It’s Friday the thirteenth again, the day The Honest Courtesan asks non-sex-workers who support the decriminalization of prostitution to publicly say so. I do.
The most lauded article this week amongst my various news feeds was Emma Green’s piece in The Atlantic that rambles through the cultural subtext of Fifty Shades of Grey’s popularity and the intersectionality (heh) of desire, consent, and immaturity, as well as why the BDSM depicted in the book and film is an unhealthy example of such sexual predilections. If you haven’t seen it, you can find the piece here.
What struck me most about this article, aside from the fact that I have seen the titular theme multiple times in romance circles starting 2 years ago and so often since that it feels trite, is how damned ugly Ms. Green is toward the romance genre. You can quite clearly picture her sneer as she discusses “those books” and distills the genre in a reducto ad absurdum sense to “good woman reforms rake” – and then blames us for Shades. No, sorry, romance doesn’t have to take the fall for that one. We might be “trashy” and full of “those cheap books” and heteronormative cisgender-reinforcing bourgeois morality tales, but that atrocity? DID NOT SPRING FROM OUR LOINS. (Nor fully formed from our head, for that matter.) Pretty much every romance reader I know or have seen talk about the book agree it fails to meet our standards. So, sorry not sorry, Emma, but that one’s not on us. (She even implicitly admits this when discussing the phenomenon as millions of women discovering sex in a book for the first time. Yeah, romance readers knew about that 40 years ago and are able to set standards for craft and characterization.)
I felt compelled to defend romance against the spurious accusation of spawning Shades on a Facebook link to the article; I have said it in a conversation at work.
Yet, these denials are the first such defenses I have offered to my genre outside of spaces devoted to it. I have myself made comments equating romance to trash, even though I don’t believe it is – not all of it, anyway. For a long time I would pretend to my family that I wasn’t working on a book rather than tell them about the romance novel I was writing.
Why? Why should I allow the judgments and dismissals of people who haven’t the slightest idea about the genre to dictate my behavior toward it?
Obviously some of it is driven by shame or shyness about admitting both that I enjoy reading books that sometimes fit the bill of pornography and books that focus on the finding of one’s life mate. Truly intimate sex, and sentimentality, two things our culture still finds uncomfortable.
In today’s sex-saturated era, the discomfort our culture still has with the former is almost incomprehensible. Yet every tawdry display of T&A at the Superbowl halftime show, every glimpse of Lena Dunham’s naked ass on Girls, every reference in an editorial to sexual deviances (and, yes, the kink du jour is BDSM), really only serves to create more of a barrier between our cultural representation of sex and our actual experience with it – or perhaps the divide is between the experience we actually have and the one we yearn for. Most of what we pass around in our culture about sex is a front. It’s inauthentic or impersonal, and ultimately unsatisfying. Certainly the depictions I see in television and popular culture of liberated, sex-positive women who have one-night stands on a regular basis and brag about it feel hollow. In such depictions there is this utter separation of sex and intimacy, with no alternative source of intimacy offered to fill that void.
I don’t want to sound like I think sex requires emotional or spiritual intimacy to occur or even to be “good” sex, assuming orgasmic and good to be interchangeable (it obviously does not), or even that using it as an act of intimacy should be the ideal (although for me personally it is). What troubles me, however, is that our sex-everwhere-all-the-time culture has removed intimacy from human connections by making sex common and not replaced it with a different way to foster trust and emotional connection to our lovers. All we are shown is empty encounters, where the female orgasm has become the goal the same as the male’s.
Romance is different from erotica and modern popular culture both because it contextualizes sex around trust, intimacy, emotions. Not every encounter in every book; sometimes the journey of the book is moving from empty physical friction to spiritual conflagration. But overall, as a genre and as an individual journey within it, romance novels still treat sex as personal, private, and capable of revealing our truest selves. And that’s beautiful.
Middle-class though it might be, I want the dialogue we have about sex as a culture to acknowledge that it can be a powerful means of bonding, and that satisfying sex and orgasmic sex are not always the same thing.
The most intimate sex scene I’ve ever put in a book was the one I didn’t actually write. At the end of Courtship, when Piers is wondering if he’ll need more than 6 minutes to have sex with Catherine for the first time: he realizes that it doesn’t matter. The satisfaction to be had in the act is not from the physical release but the emotional bonding, the exchange of trust offered and validated that occurs with emotionally engaged intercourse.
Perhaps it has taken the current levels of soulless sexuality for me to stop being embarrassed by my sentimental notions; perhaps it is simply crossing the 30 year bridge. But for me, for the kind of sex that I value, romance is the only voice in our cultural dialogue whose perspective I relate to. Feminists and social justice warriors are free to hate it because it is generally male-positive; the pearl-clutchers who ate up Fifty Shades but would never dream of reading “those books” are welcome to their naive hypocrisy. But I’m tired of hearing that my genre is responsible for reckless depictions of abusive relationships and unsafe BDSM. No. We got that out of our system by the late 1980s. It’s everyone else who hasn’t caught up yet.