Beneath the Surface: Romance Novels & the Revelation of Women’s Sexuality

I have a secret.

I’ve been reading romance novels for a very long time. I don’t mean five years ago when the first Fifty was published and the instantly recognizable gray and black covers began flooding subway cars during every commute. No, I mean a long time ago. Before e-books, before tablets, before cell phones (gasp!). Which means you either think I’m very old (which I’m not, well, not very) or I started young. Let’s just go with the latter.

So when someone – like my husband, or my sister, or my best friend – asks “Why write romance?” the answer seems simple. Because I love it. Because I have loved it for almost two decades. Because the need to escape the stressors of college life pales in comparison to the need to escape the stressors of this adult one and books have always been one of my favorite ways to vanish, if just for a little while.

I still remember the day my mom introduced me to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. It was her original copy, dog-eared, cover tattered, pages yellow, thin, and brittle. I had no clue what was in store for me. I sat curled on the pink-flower cover of my teenage bed, started reading and didn’t stop until I was finished. In one afternoon. I know I loved stories and books well before then, but that was the first time I remember binge reading, consuming something in one sitting and letting the rest of the world fall away, food and boys and homework included.

High school, college, adulthood – throughout it all, the opportunity to disappear into a story, to escape the world for a little while is still one of the most luxurious things I can think of. Hell, sometimes it seems downright indulgent. Yet still so necessary.

The landscapes that live between those covers (or beneath the screen) is so varied and diverse that sometimes I don’t know what to fall into next. The slow-burn, who-done-it The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress; The Hopefuls’s humorous but thoughtful look into being young and on the periphery of politics; the dark, so deliciously dark non-fiction world of The Devil in the White City. Stephen King’s masterful On Writing, The Couple Next Door, Dream City, The Woman in Cabin 10, Empire of Mud, Notes from a Small Island, Theft by Finding. Contemporary fiction, historical non-fiction, classic literature, mysteries, thrillers, and straight up good stories. So many options, too many choices.

But always, without fail, I go back to romance. My collection of historical romances is so large it doesn’t fit on any single bookshelf in my house. My kindle is congested with the most recent contemporary romance releases, every day my download list getting longer and longer. And every time I start to read one I feel like someone has given me one of those ridiculously pimped out first-class suites on a transoceanic airplane with a pristine cashmere blanket that I do not have to share, noise-cancelling headphones, a flight attendant who always keeps the champagne glass full and the little chocolates coming, and I don’t have to disembark until I’m good and ready. And I only have to take my shoes off because I want to, not because security made me, thank you very much.

Romances are an escape, yes. But more importantly for me, they are a happy one. The guaranteed HEA. The knowledge that the lives I am about to step into, however frivolous or dark or comical or damaged or flawed, will find resolution in the form of blissful, joyful, reciprocated love. Going in I know that I don’t have to worry about my favorite character dying (hello, Game of Thrones; or, even more traumatizing for my young self, Bridge to Terabithia). I don’t have to worry about expecting one thing and finishing the story with something else entirely (I tried to hard to like J.K. Rowling’s Casual Vacancy, but I just can’t). And I know if there is a bad guy or gal, they will get what is coming to them (*ahem* Gone Girl). There is a consistency to the balance and justness and happiness that is so calming these days when the world sometimes seems overwhelmingly full of malice and deception and devastation. To me, romance is ice cream for the brain and warm bubble baths for the soul.

So, when asked the question “Why romance?” blissful escape is always an answer.

But so is this: Because in a world in which women’s sexuality is almost exclusively portrayed through the eyes of men, the majority of romance is written for women by women about women. Young women, older women, single, married, divorced, widowed, college-educated, high-school drop-outs, women who have kids, women who don’t want kids, women who have loved, women who have never been loved in return but are about to be. And women who love having sex. Maybe they don’t know they love sex, maybe at the start of the story they’ve never had sex, or never had an orgasm, or don’t even know what one is. But by the end of the books, goddamn, the ladies are having a fucking blast. Literally.

Maybe you’ve never read a single romance novel, historical, contemporary, erotic, or otherwise (though if you’re reading this, I doubt it). Maybe you don’t like them. Maybe you think they are silly, frivolous, or just downright stupid. I don’t care. That’s your opinion and you’re entitled to it. But the truth still remains that in the voraciously consumed pages of romance novels, women get to have fun getting off. There is no shame in it. No judgment, no condemnation. The characters can enjoy whatever flavor of sex they like – casual, committed, with friends, with enemies (who usually become friends), with long-lost loves and new-found crushes, with lots of kink or no kink at all, with multiple partners or just one or just themselves – and within their written world they are free of disgrace and derision and rejection. They are not whores. They are not Madonnas. They are women. Simple, basic, human. And sexual. Like us.

I could write about this for pages and pages and pages. As a woman, a mom, and a wife, I’ve experienced a panoply of highs and lows of my own sexuality and how it exists within the crazy thing we call life. My husband and I have enjoyed wild, hot, headboard-banging-against-the-wall passion and we’ve had nights where exhaustion and stress and a screaming baby make everyone feel so freakin’ far away from sexy that we might as well be in another galaxy. I’ve experienced the terrifying elation of creating another human being out of love while resigning all rights to – and control of – my body to the small creature growing inside of me. I know what it’s like for said small human to believe that my breasts are his. Not mine. And most definitely not my husband’s. I know what it’s like to be an awkward teenage girl flailing blindly through the process of growing up and falling in love only to have that “love” turn sour and dark, and have words whispered behind my back about “why didn’t she just give it up and let him fuck her.” And I know what it’s like to sit on the sofa in the common room of my dorm at my all-women’s college and be on the receiving end of judgy stares from fellow students for reading, guess what?: Romance.

My experiences amount to an inconsequential scratch on the surface of what women – what you – have enjoyed, suffered, dreamed about, struggled with, or longed for yourself. And yet all of it – the good, the bad, and the ugly – is rarely boiled down so simply as it is in the romance genre: You deserve love; you are worthy of love; your sexuality is yours; and you can make love or just downright fuck whomever you want however you want because it is your decision. Your body. Your sexuality.

Yes, I love a guaranteed HEA.

Yes, I love a strong, handsome hero who can fix a toilet and drive a fancy car and has a tattoo and looks fantastic in a suit and can fly a plane and knows martial arts and is in touch with his feelings and can solve quadratic equations in his head and is experienced enough that he knows what he’s doing but not so experienced that he has an STD and always makes sure his lady comes (*ahem* comes) first.

But you know what else I love? A world where the heroine is strong, smart, and kick-ass, sometimes even a little more so than the hero. A world where the ability to love and be loved and enjoy sex are not mutually exclusive. A world in which we can learn a little bit about how the reality of women’s sexuality should be while taking a break from the one we call life.

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