gender

Part II - Representations of Romantic Relationships and the Romance Genre in Contemporary Women's Writing (Sheffield, 11 June 2016)

By Laura Vivanco on Sunday, 12 June, 2016

Continued from Part I. In this post I'm summarising the following 3 papers:

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

 

Dr. Amy Burge, University of Edinburgh - Beyond the Alpha: Sex, Masculinity and the Exotic in twenty-first century Harlequin Mills & Boon romance.

 

Amy's the Book Review editor of the Journal of Popular Romance Studies and her Representing Difference in the Medieval and Modern Orientalist Romance was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

A few days before the conference Amy gave a few teasers for her paper on Twitter:

 

As these suggest, Amy's been doing quantitative research on a huge corpus of romances. I'm not sure quite how many romances it was, but it looked to be in the hundreds, at least, given that Amy was looking at 10 or more years' worth of novels in a line which publishes around 8 books every month. In the course of the research for her recent book Amy collected a lot of data on the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern/Sexy line's heroes. In this paper she revealed some of the findings which didn't make it into her book.

This "line" of romances promises readers "glamorous international settings" and Mills & Boon say that "Our heroes are 100% alpha but that doesn't mean they're perfect. Sheikh, Greek, Russian, Italian, English, American...wherever he's from, it's certain that he turns the heads of every woman he passes!"

Clearly the line provides a rich source of primary material relating to masculinity, race and ethnicity because the heroes embody hegemonic masculinity i.e. the current most honoured way of being a man. This masculinity is both performative (it is shown in what the heroes do) and normative (in that it sets a standard by which other men can be judged). Hegemonic masculinity is an idealised version of masculinity and it's hierarchical because it marginalises some masculinities while elevating others.

In this context, it's interesting to note that although, as Edward Said observed, Western orientalism associated oriental masculinity with feminine penetrability, the Harlequin Mills & Boon sheikh exhibits hegemonic masculinity.

Given that the majority of the authors in this line are from the UK, North America or Australasia and the line promises exotic, international settings, it's perhaps not surprising that 61% of the heroes in the corpus are not from those countries.

Italian heroes appear to the most popular, followed by Greeks, sheikhs, Spanish, Latin American, Mediterranean (either unspecified or invented countries) and Russians. The popularity of certain nationalities has fluctuated, however. For example, in more recent years Spaniards have declined in popularity while Latin Americans have increased in number. Russian heroes emerged in 2008. There were, however, no African or East Asian heroes at all.

The titles of these novels also reveal interesting trends. They usually reflect aspects of the hero's cultural identity (mainly his nationality) and profession (if you can call being a prince of a billionaire a "profession"). Interestingly, while it is common for it to be signalled in the title when a hero is a sheikh, this is not so likely to happen for Russians. Russians (and Latin Americans) are more likely to be described as ruthless, dark or devilish in the titles while the words "Greek" and "tycoon" are often found together.

Within the covers of the novels sheikhs are often described using metaphors and similies relating to the desert and dangerous desert creatures such as birds of prey and big cats. Harems are often mentioned in order to establish the hero's cultural tradition of masculine sexual dominance. In a nod to the feminine connotations of the orient, the authors may mention the hero's "robes" but immediately assert that they increase, or at least do nothing to minimise, his powerful masculinity.

The number of heroes from India is very small (only 3 novels) so it is more difficult to generalise about them. Susanna Carr's Secrets of a Bollywood Marriage (2014) and one of the other novels were both described by readers as having less alpha/dominant heroes than usual in this line.

We speculated about reasons for the trends in particular nationalities' popularity, including 9/11 and economic crises. This led well into the topic of the next paper.

Val Derbyshire, University of Sheffield - "In these modern times": Reading Harlequin Mills & Boon Romantic Novels as Signs of the Times

Even though her "doctoral research concerns a highly respected eighteenth-century poet and novelist, Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806)" Val has argued at a "conference, hosted by the University of Cambridge ‘CRASSH’ (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities) [...] entitled Art/Money/Crisis" that romance author Penny "Jordan’s novels illustrate her understanding of the sense of powerlessness losing financial independence has and how it affects her characters/ordinary people in society" (see the blog post here).

Today Val looked at a range of novels by Penny Jordan and then at Roberta Leigh's Man Without a Heart. demonstrating that Mills & Boon romances could be used by researchers as social barometers which offer information about the times in which they were written and reflect the concerns of ordinary women, offering insight into fashion, fears of financial crises, terrorism, and industrial relations. Man Without a Heart, for example, features a secondary character (the heroine's uncle) who is a trade unionist and the novel highlights the divide between London's social elites and the working classes.

More about Val's history of romance reading, and details of Penny Jordan's role as social barometer can be found here.

Although it's still relatively unusual for romances to be read and used in this way, Val and a handful of other researchers have demonstrated that romances can be fruitful primary sources for historians and others investigating social history. I've summarised Professor Tom Baum's romance-based research into representations of the airline industry here and Joseph McAleer has argued that "the new 'Doctor-Nurse' novels first published by Mills & Boon in the 1950s [...] reinforced a positive view of the NHS among middle- and working-class readers".

Alicia Williams, Independent Researcher - Busting the Mills & Boon Myth: Category Romance as an Instrument for Change

Ali describes herself as a "Freelance editor, journalist and academic. Specialisms include #IntersectionalRomances, #StrongRomanceHeroines and #AdaptationandAppropriation". She's an editor of the Pink Heart Society blog, where Harlequin Mills & Boon authors from a wide range of lines post about their books, inspirations and work-lives. That puts her in contact with a lot of authors and when she asked some of them what they thought about social issues in romance almost all of them said that romance could deal with them and one even stated that it was irresponsible for authors not to address them.

Perhaps as a result, Ali works on the assumption that "the death of the author" has been much exaggerated and in her research into the social issues addressed in Harlequin Mills & Boon romances she's very interested in authorial intent, as often revealed in "Dear Reader" letters which appear before the title page. She believes it's a powerful experience for readers to be addressed directly by authors, as Tara Tylor Quinn does in Husband by Choice and Once a Family.

Romance authors approach social issues with the guarantee of a happy ending providing a safety net which reassures readers that the issues can be dealt with and the obstacles to happiness overcome. Tara Taylor Quinn, who has herself experienced domestic violence, does so in her Where Secrets are Safe series, set in a woman's shelter called The Lemonade Stand. In one novel it is revealed that the hero has been a victim of domestic abuse at the hands of his now ex-wife. In another an abused secondary character is helped by the protagonists.

Ali has now begun The CatRom Project as an online "exploration of the way in which category romances address and engage with social issues." [Edited to add: Ali's now put the whole of her paper online at the CatRom Project.]

Effects of Written Erotica

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 6 February, 2016

A recent piece of research in The Journal of Sex Research, in which a group of male and female readers were exposed to three different types of erotica (male dominant/female submissive; female dominant/male submissive; neither partner submissive or dominant), suggests that:

reading about a sexually submissive woman may have a negative impact on attitudes toward women, including increasing benevolent sexism in women and rape myth acceptance in men. However, erotica also had the power to challenge traditional gender roles. We found that after reading about a sexually dominant woman, men rated dominance as an appealing trait in a potential partner, at least to the same extent that women did. Finally, we found that men and women were similar in their levels of arousal in response to sexually explicit erotica and that different types of erotica are equally arousing, regardless of the dominance and submission roles taken on by the protagonists. In sum, although we highlight some potentially negative consequences of reading erotica depicting male dominance, our findings should not be interpreted as devaluing erotica. Instead, our study hints at the utility and benefit of seeking out a range of erotica that eschews typical gender roles to encourage “eroticizing equality.” (10)

The authors did advise that:

It should be noted that the effects of reading different submission/dominance stories on attitudes were small. We speculate that the potential consequences of reading male dominance erotica on attitudes, such as more negative views toward women, may be exacerbated following repeated exposure to such erotica. Future research might investigate the effects of a longer-term exposure to submission-/dominance-themed erotica by using a diary study to test the effects of reading a full-length erotic novel, or longitudinal work testing male dominance erotica consumption and attitudes over time. Finally, an additional avenue for future research would be to test the effects of reading popular erotica in a nonheterosexual sample. For example, submission and dominance between a consenting lesbian pair would be unlikely to carry with it the same political meaning as male-on-female dominance. It is possible, however, that effects may still be seen on partner preferences. (10)

Here's a bit more detail about their findings regarding the dominant woman/submissive male and neither-partner-dominant-nor-submissive erotica:

It may be that depictions of nontraditional men and women as “sexy” broaden our understanding of what is considered gender appropriate behavior. The battle for less prescriptive gender roles is often fought directly. Our work highlights that change can also occur indirectly via the stories that we tell, including those that sexually arouse us. While erotica has the potential to result in detrimental outcomes for women (i.e., through increased benevolent sexism and rape myths), it also has the potential to make the deviant desirable and prompt a shift toward acceptance of nontraditional gender roles. Although the shifts observed in our study were small and likely to be temporary, more consistent exposure to nonnormative erotica (or even literature more generally) may have a stronger impact on what men and women want in a partner. (9)

and

Our findings provide promising evidence that a focus away from female submission does not mean a decrease in sexual arousal. Rather, stories describing female dominance or no dominance were equally arousing and perhaps less likely to perpetuate the belief in women that sex and submission are necessarily linked. (9)

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Harris, Emily Ann, Michael Thai & Fiona Kate Barlow (2016). "Fifty Shades Flipped: Effects of Reading Erotica Depicting a Sexually Dominant Woman Compared to a Sexually Dominant Man", The Journal of Sex Research.

Female vs. Male Authors on What to Look for in a Potential Spouse

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 18 January, 2016

From an article in The New Yorker by Adelle Waldman:

attention to a lover’s intelligence—and to those facets of character that fall under the auspices of intelligence and factor into respect, such as fairness, integrity, magnanimity, and sensitivity—is consistent with the way women novelists have long written about love. For as long as novels have been written, heroines in books by women have studied their beloveds’ minds with a methodical, dispassionate eye. The ideal mate, for Jane Austen’s heroines, for Charlotte Brontë’s, for George Eliot’s, is someone intelligent enough to appreciate fully and respond deeply to their own intelligence, a partner for whom they feel not only desire but a sense of kinship, of intellectual and moral equality.

A link between love and respect hardly seems like a unique or daring proposition—until we consider that so many male authors have tended to think about love very differently. Straight male authors devote far less energy to considering the intelligence of their heroes’ female love interests; instead, they tend to emphasize visceral attraction and feelings. From Tolstoy, whose psychological acuity helped to redefine what the novel is capable of, to unabashed chroniclers of sex like Saul Bellow and Philip Roth to contemporary, stroller-pushing, egalitarian dad Karl Ove Knausgaard, men have been, in a sense, the real romantics: they are far more likely than women to portray love as something mysterious and irrational, impervious to explanation, tied more to physical qualities and broad personal appeal than to a belief—or hope—in having found an intellectual peer.

In literature, the desire to find an equal, and the belief that love in its ideal form should comprise a meeting of minds as well as bodies, appears to be a much greater psychological driver for women than it is for men. [...]

Intelligence matters to these heroines because they crave, above almost everything else, conversation, the kind that requires mutual understanding. [...] Austen’s sensitive, intelligent heroines reflexively seek out as love interests those few men who are equally sensitive and equally intelligent, who are capable of meeting them “in conversation, both rational and playful.”

This kind of relationship is my favourite to read about and I can find examples of such relationships in modern romance novels. However, I wouldn't say it's the dominant type of relationship in romances, despite the fact that the majority are written by women.

That makes me wonder if the distinction between male and female authors identified by Waldman is not an absolute one, but has something to do with the fact, acknowledged by Waldman, that the male protagonists in the novels she discusses are intellectuals and traditionally "men may not have expected to find a true intellectual equal in a woman, and so they looked for intellectual companionship among men, and with women sought those qualities they did expect to find—beauty, charm, sex appeal, domestic skill".

Perhaps novelists (both male and female) who aren't writing about intellectuals may all place less emphasis on intellectual compatibility and more on the physical and/or practical aspects of relationships?

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With thanks to Vassiliki for the link to "The Ideal Marriage, According to Novels" (The New Yorker, January 15, 2016) by Adelle Waldman.

Review/Summary (7 - Carole Veldman-Genz): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 26 December, 2015

Carole Veldman-Genz's "focus is on a particular strand of erotic romance fiction for women published by market leader Ellora's Cave under the copyrighted term romantica" (134), namely their

male-male (m/m) and male-male-female ménage (m/m/f) romantica, not only because they are popular subcategories, but also because they point markedly to the contradictions and conflicts in current thought on sexuality, gender, corporeality, pleasure and agency. So far, little attention has been paid to the ways in which the homoerotic male-male encounter in women's popular erotic fiction triggers female sensuality and elicits female pleasure. In its precise aim, this article investigates male homo- and bisexuality as fantasy tropes for women. (135)

Veldman-Genz argues that:

gay content in romantica often results in the depiction of "feminized" or romanticized gay sex. In m/m and m/m/f romantica, readers are invited to endorse the emotional and sexual intimacy between male characters, and male-male sex is often scripted in terms of both nurture and sexual adventure. [...] Framed by a female gaze, these are intimate and romantic erotic encounters in which gay men excite by virtue of their caring and nurturing abilities as much as their virility and hyper-masculinity.

This gender-blending of "masculine" and "feminine" traits is an indication of how the gay/bisexual male body has been offered up for heterosexual female reading in romantica and how gay sex has been romanticized and made "female-friendly" in these texts. (144-45)

I find this argument troubling because, despite the use of inverted commas, there does seem to be an implication here that men and women have different "traits" and that therefore real gay and bisexual men (i.e. men outwith the "romanticized" world of romantica) would not have sexual relationships which include "nurture" and "emotional [...] intimacy".

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Veldman-Genz, Carole. "Selling Gay Sex to Women: The Romance of M/M and M/M/F Romantica". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 133-149.

Review/Summary (4 - Eva Chen): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Thursday, 24 December, 2015

Eva Chen begins her essay on "Erotic Pleasure and Postsocialist Female Sexuality: Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China" with a brief historical overview:

Erotic writing and art have a long tradition in China. Though remnants have been found dating back to the first century, erotic wall murals found at the Dunhuang Budhist grottoes suggest a flourishing erotic art scene around the tenth century. The late Ming Dynasty in the seventeenth century saw a peak of erotic poetry and fiction, as well as erotica portrayed in "pillow books" and Taoist treatises on effective sexual techniques for maximizing life energies [...]. Much erotica of the period also focused on female foot-binding, a practice started among court dancers in the tenth century which later spread to gentry families, brothels and even peasant households, and functioned both to signify female virtue and domesticity and to appeal to male fetishistic pleasure [...]. Attitudes hardened from the time of the Qing Dynasty in the eighteenth century with the resurgence of Confucian moral conservatism, all but bringing to an end a thriving tradition of erotica [...].

The Western understanding of sexuality as an essential, intrinsic component of personal identity first entered China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries [...] the liberation of women as autonomous, heterosexual subjects [...] was not celebrated for its own sake but was, rather, invoked as the binary opposite of a Westernized, masculine self that needed to be cultivated to "upend" Confucian kinship categories [...]. The origin of this idea in the Western, humanist understanding of an essential human nature, of which sexuality is an inalienable part, partially explains the later socialist criticism of this idea as bourgeois. When the Maoist party swept into power in 1949, the socialist state began to promote a new concept of women [...] emphasizing collectivist public roles rather than sexual difference [...].

It is in this light that the postsocialist celebration of the body, sexuality and "natural femininity" since the market reforms in the 1980s needs to be understood: as a reaction to the perceived socialist distortion of the "natural," gendered human self. (79-80)

Chen's essay then focuses on"Weihui's Shanghai Baby (2000) and Muzimei's sex blogs, later published as Left-over Love Letters (2003), as these texts figure crucially in two major public controversies concerning this Chinese female 'body writing'" (82).

Chen concludes that

an overly optimistic emphasis on emancipation must still take into account the complicated roles played by the state and the neoliberal consumer culture in forging a distinctly postsocialist Chinese female sexual identity. Chinese female "body writers" do assert a form of sexual agency as rights [...] but at the same time they also play into a state-approved discourse of seeking to direct such "freed" sexual energies into consumerism. (94)

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Chen, Eva. "Erotic Pleasure and Postsocialist Female Sexuality: Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 79-95.

Review/Summary (3 - Amalia Ziv): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Wednesday, 23 December, 2015

The essay by Amalia Ziv is a condensed version of a chapter in her Explicit Utopias: Rewriting the Sexual in Women's Pornography (State University of New York Press, 2015).

Ziv begins "Refiguring Penetration in Women's Erotic Fiction" by outlining the status quo regarding penetration:

Ever since ancient Greek civilization, Western culture has regarded subjecthood as premised on bodily autonomy, and bodily autonomy as incompatible with sexual penetrability. In the modern state [...] penetrability is no longer seen to conflict with political subjecthood, but the conception of sexual penetration as antithetical to sexual subjectivity endures. This conception finds expression most notoriously in mainstream heterosexual porn - in which penetration often figures as an act of domination or humiliation. (59)

Having examined feminist arguments for and against this view of penetration, Ziv comments that:

In a lesbian context [...] the structural impossibility of penetration with an "orgasmic object" predefines penetration as altruistically rather than selfishly motivated, which taken together with the lack of gender hierarchy between the partners eliminates most of the problematic significations of heterosexual penetration and opens the way for radical rearticulations. (67)

One might object that this is probably ignoring possible intersectional ways of creating hierarchy, and the assumption that no "orgasmic object" will be involved in the penetration implies that all involved are cisgender. Ziv's focus, however, is

the terrain of heterosexual sexuality.

My chosen corpus is one of the classic series of women's erotica, Herotica, first published by the independent Down There Press, and subsequently taken up by Plume, a division of Penguin books. [...] I will fous on the first three, published in 1988, 1992, and 1994, and edited by Susie Bright. (67)

In these,

If one strategy is to downplay the importance of penile penetration in heterosexual sex, stories that do represent it often contest its dominant meanings and suggest alternative ones. (69)

The essay looks in detail at only three stories. One of these

suggests a more nuanced understanding of the acts that takes into account a whole array of contextual factors, such as consent, consideration, the power differential between the partners, the power balance within the act itself (who initiates and directs the act, sexual posture, freedom of movement, thrusting, etc.), and the balance of pleasure. (70)

In another "the possession effected by the act is reinterpreted as mutual possession" (76) and in a third a female protagonist has a "phantasmatic identification with gay male sexuality" (76): "sexual receptivity in contemporary gay male culture" (74) has, according to Ziv, "since the '70s has managed [...] to undermine the symbolic equation of sexual receptivity with both femininity and non-subjecthood" (75).

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Ziv, Amalia. "Refiguring Penetration in Women's Erotic Fiction". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 59-78.

Review/Summary (1 - Simon Hardy): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 14 December, 2015

Simon Hardy's essay in this volume compares the "male tradition of pornographic writing" which made "use of a female narrative voice" to "erotic fiction and memoirs [...] that are genuinely written by women" in order to discover whether "female authors are producing new forms of erotica or simply assimilating patterns of erotic discourse established by the centuries-old tradition of male writers, often masquerading as female autobiographers" (25).

Naturally, he has had to be selective about the number of texts he could discuss in his essay and he acknowleges "right from the outset that the selection of other examples might well lead to different conclusions" (25). This is, I think, a very important acknowledgement. I can't speak about "erotic fiction and memoirs" because that's not an area of literature about which I have much knowledge, but certainly the field of romance fiction is extremely large and very varied and it's quite possible for conclusions which are correct about a certain subset of romances to be inapplicable to many others: one should therefore be very wary before extrapolating from a small number of texts, particularly if one cannot be certain that they are representative of the diversity of the field.

Hardy begins with a very brief overview of male-authored erotic fiction, focussing on John Clelland's Fanny Hill. He observes that:

Cleland's writing represented men and women as equally lascivious. Later, when "respectable" Victorian authorities established the notion of the passionless female, dissident pornographers opposed it by invoking the earlier tradition of female incontinence, but now with a new element: that this underlying female wantonness had to be brought forth as the submissive response to male sexual initiative. (27)

The much more recent Black Lace erotic imprint, although it had a "tag line of 'erotic fiction by women and for women'" (29), would appear to have followed in this Victorian tradition:

Black Lace fictions are stories of female sexual discovery, of women becoming active, pleasure seeking subjects. However, the goal of pleasure is usually attained only when the woman's social self finally yields to the natural lust residing in her body, as it responds to the agency of male sexual conquest. Female liberation is attained only in the act of submission. (31)

Hardy argues that Fifty Shades of Grey is "a hybridization of romance and pornography" (34). [This is an insight explored by Jodi McAlister in her 2013 paper "Breaking the Hard Limits: Romance, Pornography, and Genre in the Fifty Shades trilogy" (which can be found online, for free, here).] Like the (majority of?) Black Lace books, it would seem to follow in the Victorian pornographic tradition:

While Christian's sexuality is elaborately accounted for, Ana's response to and identification with the submissive role is taken for granted; described in endless detail yet never explained, as if it were latent in her nature, or simply because she really is a blank slate to be inscribed by her lover. [...] it is above all in this fundamental essentialist silence that James' text most crucially bears the hallmark of the male tradition of pornographic writing referred to above. (39)

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Hardy, Simon. "From Black Lace to Shades of Grey: The Interpellation of the 'Female Subject' into Erotic Discourse". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 25-41.

Review/Summary: Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 12 December, 2015

Kristen Phillips recently posted me a copy of Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers, an essay collection she edited. Those essays discuss and explore a wide range of texts but it is the publication of, and responses to, Fifty Shades of Grey, which has focused attention on women's erotic fiction. Of course, as Phillips notes,

popular erotic fiction has a significant twentieth-century history as an element of Western culture's popular romance fiction genre. Contextualizing books like Fifty Shades of Grey within this history does more than encourage us to be cynical about the recent characterization of women's popular erotic fiction as a sudden, new sensation. Rather, it allows us to [...] begin asking why and how women's popular erotic fiction suddenly entered discourse as a "problem" and an object of scrutiny at this particular cultural moment. (Phillips 5)

One response to FSoG and other erotic texts for and/or by women, has been to treat it

like "pornography": it is understood to be embarrassing and shameful, and there are certainly ideas in circulation about how some kinds of women's erotic fiction are harmful to women readers (specifically BDSM fiction, as Tanya Serisier discusses in this volume). However, anxieties about the harm caused by women's erotic fiction are complicated by two competing ideas: firstly, that women's sexual enjoyment is not to be taken seriously (it is often seen as something embarrassing, silly or humorous rather than a pernicious social harm), and secondly, that women's erotic fiction is empowering for women and represents an authentic expression of female sexual desire. (7)

A note of caution about this third view is imparted by reference to

Michel Foucault's insight that the compulsion to speak about sex, which is always constructed as a liberation, in fact serves to bring sex into discourse such that it can be subjected to surveillance and control. (Phillips 5)

The

exercise of social power behind a veneer of liberation [...] is a recurring theme across the essays in this volume: see in particular the essays by Eva Chen [on "Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China], Jude Elund [on "Feminized Same-Sex Practice as Middle-Class Fantasy"] and Carole Veldman-Genz [on "The Romance of M/M and M/M/F Romantica"]. (11)

She adds that

In making sense of the mainstreaming of women's mass market erotic fiction across Western culture since approximately 2011, it is important to notice that even as this material is being characterized in the popular media as "dirty," subversive and threatening to cultural morality [...], the kinds of texts that are most visible are often, in fact, quite socially conservative in their presentation of the relationship between romance and sex. [...] That is, the privileging of certain kinds of texts [...] tends to reinforce the idea that women prefer their erotic content blended with romance. (7-8)

Then again, given that "An association between eroticism and transgression of taboos is [...] deeply embedded in Western culture" (14), I assume it could also be an "exercise of social power behind a veneer of liberation" to insist that women should not prefer their erotic content blended with romance.

In other words, it would seem that whether women do or don't have sex, do or don't speak/write about it and irrespective of what type of sex we do have (if we have it), we're liable to face criticism from someone.

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I've written a post about each of the essays in the volume and linked to each below. Some of the posts are fairly detailed while others are just brief descriptions.

One theme which emerged for me was the examination of the extent to which sexuality and gender are shaped by culture/society; given that sexual desires and gender identities are not wholly "hard-wired" by nature, to some extent they can be reinforced or reshaped by erotic fictions.

I found Victoria Ong's essay of particular interest because although it's not about popular romance, its discussion of different attitudes to, and beliefs about sex and the strength (or lack) of emotions it's assumed to generate possibly helps explain why erotic romance authors believe they can convincingly depict the development of a committed, long-term relationship primarily via sex scenes.

Hardy, Simon. "From Black Lace to Shades of Grey: The Interpellation of the 'Female Subject' into Erotic Discourse", pages 25-41.

Morrissey, Katherine E. "Steamy, Spicy, Sensual: Tracing the Cycles of Erotic Romance", pages 42-58.

Ziv, Amalia. "Refiguring Penetration in Women's Erotic Fiction", pages 59-78.

Chen, Eva. "Erotic Pleasure and Postsocialist Female Sexuality: Contemporary Female 'Body Writing' in China", pages 79-95.

Booth, Naomi. "Good Vibrations: Shaken Subjects and the Disintegrative Romance Heroine", pages 99-116.

Serisier, Tanya. "On Not Reading Fifty Shades: Feminism and the Fantasy of Romantic Immunity", pages 117-132.

Veldman-Genz, Carole. "Selling Gay Sex to Women: The Romance of M/M and M/M/F Romantica", pages 133-149.

Elund, Jude. "Permissible Transgressions: Feminized Same-Sex Practice as Middle-Class Fantasy", pages 150-66.

Kustritz, Anne. "The Politics of Slash on the High Seas: Colonial Romance and Revolutionary Solidarity in Pirates Fan Fiction", pages 169-186.

Santos Fermin, Tricia Abigail. "Male Homoerotic Fiction and Women's Sexual Subjectivities: Yaoi and BL Fans in Indonesia and the Philippines", pages 187-203.

Ong, Victoria. "Selling Authentic Sex: Working Through Identity in Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl", pages 204-24.

Niccolini, Alyssa D. "Sexing Education: Erotica in the Urban Classroom", pages 225-39.

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Phillips, Kristen. "Introduction: Shattering Releases." Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 1-21.

Romance Readers and Greater Gender Role Egalitarianism

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 13 June, 2015

In the wake of yet another article which warns women to be on their guard while reading romance because

bad romance novels cross a line. They go from being misinformed and silly to being visibly dangerous. [...] Is this really our “porn for women”, our romantic fantasy fulfillment? I think it’s actually a regurgitation of some of the basest forms of sexism sugar-coated with the guise of romance. (Townsend)

I thought it might be reassuring to look at some recent research published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts:

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, although the romance genre is associated with both sexual content and traditional portrayals of gender roles, exposure to this genre was not related to more gender role stereotyping or reduced sexual conservatism in our regressions controlling for other factors. In fact, in raw correlations, exposure to the romance genre predicted more egalitarian gender role attitudes and less gender role stereotyping [...]. A past content analysis might shed some light on why romance novels did not predict less conservative attitudes toward sexual behavior. This analysis found that romance novels contain rather typical depictions of sex, consistent with Western sexual scripts and with little mention of atypical sexual activities [...]. Although romance novels might contain sexual content, the nature of this content does not appear to be inconsistent with traditional Western norms surrounding sex. (Fong et al 6-7)

Maybe those worried about whether romance readers are being brain-washed into accepting patriarchal dominance should take some comfort from this. Even if, in statistical terms, "the association between romance and decreased levels of gender role stereotyping failed to reach threshold for statistical significance" (5) it certainly didn't provide any evidence at all that reading romance increases "levels of gender role stereotyping". As for "attitudes towards sexual behavior", the depictions of sex which you can find in romances do vary quite considerably so the conclusions researchers reach about "attitudes toward sexual behavior" will probably depend on which types of romance they select for study. Townsend's comment that "rape scenes in these books are depressingly common, so much so that it’s noteworthy when there aren’t any" does make me wonder if she was reading only decades-old "bodice-rippers".

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Fong, K., Mullin, J. B., & Mar, R. A. "How Exposure to Literary Genres Relates to Attitudes Toward Gender Roles and Sexual Behavior." Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. 27 April 2015.

Townsend, Alex. "Tropes of Love: Gender Roles in Romance Novels." The Mary Sue. 10 June 2015.

A Punishing Kiss

By Laura Vivanco on Saturday, 30 May, 2015

Rosemary Johnson-Kurek has noted that:

The punishing kiss is generally unique to the hero; however, at least one Temptation heroine indulges in the practice. Driven by a furious jealousy, Nikki grabs a handful of Carter's hair and plunges her tongue into his mouth when he gasps at her action. "Reveling in her power she changed the tenor of their kiss, caressing rather than branding. Rewarding instead of punishing" (MacAllister 119).

The nature of the punishing kiss is a phenomenon definitely open to feminist criticism. It is the intent that is important. Some punishing kisses are passionate, lip-bruising consummations: "He took her lips in a powerful, punishing kiss, pushed beyond gentleness by two days of more frustration than a man should ever have to endure" (Schuler, Passion 172). Joshua's kiss, however, [in Summer Surrender by Abra Taylor] "started in anger, a seal to stop the provocation of her words" (79). The former is physically punishing in that it is a bruising kiss; the latter is a kiss meant to punish the heroine by intimidating her. (134)

If the "punishing kiss" is less common nowadays (and I have the impression that it is), perhaps that's because, as the heroine of Nora Roberts' Cordina's Crown Jewel (2002) acknowledges after having given one to her hero,

She'd pushed herself on him. All but forced herself on him. It meant nothing that she'd been angry and insulted and aroused all at once. Why if a man had behaved as she had, Camilla would have been first in line to condemn him as a brute and a barbarian.

She'd made him kiss her, taking advantage of the situation and her physical advantage. That was unconscionable. (82)

And, as she adds in her apology to him, "A sexual act of any kind must be mutual or it's harassment. Worst, molestation" (86). Of course, the hero's response is to initiate a punishing kiss of his own:

It was an assault, a glorious one that made her weak-kneed, light-headed and hot-blooded all at once. Even as she started to sway toward him, he gave her a light shove. Stepped back.

"There, that clears the slate," he said.  (86)

While I think romance readers are probably a lot less likely to tolerate abusive, sexist behaviour from their heroes than they once were, there are clearly times when the use of force is portrayed as sexy. There is much more recognition, though, of how problematic its use can be. And perhaps that's why, just to be on the safe(word) side, a modern hero is more likely to want to have a signed contract before he initiates any punishing.

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Johnson-Kurek, Rosemary E. "Leading Us into Temptation: The Language of Sex and the Power of Love." Romantic Conventions. Ed. Anne K. Kaler and Rosemary Johnson-Kurek. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1999. 113-48.

Roberts, Nora. Cordina's Crown Jewel. New York, NY: Silhouette, 2002.