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.