How Romance Novels Could Save Straight Sex

Books centered on women’s desire taught me to expect more from sex, and they could do the same for our whole culture

I hid my romance novels from my sophomore year college roommate. At least, I tried to. We were living in a narrow dorm room, in such close quarters that she couldn’t do Pilates in between our twin beds without almost brushing my face with her rubber resistance band. I was trying to figure out if heterosexual sex could possibly be worth it, and I didn’t want her to know.

These days, I’m regularly hearing that no, heterosexual sex is not worth it. Last December, writer Roxane Gay tweeted that “Cat Person,” the New Yorker story that went viral for its depiction of unpleasant sex between a college student and a thirty-something man, was “a great way to help women get over any lingering interest in straight sex.” Back in 2015, Rebecca Traister sounded the alarm in a piece for New York magazine that declared the whole heterosexual sex thing “to be rigged in ways that go well beyond consent.” I’ve heard the same from friends: sex is great, but maybe not if you have to do it with a man.

I did not have sex until my late twenties — not especially by choice. For most of my life, I considered myself some sort of freakish outlier. I’m kinder to myself now, but deep down, a part of me still thinks something was very wrong with me (and perhaps still is). Conversations like these make me see my late entry into sex in a new light. To hear other women openly declare that straight sex is not a great deal for us makes me feel a little better in one shallow sense, because maybe I really wasn’t missing out on a lot of spectacular sex in my teens and early twenties. But there’s a deeper sadness here too, because if I’m not the problem, or at least not the entire problem, then the whole damn system is broken. We need to tear it down and start over, but we’re too busy arguing over whether that woman who went home with Aziz Ansari said no in the correct tone of voice. Romance novels might offer a partial route out of this cultural narrative.

The real issue Society in General has with romance novels is that they’re books centered on a woman’s desires.

Especially in the literary world, suggesting people read romance novels can come across like suggesting they go read a book by Ted Nugent. But where does this scorn for the romance novel come from? There are legitimate problems with the genre, some of which you don’t even need a working familiarity with the books to perceive: cheesy covers, sometimes purple prose. But I think the real issue Society in General has with romance novels is that they’re books centered on a woman’s desires, including her sexual ones, and they’re usually written by women. When done right, that sort of thing can feel revolutionary.

It sure as hell felt revolutionary to me when I was nineteen and the accessible narratives around sex and relationships were pretty much all bad.

The most vivid part of my Texas public school sex education was an anti-abortion video I saw at age fourteen. When the video was over and the health teacher/volleyball coach removed the VHS tape from the VCR, I had this heavy, sad feeling. I had never had an abortion. I had never so much as kissed a boy (that wouldn’t happen until I was sixteen). But I still felt weighted down, like something was my fault. I had to have done something wrong. If I didn’t do anything wrong, why did I feel so guilty?

Sex ed in general was lacking in that part of Texas. When we weren’t getting anti-abortion videos, we got slideshows full of graphic STD images. The idea that people had sex for fun was never really brought up, as if we couldn’t be trusted with that information. Condoms were not discussed. Church was also unhelpful. Our clearly embarrassed youth pastor tried to assure the teenagers that if a married couple loved each other, everything would be fine. How or why it would be fine wasn’t mentioned. I didn’t need a lot details, but I needed more than vague assertions. I took the vagueness and warped it into a specific idea that sex was like a lot of things in my church: something you did because a man said it should happen. The woman’s desires were secondary, if they factored in at all. My anxiety convinced me that men want sex all of the time, and women must rein in those base impulses, at least until he puts a ring on it and everything that was once dirty and impure is now mandatory.

My anxiety convinced me that men want sex all of the time, and women must rein in those base impulses.

It all seemed like a bullseye that was impossible to hit, partly because I wasn’t sure where exactly I was supposed to be aiming. I regarded my high school boyfriend suspiciously, like he some sort of rape or pregnancy bomb that was going to go off if I made any sudden moves. He was not sexually aggressive, but I still felt like I was in danger. I didn’t trust myself. I’ve always been an anxious person, and growing up in a religion that viewed women as weak and unreliable only intensified that anxiety. If I couldn’t trust myself, then why would I trust a guy? Guys could get me pregnant, and I had been terrified of pregnancy since before I knew how sex worked. In my mind, pregnancy was an inevitable result of sex. Both sex and pregnancy were things that would happen to me rather than choices I would have any kind of ownership over.

As I graduated high school and left for college, other people in my social circle started having sex, and many of those experiences were not reassuring. My first college roommate said she cried throughout the experience. A friend from out-of-state had sex with a fellow virgin who told her, “Well, it has to go in sometime.” I just assumed that was the price of admission into womanhood, and I judged people who went ahead and did the thing anyway. I was sheltered and scared and secretly wondered if sexual enjoyment were even possible for women as anxious and broken as me, and I tried to cover that up via a sense of superiority. I told myself I didn’t want it so I wouldn’t have to deal with the possibility that I would never have it.

But I must have wanted it, at least a little, because one day I bought a romance novel. Probably a cheap Harlequin one at Walmart. I was to a point where I realized the stories I had been given weren’t going to work for me. The view of sex I’d grown up with seemed both exhausting and unsatisfying. I didn’t want to believe anymore in the narrative I’d been given. At the same time, I had very little confidence that I deserved a better relationship narrative, or that I would be granted one even if I did. At that point, I’m not even sure if I wanted to have sex or just wanted to not hate the idea of having it. I wanted desperately to find some middle ground. I wanted some reassurance that I could have intense sexual feelings and intense sexual experiences without losing myself or becoming tainted.

I wanted some reassurance that I could have intense sexual feelings and intense sexual experiences without losing myself or becoming tainted.

I was also horny, and I was tired of denying that. Expressing these feelings with other people was too dangerous, but suppressing them entirely was no longer tenable.

Romance novels assured me I did deserve good sexual experiences. I deserved to take an active role in sex rather than it have be just an unpleasant or at best neutral thing that happened to me, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about any of it. In good love scenes, the sex is enjoyable rather than transactional. The women are there because they want to be. No one is coercing or manipulating them. If something isn’t right, they talk about it. They find a way to ask for what they want rather rather than just hoping the man will read their mind, because a slightly awkward conversation is always better than bad sex.

In some ways, of course, I was trading one set of issues for another. If you check out the history of romance novels, it’s checkered with books where women get raped by the “hero” and then fall in love with him anyway. At their best, these books are well-written stories that imagine a better, more egalitarian model for intimate relationships — but at their worst, they’re populated entirely by milky white people and their attendant breasts, use way too many euphemisms for genitalia, and suggest a woman isn’t really a full person unless she’s got a strong alpha male willing to wife her up. Just look at the 50 Shades of Grey books. Or don’t, for your own sake. Their popularity (more than 125 million copies sold worldwide as of June 2015) shows how far we have to go when it comes to the plot lines that dominate the conversation (no pun intended). Christian Grey is an abusive dick who gets away with it because he’s rich and allegedly good at boning. Female virginity is also overvalued in romance novels (including Fifty Shades) — though, in recent years, there seems to be more room for women of all experience levels. The Most Sacred Hymen is a bigger deal in the historical romances. I used to read a lot of books about virgins who somehow had vaginal orgasms their very first time out, because the Duke of Girth or whatever was just that good. That seemed unrealistic even before I was sexually active.

Romance novels have issues, but so do all the other cultural narratives about sex. Unlike much of Big Important Fiction, romance novels taught me that good sex doesn’t have to be followed immediately by tragedy or betrayal (looking at you, Atonement). A woman’s sexual development doesn’t have to ruin her. These books helped me realize healthy sex is is a mutual encounter rather than a thing to endure passively. I’ve often heard sex compared to dancing, but it took romance novels to help me realize male-female relations should resemble a Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire number, not one of those high school dances where you awkwardly latched onto your date and prayed for the song to be over before you were forced to make sustained eye contact. That doesn’t mean I expect sex to be free of awkward or stressful moments, only that I know it’s not supposed to be one continuously mortifying moment. Books can give straight women unrealistic expectations the same way porn can give straight men unrealistic expectations, but at least in romance novels, the women aren’t faking it and the men ask before they finish on someone’s face.

Unlike much of Big Important Fiction, romance novels taught me that good sex doesn’t have to be followed immediately by tragedy or betrayal.

I don’t read romance novels nearly as much as I used to, but I still have a few on my bookshelf. I just started The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. It opens with a man and a woman getting stranded together in an elevator. In most other genres, a woman getting stuck in an elevator with a strange man would feel like the beginning of a horror story. But here, the man and woman chat, flirt, and share some cheese and crackers. The man does not get stuck in a small, confined space with a woman and think “You know what would improve this situation? Me taking out my dick!” The only things more defined than his sense of boundaries are his abs. The sexy stuff will come later, but right now, I’m reading with a distinct sense of relief.

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