A "Recreational" not a "Companionate" Sexual Ethic: (11 - Victoria Ong): Women and Erotic Fiction, ed. Kristen Phillips

By Laura Vivanco on Monday, 28 December, 2015

One aspect of Ong's essay which I found particularly interesting, because of its implications for the popular romance novel (and especially the erotic romance sub-genre) is that she mentions

Christine Overall's analysis of identity and sexual relating in "Monogamy, Nonmonogamy and Identity" (1988). Overall argues that "[t]he convention of sexual relating, outside of paid work, is that in that context the woman expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" (p. 8). As such, a sexual relationship becomes a form of chosen vulnerability. This convention of connecting identity with sexual relating is subverted in the conventions of sex work. Overall writes that sex workers structure sexual relating differently and "define themselves by reference to the paid labour they perform rather than by reference to the men with whom they interact and usually choose not to be vulnerable, self-expressive, or genuinely open" (p.9). (Ong 211, emphasis added)

One definition of "erotic romance" is:

stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn’t be removed without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT to be an erotic romance. (Day)

Sex can presumably only be "an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development" if, at some point (perhaps not in initial encounters but certainly in later ones) the heroine "expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" while engaged in sex with the other protagonist(s). Indeed, if the narrative is constructed primarily via sex scenes, then the sex must, perhaps, be deemed much more meaningful in, and important to, a relationship than in romances which show the development of the relationship via other interactions.

Perhaps this is one reason why Amanda, a reviewer at the romance blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books, has stated that "my experience is, I have yet to be mirrored, or, or even my viewpoints on sex as a woman in the twenty-first century have yet to be mirrored in a romance that I’ve read". Amanda has:

compartmentalized sex and intimacy –

Amanda:  Yes.

Sarah:  – into a very convenient option where if you would like to have sex, that’s a thing that happens, and then it’s over and you can go do your other things.  It’s not something that has to be built on a relationship.

Amanda:  It’s like a chore that, you know, like, I tick off my to-do list.

Sarah:  But it’s a nice chore.

Amanda:  It’s a, it can be a very nice chore. (Wendell)

Amanda will also

nickname the people that you have Tinder conversations with.

Amanda:  I do.  I do nickname them.

Sarah:  So it’s almost like making them characters.

It seems as though Amanda is creating a narrative of her sex life which contains nicknamed male characters and differs noticeably in its plot from that of a romance novel. Perhaps it more closely resembles texts like Belle de Jour (Dr Brooke Magnanti)'s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl which, in foregrounding

modern womanhood [...] humorously and light-heartedly as the texts chronicle protagonists' cosmopolitan lifestyles and their efforts to navigate work life and their personal relationships [make the] enjoyment and pleasure of sex a major theme [...]. These texts align with contemporary chick lit. (Ong 204)

Their emergence, and the life-styles they describe, have perhaps been

facilitated by the emergence of new paradigms of family and community [...] that [...] has resulted in isolable individuals with profoundly transformed models of sexuality, new configurations of intimate life and new erotic dispositions: "[b]oth the traditional 'procreative' and the modern 'companionate' models of sexuality are increasingly being supplanted by what sociologist Edward Laumann and his colleagues have referred to as a 'recreational' sexual ethic" [...].

This recreational sexual ethic is premised upon the depth of physical sensation and emotionally bounded erotic exchange [...]. The authenticity of recreational sex is bounded in the sense that the emotions of erotic exchanges are delimited to their discrete episodes and sex is free of lingering emotional attachments. (Ong 209)

I have the impression that contemporary popular romance (generally) expresses a commitment to the 'companionate' model of sexuality and the view that sex has, or should ideally have, a strong emotional component which, unlike "bounded authenticity", continues to exist long after the sexual encounter is over.

That said, neither Amanda nor Belle de Jour are completely unemotionally involved during sexal interactions. Amanda clarifies that:

sometimes the guys that I find to be really attractive and really pretty are dumb as a box of rocks, and I can’t.  Like, if there’s a spelling mistake in your profile or you can’t string together a sentence with proper grammar and punctuation, I’m not –

Sarah:  You’re not interested.

Amanda:  Yeah, ‘cause I’m not, I’m not emotionally stimulated to carry on a conversation with you.

Sarah:  Right, so it’s not just, hey, you’re pretty, let’s bang.  There are other things at work in creating the connection that you’re looking for.

Amanda:  Yes.  Even though if it’s not, like, a love connection, there’s definitely, there has to be some kind of conversational connection first.

Ong's analysis of Belle's sexual interactions with clients similarly reveals a need for some kind of emotional connection. In one of the two

client interactions where they are uninterested in bounded authenticity and seek only sexual gratification [...the fact that] he [the client] remains unshakeable and disinterested in her efforts to create intimacy or eroticism in the session evidently unnerves Belle. [...] In these two entries, Belle's narrative voice is serious and flat, in stark contrast to her usual light-heartedness. Since humor denotes her ability to process her emotions and indicates her self-composure, the grave tone of these entries suggests that she is unable to fully own these experiences in her reframing of them. She is impacted deeply because her provision of bounded authenticity enables her to find her work meaningful, and their disinterest in bounded authenticity means she is unable to find work meaningful in these bookings. In addition, their disinterest in intimacy and blunt usage of her for their sexual needs removes the distinction of her brand of "meaningful" sex work to that of the merely physical service of street-based workers. (221-22)

-----

Day, Sylvia. "What is Erotic Romance?"

Ong, Victoria. "Selling Authentic Sex: Working Through Identity in Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 204-24.

Wendell, Sarah. "172. Tinder, Sex, Romance, and Relationships: A Frank Discussion of Sexuality with Amanda". 18 December 2015.

Nu (not verified)

Monday, 28 December, 2015

I think the significance and somberness of every relationship element depicted in romances, right down to the sex, leads to an impression of permanence, and that's the appeal for readers. The characters have such a profound love there's no possibility of an end. But I suppose more drama, angst, or intensity isn't necessarily more lasting. Also, of course, different readers have different views of sex and may prefer to read one or the other model.

different readers have different views of sex and may prefer to read one or the other model

Yes, I'm sure you're right. As far as I'm concerned, if there are no sex scenes, I'll just assume that the protagonists' sex-life is/will be fine. What I really want to see the protagonists demonstrate is compatibility in their religious/moral and political beliefs and their goals in life. Those are things which will help me believe that the protagonists really are headed for a happily-ever-after.

However, if someone believes that a "woman expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" during sex then, logically, they'd give sex scenes a very high priority.

Another idea to throw into the mix is Jodi McAlister's argument that:

the dominant paradigm of the romance novel is what I have termed ‘compulsory demisexuality’. Someone who is demisexual is unable to experience sexual attraction to someone with whom they do not share an emotional bond. Someone who is actually demisexual can experience sexual attraction to and pleasure with a number of partners, provided they have an emotional connection to them. In the romance novel, however, the insistence on the equation of a long term monogamous bond with a happy ending means that this demisexuality intersects with a kind of compulsory monogamy. The One True Love narrative creates a world where sex, love, and pleasure are tightly linked. Compulsory demisexuality means that the space in which hero and heroine can experience sexual pleasure is limited. Their pleasurable world contains only the two of them.

It's as though great sex either creates, or indicates that there's a pre-existing, bond between the protagonists which guarantees their happy ending. I find that implausible, though I can see the appeal of something guaranteeing the happy ending (in romances which aren't paranormals and so can't use the "fated mate" plot).

Nu (not verified)

Tuesday, 29 December, 2015

Well, I don't think one has to believe that a woman "expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" during sex to believe that sexuality can be an important component of a person or relationship and not necessarily sympatico because the rest is, although I agree other components are important to conveying a believable HEA too. I do agree it's a little strange and worrying when the leads' "pleasurable world contains only the two of them." It does seem to imply that the less men that the female lead has met on the way to her One True Love the better and the less tarnished she'll be. I can't think of novels where I've seen this other than historicals though.

"Pre-existing" is a good point, in that a lot of these scenes suggest that the lovers are in sync as lovers of a few years might be. I guess that's the fantasy. Personally, I'd rather read a male lead considerate and eager to learn, lol.

It does seem to imply that the less men that the female lead has met on the way to her One True Love the better and the less tarnished she'll be. I can't think of novels where I've seen this other than historicals though.

There are still a lot of virgin heroines in the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Modern line, I think. It's hard to miss them because it's so often a key word in the title. I'm not so sure about other Harlequin lines, or other contemporaries in general, because it's not something I either actively look for or avoid and so it doesn't tend to register that much with me.

sexuality can be an important component of a person or relationship and not necessarily sympatico because the rest is

Yes, of course. But as long as the protagonists are obviously attracted to each other, it's something I'm happy to assume works out for them even if I don't see it in explicit detail. Also, scenes which stop at the bedroom door and then resume the next morning let you know that things have been working fine in that department without the need for a detailed account which, in any case, as you say, may not be realistic because "a lot of these scenes suggest that the lovers are in sync as lovers of a few years might be".

It's also partly about how readers relate to characters. In my case, if the characters feel real, at some level I don't want to know more about their lives than I would if they were friends, and I wouldn't ever expect to know intimate details about my friends' sex lives. I'm sure other people relate to characters differently (e.g. they may insert themselves into the story) and/or would discuss their sex lives with their friends.