What Teen Romance Novels Failed to Teach Me About Sex

My preteen obsession with Avon True Romances gave me all the wrong ideas about falling in love

Silhouette of a couple holding hands and kissing while suspended above water
Photo by Azrul Aziz on Unsplash

When I was twelve, I started smoking even though I knew my braces made it look ridiculous. I raked the neighbors’ leaves for pay, a seasonal gig for which wages amounted to little more than a meal at the local Panera. Worst of all, I’d begun to see the people around me in new ways: I’d never noticed cleavage before, nor the veined deltas of men’s forearms, nor lace peeking through a tank top or out of the backs of low-riding jeans. I noticed those things now with a vengeance, though their bearers did not notice me. My invisibility convinced me that I’d been left behind, doomed to smoke and rake and yearn without anything to show for it.

By then, my friends had been shy about their bodies for a while. They hid behind their arms when changing into pajamas at sleepovers. I spied pink razors in showers where before there had been nothing; caught whiffs of deodorant or perfume; saw shadowy outlines of training bras under shirts. Yet for all the hormonal soup that simmered inside my body, my outsides remained stubbornly untouched. I wasn’t yet embarrassed by sex like my friends were. Sex hadn’t come for me yet. Pulsating with miserable energy, all I could do was study up.

Loath to expose me to human sexuality, my mother still cased my YM Magazine every month, ripping out articles on how to be a good kisser or pictures of shirtless teen idols clenching their abs for the camera. But I’d found a loophole. Whenever my father and I went to the bookstore together, an outing that closed out our father-daughter dates at the Tastee Diner, I’d ask him to meet me in the kids’ section in thirty minutes and make it there in twenty-five, my books from the Young Adult section already purchased with my leaf-raking cash and hidden in the store’s opaque bag.

Sex hadn’t come for me yet. Pulsating with miserable energy, all I could do was study up.

The Young Adult section was a canny bit of marketing: at twelve I felt fabulously adult, but without access to the adult vices that might have sublimated that feeling. And if the Young Adult section was my lighthouse in a rainstorm, the Avon True Romance series was its lamp: pastel-colored, each cover embossed with feminine script, and sexier than anything I’d ever been permitted to read.

I never stood a chance against the Avon True Romance books. As an adult, I’d cringe at the reduction of sex and love to a precise formula; as a kid, untouched and unsexed, the formula was a lifeline. In the pages of Avon True Romances, male protagonists were “men” and their female counterparts were “girls.” The men were utter cads, their reputations shredded by decades of gambling, piracy, miscellaneous caddish behavior. The girls were virgins. They despised the men’s savagery, often while blushing. Halfway through, a catalyzing event would occur: the girl would prove her worth by doing something manly and respectable, like shooting a gun or outsmarting the count. Hark! Perhaps she wasn’t just a pampered virgin after all!

Once the man realized that the girl was worthy of his love, he was free to claim her, because she suddenly didn’t hate him anymore. (It was never clear when that happened––maybe she saw him shirtless while she was outsmarting the count.) Then the book would rev up the pace: a misunderstanding would trigger the fight that nearly drove the lovers apart, they’d go to their Special Shared Place at the same time to mope and realize they belonged together, the man’s eyes would express boundless profundities for six pages or so, he’d propose, she’d accept, they’d kiss, fin. Give or take a couple kisses. Give or take a fight.

In Gwyneth and the Thief, we meet Gwyneth just after she’s been promised to the hateful Baron DeVilliers by her dying father. As she sulks about this in a garden on her estate, a gang of thieves shows up. Gavin, their ringleader, loathes Gwyneth immediately, and the feeling is mutual. She hates him because he’s such a rogue, and he hates her for knocking him unconscious and forcing him to pose as a squire.

Gwyneth’s hatred is consuming, and yet all she can think about are Gavin’s finely chiseled biceps. She has to have him, and he her. They don’t take long to get there; maybe two hundred pages. Teen romance novelists are savvy to the fact that their audiences don’t yet have the emotional context for the subtleties and exigencies of the human heart. Only the juicy stuff matters.

At that age, I was desperately smitten with between fifty and a hundred people at any given minute, but none more so than Kyle Adams. Kyle Adams, who had reportedly fingered Justine Cartwright at a party, kick-starting the rush of hormones that catapulted him to six feet tall overnight. Kyle Adams, with his lion’s mane and his abs and his cigarette breath. Kyle Adams, sophisticated enough to hang out with both boys and girls at an age when most of us still believed in cooties.

I obtained his AIM username and threw myself at him every chance I got, trying to trick him into admitting that he found me attractive. Inexperienced in flirtation, I didn’t know what to do except to insult myself in the hopes that he’d counter with compliments, which he never did to my satisfaction. Even when he told me that I was pretty, I’d be unsatisfied, because he hadn’t said “beautiful,” or “sexy,” or “more finger-able than Justine Cartwright,” like a man in an Avon True Romance would have done.

It took me years to unlearn the lessons that Avon True Romances taught me about love.

One day he asked if I’d let him go down on me, and I told him yes, because I didn’t know what that meant––just that it was Kyle Adams asking me to do something with him. I would have let him set my family’s Torah on fire; I would have given him a kidney. “Going down on” sounded passive. It sounded like something I could do without breaking a sweat.

The appointed day came and I met him at his locker after school, still unwilling to admit that I didn’t know what we were doing. I smiled at him the way Cindy Crawford once counseled young women to smile, with my tongue pressed against my teeth.

“So,” I said. “Where are we going down to?”

Josephine Best owns a Civil War-era hair salon. Until her childhood nemesis Adam Morgan comes home from the war with finely chiseled biceps, she’s never once considered the transformative alchemy of a hot make-out session. But Adam has always been a ladykiller—until he returns to Josephine, the one lady who could kill him!

I don’t remember what else actually happens in Josephine and the Soldier, except that Josephine is headstrong and Adam is slutty. One Amazon reviewer describes it as “an excellent bouquet of emotions,” though, so it has to be good.

In those Kyle Adams years, I’d learned about the physical procedure of sex, and I’d been warned about the consequences of bringing it into the house. But I didn’t know the dance steps yet; the undignified two-step of human courtship. Inasmuch as I could flirt or be charming, I hadn’t learned it from other girls; I’d learned it from Avon True Romances.

Long before I even knew what the hell I’d do with a man if I caught one, I cinched all my clothes too tight to accentuate curves I didn’t yet have. I stomped around bison-like in clunky Charlotte Russe heels, my face brutally swatched by Wet ‘n Wild war paint. When my body came, I was relieved that I finally had something I could use as bait. Yet despite that afternoon I’d spent with Kyle Adams, I still hadn’t been kissed on the lips, ever.

I remembered the books in the moments that my sex life escalated beyond what I thought I could control.

The Avon True Romances gave voice to all that longing. Their authors maintained tween-friendly propriety in their plots—none of the heaving bosoms or pulsating erections of the adult romance novels that terrified me in the grocery store whenever I chanced to skim them. These starter romances knew what my little soul could handle. Not throbbing or orgasming but kissing, heated and expressionistic and for hours on end, like it never is in real life.

I remembered those books the first time I kissed a boy. The first time a boy laid down on top of me. The first time a boy took my shirt off. I thought I could feel the protagonists smiling down on me: she gets it. I thought I was kissing the way Gwyneth had kissed the thief, even in those early pubescent embarrassments of clanging teeth and stubborn bras. And I remembered them, too, in the moments that my sex life escalated beyond what I thought I could control—when things became frightening, too much or too sad.

Emily and the Scot was my absolute favorite, because an early childhood viewing of Braveheart had implanted in me a fetish for Scottish men. The catalyst for Emily and the Scotsman’s love is that the two of them chase a pig through mud until they capture it together—teen romance authors are not afraid of hijinks!

Important teen romance buzzwords capitalized to clarify the formula: Lady Emily visits her PALATIAL resort in the Scottish Highlands to escape the monotony of courtly life. The Laird Jamie initially seems like some sort of SAVAGE BRUTE, but he just CAN’T HELP IT, because he is a PASSIONATE man with little patience for feminine foolishness. Jamie’s rudeness is intolerable, yet INTRIGUING. For once, Emily is FREE TO BE HERSELF. At some point, maybe during the pig chase, Jamie strips off his shirt to reveal—what else?—FINELY CHISELED BICEPS. They KISS. They WED.

And my little heart, bless it, is pounding.

It took me years to unlearn the lessons that Avon True Romances taught me about love. I learned, for example, that my one true love would have wavy hair, a slow smile, and eyes that would change color depending on his emotional state. What a blow to discover that the “loving man who just couldn’t control himself around a beautiful woman” was someone to be feared. To realize that certain death would come for me if I wandered alone through the Scottish Highlands, or into untrammeled wilderness, or anywhere at all with the handsome murderer who worked on my father’s ranch.

And I learned, too, not to chase men who could be described as “erstwhile.” Or men who had a “taste for adventure.” Or men who “lived life on the edge.” I realized that such men, be they marauding pirate thieves or simply adult poets with no bed frame, could never be cajoled into wearing a condom. Most crucial of all, I realized that any arrogant jerk bastard who seemed loathsome from the beginning truly was. I didn’t hate such men for no reason at all like my Gwyneths and Josephines did. I hated them aptly, I had every right to hate them, and I hate them to this day.

But I admit it: I love romance stories. Even the ones that are, in retrospect, tales of emotional abuse or neglect. They misled me, they gave me dreadful advice, they are often dull. I can understand every one of those objections ten times over and still have a soft spot in my heart for such stories. But it’s not a benevolent soft spot, the way people typically mean when they use that phrase. More like a fleshy brown abscess marring an apple: uncomfortably soft, and ruinous. To this day, I am easily reduced to that girl of twelve, one of my father’s cigarettes clenched between my lips, asking a man who knows what he wants to tell me what he’s going to do for me—to tell me where we’re going down to, and why.

More Like This

Finding Bigfoot Is Easier Than Finding Myself

"BI6FOOT" from GIRL COUNTRY by Jacqueline Vogtman, recommended by Anne Valente

May 15 - Jacqueline Vogtman

My Friendships With Other Girls Were Often Chaotic and Volatile

The cult dramedy "Freaks and Geeks" gets it right about teenage girlhood friendship

Nov 10 - Caitlin Hart

​​Elif Batuman on the Tragedy of Heterosexual Dating

The author of "Either/Or" wants to help readers question their own lives

May 24 - Halimah Marcus
Thank You!