Steamy Problems

In both my introduction to the site and to the series, I mentioned some typical criticisms and features of romance novels. They often feature explicit sex, written for and by women; sometimes that sex appears in a context where consent is suspect and power is in a stark imbalance between parties. In fact, the favored heroes fall into an alpha male archetype, and terms like mine or territory or lay claim appear frequently. The conflict driving the plot can be highly implausible — perhaps a big misunderstanding that could be resolved with a five minute conversation keeps the lovers apart but drawn together — or the universe itself could be ludicrous, a Victorian England where lords marry commoners without any brows raising, or a supernatural world that makes the erotic into a magical power, as with the Anita Blake series.

The criticism implies various kinds of badness in romance novels: political badness, in the sense of being unfeminist; artistic badness, in the sense of being badly done; and moral badness, in the sense the reader has chosen to read this drivel.

Put simply, these seem to be stories about sex and helplessness without artistic merit that women tell each other.

As Nora Roberts says, “Romance is the hat trick of easy targets: emotions, relationships, and sex.”

Beyond Heaving Bosoms:
The Smart Bitches' Guide
to Romance Novels


Sarah Wendell & Candy Tan

Some of this comes down to some social fucked-up-ness regarding women's pleasure and sexuality, where female arousal is supposed to occur only in certain women, only in certain circumstances. Some of it involves a narrow view of literature — that is, that a plot that is mockable in skeleton form cannot be fleshed into a compelling story in the hands of a talented author. I don't give a fuck about the latter. Read some books, dude, and learn how literary quality works. But I do think it's worth thinking through what we consider erotic because it involves a certain story, and the stories we tell ourselves can help us, or hurt us.

In my favored romances, the heroine's value is rarely questioned. The love interest likes her on page one; it takes a book for her to decide whether or not she likes him. I know part of why I like that story is that I imagine that I, too, have unquestionable value; I am beautiful, brilliant, humorous, loving, and deserving of literary limelight. But that also makes the story about a war of attrition. The hero turns the heroine's no into a yes. And since sex isn't saved for the epilogue, sex usually occurs when one party isn't yet certain about the other, sometimes when the heroine wants him so badly, despite knowing better, despite thinking this is not going to work or lead to her harm. Even if the hero takes the heroine's value to be unimpeachable, the story, and the heroine herself, often don't. Notably, there is often a power imbalance between the partners, such that the hero is often vastly wealthier, perhaps more respectably titled if it's historical, perhaps even her boss, and almost invariably stronger in terms of body and will.

Erotic media usually employs a lack of self-preservation as a way to calibrate desire. If you want sex more than you want safety, you must want it bad. Romance novels often specifically link excellent sex with an indication that someone is the right partner; these are not morality tales where the woman learns the accountant with the micropenis was the right choice all along. Linking pleasure and ‘rightness’ with a lack of privilege for your own judgment is ... troubling to say the least. Particularly when the heroine is often outmatched in terms of some senses of ‘power’.

But I love these stories.

In Beyond Heaving Bosoms, the authors discuss a troubling part of romance novel history: prior to the 1980's, those romance novels that included sex between the heroine and the hero often did so under demonstrably nonconsensual circumstances, though there might be evidence of her pleasure. To be clear: this meant that a lot of romance novels eroticized rape. There are various theories about why this might be. The cruelest might be that the irritating nature of these heroines made readers vicariously enjoy their lack of consent. The one that the authors and I favor points to the conflicting sexual mores of the time: that a woman should be extremely sexually pleasing, but only in wedlock. Part of what drove these books was the road from acquaintance to marriage or love, which meant that sex happens before nuptials. If the heroine did not consent to sex out of marriage, but enjoyed it even so, it was a way for her to obey the ‘the rules’, while still having a good time. Things have changed, and though not all romance novels are consensual, the vast majority are.

Why this segue? Because the reason I favor this interpretation is that it indicates that the readers and writers were doing their best to write about and perhaps produce erotic experiences in women in a time where that involved many restrictive norms. It assumes good intentions — and intelligence — in a different historical context. I want to also assume good intentions and intelligence. Whose? Both my good intentions and intelligence, because there is something worth considering in these novels ... even if they have troubling patterns.

Which is precisely what I want to consider.