Is Romance Heeding the Call of Nature?
In my last piece, Morality and Romance, I suggested that the genre reflects a historically entrenched double standard around female sexuality, namely that what is largely tolerated or even embraced in male protagonists – rich and varied sexual experience – is disparaged in female protagonists. So-called Dukes of Slut can be heroic, but not Duchesses of Sexual Liberation.
A small debate broke out in the comments – as often around this particular issue – over whether Romance is merely reflecting nature’s wisdom and biology’s programming:
The fact that there are biological differences between the genders does not negate the fact that cultural imprinting is alive and well. If one gender gets to have indiscriminate sex and the other doesn’t that’s a double standard regardless of whether one gender’s biology might predispose them to it. Especially, since we pride ourselves of not being "all animal" but civilized and able to overcome our instinctive behavior.
I don’t disagree with what you wrote, actually; society does impose constraints on its members. The question really is whether society develops those constraints, given the biological, emotional, physicological differences between men and women, because they are pragmatic recognitions of those differences or because it wants to give women fewer opportunities for sexual expression.
Although there are several manifestations of the argument Dick makes, they all seem to proceed from the rather uncontroversial premise that men and women are physically and emotionally different. From there, the conclusions range from assertions that men are biologically destined to "spread their seed" as widely as possible to arguments that women are programmed to bear and nurture their young, resulting not in a sexual double standard but rather the reinforcement of biological and evolutionary programming that posits males as naturally promiscuous and females as naturally monogamous.
Despite whatever scientific and social data exists to contravene these assertions (not the least of which is the impressive rate at which female infidelity is climbing), let’s put that aside and accept these precepts as true. Let’s embrace the idea that men are naturally predisposed to polygamy and women to monogamy and then proceed with a consideration of Romance. A genre that celebrates romantic love, primarily monogamous love.
Okay. So if in the main genre Romance has traditionally been aimed at celebrating monogamous romantic love, and men are biologically programmed to be sexually polyamorous, then the substantial threat to the success of the monogamous love relationship would be the hero’s basic nature, right?
Except how many Romances have you read where the heroine has to worry about the hero’s cheating, especially after she’s worked the magic of the magic hoo haw on him?
Yeah, me neither. And I would suggest that’s because it’s not the hero’s sexual nature that’s at issue in the genre, but the heroine’s (and obviously I’m talking about hetero Romance here). Further, I would suggest that the heroine’s sexuality is one of the most valuable, and therefore vulnerable, forms of currency in the genre.
Historical Romance is often open about this, what with so many of its heroines virgins and so many of its heroes compelled to marry a virgin (or marry the heroine after he has taken her virginity). In Loretta Chase’s Don’t Tempt Me, which a number of people defended in the comments of my last post, what urges Lucien to ask Zoe’s father for her hand in marriage is a somewhat belated sense of honor that kicks in after he has hastily and precipitously rid her of her inconvenient virginity. While in Carolyn Jewel’s Indiscreet, the heroine’s alleged loss of virginity, to a man who is not the hero, is launched as a weapon to destroy her reputation and put her beyond easy eligibility for a good marriage. And in Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl, the hero feels free to use the heroine when he believes her to be a prostitute, but once he realizes she is a virgin, he is beset with a terrible guilt that develops into the forever kind of love we look for in Romance.
Whether or not this equation of a woman’s worth to her sexual status is historically sound logic (and there are many, many layers to this analysis that do not all yield a conclusion that it is), it is a standard construct in historical Romance, with the couple rewarded by true love, often against a tradition of marriage for economic gain or family alliance.
Contemporary Romance, though, is more of a challenge, because practically speaking, women should not have to rely on the currency of their sexual purity to make a good marriage match. And yet, we know this not to be the case. Take Victoria Dahl’s first contemporary, Talk Me Down, which garnered a review in which the reviewer compared the heroine, Molly, to "a dog in heat." As if a woman who enjoys sex and embraces her sexuality with abundant enthusiasm is not only inhuman but mindlessly obeying a biological imperative to reproduce. That’s an interesting conflict, to say the least.
It echoes the now infamous Facebook "hookup list" revelation, where a teenager who was busted by his sister for having beer in his room took some public revenge by posting his sister’s blowjob fantasy list, comprised of guys from her school. And if that were not humiliating enough, the comments have been astonishingly crude and cruel, ranging from, "She got what was coming to her," to "I kinda like the little Skanks [sic] style!" to "She defo deserved it. No one likes a tell tale- Or a whore. ROLF." Someone else pointed out the obvious, namely that
About 15% of the comments here are about how terrible this is for the girl… And yes, there is a double standard with men and women. A girl who does this is a slut. A guy who does is a stud. Complain about this all you want, but that’s the way people will look at it until the end of time.
To which another commenter responded with what is not, apparently, quite so obvious, namely, that "The reason it will never change is because people choose to perpetuate this bullshit, dude."
Let’s put aside the question of whether this is a double standard and focus specifically on the question of value. In this example, the girl’s value is being expressly equated with the perception of her sexual promiscuity. A male member of her family has put this at issue and has put this young woman at risk on several levels. And note, too, that we don’t know what the girl’s sexual status is – merely the creation of a document suggesting sexual polyamory changes her currency as a female. And because she is being judged a "whore," it seems we can elicit a conclusion that sexual polyamory devalues a woman’s reputation.
So going back to the question of whether these views mirror some biological or psychological or historical imperative, even if all that were true, I don’t think it’s the critical issue. For me, the critical issue is that as a society we continue to value a woman’s sexual status and we give value to women (or take it away) based on this status. Society justifies whether a woman deserved sexual assault or even rape based on whether she appears sexually demure enough. We judge a teenage girl as "whore," all the while young teen girls are giving young teen boys blowjobs in junior high playgrounds. It’s the age-old paradox in which the boys love these girls when they’ve got the goods in their mouths, but afterwards, not so much. And for the grown-up version of this scene, check out this story at Jezebel about a “glamour competition” in England and what they call the “hook-up culture.” I find particularly compelling the call to focus on “the question of whether we’re freely choosing our behavior, and how we can help younger women do so,” and to move away from the notion of “promiscuity” and all of its negative connotations.
So what does this mean for Romance? In many ways, the idealization of love in Romance functions as socially subversive, especially when at any given moment, more than 50% of couples are divorcing. So why is it that in Romance, where enduring love and happiness comes to the brooding, depressed, disfigured, sexually promiscuous hero, the heroine still has to avoid becoming "a dog in heat"?
Men and women may be different, but is it really biology that leads us to value a woman by the currency of her sexuality? And how does Romance perpetuate or challenge this valuation?
One thing I’m seeing more of in the genre is heroines who have been damaged by sexual promiscuity. Elle, from Megan Hart’s Dirty, for example, punishes herself with emotionally disconnected sex (and yes, I absolutely consider a Romance, especially since Elle and Dan end up married, living in the suburbs, and contemplating a family). Jane, from Victoria Dahl’s Lead Me On, is suffering the shameful effects of teenaged sexual promiscuity as a reflection of low self-esteem. In one sense I appreciate the willingness to investigate the darker connections between self-esteem and sexuality in Romance heroines. But I also think it’s interesting that the sexually promiscuous woman written within a construction of romantic love often endures a great deal of shame or punishment (inflicted by others or by herself) before she receives the gift of romantic happiness. Those heroines who are unashamed of their sexual polyamory may, more often than not, be pushed into erotica, where there is no expectation of a romantic happy ending.
While there is rarely ever a question around whether the hero – the one who is supposedly more at risk of resisting monogamy – will be a faithful spouse, do we, as women ourselves, distrust that the heroine will be? If not, what are we doing by perpetuating this evaluation of a woman’s worth by her sexual status? What are we saying, as readers and writers of Romance, about how, why, and under what circumstances, women can be, should be, will be, loved?
This is just my opinion but to me there is a difference between a woman embracing her sexuality and her being sexually promiscuous (in essence a “slut”). As a romance reader I do not want to always read virgin heroines (but hey, there are still some vigins out there) but neither do I want to read about promiscuous heroines. I have loved all of Victoria Dahl’s contemporaries. To me her heroines embrace their sexuality without falling into the promiscuous category.
To me a women who willy nilly has sexual encounters without any form of emotional attachment is not someone I want to read about. I know so many women (friends) who have behaved according to societies rule now of go out and be as promiscuous as men have. Why not cheat? What’s good for the gander is good for the goose And what have I seen? For the most part misery. There are very few women (I am not making a blanket statement here) that can have sex indiscriminately without consequences. You invite someone into your body. It is an intimate act. That has consequences. And I have seen many of women inflict misery on themselves in this way.
Great post. I think the reason that the evaluation of a woman’s worth by her sexual status is perpetuated in the genre to the degree that it is, is at least in part because women often tend to be harder on other women than they are on men. We can be judgmental of one another, competitive with each other, and hardest of all on ourselves.
I’ve been reading in this genre since I was very young, and I’ve seen it slowly evolve from a time when it was only okay for the heroines to enjoy sex when they were being raped, and sexual experience was an indicator that a female character was a villain, a scheming “other woman” of some kind, to a time when heroines had some sexual experience but most of the time those experiences were unhappy if not traumatic, and they had to be sexually awakened by the hero, to now, when we finally have heroines with a variety of sexual backgrounds and experiences, though they still tend to be less experienced than the heroes, and still far more likely to want be dominated than to want to be on top.
Sigh. I think that it’s a sad reflection of the judgment that we women put on ourselves.
I’m sure I’ve read quite a few comments from readers which did raise questions about rakish heroes and their ability to remain monogamous. Some of us have also raised questions about whether they’d pass on a variety of sexually transmitted diseases to their virginal heroines. This is likely to be more of a worry with heroes and heroines in historical romances, when there were no effective methods of preventing infection, and no effective methods of treatment, but it’s still something I would think about with regards to characters in a contemporary.
I don’t think there’s anything romantic about chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, syphilis etc. If more heroines behaved in a similar way to the rake-heroes, I would have the same concerns about those heroines that I currently do about the rake-heroes.
Well, I can see how a woman’s sexuality is also raised in this post. It’s said that women are more emotionally attached then men, as see in books. The hero is portrayed has having many sexual experiences opposed to the woman (in historicals, sometimes in contemporary). That’s realistic, I suppose, but tupping ‘most women’ in XX continent is what gets me most of the time. Okay, sure, Hero, that’s what you do. Can’t tone it down at all, huh? Seriously, just get a mistress instead of random women every night before you meet the heroine or limit the numbers please! I understand, in historicals, that’s how it is and the heroine is always a virgin. At least the pot can’t call the kettle black in that scenario.
In contemporary/paranormal novels, I find it a bit more realistic. I don’t want a heroine that goes around the block spreading, but I also do want a heroine who has at least sexual experience from previous relationship (that meant something, not one-night stands). And in these kinds of books, couldn’t the heroine also get a freaking orgasm from her past boyfriends except the hero? It’s always, “w-what was that?” shock when she has her very first orgasm with the hero despite past relationships that has me eye-rolling.
I will worry for the hero if the woman is very promiscuous and wonder about her faithfulness for him. It does go both ways with emotional attachment to the heroine and worrying about her faithfulness when it’s expressed well about her sexuality adventures (although it’s hard to find books about this). That’s why I rather read contemporary where it’s mostly balanced that a woman can have a relationship with a former before meeting with the hero, though there is some good historicals that touch on this. Excellent post to start the day!
Are you talking about society or are you talking about romance fiction? If it’s the romance books we read then they have, and mostly still do, reflect the mores of the society of publishers. The mores of male publishers for the female population they want to have as customers. They have very seldom ever actually mirrored ‘real’ women.
I judge the women in the books that I read in the same way I judge the men. What is their character? What are they made of? What will they do when the crap hits the fan?
We see comments all the time about romance books ‘back in the day’ when all women were either virgins or they were the ‘other woman, the bad woman’. Those books that were published in the 60s and 70s certainly didn’t reflect what was happening in real life. Women in the 60s were keeping up and often passing males in the sheer number of sexual partners they had. You wouldn’t have known that by reading a Harlequin romance back then.
I’m not so sure it’s that women lie but that men lie about women and they will tell those lies to themselves on into perpetuity.
And every research paper and survey should be published with a ton of salt because, in the end, it’s all about being published and not about the truth. JMO
Like another commenter – I believe there’s a HUGE difference between embracing sexuality and sexing everything you can. Hero or heroine – someone who had sex with everything possible up until falling in love with the hero/heroine of book doesn’t really work for me. (most of the time) While I turn to romance books for a HEA, I also want it to feel plausable.
Sex is not something to throw around – not only for physical reasons such as disease & pregnancy; but emotional as well. In real life the only people I know who hook up all willy-nilly are deeply disturbed. Searching for love & acceptance. Unhappy with themselves. I love these friends all the same – but it doesn’t change the fact that serious issues drive them. I’m sure some people bang everything they can just because they like to… I’ve just never met those people.
People comfortable with their sexuality don’t have to be (female or male) sluts. I guess I just get annoyed that the two get tangled into each other.
This is one of those chicken or egg topics that I really find fascinating.
Since I’m not done with my coffee this AM, though, I’ll spare everyone my half-thought opinion on all that, and instead would like to note that I prefer heroines with sexual experience to those without, in particular if they are not a historical Romance heroine (those I will give a pass to).
I generally don’t find virgins at all believable in my Romances unless it’s a historical setting. And even then I really prefer the “widow” or “second marriage” stories, just because I find it hard to believe that a 18-23YO would be able to effectively ensure her own happiness in a relationship of such unbalanced power. THis mainly stems from my own experience of being in an unbalanced relationship at that time and the struggle it was (and IS) to establish myself as an equal part of it.
I read the Jezebel story yesterday and I agree with a lot of the commentors there: Until women have a well-defined means of expressing their sexuality that isn’t based on the fulfillment of male sexual fantasies, there will always be the question of whether a woman is doing it for herself or whether she’s been “manuevered” into it.
There are books where the heroines are a) respectable and b) sexually experienced. They’re mostly contemporary erotic romances. That’s okay: if in the book a heroine actively defines herself in part as a sexual person, then sex is going to be part of her story. In contemporary romances outside the erotica genre, the heroine may be sexually accomplished, but the story won’t dwell on that aspect of her past.
I still think, as I did with your earlier post, that a heroine would have some feelings for most men that she has had sex with. In a book focused on her current experiences with the hero, to bring up (in interior monologue or in conversation with another character) past sexual experiences would mean she is really talking about past emotional relationships. Generally speaking, that’s not done — heroines about to fall in love with their heroes don’t think or talk about past lovers, unless the lover is The Other Man (e.g., there to make the hero jealous), is dead (e.g., she’s a widow) or dangerous (e.g., she’s the heroine of a romantic suspense).
So if the heroine isn’t thinking about past sexual experiences (because that might involve thinking about men she’s so over with), and she isn’t talking about past sexual experiences, why can’t we readers just infer she has those sexual experiences?
As for historicals, if readers didn’t like reading about relatively young virgins finding the love of their lives, the genre would have died out. You are right that there were sexually active females having interesting and successful lives in England in the 19th century. Why they aren’t “heroine-worthy” characters, I don’t know.
Clearly there is a disconnect between the patterns of male-female interaction in romance novels (divorce rate = 0%) and in real life (divorce rate = 50%). However, it is now pretty much universal that heroes use condoms in contemporary romance novels (so that the zero rate of STIs has a logical explanation and so romance novels don’t inadvertently suggest that unsafe sex is anything other than unsafe). But I’m not sure that the greater prevalence of chastity or sexual inexperience among heroines in romance novels is anything other than market forces at work: it seems to be what authors like to write, and readers like to read.
One of my heroines is a prostitute. She’s a prostitute mostly by choice, because she enjoys sex, although her choices were seriously limited after her parents threw her out due to her promiscuity. The man she ends up with might as well be a virgin. He has some issues with who she is…but not with her sexual history, per se. Her sensual nature intrigues him.
I think the hardest part was in having her make the transition from promiscuity to monogamous love. It’s easy for an author to convincingly turn a virgin into a faithful wife/mate. Not so simple to turn a whore into one.
But then again, I spread the love, so to speak, quite widely in my youth, and never had a problem being faithful to any of my LT partners–even in the last two or three seriously heinous years of my marriage. I’m now seeing a man who’s been intimate with 1/10th as many people as I have, and neither of us has a problem with that. Then again, I never felt like a slut, and other than sleeping with lots of friends and acquaintances as the mood hit me, I never acted like one–didn’t dress or act skanky.
I really wish there were more heroines out there like me. I don’t apologize for having run out of fingers and toes to count on a long time ago. I don’t feel guilty about it. And though there are some encounters I don’t exactly remember with fondness, I don’t regret any of them, either. And that, I think, is the main thing. Writing a heroine who’s been around a bit (or a lot), but who doesn’t feel the need to apologize for it, or feel like it’s dirtied her soul, or that it makes her unworthy of real love.
I have a motto: If it feels like cheating, it is cheating. Applying it to this: If you feel like a slut, that’s when you are one.
This kind of assumes that a one-night stand can’t have meaning. Speaking from experience, they can…and not just to the woman.
Why can’t she get a freaking orgasm from herself? Very first person to give me one was, well…me. Boys start developing sexual agency the first time they stick their hands down their pants and discover something fun happens. Why the hell are women supposed to be different? Are we supposed to just…lie back and wait for some guy to give us one? Tack it onto the end of the “honey-do” list?
-paint window trim
-get me off
Quoted for truth. I think this is the essence of what the post was about (at least, that’s what I took away from it) and I wholeheartedly agree. Let’s face it: both women and men judge women for their sexual experience. It’s like that quote from The Breakfast Club — “Well, if you say you haven’t, you’re a prude. If you say you have, you’re a slut. It’s a trap. You want to but you can’t, and when you do you wish you didn’t, right?”
I think that way of thinking is still very much alive in romances. How refreshing it would be to have more heroines who were not afraid to express themselves sexually or were not castigated for having a healthy sex life (like they would be in any Harlequin book with a title that contains the phrase “The Greek Billionaire’s…”).
Hmm. I don’t have a problem with prostitute or courtesan heroines. I do have a problem with a prostitute heroine who “just likes sex” and has never had a negative experience. I don’t find that realistic. There are physical, emotional, and psychological consequences that stem from having sex for money, or giving yourself to a man who doesn’t respect you.
For me, differences in size and strength are also an issue. Men are usually more powerful than women. They can sleep around without necessary trusting their partner. Women do not have this luxury. Having sex with a stranger puts us in a position of greater vulnerability.
I don’t think nature programmed males to be promiscuous and females to be monogamous. It did though, make it far more difficult for a male to refrain from it and easier for females to do so. Biology seems to exert more control over males than females. When the chaste heroine converts the promiscuous hero to monogamy, she exerts an awesome power. Why then, would readers want heroines to have equal rights to promiscuity with heroes?
I thought that this blog was a genius. It encompasses so many things I’ve been thinking and tossing around my head—things that have bothered me in romances and in real life (i.e., the double standards when it comes to sexuality between men and women).
I think that brother is an a-hole. And that some serious bad karma is headed his way for being so cruel to his sister. He obviously has no respect for her, and I venture to say that the no respect would continue over to women. Because there was an almost satisfactorily-like glee of him posting that . . . of him saying (and I’m summarizing here): yeah, my sister is a slut, and here’s the list to prove it. Bad on him.
And I would love to read a romance where a heroine is not ashamed of her sexual past. No excuses, no recriminations, just total acceptance of her sexual past, and even of her present. I think Molly in Victoria Dahl’s TALK ME DOWN was such a heroine. I’d like to see more and not get the “dog in heat” label.
Speaking of baseless assumptions that everyone accepts as truth:
“…when at any given moment, more than 50% of couples are divorcing”
That’s not really true. Everyone quotes it as truth but, like most statistics, it’s not the whole truth. The percentage of first marriages projected to end in divorce has never reached so high and is actually dropping. It’s largely dependent on where you live, your religion (with evangelicals divorcing like it’s their job, amusingly), how much you earn, how old you were when you married, etc. For your average contemporary hero and heroine – college educated, near 30, gainfully employed, startlingly fertile – the rate could be as low as the teens, making the romance HEA not at all far-fetched.
Also, you use polyamory and promiscuity interchangeably, and I don’t think you should. The former refers to multiple romantic partners while the latter refers to sexual partners. A fine point, maybe, but I see it as a big difference.
I don’t like how women’s sexuality is treated in your average contemporary romance. As a result, I read little contemporary stuff that doesn’t fall over the line into the “erotic romance” pile. I don’t understand all these 30-something single women who’ve only had one or two partners, don’t own a vibrator and have never had an orgasm. Nor do I understand why having a half-dozen sexual partners has to equal emotional damage and angst that needs to be healed. Neither of these women resemble the women I know.
Who’s to blame? Women. Men don’t call women sluts, other women do. Women are the ones perpetuating the double standard. The porn-hating feminists are a good example. They infantilize porn actresses and declare they don’t know their own minds. “They must be compelled to do it by some childhood trauma. No normal woman has that much sex willingly.” Women are the ones buying up and into the slut judging. We love it.
I don’t believe a word of that, not one word.
Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists would disagree. The reason for the difference in sex drive correlates to the best mating strategies for males and females, and you see those strategies in almost all species: males, whose investment in procreation is relatively small, sow widely. Females, whose investment is both huge and risky, sow carefully.
When lifelong monogamy, rather than caveman-style, female-directed serial monogamy, became the norm, an implied social contract was necessary to make it work. A man fails his part by failing to provide for his family. A woman fails her part by not ensuring her husband’s kids, whom he’s providing for, are actually his.
I’d guess that the incidences of women cheating on their husbands usually have more to do with a tendency toward serial monogamy than some rampant female sex drive encouraging aimless promiscuity. Generally speaking, women don’t really work that way…
@kirsten saell: I agree completely.
The idea of reforming the rake is more an ode to the effectiveness of the magic hooha than anything else. Like some two-legged Venus flytrap, this heroine–she of the story we may be reading–was the one, above all others, who tamed the handsome satyr. In that instance, we are talking about power, ultimately, over the hero.
But why does it even matter what the heroine’s past is? Yes, we are shaped and informed by our experiences, but unless there’s some significance about that to the story, I prefer that consenting fictional adults arrive at their relationship with hand luggage, not a U-Haul truck of baggage about what her past did or did not include. Why bring it up within the story when, in real life, it most likely would not be a factor?
But, evolutionary biology doesn’t account for changes brought on by hormonal birth control or the psychological pressures of long life.
Also—and I hope I articulate this well—I wonder if part of the double standard in romance comes from the supported belief that readers need to identify with the heroine, or that the heroine is the “placeholder” for the reader. (Which, to be honest with you, I never got because I’ve rarely identified with heroines.) But I know others that do, and I wonder if part of the problem is that women don’t want to identify with a “slut” (unless she has a troubled past or there’s a good reason to the heroine’s behavior) because of the negative connotations. But, I think the whole double standards goes way back say to Bible days, and I’m not sure how we can go about changing perception. I think the key is to write more heroines who aren’t ashamed of their pasts and embrace their sexuality.
There is a world of difference between being sexually experienced and sexually promiscuous. Both men and women can be sluts. Promiscuity implies sexually risky behavior – for both sexes, regardless of sexual orientation.
When I read a historical romance, it’s not a stretch to believe that the heroine is a virgin while the hero is not. When I read a contemporary romance, I find it odd and more than a bit disconcerting to read about a twenty-something or even thirty-something year old gorgeous virgin heroine and her man-slut. That is a double standard I’m definitely not comfortable with.
What makes me even more uncomfortable is that fact that these virgin heroines are so incredibly hot in the sack and orgasm the very first time. Eh? Sorry – I prefer my heroines and my heroes to encounter each other in bed as equals. A sexually experienced heroine is not an issue for me.
Sexual promiscuity in romance isn’t sexy. It’s dumb.
WARNING: This comment contains TMI.
I am 30 years old. I have never had a real boyfriend. On the sexual experience spectrum, I’m probably more virgin than not. There are reasons for this that do not have to do with abuse or psychological distress or any other such thing. Rather, it is a question of temperment. By nature, I am a loner and there are few people with whom I feel connected to. I’m not interested in one night stands. They bore me. If I was a character in a book you would not believe in me. You would think I couldn’t possibly exist in contemporary American culture because my lack of partners somehow negates the versimilitude. I, apparently, do not exist. I, apparently, am anchronistic. I find that there is just as much of a double standard for those who do not as there is for those who do. The question is always, what’s wrong with you? Nothing, I say. Some do not, not out of prudery or fear of sex or men or anything else, but simple temperment.
I don’t buy the biology/culture debate. It is far too simplistic and does not take into account the multiple and almost infinite variables of individual human experience. I would say that is not so much a case of men vs. women as it is a case by case question. That is why stories are written. If all rakes behaved the same, if all virgins, if all courtesans, there would be no story. But they don’t behave the same. Not in life and not in books. It is the small, unique details and responses of a person that determine things. Not the grand, unifying theory of behavior that says men do this are predisposed to this because of this. Oh are they? I know plenty of men who are exceptionally monogamous and romantic and plenty of women who are promiscuous and cynical. Again, not because of abuse or culture but temperment.
As far as Romance is concerned, it is my opinion that often the sexual background about a character is not a reflection of reality but rather a commentary on other narratives. If I choose to write a story about a virginal spinster and a sluttish rake, I’m probably more influenced by other narratives involving similar characters than I am by real people in real world experiences. In fact, every story is probably more in dialogue with other stories than they are with actual experience. It isn’t imagination that is limitless, but experience. Imagination is very limited, especially narrative imagination because it relies on boundaries of realism that are put in place by what the reader wants to believe is true. The reader or the author’s perspecitve has limited the world, pushing it into categories that may not actually be true but that they think of as true. Thus, any story is not simply a reflection of the status quo or a conservative outlook but a reflection of the authors assumptions about the truth of human existence. Whether the reader believes this or not is entirely dependent on what they believe the truth of human existence is.
The “rakes” I was thinking of are depicted as having had sex with far, far more than 6 people. The way their sexual history is described, one gets the impression their sexual prowess matches or exceeds that of Don Giovanni:
Except, in the cases of romance rakes, the nationalities of the women would probably be a little different since there aren’t many historicals with Spanish heroes.
In a contemporary, unless someone is a notorious rake (female or male) of that order, where the issue might need to be addressed, or unless someone is a virgin (again, hero or heroine), in which case I can understand why someone might want to mention that to their first sexual partner, I’ll join Magdalen in wondering
And I also join Kirsten Saell in asking “Why can't she get a freaking orgasm from herself?” I’d ask the equivalent question about many heroes too, although less frequently than with regards to heroines. When a hero wanders around saying he needs “relief”, but with no idea about what to do about the situation other than (a) find a prostitute, except that since meeting the heroine he finds other women strangely unappealing or (b) seduce the heroine then I wonder why he hasn’t thought of option (c), whereby he could take matters into his own hands.
As far as sex in books and promiscuity vs. experienced, I like an experienced heroine who looks back on her encounters with fondness or even the occasional cringe of â€œWhat was I thinkingâ€. I agree that if she views herself as slutty, so will the reader and I don't find that sexy in any way whatsoever. Do I want her to be a virgin? I could care less-‘UNLESS the story demands it. Sometimes it does and then it’s on the author to make it believable.
RE: evolutionary biology vs contemporary society morals, I see this as the classic Nature vs. Nurture argument. I've always had trouble with that because it’s an either/or proposition. I don't think that one is â€œmore rightâ€ than the other. We might be biologically driven to reproduce but nurture can change that. On the other hand, we're not robots and there are some drives that are imbedded into our DNA and almost impossible to ignore. I am not one to think that for one idea to be successful another idea must be wrong.
Angela, I apologize – my comment was insensitive – let me put it this way. I have no issue with a heroine who chooses, for whatever reason, to remain a virgin until she meets the right man or finds herself in the right set of circumstances. I do have a problem with books that equate sexual experience with promiscuity. They are two different animals. If a hero is sexually experienced, I don’t think less of him, but neither do I think less of a heroine who has also been in a few relationships. As a writer and reader of romance, I don’t need our hero to heal our heroine from her history of nasty and traumatic sexual activity – that’s society’s judgment imposed upon a woman’s sexual nature and it bugs me. I want to read about a relationship between equals. I guess that’s all I’m saying.
At the risk of committing a faux pas by plugging myself, I’ll cite my [straight] contemporary Stay as fitting that bill. My heroine has had only two lovers in her life before the hero, but they were wonderful experiences for her. She even has sex with someone (her second lover) other than the hero in the course of the book. Both of her affairs were conducted with great affection, but were unapologetically devoid of love. (Naturally, the hero brings out the twu wuv in her.)
She has also posed semi-nude for a painting and the covers of two men’s magazines. I wanted a heroine with no sexual hangups and was good with her sexuality. Period.
What she said. If Angela doesn’t exist, neither do I.
Well, those factors–birth control, long life, as well as no-fault divorce and women who are able to support themselves, an easing of constraints on female sexuality, etc–I think are pushing us back toward the cave-man way…female serial monogamy and male-sluttishness. Before cultural monogamy, ~80% of women managed to procreate, while only ~20% of men got the chance to. Lifelong marriage gave all guys a shot at swimming in the gene pool. But I’d guess if things continue as they are, we’ll see those numbers trend back toward the 80/20 figure.
And evolutionary biology does not trump all. The guy I’m with now is an extremely moral and honorable man, and his views on cheating, faithfulness, commitment and sexual intimacy are more rigid than mine ever were. But people who completely disregard the fact that humans are animals and we’ve hade millennia of behaviors programmed into us, and only a few thousand years of the expectation of lifelong monogamy–and only a few decades of women’s lib, birth control, and female sexual freedom…well, whatever these new factors produce for us as a society, they’re going to be affected by our biology, not just our front-brains.
Sort of a don’t ask, don’t tell approach?
If sexually experienced heroines were accepted as the norm in the genre (and btw, it’s hardly universal for heroes in contemps to wear condoms), there wouldn’t be an issue. But so often, the narrative makes a point of letting us know how much or little sexual experience the heroine has had. So many times, the reader would have to override the narrative with her own. And while there are certainly books where the heroine is presented as being sexually experienced, it’s by no means universally normed in the genre.
This is a circular argument, though, that simply presents its assumption as its conclusion (people must like virgins in Romance, since the books keep selling). Besides the fact that readers routinely read and enjoy novels that contain elements disturbing to them, and besides the fact that we are already getting a narrowly selected collection of novels on the market, the sales argument tells us nothing more than that a certain number of books containing a certain common characteristic sell at a certain rate.
It doesn’t tell us what those rates are, whether readers are satisfied with those books, etc. It’s like saying, ‘people must love peanut butter, since it’s selling.’ That statement doesn’t tell you whether peanut butter is good for you or not, whether people would prefer almond butter if it were priced at the same level. It doesn’t tell you about the conditions in which the peanut butter is produced — how people knowing those conditions might change their buying and eating patterns. Or whether peanut butter contains substances of which we are not aware and that if we were would make us think twice about eating it at the same rate. In other words, IMO that argument yields very little useful information, including whether people unconditionally love peanut butter or virgin heroines more than any other alternative.
Okay, there are two issues here that are problematic for me. First, the logic of your equation here is that what’s at issue is women having “equal rights to promiscuity with heroes.” More accurately, it’s the idea that a woman’s sexuality is NOT her most valuable and vulnerable currency, either in romance or in life (her general reputation).
So if you shift the last part of your question to substitute my goal for the one you articulated, I think it becomes clear that the “power” to which you refer is simply one that validates the heroine’s sexual currency as valuable.
In fact, one of the things I really wanted to write about but refrained from for the sake of length and clarity is the way I think the heroine’s sexual currency is sometimes used as a shortcut to develop the romantic bond between hero and heroine. That instead of all the levels of attraction, appreciation, respect, fondness, and love, the heroine’s sexual status functions as substitute/shorthand to jump start or solidify a romantic HEA.
With regard to the biology/evolution discussion, this piece on Stephen Hawking’s thoughts is interesting and possibly apropos:
Humans Have Entered a New Phase of Evolution
@Ridley: Actually, I use *sexual polyamory* and promiscuity interchangeably, and I did it for a reason.
The word “promiscuous” has such negative connotations — I mean, just read the comments here. But really, all it means is multiple sexual partners. Pro + misc (literally in favor of a mix or assortment). Since I did not distinguish whether they are in sequence or in simultaneity, I felt the term was commensurate with sexual polyamory.
As for the divorce stats, they’re hardly “baseless” (at least the CDC doesn’t think so) even if statistics NEVER tell a whole story. I mean, your doctor doesn’t tell you that the incidence of breast cancer in your area is 30% lower than the nationwide average so you can forget the mammogram and self-exam — moreover, you don’t know if you’re going to be in the safe percentage or the cancer percentage. Even factoring in all the variables, it’s still a bit of a game with the numbers, so we use the national statistic, which absorbs a broad range of variables in its calculation. Which is why I think the national number is what’s most often used.
That’s fair. I don’t dismiss evolutionary pressures, I just see them as part of a larger picture. Yes we’re biologically predisposed to certain things, but culture, psychology and sheer curiosity are also significant pressures.
Spare me the QQ. Every heroine is like you. My BFF is like you. Wanting to see more women with varied sexual experience – like most of my friends have – does not equate judging your lifestyle and finding it lacking. It equates being bored with it because it’s been done to death by now.
I know there are people who think these social patterns are unresolvable, but I am not among them. All you have to do is look at the evolution of rape laws in the US to see how change occurs (albeit sloooowly) in a social environment that values gender equity and social awareness of patriarchal programming.
So much of the time we pass on these beliefs and assumptions without even being aware of it, simply because the paradigm is so familiar and we are so conditioned to see it as normal and natural. And in genre fiction, accepted elements are often passed through texts, becoming entrenched realities before we’re aware that it’s happened. Just look at how people view Heyer as historically pristine in her writing, how her books are sometimes used *as history itself* — what would the genre look like if someone other than Heyer, with a completely different view of history (a different locale, even) had become the shaping influence in historical Romance?
I agree, we are more than the sum of our biology. And even if we weren’t, we’ve had cultural monogamy for long enough–a situation that acts counter to Darwinism, when it comes right down to it–that those biological pressures may be easing as well. It is a big picture thing, and a little scary when I contemplate the kind of life my daughter, especially, will have to navigate as an adult.
But…I’m the subversive type. Comes with being bi and a bit of a gender-role “switch” as well. I don’t think promiscuity or sexual polyamory equates with sluttishness, because I’m not a slut. Very few of the heroines I write are sexually inexperienced–some of them are quite spectacularly experienced and comfortable with it. And while, as a bi woman, I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with a skanky woman, skankiness does not depend on the amount of sexual experience she’s had. It’s more about whether those experiences have made her become more or less human–and that’s entirely up to her and the way she views them…
Evolutionary biologists and anthropologists would disagree. The reason for the difference in sex drive correlates to the best mating strategies for males and females, and you see those strategies in almost all species: males, whose investment in procreation is relatively small, sow widely. Females, whose investment is both huge and risky, sow carefully
This is in fact not true.
Even just among primate species (our closest ancestors) there are a wide variety of mating strategies.
Some of these encourage males to cooperate with each other in “enforcing” male monogamy, or even strategies where other males surrender mating entirely in order to allow a better chance of survival to the offspring of related males.
Some of these encourage females to have multiple mating partners in order to encourage as many males as possible to have a vested interest in caring for their offspring.
Remember, how much sex you have with how many partners is of little direct importance to evolutionary biology. What matters is how many offspring carrying your genes will survive to reproduce themselves.
But since the primary evolutionary adaptation of human beings is culture, it seems rather silly to draw an artificial Nature / Nurture distinction in this kind of discussion.
To clarify, I was not launching a plea for more representation. I was attempting to
a)point out that believability has nothing to do with reality in literature. Something can be real but unbelievable to the reader. Several people said they didn’t find such a heroine believable in contemporaries because, the implication being, that women in contemporary American culture are all experienced and have many past lovers. I do not. I recognize that there are many “virginal” or “unexperienced” heroines in literature although I would argue that none are like me, which really doesn’t matter because I don’t read to find people like me. I read for the story. But many people read for a realistic depiction. I do think that literary realism depends not on reality but on whether or not the reality presented fits into a particular paradigm that the reader regards as true.
b) That one can feel shamed for lack of experience as much as for too much experience, it really depends on the group. Which was my point in getting personal. People have made me feel just as ashamed for not being interested in sex or hooking-up as people make other women feel ashamed for being interested in sex and hooking-up. Moreover, if you choose not to engage in a hook-up culture people make assumptions about your politics, your religion and your childhood. If I was promiscuous people would think I had been abused, because I am not people think I’m a prude. Neither are necessarily true, they are simply cultural shorthand to explain behavior contrary to the expected. Its a way of caricaturizing people without having to really know them. You can slot them into a category and forget them. She’s a slut and she’s a good girl. Well, I resent the label “good girl” as much as I resent the label “slut”.
@Angela/Lazaraspaste: I don’t know what the statistics are on how many sexual partners women and men have had at the time they marry, but I’d guess it’s not, on average, an astronomical number.
I’m reading a contemp now where the heroine is a virgin, and she has very good reasons for being so. Consequently, the set-up is believable to me.
Unfortunately, for as long as we continue to assign value to a woman’s sexual status (her “currency”), I think we’re going to be stuck in this quagmire of mixed messages (damned if you do, damned if you don’t) and double standards.
God knows I enjoy many Romances with numerous elements that don’t line up with my own personal politics, life experience, and value system, because as you suggest, what’s often “believable” to us in fiction is not reflective or representative of what would be realistic to us in our own lives.
I see Romance as a funhouse mirror, of sorts, in its reflection of the social context in which it is produced. I don’t really believe arguments of direct influence or literal translation of “real life,” but I do think the genre is dialoguing not only with other texts but with the world from which its authors and readers come.
IMO all of these judgments come from the same place — from a valuation of women based on their sexual status, a valuation that far exceeds sex itself. That’s why I really like the Jezebel article I linked to, especially the last paragraph:
I’m curious to know whether some would consider lesbians who slept/sleep around ‘sluts’?
I’d recently helped a colleague to research the background of American-British-French poet RenÃ©e Vivien for her documentary project. RV had had more female lovers than I have had hot dinners. She was constantly unfaithful to her long-time partner, too. And yet, when we trawled through discussions – no one issued derogatory labels or insults to her name.
Likewise for another subject of said friend’s documentary: Violet Trefusis, a lesbian socialite from the Edwardian era. She went through women like a mower through the grass. Again, she wasn’t branded a slut.
However, when I trawled through papers and discussions about American actress Mae West for a work project, it was basically an arena for name-callers. Every insult under the sun was thrown at this woman. She was casually referred as ‘whore’ and ‘gold digger’.
I’m not sure what point I’m making with this, but I do find it interesting that these female sexuality issues raised in this thread seem to revolve around heterosexual dynamics.
Having said all that, I never felt comfortable with the labels and name-calling, and still don’t. I don’t even feel comfortable using these words seriously: ‘ho’, ‘whore’, ‘slut’, ‘prude’, ‘bitch’, etc. Let alone judge women by their sexual experiences or sex lives (or lack of). Not while we have a centuries-old history of women receiving so much abuse and injustice in mind.
Robin: I agree with you to a large extent, but I think the problem is more complicated than your analysis would suggest. Coincidentally, I was blogging about this very topic when I read your post. I’ve used your excellent example to make my points about consumer satisfaction research over at Promantica.
@Magdalen: You realize, right, that the *customers* of publishers are booksellers, and NOT readers?
Also, still not clear on why it’s my response to your assertion that’s simplistic.
This. Humans are the least impacted by our biology in the choice of a mate. What we find attractive, what we expect in a partnership, what we’re looking for is completely determined by our culture.
There is no “mating call” or “mating dance” for humans. There’s only the very private dance between two (or more) individuals, or, in some cultures, the very public dance between two families.
Biology is almost moot, except for the urge to have sex/procreate. Although we’ve even subverted that, to some extent, because I know I’m not looking to procreate, ever, when I’m down with the sexxoring.
Would you mind providing some evidence for this statement besides your personal conviction? Everything I’ve read on this topic disagrees rather strongly with your assertion.
Human mating and bonding is most certainly more strongly influenced by the cultural circumstances than other primates or mammals, but to claim biological factors (such as pheromones and hormones) play no role whatsoever strikes me as extreme hubris.
@GrowlyCub: I won’t argue that biological factors like pheromones and hormones DO play a part in mating and bonding, but I don’t believe that you can rely on biology to such a degree to point the way to how we choose our mates or partners.
To say that I am with my SO because he gets my motor running is condescending and reductive. People come together for more reasons that procreation, and to say that biology is the motivating factor ignores that reality, to me.
What I’ve always found interesting is that in both my contemporary and my historical erotic romances, every time I have a strong heroine-one who acknowledges her past, and may even admit to having used her sexuality to escape or advance her situation-readers-and that’s mainly female readers don’t like it. They don’t want to read about a woman who ‘behaves like a man’.
And I don’t get it, but it is a perfect example of double standards, particularly in a contemporary setting.
Heh, I’m lucky that for the most part, my one prostitute heroine who uses her sexuality to get her man was seen as a little “mercenary”, but still likeable.
I think there are some things human males and females tend to find universally attractive–for men, signs of youth, health and fertility in women, and for women, signs of strength/status, health and fertility in men.
There are differences in specific features that are held to be “beautiful” or “handsome” from culture to culture, but there’s no culture out there that sees signs of chronic illness, decrepitude or rampant acne as a powerful sexual attractor for either sex.
And we’re not that far from the cave, when constraints on monogamy are being eroded all the time. Bill Gates may not be the hottest thing ever, but I don’t think he’d ever be single for long–because his status, brains and wealth make up for his lack of muscle and a square jaw. Hell, if there’s a pack of sabre toothed tigers menacing the homestead, he might not have the physical prowess to fight them off himself. He’s got guys he pays to do that. And I don’t think if he came up single, he’d be dating unattractive women, either.
Women’s earning power and political liberation now allows them to consider other things when seeking a mate now. What we’re seeing now is not a negation of the existence of evolutionary biology, but a kind of sidelining of it now that we have the luxury to look for other things in our partners besides brawn or status or genetic perfection.
Even so, evolutionary factors are still at work. How many high-powered female lawyers marry the guy who stocks shelves at the grocery store, unless he’s spectacularly good-looking? How many insanely wealthy men choose to marry dumpy, unattractive women with skin conditions?
Robin/Janet, I haven’t read enough American romances from the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s to really be able to assess this properly but I’ve just finished reading Carol Thurston’s (1987) book about the genre and in it she seemed really confident about the direction the genre was taking with regards to female sexuality: “by 1982 it was generally being portrayed as inextricably intertwined with both economic and personal autonomy, and ultimately with a joyously feminine sense of self” (141).
I’ve just put up a post about her book (and about a few other articles concerning romance readers’ sexuality) and, judging by what Thurston and Krentz say, it appears that there was a short period when editors did experiment with the kinds of heroines you’d like to see more of. But then, for some reason, it seems that things swung back a bit, at least in a sizeable part of the genre.
I’d be interested to know if that’s an impression that people who’re more knowledgeable about the history of the American romance got from actually reading the novels printed in those decades.
there's no culture out there that sees signs of chronic illness, decrepitude or rampant acne as a powerful sexual attractor for either sex.
Except at Twilight conventions.
I really do not agree with the perspective in the Jezebel column — mostly because the age of some of the young women were so young. I am being asked to “help younger women” (keep in mind, as young as 14) embrace an active sexual life. I have a 20-year-old daughter — and two older sons — my view is that there is an emotional downside to the overt sexuality of some teens, especially young ones in high school. Feel free to disagree: one of my best friends, a psychologist, thinks it’s OK. Think of the parade of ladies who are part of Tiger Woods retinue — how is their behaviour or his appropriate? I dunno. I figure a good author can write about anything and if it works for her/him, mostly it will work for me too.
One thought: isn’t part of maturity deciding for oneself how one wants to behave? Why am I being asked to basically sign off on behaviour that I don’t find particularly attractive. I don’t find a Duke of Slut an attractive and compelling feature. Just me.
And just a passing thought: no publisher (I think I can safely say this) puts more virgins in titles and between the covers as Harlequin. I thought they were famous for selling directly to their customers, bypassing booksellers. I know they sell in bookstores — duh — but their e-book backlist, their direct sales, isn’t that publisher directly to consumer? My guess is that if a new direction in heroines sells a lot of books, we will see more of them — it’s a pendulum, isn’t it? The marketplace sells what sells.
Ah, my favorite ‘chicken or egg’ question. Does it really? Or are voracious readers buying in spite of rather than because of…
@Laura Vivanco: Yes, I agree. My standard example is LaVyrle Spencer’s Spring Fancy, the inaugural book in Harlequin’s Temptation line (pubbed in 1984, IIRC).
The heroine meets the hero while planning HER wedding; she’s sexually healthy and active; she works as a physical therapist and considers is a very fulfilling career; she has an athlete’s body – muscled and strong; and she chooses the blue collar hero over the white collar fiance.
IMO it’s much more daring than many things being pubbed today.
Actually, the grammatical construction of the sentence is such that the phrase you quote references “freely choosing our behavior.” That is, we’re not being asked to help steer younger women into being sexually active, but rather to help them be sexually autonomous.
And I really think that’s a sound request, because when you look that these pre-teen girls who are giving bj’s in the junior high playground, do you really think they’re doing that for themselves?
IMO sexual autonomy is like any other kind of autonomy — it requires self-confidence, self-respect, and self-understanding. Different women will make different choices, but as long as either choice — NOT having sex or having a lot of it — is driven by male expectations, it’s going to keep female sexuality dependent upon male authority, and I know that’s not something I want to encourage in the next generations of young women.
I don’t know if you’re aware of some of the research on teens who make those purity pledges, but those kids often engage in riskier sexual behavior and they do it without protection (they are taught condoms are bad). Here’s a 60 Minutes story on the issue, and here’s a link to a research study from the Journal of Adolescent Health on the STI rates of these teens, as well as an article on the patterns of sexually risky behavior among this population.
And as for your assertion about Harlequin and virgins, I would dare to bet against you on that one. On aggregate, Harlequin’s heroines are very diverse in all ways, including sexual experience.
Robin: If that’s true, what’s the problem? Harlequin publishes more than 25% of all romance novels today. If they’re adequately representing the sort of sexual self-confidence you’re advocating, why complain? Is really necessary for all heroines to have the same sexual history (and wouldn’t that be even more narrow a range than we’re already given)?
And if it’s not precisely the depth of the sexual history that’s the point, but rather that each heroine have, as you put it, “self-confidence, self-respect, and self-understanding” and be allowed to “make different choices,” then surely that ethic can be supported both in books with sexually experienced heroines and sexually inexperienced heroines.
As I understand your thesis, what’s wrong is that it’s not currently the norm to make heroines sexually autonomous. And maybe that should be as universal as the HEA. But if Harlequin is admirable for providing a diversity of heroine types (with respect to their sexual experience), why isn’t diversity in the genre as a whole sufficient?
So now I’m confused — should ALL romances have sexually experienced heroines, or is sufficient merely that the sexually experienced heroine be adequately represented?
@Robin Having read many a Harlequin book, I would agree with you. The virgin is highly represented in Harlequin Presents, but across the entire scope of the 100+ books published every month, I wouldn’t say that there are a larger percentage of virgins. Virginity is definitely not an issue in Blaze or the Super Romances, Nocturne, Luna, Red Dress Ink, Mira, HQN, Kimani, American Romances, etc that I’ve read. Primarily within the HP and the Desires lines.
@Magdalen: Wait, that’s your take-away my column — that I’m “complaining” and want heroines “to have the same sexual history” or just more “sexually experienced heroines”? Seriously?
Assuming you’re not trying to gaslight me here, I will respond at length tomorrow, both to your comments here and those in reference to me at your own blog.
What I would like to see is a diversity of sexual experience among romance heroines, and in the case of those heroines with greater experience, for them to have had good experiences (perhaps in addition to not so good ones), and to have been able to achieve sexual intimacy/orgasm/enjoyment of their gonads EVEN BEFORE the hero stuck his magic stick in their vaginas.
And honestly, more female masturbation scenes. Because when the percentage of adult, sexually active women who have never had an orgasm is still in the double digits, I’m thinking we as a gender don’t do nearly enough of that. Just sayin’…
Excellent point about autonomy and playground BJs and such — I actually read all the exciting books my mum had around and about, learned all there was to know, and then made my own mind up that I would be more comfortable waiting until college. Literally no pressure from anyone: my decision. As for my dd, I was all about giving her all the info in the world, including her own personal doctor who gave her all the tools for success if she decided to have sex and some fairly subtle “this is how I handled it, this is why” convos. I was happy she made a mature, autonomous decision — different strokes for different folks of course but that’s how we handled it. Frankly, the crowd at her hometown school with the very active “playground” experience, as far back as middle school, was not the crowd she choose to hang with. Her highschool in CT had pretty clear drug/alchol/inter-visitation rules so lucky me, I really didn’t have to deal with it day in day out. I don’t know how to put this more clearly: in my opinion, education and open dialogue and access to medical care is vital. Rings and such and stats about STDs — I would never ever substitute anything for education. That’s just me. I don’t particularly care if people think I’m old-fashioned if I consider that high school and an active sex life don’t necessarily need to go hand in hand. High school can be tough enough without the emotional rollercoaster that often ensues with some relationships. I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree — I did not agree with the Jezebel article — to me it seemed wrongheaded.
Maybe you’re right about HQN — and I certainly wasn’t implying that there aren’t lots of different heroines with lots of different experience levels in HQN books. You bet. Searchin on “Virgin and” certainly does pull up a fair number of their books but really, whatever.
I guess I just don’t agree with your opening position — that a Duke of Slut is virile and exciting and that the same consideration is not extended to a Duchess of Slut. For me, if a book delves too deeply into the sexual exploits of a rampant rake (m or f), it’s probably not a book I want to read. Notice I never say never: in the hands of the right author ANYTHING can be wonderful and cherished. To Have and To Hold — some of Baloghs books. I’m just saying in general.
YEAH @kirsten saell! Could not agree more — you know an author who does this very effectively? Jo Beverley! Diana in the Rothgar book — the consummate liberated Georgian lady in my book :)
I sure didn’t want to open a can of virgin title worms with my comment — agreed, HQN has every kind of heroine from virgin on up — that being said, as my dh likes to say at ballgames, “Ump you’re missing a good game” if you don’t think that HQN has somewhat of a tradition of virgins in titles. How can we even be having an argument about that? My guess is that more than any other publisher, they know what sells their books to their readers.
I think there are a lot of people who equate Harlequin with Harlequin Presents and don’t see/know anything past that. It’s the most upfront, visible, in-your-face line on the category shelves because they have white covers. The other lines blend in with the rest of the books.
Couple the stark-white covers with the slugs (in lieu of, you know, real titles), and it becomes a bit of a perception problem.
Actually, I thought you made a lot of points, most of which I agree with. I agree with you that women (in real life and in fiction) should not measure their worth by their sexual purity. I agree that men shouldn’t be deemed more virile simply by having slept with more women.
And I completely agree with your assertion that women should have sexual autonomy and self-determination.
What I got confused about was whether the romance genre needs a “norm” that supports sexually experienced heroines, and if so, do all romances have to have a heroine with sexual experience, or merely more romances than are currently being written and published.
Harlequin represents a range of heroine-types; we agree about that. Is Harlequin the only publisher to do that? I can’t tell from your post and comments if the romance fiction industry is merely disproportionately reflecting heroines who equate their worth with their chastity or inexperience, or monolithically espousing a distasteful cultural more, to wit that women are only worthy if they don’t sleep around.
If it’s the former point (and thus we need more diversity in heroine-types, and all heroines should espouse sexual self-determination even as virgins), we agree about that.
If it’s the latter point, that the romance industry should adopt as a norm that women should be sexually self-fulfilling and that this norm is best demonstrated by more express references to their sexual history (and how happy it makes them) and by enjoying masturbation, then I don’t agree.
And based on the number of masturbation scenes I’ve read in novels by authors powerful enough to write pretty much anything they want, I’m not sure it’s what good writers want to write.
Just out of curiosity — and I apologize if you were going to explain this in longer responses tomorrow — but what, in the context of this comment thread, constitutes “gaslighting” you? I know the movie, and I understand the title in its verb form to suggest someone trying to convince another person that she’s going crazy. Can a comment really do that?
Well, I’ve been singlehandedly (pun intended) trying to make up for the deficit in that regard, but a girl can only do so much. And for all of you with dirty minds, that means I try to stick at least one female masturbation scene in every book. Sheesh.
I hope you don’t mind me jumping in. And excuse my crappy ability to articulate well.
It’s not quite about diversity or whether one type should be the norm. I believe the main point is – well, for me it is – why is there an expectation for heroines to be sexually virtuous as well as making it the norm?
There’s a long tradition of authors, editors and readers in the rom community resisting the idea of having heroines be anything but sexually virtuous.
In old days, rape and forced seduction were widely acceptable because readers wouldn’t feel contempt for heroines. She was taken by force therefore it wasn’t her fault (unless she behaved or dressed in a certain way, of course(!)). Hero loved/wanted her so much that he couldn’t oh help himself. Now rape/forced seduction aren’t generally accepted in the genre, heroines have to be super-responsible. She can’t sleep around. She has to have a reason if she did sleep around. Like child abuse. Torment. Low self-esteem. If in historical, a means of survival. Blah blah. She can’t be that easy with hero.
The idea that she can be happily sexually active – and before meeting the hero – because she enjoys it – as well as doing it for herself – isn’t so easily accepted nor welcomed by the majority of readers. Why?
When Marilyn Pappano’s First Kiss was released years ago, there was a massive negative reaction to the heroine Holly – a sexually confident woman who would and did go after men that attracted her. I remember one said Holly’s childhood background wasn’t “enough” to justify her “whorish ways” and that she felt sorry for hero Tom being tangled up with “that slut”.
So for me, the main question to all that: why? Why aren’t readers (and authors as well as editors) comfortable with accepting a wide range as the norm, as opposite to with the near-virgin as the norm?
It seems there are four choices a heroine can have in the romance genre these days: a) a sheltered virgin, b) a near-virgin (never had an orgasm ’til she meets hero), c) a prostitute with a tormented childhood, or d) experienced woman who didn’t know better.
All these have been featured in romance genre, but the most popular type is b). It feels as if it’s the best compromise.
To be fair, this question applies to virgin heroines as well (“Oh noez! I’m 30 and still a virgin! And I know nothing about sex, too! Even though I grew up in NYC and works for a women’s magazine. Oh, I know! I’ll read one of those issues with loads of sex tips and then, dress up like a skank to find any man at a local bar to take my virginity tonight!”).
It’s an insult to most real-life virgins – I mean, not having sex doesn’t mean they would be blind and deaf to their everyday environment. Or even being that socially conservative. Some do lead very active social lives as well as having an ability to be flirty, and they can self-pleasure. So why make them socially reclusive nuns?
I do think both sides got – pardon the pun – shafted.
@Magdalen: I’m not Janet/Robin, and I may be misinterpreting her words, but I didn’t interpret her post as calling for only one kind of heroine background when it comes to sexual experience.
Rather, I thought her main point was encapsulated here:
Therefore, I saw her as calling not for only sexually experienced heroines, nor for only sexually inexperienced heroines; not for heroines with only positive sexual experiences, nor for heroines with only negative sexual experiences.
What I saw her as calling for is decoupling a heroine’s sexual experience or lack there of from her value as a human being — suggesting that heroines, whether virginal or experienced, should be valued (by others and by themselves) based on criteria that is completely independent of their sexual history.
If I have this wrong, I hope that she will correct me.
I think I would have less of a problem with the fact that so many heroines are highly esteemed for their “pure” sexuality, if the “other” woman, who are always evil and soo wrong and un-natural, were not so commonly portrayed as a sexually active/confident woman.
@Janine: If you are right about what Robin/Janet meant, then I agree with all of that.
There are a lot of ways for an author to address the issue, though. I’m reading Roberts’ Chesapeake Blue, for example. The heroine, Dru, may have had multiple sexual experiences before the book began, but got shafted by an ebil fiance which rather puts her off men. There’s a great scene (well, I liked it) when she and Seth negotiate their first sexual experience. She chooses to sleep with him and she chooses to tell him in advance that she’s lost her sexual self-confidence as a result of nasty stuff ex-fiance did/said. Seth reassures her, but he can’t repair her sexual self-worth; she has to do that, and I think Roberts gets that point across.
My concern, all along, is that we look at heroines like Dru and consider whether they make internal sense as characters (i.e., is her explanation for why she is, temporarily, unsure of herself sexually consistent with her backstory) and whether the overall story reinforces the importance of women owning their own sexuality and being responsible for their own sense of self-worth. I would argue that Roberts succeeds at both. Dru may be sexually insecure at the point at which she meets Seth, but she knows it, she owns it, and she makes her own decision about sleeping with Seth despite that insecurity. She’s honest about it, and she’s not expecting him to “fix” her.
Not to make a single title the point of all this (it just happens to be what I’m reading), but if Chesapeake Blue is okay, I’m in. If Chesapeake Blue is not okay, then I worry we’re sacrificing storytelling and character arcs in the name of presenting a sexually confident heroine from the beginning of her story to the end. It’s not Seth who gives Dru her mojo back, she gets it back for herself. But his reassurances are part of that process. Because they’re in a relationship. And it’s a romance novel.
@Edie: What a great point. And are romantically untrustworthy males the Villain, too? Does that suggest we’re judging women by their sexual purity (which we’ve all agreed we shouldn’t do) and judging men by their emotional maturity and ability to commit?
@Magdalen Aren’t most heroes before they come in contact with the magic hoohoo (?) of the heroine romantically untrustworthy?
A minor aside… Heroes who’re for the most part always portrayed as being rakes are also being judged by their sexual status. Unless he’s been promiscuous, he cannot contribute his share of the sexual component of the monogamous HEA relationship. Just as women are judged for their sexual experience or lack thereof, men are judged equally for it, too. Whatever the words used, whatever the measurement yardstick used, what remains in common is that the sexual history is weighed and judged for both.
I have the feeling that unless this weighing and judging is removed for both, simply not judging the woman will either not happen, or will be considered lopsided.
None of the above quoted is biological/physical evolution. It is cultural. In fact, most of what people on this thread have been pointing out as indications of biology determining action is not biology, but culture. Or, if it is biological (men must have many partners, women only one), it is incorrect or not based on reality (i.e. wrong.)
This whole thread is very interesting.
Actually, regarding my above quote, looking over the original comment, I might have misunderstood what the commenter was saying. Kirstin Saell, if you’re not saying choice of sex/procreative partner is biologically determined in today’s society, etc., I’m sorry for misunderstanding you!
I think this is a very valid point. How many virgin heros do we see? Not many. I think the hero’s virility is shorthand for self-confidence, strength, and self-assurance…things that make a hero heroic. Captains of Industry are another Hero Archetype that use this shorthand, since their success is shorthand for leadership, determination, and decisiveness.
If a hero is a virgin, we have no feel for how manly he is, no sexual history to weigh, unless that “rake” shorthand is replaced by some other generic attribute that indicates his internal heroism. Like Josclin from the Kushiel series…he’s a virgin, yes, but his devotion to the Casseline brotherhood and his martial prowess show us he is still heroic…just not really familiar with vaginas.
A woman’s sexual history is not as clear to me, though, and I don’t think it’s a “shorthand” for anything as much as it is a shortcut to make the heroine “worthy” somehow of her HEA. She’s not a Bad Girl, she’s innocent…? I think this is the crux of the issue: virginity or sexual reticence in the heroine is simply more expected by women and culture.
@forgot my handle:
What I’m saying is that biological factors still play a part in the kinds of characteristics we find sexually attractive.
But because of women’s lib, social safety nets, and relaxed constraints on female sexuality, we have a lot more freedom these days to either go whole hog on the biological aspect of it (just watch a “this bad-ass thug is my baby-daddy” episode of Maury Povich), or to disregard it.
I do think culture has mirrored biology in a lot of ways. Women still generally want a mate who is at least as smart and successful as they are, and I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon.
There are a lot of arguments about gender being a social construct, too, but having a son and a daughter close together, offering them both the same toys, well, right from the get-go my daughter chose to play with dolls, even though it meant not having someone to play with her half the time.
It’s impossible to divorce nature from nurture, biology from culture. But the blank slate argument, that I don’t buy.
As far as rakes go, I was talking to my new guy the other night about how it wouldn’t bother me to see him flirt with women. He was surprised, but I told him no woman wants to be president of a club no one else would want to join. Perhaps the “rake” is shorthand for “this guy is with me because he chooses to be, not because he couldn’t have her or her or her.” Which is I think, at least subconsciously, a powerful attractor for a woman. I mean, if the only reason he’s with her is because he couldn’t get anyone else….can you say “loser”?
Why is it wrong for romance fictions to value the heroine on the basis of her sexual innocence?
Oh, I think some women would. If some of us didn’t, you wouldn’t find romances in which the hero has been rejected by a superficial woman because of his physical disability/lack of money/lower social class, etc. but then finds love with the heroine, who appreciates him for the wonderful person he really is.
Possibly, though, she might see it in terms of her being the only women intelligent and perceptive enough to appreciate what a hidden treasure he is. Another possibility is that she might think that (a) they’re soul mates, so nobody apart from her would be right for him, just as nobody apart from him would be right for her, and (b) subconsciously other women recognise that and therefore don’t go after him. Or a woman might feel that she didn’t want to feel constantly threatened by other women trying to steal her partner, so being with a man who isn’t likely to appeal to other women makes her feel secure.
I suppose those examples could be the case–and frankly, having a bit of a scar fetish, there are some men I find attractive that 99% of women wouldn’t. But I do think those are exceptions to the general rule. And I think those exceptions are almost always based on something…exceptional in the man, some quality that is extremely attractive that other women can’t get past the disability/lack of money/lower social status to see. In other words, for that to work, he can’t just be some homely schmuck with a limp and a 95 IQ who slurps his soup like every other schmuck, if you know what I mean.
And I’ve had some experience with women in the latter example–those who would “feel more secure” with a man who wouldn’t appeal to other women. The reality, more often than not, is that nothing will make them feel secure in their relationship, because their insecurity is internalized.
You’re probably right. And it seems to be acknowledged in that kind of romance by the heroine being depicted as being in a minority in not seeking out a man with all the usual markers of desirability in a mate.
But he’d be HER homely schmuck! So that would make him special! Seriously, though, when people fall in love don’t they tend to find something special about their beloved, even if no-one else can see it? I wonder if Heyer’s Cotillion‘s got a situation a bit like that. I mean, everyone likes Freddy, and he dresses well etc, but hardly anyone thinks he’s clever or attractive. Yet Kitty falls in love with him and concurrently with that, she becomes more and more convinced of his wisdom.
Red flag to a bull! Let’s talk Cotillion Laura :) I think that Kitty is very much like Freddy — sensible, practical, w/innate good taste — and with the same kind of good heart that he has. Their situation demands (because she’s the country mouse come to town) that Freddy step up and be the savvy guide to the Metropolis and its ways. I think that the situation brings out Freddy’s marvelous qualities and I always think of them as two people who are truly blessed to have found each other and love each other — and they both become more because of that.
Another story like that: Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes — both hero/heroine become more themselves because of their love. Probably very badly phrased but I know what I mean. LOL
For those who insist on biology over psychology, have you seen this article (or this one) on the history of baby colors?
@Janine: Yes, that’s it! I also agree with what @Maili said.
@KeiraSoleore: One of the main differences, though, is that heroes are generally not *reduced* to their sexual currency like heroines are. Heroines (and women) are still culturally essentialized in terms of their sex and sexuality, which I think is really problematic, both in cultural and literary history.
@dick: Seriously? Well, besides the mundane reasons that judging anyone by their sexual status is pretty shallow and narrow and prejudicial, there’s the way in which women in general, in real life history, have been valued, controlled, traded, and otherwise elevated or victimized on the basis of their sexual status. And given that women are viewed with sexual suspicion (all women are temptresses! They make men do horrible things like rape! They have teeth in their vaginas!), not to mention all the cultures in which rape is considered a legal means to avenge oneself (or pouring acid on a woman’s face), or where clitorectomies are routinely performed on young girls to ensure they get no sexual pleasure, etc. etc. etc. can we not agree that *idealizing* a woman’s sexual purity, even in Romance, is problematically essentializing of a woman’s value *as a person*?
And let’s not forget poor Hester Prynne, who suffered with a scarlet A on her chest, while Dimsdale did not.
Elevating a woman because she’s a virgin implicates demonizing her if she’s otherwise (whether it be unfaithful, free in her love, whatever).
I mean, Dick, why would it be good to reduce a woman to her sexual status, even if such reduction provided a favorable judgment? The higher the pedestal, the more bones broken during the fall. ;)
Obviously, you can be concerned about anything you want. ;) But if that’s where you are, then we are decidedly not on the same page. Because nothing I’ve said is intended to limit, prescribe, proscribe, or otherwise direct the production of Romance narratives.
Take the race analogy, for example. When we talk about how races other than white have been portrayed in Romance, people will bring up the ubiquitous black best friend. Look at how often a black character will not be the protag but instead the heroine’s best friend.
I’ve not seen people saying to authors, ‘hey, no more black best friends!’ Instead I think these examples are offered as a way to *show* how our cultural and racial biases may be translated — most often *unconsciously* — into Romance fiction. The point is to initiate awareness and conversation about the issue. What impact — IF ANY — such conversations might, will, does have on the genre is anyone’s guess. As I said above, I don’t believe in one-to-one theories of influence between books and readers (or authors).
But I think we do ourselves a great disservice, as women, as reader and/or writers of Romance, to ignore these issues and their persistent presence in our literature and our lives.
If it can, that might be a power I want, lol. But all I meant was that when it seems as if you’re suggesting to me, after my long post and a longer comment thread, that with 25% of the Romance novels published coming from a diverse line, why is there a “problem,” why am I “complaining,” my first response is ‘are you playing me?’
@Robin: There you go. We agree. :-)
We do need to discuss these issues, we need to share our perspectives with each other, we need to consider all viewpoints while not losing sight of our own. All of which you — and everyone else on this thread — has done.
Toward that end, your post is clearly thought-provoking, energizing, and tremendously valuable.
If you want to read an insider’s opinion on the market research aspect of this comment thread (a tiny snippet of a vast, and fascinating, tapestry) I’ve got Michael Norris, of Simba Information, at Promantica
There’s definitely something to be said for the “likeable guy”, even if he’s not overtly sexy. But when someone is physically unattractive or unlikeable, and forgets your birthday just like all the others, there really does have to be some “hidden quality” that maybe only you can see. Or that everyone can see (case in point, Dr. House), but can’t tolerate the bad points long enough to appreciate.
And even so, the woman’s status/attractiveness/intelligence will have a good deal of bearing on who she finds attractive and why. There’s a very cute couple in my town, both having been brain-injured at birth, who are very much in love. But I honestly don’t think the average woman would find the guy sexually attractive. And when it comes to stuff like this, you really have to look at averages and generalizations. Which is why finding those exceptions to the rule so stirring when it’s done convincingly.
Me, I could definitely be with a man who is physically less than appealing, and who didn’t make a lot of money (self-sufficiency would be nice, tho, because I’ve had the alternative and just, no), but he’d better be at least as smart as I am, because that’s what I find sexiest in a man. For fun and giggles, I suppose a dunce with a good body would do, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a mate.
Culture can trump biology, but I think in most cases culture mirrors biology. E.g: hypergamy is cultural, but it’s also biological. So are the things men generally find attractive in women. It’s next to impossible to completely divorce the two. Hell, I even find my bisexuality and gender-queerness runs along biological lines–the qualities–physical and emotional–I find attractive in men are completely different from what I find attractive in women.
@Magdalen I don’t necessarily disagree with Mr. Norris comments, but if you have read PW or the statements of various CEOs of the major publishing houses, they refer to their customers as the booksellers because that is who buys the books from the publishers, not the consumers. It is, in fact, the separation of the consumer from the publisher by the intermediary that is driving a lot of conversations within the publishing industry. For example, David Wilks has an interview with Tim O’Reilly wherein he talks about the direct relationship with the consumer.
Harlequin is another publisher that sells direct to the consumer. It does market research (and releases its market research in a very pretty package around Valentine’s Day). Other publishers, however, have only the sell through statements of each of its authors. It has no industry wide information. For example, it does not know how well it’s books do against another publisher’s books, but Amazon and other intermediaries do. It can speculate or extrapolate based on Bookscan but since many wholesale distributors dont report to bookscan (specifically Wal-mart), Bookscan only tells a small picture.
Publishers who do not sell direct have no idea if certain books do better in certain regions. I.e., do more provocative romances sell well on the coast v. the virgin trope being popular in the Midwest? Their data, at best, is based on guesses which is why you see so many copycat books in the genre. If vampires in a brotherhood who seek out weak women appeal on a large scale, then that is what publishers are going to be looking for. It’s low risk, potentially high reward. Is that really what customers want?
Kristen Nelson blogged in December about how few editors are willing to take the chance on new books and new authors.
So yes, publishers have data. They know what books make the bestseller list, but I am pretty sure, if pressed, the publishers would not be able to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes the book a bestseller.
I can only think of one example of a virgin hero and a sexually experienced (though not in this case promiscuous) heroine – Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. I really, really liked the dynamic in that relationship and I liked the way she used their previous sexual experiences to explore that.
@Ros: Patricia Gaffney’s Wild at Heart is another example.
Doesn’t Lorraine Heath’s Always To Remember feature a virgin hero and a widowed heroine?
I may be misremembering but aren’t both the hero and the heroine in Eloisa James’ ‘Your Wicked Ways’ virgins, which basically ends their marriage before it begins because after a traumatic wedding night she never wants him to touch her again…
Guess there’s a story to advocate for at least one partner knowing what they are doing! :)
And one thing that really irked me is that while he installs a mistress in her own house and bedchamber after kicking his wife out, and after she considers taking a lover, in the end she goes back to him never having slept with anybody else. So, again, fine for him to have had other lovers, but not for her.
I’m sure if I’m misremembering the events in this book somebody will be kind enough to correct me. :)
But romance fiction is neither history nor the present nor cultural practices which demean. It’s a fantasy. The hero and heroine within it are also fantasies. The male is characterized as a paragon of attractiveness in looks, power, sexual prowess; heroines are characterized as paragons of attractiveness in purity, chastity, sexual innocence. The hero attracts because of his unsuitableness and supposed unobtainability for the heroine; the heroine attracts for the same reasons. And, of course, romance fiction proves that just ain’t so; they’re not only suitable for one another and obtainable by one another, their love transforms them into a perfect match, as the HEA proves.
Because it’s fantasy, I don’t see how valuing the heroine for her innocence can be any more wrong than valuing the hero for his experience.
And, you know, I really think that paradigm is closer to reality than most want to think. That female who is called “easy” in locker rooms is not often the one sought for longer terms than what the “easy” implies, even by those males who are themselves experienced and got that way with the “easy” females. Fair? Probably not. It simply is.
@dick: I don’t want to answer for Robin, because she will, undoubtedly have a better answer than me, But: do women in general believe that their sexuality should be a currency? I don’t think so…none of the women of my acquaintance do. We all want to be regular people, just like men.
So the fact is, why isn’t this represented in Romance? Women are the vast majority of the readers. Is it because we are still constricted by the norms of our culture, that determine a woman as “easy” or a “whore” once they feel confident enough with their sexuality for it to be represented by their actions?
And if so, what are we doing to change those norms, so we can be as equally liberated as men? Once a woman can have a one-night stand and get high-fives like the man in the equation, maybe then, finally, women won’t be the marginalized population in our society that they are today.
@Jane: I know how you don’t like to have comment threads hijacked by off-topic discussions.
Come to Promantica and we can discuss marketing, the romance fiction industry, and customer satisfaction research more appropriately there. That way people here who don’t know what you’re talking about can read what Michael Norris said.
@Magdalen I’ve articulated my position about trade publishing and their customers to the best of my ability here. I hadn’t realized the issue of the market for romances was so far apace from the original topic.
Stay sounds great. I’m already well into your free sample of The Proviso and will save up to buy them in hardcover if I can stand the waiting. Otherwise, ebooks! ;)
I have respect for women who stand by their sexual convictions of any stripe. However, I really would like to see some heroines who participate in the hookup culture as a temporary physical fix until their One True Loves enter their lives. There are SO FEW stories out there with heroines who don’t have hangups over hookups. (LOL, alliteration.)
TMI: I have a friend who wants to be in a serious relationship before having sex and who has had a string of really, really bad luck with men, meaning that she’s approaching 30 and still a virgin. I have another friend who never wants to marry or have children and has sex for pleasure and not for commitment. Society (men AND women) treats both of them like crap. But I haven’t found a single good story about the latter’s POV.
I made a promise to myself that I would not be that 31-year-old virgin waiting for God to bless her with a husband who came on our church’s youth group trips with me and who was in so much emotional pain. When it was clear that nothing I was doing (or refraining from doing) was bringing me closer to marriage, I decided to live life day-by-day and not wait for any man to get a clue (there were several guys who could have and didn’t — their loss). Sex is fun. Love is love. Life is too damn short.
Sexual experience is not the measure of my worth, nor should it be. I would like to see this attitude reflected more often in romance books and not have a bunch of people wailing about the collapse of civilization because women enjoy being equal to men. Zealots have been doing that since medieval times, and guess what? They’re still wrong.
THIS. A thousand times. Heroines should be a diverse lot.
The hook-up thing bewilders me, so it won’t be me writing it! LOL However, I hope you’ll be pleased with how I chose to deal with G’s convictions when it comes time for her to make a decision.
Yeah, that. That resonates so deeply. I could say much more.
My books aren’t in hardcover, but trade paperback. Please email me (moriah at moriahjovan dot com). I have about 8 proof copies of The Proviso with slightly scuffed covers that I won’t sell in that condition, but I would like to place in loving homes.
Because it’s an overused and antiquated trope that’s been done to death? Because it places all of the sexual constraints on the woman and perpetuates a misogynist view of female sexuality?
Because after reading it over and over and OVER, it becomes boring as hell?
Given that the concept of ‘sexuality’ as constructed in 20th century Western European and American literature is largely a nineteenth century invention that caters to white, able-bodied men (see Freud, Foucault, etc.), it is not without its problems. However, I fail to see why women are not entitled to variety, imperfect as that variety might be.
But that it’s overdone, doesn’t make it “wrong” does it? If that’s so, then using the trope of the vampire who strives to be “good” is also wrong; the detective who uses unrealistically illegal methods to solve a crime is also wrong. My point is that the fantasies of genre fiction, no matter whether they are about romance or vampires or solving a mystery, remain fantasies. They bring enjoyment, but, in most instances, any other effect is as ephemeral as morning mist. Thus, I don’t think use of the trope perpetuates “misogynist views.” How does the trope equate with hatred of women or their sexuality? It’s just a trope that fits the fantasy, isn’t it?
@dick: If I hadn’t had this debate with you in various forms, I’d be having another “gaslight” moment here. But in any case, I think calling Romance *as a genre* a fantasy conflates the fantasy elements in the genre with the category of Romance as a literary genre. I also think it diminishes the genre, but that’s another topic for another time. ;)
In any case, IMO there are *fantasy elements* of genre Romance — the sexual fantasy of forced seduction, for example (and not all instances of sexual force in the genre are fantasy elements, IMO). So if you’re arguing that valuing the sexually pure heroine is a fantasy element of the genre, I’d want to put all sorts of conditions and qualifications on that, and subject it to a ridiculous amount of analysis first.
My position, at the moment, is that the way sexual purity is valued in genre Romance is NOT merely a reflection of its fantasy elements, and that, as several others have noted, it is a reflection of a patriarchal gender code — that is, historically and conventionally speaking, a woman’s sexual purity has been constructed to promote, benefit, and validate men and male authority. That the woman’s sexual worth is primarily measured in terms of her value *TO MEN* or *FOR MEN* and not withing and for a female or even feminist paradigm.
Which doesn’t mean that such a thing may not be present in genre Romance (I am always looking for subversive elements in the genre and believe they’re always present, as they are in general society), but seeing women of a certain sexual experience (or lack thereof) as prudes or sluts doesn’t seem particularly pro-woman to me. It seems more in line with the history or rape law, where the female victim had to PROVE HER INNOCENCE, rather than the other way around.
Because all products a society produces, including its art, are historically-specific, culturally specific expressions, and they all reflect, in some way, the conditions under which they are produced. So I don’t think we can ever divorce a literary genre from larger cultural questions and issues, even if we can discuss elements in the genre that *seem* to transcend the particularities of time and place (i.e. myth, archetype).
Some of the great works of literature have been fantasy–Paradise Lost, e.g.
If romance fiction is by, for, and about women, how can it not be a part of the feminist paradigm? Have all the romance writers who’ve used the virginity ploy ceased to be women when they write or have they deliberately non-feminist? Or are they simply using the ploy because it fits the romance they’re writing, because pitting experience against innocence seems to fit the yin/yang conflict?
And I can’t really see that using the heroine’s virginity as a device is somehow for men nor how it validates male “authority,” when the majority of readers are females, unless, as I opine, it’s simply one of the ingredients of romance fiction, just another element of the fantasy.
Obviously, from the many comments made on herein, romance fiction doesn’t reflect cultural values of many readers. Why then read it?
Fantasy inherently holds the mirror up to and comments on reality–that’s its purpose. And as much as men are more than their…well, dicks (size doesn’t matter), women deserve to be more than the rest of the biological matter surrounding a vagina.
Separating from that to the broader discussion, most of our genre fiction needs conflict in order to be a good read. And for romance, the central conflict is going to have to naturally include some conflict about sex, sexuality, and the sexual interaction between the main characters. There’s a review I believe in the post just after this one where the lack of conflict in the sexual relationship of the characters is part of the reason the reviewer didn’t like the book.
The stories we read in the romance genre, in its broadest spectrum, inherently feature character arcs that include the main characters becoming somewhat better with the inclusion of the relationship in their lives–overcoming obstacles in their mindsets, their situations, or flaws in their character. That usually means coming from a place of dissatisfaction to a place of satisfaction. It’s usually the heroine who suffers dissatisfaction with her sexual status because, well, in reality, women are more pressured to judge themselves and other women on a morality scale that uses sexual congress as a measure. And the Duke of Slut does occasionally ruminate on something missing from his legendary string of lovers, which usually cues the heroine’s presence. While these are means of societal commentary, they’re also means of expression of the beginning of character arc, the indication of something about to change via conflict.
TL;DR – Sometimes, that’s just the way the plot goes. Not right or fair, and not trying to make value judgments, but there all the same.
I think the relationship between the genre and larger society is complex and not directly translated or translatable. We see some of the same tensions in the genre we see in society, vis a vis the way women define themselves and manage relationships and love.
But I also think the genre, like society, passes things along without a whole lot of reflection and examination, including attitudes about how women are valued and value themselves, and how different standards of value apply to men and women. You may completely disagree. But in any case, what I’m interested in here is merely more reflection on some of these things, which requires first their identification.
Would I like to see more books that don’t center a woman’s value in her sexual status? Of course. But that doesn’t mean I can’t and don’t enjoy many books where this occurs, including one of the books I referenced in my previous post on morality and Romance, Chase’s Don’t Tempt Me. If I chose books to read based on how closely they match my own beliefs, values, and experiences, I suspect I’d be reading from a pretty short list, lol.
First I just want to point out that I wasn’t the one who introduced the issue of female masturbation. In fact, I didn’t mention it at all except in this response to you.
But I’m wondering about your second paragraph there; are you saying that all “powerful” authors are good writers, that all good authors are “powerful” or something else?
In any case, I don’t know how we get from a statement like, ‘the most powerful authors I’ve read don’t write that’ to ‘good writers don’t want to write about female masturbation.’ I mean, short of taking a comprehensive poll of all authors, and then hooking them up to lie detector tests to make sure they’re telling the truth, how do we know what authors, good or otherwise (however you define that) want to write?
There was a notable incident several years ago in which Adele Ashworth admitted (on AAR, IIRC, since the discussion took place there) that she re-wrote one of her heroines as a virgin (a virgin widow, to be exact) after her editor suggested the change. And despite her valiant efforts to convince people she made the change freely and without any regret, it was a VERY tough sell.
Some might see Ashworth as brave for admitting what many believe about certain publishers (and that Canadian documentary on Romance in which an Avon editor is heard talking about Romance “starts with the virgin” hasn’t helped), because while authors talk readily about pressure to write what is perceived to be marketable (and I’ll get that that in a minute), how many would come out and say they’re writing to what they perceive the market to be? And how are successful authors who do write exactly what they want going to escape perceptions that they were writing to the market? I don’t think we’re ever really going to know either way.
Why would the genre “have died out” if it had proceeded differently? There are myriad possibilities for the robust continuation of the historical subgenre, including a diverse collection of heroines, including virgin heroines. That readers enjoy these books does not preclude the possibility that they would enjoy other types, as well.
Since these discussions clearly overlap, and since you brought this up here, I’m going to respond here, quoting some of your comments directed to me from your own blog post:
I think there are a lot of unsubstantiated assumptions here. First the assumption that what authors are writing is what is getting published (re. my example of the Ashworth book above). Then there’s the assumption I discussed above that authors are writing what they want to write. Then there is the blanket assertion that English upper class women were not sexually experienced. It’s just not a historically supportable contention.
It is definitely true that the mores of the 19th C English did not openly encourage women to be freely sexual. Absolutely. Although they were, at many historical moments in the century, contrary, presenting women as both over-sexual and as completely devoid of sexual desire. But whether women were openly sexual and whether they were sexually active before or outside of marriage are quite different things. In fact, there’s some very interesting research on romantic friendships among women in the 19th century (Sharon Marcus’s Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England, for example), despite the overt social taboo of homosexuality.
And I’ve often thought women like Elizabeth Siddal would be great “heroine material.” Mistress (later wife) of pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Siddal was not titled, but she was was literate and served as both artist’s model (for Millais’ Ophelia, for example) and artist in her own right.
Or what about Byron’s mistress, Caroline Lamb? She was pretty interesting.
But beyond the complex historical realities, since when has Romance ever adhered to the a)accurate historical figures, and b)the “average” person. It’s like that old joke about how there are so many more aristocrats in Regency Romance than there ever were in Regency England. Readers all the time (much to my frustration) accept rape in historical Romance because they believe it to be more historically accurate. And I think the sexuality issue is much the same way — a perception that is not historically authentic to near the extent it’s presented in the genre, but one that nonetheless prevails *as history according to the genre,* much like Heyer’s Regency England has been widely accepted as historically accurate, even though it isn’t either.
Still, though, why does all this lead to a conclusion that authors are writing only what they want and, more importantly to me, as a reader, that readers are getting what we want in books?
I know you cite Michael Norris’s response to the question you asked him about the buyers from B&N and Borders being the only 2 customers (and it was Moriah Jovan who made this exact statement, not me) in support of your conclusion, from which I think this is his main point:
But I honestly don’t think he’s saying anything different from Jane or me (or even Moriah Jovan). He says explicitly that publishers base their decisions of what to publish on a “spreadsheet” of aggregate sales, on “the choices readers have made.” To which he suggests buying differently or buying from local, independent bookstores.
But here’s the rub: the politics of what’s purchased by bookstores, what’s shelved, where it’s shelved, what’s available as available stock, what’s available at different stores, etc. etc. profoundly shapes and limits what readers *can* buy at any given time. Further, what makes the best-selling lists is not an aggregate sales number from all venues, which makes it even more muddled.
Anyway, to start, have you read Jennifer Ashley’s piece on print runs? She notes that the sell-through rate on Romance novels is about 50%, which means that for most authors, about half of the books printed at the publisher are not even sold. As she says:
She also talks a lot about the “incentives” that publishers can offer to bookstores to feature certain books more prominently (and here’s a scary piece from Richard Curtis on incentives). Because book placement is a huge deal, too. And it’s influenced by all sorts of things, including readers and even authors who reshelve books. Karin Tabke promoted her “street team,” a while ago, a group of loyal readers who undertakes different promotional activities on behalf of an author. In fact, Tabke announced a while ago that she reshelves books for herself and her friends, which can definitely change up what readers see when they shop.
Oh, and that’s all assuming you have a significant print run, which is hardly a guarantee, especially in this market. And the fewer books circulating (taking into consideration that at least half of those won’t even be sold) means less access for readers. And obviously, publishers are going to base print runs on sales figures, meaning the bestselling authors are going to have way more books available in the marketplace at any given time.
And now Simon and Shuster has announced they will be utilizing telemarketers to promote and sell books to booksellers, particularly independent booksellers.
So are there better ways to buy for readers who want to send a signal to a publisher, as Mr. Norris suggests? I would agree with him that there are. But even he is honest about the way publishers make these decisions, and the reality even he does not argue, is that publishers interpret those choices *from spreadsheets*.
But what if I buy a book and don’t like it but don’t return it? Does the spreadsheet indicate how many and why books were returned? What about all the realities of a book’s availability to a particular reader — you can’t buy what you don’t know about or have access to. I mean, does a publishing system that regularly prints twice as many books as it sells per author really sound like it’s running efficiently, let alone attentively to what readers want?
I wish it did, just as I wish authors were writing all writing the “book of their soul” and that said books were mind-blowing. And yes, I absolutely think that engaged, vocal readers can make some difference. But if publishers are making publishing decisions based on spreadsheets, and readers are making choices among books *already selected for them,* and myriad factors beyond the readers’ control are shaping that selection, how can we conclude anything more than that some books sell, that readers are getting some of what they want, and that some writers are writing some books that sell?
@dick: Choosing Paradise Lost as your example of “fantasy” kinda proves my point that literature reflects all sorts of RL political, economic, religious, social, cultural, sexual, etc. issues, doesn’t it?
Not everything produced *by women* is feminist, just as not everything produced by men promotes patriarchy. Patriarchy is a system of values that men or women can accept or reject. The multi-layered nature of social vales, the power of habituation and training, and the prevalence of a social norm makes change difficult. Look at how difficult it is to change attitudes and treatment toward people of color, for example.
And honestly, I don’t think that when writers sit down to write a book they think, ‘oh, I must write a virgin so she’s worthy of love!’ I think that many of these connections are so below the social consciousness that they simply move through the genre just like they move through society — largely unexamined and only intermittently challenged.
So why read Romance? Because there are many things about it to enjoy. I don’t know if any book or author I adore is without issues — as a literary scholar that makes these books interesting to me, and as a reader, it can make them enjoyable but also catalysts of a blog post, lol.
I’m not sure what your point is. Are you agreeing that the virginal heroine/experienced hero is just another part of the fantasy or are you suggesting that it’s a plot necessity? Sorry. I may be slower than usual today.
Yeah, fantasy reflects cultural values. A case could be made, then, that romance fiction is reflecting cultural values by including the virginal heroine so often, even though the inclusion doesn’t accord too well with real life. Maybe that cultural value enters romance fiction just as unconsciously as the “patriarchical” attitudes?
But I’m not really interested in how romance fiction does or does not reflect real life; I see no reason why it should actually, any more than any other litereary form, fantasy or otherwise. I’m interested in romance fiction as a form, standing on its own merits or falling because of the lack of those. As I’ve iterated heretofore, the virginity business, in the considerable number of romances I’ve read, is but another part–a very useful part– of the formula. I don’t think we would ask that a mystery or a scifi take up the cudgels for doing away with what have been described as “patriarchical” sexual attitudes, if by doing so it would have to find a substitute for a useful device. Is it because romance fiction is considered essentially a feminine genre that it’s expected to do so? I agree that authors don’t sit down to write and say, “Oh, I’ve got to include a virgin heroine.” But I’m sure many of them have discovered that the virgin heroine vs. the experienced hero makes for immediate conflict on levels basic to male/female interactions.
I think you’re wrong about that. Even the most cursory of searches on “sexism” “mystery” and “fiction” will turn up plenty of entries on those topics. For example, here it’s mentioned that “A stock figure in mystery fiction is the sexually predatory, dangerous woman, or femme fatale; almost as common is the mirror image, the meek, hapless female victim.” Only last October
And it’s not just sexism that comes in for criticism and analysis. Admittedly I haven’t been following discussions about other genres closely, but it was difficult not to notice “race fail” last year going on among authors and readers of science fiction/speculative fiction.
@dick: I forgot I hadn’t responded to your comment, since I certainly did in my head, lol.
Anyway, I want to second Laura Vivanco’s comments and add a link to the Fantasy and Science Fiction site at the University of Michigan (http://www.umich.edu/~umfandsf/). On the links page, there’s a link to a feminist science fiction site, and although the URL is wrong, apparently, I’ve found the correct link: http://feministsf.org/
Science Fiction, at least, is way ahead in terms of serious scholarship, and there are also a number of academics who also write in the genre (Greg Benford, for example). It is absolutely the case that issues related to women and race have been slower to gain traction in the genre and in the scholarship, but they’re still well ahead of Romance.
As I’m sure you know from your own background, many works we now study as high literature started out as popular or even pulp fiction. Along these lines, I would also recommend Michael Chabon’s Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, in which he argues that many of the boundaries drawn between different types of literature are largely artificial.
Oh, and another great resource is the Genre Evolution Project, also at the University of Michigan: http://www.umich.edu/~genreevo/
chlamydia can give you lots of painful and itchy moments so always practice safe sex.*,.
every business and investment needs some very good market research if you want it to succeed ,*`