles of gender equity and female empowerment?

This dilemma is apparent in more than a few SEP novels, and it echoes more generally through the Romance genre as a whole. The very nature of the genre, at least in heterosexual Romance, where even the most “liberated” heroines ultimately end up in a committed relationship with the hero, could be read as a case against defining female liberation as the ability to express sexual desire separate from the games of love and relationships.

The recent article in Psychology Today, “Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra,” suggests that women are neurologically “wired” for sexual submission and psychologically inclined toward “dominant men.” While the authors point out that both male and female brains contain the wiring for submission and dominance, they suggest that the choice is made in the womb, pushing a biological rather than cultural explanation for their argument. The obvious answer to the question posed in the title, then, is that encouraging equity between men and women is responsible for the diminished sexual desire that –according to the authors – is “the most common sexual complaint” among women.

Note the logic here: women complain of diminished sexual desire; women are neurologically programmed for sexual submission, while men are neurologically programmed for sexual dominance; therefore, feminism is destroying female sexual desire. Where do Romance novels come in? According to Angela Knight, they reflect the “natural” way of things:

“I think this is one of the problems we’re having in romance in general right now: our heroes have gotten a little too PC. We’re portraying men the way feminist ideals say they should be – respectful and consensus-building,” . . . “Yet women like bad boys. I suspect that’s because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order. In fact, this may be one reason why EroRom is gaining popularity so fast – writers feel free to write dominant heroes with more of an edge.”

So if we take Knight’s word for it – as well as the authors of the “anti-Viagra” article – Fleur could never be the sexual aggressor because she’s simply not wired that way, and whatever feminist principles she possesses are getting in the way of her sexual satisfaction.

Unless, for example, we subject the entire argument to a reversal of logic. Instead of the argument above, let’s try this one: If we had no inequality between men and women, we would not see sexual submission or dominance as symbolic of that inequity. But because we do have so much inequity, it’s easy to see sexual behavior and sexual desire through that same lens. However, isn’t it possible that these two things are completely separate? That we can enjoy equity in the boardroom and power plays in the bedroom?

After all, what is one of Romance’s most potent fantasies? It’s the brutish hero who is “tamed” by love. Think of the famous scene at the end of Linda Howard’s Dream Man in which the knuckle-dragging Dane literally passes out from sympathetic labor pains as Marlie gives birth to their child. Or how about Gray’s transformation in After the Night from an abusive jerk who bullies Faith without conscience into a crazy in love and proud of his independent and accomplished woman hero. And what about Bastien from Anne Stuart’s Black Ice, a man who goes from soulless assassin to profoundly domesticated house husband and father – a man who uses his lethal training to make the house safe for his wife and children, even doing the carpentry work himself.

As Susan Elizabeth Phillips argues in her essay for Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women,

The romance novel has – Abracadabra! Zap! Pow! – produced two completely integrated human beings. It has produced the new male – strong and intensely physical, but possessing all the sensitive, nurturing qualities of the female. And it has produced a new female – a heroine who possesses all the softer qualities traditionally assigned to women but who has none of a woman’s physical limitations because his strength now belongs to her.

Now Phillips’s argument is premised on the notion that women are physically weaker than men, so I would substitute the physical limitations with social, economic, and political limitations, and I have a number of other quibbles with the way she is conceptualizing this idealization. But I think her notion that the Romance often integrates the hero and heroine by redistributing the characteristics each possesses and lacks is a good place to start responding to what I see as a conflation of social equality and sexual play.

Although I’ve quoted this passage from Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman’s Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape several times now, I’m going to do so here again, because I feel that the statement is paramount to what I’d like to see in our conversations about sex and power in Romance – namely a paradigm shift away from requiring our sexual fantasies to a) line up with our social ideals, b) become anecdotal evidence that some sexual fantasies are anti-feminist and even pro-rape, or c) be used as evidence that feminist ideals are not “natural” or even desirable:

So often it seems as if the discourse is focused solely on the “no means no” model — which, while of course useful, stops short of truly envisioning how suppressing female sexual agency is a key element of rape culture, and therefore how fostering genuine female sexual autonomy is necessary in fighting back against it. We wanted to talk about how to make the world safer for women to say no and yes to sex as we please.

One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions about Romance novels is a deep suspicion of feminism and a perception that feminism amounts to man-hating or political extremism. We’ve all seen the “I’m not a feminist but…” comments, as well as the assertions that submission fantasies represented in Romance perpetuate rape culture and give a mixed message to men who apparently cannot tell the difference between fantasy and reality.  Even though research demonstrates that “[d]espite the increased prominence of rape themes in popular culture, prevalence rates for rape fantasies appear to have been relatively stable over the past 4 decades,”  decades during which gender roles have also undergone quite an evolution.

Despite the superficial opposition between these two positions – suspicion of feminism and suspicion of submission fantasies – I believe that they both reflect patriarchal assumptions about women and sex. In both cases, women are being judged by a different standard, encouraged to sexually submit according to her “nature,” or resist submission because it gives men the wrong idea and reflects patriarchal conditioning. One of the things that really bothers me about this ‘submission fantasy = perpetuation of rape culture’ argument is the way in which it makes the subconscious sexual fantasies of women responsible for the criminal actions of men. How is that resisting patriarchal assumptions and entitlements?

What if we started to view female sexuality from a place of “yes means yes,” though? What if we simply assume as a matter of course that our sexual fantasies neither will nor need to match up with the rights of both men and women to enjoy the same legal, political, economic, and social opportunities? That men can be stay at home fathers without being emasculated and that women can ambitiously follow career without being de-feminized? What if, in other words, we reject the shame and judgment around our sexual fantasies and freed ourselves from the idea that we have to be all of one thing or another? I imagine that might have a powerfully positive impact on female sexual desire, especially if it means that women won’t have to carry most of the domestic work as well as whatever out of house work they are pursuing, as well. Because I think exhaustion is to blame for the depletion of sexual desire among women, and my idea of liberated, feminist sex is the acceptance of female sexuality as healthy and robust, without shame and judgment and the need to defend our own desires.

Does Romance offer that? Should Romance offer that? Or is the genre idealizing a negative fantasy of female – and male – sexuality?

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!

64 Comments

  1. Janine
    Apr 25, 2011 @ 23:07:42

    Great post Robin. I don’t have anything to add right now but I would clap if I could!

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  2. Sami Lee
    Apr 25, 2011 @ 23:30:26

    Fascinating post lots of food for thought.

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  3. Leigh LaValle
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 00:13:56

    I love what you say about the “‘submission fantasy = perpetuation of rape culture” argument as shaming women’s sexuality. In some wisdom traditions, it is through sexual union, and specifically surrender, that one can loosen the ties of the ego. The ego being that which centers our separateness. And, what is romance but fulfilling that desire for the absolution of separateness in Union? I think that the powerful masculine, while also playing on some evolutionary impulses, can provide the steady demand for the feminine to truly open, truly give beyond what she knows herself capable. But only if he is placed in integrity. Not softness, or sensitivity, but service to the fire that burns all illusions.

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  4. Lexxie Couper
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 00:25:51

    As an author who has written quite a few forced seduction books (as well as one erotic horror romance where the heroine is subjected to constant paranormal sexual assaults that border on rape) this subject is one of great and on-going interest to me. Thank you for expressing issues that have concerned me for some time. A very well-presented argument.

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  5. Fiona McGier
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 00:43:03

    I always say that I write contemporary erotic romance–contemporary because sex without birth control is scary, erotic because I love to think/write about sex, and romance because sex and love feed each other. I came of age in the early heady days of feminism, and I embraced the idea that equal rights meant the ability to say “yes” or “no” on MY OWN TERMS. I chose who to bed, and was never unsure of how to ask…I just did. I write alpha females who are in control of their lives, including their sexuality. That does NOT mean they aren’t receptive to romance if the man knows how to please them, and the spark between them is strong enough. I also write heroes who have to work hard to convince the heroine that they belong together.
    I’m tired of reading about wimpy females who need rescuing, or need to be man-handled into acknowledging that the big strong manly-man is what they need. I don’t like to read that kind of paradigm, so I don’t write it either. And FYI, I’ve been happily-married for almost 30 years and we have 4 kids.

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  6. Erin Satie
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 00:49:36

    Ever since I read SEX AT DAWN by Christopher Ryan, any conversation about this sort of subject that doesn’t mention it seems incomplete to me. At a bare minimum, SEX AT DAWN completely re-writes popular notions of our “evolutionary” beginnings and makes all this stuff that people say about “caveman” thinking completely irrelevant.

    Also – an alpha personality is rare by definition. Acting as though behavior that is prescriptive for alpha males in a romantic fantasy could form a template for the average guy is ridiculous on multiple levels.

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  7. SN
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 01:03:03

    “contemporary because sex without birth control is scary”

    LOL!! Couldn’t agree more.

    I find it very interesting that even when people claim to want more sexually aggressive – or just generally aggressive – female characters, there is never a similar request for less aggressive men. Why is it women are expected to always aspire to traditionally masculine traits, while men are never found sexually attractive when they take on feminine qualities? I’ll fight for equal rights tooth and nail, but I don’t see why we have to make ourselves into men in order to be considered equal.

    I don’t think a woman needs to be a wimp in order to be submissive. I was painfully shy to the point of having panic attacks in public when I was younger (think of Hannah Drake in Christine Feehan’s Drake Sisters series – that was me!).

    But I’m not a wimp. I have overcome that to some degree, but still find aggressive, confrontational women to be intimidating, and aggressive, confrontational heroines not very enjoyable to read about (there’re exceptions, of course – there always are).

    From a sexual point of view, I love reading about couples where the trust is strong enough that the woman can submit to her partner without losing who she is. One of my favourites is Beth (with Nolan) in Cherise Sinclair’s Breaking Free.
    There’s nothing wrong with that kind of character, or with that kind of fantasy. I don’t know why anybody feels they have the right to dictate to others on the morality of their private fantasies. We’ve become pretty permissive with regards to sex these days, and as long as everyone’s consenting and having a good time, I don’t see why the media always feels the need to bring sexism and psychology into what people are enjoying in private. I actually studied psychology at university, but never went on to get fully qualified, because I discovered psychologists drive me nuts!!

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  8. Megan Mulry
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 01:49:56

    Thank you! I mini-ranted about that Psych Today article on Twitter, too, and thought the title was merely inflammatory rather than doing anything to foster a discussion of real-life sexual politics.

    When my husband and I first started dating I thought it was prudish or old-fashioned that he didn’t like when I would make little innuendos about things we did in the bedroom. I have come to believe that this kind of “what happens in Vegas” policy is the bedrock of a great sex life. There is no shame or prudery about it. Quite the opposite: knowing I can do anything, say anything, BE anything I want in bed, and still have a discussion about the Libyan political situation (or who is going to take out the garbage) without any residual or carry-over power play, makes me feel like Super Woman. I am a pro-sex feminist who loves my husband (hear me purr).

    In romance novels, I want heroines who embody (or work their asses off to embody) positive feminist ideals, namely: intellectual, sexual, and financial liberty. Even an Old Skool character like Bertrice Small’s Skye O’Malley is on that same quest: to be free. Lauren Dane’s heroine in Undercover is perfectly clear on this: “I don’t bottom outside the bedroom. Got it?”

    For me, big, long, satisfying romance novels like those by SEP and Judith McNaught, are all about the desire of the heroine to know herself *and then* give herself to the hero. Those who see romance novels as somehow complicit in perpetuating submissive (outside the bedroom) notions of female behavior miss the point(and deny themselves the pleasure of reading them). Thanks for a thorough look at an inspiring topic.

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  9. Andrea K Host
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 01:59:07

    I’d say “Feminist sex” = sex where those involved don’t believe one is inferior to the other, and thus I’d say “sure” to your subject line.

    I writhed a little reading the extracts of the study. “women like this”, “women are that”. Women are a lot of things, but rarely at such a consensus as those quotes imply.

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  10. Niveau
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 02:20:13

    Ugh, Psychology Today. The second I see that as the source of an article, I know it’s going to be incredibly sexist and weak on unbiased science. They’ve come out with some doozies this year, but the article you linked to is quite possibly this year’s worst.

    I think it’s incredibly stupid to classify personality traits as inherently related to gender. Just because some women like bad boys doesn’t mean that all women do. I like an alpha male just as much as the next girl, but I get incredibly sick of them and of the lack of diversity within romance heroes. I love beta males, but they’re really hard to find. Publishing tends to be cautious about trying new things, and I’d argue that many heroes still aren’t all that respectful or consensus-building… again, the variety I want just isn’t there. Shocking – not all women want the same thing!

    My idea of liberated, feminist sex is the acceptance of female sexuality as healthy and robust, without shame and judgment and the need to defend our own desires.

    This. I love yes-means-yes so very much. It’s technically the legal standard in Canada, but I’m sure you can guess how well that actually works out. *sigh*

    One of the things that really bothers me about this ‘submission fantasy = perpetuation of rape culture’ argument is the way in which it makes the subconscious sexual fantasies of women responsible for the criminal actions of men.

    I’ve seen a rape culture spoken of a lot in relation to rape fantasies recently, and it always bugs me a little, since people seem have such different ideas as to what the term means. As I know it, rape culture is not so much about the crime itself as the way society deals with it. It’s about the victim blaming, the slut-shaming, the constant excuses of “but he didn’t understand!” and “but he’s always been such a good boy!” It’s about the ways in which we let rapists off the hook, but not the crime in itself so much. So by my definition, you just said that labelling submission fantasies as a perpetuation of rape culture is a perpetuation of rape culture. ( :

    I don’t disagree with you on that point. Submission fantasies, imo, are pretty powerful stuff – the person fantasizing is the one who’s in control, even when they’re dreaming about voluntarily giving that control away. I think they do have a place in rape culture – primarily, rape apologists just looove to bring them up as proof that rape’s not really that bad/women secretly want it/virgin-whore dichotomy! – and that the best way to combat that is to keep making it clear that women can tell fantasy from reality, and that women enjoying their sexuality is a good thing, even if it’s not in a way that everyone approves of.

    Because I think exhaustion is to blame for the depletion of sexual desire among women.

    There’s also the fact that even low-dose hormonal contraception exacerbates depression and decreases libido. I swear, if pharmaceutical companies spent even half the time working on drugs related to female sexuality that they do working on ones for men…

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  11. Lori
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 08:11:34

    The recent article in Psychology Today, “Why Feminism is the Anti-Viagra,” suggests that women are neurologically “wired” for sexual submission and psychologically inclined toward “dominant men.” While the authors point out that both male and female brains contain the wiring for submission and dominance, they suggest that the choice is made in the womb, pushing a biological rather than cultural explanation for their argument.

    Funny, they bring up biological factors yet ignore two of the most significant biological issues: chronic fatigue and obesity. What a horribly flawed hypothesis.

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  12. Annabel
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 08:18:13

    Feminism is a difficult topic for me. I feel perpetually shamed because I truly enjoy reading rescue fantasies in romance. I enjoy heroes who are strong, impetuous and aggressive, and heroines who are vulnerable.

    If you switch it the other way around–strong, aggressive heroine, vulnerable man–I’m not interested. At all.

    The logical part of my brain says that’s not fair–or feminist–but the biological part of me is staring at that pumped-up man titty on the cover and imagining me clasped in an overpowering embrace.

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  13. RJones
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 08:28:17

    You nearly lost me at the beginning. I think the idea that the plots of romance novels represent what “every woman” wants is completely ridiculous. I like romance novels, but I read pretty selectively, and I know more women who don’t like romance novels than who do. In other types of genre discussions I often have to jump up with “more people like Romance novels than you think!” which does not lead me to think of romance novels as the majority opinion of sexual fantasy. Also, in the end, the romance reader crowd is self-selecting. If you like SEP, you read SEP, and your point felt like it could be better expressed as “amongst readers who have read multiple SEP books and know them well enough to quote them, the majority of women like this sort of fantasy” which really doesn’t mean a thing about women in general.

    I think I come closer to agreeing than disagreeing with your conclusions at the bottom, though.

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  14. DianeN
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 09:54:30

    Personally, I’m tired of being labeled. I’m more complex than that, and probably (if I’m being honest) more conflicted. I think what I think, do what I do, say what I say and like to read what I like to read for more than one reason. And I refuse to allow a label placed upon me by some outside source to dictate how I react. Am I a feminist? Sometimes, yes. Do I occasionally want to read about a dominant alpha male/submissive female relationship? Sometimes, yes. Do I prefer tough women heroines to lacy-aproned housewife heroines? Why can’t I like them both? Nothing is as simple as psychologists think it is.

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  15. k reads
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 09:55:19

    I’m tired of the chicks dig bad boys line as if it is something specific to women. You know what, most people dig bad boys. There’s a reason why Two and A Half Men was such a popular show. There’s a reason why James Bond had been an icon for decades. Hey, no one admires Jack Nicholson for his humanitarian efforts. It’s ’cause PEOPLE dig bad boys. Not just women.
    Do I dig bad boys? Sure. Sometimes. But if the only way an author can write dominant male characters is to surround them with weak female characters, then I am not so interested. It’s kind of like writing a smart character. An Author can write characters who are actually really intelligent or they can write characters who appear smart because they are surrounded by idiots.
    When dominant males are surrounded by weak (and I mean weak, not submissive) females then, IMO, they aren’t really alphas, merely douchebags. There is nothing sexy about dominating someone weaker than you, it’s just bullying.

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  16. dick
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:02:14

    Is it really possible to so readily dismiss biological influences on gender actions and re-actions? Rationally, men and women are equals. Biologically, they simply aren’t. Romance fiction, it seems to me, constantly re-iterates those biological differences which social conditioning may shift around but can’t really change. Perhaps that’s what SEP meant when she wrote that women’s liberation got all tangled up on the bedroom floor.

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  17. Daedala
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:20:46

    It’s worth noting that the authors of the Psychology Today article were also the researchers justly taken to task for unethical and shoddy practices here.

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  18. DS
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:28:45

    @Daedala:Thanks! I got a 404 error when I clicked your link but I was able to use the copy function to get to the article. http://www.roughtheory.org/content/wearing-the-juice-a-case-study-in-research-implosion/

    I guess there is a reason why this particular article wasn’t published in a peer reviewed journal.

    ETA I meant the Psychology Today article not the one linked to.

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  19. Sarah
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:31:36

    Nothing will make a book a wallbanger for me quicker than a forced seduction. However, that is purely a matter of personal taste. Generalizations about sexuality in either direction make me really uncomfortable. Claiming that those who love forced seductions perpetuate rape culture is just as ridiculous as saying that people who like less aggressive heroes/more aggressive heroines are into wimps/the feminization of men. I think it all adds up to a continued mistrust of female sexuality. I think it’s healthier to point to point to the sexual diversity in romance as a means of celebrating the range of human desires. Instead of pointing at others’ preferences and saying “that’s wrong,” we should say “if that’s what appeals to you, go for it.” It’s ridiculous to shove all people into a box of any sort.
    Sexuality, female sexuality in particular, is demonized enough as it is. Shouldn’t we try to promote the healthy expression of desire on the whole, rather than make generalizations about proclivities that don’t appeal to us personally?

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  20. Robin/Janet
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:47:59

    @Daedala: For me, it’s not the credibility of the PT piece that makes it worthy of discussion (I was laughing my head off the whole time I was reading it, frankly), but the way in which IMO it reflects a broadly held belief about women, men, and sex. PT has a bad history when it comes to publishing reputable research, but I do think they tend to publish articles that reflect many popular opinions and ideas, which makes the questionable science almost moot for those who already believe.

    I also thought Angela Knight’s comments were interesting, because I’ve seen the same sentiment expressed by more than a few authors and readers of the genre. And it’s that thinking I’m trying to isolate here, to what happens if we strip away some of the basic assumptions underlying its logic (i.e. that it’s “natural” for women to be submissive and weaker, that sexual play is the same thing as social and political equity, etc.). And, as I said, I see the sexual submission = promoting rape culture as driven by some of the same logic (i.e. that women are helpless in the face of stronger, more powerful men and we have to protect MEN from our sexuality).

    Curious about how people see all that translating — or not — into Romance.

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  21. Laura Vivanco
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 10:58:08

    I started writing a response here, but because it got so long I ended up posting it here instead.

    I do have one small query which I’d like to post here, though.

    What if we simply assume as a matter of course that our sexual fantasies neither will nor need to match up with the rights of both men and women to enjoy the same legal, political, economic, and social opportunities?

    Are you suggesting that we should assume that nobody will have fantasies which “match up with the rights of both men and women to enjoy the same legal, political, economic, and social opportunities” or are you just arguing that it’s OK to have fantasies which which don’t “match up with the rights of both men and women to enjoy the same legal, political, economic, and social opportunities”?

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  22. Sarah
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 11:00:04

    I forgot to add:

    To me, “feminist sex” just means that women have the right to pleasure. Period. How they find that pleasure is up to them and not for others to judge.

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  23. Robin/Janet
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 11:07:50

    @Laura Vivanco: Good question, Laura. I’m saying that I’d like us to separate the discussions between sexual desire/fantasy and issues of social equity. Not that there aren’t relationships and connections between those two things, but I think they’ve been conflated both in the name of ‘personal as political’ philosophies and in promotion of a biological imperative argument. Even I — who believes in a version of the personal as political — feel that our mainstream cultural discussions of these issues have become a bit sloppy in making distinctions between our sexual behavior and our socio-political opportunities/rights.

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  24. Sunita
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 11:19:08

    Great post, Robin. I agree that we should separate what people want in the bedroom from issues of social equity. Supporters of equal civil and social rights for GLBT citizens manage it. Why is it so hard to do for women in monogamous heterosexual relationships?

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  25. P. Kirby
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 12:02:21

    Yuck. Psychology Today, cheerful purveyors of more evo-psychology, gobbly-gook, designed to show how us how teh science proves that men and women have their “roles,” and woe be it to anyone who deviates from those roles.

    Oddly, though, this bugged me more:
    I suspect that’s because our inner cavewoman knows Doormat Man would become Sabertooth Tiger Lunch in short order.

    I don’t know exactly what a Doormat Man is, but I suspect men like my husband fall under the definition.

    My nurturing, sensitive, husband, who cooks dinner every night and helps me clean house. Who is pretty much the antithesis of the lumbering, grunting, “edgy male.”

    Of course, he’s also an uber-handyman who can build or fix anything. He’s the guy other guys call when sh*t goes wrong. In Knight’s caveman world, he’d be the go-to-guy for building the best spears for killing said Saber Tooth Tiger. And he’d wouldn’t shy away from doing some killing himself, if need be.

    Sensitive and compassionate doesn’t mean weak and ineffectual.

    I’ll take my Doormat Man over the grunting, testosterone-poisoned fool, any day.

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  26. Isabel C.
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 12:21:28

    I’m fond of both submissive and dominant men–in fiction and otherwise–though too far on either extreme is irksome. (Sensitive Nurturing Guy can become Neurotic Passive-Aggressive Man; Strong Dominant Guy can become either Ego Boy or Fucking Scary Dude.)

    I’m *not* fond of gender essentialism based on faulty studies or over-general interpretations of the animal kingdom. Sex roles in nonhuman social animals are generally somewhat more complex than “big manly hunter guy and small submissive female who wants babies”; to what limited extent we can separate biologically inherent gender differences in humans from socially constructed ones, they don’t seem much like the standard Mars-and-Venus crap we all get fed.

    Yeah, I’m a little prickly on this issue. ;)

    Feminist sex seems to me to be whatever the feminist in question wants. I have a problem with the *normalization* of certain gender roles and sexual behaviors, which old-style forced seduction and so forth certainly fed into. (Those tropes were by no means exclusive to romance, of course.) But if rape or rescue or whatever is your kink, then that’s cool–and I think discussing and accepting kinks *as* kinks is a very feminist act.

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  27. hapax
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 12:25:39

    SN @ #7: “I find it very interesting that even when people claim to want more sexually aggressive – or just generally aggressive – female characters, there is never a similar request for less aggressive men. ”

    I find it very interesting that when I repeatedly request less aggressive heroes, and vociferously express that dominant, “alpha”-type heroes are an enormous turn-off for me, that preference is usually dismissed as somehow forcing my political, “real-world” ideals repress my natural inclinations and sexual fantasies.

    I certainly do not wish to denigrate women who have submission fantasies, nor suggest that what they prefer in the bedroom necessarily dictates how they act in the boardroom.

    But I was taken aback by what I see as an implication that such fantasies are universal among women, and that different desires are somehow not “natural”.

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  28. Cecilia Grant
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 12:46:13

    What P. Kirby said. What Isabel C. said. What Hapax said. Honestly, it’s like chomping down on a mouthful of aluminum foil every time I read some variation of “Face it, ladies, we like the bad boys.”

    Sure, bad boys can be sexy. But so can good men.

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  29. RJones
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 12:59:21

    I agree hapax!

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  30. CD
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:00:49

    Great post.

    “…my idea of liberated, feminist sex is the acceptance of female sexuality as healthy and robust, without shame and judgment and the need to defend our own desires.

    Does Romance offer that? Should Romance offer that? Or is the genre idealizing a negative fantasy of female – and male – sexuality?”

    My answers: grey area, yes, and saying that a fantasy is “negative” is in itself a judgement.

    One of the great things about the romance genre is that it contrary to the naysayers, it actually celebrates female sexuality. To put it bluntly, I can’t think of a single romance book which condemns the heroine for having an orgasm. However, it is true that many romance books do limit healthy female sexuality within the bounds of a central couple. It can be argued that it eventually does the same thing to male sexuality but there is still a very evident double standard at work. However, to me, that’s a different issue and in a way “outside the bedside”.

    Inside the bedroom, yes – there are a lot more heroes than heroines in romances who are the sexual aggressors/instigators but that bothers me less because I don’t see that as gender specific. Whether you’re a man or a woman, I think many people like the idea of being so desirable that we get chased by a hot member of the opposite sex. If you read books/films geared towards a male audience, you see a lot more women throwing themselves at the hero. Especially lesbians ;-).

    Regarding feminism as being the “Anti-Viagra” – that’s absolute bollocks. If you accept your own sexuality and feel comfortable with it, that means a whole lot more fun in the bedroom. And that applies equally to both men and women. Although I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in the subject – I would say anecdotally at any rate, both men and women enjoy acting out submission in the bedroom. For one thing, it takes a whole lot less effort and energy at the end of a busy day… As for the tiresome rape fantasy argument – the whole point about fantasies, whether we act them out or not, is that they are ours and therefore we control them. That has absolutely nothing to do with actual rape – it’s apples and Australia.

    Anyway, I would have thought that years after Nancy Friday published MY SECRET GARDEN, that we would have got beyond those types of articles. Sadly not.

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  31. CD
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:08:35

    Great post.

    “…my idea of liberated, feminist sex is the acceptance of female sexuality as healthy and robust, without shame and judgment and the need to defend our own desires.

    Does Romance offer that? Should Romance offer that? Or is the genre idealizing a negative fantasy of female – and male – sexuality?”

    My answers: grey area, yes, and saying that a fantasy is “negative” is in itself a judgement.

    One of the great things about the romance genre is that it contrary to the naysayers, it actually celebrates female sexuality. To put it bluntly, I can’t think of a single romance book which condemns the heroine for having an orgasm. However, it is true that many romance books do limit healthy female sexuality within the bounds of a central couple. It can be argued that it eventually does the same thing to male sexuality but there is still a very evident double standard at work. However, to me, that’s a different issue and in a way “outside the bedside”.

    Inside the bedroom, yes – there are a lot more heroes than heroines in romances who are the sexual aggressors/instigators but that bothers me less because I don’t see that as gender specific. Whether you’re a man or a woman, I think many people like the idea of being so desirable that we get chased by a hot member of the opposite sex. If you read books/films geared towards a male audience, you see a lot more women throwing themselves at the hero. Especially lesbians ;-).

    Regarding feminism as being the “Anti-Viagra” – that’s absolute bollocks. If you accept your own sexuality and feel comfortable with it, that means a whole lot more fun in the bedroom. And that applies equally to both men and women. Although I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in the subject – I would say anecdotally at any rate, both men and women enjoy acting out submission in the bedroom. For one thing, it takes a whole lot less effort and energy at the end of a busy day… As for the tiresome rape fantasy argument – the whole point about fantasies, whether we act them out or not, is that they are ours and therefore we control them. That has absolutely nothing to do with actual rape – it’s apples and Australia.

    Anyway, I would have thought that years after Nancy Friday published MY SECRET GARDEN, that we would have got beyond those types of articles. Apparently not.

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  32. Sascha Illyvich
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:10:34

    First off you reminded me that I haven’t read a SEP book in AGES and what I do remember reading was not only hot but well written.

    Second, I’m not sure I could believe in generalizations that suggest women are submissive, men are dominant naturally. My Mom is a kinky female dominant (yeah I said my MOTHER) and her husband is a strong, responsible submissive male. So that to me throws that idea out the window.

    I think with feminism I’d have to go with a broader definition though some of the power “may” be lost in it. Feminism = the simple equality of opportunity for women. I know that is really broad but I’m also a male and I tend to write heroines that kick ass.

    I think the crux of this genre is about what comes of the characters involved once they’ve gone through their trials.

    I teach my romance authors to look at the character arc as growth, not change. Seriously, if you changed me, would you still like me?

    I’ve never felt the genre offered a negative stereotype of female and male sexuality.

    Also I hope I didn’t sound stupid!

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  33. Nightwriter
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:15:52

    I’ve written two long rants and deleted them both. So I’m just going to say that I’m a middle-aged, happpily married female who thinks the feminist movement sucks and let it go at that.

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  34. Lori
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:19:15

    The feminization of sex, IMO, would mean that it would be illegal for a pharmacist to refuse a woman the morning after pill because he’s a devout asshole. As long as any person other than myself has more rights over my body than I do, it doesn’t matter a damned bit what I read or fantasize because I’m already being rendered voiceless.

    When the question of romance books or literature come into any discussion where the word feminism is used, my back goes up because I know someone somewhere is going to say that my reading choices influence my society. And that pisses me off.

    Romance, agin in my opinion, tells women they can have it all: the career, the man, the life they want. And that’s what’s so frightening.

    When we have the right to be heard about what we want/choose for our own bodies, then maybe the culture will change. I doubt I’ll be seeing it in my lifetime.

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  35. Lisa
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:22:15

    @dick:

    Rationally, men and women are equals. Biologically, they simply aren’t. Romance fiction, it seems to me, constantly re-iterates those biological differences which social conditioning may shift around but can’t really change.

    Which biological metric are you citing here? Indeed, men have more muscle mass generally, but women live longer. Females are more robust at birth than males. Women fare better than men do in a cold environment because of that fat-to-muscle ratio difference. The reason women’s hands and feet are often cold when men’s are not is because women’s bodies hold onto heat in the core organs more efficiently.

    So, really, just because a man can most likely open the pickle jar without a tool doesn’t make him stronger in every measure.

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  36. Sascha Illyvich
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 13:32:55

    @Lori:

    I don’t see how your reading choices influence your society. Do people who read about serial killers become them or are they just fascinated by them?

    My hair goes up too when I hear the word feminist or any form there of but that could be because I live in California.

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  37. Sylvia Sybil
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 14:55:37

    I wish the “heterosexual romance” disclaimer hadn’t been buried in the middle of the fourth paragraph. Since that was the scope of the article, not highlighting it more prominently implies that this limited scope encompasses the whole of romance. And the whole of gender roles, for that matter.

    As far as nature versus nurture, I see a huge difference between saying “the modern Western woman tends towards this” and “all women are like this uniformly, in every time and culture”, which is what biological determination sounds like to me. “Typical” gendered behavior varies hugely even within a single culture, let alone adding in the other factors.

    It’s also worth noting that we are all, every one of us, heavily programmed by our society from birth. Which can be good – we want the programming about not murdering and not stealing – but the effects of that programming on our gender roles can’t be dismissed. It’s illogical to market baby dolls to little girls and then claim they’re naturally nurturing. Or to shame little boys for playing with dolls and then claim men are just naturally helpless with babies.

    TL;DR there’s nothing inevitable about human behavior.

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  38. dick
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 15:54:25

    @Lisa: Exactly!

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  39. Julia Sullivan
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 15:57:55

    I’m a middle-aged, happily married woman who thinks that the equality of people of all genders is one of the most important goals in the world, and though I have some issues with some of the attitudes in some feminist movements (there is no such thing as “the feminist movement!”) a lot of significant progress has been accomplished through the work of organized feminist movements.

    I like voting, which my grandmothers weren’t allowed to do when they were 18. I like having my own bank accounts/charge accounts and getting the same pay as male colleagues with similar training, experience, and job responsibilities, which were rights limited by law in several US states in my lifetime, before federal legislation abolished those inequities.

    People who claim to hate feminism should read Half the Sky by Kristof and WuDunn to see what it’s like to live in a society where feminist movements haven’t made much headway.

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  40. Lucy Woodhull
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 17:00:25

    One of the things I’ve noticed in discussions about Romance novels is a deep suspicion of feminism and a perception that feminism amounts to man-hating or political extremism.

    YES. Thank you. I have encountered this personally and it makes me very sad. The desire for equality is not man-bashing. My man does not feel bashed, except when he asks for it. ;)

    Personally, my brand of Feminism is simply the desire for equality and freedom. I really strive to honor women’s choices, so while I self-identify as a Feminist, I wouldn’t shame anyone for enjoying a rape fantasy or BDSM. I think part of supporting one another as women is honoring our differences and the different paths we desire.

    Narrowing women into any type of monolithic “they like this” or “they don’t do that” group is a way of dehumanizing us, I feel. I don’t know who first said it, but there’s an amazing quote I love – something to the effect of “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.”

    There’s a romance for every type of person – male or female. I hope it stays that way and that our choices expand into the future instead of contract into narrow-minded little boxes.

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  41. Niveau
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 17:22:08

    @hapax: Word.

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  42. Ridley
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 18:05:16

    Any woman who claims to hate feminism likely doesn’t know what the word means. There’s a flavor of feminism for every taste. If you answer “yes” to “Do women have the right to make their own decisions?” you support feminism.

    Now that you’re a feminist, you can now join the ongoing food fight over the million-dollar question: “What’s in the best interest of women?” It’s fun times.

    As for the preposterous assertion that “even when people claim to want more sexually aggressive…female characters, there is never a similar request for less aggressive men,” someone isn’t looking too closely. Calls for beta heroes, nice guys and heroines who do the pursuing are fairly common on the Amazon board, and that’s a pretty conservative bunch. Personally, I get a tingle in my no-no place whenever I find a good beta hero and adore the sensitive man/take-no-prisoners woman combination.

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  43. Evangeline Holland
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 18:15:35

    I believe there is such a thing as “feminist sex”, but you’ve failed to qualify who is having the sex. The conversation still revolves around gender roles between white men and white women.

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  44. Sylvia Sybil
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 19:19:54

    @Evangeline Holland:

    Right on.

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  45. Robin/Janet
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 20:09:14

    @Evangeline Holland and @Sylvia Sybil: In what way is this conversation limited to white and/or heterosexual couples?

    I did not write a manifesto here or prescribe any rules for the genre and/or for race, class, sexual orientation, etc. It’s absolutely true that I used examples from white hetero Romance, but it’s also true that I didn’t mention historicals or PNR or SFR or other subgenres, either. Or provide examples of range of issues around gender identity v. sexual identity, myriad manifestations of sexual identity and sexuality, etc., economic differences, national differences, disability, or even religion, which has a HUGE influence on these issues, IMO. I had actually hoped some of these issues would be raised in the comments, where I always believe most of the substantive discussion occurs (I see my pieces as simply opening a door, not checking IDs to determine who can enter the conversation or not).

    Should I have explicitly included a question about how these issues are specifically affected by race, class, national identity, religion, etc.? Maybe I should have and I appreciate that critique.

    And I’d love it if people would discuss a grander diversity of issues than the ones I introduced in my very brief post here, and I certainly don’t think there’s anything in my own piece that limits the discussion in any of the directions you’ve suggested, even though I failed to designate every permutation of these issues and their import.

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  46. Robin/Janet
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 20:22:40

    @P. Kirby: I found Knight’s comments extremely controversial myself, and while I disagree with her for reasons you and others have enumerated, I have also heard more than a few folks in the Rom community make that basic argument. Which is fascinating, given the way in which Romance idealizes so many social and cultural norms. I haven’t yet thought through all the implications of that, but I’m glad people are discussing it.

    @Julia Sullivan: I’m also unwilling to abandon the term “feminist,” both academically and politically. I *know* I’ve taken for granted the hard work other women have done so I can enjoy the privileges I do have, and I have no doubt that I’m not doing enough now to protect and advance the rights of women in the US and abroad. It’s a definite source of guilt for me, as well as a strong part of why I think we still need the vocabulary of feminism, on both the practical and philosophical levels.

    @hapax:

    I find it very interesting that when I repeatedly request less aggressive heroes, and vociferously express that dominant, “alpha”-type heroes are an enormous turn-off for me, that preference is usually dismissed as somehow forcing my political, “real-world” ideals repress my natural inclinations and sexual fantasies.

    I personally cringe every time I see “PC” in reference to Romance, because I always associate it with exactly what you’re referring to here — that is, an attempt to naturalize and norm something that might otherwise be seen as offensive and cut off any thoughtful debate about the implications of whatever is being defended. As a number of people in the thread have said, there is a fascinating double standard here and judgments of masculinity that are, IMO, just as limiting as the judgments about femininity.

    Despite all of the economic, social, and political privilege men (especially white men) enjoy in the US, at least, there is a lot of tension in our perpetuation of gender norms, and in expectations that have fascinating real world results (i.e. men tend not to take family leave for children because it’s perceived as weak or unambitious, women are often ashamed of admitting that their husbands stay home with the children, etc.). We should probably have more conversations about how these standards echo through the genre, now that I think about it.

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  47. Robin/Janet
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 20:28:44

    @Sylvia Sybil: I’m trying to reconcile your comments here (including their context, since most of the discussion has reinforced a lot of what you’ve said, IMO) with your (IMO baffling) assertion at The Hathor Legacy that Jane’s piece last week was “contributing to rape culture.” If you’d be willing to clarify your comments, I think I’ll have a better understanding with which to respond.

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  48. Robin/Janet
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 20:33:41

    And thanks to Angela for tweeting this provocative link about sexual pleasure and the communism/capitalism divide (it’s SFW, even though it sounds like it won’t be): http://www.yhchang.com/CUNNILINGUS_IN_NORTH_KOREA.html. If you suffer from migraines, though, this might not be the link for you, since it does flash black and white in a rather annoying way.

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  49. Annabel
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 21:20:27

    Heh heh. Well, that is certainly a rebuttal to the Psychology Today article.

    But I still have to say, I think everyone is wired differently. I don’t think you can generalize (as that link did) that equality = sexual fulfillment anymore than PT can generalize that inequality = sexual fulfillment.

    And ow…now my eyes hurt!!

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  50. Sylvia Sybil
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 23:10:25

    @Robin/Janet:

    Should I have explicitly included a question about how these issues are specifically affected by race, class, national identity, religion, etc.? Maybe I should have and I appreciate that critique.

    Basically, yes. As I said up in comment 36, not clarifying that your scope is limited implies that this is the entire scope.

    As for your second question, I don’t see any inconsistency in my comments here and at The Hathor Legacy so I’m not sure what you’re trying to reconcile. If you’re asking what I think the difference is between this article and last week’s, it’s the issue of consent and choice, which I see as central to feminism and women’s rights.

    As I said on Hathor, I found last week’s article and comments on rape fantasy to be triggering, so I’m not interested in discussing that particular subject. (If I was, I would have discussed it over on that thread.) I clarified my position here for the purpose of responding to the topic of feminist sex.

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  51. lazaraspaste
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 09:34:33

    @Annabel Hi. Just clarify the link I sent to Robin. Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries is a web-based art group. Their work has appeared as installation pieces in various museums and galleries as well, like the Tate in London. That said, I don’t think they are trying to generalize anything about sex. Rather, I think they are attempting–as with most art–to make our basic assumptions about sex, politics and equality strange in order to make us think. But I am uneasy about making any statement about the piece since it is intended as art and therefore up to multiple and various interpretations.

    Plus, I think it is hilarious and brilliant.

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  52. Robin/Janet
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 10:33:08

    @Sylvia Sybil:

    As I said up in comment 36, not clarifying that your scope is limited implies that this is the entire scope.

    Actually, I was limiting the scope only for that statement, because it was quite narrow, i.e. supposedly liberated female characters who end up in marriage or otherwise seemingly committed relationships with male characters can be read against the idea that women can express sexual desire without a relationship attached. I used hetero Romance here because it so often ends in marriage, and because it consistently reiterates the most traditional gender roles between men and women, despite the heroines we meet who tell us how they can enjoy sex without strings, even though so much of the genre is all about the strings.

    Would I make that argument I suggested there? Probably not, but I do think there’s a tension in the genre that is especially evident in hetero Romance (whatever the racial and religious implications are would need to be discussed separately, as they would obviously occupy a gamut depending on the book).

    As for the rest of the piece, I tried to keep it general precisely so that people could draw beyond what I wrote and discuss the many, many relevant issues, most of which are not explicitly mentioned in the piece.

    As I said on Hathor, I found last week’s article and comments on rape fantasy to be triggering, so I’m not interested in discussing that particular subject. (If I was, I would have discussed it over on that thread.)

    I can certainly respect the “triggering” that sometimes happens when we read things, and I won’t expect you to respond to this part of my comment, but since in fact you did comment explicitly and at length on last week’s piece (for anyone who doesn’t know what I’m referring to, it’s here: http://thehathorlegacy.com/links-of-great-interest-42211/) — in conclusory assertions insisting that commenters were defending the victimization of women, it has influenced the way I’m reading your comments here. Because to me, that interpretation, which you made several times, strikes me as exactly a judgment of other women’s fantasies, and one that IMO conflicts with your point in your earlier comment that there’s a great deal of variation in behavior we identify as gendered, which seems much less closed-ended than your conclusions about last week’s piece.

    Part of my issue here might be that I did not read Jane’s piece in any way shape or form as arguing for the equation of rape fantasies and vigilante fantasies (or most of the comments, for that matter), but I’m also just trying to unpack your comments about cultural programming in the context of your earlier assumption that there is only one way to interpret certain textual representations of sexual force that many readers filter as pure sexual fantasy.

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  53. Robin/Janet
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 10:47:22

    @CD: I’m wondering if you edited your comment, because for some reason it landed twice in my email, and the second time it did — sometime in the middle of last night — it reminded me that I forgot to address this point:

    Does Romance offer that? Should Romance offer that? Or is the genre idealizing a negative fantasy of female – and male – sexuality?”

    My answers: grey area, yes, and saying that a fantasy is “negative” is in itself a judgement.

    I agree, and this is a place where I should have qualified the way I see the difference between a textual representation (fantasy in the broad sense) and sexual fantasy, which IMO is somewhat different (but related to the textual representation).

    For me, the representation on the page is fantasy in the broadest sense, because it’s a made-up scenario, and one that will have differential impacts on readers. In fact, the same type of scene across books will not necessarily be read the same way by the same reader.

    Then there’s the fantasy response that’s catalyzed in the reader via reading the scene or by projecting herself into the scene to enjoy it on a fantasy basis.

    This distinction might be infinitesimal in some cases, larger in others, and it might not even be conscious for most practical purposes. But I tend to separate the two in my head, in part because I have that whole theory about how the reader does or does not consent to the scene’s dynamics. And in that last question I was thinking of the textual representation, which I should have clarified.

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  54. Joy
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 11:38:08

    My view of feminism revolves firmly around the saying “feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” Which means that women should be socially viewed as individuals capable of making the choices that are right for them. Therefore feminist sex is the social and personal freedom for women to define their sexuality and choose their sexual partners/experiences in ways that work for them (with the standard consenting adult caveats), and not be subject to the stereotyping that “women are…” one way or another with no respect for women’s individuality. I take issue with the concept that “feminist sex” necessarily means taking an attitude toward sex that is stereotypically seen as male (i.e. it’s liberated to have sex with someone you don’t really trust just because you want to)–because there are factors that some people (women, and men too!) consider important other than just desire when making these decisions, like, as mentioned in the SEP excerpt, trust.

    I think something that romance does offer that is supportive of this view of feminism is diversity. This is why category romances have all those lines– for example you can have the “Presents” line with those alpha heroes (who are not, btw, to my taste), you can have the “Blaze” line with its more sexually/socially assertive heroines, you can have the more cooperative in tone Superromances focusing on modern work/life/family issues. In fact, romance allows us to explore fantasies about our sexuality that may not be to our taste, or may not be anything we’d actually want to live out for various issues (such as trust, etc.). I think that’s healthy too.

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  55. Bianca
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 13:18:37

    Like people have said, there’s a lack of realization, in the romance genre (and also life, sadly), that women vary widely in their sexual desires and needs. Not every woman likes bad boys; not every woman fantasizes about submission and m/m. So, if society as a whole could put to bed this “one-size fits all” version of women’s sexuality, that would be much appreciated. Although, to clarify, I’m talking about heterosexual women’s sexuality, here; ridiculously, LBT women seem to get left out of the “all women are like this” discussion, which is further reason to get rid of crap research studies which generate blanket assumptions about women in the bedroom.

    IDK. Just my two cents. Personally, I have a tough time reading romances nowadays, because I’m exhausted by the overwhelmingly constrained view of women, their choices and sexuality. Ironically, I often find a more balanced view of contemporary women in mystery and sci-fi/fantasy, rather than in romance – the genre written “for women, by women.” I feel like romance novels should be at the forefront of empowering women (and part of that is embracing all parts of a woman’s sexuality, even the “controversial” parts like rape fantasies). Instead, the genre often seems like it’s just as sexist as that awful Psychology Today article.

    Off topic, I do wonder at what role age range plays for authors and readers of romance, regarding the expression of female sexuality. I’ve heard that the “average” age of romance writers and readers are in the middle range (39-41, according to RWA). I mean, is this even true? If so, I do wonder how that effects what is being presented in romance, as far as the presentation of sexuality and gender roles. Because, really, whose romantic fantasies are we talking about here? Does age have an impact? Does it affect what is being written (and accepted by readers) in romance novels? Just curious.

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  56. k reads
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 15:08:53

    @Bianca:

    Me too. I’ve gone from reading primarily romance to reading mostly urban fiction/paranormals. Romance as a genre is too socially conservative for my taste.

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  57. Isobel Carr
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 16:03:03

    I’m tired of the chicks dig bad boys line as if it is something specific to women.

    Well, it’s counterpart, Dudes dig crazy girls, is equally true if we’re going to generalize. *rolls eyes*

    I hate seeing feminism denigrated and dismissed as being somehow the equivalent of simply saying “I’m a ball busting man hater.” I love men. Adore them. Am attracted to them. Want to do nice and nicely nasty things to them. But I also want to be legally their equal. I want the same rights over my person. I want the same right to vote. I want to be paid the same amount of money for doing the same work. And I don’t know any women (even the ones who purport to hate feminists aid disdain feminism) who feel any differently.

    And I’d guess that the sex that most of us are having is “feminist” in nature (we expect it to be consensual and we expect our needs and desires to be of concern and interest to our partner).

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  58. k reads
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 17:11:08

    @Isobel Carr:
    “Well, it’s counterpart, Dudes dig crazy girls, is equally true if we’re going to generalize. *rolls eyes*”

    Well, yeah. That was my point. Was that not clear?

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  59. Sylvia Sybil
    Apr 27, 2011 @ 20:38:09

    @Robin/Janet:

    Actually, I was limiting the scope only for that statement, because it was quite narrow

    Ah. I did not understand that.

    I read an underlying bias into the article that the “general/default” being discussed was heteronormative. If you were saying that assumption is present in many romance texts, I think that’s valid and would actually agree with you. I read it as you agreeing that this was the sum total of romance and gender roles.

    Cultural programming is both good and bad, although interpretations of which is which vary. For myself, it’s good when it reinforces values about treating each other well. It’s bad when it sends the message that certain types of people don’t have the same rights as others, or that it’s acceptable to disrespect their rights.

    Every unit of culture, be it a book or a news broadcast or a conversation with a stranger, both reflects the programming that went into it and reinforces or challenges that programming. Likewise, people who take in that unit either accept it or reject it, but either way it has an impact on them.

    Having that programming does not let you off the hook. It’s not enough to shrug and say “Well, this is how my culture programmed me.” We are still responsible for challenging our assumptions and working to treat others as our equals.

    Women have been denied the rights to vote, own property and earn a living based on patriarchal programming that women couldn’t handle those rights. Yet those rights were earned (in some cases still being earned) by people who challenged the dominant culture’s values and subscribed to the radical notion that women are people. I’m sure in the future our grandchildren will look back at us, questioning the possibility of egalitarian sexuality, and be boggled.

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  60. Isobel Carr
    Apr 28, 2011 @ 07:22:48

    @k reads: Yep.

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  61. Robin/Janet
    Apr 28, 2011 @ 12:19:19

    @Joy:

    I take issue with the concept that “feminist sex” necessarily means taking an attitude toward sex that is stereotypically seen as male (i.e. it’s liberated to have sex with someone you don’t really trust just because you want to)–because there are factors that some people (women, and men too!) consider important other than just desire when making these decisions, like, as mentioned in the SEP excerpt, trust.

    If we’re talking about sexual behavior in a vacuum, I agree with you. But I think one of the problems, though, is that it’s difficult in an environment in which certain types of sexual behavior are seen as intrinsically male or female to make truly independent choices. Or to be comfortable with those choices, because of the social implications. And in Romance, we often see some of those gendered norms reinforced.

    I’ll never forget the backlash against Susan Donovan’s Public Displays of Affection, for example, in which the heroine has anonymous sex with the hero, of all people, years before she actually “meets” him and falls in love with him. At the time she’s just about to be engaged to another man, who dies before the main of the story takes place. I vividly remember readers who had not even read the book calling her a “slut” for example. Or how about the infamous RT review of Victoria Dahl’s Talk Me Down, in which the heroine was likened to a dog in heat.

    As long as we’re seeing certain behaviors as gender-based, IMO it’s really tough to have a truly independent measure of sexual satisfaction, and I think women and men of all sexual orientations, identities, and proclivities are influenced and to some degree shaped by the current patriarchal standards.

    @Bianca:

    Off topic, I do wonder at what role age range plays for authors and readers of romance, regarding the expression of female sexuality. I’ve heard that the “average” age of romance writers and readers are in the middle range (39-41, according to RWA). I mean, is this even true? If so, I do wonder how that effects what is being presented in romance, as far as the presentation of sexuality and gender roles. Because, really, whose romantic fantasies are we talking about here? Does age have an impact? Does it affect what is being written (and accepted by readers) in romance novels? Just curious.

    I actually don’t think this is off-topic, because IMO there are certain generational differences that come into play, both in society and in the genre. Although my own experience with books has been that the chronological age of the author does not necessarily align with how I regard the generational character of the book, if that makes sense.

    My experience has been similar with different subgenres. For example, I’ve read quite a bit of EroRom that felt way more traditional in terms of gender roles and gendered sexual behaviors than non-erotic Romance, which is kind of counter-intuitive, IMO.

    This is one of the reasons I wish we could more consciously try to distinguish sexuality from society — who knows what the real patterns of behavior would be if we could just change our paradigm away from the (white, heterosexual, monogamous) patriarchal standards that still inform both our sexuality and our ideas of social justice.

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  62. Robin/Janet
    Apr 28, 2011 @ 12:56:37

    @Sylvia Sybil:

    Cultural programming is both good and bad, although interpretations of which is which vary. For myself, it’s good when it reinforces values about treating each other well. It’s bad when it sends the message that certain types of people don’t have the same rights as others, or that it’s acceptable to disrespect their rights.

    I’m much more wary of valuing social conditioning this way, not only because of the wide diversity in perceptions of “treating each other well,” but also because I can’t shake the philosophical persuasion of interpellation. The idea that ideology “hails” us, to use Althusser’s term, into society as “always already” a subject seems pretty compelling to me, producing a situation in which we are always already judging behavior from inside the ideological loop, so to speak. It’s like trying to discern reality from inside a delusion.

    It’s not that I have a completely relativist approach to “good” v “bad,” or that I’m ready to abandon judgments because we’re always trapped in an ideological loop. But because we’re never free of an ideological paradigm, there’s a built-in bias when we’re measuring societal goods differentially, and in a shared societal context, we’re also sharing that bias, even when we think we’re fighting it.

    Which brings me to the issue of the “heteronormative bias” to which you refer. I had hoped it was clear from my post that because I’m talking about female sexuality within a patriarchal context that there *is* a fundamental heteronormative bias there. In fact, I’d argue that we’re all under its influence to greater or lesser degree, because it informs our notions of what is “normal,” what is “conditioned,” and what is “individual,” etc. In fact, our whole notion of diversity is, IMO, informed by white, heterosexual, monogamous patriarchy, at least in the US, and I further believe that the “heteronormative bias,” as you call it, absolutely infiltrates the Romance genre as a whole. Does it manifest in every single book in a recognizable or similar way? No, of course not. But in a genre that’s specifically focused on physical and emotional (and sometimes spiritual) love, I don’t see how that bias would ever be absent.

    I remember when I first started reading contemporary Romance, both m/f and m/m. I was almost overwhelmed by the sexual politics in the books, and intrigued by the ways in which m/m Romance seemed to be in conversation with m/f Romance. Maybe this is the case because it’s primarily written by women for other women. I know there are people who see m/m as a symbolic interpretation of m/f Romance, while others see it as a rebuttal to m/f Romance. I haven’t read enough m/m to have a settled opinion, but I’ve yet to read an m/m Romance that isn’t, in some way, shaped by the “heteronormative bias,” especially in those books where the couple is in explicit rebellion against the expectations of family, for example. Ditto some of the Romances that have a polymamorous HEA.

    The one subgenre I’d love to engage on this topic is BDSM, because in some sense I think the embodiment of the BDSM identity (not the faux stuff BDSM folks complain about) might represent a truly different sexual paradigm, one that might help pry open our thinking about gender and sexual norms, especially as distinguished from issues of social justice. I know we can never truly bust social paradigms, because we’d have no way of understanding or organizing our personal experiences, but I do think we can effect paradigm shifts, even small ones, from within our current ideological confines.

    ReplyReply

  63. Monday Midday Links: Seal Team 6 Trademarked by Disney
    May 16, 2011 @ 10:01:08

    [...] There is a fascinating debate that took place over at the Guardian on the issue of whether women should watch what they wear or whether what they wear can incite sexual violence.  This was touched on by Robin’s piece a couple of weeks ago about sex and the rape fantasy. [...]

  64. Kathleen O'Reilly » Blog Archive » Crystal Ball Time: Romance Novels in 20 Years
    Feb 17, 2014 @ 05:41:39

    […] has been a lot of discussion regarding feminism vis a vis romance vis a vis sex.  DearAuthor had a great discussion that raised a lot of questions and spawned a lot of passion […]

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