Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Not That Anyone Asked Me, But . . .

There's something in the air: the exhilarating scent of intellectualism coupled with the musk rose of romance novels.  I'm talking, of course, about the number of people thinking and writing about cultural and moral message of romances.  We have a Popular Culture Association conference on romances coming up in 2010, a popular blogger announcing that she's going to be presenting a paper (topic: ethical criticism of genre fiction) at that conference, and a post at Dear Author on Morality and Romances.

Boy, have times changed.  When I was a philosophy student in college, there was no overlap between my "scuzzy romances" (as my family called them) and my studies in moral philosophy.  My aunt (a civil rights lawyer who had majored in philosophy back in the day) once commented with equal affection and irony that I was the only person she knew with Kant's Critique of Pure Reason on the same bookshelf as Barbara Cartland.  (And yes, I read Barbara Cartland.  Deal with it.)

I bailed halfway through a Ph.D. program in philosophy in the late 70s.  Who knew that if I'd just stuck with it, I might one day have been submitting a paper on the "Ethical Constraints of the Ripped Bodice," or some such title.

Understand, I'm not mocking this trend.  This is a good thing.  It helps to have smart people thinking about, talking about, and writing about romance novels.  Smart people -- people like RRR's Jessica and the crew at Teach Me Tonight -- increase the pressure on the Alan Elsners of the world.  There's something about a Ph.D. after a name that conveys gravitas and an intellectual rigor to that person's words.

But then I read this:
[T]he genre has a conflicted relationship to female sexuality, such that virgin heroines can be paired with affectionately dubbed “dukes of slut” in even the most traditional genre publishing lines and houses. In the meantime, courtesan heroines are still viewed with suspicion, with some authors going to great lengths to salvage the moral stature of their wayward heroines. There was much debate, for example, about Loretta Chase’s latest novel, in which the heroine was a very sexually knowledgeable former “harem girl” who, miraculously, it seemed, was still a virgin.
That's "Janet" at Dear Author on the subject of  the double standard for the sexual history and nature of heroes and heroines.  She concludes her post with this:
Ultimately, I’d like to see women in Romance have even more sexual freedom than they currently enjoy, or at least be less limited by the moral double standard that tolerates much more sexual freedom in Romance heroes than heroines.
There's a lot in Janet's essay -- yet another rebuttal to the Alan Elsner screed (rebutted by others here, here, and here, and by me here) -- that I absolutely agree with.  I don't quibble with the notion that heroines (that subset of female characters expected to contract an HEA by the end of the book -- and you can take that in either the legal or the public health sense of "contract") should be allowed more complicated sexual histories, and thus be more like their real life counterparts.

But the sexual double standard is harder to quantify and thus to criticize.  We know, for example, that there is still a double standard for men and women in the real world, such that women can be labeled a slut on the basis of far less sexual experience than the amount needed to earn a man the label "horndog."  (Obviously the word "slut" is more pejorative than "horndog," which links a crude term for sexual arousal and an animal known for indiscriminant humping, leaving the impression of a county fair foodstuff or the mascot for the Hooker (Oklahoma) Horny Toads, an American Legion baseball team.  There's no equivalent cute wordplay for "slut.")

In the animal kingdom, there is a socio-biological aspect to the sexual double standard:  In genetic terms, the males of a species want to spread their genes around to as many receptive females as possible, while keeping each female from mating with other males.  That leads to randy males and females stuck tending the young.  There are exceptions: gender reversal in some species, animals that pair off for life, etc., but those counter-examples tend to highlight the high proportion of species that don't behave in a more gender-equivalent sexual manner.

The real sticking point is that men and women are actually different.  This is a tricky truth to parse: women and men must be treated as equals in so many arenas because it would be illegal and unfair to do otherwise.  The differences between men and women cannot be used to justify imbalances in pay, access to good and services, or opportunities to succeed.

But women and men really do process information differently, react in social situations differently, juggle the competing claims for their time and energies differently -- and none of that is carved in stone.  A quick search on the Internet yielded a paper by Stephen Meier of Harvard University on the behavior of men and women in situations involving financial generosity.  In some situations, men and women react the same; in others they react differently.

This level of uncertainty and complexity -- with no clear cut distinctions between the genders -- doesn't scare me, but then I'm no longer in the philosophy game.  To some, such observations may seem like a dangerous start down a slippery slope: if we admit that men and women can, in some situations, react differently, don't we risk rewinding feminism by 50 years?

I see it in another perspective:  Don't we promote feminism by embracing what makes us women?  If women were shown to be more intuitive in certain situations, why not embrace that intuition?  And if women multi-task better under some conditions (while men, hypothetically, are better at concentrating on a single task), can we not agree that both genders have skills and abilities to be celebrated?

Okay, okay -- back to the romance novel.  I think women in real life weave emotion into sexual encounters rather more than men do.  (And may we agree that nothing I say in this post is intended to suggest 100% consistency on the part of any group or gender?  There's statistical variation in all things, even a non-controversial statement like "women have ovaries.")  If I'm right, this has two implications for romance novels.

First, women read romance novels.  Let's assume that some (many? most?) female readers want to believe that the heroine is experiencing emotion in her sexual dealings, but those same readers don't expect the hero to behave the same way.  Thus, a heroine who has had multiple sexual experiences before meeting the hero might be seen as having had multiple emotional experiences.  This could call into question her ability to have the TRUE emotional experience with the hero.

You'll see immediately that the hero is in a different boat.  Even if he said, "I love you," to every single woman in his sexual past, the reader may just smile fondly at his quaint jest because everyone knows that men will say anything to get laid.  He's not a slut; he's a horndog.  But when he meets the heroine, everything is different because we have his POV to reassure us that this time he's really feeling it.

The second implication is that the heroine has to make sense as a character.  If she's had a lot of sexual experience, the reader has to understand that in a way that allows for the heroine to bond with the hero.  Yes, we have the heroine's POV, but as we believe she either did or did not have feelings for the men she slept with, we're left with a bit of a dilemma.  If she didn't have feelings for the men in her past, why not?  And why believe she is going to do so now?  And if she did have feelings for some or all of the men in her past, what were those feelings and how have they shaped her ability to love the hero?

The problem for the author, then, is to craft a heroine who makes sense: She is sexually experienced but not a slut; she cared for the men in her past, but never to the point of thinking, "He's the one," because we know he wasn't (the hero is); and she's kept something in reserve that will belong to the hero alone, just as he's saved something (his heart!) for the heroine alone.

This juggling act is hard enough in a contemporary romance.  Imagine the challenge in a historical romance, where the heroine's real life counterpart might as well have been raised in a convent for all she's had the opportunity to have sexual experiences that didn't ruin her reputation and thus her value as a prospective mate.  (I begin to see the value of fantasy genres: if you're inventing the world your heroine lives in, you can invent the social and moral codes by which she is to be judged!)

Janet specifically mentions the miraculous virginity of the heroine in Loretta Chase's romance, Don't Tempt Me.  Zoe, the heroine, was kidnapped as a 12-year-old and installed in the harem of a Middle Eastern pasha who turns out never to have successfully consummated the "relationship."  I don't think Janet is suggesting that a 12-year-old should be having sexual relations, nor that sexual experiences resulting from a kidnapping are a positive addition to a heroine's sexual resume.  But I see what she's saying:  Does Zoe have to be a virgin to be desired by the hero?  And is it a good thing that romance novels perpetuate this imbalance between the hero's sexual past and the heroine's?  Isn't that a bit like using supermodels as the template for young women's body images -- an unrealistic ideal that will only lead to a distorted sense of what a "good girl" should be?

The problem I have with this is not with Janet's thesis, but with her decision to use a specific book as an example.  Loretta Chase's heroine works (at least she worked for me): the book is so much more about Zoe's experiences as a fish-out-of-water than as a "demi-vierge" (that wonderful French term for the sexually experienced woman who is still, technically, a virgin).  Of course her sexual education is doubtless better than most of the demi-monde and filles du joie that the hero is likely to know; that's one of the things that makes the book so much fun to read.  As long as the author gets the details right enough, we believe in the heroine.

I don't have a problem with Janet's thesis expressed in general and prospective terms.  Romances do currently have a double standard for heroes' and heroines' level of sexual experience.  But any specific romance novel really should be judged on its own merits.  We may wish to see more books with sexually accomplished heroines who convey the right degree of experience balanced with an unjaded ability to love the hero, but surely none of the thousands of great romances with a less experienced heroine is to blame for the double standard.


  1. The double standard is more a reflection of our society than of romance novels per se. To use one very topical example: if it had been revealed that Tiger Wood's wife had 13-plus lovers and visited male prostitutes, I can guarantee you that the furore would have been a lot worse.

    As it is, there are many people (mostly men) who shrug and simply chalk Tiger's "transgressions" up to a high sex drive. And while people are quick to judge Tiger as a husband, no one has thus far criticized him as a father. If Elin Woods were the adulterer, not only her suitability as a wife would be called into question, but also her maternal skills.

  2. Don't we promote feminism by embracing what makes us women?

    I like this a lot. I'm going to ponder it for a little while.

  3. Sarah -- That's an interesting point about the sexual double standard bleeding over into the societal expectations for parents. Clearly Tiger has harmed his children by his infidelities: he wasn't home with them while he was catting around (so to speak). Plus, if his infidelity ultimately results in the end of his marriage, that too harms his children.

    But you are right -- we don't immediately make that connection with men who sleep around, and we do with women.

    Victoria -- Thank you (again)!

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I deleted and then reposted because I said bread instead of beard!! LOL

    Janet Webb said...
    That's the beauty of the web -- you don't have to be invited to join the convo -- posting is tantamount to "this is my opinion, what's yours?" SO, I have been putting off responding hoping I could a) weigh in w/something profound LOL and that b) the new book by Julia London I just finished would be that rara avis, the truly unrepentant working girl (which Pris in Precious Jewel was ... well, was she ... a topic for another blog!) but the book started off really pretty well (duke is asked by POW to "BEARD" the courtesan the prince wants to bed) ... Kate is really quite refreshing and realistic and not perfect (as in her reading is still shaky) but second half: speedy race to the romance cliche finishing post! Pregnancy, mistrust, vengeful ex-mistress -- what a disappointment!

    OK. No worries with experienced heroes or heroines but in contemps, just matter of factness serves well (think Nora Roberts). Since I don't care for duke of slut contemporary heroes, why would I enjoy reading about their female counterparts? I think for many girls there's an emotional fallout (enjoyment) to intimacy that makes me thrilled my dd pretty much pushed the steady beau thing to the outskirts of HS. But I've had heated arguments with a psychologist friend who enjoyed thank you very much her intimate HS relationship and looks back with fondness and psychological thumbs up to her past. Different strokes. Sarah's comments are very well taken though -- imagine our reaction if Mrs. T had collected a flavour of boy toy for every night -- and then some -- of the week!

  6. Janet -- You mention Nora Roberts, and while I've hardly scratched the Nora backlist, I was particularly pleased to read the "Flower Trilogy": Blue Dahlia, Red Lily and Black Rose. Each book has a heroine in a different decade: a thirtysomething widow, a twentysomething, and a fortysomething mother of two grown sons. It's been a while since I read them, but as I recall, none of the heroes was overly-experienced.

    Admittedly, the heroines who had been married (one widowed too young, the other widowed then divorced from caddish husband #2) were of the "I met my husband when I was very young" variety. But the twentysomething had gotten pregnant by her boyfriend whom she knew wasn't the marrying kind. She ends up with one of the sons -- a rather nerdish guy who didn't come across as wildly experienced.

    Of course, there was also a rather slutty crazy ghost in all three books . . . but I'm guessing the ghost wouldn't make anyone who's looking for more sexually-experienced heroines very happy. LOL

  7. The most recent Chase book worked better for me than it did for some readers, but I did have an issue with the virgin heroine. It just felt like the author was bending over backwards, straining believability to the breaking point, to make Zoe sexually aware but technically a virgin. I don't mind that when it's used to comment on the double standard, but Chase doesn't choose to do that much here (as she did in her previous book, as it happens). It felt to me like the heroine's viriginity was a nod to convention, and it took me out of the story every time it came up.

    Some of my favorite historical romances are ones where the heroine is not innocent, and sometimes not even a widow! Some authors find very creative ways to make that work within the historical period and class of the characters. I don't mind virgins when it's appropriate for the story, but if the h/h dynamic the author is after calls for a woman who is aware of her sexuality, I prefer to avoid the really tortured justifications of how she's still a virgin.

  8. SonomaLass -- There are a lot of ways to approach that issue. One is the moral/philosophical way (as I mentioned in the post), where it's unfortunate to present virginity as a necessary condition to romantic happiness. (I don't think this is done so much in contemporaries, but there is a historical context that is vastly different to modern-day morals.)

    Then there is the question of whether the author did a good job portraying the heroine in the book. Each of us brings our own perspective to a book when we read it. I focused on Zoe's efforts to escape the harem, an over-riding goal that lasted for years. I had no trouble believing the impotent son, as unlikely as he may be. And Zoe's virginity never struck me as more important than her character and unusual education, in the plot or in the larger moral context.

    But that's the beauty of reading books as good as Chase's -- there's a lot in each book, and a lot for people to discuss and disagree about. I certainly can understand your reaction, and I can see how that would have affected your pleasure in reading the book. Your comments made me think about the book in a different perspective -- I don't like the book any less, but I can see what you're talking about.


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