In the past few years there has been a rapid expansion of the portrayal of explicit sex in the romance genre. As it stands, pretty much anything goes. There are few exceptions; snuff, scatalogical, bestiality (although there’re exceptions for werewolves and other shapeshifters), and incest. But other than that, if it can be imagined, it’s out there on the romance shelves. In detail.
This, as you can imagine, is a controversial development. Portraying sex openly always is. Writing about sex for fun and profit is wading into the controversy. Portraying sex openly in a medium or story aimed primarily at women adds its own layer of controversy.
It’s also a good thing.
Probably, nobody reading these posts needs to be told that society regulates the sexual expression of women more tightly than it regulates the sexual expression of men, particularly when it comes to making choices. Gross simplification here; in most aspects of popular culture, it is acceptable for women to be portrayed doing anything related to being selected for sex. Men can do anything related to making the selection. This is normal. Turn that around and allow the woman to make the selection and the man to be selected, and the woman tends to become a predator of some sort and the man becomes weak somehow. Men being interested in pornography or modes of sexual expression outside the norm are shown as edgy, tormented, dark. Women interested in pornography or modes of sexual expression outside the norm are dangerous, perverted, not in frequently dead, and even more frequently, simply not there. Unless of course they are being coerced into it by the edgy, tormented, dark man and it turns out to be a massive mistake on some level or the other.
Seriously. In much of popular entertainment, a woman who moves outside of the accepted sexual boundaries is going to be dead, destroyed or worst of all, spending her life alone. Think about the bad girl in the horror movie. She’s always the first to die, and generally she’s bad because she’s had sex or pursued sex. Much of fiction in which the sex is symbolic — like, say, the original Dracula — is about how dangerous it is for women to make their own sexual choices. Women cannot handle their own sexual choices, theses stories say. They need men to do the thinking for both of them, to select them and keep them safely away from all other available choices.
And frankly, while I like a good knight-in-shining-armor story as much as the next romantic, this gets a little old after awhile.
It is also, one of the reasons behind the rise of romance in general, and erotic romance in particular. Romance is the one portion of popular entertainment that reliably presents women as making a wide variety of personal and sexual choices, and not only not dying, but thriving. Far from ending up shunned and alone, these women end up with true love and happiness.
Now, there’s bad romance out there, and there’s portrayals of women making choices I don’t agree with. There’s still within some stories the cold whiff of the idea that coercion is exciting or what some women “really want.” There’s also positions, practices and portrayals I just find plain unappealing, if not downright scary. That’s the way it is with any aspect of fiction. When a broad range of ideas is being discussed, no one is going to agree with all of them.
It all comes back to what is being done with the sex and the choice. What is the author exploring? Yes, it can be just for fun. In fact, I hope it IS just for fun. Because if there isn’t an element of fun in the sex and the writing, it’s not going to be appealing on any other level. But going out to the margins of sexual expression, of language, of the roles of gender and power exchange can form a part of social dialogue that is missing for a lot of women. It is in romance that the ideas of sexual freedom, of social constraint, of personal choice in personal relationships can be explored. It can be played with, considered in a new fashion and even tried on for fun in a safe environment. It moves the fantasy out of the darkness where it will fester, into the daylight, and yes, I think this is important, and healthy.
Not that every book is going to appeal to every person. Like I said before, there’s bad sex out there, and some that a reader is going to find downright icky, or incomprehensible. I’ve started to read some romances where the end result was me closing the book and backing away slowly. I’ve read some that just made me mad. But this is also healthy. Because these make me consider my own ideas and opinions about sex and gender roles. I talk about these books with other readers. We discuss not just the writing, but portrayals of and opinions about sex. We consider this portion of human life, in reality and in fantasy, on our own terms. We get to think, and have fun.
And that’s all good.
Next Week: Pt. 5 — The Bodies
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