I Was Ravished by a Man Wearing a Cape and No Shirt – Elaina G. Smith
The greatest invention ever given to those of my persuasion was the e-reader. I couldn’t read romance novels in public (unless they had those ever-so-stealthy generic floral covers), but my Kindle allowed me to read romance novels wherever the fuck I wanted.
You haven’t known true freedom until you’re sitting and reading smut at work. Your coworker, who assumes you’re reading something literary, asks you a question, and you look up from reading about some incinerating cunnilingus, completely unfazed.
People often ask me about the appeal of romance novels.
In the beginning, I found romance novels strangely comforting because I knew how they’d end. In mysteries, the killer is caught; in fantasy, the evil wizard is defeated; and in romance, two people form a relationship that is guaranteed to last.
Romance novels—unlike other types of genre fiction—are maligned like no other type of book, however. They are porn, trash, smut, blah blah blah, yet made $1.438 billion in sales in 2012 (compare that to $470.5 million for literary fiction).8 Not to mention that the majority of romance novels are written by women. It is a form of literature dominated by women, controlled by women, bought by women, read by women and, ultimately, consumed and created by women.
In an article on romance novels and feminism in the Atlantic, Jessica Luther writes, “In a society that often wants to boil women’s sexual experiences into the polar opposites of purity or sluttiness, romance novels, even when we may as individuals judge their plots to be problematic, are the largest cultural space available for women to read about and imagine their own sexual fantasies.”9
Female sexual fantasies, I’ve realized, are often seen as absurd, treated with contempt and summarily dismissed. Society at large disparages female sexual fantasies as sentimental, meaningless fluff, while I’d argue male sexual fantasies are always treated with some degree of respect. Male sexual fantasies are the default; female fantasies are the outlier. Coupled with the assertion that women who read romance novels can’t tell fantasy from reality10—yet no one ever accuses men obsessed with sci-fi incapable of separating the two—and you have the makings of an entire genre pushed to the side for reasons flimsy and trite. Misogyny masked as respectability.
Thus, even if romance novels aren’t always progressive, they are worthy of study and even respect. “A genre centered on women, written primarily by women, and consumed mainly by women cannot be ignored because it can teach us about what women want,” Jessica Luther explains. “The very discussion about where women derive pleasure and why is a feminist project.”
8 Source: RWA.org
9 Source: The Atlantic
10 See “relationship psychologist Susan Quilliam’s 2011 article, wherein she asserts that women who read romances use fewer condoms and thus allow fantasy to endanger their own health. The article was quickly debunked. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books posted a thorough rebuttal here.
Elaina G. Smith received her MFA from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has been published in [PANK] and The Monarch Review. She was also the Managing Editor of the online literary magazine Revolution House. She currently lives on the Kansas side of Kansas City with her collection of cats.