Friday, September 3, 2010

Unashamed, Unabashed, Unrepentant: Why Erotic Romance Is Good for Women

The PensFatales welcome Theresa Stevens today! Theresa Stevens is an author, editor, and the co-owner of STAR Guides Publishing and EditTorrent.

It’s no secret that I have some fairly strong opinions on gender equality, but those that know me best have always had trouble reconciling that with my love of romance publishing in general and erotic romance in particular. How can one be both strongly feminist and an unabashed lover of “those” books?

There are two answers to this question, the simple but dry one, and the more complex but more truthful one.

The simple answer is that in order for a patrilinear system to work, the sexuality of the woman must be controlled. Before modern medicine, the only way to guarantee paternity of a child was to prevent the mother from having sex with anyone other than the intended father. (It’s a lot easier to guarantee the maternity of a child: just witness the birth.)

This type of sexual partner limitation is fine as long as the mother is on board with this plan. After all, we might like to have a say in who fathers our children. But it’s also not fine insofar as it leads to double standards, economic inequality, and other abuses. Erotic romance and other open expressions of female sexuality take us one step further away from the days when feminine desire was demonized as a way of strengthening the patriarchy and limiting women’s power and social standing.

But that’s sort of intellectually detached from the real state of my thoughts on erotic romance. In truth, when I read a “dirty girl book” (as I like to call them, and it’s meant fondly), I walk away from the reading experience with an incredible feeling of sisterly solidarity. Part of being a woman, a fully alive and engaged woman, is being a fleshly creature with sexual urges and, lucky us, the capacity for almost limitless sexual pleasure. Yes, we want to explore that in the context of a romance, because that’s also a part of being a woman. Our hearts and bodies are entwined. But for too long, for centuries, we’ve been openly encouraged to embrace the heart and feel shame at the body. Not any more, and hurrah for that.

So when I read a book with a heroine who thrills at the sight of her lover, who craves his most decadent touch, who surrenders every corner of her sexual psyche to his loving exploration, then I see an alive and engaged female character. And I relate to her, as do other readers of this genre, because her body is my body. Her lover is my lover. Perhaps most surprising, her fantasies are my fantasies.

If there’s one thing I learned in four years as an editor at one of the world’s leading erotic romance publishers, it’s that these feminine fantasies are common and universal. Over and over again, we read the same sexual scenarios in submissions -- a powerful male body, a heroine swept away by passion, issues of trust and yearning and fulfillment playing out in countless variations on a single theme. So if these fantasies are so common, if we’re hardwired for this kind of desire, then why not celebrate it?

Erotic romance does exactly that. With a broad smile and a playful wink, these books show readers that they’re not alone. Others out there secretly thought the same naughty thoughts and even went to the trouble of writing them down and sharing them. These books allow women to explore their own sexual and romantic urges in a safe way, in a way that promotes understanding of self and sister, and perhaps most important, in a way that’s uniquely feminine.

To all of you writing erotic romance or aspiring to do so, I urge you to push forward and never hold back. Never think that your ideas are too outrageous or scary or personal. Be bold. Reach for the new position, the new setting, the new way of making your heroine’s thighs tremble. Give us a hero we can love, and then show us how to love him in mind-blowing ways.

Somewhere out there is a reader who fantasizes about the same thing, and who, upon reading your book, will smile to know she’s not the only one. She’ll take courage from your boldness. And she’ll find confidence in this silent connection to other women. (And maybe even find a new trick to use on her lover later. But that’s an entirely different blog post.)


Victoria Janssen said...

I also think we should celebrate erotic thoughts because we CAN. Men are allowed to do so freely. Why not women?

Sophie Littlefield said...

What a wonderful post, Theresa. I'm definitely bookmarking this to refer to lately. There have been many times in my life I wish I could have expressed myself as eloquently - especially in the company of others who are passionate about women's rights in other areas but feel like they can criticize those who work in this space.

Our own L.G.C. has been an eloquent and tireless voice in defense of romantic stories being a show of women's strength. Combined with this piece the two of you express what I am feeling so very well. Thank you for this.

Ali Rassi said...

Victoria, that's the essence of equality, isn't it? To be free to do what others may do freely. But I still think it's important to ask, "But is this a good thing to do?" And for me, the answer is yes.

Sophie, keep on fighting the good fight. A woman who owns her sexuality is a strong woman. I think we understand this, but we don't always understand how romance ties into it. :)


Anonymous said...

"I think we understand this, but we don't always understand how romance ties into it."

For me romance is the female voice. In the masculine, sexuality is physical. In the female (for me) sexuality is more emotional, which ties to romance. I think we have been taught by our culture and the media that sexuality is based on the masuline model: sex. Romance fiction brings uses the feminine model, involving mind and emotions: romance.

Evalyn - posting as Annonymous per this software

Juliet Blackwell said...

Theresa, hello and welcome to the Pens! I love that you were able to join us for this discussion, and that you wrapped up the subject so very eloquently. I agree with you that a woman who owns her own sexuality is a strong woman. It took me many years to fully understand that, though, and it's still a challenge to maintain in the face of peer pressure, from time to time. But It is so very true...and I love how you connect that with women's voices in fiction. Thank you!

elfarmy17 said...

Can we have some book recommendations, please? :D

Unknown said...

Hi Theresa!! So nice to "see" you here. :) thanks so much for visiting the Pens and thank you so much for the very articulate historical context. I had never really made the connection. As always I learn something fascinating through dialogue with you. :)

Ali Rassi said...

Lisa, it's always a pleasure to hang out with the Pens. :) Re: the historical context -- this is why women had to tackle the property and inheritance issues before we could find our way to sexual self-determination. Our foremothers were agitating for the right to own land and money back when we were too prudish to use the word "leg" to describe the things that hold up a table. How far we've come!


Ali Rassi said...

Evalyn, I think erotic romance combines both romance and sex from a feminine perspective. And I think the way to overcome that media bias is to create and celebrate more (and more accurate) representations of the female experience of passionate love. :)


Ali Rassi said...

Juliet, that kind of peer pressure is a hangover of sorts from people who slurped up the old notions of feminine purity. That's not to say that monogamy is wrong or bad. In fact, I think it's the ideal situation. But I also think that both men and women should choose it freely rather than having it forced upon them. Just imo, worth what we pay for it. ;)


Ali Rassi said...

elfarmy17, I'll take this opportunity to pimp some of my authors. :) I love every book I acquired, but some that are representative of the genre include:

- "Heartless" by Nathalie Gray, about an ancient Egyptian curse and the antiquities thief who triggers is, very fast-paced and exciting.

- "Wicked Wife" and "Hot-Blooded Husband" by Alice Gaines, companion stories based on Lysistrata, contains one of the funniest sex scenes ever.

- "Kitsune" by Lila Dubois, based on a Japanese myth, about a man experiencing an identity crisis and the shapeshifting demigoddess who saves him from himself.

- "Dark Harmony" by Lilly Cain, a dark and edgy vampire story with a dash of BDSM. Not for the timid.

- "Spy's Surrender" in Secrets 26 by Juliet Burns, about a Regency courtesan who rescues a British spy, but I confess, I acquired this one because of the dirty Shakespeare game. ;)

That ought to get you started. Happy reading!


elfarmy17 said...

My library doesn't have any of the books you recommended. :(
I'll have to buy some eBooks

Gladys said...

Hi may start looking into this. As a writer i am always looking at new books.

Sophie Littlefield said...

We LOOOVVEEE Alice Gaines! She's a great role model for, well, just about everyone. :)

AJ Larrieu said...

What a beautiful post. I love how woman-centered romance fiction is, as a genre and as a profession. For the most part, it's women writing for women, and I think there's something very powerful about that in a world where so many other professions are male-dominated. Thanks for the book recommendations!

R said...

*Love* Absolutely Love this entry.