July 9, 2013

Heroine Week, Day 2 – Sexual Double Standards in Romance Novels or She Wants It - And That's Okay by Molly O’Keefe

I think that sometimes we confuse difficult and unlikable with complex and flawed. But being a Mary Sue can be tiresome, y’all! And no one knows that better than Molly O’Keefe’s heroines, who risked not being liked in favor of having fun and doing what they want (while wearing pink cowboy boots).


Sexual Double Standards in Romance Novels or She Wants It - And That's Okay by Molly O’Keefe

I live in a bubble. My friends, the women I follow on Twitter, the blogs I read - our viewpoints upon the world, feminism, sex, romance novels - they match up the majority of the time.  I work from home so I don't have to see people or converse with people I don't like, or who routinely anger me and I've stopped reading the comments sections on line, where so much ugliness seems to reside.

Bubble. Me. Happy.

But as I sat down to write this blog Serena William's comments regarding the Steubenville Rape Case  managed to make their way into my bubble. And this blog isn't about rape culture but about sexually forthright heroines and Serena's ugly, awful, victimizing comment made me realize anew how incredibly complicated and varied the female relationship is with sex.

Another blow to the bubble was on Dear Author and Robin/Janet's thought-provoking post on Extreme Romance. This post brought out a lot of comments that damaged the rose-colored glasses that I was wearing regarding the generous feminism of the romance-reading community. (I understand for many that was just a conversation about taste, but to me some of it strayed too far into judgement and condemnation and even some strange "let's protect the women who can't figure out this is bad." But I live in a bubble and have a very low threshold for conflict, so this is just my opinion).

The explosion in popularity of erotica and - admittedly - my life in the bubble managed to obscure the whole complicated and messy picture; we're still deeply conflicted about the sex we have, the sex other people are having, the sex forced upon unconscious girls. The sex we choose to read about.

And, I'm a huge fan of romance novels. To me there's not much a well-written romance novel can't reveal to us about the beauty and pain of being human.  And looking at how heroines have come into their own sexually in recent novels, revealed how powerfully, how bravely and importantly some romance writers have been trying to make sense of this conflict and how they are using it to fuel really exciting and challenging romance novels.

In the early days of my romance reading - there were two kinds of sexually active heroines. The kind who went into sex with their eyes wide open - wanting sex, understanding what was about to happen to them only to have karma get wind of this and unleash a thousand hells (usually in the form of multiple rapes) upon them. Poor Skye O'Malley. Poor some of those secondary characters in the Danielle Steele books.  The other sexual creature - was the innocent. The deer in headlights who didn't know her body, or understand the feelings she was feeling nor did she have a clue what was about to happen to her in that ducal bed/field/private jet /pirate ship. Sometimes it was magic. Lots of time it was rape.

It seemed in so many of the books I loved that love was something that happened to the innocent and victimized. Sex and the heroines relationship to it - was her ENTIRE ARC. Innocent, to intrigued to victimized to wary to brave to orgasmic to FULLY-REALIZED WOMAN.

At the same time heroes were growing more and more sexually active and demanding. The Alpha was perfected and honed. The conflict between experience and innocence is a powerful one, the redemption innocence brings to experience - also powerful. But it seemed the more dissolute our heroes became the more pristine perfection was required from our heroines. And I read about a million of these. I would imagine we all did.

The cookie-cutter criticism was not wrongfully applied.

The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt
For me, this all changed with Elizabeth Hoyt's The Leopard Prince. The heroine, George isn't interested in marriage, she's interested in having sex with her land steward. She's not a victim, she doesn't have a terrible past, she's a woman who knows what her body wants and it wants Harry. So, she goes after him.

She's Got It Bad by Sarah Mayberry
Sarah Mayberry and Victoria Dahl  both have heroines who in different ways, have sex the way we would typically assign to heroes. Zoe in Mayberry's She's Got It Bad is a promiscuous rock star.  Jane in Dahl's Lead Me On uses the hero for sex.

Lead Me On by Victoria Dahl
Both writers got some criticism for those heroines, but something really caught on. Readers were ready for a different kind of heroine and in recent years the sexually forth-right heroine has come into her own, and I could list a dozen authors and books (Anne Calhoun and Cara McKenna, have both recently written some very interesting female characters) who are asking really important questions about women and sexuality and shame and power and feminism that push the genre in new directions and create a broader spectrum and in turn a broader discussion.

But virgins are back too, so I don't know what that means.

There's always going to be romance readers who can't relate and aren't interested in the sexually forth-right heroine, but we need her. And we need the authors who write her.

Connect with Molly:


  1. This post--and the line about virgins--is full of the tension about female sexuality. Particularly the usage of virginity in romance! It's interesting that the heroine's sexuality exists in an either/or situation: experienced or virgin, with little of real life nuances allowed. Yet, for the most part, her sexual journey is still wrapped up in the hero's sexuality.

    She could have had ten lovers, or zero, or have been celibate for a while (and are there any celibate heroines in romance?), but he's the only one who blows her mind between the sheets. Robin/Janet's last op-ed on Dear Author touched on this through the books she mentioned in the column, which makes me wonder if romance heroines truly have complete sexual agency??

    For all its faults, Deanna Raybourn's A Spear of Summer Grass featured a heroine who enjoyed sex--on the page--with men not her endgame HEA hero. I doubt that would fly in genre romance since the sexual relationship between the h/h is part of the romantic plot arc, as opposed to being something separate to the individual characters.

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  3. the idea that the angels never sang until the heroine had sex with the hero - is an exasperating idea and such a romance novel device. It's a breath of fresh air to see heroines with a rich and healthy sexual history. Healthy being particularly key.

  4. I think that as long as the heroine's orgasm lives in the hero's peen, she won't have complete sexual agency. Sexual fulfillment is great, but shouldn't we take it a bit further? It's perfectly fine for a heroine to have had a rich sexual life before the hero came (ha!)

  5. That's a trope (the virgin or non-virgin heroine not having the big O until the hero comes along) I'd like to see eradicated altogether.. but I don't see it going away anytime in the near future. What I will say in regards to my own reading habits, and my preference for a woman that owns her sexuality, is that they've changed as I've grown and have been more open to reading all sorts of different books in the romance genre. I like nuance, complexity, and people just being contrary (like they so often are IRL).. and the above authors that you named do it so well. (As do you, Ms. O'Keefe) :) The romance books I chose to read at 14/15 wouldn't be the same books I'd choose now, (in my 30s) and to that I can only say thank goodness.

  6. Great column, Molly (and thanks for the pointer to Anne Calhoun, whose work I wasn't familiar with). The column, as well as some of the comments above, are making me wonder how the sex with the one we decide to commit to and/or marry is different (if it is at all) from the sex we have with other partners? If romance writers do away with the trope of "never had an orgasm before him," or "the best sex I've ever had" trope, what would they put in its place?

  7. I'm going to disagree with Molly. Which is odd because I think Molly counts me as one of those people whose opinions/thoughts align with hers... which 99.9% they do because Molly is very very smart.

    But I don't have a problem with the idea that sex with the hero should be better/more meaningful than the sex that was before. The orgasm thing is a little silly. Women should know how to give themselves orgasms.

    But shouldn't love increase the intimacy. Shouldn't it make the sex a bigger deal.

    And though I'm not a man, don't we think it's probably conceivable that most men will equal "the best sex of their life" as love?

  8. I think I have to agree with Stephanie here in one sense--that I like that love is what makes the sex more meaningful. However, I think a lot of the time it reads more like this hero is just magically better at sex than all the men before instead of sex with this man is better because of HER and HIM--not just him. The best sex of their life needs to be a mutual thing--not just because the hero's got the special moves all the unattractive, cold fish before haven't.

  9. Nicole (and Stephanie): Which is why I like bad sex (that's something I never thought I would say) Because yes, love makes sex meaningful and better in some ways, but not all romances are love-at-first-sight stories, and sometimes good sex doesn't happen the first time, or we have sex with the love of our lives before they become the love of our lives, etc.

    1. I agree Brie. I've just finished Unsticky, where the MCs have bad sex (for her at least) for a while until he starts asking her what she needs and she gets comfortable enough to actually tell him (and also that he's a pushy bastard who won't take embarrassed blushes as an answer). They both do end up having the best sex of their lives and it's about the connection they forge together and it's a mutual feeling. But for her, as well, the way her character is drawn, it's the fact that it takes time for her to be comfortable with him sexually and to let herself go and he's the first guy who's a) asked her what she wants/needs and b) is still with her when she reaches that place where she can begin to feel comfortable.

  10. Steph - I think you're right. That's a big part of the romance standard - this relationship will last because of ABC - the B usually being great sex.

    I think the sex can be better for a myriad of reasons - intimacy being the best and I think Anne Calhoun does an especially good job of this - the sex is better because the connection is better.

    I like the idea of sex being better because two grown ass adults who have a healthy knowledge and appreciation of what their bodies can feel are pushed to feel more because they connect better to the other person.

    Jackie - I was out for a run thinking about what we would replace the angels singing trope with and all I could think of was Anal. That's the replacement.

  11. What Stephanie said. I do think there is a difference between Good Orgasm You Have With Someone and Great Orgasm You Have With THE One. But I also totally agree with Nicole. I get frustrated by how this is often written as The Hero Has The Secrets To The Sexual Universe Trapped In His Peen.

    There's a book in my keeper stash that I'm scared to reread. The reason it was a keeper for me in the very early aughts is because the heroine was actually sexually active before meeting the hero. I was so desperate to see that in a book, at that time, that I'm scared on a reread it won't stand the test of time for me. Why? Because back in those days, there had to be "reason" the heroine was sexually active. It couldn't be just because she liked sex. Oh noes! She had to be psychologically screwed up in some manner - as in Daddy Didn't Love Her, or Mommy Was A Drunk or....whatever. Which is what this book featured. I liked it back then, but now I think it'd probably piss me off too much. I'd rather keep on my rose-colored glasses :)

    Actually this whole post reminds me of why I started reading erotica. Emma Holly's Black Lace titles were like a revelation for me. Sexually aware and active heroines who weren't shamed for their "behavior."

  12. Great post Molly. I like the sexually experienced heroine too - someone who has had good sexual experiences in the past and isn't labelled a slut by either the narrative or the hero.

    I don't mind other types of heroines either, but I am really happy to be seeing more heroines with sexual agency of their own and not just relying on the hero's Mighty Peen.

  13. This is so thought provoking. I also like to read about heroines with sexual agency.

    The first sexually confident heroine that I remember reading was Ana in Sea Swept by Nora Roberts. I read it when it came out (late 90s I think) and it was such a revelation. Yes, she has a traumatic past (she was raped when she was 12 iirc), but she healed, and when she told Cam that she didn't mix sex and guilt (I think when they were discussing that they were attracted to each other and would probably sleep together), I was gobsmacked - I don't remember reading something like that before. I recently re-read it and it holds up surprisingly well, although some things are quite dated.

    I agree with Brie about bad sex - there's something so satisfying about reading about a couple figure out how to have great sex together, because it requires intimacy and communication and vulnerability.

    I also feel like I live in a bubble, and I'm happy here, with my erotica and romance and lovely lack of slut shaming or victim blaming. Thanks for stepping out of your bubble long enough to share the vision with the rest of us.


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