Editors’ note: For us, inclusive feminism involves sex-positive feminism. Reynolds’ exploration of the complicated relationship between feminism, writing, patriarchal ideals, and romance and erotica novels is fresh, thought-provoking, and
probably NSFW. Enjoy!
by Cait Reynolds
I write about sex. I write about sex a lot. I write entire books where the point is to stuff in as many sex scenes as I can.
My novels have boy/boys meet girl, fall in lust/love, have a lot of amazing sex, and decide to live happily ever after together. There’s plot, but I have to be careful to keep it driving toward the next sex scene. There are percentages to adhere to in terms of plot-romance-sex.
The men are tall, strong, devilishly good-looking, and usually hiding some desperate secret. The women are feisty, smart, beautiful, and secretly vulnerable. There are funny best friends, tertiary characters, a villain, and a quest.
Endings have sex, villains vanquished (at least until the next book), pressing emotional issues resolved, sex, references to inside jokes between the characters, explanation, sex, and the granting of care, love and protection from the alpha male hero/heroes to the heroine.
Cue feminist-eye rolling at self-defeating propagation of the patriarchal model’s agenda.
Cue feminist guilt at having several such novels discreetly tucked away on her phone/Kindle/Nook/iPad where the covers can’t be seen.
Cue counter-feminist feminist argument that women have a right to whatever fantasies they want, which means including the traditional fantasies of male dominance in relationships, economic roles and the bedroom.
Cue feminist counter-feminist-feminist reasoning that while yes, feminists should accept other women’s fantasies as their right, shouldn’t we be using mainstream media to inculcate changes in values, especially when it comes to women’s sexuality and the role of women’s sexuality in society?
Enter Vassar-certified feminist mass-market romance and erotica writer with a pointy point of reality and ready to pop some balloons of pretentiousness.
Have you read romance novels lately? Raise your hand if you remember Jude Devereaux or Victoria Holt…or even Barbara Cartland. How many of us got our first glimpse of sex through Harlequin or mom’s stash of paperbacks from the lending library? Danielle Steel took the market by storm with heroines who weren’t fainting virgins ravished by the cruel yet arrogantly handsome man they had been just married to in order to save the manor house/father’s reputation/sister’s secret affair/brother’s gambling debts/etc.
Back then you had the following major sub-genres: historical, regency, Wild West, modern young office girl. Yes, there were others, but think back to what you saw in the greeting card/magazine/paperback aisle in the grocery store. That’s the blunt reality of what sold the most and the best.
Today, the Internet and e-book formats have opened up a world of accessibility not just for “alternative” and LGBT genres (which have their own platoon of sub-genres that mirror straight sub-genres including vampires, werewolves, BDSM, ménage a trois/quatre/more, cowboy, interracial, plus size, sci-fi, fantasy, dark fantasy, etc.), but also for mainstream female readers.
Fifty Shades of Grey would not have known the commercial success it has if it had not already been for a large, vibrant, and high profitable market of just erotica novels. Ellora’s Cave, Siren Publishing and several others jumped into the market early and produced both volume and a design to meet specific market needs. Quite honestly, the traditional romance publishers were late to the e-book game, and worse, they’re still barely dipping their toes into the more explicit sub-genre of erotica.
While traditional “sweet romance” still sells, the hottest category for growth is female-oriented erotica. The reasons for this are pretty astounding when you really stop to think about them. Maybe nobody has really laid it out there yet in any kind of double-blind, peer-reviewed study, but from the trenches, I can tell this shift toward explicit sex in romance novels is an incredibly powerful economic force and hopefully an indicator of some grassroots gradual change in society.
Keep in mind that the full reach of the female readership of these novels is vast and diverse. The readership also includes gay, straight, bi and trans men, but truthfully, that percentage is dwarfed by female readers (and I use “female” as a shortcut for female-identifying straight, lesbian, bi and trans women, just like I use “male” that way).
The majority of these female readers, however, are from the various strata of the middle-class. They are not wide-ranging readers. They will not read Blacke and Blue by Fiona Blackthorne (small self-serving plug because Baby’s gotta move some volume in the business) from Siren Publishing and then easily browse around and pick up Paul Coelho’s latest. They read for pleasure, but not the kind of pleasure literary-minded readers identify with.
Reading romance and erotica books is a pleasure because it tranquilizing, escapist, and fulfilling in ways that real life cannot provide. It’s therapy without the co-pay and the medication. It’s a coping mechanism that allows for humor and orgasms, often at the same time. It’s a genuine pleasure and hobby because who really wants to make shit out of mason jars in their spare time?
Just bear with me and stay with these generalizations for a bit longer. These books provide fluff, froth and fantasy, the daydreams we have as we drift off to sleep. They offer a refuge from reality, and a safe place for dreams and hope to reside. Like all human beings, women require hope to survive. Forget Maslow. Hope is the primary primordial driver that makes us seek water, food, shelter and reproduction.
If hope and the dreams it engenders are that crucial, then it’s worth taking a closer look at the subtle-but-changed nature of romance novels and erotica. It’s worth respecting the hope that is represented by these stories and acknowledging their value as a positive tool for everyday living.
All right, stepping off the soapbox for a moment here and acknowledging that while romance and erotica novels have their hearts in the right place, the vast majority of the writing is dismal, repetitive, trite and poorly done. It’s frankly painful to have to read many of the mechanical sex scenes, and I wince at the bathetic, predictable characters and naively engineered, inadequately researched plots.
I’m at fault for this, as well, to a degree. Writing these novels requires you to play within the rules, as I said earlier, and to create a product that is satisfying to its market, I must tailor my stories to include the ‘expected’ characteristics.
But I’ve come to respect the ‘expected.’ Writing it day in and day out has given me a new and deeper understanding of what the tropes actually mean. Writing extremely explicit sex because it sells to women is a big neon sign spelling out in blazing letters that women are not afraid to identify themselves with highly sexual, highly sexually adventurous, and highly sexually satisfied characters.
The traditional components of a romance novel are also sending out a message, one that has the steady drumbeat of centuries behind it, calling for women to be cherished by men as much as they cherish their men. The word ‘cherish’ is in the wedding vows of many cultures and religions, and the concept is even more universal than that.
If you look at the concept of cherishing another person, it really isn’t about dominance. Cherishing someone is about sacrifice and humility for yourself as you put the other person first. Mutually cherishing each other in a relationship means equal sacrifice and love. Cultural contexts may define the modes of behavior used to express each gender role’s way of cherishing, but the end result is the same. Literally, the same. Equal love for equally loving partners.
Also, nowadays, not every romance begins and ends with the socio-economic Cinderella ploy. Many heroines are wealthy, independent business owners or executives. Many heroes are artists or not particularly associated with wealth. The ‘Cinderella Rescue’ scenario remains attractive because, frankly, who hasn’t stared at a stack of bills in a mild panic and wished that someone would just sweep you off your feet and pay your bills so you didn’t have to worry any more? The ‘Cinderella Rescue’ also has its place in LGBT and other sub-genres, so maybe we’re looking at a cultural pressure-release valve about financial worries instead of just a victim-savior model defined by gender.
The easy-to-swallow capsule of good-looking characters, predictable plot twists and comic relief sidekicks makes these books just that: easy-to-swallow. Pun fully intended when it comes to erotica novels. If you look at romance and erotica as a tool for sustaining hope and a coping mechanism for real-world stress, then a book that forces the reader to work at achieving the escapism she needs is not going to sell to her. Nor should it have to.
If art is subjective, then everyone’s subjectivity has a right to be respected, even the crappy trite pieces of art that please collectors of velvet Elvis paintings and those who wear three-wolf-moon t-shirts because it’s beautiful art. Put mass-produced bubblegum romances in the mix, and you still have to respect someone’s desire to appreciate it or consume it.
If art exists to meet existential needs (among other raisons d’etre to be discussed in my next dissertation), then art should not be valued based on whether it meets your needs if you are not choosing to appreciate or consume it.
The romance novel has a rightful place in the literary landscape, and before it is dismissed as worthwhile literature, remember there are some real stinkers of books in the traditional literature section, too. Bad writing is genre-less.