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The Oversexualization of Romance

Romantic Times convention took place a couple of weeks ago. Since the convention, a few people spoke up about their experiences which included a negative reaction to the antics of the Ellora’s Cavemen. SB Sarah said that the Cavemen acted like cavemen and were overly grabby. JC Wilder reported a poorly thought up 9/11 tribute which included strippers and a porn star grabbing themselves in military regalia and later one of the cavemen simulating a sex act with a woman. (Note, according to a pro-Caveman commenter and author, Trista, the stripper remained a whole 12 inches away from the woman at all times while simulating the sex act.) Lori Foster’s report praised the event, cheered the harmless entertainment (the costume balls), but was disturbed by the acts of the Cavemen.

The push back against this is that those who do not wholesale condone or appreciate outward displays of sexuality are prudes or anti-sex. This latter sentiment echoed the arguments of those who defended the Open Source Boob Project. (I refer to this argument as The Ferret Chorus). For those who didn’t follow OSBP, a few guys started asking women if they would offer their breasts up to be touched. It morphed into the OSBP and was rolled out with buttons at PenguiCon. In order to not be groped, you had to wear a non-groping a button. That’s right, it was an opt out program. Now, PenguiCon is synonymous with a convention where women have to wear a button on their boobs to avoid being groped by strangers.

Similarly, I think the RT convention is becoming a conference that is no longer about romance readers meeting romance authors and romance authors taking writing seminars, but instead is becoming the con of ribald and tawdry antics. As stated by author Trista,

You know it happens every year and you complain, than turn around and go again the next year. It’s not going to change. Next year there will be yet another round of complaints. Someone was offended, someone acted inappropriately. If you want conservative, safe, then go to Lori’s event (It is alot of fun, I’m not putting it down). If you want a little more, then attend RT. It’s as simple as that.

Essentially, if you want to be “safe”, you should not go to RT. I hope this isn’t the message because what a scary one it is. The message is that if I attend RT, I should expect to be groped. If I attend RT, I should expect to see graphic sex acts. I should not expect to be safe and if I am not a prude, I should enjoy it. That’s the unintentional message that is being sent and it is not being sent to just romance readers or romance authors but to others outside the genre.

What would we say if Locus magazine, the venerated science fiction/fantasy magazine, would host a convention attended primarily by male readers and its male authors. It hosted an event which included staged events featuring young, nearly nude, nubile women and allowed another publisher, say, Eos, bring in a number of porn stars and strippers who engaged in lewd acts with the attendees in hosted events and in the bar. What would we romance readers think of a conference like that or a publisher who did those things?

The defense to this is that it represents what romance is truly about. Some would argue that romance should own up to its prurient side. The charge is that we should let go of our high minded, elitist shields and accept romance for what it is – graphic descriptions of sex wrapped up in a socially acceptable package. We read it, the argument goes, to be sexually aroused. If the most sexual organ is the brain, then how are words any different than pictures. How is reading about a woman strumming her clit different than a picture or a short video of the same?

There are some types of disagreements that will always reside within our romance community. On one end are the authors and readers who are disgusted by the inclusion of books that contain homosexuality or polyamorous relationships within the romance umbrella. There are others who, at one time, viewed all books published by Ellora’s Cave as nothing more than porn.

I think the answer comes from a non romance writer – Lois McMaster Bujold. On the Eos blog, Bujold writes of difference of writing romance v. fantasy. She defines the genres as follows:

if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe most F&SF as fantasies of political agency.

Love, for me, is inextricably intertwined with sex. Romances fulfill the love fantasy through the argument that a union with just a mental bond is not as strong as mental and physical bond. Matthew 10:8, if I can offer a biblical reference says “For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall join to his wife: and they two shall be one flesh?” The union, no matter how it is populated, it made one through a physical act.

But no matter how sex is used, as physical release, plot conflict, or expression of love – it is not simply porn because it invokes a physical reaction. Measuring whether a book is porn or romance based on the physical response it invokes is dangerous and misleading. Victims have reported both lubrication and orgasm during forced or non consensual sexual stimulation.

Women may succeed in having sexual intercourse with unwilling men because the anger, fear, and pain that such intimidation can evoke, although unwelcome, can cause sexual arousal or even orgasm.

Family Health International (citing R. Levin & W. Berlo, Sexual arousal and orgasm in subjects who experience forced or non-consensual sexual stimulation, Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine, Vol. 11, Issue 2, Pages 82-88).

Now, this is not to say that sexually explicit scenes in romance engender physical response due to anger, fear and pain but it does show that basing the romance = porn argument on a mere physical response is fallacious. There can be conscious arousal, unconscious arousal and automatic arousal. We can choose books that we know can be titillating but still satisfying on an emotional level. I would argue that a physical response is the result of good writing. If a book can make you cry, you are having a physical manifestation to an emotional stimulus. If a book can make you aroused, it is any different? You simply have a physical manifestation of an emotional stimulus.

The overt sexualization of the romance industry whether it is through chestless covers or half dressed women or cover models stimulating sex scenes at a reader and writer’s conference elevates only one component (sexuality within romances) and unfairly brushes the industry with a broad red brush. That taint is undeserved because romance is more than heaving bosoms and oiled chests. Many books within the genre have no sex or very little or is represented in a closed door manner. If all that readers wanted was sexy stuff wrapped up in a pretty package, you have to wonder why more explicit erotica and erotic romances aren’t more successful. I’ve not seen one Aphrodisia on the romance Bookscan top 100. Bookscan is a list that measures sales figures for books. It’s generally deemed to be unreliable for those books that are sold in grocery stores and big box stores but for books whose sales are made primarily in bookstores and through online sales, Bookscan is pretty darn accurate.

Romance is not porn and I think that EC and RT do a disservice to the genre by focusing on one component above everything else, further promoting the equation of romance with porn. What does it say about the genre if the highlight of the event is to get your picture taken with prostitutes and xrated porn stars? Is it really then about books? I don’t think so. I think that the innocence of RT has been slowly eroding.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Anon76
    May 11, 2008 @ 13:58:48

    Thank you so much, Ms. Stacey.

    The spillover into public areas is definitely an area of concern, and I’m thrilled that RT will address this. Beyond the fact that such displays are in-your-face objectionable to many, it actually puts many women attendees at risk, and not from the models…from male observers who watch and think all the women attending are fair game based on the behaviour going on. Add alchohol, and these sorts start wanting to hit the models and manhandle the women. Testosterone can be an ugly thing.

  2. Anon76
    May 11, 2008 @ 14:03:43

    Edited to add: I had a very hairy experience at my first RT when Rodeo cowboys took HUGE offense to half-dressed models getting all the attention. (Dang, some of the models weren’t even half-dressed.)

  3. Keri M
    May 13, 2008 @ 10:01:26

    I asked F. Paul Wilson, author of the Repairman Jack series, who was one of a handful of male authors at the RT Convention if he saw any of what was posted here. I didn’t go into details of exactly what happened, I just gave him the link. So he isn’t making light of what happened, he just didn’t see any of it. Here is his response, he has a great sense of humor and it is all tongue in cheek:

    “I guess most of whatever was scandalous at RT (and remember, one person’s scandal is another’s entertainment) happened at the male model events — which, for obvious reasons, I skipped. Much to my dismay, I did not get groped once. And I neglected to grope anyone. The people I hung out with are like an extended family — we were at WHC together, we were at the Houma Writers Conf together, and at RT together. We’ll be at Thrillerfest and Heather Graham’s New Orleans Workshop together.

    But I had great fun with the women I did meet who came in all ages, shapes, and sizes. Some were quite attractive, some were ready for assisted living. All were gracious. I can think of nothing bad to say about RT (except not getting groped).” FPW

    Enough said. :-)

  4. Myra Luz
    May 14, 2008 @ 08:42:53

    Back when my DH and I were younger, we attended many Jaycee events, including the national conventions…one of which was in San Diego during which there was a national campaign against pornography. I’ve seen men who were supposed to be the pillars of their communities acting like randy high school boys and women rubbing all over them like cats in heat. I’ve seen men and women changing partners and going to each others’ rooms in the middle of the night to swap. I saw key parties and men groping women in the elevators left and right. And THESE were supposed to be good, honest, decent, lawabiding men? Yeah, right. Away from home and the watchful eye of their communities, they became a different animal altogether.

    Add alcohol to ANY man’s agenda and chances are his inhibitions are gonna become skewed. If you throw in a horny woman who is eager to see and touch chiseled pecs, washboard abs and brawny shoulders…not to mention anything pulsing beneath the kiltie…and you’ve got the ingredients for trouble.

    I attended RT in PA and I was at the EC party. Most of what happened has beenblown way the hell out of proportion, twisted and skewed and I think some people DO have an agenda where the whole thing is involved.

  5. ag
    May 14, 2008 @ 11:27:28

    From a marketing perspective, it all boils down to branding. Does the romance novel industry as a whole need rebranding?

    I think it’s about time the subtleties and diversities of each subgenre is differentiated in the overall marketing approach. Event organisers, as much as authors, publishers, and us readers (the consumers) have to play our parts in shaping the industry. I applaud you, Jane, for speaking out.

  6. Lori Foster
    May 14, 2008 @ 13:32:22

    You know, things start to die down, good discussion gets going – then bam – someone has to accuse someone again. :::sigh::: I for one have no agenda, and I guess the “proportion” is dependent on your personal perspective of events, or what you personally witnessed.

    I’ve been gone from here because my sister was almost killed in a car accident. 9 broken ribs, a broken sternum, a fractured eye socket, broken nose, and various (bad) cuts and bruises everywhere. I just got to bring her home (to my house) and I’m still stunned that she survived.

    I guess I now have much more important things to worry about than being called a liar, or being accused of blowing things out of proportion.


  7. Ann Somerville
    May 14, 2008 @ 21:56:54

    Lori, I sincerely hope your sister makes a good recovery. There are indeed more important things in life than differing views about what went on at some silly party, or groundless accusations of ‘agendas’.

  8. Kim
    May 15, 2008 @ 09:48:04


    I’m so sorry your sister was injured so badly, but yes — thankful she’s alive. My thoughts are with you.

    MyraLuz, I wasn’t in PA so I certainly can’t speak to anything that took place there — but I want to say I had no agenda in sharing my unpleasant RT experience here at Dear Author, and even hesitated after I counted on my fingers and realized the event took place eight years ago. The experience has remained pretty fresh in my mind. But I’d seen several people asking for people to come forward and share real experiences rather than heresay or rumors, and so I felt it was important that I do so. People should want to hear the truth, rather than rumors. Truth should also bring both “sides” closer together, rather than divide them further, and I think overall, that’s happened here. I appreciate Ms. Stacy and her post.

  9. asrai
    May 26, 2008 @ 18:13:13

    I was cleaning out my blog folders and found this saved and reread it. And I think that sexual fantasy and romance are not mutually exclusive. But, just becuase I like to read about sex does not mean I want to attend an x-rated party with a porn star or be groped by strangers (or freinds for that matter).

    I've seen men and women changing partners and going to each others' rooms in the middle of the night to swap. I saw key parties and men groping women in the elevators left and right. And THESE were supposed to be good, honest, decent, lawabiding men? Yeah, right. Away from home and the watchful eye of their communities, they became a different animal altogether.

    How does swapping partners make them non-lawabiding or indecent or NOT good? Honesty I can’t speak for, becuase I have no idea what they were telling their partners.
    What people do in their bedrooms is between them and their partner(s). If I want to read erotic romance, that’s for me to decide.

    But how does it equate with a party that obviously got a little out of hand?

  10. Rina
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 11:04:54

    My applauds to you Nora! Your comments are the best. I agree with you completely. Just because people disagree with something it doesn’t matter they are too old or too prude and have no right to comment. But some people like to insult others who disagree with them and when they have no arguments better they use the age this. I don’t know why some people think that middle age people are fools. It’s far from it. Thanks for the voice of wisdom.

  11. Rina
    Jun 12, 2008 @ 11:05:57

    Sorry, for double post.

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  14. Interesting...
    Jan 09, 2009 @ 19:04:57

    I was the chick that, uh, got danced on at RT.

    I had NO clue that that was going to happen. None. And boy, was I shocked afterwards, to say the least. I’ve been a dancer most of my life, and am used to partnering and all that nice stuff, but WOW! that even surprised me.

    At this point, I would say that EC didn’t do due diligence when they were hiring. I mean, these guys are Chippendale dancers – they’re going to do their Chip thing, and that’s that. I was laughing my butt off during the whole floor show because it seemed so hokey (I taped parts, too, so my friends at home could share in the mirth). The floor thing with the military stuff is part of the normal Chip show, and it’s just as silly there.

    If someone was groped, or is in the future – please, PLEASE do something about it. No one should have their space violated in such a manner. The grope-ee should be reprimanded. End of story. I know that it’s hard to do sometimes, because I’ve had to do it several times in my life starting when I was still in middle school. You should tell someone.

    I never saw elevator sex, not at all. Eeek! I don’t think I’d want to. I did, however, puzzle out strangeness and bad behavior from some guys that WEREN’T EC models at all. There was no group that was immune.

    As for the rest – I’m new to the industry as a writer, but am a longtime reader, and I see so many signs that the romance industry (I’m calling it RI from now on) is splitting into parties. It almost reminds me of politics. There’s the conservative end, and the more liberal end. The new late Gen Xers/Gen Y authors have seen and experienced way different things in professional arenas than others before may have seen. I worked for an international touring performance group that frequently hosts micro erotic fiction contests in their newsletters and has bodypainted models at their parties. Corporate fetes in NYC have bikini/brief wearing go-gos at them, and no one bats an eye. These businesses do billions of dollars in trade a year, and aren’t in the porn industry.

    Call it lax morals, or call it evolution. The boundary lines are changing, and there will be many that stand there and think that things are just flailing out of control. They’re not. For each author that loves RWA and it’s more formal environs, there is one that thinks RWA is absolutely the most boring thing ever, and can’t wait to get to RT. There’s not one view that’s more right than another, but one side will eventually win out and render the other obsolete or outmoded. Or, a whole other industry could be born, and there could just be wars between the sides. I think that’s what has happened, and it makes me sad.

    I don’t think you guys are prudes. You have a different view. Both schools of thoughts are valid, but can there be a meeting point in the middle, without people judging others as being low, slutty, lacking in morals or breeding, or just plain bad?

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