Sex Isn't Trashy -- And Neither Are Sexy Books

Admitting to reading romance novels is almost always accompanied by a certain embarrassed self-denigration or rationalization. But why?

Mar 29, 2012 at 1:00pm | Leave a comment

I read romance novels.

And not even the big thick ones (no innuendo there) that aspire to plot and character development, but the tightly scripted, four-titles a month Harlequin Blaze romance novels. These books are the literary equivalent of Pringles potato chips -- and it is indeed true that once you pop, you can't stop.

There's a terrible hymen joke in there somewhere. I'm not going to make it. Ew. I think I've actually grossed myself out a little bit. (Not because hymens are gross but because it is a terrible potential joke.)

Publishing, if you follow the industry at all, is in kind of dire straits (and now Money For Nothing is stuck in my head) these last few years. Book sales are down as a general trend. Brick-and-mortar book stores are struggling -- or declaring bankruptcy and closing.

But sales of romance novels remain steady. There was even an uptick in sales for 2011. Romance dominates the market -- over 13 percent of books sold belong to the romance genre. And romance, of all the genre markets, has embraced e-publishing. If you're a writer, you can actually expect better rates in e-publishing (though the advances are smaller).

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Obviously, I am not the only person who reads romance novels. I'm not buying all of those books myself! But admitting to reading romance novels is almost always accompanied by a certain embarrassed self-denigration or rationalization. Or defiance -- there's a lot of women (and something like over 90 percent of romance buyers are women) on the Internet who have a "fuck you" tone when they talk about reading romance. I kind of love that.

Smart Bitches Trashy Books is a prime example of this -- but it also highlights right there in the name the way romance novels are perceived: trashy.

But why are romance novels trashy in the first place? Why do we tend to be so ashamed, even jokingly, about reading them?

Is it because the women in them have sex?

Is it because the women who buy them like reading about sex in varying degrees of explictness?

Is it because romance novels are kind of regarded as fancied-up porn with romantic trappings for women?

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I think it might be some of all of the above, with a dose of classism as well. When you look at reader statistics, a whopping 38 percent of romance buyers are in the Southern states, where income tends to be lower. And, you know, it's not like the South is regarded as a bastion of education and culture (even though it totally often is).

And it isn't like we have a high societal regard for women who have sex because they like sex. Slut shaming is a thing, and even in books about women getting laid, well, they can't get laid TOO MUCH.

In American culture, even in our lady porn, it seems like women are allowed to be sexy but not sexual.

Given that context, maybe it's not a surprise we're so ashamed of our reading habits when it comes to romance.

Another thing is that, honestly, people think romance is crap. I was an English major -- I get the snobbery and literary elitism thing. Genre fiction of any type tends to take a beating from the lit snobs.

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Quick and dirty explanation of the difference between lit fic and genre fic: Literary fiction is driven by the characters and thus can take place in any setting. Genre fiction is driven by the setting/plot and thus character development tends to suffer a bit. There is, as always, overlap.

Romance qualifies as genre fiction because it generally follows a formula. There's not a lot of effort to hide that, either. The Writing Guidelines provided by Harlequin are, for example, specific to each line they put out so submissions maintain the desired tone of level of sexy times.

I like the Blaze novels because sometimes people masturbate. Though almost 100% of the time, when a dude jerks off it is referred to as "taking himself in hand."

That cracks me up every time I see it.

Even within the formula, though, there are some standout books as far as writing goes. There are some real stinkers (OF COURSE) -- but that goes for any sort of writing. I've read a lot of shitty lit fic, y'all. (Can I tell you how over dystopias, I am? I am so over dystopias.) I've read some wonderfully realized characters in $4.99 romance novels; it's just never going to be taken seriously because it's written for a female audience. Meanwhile, I've read some so-called literary fiction that makes me want to give up humanity as a whole. That's not good.

(There's a lot of other issues in romance novels -- including body shaming and racism and the list just goes on. I want to acknowledge those things -- and talk about them in more detail on their own.)

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I really hate the conclusion that romance novels are trashy because they are soft-core porn for poor, uneducated Southern women who like sex but...

Things get even more interesting when you start trying to talk to people about the erotica industry -- which isn't really a subset of romance, especially if you start looking at information from the Romance Writers of America (RWA). There's a (throbbing) hard line between "romance" and "erotica" that actually is kind of fuzzy (oh, the mental image there) when you start talking to people who actually write for both genres.

In other words, well, you can write about sex, as long as the sex is because people LOVE each other. But if it's just about people getting off, well, that's where the line of respectability is somehow drawn.

(The erotica industry is so freaking interesting -- and deserves its own conversation, too.)

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That strikes me as really being rather awful. Because it means even in an industry that is larger controlled by women, we're still perpetuating the idea that women only enjoy sex that comes with a side of tru wuv.

While relationship sex IS pretty awesome, I have to say that kind of limiting of women's sexual identities bums me out like whoa. It's a subtle (sometimes not so subtle, depending on the romance novel) brand of slut shaming, which makes it all the harder to root out.

Romance novels aren't inherent trashy any more than women who enjoy sex are trashy. I like romance novels because the formula is comforting when I need to shut my brain off for a little while -- and because I like reading about people getting off. And I don't think there's any reason to be ashamed of that.