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Romance Novels to Read During the Age of #MeToo
#MeToo is challenging mainstream society to critically examine long-held assumptions about sexual scripts and femme pleasure.
By Michelle Carroll
Lately it feels like it’s nearly impossible to go a single day without hearing a viral story of sexual violence. And of course, this is a good thing. Finally the pain and shame that was previously whispered to friends and confidantes is being taken seriously by popular media.
The #MeToo movement’s goal is to promote widespread culture change—from abolishing violent sexual scripts accepted by our cultural consciousness to deliberately creating space to talk openly about healthy sex, affirmative consent, and respecting boundaries. In the short term, their work is to make sure that survivors who come forward are not only believed, but supported. However, the engines of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements is the pain and trauma of women, and unfortunately there is nearly an infinite supply of sexual trauma in our communities.
half the women you know have been forced to relive some of the worst traumas of their lives on loop for the past month so idk maybe buy a coffee soon for a woman you care about
— rachel claire (@rachie_claire) November 10, 2017
But what about the survivors and victims among us who want to read something else? The 24/7 news cycle focused on victimization does not help us feel sexy or safe. Even before #MeToo, dating and sex were fraught with minefields (especially if cisgender men are your jam). Healthy, fulfilling sex was a goal that one worked towards, not the inevitable conclusion of a Friday night at a local bar or dance club. We deserve fun, exciting, hot, steamy, sexy time too! In my experience, the only place to get consistently consensual sex with a diverse array of communicative people is from a romance novel.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that romance novels get a bad rap in popular culture. Literary critics and general readers imagine romance novel readers and writers as sexually repressed, white, suburban moms. But, in reality, romance writers and readers are a diverse group of critical thinkers. Without fanfare, a small legion of intersectional feminist romance novels has burst onto the market, reinvigorating a genre long grown stale by the domination of white, cisgender women authors.
The romance novel genre is deceptively large and complex, with specific tropes and rules that challenge authors to realize unique characters within the strict confines of their chosen genre. And of course, every novel must end with a happily ever after for the characters. There are subgenres for all preferences: contemporary romance novels, cowboy romance novels, regency romance novels, historical romance novels, sci-fi romance novels, fantasy romance novels. And there are tropes within each of these subgenres that define how the author will tell the story of falling in love.
Some popular examples in the genre are: the “(white) alpha hero” who uses his masculinity and white privilege to control the world around him, including, in some ways, his love interest; the “disguise” trope is when either one or both of the main characters pretends to be something they aren’t; “the fake engagement” trope is when the love interests agree to a fake engagement to circumvent some external problem but ultimately fall in love for real. Although a majority of romance novel subgenres are not predicated on violence against women or the attitudes that lead to violence against marginalized peoples and identities, it’s easy to replicate real world inequalities in romance novels if the author is not fully conscious of these lived realities.
I first started reading romance novels at 12-years-old. I remember hiding well-loved paperbacks with sexy covers from my mother, while simultaneously squirrelling away as many thrifted Regency romance novels as possible. Despite my burgeoning feminist mindset, I adored Regency-era stories. I lusted after wealthy Earl or Duke heroes whose sexual prowess is legendary amongst his peers and whose world is upended by a highly intellectual virgin ‘wallflower’ (read: awkward and unpopular woman). At 27, I realize that my romance novel preferences during high school say more about my own teen insecurities than about my current politics. And today, escaping to a literary world that operates by the same rules of toxic masculinity is unsatisfying at best and deeply harmful at worst. Luckily, a recent influx of authors who approach the genre through a political lens have taken the romance novel world by storm.
These new works subvert traditional romance novel genre tropes and actively challenge the white, cisgender, heteronormative patriarchal power dynamic that perpetuates the cultural conditions that lead to sexual violence in our communities (Now that’s my kind of happy ending!).
For a new reader interested in escaping real world toxic masculinity through the pages of a politically conscious romance novel, I recommend “Hamilton’s Battalion”. “Hamilton’s Battalion” seamlessly fuses a love of “Hamilton” the musical with realistic racially and ethnically diverse characters who happen to be queer. With novellas authored by powerhouse creators, Courtney Milan, Rose Lerner and Alyssa Cole, this collection of romance short stories offer readers a glimpse into the stories of people who were ignored by history—namely, anyone who is not a white man. “Hamilton’s Battalion” colorfully realizes an alternative history where people live outside the bonds of patriarchy and male power, to find fulfilling love and sex lives.
Enthusiastic Consent is Mandatory AND Sexy!!
Jennifer Weiner published an op-ed for the New York Times arguing that the romance novel genre has a plethora of affirmative consent examples. And she’s not wrong, some romance novels have depicted enthusiastic consent. But for every example of clear consent, romance readers previously had to wade through hundreds of forced kisses or wide-eyed virgin brides. Survivors of sexual violence aren’t interested in playing this game of roulette. Walking unaware into a romance novel that doesn’t base its romance on enthusiastic, affirmative consent is like stumbling upon an unexpected #MeToo testimonial. Thankfully, there is a new diverse group of romance writers who are building their novels around multiple examples of enthusiastic consent and healthy communication between partners.
It’s impossible to analyze the feminist trend in romance without acknowledging the incredible oeuvre of Alisha Rai. Rai is a woman of color who is carving out space for herself and other romance writers of color in the overwhelmingly white dominated publishing industry. Rai’s contemporary romance novels follow the journeys of diverse characters like the stories of recently immigrated Japanese-Americans or love interests who are living with depression (“Hate to Want You”) or childhood abuse (“Bet On Me”). Her characters are fully realized people with thoughtful, inclusive backstories,and who also have hot, steamy, consensual sex.
I am aghast at the people trolling me with BUT CONSENT WILL MAKE LIFE UNSEXY.
If you’re so stumped on how affirmative, verbal consent can make sex sexy, here is like, one of a billion examples I can think of. pic.twitter.com/YJO1G5UvZD
— Alisha Rai (@AlishaRai) January 15, 2018
Interested in going back in time but hate how everyone but white men were treated? You absolutely must acquaint yourself with author Alyssa Cole. A woman of color, Cole is an incredibly accomplished author whose romance novels challenge white supremacy and the limits of white allyship. Start with “An Extraordinary Union”, the first in her “A Loyal League” series, where Cole introduces her readers to a former slave who willingly re-enters slavery to take down the Confederacy. Cole’s books bring together meticulous research with beautiful descriptions of honest communication between two characters wrestling with their love and attraction within a supremely violent political structure.
Do you want to read a novel about how a victim of sexual violence learns to feel comfortable with another partner? Familiarize yourself with Maya Rodale’s works. Her Scottish historical series follows the stories of women with disabilities overcoming sexual trauma to find love. Her regency series also doesn’t shy away from men who take their partner’s trauma and pleasure seriously. I specifically recommend “What a Wallflower Wants”, the final book in her “Bad Boys and Wallflowers” series. In this sexy story, we meet Miss Prudence Merryweather, a young woman healing from a violent sexual assault and society’s willingness to ignore the violence of powerful, rich men (sound familiar?). Prudence’s hero not only believes Prudence, but also actively supports her healing. Rodale also cleverly subverts the typical heteronormative standards of sex by portraying other sexual activities, like mutual masturbation, as an intimate, consensual, sexual experience.
Want to read a realistic description of communication around consensual sex? Look no further than Courtney Milan’s “The Duchess War”. In this novel, Milan introduces her readers to a virgin Duke traumatized by his father’s history of violence and his wife, a world renowned chess player whose strategic mind rivals Machiavelli. After the consummation of their marriage both characters are underwhelmed by the experience. Milan upends decades of romance tropes with the following scene between her hero, Robert and heroine, Minnie:
So. One more romantic, idealized dream fallen prey to reality. No sense crying over that. And…it couldn’t always be like that for her, could it? He hoped not. He almost wished he had asked [his brother] for advice.
Beside him, Minnie turned to him. He still couldn’t look her in the eyes. Slowly, she set her hand on his arm. “I don’t wish to alarm you.” Her voice was a little cool; he tipped his head to one side and looked at her as best as he could in the failing light.
“What is it?”
“I think we were doing it wrong.”
When have you ever read a book where the female character confronts her partner about unsatisfying sex? This scene was incredibly radical for me because I have never read or seen a depiction of open communication after unsatisfying sex. If #MeToo is going to successfully demolish the dominant portrayal of sex as a pleasurable experience only for men, we need example scripts of how to openly discuss what gives us pleasure.
What are you waiting for?!
As more feminist and intersectional romance novels make their way into your local bookstore (or not so local, check out the only exclusively Romance Novel Bookstore in the country!), I encourage you to explore communities of emerging political romance lovers as well. Writer and black feminist Twitter-force, Ashley C. Ford, published a list of recommended romance novels based on her Brooklyn romance novel reading club. Buzzfeed published a collection of short interviews with romance novel writers. Bookriot has launched a romance focused podcast (When in Romance).
#MeToo is challenging mainstream society to critically examine long-held assumptions about sexual scripts and femme pleasure. Although most of society is struggling to accept affirmative consent as the standard for sexual intimacy, a number of romance authors are not. Feminist romance writers and readers are using the genre to create worlds in which marginalized peoples can find love, acceptance, and pleasure. Seriously, what are you waiting for? Start with Eve Pendle’s free feminist erotic short story and give romance novels a chance.
Author Bio: Michelle Carroll is an online feminist activist and co-founder of the NYC Feminist Action Network community. By day, she is the Director of Campus Projects for the New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault. You can follow her musings on @troy_tastic.
Featured Image: Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash