Things I Shouldn’t Say About (Contemporary) Romance Novels

This is NOT from a book I've ever worked on. It's an image that is very representative of contemporary romance novel covers.
This is NOT from a book I’ve ever worked on. It’s an image that is very representative of contemporary romance novel covers.

I work on romance novels for my bread and butter. I won’t tell you exactly where or for whom or how, but a lot of my time is spent contemplating modern romance novels in a variety of ways, both as objects and as literature. I even do some freelance work on this kind of book for extra cash. Romance writing has never been a particular passion of mine, but given how closely it lines up with my passions (writing, feminism, and sex), it’s a pretty good fit. And, given that I work so much on these books and that I hope to someday work full-time freelance, largely on these books, badmouthing them is probably not a good career move.

But… I just… I can’t hold some of this stuff back! It’s just so… Arrrrgh! As a feminist and a writer, I find myself so often and so deeply frustrated by these. So I’m just going to tell you what I find frustrating in contemporary American romances, ok? I have to get this off my chest. (There are separate lists, BTW, for historical and paranormal romances.)

DISCLAIMER: I understand that most of these novels fall into the “genre fiction” category, and as such are actually following traditions, tropes, and sometimes stereotypes largely on purpose. I do understand that this business runs on the expectations of rabid readers. But that doesn’t mean I agree with the below.

1) The always “independent,” “fiery” heroine is very often sexually frustrated because she doesn’t get laid often enough or well enough (hence their desire for male attention, which leads to the entire story developing), or because she’s sooo into the hero but hasn’t slept with him yet (because Waiting is Important for whatever set of silly reasons)… but she doesn’t masturbate to take the edge off. Like, ever… until she’s having sex with the hero and he tells her to touch herself. What the hell. I get that part of the trope is that the hero will fulfill all of her sexual needs in a way she never dreamed possible and so on and so forth, but what is so wrong with her pleasing herself a little bit first? Is that somehow not hot? Why can’t she have a damn vibrator? FFS, this is 2015. She could even have purchased it online so that she wouldn’t have to be embarrassed by going into a sex toy store or whatever. Or she could use her hand. That’s a real thing! I swear! And it would really help with the whole “independent,” “fiery” thing that most heroines are going for, right?

2) Why is having sex without a condom portrayed as, like, the Be-All-End-All of committed love? I feel like in most of these books, the standard “wedding at the end” of historical romances is replaced by bareback sex at the end, as a symbolic gesture of commitment. And it drives me up a wall. I do understand that this often is a sign of trust in another person, and that it can be very intimate. I get that. But it seems to me like a disservice to responsible adults who prize safer sex practices to make the taking off the condom the ultimate Happy Ending for romances. And it bothers me even more that the discussion that takes place before said barebacking usually goes something like this:
“Are you clean?”
“Yes. Are you?”
*cue unprotected sex*
Like… what about showing each other some paperwork? Discussing sexual history insofar as it effects health? Maybe they could go to the clinic together to get tested. That’d be cute, and could offer some awkward waiting-room tension for laughs, and be responsible! Or, hell, what about occasionally having a character who actually does have an STD, like HPV or something, and dealing with that? I know that romance novels are fantasies and that not everybody wants to read about The Real World in their escapist sex books, but it’d be nice to see some representation of the millions of  humans who are affected by STDs and who deal responsibly with them, right? …RIGHT?

3) Has there ever been a heroine who was dominant in bed? Yes, I know it’s based on a formula and there are certain tropes expected, and that one of them is the heroine needs a “manly man” who can be dominant without being domineering, who can guide her gently to what she needs…. But wouldn’t it be interesting to see a woman who likes calling the shots? We could even keep the “didn’t discover the truth about herself until she met the hero” thing if you want. The hero could lead her to try dominating him a little in bed, and she could discover that she loves it, and something beautiful could be born. That could be fun! Can we just shake it up a teensy bit? I’m very tired of the “independent,” “fiery” heroine admitting she’s always really, deep-down, wanted a big strong man to tell her what to do when she’s naked. It’s legitimate, and rings true for a lot of people, but certainly not everybody. Let’s try something new!


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