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The Political Uses of Lesbian Romance Fiction: Reading Patrick Califia’s Macho Sluts as a Response to 1980s Anti-Pornography Feminism
by Carolyn Bronstein

In 1988, the author and political activist Patrick Califia published Macho Sluts, the first collection of sadomasochism-themed short fiction to provide visibility and erotic legitimacy for the modern lesbian leather community.[1] Offering a vivid portrait of the discos, sex clubs, and bars that nurtured the Bay Area’s lesbian SM scene, Macho Sluts revealed a complex and little-known sexual subculture, and presented a loving and sympathetic account of lesbian SM sexual desire. Califia’s goals in writing Macho Sluts were [End Page 1] to celebrate key aspects of lesbian SM erotic behavior, expectation, and ritual, and to provide an emotionally satisfying and sexually thrilling resource for lesbians who rarely saw their romantic desires validated.  He also intended the book to serve as a “recruitment poster” (2009, 52) to inform and thus attract more people to SM, which consists of sexually pleasurable behavior between consenting adults involving an exchange of power through dominant and submissive partner roles, and often includes bondage, flagellation, and the use of blindfolds and restraints.  Macho Sluts has been praised for its raw eroticism, as well as for demystifying the leather community’s practices for the uninitiated reader.

Califia’s fiction has political, sexual, and literary significance.  His stories subvert the codes and conventions of traditional romance, destabilizing the centrality of heterosexual institutions like courtship and marriage, and queering the genre for contemporary readers. Macho Sluts is replete with characters who abandon gender and sexual norms, who seek sex with multiple partners as opposed to a singular Byronic hero, and who reject betrothal, marriage, and childbearing as life’s highest goals.  Yet, these modern adaptations do not impede the traditional, romantic journey of Califia’s protagonists from “a state of unfreedom to one of freedom,” as Pamela Regis has described the typical progression of characters within the romance novel (30).  Rather, the recognition and fulfillment of a character’s deepest sexual and human needs through the practice of SM enable her to overcome internal and societal barriers that have blocked her path to happiness.  Regis argues that the female protagonist in a romance novel “rejects various encumbrances imposed by the old society to arrive at a place where society stops hindering her” (30).  Califia’s protagonists confront personal demons around social expectations of gendered behavior and legitimate desire.  They challenge the deeply ingrained ideological structures of heterosexuality derived from “old society” to arrive at a new place “where society stops hindering her” and constraining her ways of being.

In this study, I offer the historical background necessary for an informed analytic reading of Macho Sluts.  I provide the context for literary scholars, and romance scholars in particular, to evaluate the particular political, sexual and social moment that led Califia to write this collection of stories, and to gain insight into the ways that lesbian SM romance invigorates and expands the romance genre. I argue that his writing ought to be interpreted through the lens of the American feminist sex wars of the 1980s, especially the contentious anti-pornography debates.  Macho Sluts offered readers a window into the marginalized world of lesbian SM, and served as a public coming out for the embattled lesbian leather community: a precursor to the mainstreaming of heterosexual BDSM visible in E.L. James’ popular erotic trilogy, 50 Shades of Grey, but one which offered a far more radical challenge to institutionalized norms of both gender and genre. The article offers a biographical account of Califia, including his role in the history of the founding of the influential Bay Area lesbian SM support group Samois, which became a primary target of anti-pornography activism; an overview of feminist controversy around the question of SM; and an analysis of Califia’s authorial intentions and major themes with regard to Macho Sluts.

I intend to show that Califia wrote the stories as a sexual and political intervention that contested the anti-pornography movement’s characterization of lesbian SM as a form of sexual violence that reproduced and glorified patriarchal relations, and which claimed a space of greater freedom for sexual variation and gender variance.  In so doing, he invited readers to engage in openly political activity, aligning themselves with characters who not only lived outside the orthodoxies of heterosexuality and state-sanctioned sexual activity, [End Page 2] but who also rejected dominant versions of lesbian feminist sexual behavior.  Califia used the romance genre, simultaneously leaning on and destabilizing it, to create narratives that showed readers that they could disrupt gender and sexual norms, whether as full-fledged participants in SM or as individuals whose involvement extended only so far as reading SM fiction.  From Califia’s perspective, both groups were comprised of gender warriors: gender and sexual norms could only remain norms if performed continuously, left unchallenged.  The act of reading Macho Sluts constituted a disruption, a first step toward unmasking hegemonic gendered patterns of behavior and social expectation.  Reading was a pathway to discovering an alternative way of living, and to bringing a marginalized sexuality out of the shadows.  “[I]f enough of us speak out about our dreams and obsessions,” Califia encourages in the introduction to Macho Sluts, “a body of genuine knowledge can accumulate, and make all of us feel less crazy and less alone with what we cannot live without” (57).   Writing Macho Sluts was Califia’s way of voicing his sexual truths and political demands, and in turn, the collection invited readers to reconsider the complexities of their own sexual desires, and to reappropriate cultural orthodoxies like romantic love.

By focusing on Macho Sluts as a work of lesbian SM romance fiction, the article also begins to address the dearth of critical attention to this subgenre, even by authors explicitly studying lesbian romance, such as Phyllis M. Betz (2009) and Bonnie Zimmerman (1990).  In a review of Zimmerman’s survey of post-Stonewall fiction, The Safe Sea of Women: Lesbian Fiction from 1969-1989, Maida Tilchen (1991) noted with dismay that Zimmerman dismissed works of lesbian SM fiction entirely, creating “a censorious chill” (7).  Tilchen found this “grating” (7) for a work that claimed to be both a chronological and comprehensive survey of the genre.  Furthermore, Tilchen argued that the omission was damaging to writers at the margins of lesbian literature, authors who were already struggling for inclusion and visibility.  Zimmerman devoted just two sentences to lesbian SM romance, noting that advocates of SM and role-playing were “sexual outlaws” (223).  In providing historical context for the authorial intent behind Macho Sluts, this manuscript invites a reconsideration of the critical role that lesbian SM romance plays in challenging gender norms and helping women discover alternative visions of romance.

The Social Function of Lesbian Romance Fiction

The act of reading popular romance fiction offers readers vicarious emotional and sexual experiences, and it may inspire behavioral change, making the genre a potential vehicle for erotic and political transformation (Radway 1980; Crusie 1997).  As Jennifer Crusie points out in “Romancing Reality: The Power of Romance Fiction to Reinforce and Re-Vision the Real,” romance fiction can be eye-opening, revealing that many of the “truths” that “societal ideologies” have foisted on women about how they should feel and behave are actually lies (92). Lesbian romance fiction has radical potential in that it can represent a diverse range of characters who respond to life and love in ways that defy heterosexual convention (Lynch, Sternglantz and Barot 2012).  In an evaluation of Crusie’s essay, literary theorist Tricia Zakreski adds that romance fiction can effectively challenge “essentialist [End Page 3] notions” that exist within patriarchal society about “what a woman should do, how she should think, and what she should be interested in” (Zakreski 2012).

In her study of lesbian romance novels, Betz argues that the genre supports the lesbian community by reflecting the diverse cultural, social, and emotional interests of its members.  Lesbian readers want to see their desires given “a recognizable and honest representation” within romance fiction (2).  The lesbian romance novel can challenge the limited, stock portrayals of lesbians, such as the burly, mannish butch, and the short-haired, androgynous, womyn’s music festival lesbian.  Readers have access to diverse characters whose experiences may resonate with them personally, such as Laura Kasdan in Maggie Ryan’s The Deal (2001), a prominent broadcast journalist who has substituted her professional goals for any semblance of a satisfying personal life.  Jennifer Moreland, the protagonist in Linda Hill’s Class Reunion (1997), rekindles an affair with her first female lover, rediscovering her at their high school reunion.  The lesbian romance novel thus serves an important ideological and personal function, presenting the reader with an opportunity to recognize herself, or other women in her life, in the mirror of fiction, and thereby to be affirmed in, or to freshly claim, identity and agency.

Another advantage of the romance genre for lesbian authors, Betz observes, has been its ability to respond quickly and accurately to social change.  Within the familiar frame of genre convention, authors can adapt their characters and plots to reflect contemporary social trends and allow readers to navigate political issues through the pages of romance fiction.  For example, author Gillian Hanscombe uses her 1982 novel Between Friends to explore the tensions in a romance between a lifelong lesbian, Meg, and Jane, a woman discovering lesbianism through the women’s movement. A similar set of tensions underwrites Valerie Miner’s Blood Sisters (also from 1982), in which Liz is the quintessential American cultural feminist who discovers her erotic attraction to women working side by side with lesbians on a feminist literary journal.  Lee Lynch’s Toothpick House (1983) explores a romance between a townie and a gownie, superimposing on this well-known dichotomy the characters of a working-class, taxi-driving bar lesbian and an upper-middle class, feminine Yale senior.  In so doing, she gave readers in the early 1980s a way to reflect on contemporary feminist debates about butch/femme identity, and class, just as more recent lesbian romance authors have used the form to explore and comment on the struggle for marriage equality, among other twenty-first century issues.

This representational variety and political potential was not lost on Califia, who realized through his experiences in the leather community that there was no such thing as a typical lesbian, even though a few lesbian stereotypes were dominant.  “We came in all colors, classes, ages and physical (dis)abilities,” he writes. “This rich, complex body of interlocking social networks never got portrayed in print because, I believe, our writers were ashamed of us” (2000, xvi-xvii). In Macho Sluts, Califia presented not only the panoply of sexual and political experiences that were common to SM lesbians in the Bay Area scene, but also the diversity of the community. He offered a range of characters—from gay male police officers to a sixteen year old girl to a seasoned biker chick and her babe, to a bar butch, an experienced dominatrix, and a neophyte—enabling readers, some of whom were SM practitioners, some of whom were SM curious, and some of whom might have sought only the pleasure of reading sexually explicit content, to find a point of entry and connection. [End Page 4]

Lesbian romance authors have also used the romance genre to show progression in societal acceptance of gay lives.  They have moved their protagonists from positions of social isolation and despair, as in Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness (1928), to positions of social authority and power, as in Lynn Galli’s Wasted Heart (2006), which features four strong and successful lesbian characters: a district attorney for the state of Washington, a CEO of a software company, an FBI agent, and a former professional athlete.  Califia’s work also answers this call, but takes it one step further, going beyond the established “vanilla” lesbian seeking love and commitment in a monogamous relationship (e.g. Galli’s protagonist Austy is secretly in love with her best friend, Willa, who is married to another woman), to portray lesbian sadomasochists who mostly avoid or subvert the conventions of monogamy.  In Macho Sluts, there are fewer traditionally happy pair-bonded endings than one expects to encounter in lesbian romance novels—reviewer Shannon Holcomb notes wryly that Califia’s story “Jessie” does not end with a U-Haul rental—but the protagonists enjoy loving and supportive (though not necessarily exclusive or long-term) relationships.  In writing alternate—but still happy—endings, a prerequisite of the romance genre per Pamela Regis’s analysis, Califia addressed readers’ desires for the pursuit of love, broadly defined.  Suzanne Juhasz writes that favorable outcomes in lesbian romance are very important, because the “foremost fantasy” that motivates people to read the genre is confirmation that “a person could be in such a way as to function usefully and satisfiedly in the life that she lives” (74, emphasis in original). In particular, Macho Sluts challenged feminist dogma that characterized SM relationships as inherently damaging, rooted in a power dynamic that produced inequality, and offered a range of (mostly) sympathetic characters to inspire and support readers.

Anna Mills, writing in The Lesbian Review of Books, describes the effect of putting lesbians at the center of their own stories as akin to offering a lifeline.  Lesbians, she argues, are victims of gender oppression, told by storybooks, television, movies, and other manifestations of popular culture from childhood onward that the correct and proper form of sexual love takes place between a man and a woman.  For Mills, the reason to read lesbian romance novels is “survival,” for nourishing stories that help readers believe that love, sex, relationships, and happiness are within their reach (7).  In a review of nine lesbian romances written in the decade following the publication of Macho Sluts, Mills notes that the heroines are not always sure of their path, or making all the right choices, but “they are always on the road to knowing themselves, communicating, and trusting” (14).  Like Crusie, Mills defends romance fiction as reinforcing a sense of self-worth in readers and validating women’s desires.

Califia too sought “survival” in the act of writing erotic fiction.  He began writing and “making noise” in order to find like-minded others and “to develop a community in which to thrive” (Holcomb 8).  He recognized the potential for fiction to serve as a site of radical critique and knew that it could offer a supportive, even transformational, space for readers struggling against sexual orthodoxy and the social constraints of gender, looking for another way to live and to be sexual.  He wrote his community and his sexuality into visibility; his pen was his sword throughout the feminist sex wars.  “I write because I have to,” he has said, “because it is all I know, because it is my truth, because I am compelled, because I am driven to make the world acknowledge that women like me exist, and we possess a dangerous wisdom” (1995, 11).  He was determined to share that wisdom—the mutability of gender and sexual norms in the hands of those willing to unravel them—and [End Page 5] to offer an honest portrayal of the lesbian SM community for its practitioners and for outsiders who were interested to learn more.  Califia recognized that without better depictions, the leather community was “too easily left to others to label as a pathology or social aberration,” as Mark Thompson writes of such silence in the introduction to his anthology, Leatherfolk (xiii).  Califia used the genre and codes of romance fiction to create Macho Sluts as a space where readers could experience, vicariously or otherwise, romantic and sexual fulfillment, and where they could negotiate their own potential affiliation with the SM community.

Patrick Califia: Author, Activist and Lesbian SM Advocate

Patrick Califia is a bisexual trans man, a psychotherapist, and a leading advocate for sexual diversity and the erotic rights of marginalized sexual communities.  He is the author or editor of more than twenty foundational books on radical sexual culture, such as Public Sex (1994/2000) and Speaking Sex to Power (2001); lesbian BDSM safety and how-to manuals, such as Sapphistry (1980) and The Lesbian S/M Safety Manual (1988); political essays on sexuality, long-running sex advice columns in the national gay and lesbian news magazine, The Advocate, and the lesbian magazine, Girlfriends; the poetry collection Diesel Fuel (1998); collections of erotic short fiction for the lesbian leather community, such as Macho Sluts (1988), Melting Point (1993) and No Mercy (2000); and BDSM-themed romance novels including Doc and Fluff: The Distopian Tale of a Girl, and Her Biker (1990). Califia describes this body of work as “pornographic, political and educational” (Califia 2000, xiii) and it is a major aspect of his contribution to sexual radicalism.

Prior to transitioning genders in the mid-1990s, Califia lived as a woman and lesbian and was known as Pat. From the early 1970s onward, he was a high-profile Bay Area lesbian rights activist and SM educator, and he co-founded the historically significant lesbian support group, Samois, in 1978 with radical sex activist and author Gayle Rubin (Bronstein 140-141). Over the course of the next twenty years, Califia established himself as a leading gender critic with an outsider’s perspective on marriage, the family, heterosexuality, and sexual relationships. In his mid-forties, facing the onset of menopause and a physician’s recommendation that he begin female hormone replacement therapy, Califia decided that the moment had arrived to deal with the gender dysphoria issues that had plagued him since childhood.  He changed his name to Patrick and began taking testosterone to support gender reassignment (Marech “Radical Transformation”).  In recent years, Califia has described this path as bringing a greater sense of “physical, sexual and spiritual congruency” to his life (2000, x).

Califia had a conservative Christian upbringing as the child of Mormons living in Salt Lake City. Through his childhood experiences, he developed a missionary’s worldview.  In an interview published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Califia credited his parents’ religious observance for instilling in him the belief that he was morally obligated to give voice to his convictions.  “One of the primary tenets of Mormonism is that if the truth has been revealed to you and you don’t speak out,” he said, “you are culpable for any wrongs that are committed in those realms of life” (Marech “Radical Transformation”).  From this beginning, one can see the origins of Califia’s insistence on speaking truth to power.  He felt [End Page 6] obliged to preach about the injustice and suffering created by sexual repression, and the ways that society forced people to quell natural sexual desires, resulting in alienation from their own bodies and psychosexual truths.

Califia came out as a lesbian in 1971 while attending the University of Utah, a declaration that prompted his parents to commit him to a mental institution.  He suffered a nervous breakdown, dropped out of college, and broke away to become involved in radical causes, including the women’s liberation movement and activism against the war in Vietnam.  He moved to San Francisco in 1973 and began working as a writer for Sisters, the magazine of the San Francisco chapter of the lesbian advocacy group, the Daughters of Bilitis, and became involved with the lesbian separatist movement (Califia 1980).  During this early period, Califia began building a reputation as an activist focused on lesbian rights, committed to the principle that sexuality has an almost infinite capacity to empower people and improve their lives.

By 1975, Califia was involved with a small group of lesbian feminists in the Bay Area who were beginning to discuss their desire around SM.  Barbara Ruth published “Cathexis” that year in Hera, subsequently reprinted in The Lesbian Tide, the first article that asserted the compatibility of feminism and lesbian SM.  At the time of Ruth’s article, the gay male community was open to SM, and leather bars and biker culture were visible in major cities like San Francisco and New York.  But the lesbian SM community remained deeply closeted, and Ruth’s essay sent a shockwave through the women’s movement.  Califia credited that article for challenging “other S/M dykes to begin taking the women’s movement’s repression of their sexuality a little more seriously” (Califia 1982, 244).  Ruth endorsed SM as a practice that empowered her to be sexual with other women, free of male control, making up their own rituals, “scripting as well as starring in them” (Ruth 11).  SM freed her to ignore gendered expectations about how a woman was supposed to behave in courtship matters, and to be boldly sexual instead.  In these early discussions of SM, Califia recounts, women were for the first time confronting real women—“sisters”—as sadomasochists, not dealing abstractly with literary figures or patient case studies from the sexological literature, and this made the emerging controversy more intense (1982, 244).

Califia was a central actor in these conversations, and he was active in early Bay Area gatherings of women interested in SM.  He attended a 1976 conference on Women’s Health and Healing at Los Angeles City College and participated in a workshop with twelve women called “Healthy Questions About S/M.”  Califia remembers the criticism and scorn directed at participants, leaving them huddling together in the workshop room, “feeling threatened and scared” (1982, 245).  One opponent stormed into the workshop and delivered an angry speech about the connections she saw among patriarchy, rape and SM.  The meeting was a turning point for Califia, who began to acknowledge and accept his SM desires, and to realize that he would have to become an activist to protect his erotic rights.  The meeting left him feeling like a “terrified and titillated neophyte” hearing others’ SM fantasies which “fell on me like rain on the desert” (1982, 245).  He understood for the first time that these desires were part of his authentic sexuality and he believed that he could pursue them in a way that was compatible with feminism and that upheld feminist values of choice and freedom.  When he returned to San Francisco after the conference, he began the process of coming out to his friends as a sadomasochist, looking for sexual partners and support groups.  Reflecting on the conference, Califia believed that if twelve [End Page 7] others had endured hostility and humiliation to talk about SM, he would be able to find a community.

From 1975 to 1978, Califia and other SM lesbians in the Bay Area were loosely organized via support groups and welcoming gay leather bars.  Califia joined Cardea, an SM support group for women that was part of the Society of Janus, a primarily gay male SM educational organization founded in San Francisco in 1975.  He met some SM lesbians through Cardea, but most of the women identified as straight or bisexual, and most lesbians were not willing to join an SM organization primarily devoted to gay men.  According to Califia’s account of this time period in Coming to Power, Bay Area lesbians who were interested in SM at the end of 1977 were affiliated with the Society of Janus; with Cardea; with the Catacombs, a gay male fisting club that allowed women to attend parties; and with gay men’s leather bars.  San Francisco did not have a lesbian leather bar at this time, nor any public place with a reliable lesbian SM presence.

In June 1978, Califia and two friends, including author Gayle Rubin, decided to form a specifically lesbian SM support group.  By reaching out to their personal networks and hanging posters in the gay leather bars, the organizers attracted seventeen women to the first meeting.  They soon settled on dual foci of educational and political activities, and SM group sex parties in which members could participate.  Members hoped to support their own erotic lives while also responding to attacks on SM from the larger women’s movement.  Their purposes included circulating information on safe SM techniques and practices; developing lesbian feminist perspectives on SM; promoting positive discussion of SM; and creating a network for SM lesbians to build community, lessen isolation and stereotyping, and heighten their consciousness (Kaufmann 1980).

This group became known as Samois, the first lesbian feminist SM advocacy organization in the nation.  Its name was taken from the text of the 1954 French SM literary classic, The Story of O, by Pauline Réage; Samois was the estate owned by the lesbian dominatrix who pierced O and branded her.  Califia and the others sought a name that was connected to the heritage of lesbian SM, and they wanted to use something from The Story of O because anti-pornography feminists were trying to get the book removed from women’s bookstores and were picketing periodic theater screenings of the film adaptation, which had been produced in 1975.

Califia came out to the public as an SM lesbian in December 1979, a year and a half after the founding of Samois.  He published a graphic account of his life as an SM sadist, or top, replete with details about his dating habits and sexual routines, in the national gay and lesbian newspaper, The Advocate.  This was a turning point for Califia, a move that cost him some allies in the gay and lesbian movement who had not previously been aware of his affiliation with SM and could not accept it.  Califia recalls that he was “terrified” while writing the essay, “A Secret Side of Lesbian Sexuality,” suffering bouts of nausea and shaking that necessitated frequent rest breaks (2000, xiii).[2]  Once the issue of The Advocate hit newsstands, Califia could not bring himself to read his words in print for days, overcome by fear and the emotional impact of publishing something so intensely personal and dangerous.

Califia had two sets of reasons for disclosing the most intimate details of his sexual identity and behavior.  The first involved his desire to create greater awareness around the existence of Samois and the lesbian SM community, and to dispel myths about lesbian SM practice.  “Since our community depends on word-of-mouth and social networks, we have [End Page 8] to work very hard to keep it going,” he writes in the essay. “It’s a survival issue” (1979/2000, 159).   He wanted to reach out to other lesbians who were practicing SM, and he could no longer tolerate the self-hatred and shame that came from life in the SM closet.  Reflecting in later years on this decision, he expressed the sense of isolation and alienation that drove him to write his truth.  “I was tired of being alone,” he confesses, “and I knew there would never be a leatherdyke community if somebody didn’t announce that one already existed.  I figured if I was public enough about being into leathersex, either I would get squashed and my misery would be over, or other perverse girls would find me, and then I wouldn’t be so lonely” (2000, xiii).  Writing Macho Sluts was Califia’s way of expressing his sexual identity and his deep longing for connection with others who shared SM desires.

Califia’s second reason for coming out as a practitioner of lesbian SM had to do with burgeoning feminist anti-pornography politics, which were prominent in the San Francisco area in the late 1970s.  He was infuriated that the anti-pornography movement characterized lesbian SM as a form of violence against women, and focused on it as an object of protest.  He disclosed his identity as a means of fighting back, arguing that he could not remain silent while SM lesbians were persecuted.  “I don’t know how long it will take for other S/M people to get as angry as I am…” he wrote in The Advocate. “I don’t know how long we will tolerate the ‘feminism’ of women’s groups who believe that S/M and pornography are the same thing and claim that both cause violence against women” (1979/2000, 167).  Even at this early juncture, before SM became a major issue for the national women’s movement, Califia sensed the coming feminist sex wars, the divisions that would rise up between feminists who opposed pornography and SM and those who endorsed a wide range of sexual behavior.  “We should be wary of making broad statements about the worth or value of another lesbian’s sexual style, especially if it involves behavior we don’t understand or have never participated in,” he warns in his 1980 book Sapphistry, in a chapter devoted to “variations” within lesbianism.  “If we carefully consider all the different ways there are to be a lesbian, we must conclude that each sexual specialty is essential to the happiness of some lesbians” (1980, 107-108).  Califia would put this philosophy into action as he wrote Macho Sluts, recognizing the need for diverse lesbian romance to satisfy the full range of lesbian sexual desire.

Samois and WAVPM: The Context of Anti-Pornography Feminism

By the late 1970s, Califia and members of Samois were engaged in open combat with anti-pornography feminists, especially those affiliated with the Bay Area organization Women Against Violence in Pornography and Media (WAVPM).  Most of WAVPM’s members identified as lesbian feminists, a theoretical position that rejected forms of sexuality that perpetuated an unequal distribution of power between partners.  This included heterosexuality, as well as sadomasochism because of its dominant (master/sadist) and submissive (slave/masochist) roles.  They viewed aspects of SM, such as the infliction of physical pain and the use of psychological intimidation tactics, as reproducing the power imbalance fundamental to patriarchy.[3]  “We feel that S&M essentially involves one person voluntarily surrendering control…to another,” Deb [End Page 9] Friedman and Lois Yankowski wrote in Aegis, a feminist anti-violence journal.  “We could not accept as ‘healthy’ sexuality, the practice of willingly submitting to a condition similar to rape” (48).[4]  Poet and anti-pornography activist Audre Lorde also rejected SM as a feminist option.  “Even in play,” she insisted, “to affirm that the exertion of power over powerlessness is erotic, is empowering, is to set the emotional and social stage for the continuation of that relationship, politically, socially, and economically” (Lorde and Star 4).  Anti-pornography feminists insisted that SM lesbians were encouraging sexual objectification and through it, sexual violence, and were supporting sexist and racist behaviors.[5]

As advocates for female pleasure and power, Califia and members of Samois were troubled and angry that some lesbian feminists viewed their sexuality as oppressive.  Samois defended SM as healthy and liberating, arguing that it took place between consenting adults devoted to each other’s sexual pleasure; provided therapeutic and cathartic sexual release; and freed women to take on positions of power typically denied them in male-dominated society.  Gayle Rubin urged feminists to consider the importance of defending alternative sexual practices as a means of ensuring sexual freedom for all.  Foreshadowing key arguments in her influential 1984 essay, “Thinking Sex,” Rubin warned that valorizing certain types of sexual behavior would encourage the persecution of behaviors that fell outside the charmed circle of state-sanctioned, legitimate sex, which was heterosexual, marital and procreative.  This was especially important given the context of 1980s right-wing conservative political power, and she urged feminists to develop tolerant and expansive sexual politics.

In August 1978, WAVPM announced plans for its first national conference, Feminist Perspectives on Pornography, which would take place in San Francisco that fall.  Members of Samois wrote to WAVPM requesting permission to lead a conference workshop, but Califia and Rubin learned informally that organization leaders had no intention of exploring feminist dimensions of lesbian SM.  This shocked Samois members, some of whom were also members of WAVPM.  According to Califia, Samois members knew that WAVPM opposed heterosexual SM pornography, but they believed that WAVPM could and should have a “different, supportive position” on lesbian SM because many practitioners were lesbians within the women’s movement who regarded their sexual practice as consistent with feminist principles (1982, 253).  In November 1978, Califia and Rubin showed up at the WAVPM conference but were refused entry by WAVPM leaders.[6]

Following the conference, Samois began contacting WAVPM to initiate a conversation about the anti-pornography group’s position on SM.  First, Samois asked to see the WAVPM slideshow, “Abusive Images of Women in Mass Media and Pornography,” which was the organization’s community education program. WAVPM sent back a letter that asked Samois to justify the request.  After exchanging numerous letters and telephone calls, Califia recalls, WAVPM denied the request “because our group ‘glamourized violence against women,’” and because members of Samois might find the slideshow “erotic” (1982, 254).

Samois members were not deterred.  They attended slideshow presentations given to other community groups, and were dismayed and angry when they heard anti-pornography feminists describe consensual SM as violence against women.  Rubin responded to a slide that showed a woman tied up in SM bondage play juxtaposed with a photograph of a battered woman retrieved from a police file.  She found this “guilt-by- [End Page 10] association theory of pornography” to be “manipulative,” as the WAVPM presenter implied that the batterer had viewed this type of SM image in pornography and recreated it at home, resulting in real violence against a woman (English, Hollibaugh and Rubin, 133).  Rubin and other members of Samois were concerned that anti-pornography feminists were looking as outsiders at material produced for a particular sexual subculture with a particular set of conventions, and were claiming an authoritative interpretation.

WAVPM expanded its public critique of SM throughout this period.  On January 29, 1979, the organization picketed the privately owned UC Theatre in Berkeley, which was showing The Story of O.  Forty WAVPM members carried signs with slogans including “Who Says Pain is Erotic?” while chanting “The Story of O has got to go!”  WAVPM’s newsletter attacked the film for telling lies about women, namely that a woman would willingly wear a leather collar around her neck and endure whippings (Bronstein 286-292).  Intense anger and distrust developed between Samois and WAVPM at this juncture.  The SM lesbians were furious that anti-pornography feminists disparaged their sexuality, fearful that such criticism might jeopardize practitioners of SM and other marginalized sexual behaviors.

In July 1979, Samois sent a letter to Plexus, a Bay Area women’s newspaper, that laid out its case against WAVPM.  Samois challenged the anti-pornography organization’s characterization of SM as a practice that encouraged sexual violence.  Samois also asserted its right to call itself a feminist organization and rebuked WAVPM for portraying SM as anti-feminist and SM lesbians as traitors to the women’s movement.  Next, the group objected to WAVPM’s equation of SM with violence in its slideshow, emphasizing that images of SM in mainstream pornography produced for male consumers no more accurately reflected lesbian SM practice than images of lesbians in mainstream pornography reflected lesbianism.  Finally, Samois asked WAVPM to stop picketing The Story of O and clubs that welcomed SM patrons, and to acknowledge the SM community’s right to exist.

Plexus asked WAVPM to respond to the Samois letter.  The WAVPM reply was brief and did not directly address Samois’ major points.  The anti-pornography feminists rejected the Samois claim that lesbian SM sexual practices were consistent with feminism.  In an April 1980 WAVPM forum, founder Diana Russell confirmed the organization’s negative view of SM and groups like Samois who insisted upon its positive outcomes for women.  “Defending such behavior as healthy and compatible with feminism, even proselytizing in favor of it is about the most contra-feminist…stance that I can imagine,” Russell told the audience (Russell 13).

Two months after WAVPM’s response to Samois appeared in Plexus, Califia published his SM coming-out essay in The Advocate.  He warned that the anti-pornography movement’s restrictive new codes for “feminist” sexual behavior would limit female sexual agency and deny women the right to seek sexual pleasure on their own terms.  He described “the [anti-pornography] women’s groups, the political clones, the Dworkinites” as anti-sexual, and mocked their preferred sexual encounter as one of “holding hands, taking their shirts off and dancing in a circle.”  These “high priestesses of feminism” would surely fall asleep prior to orgasm, not wanting to participate in something so “male identified, objectifying, pornographic, noisy and undignified” (1979/2000, 161).  Califia feared that the movement’s ongoing attacks on SM would fuel the idea that sexual variations were shameful and dangerous for women. The anti-pornography movement expanded dramatically over the next decade, gaining real steam as activists Catharine [End Page 11] MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin sought to pass anti-pornography ordinances that made pornography, including SM images, actionable under the law as a violation of women’s civil rights.[7]  The battles between lesbian SM advocates and anti-pornography feminists intensified as well, becoming one of the hotly contested and divisive issues of the feminist sex wars.

Reading and Writing Macho Sluts

Beginning in the late 1970s, then, radical sex activists like Califia responded to the changes in the women’s movement and demanded that lesbianism be recognized as sexual, and as open to sexual variation, and not defined solely as a political stance associated with a commitment to women’s rights. As Lillian Faderman argues, Califia and others recognized that lesbians were doubly oppressed, first as women in a culture that denied them the freedom to explore an active, imaginative sexual life; and second as lesbians, constrained by a heterosexual society that had historically defined their sexuality as criminal and perverse.  But Califia also recognized a third constraint:  lesbian feminist standards that mandated a narrow range of permissible sexual behavior, focused on woman-to-woman mutuality and opposed to the genitally focused, orgasm-driven, penetrative sexuality associated with heterosexuality.  The power exchanges and pleasure-in-pain of SM sexuality were anathema to this sexually conservative formulation, and Califia feared a chilling effect that would keep SM-curious people at bay.  Fighting back, Califia produced fiction intended to persuade lesbians that it was their right to enjoy “the most imaginative and exciting sex their minds and bodies could construct” (Faderman 253).  Califia saw lesbian culture in the late 1970s and 1980s as sexually “impoverished,” and he feared that lesbians were so oppressed by heterosexual culture and by lesbian feminist conceptions of  appropriate sexuality that they were “almost unable to imagine what bold and brassy, peacock creatures we could be if we were free” (2009, 56).

To help readers imagine more freely, Califia wrote Macho Sluts, a tantalizing, challenging collection of erotic short fiction.  The eight stories in the collection were written between 1977 and 1985, years that correspond to the most intensive U.S. feminist anti-pornography movement activity, with its associated attack on SM.  The stories in Macho Sluts   linger on lush descriptions of pleasures, techniques, textures, and emotional and physical thrills, and they are “populated by women who are shameless in pursuing their own pleasure,” freed of the usual burdens of worry over reputation and number of sexual partners (Chapkis 39).  In order to write erotic fiction for lesbians that was as thrilling as he could muster, Califia pretended along the way that he would never publish the stories, so that he could push himself past any self-doubt or limit, but the goal of the connection was as public and political as it was intimate and self-exploratory.  As Califia puts it in the Foreword to a recent edition of the collection, directly addressing potential readers, “It’s all just fiction, fantasy, flat black ink on a white page.  But it could lead to touching—touching yourself, asking someone else to touch you, reaching for someone else’s skin and heart and mind.” (2009, 33).  In his own words, Macho Sluts was a “recruitment poster [for lesbian SM], as flashy and fast and seductively intimidating as I could make it” (2009, 52). [End Page 12]

As the phrase “seductively intimidating” suggests, the stories in Macho Sluts are not always easy to read.  They cross into such uncomfortable territory as incest, gang rape, and purposeful scarring of the body, often leaving the uninitiated reader wincing at the infliction of physical pain.  The stories range in subject matter from an intense one-night stand between SM lesbians Liz and Jessie, the latter a singer and bassist in a women’s rock band (“Jessie”); to a heavy SM vampire tale involving blood-sucking (“The Vampire”); to a “parody of Victorian pornography and a parody of grand opera” (2009, 389) involving the triad of Berenice, her daughter Clarissa, and their maid, Elise (“The Finishing School”).  In “The Surprise Party,” Califia presents Don, a gay highway patrolman, and his male partners Officer Mike and Officer Joe, who stop the lesbian protagonist on a routine traffic violation and proceed to cuff her hands behind her back and gang rape her through the night, penetrating every orifice and beating her black and blue. “The pain was lightning in the marrow of her bones,” Califia writes (312).  Califia’s work has been excluded from many academic appraisals of lesbian romance fiction; sexual exchanges that violate mainstream norms, and the relative lack (or narrative downplaying) of generic markers that link his work to “romance fiction” are likely explanations.

And yet, as communication scholar Lisa Henderson observes, the stories in Macho Sluts are “high-contact, otherworldly, and often deeply romantic”—arguably more romantic, or more intensely so, than the upbeat fiction featured in magazines like On Our Backs, which Henderson describes as “idyllic daytime reveries of lesbian narrators who exhibit themselves … to handsome telephone linewomen just outside the bedroom window” (511; my emphasis).  The stories play SM staples like bondage and whipping against more traditional expressions of tenderness, such as kissing and hugging, and many of the most physically brutal sexual scenes, including those with multiple partners, are framed within mutually nurturing and loving pair-bonded relationships. The gang-rape of “The Surprise Party” ends, for example, with the romantic revelation that the entire evening had been staged by the protagonist’s female lover and male friends as a wonderful birthday celebration crafted in honor of her deepest sexual fantasies.  In the collection’s centerpiece story, “The Calyx of Isis,” the character Alex arranges for her young lover, Roxanne, to be disciplined by a gang of six other “tough and experienced” SM dominatrices, pushed to the sexual and emotional brink to prove her love (Macho Sluts 152).  Alex’s inability to trust Roxanne’s love represents the “internal barrier” blocking their union and Roxanne’s successful completion of the tortuous SM scene brings about “the recognition” whereby Alex masters her own psyche and “sees the hero clearly and realizes her love” for that person (Regis 37).  In a striking twist on the “betrothal” convention of romance, Roxanne’s arduous test earns her Alex’s ring—or, more specifically, it earns her the ear, nipple and labia piercings that mark her as Alex’s slave:  a journey and an ending quite compatible with governing elements of the romance novel, and  perhaps a sly commentary on them.

Romance theorists Lynn Pearce and Gina Wisker have argued that romance fiction becomes truly subversive not when stories are retold with different players or a different plot (e.g. lesbian protagonists who do not marry), but when those stories separate sexual desire from cultural orthodoxies like heterosexuality and romantic courtship “in such a way that the operation of the orthodoxy is exposed and challenged” (1998, 2) [emphasis in original].  This mix of romance, exposure, and challenge lies at the heart of Macho Sluts, a collection whose stories do not simply differentiate sexual desire from romantic courtship, but go on to distinguish both of these from the orthodoxy of monogamy, heterosexual or [End Page 13] otherwise. This subversion of romantic convention is evident in Alex’s confession in “The Calyx of Isis.”  “It’s real hard for me to let myself go unless I know that the other person belongs to me,” she tells Tyre, the proprietor of a successful San Francisco lesbian sex club who arranges Roxanne’s SM trial-by-fire. “I know when most people say they want somebody to belong to them they mean they want to keep them all to themselves, but for me the real test of property is, can you give it away?” (152). Tyre herself is locked in conflict with an anti-pornography organization modeled on WAVPM, here called WIFE (Women for Images of Female Equality).  The acronym mocks what Califia regarded as WAVPM’s sexual conservatism, an ironically patriarchal tenor toward women’s sexuality which threatened to leave women trapped in a static binary, caught in a fixed view of male and female nature that denied them an opportunity to experience new subjectivities.  In this story, the kind of belonging that comprises true love can only be proved through acts that “expose and challenge” both heterosexual and lesbian orthodoxies.

Macho Sluts can thus be read, at least in part, as a tongue-in-cheek response to lesbian feminism, or at least to what Califia perceived as the anti-sexual, politically earnest and misguided majority in the movement.  Throughout the collection, he embedded subtle jabs that poked fun at lesbian feminists and anti-pornography activists, using humor to deflate their intimidating presence and their attacks on the lesbian SM community.  For the reader unfamiliar with the historical events that inspired Macho Sluts, these quips may go unnoticed.  However, they place the stories firmly in the context of 1970s and 1980s feminism.  In “The Finishing School,” the older top (Berenice) wonders if she is too exhausted to sexually satisfy the teenage bottom (Clarissa), who asks plaintively: “Will you take me into your bed tonight?” (2009, 124).  Finding her strength, Berenice seizes Clarissa by the hair and drags her close. She will not disappoint the sexually avid girl with a half-hearted performance, she thinks, because “they could not go like this, like a pair of simple-minded, medieval shepherdesses slipping hand-in-hand into the nearest patch of willows” (2009, 125).  Here, Califia echoes his Advocate description of the anti-orgasmic “high priestesses of feminism” for whom holding hands and dancing topless in a circle equaled sex.  In “The Calyx of Isis,” the lesbian sex club owner (Tyre) barks orders to her staff to “double my annual contribution to the ACLU,” the civil liberties organization that worked on behalf of pornographers’ free speech rights and against the MacKinnon-Dworkin anti-pornography ordinances.

Just as some feminists denounced SM for “colluding in shoring up this misogynistic heterosexuality,” so too did Califia see anti-pornography activists as victims of patriarchy (Barnard 265).  The stories in Macho Sluts respond to the major critiques of SM being offered in the period, steadily dismantling the arguments of critics who saw only violence, coercion, and the abuse of power.  Addressing power, for example, Califia does not deny that SM requires partners to assume dominant and submissive roles, and that a power differential exists in this arrangement just as it does in many heterosexual couplings.  But he shows through his fiction that a trusted lesbian SM relationship can allow women to understand the nature of power, and learn how to negotiate the conditions of power and powerlessness created by social structures like gender, race, and class.  In “The Hustler,” a dystopian story about a society governed by lesbian feminist principles, Califia shows us how state power and sexual orthodoxy are used to oppress those on the sexual fringe.  He presents a dominant lesbian street worker and a submissive jane who are jailed for having illegal public sex. Drawn to each other through sexual desire, the protagonists face a hostile [End Page 14] and controlling society that tries to prevent their union and block their path to freedom, per Regis’ (2003) analysis of romance.  Once released from jail, the lovers reunite in the alley where they were arrested and the hustler offers Califia’s version of vows: “I don’t love you.  But somebody is going to have to take care of you and show you what’s what.  If I slap you around a little, it’s to make sure you listen” (Macho Sluts 281). In the last line of the story, Califia invokes the romance genre’s betrothal convention: the hustler takes off her leather jacket and makes the jane put it on.  This is a deeply romantic ending, yet one in which Califia reminds us that those who dwell at the sexual margins can never walk off into the sunset to live happily ever after as the heterosexual protagonists of mainstream romance do.

Conclusion

Most accounts of Califia emphasize his connection with sexual freedom, rather than with romance.  The historian Lisa Sigel describes Califia as taking the basic women’s movement demand for control over one’s own body and pairing this with an uncompromising insistence on sexual pleasure to claim sexual liberation as a basic right.  This liberation included “the right to give and receive pleasure and pain, to choose gender and the symbolic framework of sexuality, and to discuss all aspects of sexuality in the public realm (46).”  Macho Sluts does indeed mount a rigorous defense of female sexual pleasure, sexual variation, and the rights of sexual minorities.  Califia filled the stories with intense erotic content, not only to thrill SM enthusiasts and tempt newcomers, but also to challenge the predominant focus of the women’s movement at that time on danger in the sexual exchange, especially women’s vulnerability to sexual violence. The stories of Macho Sluts eroticize danger, and they emphasize the necessity of risk in the effort to explore and satisfy sexual desire.  Again and again, Califia makes the political point that the ability to pursue one’s desires at will—even when those desires lead one into a shadowy netherworld—is an essential ingredient of human freedom.

As Pamela Regis has argued, however, a focus on freedom is also one of the key thematic features of the romance novel (16), and Macho Sluts can be read as a playful, self-conscious negotiation with the generic conventions of romance fiction and the complex cultural work that is done, as Radway and others have shown, in the act of romance reading.  Macho Sluts reveals erotic romance fiction, in particular, to be “a category severely under stress” (Pearce 536), given the pressure brought to bear by Califia and other authors who adapt the genre to delineate and materialize new communities and subjectivities for their readers.  The erotic presentation of the pleasures and rewards of SM in this collection are no more shocking than the book’s almost casual presentation of satisfying and sustaining relationships—monogamous and otherwise—among protagonists who refuse to conform to traditional gender norms and whose happy endings defy easy characterization.  Califia is justly seen as instrumental in creating the modern SM lesbian community and in providing support to women who sought to discover and embrace a new dimension of their sexual selves.  We should also recognize that he used a radical form of romance fiction as a building block in this equally radical real-world undertaking. [End Page 15]

Califia ends the Foreword to Macho Sluts with a group of teasing questions.  “Are you more afraid that you won’t have any fun, or that you’ll be thrilled to pieces?  Which is it?” he demands.  In the face of both fears, his advice is the same:  “Be bold.  Put yourself in my proverbial hands.  I promise I won’t drop you” (Macho Sluts, 33).  Just as he knew in the 1970s and ‘80s that there were very real risks involved in the practice and public defense of SM, Califia knows that there are risks involved in reading books like Macho Sluts and opening oneself up to dangerous desires.   In each case, however, the rewards of being bold prove worth the risks, not least because of the opportunities that emerge for community-building and for erotic / romantic connection.  Indeed, in lesbian and SM contexts, these two may be inextricable.  If the reader ends up “reaching for someone else’s skin and heart and mind” after finishing Macho Sluts (33), as Califia dares to dream, then the book’s courtship has been successful.  And if we move from “a state of unfreedom to one of freedom” (Regis, 30) by reading the volume, then the most important romance in Macho Sluts isn’t between two or more of its various protagonists.  It’s between Califia and us.


[1] As discussed later in the article, Califia is a bisexual trans man who transitioned genders in the mid-1990s.  Prior to transitioning, Califia lived as a woman and lesbian and was known as Pat.  When Califia first published Macho Sluts, he identified as a woman and a lesbian.  I am using the pronoun he to refer to Califia in this article to reflect Califia’s current gender identification.  Readers should be aware, however, that Califia was a female-identified member of the lesbian SM community at the time of writing the stories in the collection.

[2] Califia discusses the writing process in “Introduction: Or Is It Always Right to Rebel,” in Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex (2000).

[3] See, for example Jeffreys, 132-135.  For the most complete radical feminist analysis of SM, see Linden et al., eds., Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis.  For a detailed history of the relationship between Samois and WAVPM, and sex-positive feminism vs. anti-pornography feminism, see Bronstein, 2011.

[4] Lesbian feminists urged women to resist sadomasochistic thoughts and desires, even as they acknowledged that domination, control, and violence were so much a part of our cultural environment that they shaped women’s sexual fantasies. Responsible lesbians could not simply indulge these desires in the name of pleasure, but had to recognize the origins of those desires and the ways in which a celebration of submission and dominance perpetuated the inequalities and oppressions of a patriarchal society. On this point, see Ann Snitow’s exploration of how Harlequin romance novels use commonly experienced psychological and social elements in the daily lives of women to create their erotic pull. As Snitow describes it, Harlequins illustrate “the particular nature of the satisfactions we are all led to seek by the conditions of our culture” (247).

[5] Lynn Chancer argues that sadomasochism is “both sometimes a legitimate form of consensual activity and a practice that is often rendered especially attractive, maybe even predictably seductive, precisely because of its resonance with common experiences of our everyday lives.”  These common experiences include relationships with power differentials such as teacher/student, doctor/patient, employer/employee, and other everyday interactions that structure our lives.  See Chancer, 201-202.

[6] The history of the conflict between Samois and WAVPM is recounted in detail in Bronstein, chapter 9. [End Page 16]

[7] On the MacKinnon-Dworkin ordinances and their path to the Supreme Court in 1986, see Downs and Bronstein. [End Page 17]

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Dunn, Sara. “Voyages of the Valkyries: Recent Lesbian Pornographic Writing.” Feminist Review 34. Spring (1990): 161-70. Print.

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Faderman, Lillian.  Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Penguin, 1991.  Print.

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Galli, Lynn. Wasted Heart.  Parker, CO: Outskirts Press, 2006.  Print.

Henderson, Lisa.  “Lesbian Pornography: Cultural Transgression and Sexual Demystification.”  The Columbia Reader on Lesbians and Gay Men in Media, Society, [End Page 18] and Politics.  Eds. Larry Gross and James D. Woods.  New  York: Columbia University Press, 1999.  506-516. Print.

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Review: Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think About Marrying

As romance readers and scholars both know, the sexual ethos of the popular romance novel has changed over the years. Regnerus and Uecker’s book Premarital Sex in America (2011) provides a sociological context for some of those changes. Exploring the ways in which sexuality has changed and how it functions in contemporary American society, this work contributes to a growing body of scholarship on “late-adolescence” or “delayed adulthood,” or as Regnerus and Uecker prefer to call it, “emerging adulthood.” “Recently,” they write, “we heard, in the span of just a few hours, claims both that ’13 is the new 18’ and ’21 is the new 16.’ Confused? That’s understandable. But this is the conundrum of emerging adults, the group of Americans about which this book is written” (5). More specifically, the focus is on “Americans between 18 and 23 years of age” (6) which is now part of this “emerging adulthood” wherein one is, by the standard of “being 18” an adult but at the same time one does not self-identity (yet) as an adult. Clearly, at least within the realm of scholarship, there is a growing interest in a new liminal stage, located somewhere between adolescence and adulthood. This marks a pronounced shift in age studies, which previously, or more traditionally, had seen adolescence as the liminal stage between childhood and adulthood.

The book oscillates comfortably between statistical analysis and personal, and at times, anecdotal narratives from interviewees. The authors explain that “[t]o use only national survey statistics to answer our questions would be farsighted: it would give us the big picture, but could encourage all manner of misinterpretations of the data” (9) and that “[w]hile personal anecdotes may not matter much to social scientists, they often mean everything to our interviewees. Stories of what happened to them and the people they know carry exceptional weight in their own understanding of sex and relationships” (9). The methodology here is important because it allows for both a “big picture” overview of broad sociological changes and an engaging focus on specific cases, stories that end up meaning much more to the reader, given their relationship to the national survey statistics, than they otherwise might.

The authors often turn to examples from popular culture for context as well. “Hannah’s method lends itself to pregnancy scares—and to the real thing,” one anecdote explains, adding, “Had they ever had such a scare? Of course. It was like a scene straight out of the film Juno” (48). This work thus has the potential to influence the field of popular romance studies, because it already refers to and engages with relevant texts, particularly romantic comedy films. (The Forty Year Old Virgin thus “portrays a collective effort to rid the main character of a trait that he’s socially supposed to have lost about two decades earlier” [18].)  Scholars of romance in other media will find it a helpful model for bringing sociological data to bear on their chosen texts.

One of the many engaging things about this work is its historical emphasis, much of which seems relevant to the changing representation of sexuality in popular romance. For instance, Regnerus and Uecker speak of the ways in which the “sexual repertoire” (31) has changed, noting that, “[o]ral sex and other types of sexual activity are common within the sexual repertoire of emerging adults” (32) and then later concluding that “[a]nal sex is not in the repertoire of most, at least not yet. Its place is not yet clearly defined and may never be. Given that most Americans, especially women, strongly prefer vaginal or oral sex to anal sex, its practice could well wane in popularity or remain a ‘tried that once and that was enough’ sort of activity. Before then, however, anal sex may grow in popularity simply for the novelty attached to it and online porn’s disproportionate coverage of it” (39). One thinks here of the memorable discussion of anal sex as “the new oral” in Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan—and of the contrast between that discussion, which focuses on erotic romance, and the fact that anal sex only appeared in a Harlequin Blaze, Private Sessions by Toni Carrington, as recently as 2010.[1] (It remains to be seen whether, in an imprint as wide and varied as Harlequin, anal sex will turn out to be something of a ‘tried that once and that was enough.’)

The longest chapter in the study, “Inside Sexual Relationships,” seems particularly useful to scholars of popular romance. In this chapter, the authors consider the economics of sexual relationships, observing that “[s]exual markets are like economic markets: we all inhabit them, and they affect everyone” (52). The book discusses the common motif of sexuality (and virginity) as a “gift” that one gives to another, chiefly women to men—a trope that recurs in popular romance film and literature—the persistence of what they call “the stubborn double standard” (62-65), and the rise of new terms and motifs in sexual culture, like “friends with benefits” (65). “Most young adults don’t actually use the term ‘friends with benefits,’ at least not when they describe such relationship for themselves,” the authors conclude (65-66):  it is a term more often ascribed than subscribed to, which suggests the enduring influence of cultural norms that link sex with romantic love. The authors’ economic discourse sometimes frames those norms in rather cold-eyed terms, as when they note that “romantic relationships last longer and are a far more stable source of sex” than more casual, less emotionally-invested interactions (72). But they also cast a refreshingly cold eye on the anxieties about young adult sexuality that periodically crop up in popular culture.  “Students are certainly having sex,” they observe in a later chapter, “but more sex occurs within romance relationships than all the media chatter about hooking up has led us to believe” (134.)

In the past year there has been considerable “media chatter” about the impact of pornography on young (and older) Americans—in particular, about the impact of porn consumption on the sexual desires and expectations of heterosexual men.  Premarital Sex in America explores the messages men may receive from “sexualized media,” from pornography to newsstand men’s magazines, in particular the current focus of these media on what they call “odd sexual requests” (86).  (These requests, one should note, they recognise as being “probably as old as humanity” [86].)   “One of the most common topics in American men’s magazines like Maxim,” they observe, “is unorthodox sexual positions and locations, even though another common topic—what women want—is largely inconsistent with these practices” (86).  They also attend to sexualized media aimed at women, noting, for example, that even if Sex and the City never “directly made anyone do things they might not otherwise have done,” the television show succeeded in “popularizing [. . .] the narrative of the very eligible, single white female who pursues sex and romance on her own terms” (127). A good deal of additional research remains to be done, however, by sociologists and others, in the representations of “unorthodox” sexual behaviour of female desire in romance media produced primarily by women, notably chick-lit and erotic romance fiction.

Although its focus is on premarital beliefs and behaviour, Premarital Sex in America also considers marriage, which it presents as an institution in limbo.  “A distinctive fissure exists in the minds of young Americans,” the authors argue, “between the carefree single life and the married life of economic pressures and family responsibilities. The one is sexy, the other is sexless. In the minds of many, sex is for the young and single, while marriage is for the old. Marriage is quaint, adorable” (172). Indeed, Regnerus and Uecker conclude that “[t]here can be no doubt that the ‘institution’ of marriage is in the throes of deinstitutionalization” (204). The chapter “Red Sex, Blue Sex: Relationship Norms in a Divided America” considers whether this “deinstitutionalization” is playing out differently in conservative “red states” and more liberal “blue states” (for readers outside the USA, the colors signify Republican and Democratic dominance at the polls, respectively). Some differences emerge from the data:  for example, somewhat ironically reds “romanticize relationships and marriage, and often experience more of them—and at earlier ages—than blues do” (234-35).  However, readers subsequently learn that young people in both sets of states “share much in common, including their commitment to serial monogamy and romantic individualism, two ubiquitous narratives among emerging adults” (236).

In the closing chapter of Premarital Sex in America, the authors theorise the importance of stories and narrativising sexuality.  “Stories,” they write, “tend to issue in sets of particular scripts. [ . . . ] Sexual scripts specify not only appropriate sexual goals—what we ought to want—but they also provide plans for particular types of behaviour and ways to achieve those sexual goals: the right thing to say at the right time, what not to do, who leads, how to hook up, where they should go, who should bring the condom, what is too much to ask someone, etc.” (237). Clearly, as the authors write, “sex is complicated” (250)! As we critics read and engage with popular romance texts—texts that may supply, or at least document, some of these “scripts”—we need to keep these complexities in mind, to problematise sexuality, rather than treat it as an ahistorical or transparent phenomenon.

If there is one drawback to this book, it is that despite its sweeping title, Premarital Sex in America only deals with heterosexual premarital sex. The authors acknowledge this limitation at the start of the volume.  ”Some will label our focus as heteronormative—that is, privileging heterosexual expression to the neglect of alternative sexualities—” they note, “but the primary reason for avoiding an extended treatment of different sexual forms and identities is that it would have to be a much longer book in order to pay adequate attention to other patterns, to say nothing of the dynamics by which they form and the courses they take” (7-8). One hopes that other authors and studies will fill in this significant gap, and that scholars who draw on this volume will not assume that its conclusions about straight “emerging adults” in the United States can be transferred in any simple way to LGBTQ Americans, or to young people in other countries, whatever their sexual orientation.

Despite its boundaries, this illuminating study makes a helpful case for seeing sex as “complicated,” in writing about it, theorising and historicising it, and indeed, living it.  Premarital Sex in America shows how sex is given meaning in both the social sciences and the humanities, and it reminds us that the complex nature of sexuality continues to haunt our critical and cultural imaginaries.


[1] For a greater discussion of this “first time” in popular romance, see Sarah Wendell’s review of the book at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books: http://www.smartbitchestrashybooks.com/index.php/weblog/comments/private-sessions-by-tori-carrington

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Review: Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, by Lisa Fletcher

Romance criticism often conveys the impression that it was written by a scholar on holiday, as it were, from more important work on worthier fiction. Interesting things may be said about the genre, but the formalities of intellectual rigor and theoretical sophistication have often been shrugged off, as though they were not really expected, let alone required, in this more casual context. What happens in romance criticism stays in romance criticism, this attitude suggests. No shoes, no Sedgwick, no problem.

Lisa Fletcher, by contrast, takes her project quite seriously. As she explains near the start of her important new study, Historical Romance Fiction: Heterosexuality and Performativity, “this book charts one of the many ways in which romantic love is persistently and aggressively heterosexualized in Western culture and begins to consider the extent to which this campaign of normalization and exclusion is endlessly covered over” (15). By examining the statement “I love you” as it appears in historical romance fiction, Fletcher arrives at a new definition of this genre; with this definition in hand, she proceeds to analyze a number of historical romances, considering both “popular” and “literary” texts (the distinction is Fletcher’s). The range of novels she addresses is refreshing, although their distribution in the study suggests something about her sense of their interest as individual works of art: the book ends with two chapters on John Fowles’s French Lieutenant’s Woman and one to A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance, while the “popular” section devotes one chapter to a trio of Georgette Heyer’s novels (These Old Shades, The Masqueraders, and The Corinthian), and one to an assortment of novels by a dozen romance authors who published between 1980 and 2005 (Margaret McPhee, Norah Hess, Mona Gedney, Pam Rosenthal, Patricia Potter, Rita Mae Brown, Jude Deveraux, Kathleen A. Woodiwiss, Virginia Henley, Catherine Coulter, Laura Kinsale, and Johanna Lindsey).

Despite its price, Historical Romance Fiction is essential for anyone working on Heyer, and important for anyone interested in the popular romance more generally. In particular, Fletcher’s efforts to define the genre will be of particular interest to students of popular romance fiction, if only because they offer points of departure or models to dispute. It is these broadly applicable, deliberately provocative aspects of her work that I wish to concentrate on in this review.

Fletcher’s Definition

In order to define the historical romance, Fletcher sets out into the thickets of postmodern theory, employing the ideas of, among others, J.L. Austin, Frederic Jameson, Linda Hutcheon, Judith Butler, Andrew Parker, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Diane Elam, Shoshana Felman, Michael Foucault, Roland Barthes, D.A. Miller, and Umberto Eco. She seems at home in this environment: as in so many of these critics and thinkers, the compression of her exposition and professional specialization of her vocabulary make few concessions to the reader’s comfort. The determined reader, however, will be led to reexamine the idea of romance itself, and to consider the genre’s larger meanings. Certainly that was my own experience—although as the author of A Natural History of the Romance Novel, I am more than an interested bystander in the effort to define the popular romance. Fletcher’s thinking and mine intersect in our nomination of “I love you” as a key element of that definition.

In my definition of the romance novel, “I love you” is the most common expression of one essential element of the romance novel (I identify eight such elements)—the declaration (A Natural History of the Romance Novel 34-5). For me, the phrase itself is less important than its structural function in the text; another phrase might also be employed for the declaration to occur. For Fletcher, however, this particular sentence is crucial. “I love you” is, for her, “the romantic speech act”: a performative utterance characteristic of the historical romance and revelatory of its function (25). “[R]omance is a fictional mode which depends on the force and familiarity of the speech act ‘I love you,’” she explains (7). To call something a “speech act,” in J.L. Austin’s terms, means that someone’s saying or writing it makes something happen: an event or condition is actually brought about by the utterance, rather than simply described by it. Statements that begin “I promise…,” “I bet…,” and “I apologize…” are all examples of speech acts. Rejecting the idea that “I love you” is simply a reliable report of its speaker’s emotional state, Fletcher focuses instead on what the sentence does—and, by extension, on what the genre defined by “I love you” also does, as though the entire genre were also a speech act, a performative utterance, in its own right.

If Fletcher’s attention to “I love you” as a speech act draws on J. L. Austin and Roland Barthes (notably the latter’s A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments), she draws on other theorists, notably Judith Butler, to explore the relationships between the performative utterance of “I love you” and the cultural institution of heterosexuality. This brief passage from her second chapter gives a sense of how she adopts and extends Butler’s ideas into the study of historical romance—and not just Butler’s ideas, but also some of her tropes:

[T]his book takes “I love you” as a synecdoche of heterosexuality’s insistent and compulsory repetition. “I love you” is uttered as the clarifying conclusion in the paradigmatic narrative of sexual intelligibility which ties a line of causality through the points of sex, gender, and sexuality (a male who is masculine desires a female who is feminine and vice versa.) To this extent heterosexual romance fictions can be read performatively as an incessant rendition of heterosexuality’s promised but never fully achieved absolute intelligibility. (34)

Note Fletcher’s adoption of Judith Butler’s personification of heterosexuality—the ideology (heterosexuality) “is…in the process of,” it “suspects,” it imitates, and it repeats itself:

As Butler explains, “heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing.” … Because it suspects its tenuous position, heterosexuality—“as an incessant and panicked imitation of its own naturalized idealization” … is propelled into an endless repetition of itself. (34)

This personification does not simply make a very strong claim for heterosexuality’s force in the culture, but also allows Fletcher (like Butler before her) to sketch a sort of psychological profile of heterosexuality as a character, wracked by inner conflicts and anxieties. For Fletcher, “heterosexuality” is in a Butlerian state of unintelligibility—which I take to mean that its status as an adequate, complete account of human sexuality is never quite coherent, or “intelligible.” As a result, heterosexuality must endlessly repeat itself to reassert its as-yet unachieved (and never-to-be achieved because unachievable) state of coherence.

To read the utterance “I love you” as a performative, for Fletcher, means to accept the idea that “I love you” is less a report of the utterer’s feelings (indeed, the statement may be so devalued through repetition as to be incapable of making such a report) than it is as an assertion of heterosexuality’s rightness or “intelligibility.” In this performative interpretation, “I love you” recurs in any number of situations, including historical romance fictions, because no previous utterance of the words was—or could be—adequate to the task of making heterosexuality coherent, and thus of clinching heterosexuality’s status as both intelligible and hegemonic: a condition at once dominant, normal, and ideal.

Thus far, Fletcher’s argument might apply as well to a contemporary novel (or, for that matter, a film or popular song) as it does to the narrower case of historical romance fiction. Her turn to this particular genre comes through a discussion of the relationship between “I love you” and “history.” “Broadly speaking,” Fletcher writes, “the performative force of the romantic speech act (and of romance) depends on both a denial of its historicity, of the fact that it has always already been said before,” and on the fact that only this historicity and previous use allows it to possess such deep “familiarity and sense” (15). The phrase “I love you” thus “invokes a kind of continuous present,” but it is a present marked by a denial of any difference between that present and any other time: “’I love you’ is always said anew, but over and over again these texts insist that whenever and wherever it is said it means the same thing” (15). But if the performative effect of this utterance does not change with time, it cannot either reflect or be a distinctive part of the chronological setting of the novel, because its effect is always asserted in the now (“continuous present”). Read performatively, the “I love you” of a historical romance novel in fact belies history as it “interpellates” an ahistorical, hegemonic heterosexuality. The familiar, citational quality of “I love you,” especially in a historical romance, at once masks and (to the critical reader) reveals the anxiety with which this hegemony cites only itself, interrupting or precluding or taking up the space of (choose your metaphor) alternate possibilities in order to assert itself as an ideal. As Fletcher sums up the case, “[h]istorical fictions of heterosexual love are performative to the extent that they participate in the establishment and maintenance of prevailing ideas about the links between sex, gender, and sexuality” (15).

Romance and Claims of Heteronormativity

Fletcher’s claim is a serious one. For her, “fictional texts are intimate participants in the production and reproduction of the logical (and often, illogical) systems and matrices through which we are defined and define ourselves.” Moreover, “the importance and value of generic texts reside not just in their capacity to bear meaning,” but also in the role that entire genres play in the “ongoing construction of the [systems] by which we both make sense of and create ourselves and [our world]” (14). The system that most concerns Fletcher is heteronormativity: that part of our culture’s ideology that assumes that heterosexuality is the default or preferred condition of sexual orientation, and that any other is not just contrary to the reigning ideology, but not even an option: not on the cognitive map, as it were, of members of that culture. Heteronormativity precludes anything other, and historical romance is a vehicle of heteronormativity’s quiet interpellation—its incursion or reinstallation—into the minds of readers, authors, and the broader culture. The opportunity that this genre might provide to imagine another, better situation is precluded by heternormativity’s hegemony—its definition of, occupation of, and dominance over the situation.

This claim about the heteronormativity of romance may sound familiar. It delivers us to a place already mapped by Janice A. Radway more than two decades ago in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature (1984; 2nd ed. 1991). Although the speech-act theory that Fletcher employs is very different from Radway’s ethnographic methodology, both critics arrive at the conclusion that romance as a genre is based on and disseminates an all-but-irresistible ideology. Radway blames patriarchy for the imposition of ideology on the readers she studied:

[W]hile the act of romance reading is used by women as a means of partial protest against the role prescribed for them by the culture [heterosexual union and maintenance of the domestic sphere], the discourse itself [i.e., the romance] actively insists on the desirability, naturalness, and benefits of that role by portraying it not as the imposed necessity that it is, but as a freely designed, personally controlled, individual choice. (208)

Both Radway and Fletcher regard this ideology as problematic, not least because it prevents our even imagining alternatives.

What, though, shall one make of the fact that romance novelists—both historical and contemporary—have also repeatedly imagined alternatives to heterosexuality that carry through to the end of the novel? The world of gay, lesbian, and other non-hetero romance fiction includes texts as generically and tonally diverse as Maurice by E.M. Forster (written 1913-14; published 1971) which depicts the betrothal of two heroes, The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952) which depicts the betrothal of two heroines, and Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander by Ann Herendeen (2005), a Regency-era historical romance novel which depicts the betrothal of two heroes and a heroine. Each novel includes a declaration—everyone says “I love you.” Indeed, f/f, m/m, ménage, and other non-hetero unions are increasingly widespread in the romance genre. At the very least, the existence of these books points to a serious, unanswered challenge to Fletcher’s claims about the heteronormative significance of the “I love you” speech act and the genre it defines. True, Fletcher briefly warns us about the limitations of her study:

[M]y interest here is to draw attention to “I love you” as a heteronormative call to order; to expose the instability of this call in and of itself. While this approach forecloses the possibility of detailed consideration of gay or lesbian utterances of “I love you” in this book, hopefully my work suggests the need for and importance of such a study. (41-2)

This brief nod to the existence of other utterances of “I love you” hardly seems sufficient, however. Fletcher argues that the heteronormative hegemony of historical romance fiction precludes imagining alternative sexualities and structures of love, but now is it the critic herself who “forecloses the possibility”—and, in the process, sharply limits both the scope of her study and the persuasive force of her argument.

To be fair, I can imagine an argument about non-hetero romance novels that would view the very employment of the romance form, including “I love you”—the element that I call the “declaration” and that Fletcher recognizes as a “speech act”—as a capitulation to the reigning hegemony, and thus an unconscious endorsement of it. What seems at first as a departure from the dominant form would, from this perspective, succeed only in pointing out that form’s enduring power. In effect, simply by being a romance novel the non-hetero-monogamous romance would thus mark the desperate surrender of some always unidentified but never specified “better” version of love and relationship in return for the comfort of returning to the comfortable forms of the hegemonic culture.

On the other hand, the existence of m/m, f/f, and ménage romances—including historical romances—could just as easily be said to weaken any claim about the heteronormative ideology inherent in the form, opening an imaginative space between heterosexuality (which is no longer interpellated as compulsory or inevitable) and romantic love. From this perspective, non-hetero romance would be seen as employing the form to validate and even celebrate alternatives to heterosexual hegemony. Indeed, Suzanne Juhasz has found that lesbian romance leads to a disruption—not a reinscription—of heteronormativity:

The happy ending in lesbian romance fiction is that girl gets girl. For the happy ending to be satisfying, it has to be believable; to be believable, it has to be realistic; to be realistic, there has to be a plot and a concomitant development of character that make possible and probable what, in the world outside the novel, is more usually suppressed and/or repressed. The very literalness of the writing, the very linearity of the narrative support the fantasy or wished-for elements that this plot introduces. Yet in this fashion the romance also disrupts rather than maintains dominant social structures: specifically, heterosexuality and phallocentrism. (289).

This argument may lack the elegant unveilings and reversals of my thought experiment a moment ago, in which resistance turns out to be capitulation, and victory, surrender. It may, however, ring truer to the texts, to the lived experiences of readers, and ultimately to the historicity of romantic culture, which continues to evolve in ways that Fletcher’s study does not acknowledge or address.

I return to Fletcher’s description of her definition of historical romance fiction as “broadly inclusive.” It is significantly less inclusive than she claims. Fletcher’s sophisticated identification of heteronormative ideology in the historical romance novel is weakened by her exclusion from her analysis of the very texts that overtly—and if readers such as Juhasz are to be believed, successfully—employ the romance genre to depict non-hetero relationships. We are left with a much-reduced, albeit still-useful claim about the enforcement of heteronormativity in a narrow range of historical romance novels, if not in the subgenre as a whole.

Fletcher on Heyer and on the Late-Twentieth Century Popular Historical Romance Novel

In her chapter on Georgette Heyer, Fletcher identifies the author’s famous concentration on period dress as a key element of the novels’ way of making meaning. The critic sees “enormous symbolic and narrative importance” in “the dressing, undressing, and redressing of characters as feminine, masculine, or foppish” (58). Far from mere costume dramas, Heyer’s novels “are ambivalent, contradictory, and fascinating stories about the ‘tangle of preconceptions, conventions, and social emphases’ [the phrase is that of Heyer fan A. S. Byatt] which construct the heterosexual romantic subject” (53). Fletcher concentrates on three novels in which the heroine dresses as a boy, and uses close analysis of such passages as the opening description of the hero’s dress in These Old Shades—“He walked mincingly, for the red high heels of his shoes were very high”—to discern possible meanings of the hero’s foppery, the heroine’s masculinity, and the hero’s attraction to the boy that the heroine is pretending to be. Fletcher concludes that, in Heyer “[h]omosexual desire is both abnormal … and always already heterosexual (the boy is really a girl). Indeed … homosexual desire precedes and enables heterosexual desire. Homosexuality is imagined and pictured as a developmental stage towards, or infantile form of, heterosexuality” (67). Fletcher’s reading of the clothing in Heyer pushes beyond the usual critical claim on behalf of her concern for authentic period detail to uncover the gender and sexuality issues encoded by dress. It is a significant contribution to the study of this author.

The same cannot be said, unfortunately, of Fletcher’s analysis of a shelf-full of cross-dressing romances in “Performativity and Heterosexuality: Judith Butler and the Cross-Dressed Heroine 1980-2005,” a second chapter on the popular historical romance. As its title indicates, the chapter treats historical romances written over a twenty-five-year span, but Fletcher does not take into sufficient account the changes to this subgenre during this period, nor does she seem to have confronted, in any serious way, the methodological issues involved in choosing texts to study. All of Fletcher’s other texts—those by Fowles, Byatt, and Heyer—have attracted, and withstood, the scrutiny of earlier critics. They are on their way to being canonical romances; in fact, I would argue that Heyer is already canonical. When she turns to the “categorically unwieldy” world of less-studied popular romance novels, however—novels which are, as Fletcher explains in a footnote “too numerous and too fast-moving for scholarly researchers who are not themselves fans” to deal with—Fletcher has no canon to work with. How, then, did she choose her corpus? The note explains that she appealed via the web to those “fans” themselves, believing that “fans’ memories might be the best resource” for making the selection of study texts (73, n.1). But fans love novels for a variety of reasons, and are willing to ignore issues that Fletcher cannot set aside, including the quality of the writing, the presence of such moments in the plot as the heroine’s rape, and other material she finds “truly offensive” (90). One feels a bit wary of this chapter’s conclusions about Heyer’s heirs in the cross-dressing historical subgenre, or at least about the critic’s general statements about that subgenre, given the unconscious biases that may be at work in the selection process. Indeed, Fletcher herself seems to feel this unease, noting at the start of the chapter her sense that “projects such as my own are defied by the genre they attempt to classify” (73, n.1).

Conclusion

Fletcher’s difficulty in choosing study texts for this chapter illustrates a widespread and enduring problem in romance criticism. Statements about the historical romance—or any other genre—should be based on a representative sample of the range and quality of the genre. I readily agree with Fletcher, that finding such representative texts, among the “millions” of romances that only “kiss the retail shelf for a brief moment” is one of the difficulties of writing romance criticism (73, n.1). The sheer number of texts may be staggering, but perhaps that simply means that we romance critics have no choice but to set aside the dream of comprehensive, genre-wide analysis, and instead search out and study the most accomplished, most diverse selection of romances we can. The alternative, this study suggests, is to do with romance what Fletcher says that “I love you” does with human sexuality: to reassert, endlessly, a narrow account of what is natural or inevitable for the genre, one based on an incomplete notion of what romance has been in the past, and what it is right now.

Works Cited

Juhasz, Suzanne. “Lesbian Romance Fiction and the Plotting of Desire: Narrative Theory, Lesbian Identity, and Reading Practice.” Tulsa Studies In Women’s Literature 17.1 (1998): 65-82. Rpt. in Women and Romance: A Reader. Ed. Susan Ostrov Weisser. New York: New York U P, 2001. 276-91. Print.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1991. Print.

Regis, Pamela. A Natural History of the Romance Novel. Philadelphia: U of Penn P, 2003. Print.

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“Getting a Good Man to Love: Popular Romance Fiction and the Problem of Patriarchy,” by Catherine Roach

The “story of romance” is the guiding text offered by contemporary American culture, and more generally the culture of the modern West, on the subject of how women and men (should) relate: find your One True Love—your one-and-only—and live happily ever after.[1] To the ancient and perennial question of how to define and live the good life, how to achieve happiness and fulfillment, American pop culture’s resounding answer is through the narrative of romance, sex, and love. The happily-in-love, pair-bonded (generally, although increasingly not exclusively, heterosexual) couple is made into a near-mandatory norm by the media and popular culture, as this romance story is endlessly taught and replayed in a multiplicity of cultural sites: Disney princess movies consumed by three-year-olds, the wedding industry, Hollywood, pop music lyrics, advertising, popular magazines, the diamond jewelry industry, and more. One of the most important of these sites, where romance is taught, re-told, and—a crucial point—experimented with in new forms, is in the literal “romance story” of mass market genre fiction.

While there are clearly significant differences—among these media forms and certainly among the diversity of the immense romance readership, as well as in the variety of subgenres and plots within the romance publishing field—nonetheless there are significant similarities across these categories as well. The basic plotline of the romance narrative holds true despite subgenre variation, which, as we’ll see in the case of erotica and paranormal, can serve simply to highlight the core genre message. As such, likening readers and novels and considering the phenomenon of romance narrative as a whole allows important insights to emerge. More specifically, in this article, I argue romance novels are so popular partly because they do deep and complicated work for the (mostly) women who read them—work that derives from the mythic or religious nature of the romance narrative that serves to engage readers in a “reparation fantasy” of healing in regards to male-female relations. Romance novels help women readers, especially heterosexual women, deal with their essentially paradoxical relationship toward men within a culture still marked by patriarchy and its component threat of violence toward women.[2]

Most baldly put, this paradox has women in a position of simultaneously desiring and fearing men. Romance novels function as an antidote, as a way of pleasurably working through—in fantasy, in the safe and imaginative play world of fiction—the contradictory position of the heterosexual woman within patriarchal rape culture. This complex work, we will see, involves reconciling women to the limits and threats specifically posed to them as women by the culture, yet also teaching women to refuse to accept such limits and threats as normative and empowering them to expect or demand better for themselves. Furthermore, I argue that the industry subcategories of erotica (including gay/lesbian and “slash” romance) and paranormal—both areas of strong recent growth within the overall genre—offer new and highly effective literary means for women to use romance fiction as a way of working out their position within the culture. Indeed, the mainstream growth of erotica in particular signals important changes in American cultural attitudes towards women’s sexuality and perhaps, finally, a loosening of the patriarchal knot of allowable sexual expression.

This article forms the initial part of an ongoing monograph project on the romance narrative in popular culture, focusing especially on popular romance fiction. I seek to understand how this romance narrative functions and how it is currently changing, both as a genre of popular literature and as a form of human relationship. Unlike some lines of previous academic inquiry into romance fiction, my goal has little to do with either critique or defense of the genre, nor do I aim for close literary reading of individual authors (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). Like Tania Modleski, I seek to read “symptomatically” (2008, xix), not intending by this metaphor for romance fiction to be taken as illness or pathology, but simply as a rich cultural site that yields much insight into critical issues of gender and sexuality in America today. I seek to place romance fiction in the broader context of the romance narrative in popular culture; and to adopt a framework of cultural studies, religious studies, gender studies, and sex-positive feminist theory to ask questions about meaning, fantasy, fear, and desire in how the romance narrative plays out in the realms of both popular and high culture in which this story holds such vast sway.

Love as God: Healing and the Religious Eschatology of the “Happily Ever After”

What fascinates me is how, even with the possibility of new and more open twenty-first century norms for gender equality and sexual experimentation, the romance narrative continues to thrive and endure. The power of the story does not die. In fact, romance sales show new dominance in the market; for example, yearly growth in number of new titles rose from 5,184 in 2003 to 10,497 in 2007 (Romance Writers Report 2009). According to industry research compiled by Romance Writers of America (RWA), romance novels constitute, by far, the largest segment of fiction publishing, with $1.4 billion in yearly US sales and half of mass market paperbacks sold.[3] We chase romance—even when it is to our detriment—we structure our lives around it, we fashion much of our art and pop culture from it. There is a mythic and even religious nature to this endless quest for love, this search for our “One True Love,” this desire and yearning for happily ever after.

Although the romance narrative finds one of its major contemporary expressions in the publishing industry of popular romance novels, more broadly speaking, the story of romance is perhaps the most powerful narrative at work in popular culture and, since its ascendance in the nineteenth century, may well be the most powerful narrative in art and culture in general (Coontz 2005, Polhemus 1990). By calling romance a “cultural narrative” here, I mean a guiding story that provides coherence and meaning in many people’s lives; a story whose truth value lies in the extent it is held to be true by people who shape their lives around that story, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is in this sense that the romance narrative is mythic or religious: it often functions as a foundational or idealized story about the meaning and purpose of life.[4] According to this story, it is love that gives value and depth to life; our purpose is to find a well-suited life-mate worthy of our love and to love well and be loved by this mate and a circle of family and friends.

Part of my jumping off point here is Robert Polhemus’s powerful study of nineteenth-century British novels of love and romance, Erotic Faith: Being in Love from Jane Austen to D.H. Lawrence (1990). In his analysis of these novels that stand as high literary precursors to twentieth-century popular romance fiction, his key concept of “erotic faith” provides a reading of the emotional dynamic that the romance narrative then turns into story. Erotic faith, he writes, is “an emotional conviction, ultimately religious in nature, that meaning, value, hope, and even transcendence can be found through love—erotically focused love” (1). Erotic faith is the belief “that people complete themselves and fulfill their destinies only with another … that in the quest for lasting love and the experience of being in love men and women find their real worth and character” (27). John Keats, for example, in a recent movie dramatization, proclaims, “There is a holiness to the heart’s affection” (Bright Star 2009). Polhemus’s point is that we have faith in love, a reverence for it. Starting in the late eighteenth century with the growth of secularism springing from the Enlightenment, in the art and in the marriages of  western Europe and North America, people increasingly fell in love with the idea of being in love. This faith in love has become a new form of faith, to “augment or substitute for orthodox religious visions” (4), but with such close psychological functionality between the two forms of faith that “religious feeling and eroticism run close together” (10) and “love and theology may be surrogates for each other” (19).

Erotic faith takes on story form in what I’m calling the romance narrative: spun out in prose in the novel, be it the literary high fiction of Pride and Prejudice or the popular mass market fiction of The Sheik and the Vixen; or in advertisements, Hollywood flicks, and pop lyrics; or again as mythic or archetypal template to make sense of one’s own relationship practice. In all cases, the shared and underlying mythic conviction is in the idealizing power of love to make the world, in reality so often harsh and even tragic, a better place. In line with the promise of orthodox religious faith, love offers the promise of redemption and even salvation. In novels, the love plot is the story arc by which characters mature and, the novel teaches, is the means by which real-life people can mature as well. Love leads to compassion, mercy, understanding, and kindness; it tempers pride, harsh judgment, and the violent outbursts of a reflexive defensiveness; it grants the inner peace and self-confidence for the lover to be a stronger and wiser person. In all these ways, erotic faith is the conviction, explored in the ups and downs of the romance narrative—girl and boy meet, fall in love or lust, suffer through internal and external conflicts, break up, get back together, and then live happily ever after—of the healing power of love.

But to go further and flip the equation: while the romance narrative is “religious” in its faith in the healing power of love and in the scope of its mythic quest for love, the central religious narrative of western history is also “romantic.” Christianity, that central religious narrative, is easily read as a love story. In the context of  western culture, wherein the artistic, literary, philosophical, and scientific heritage are all strongly shaped by the Christian religious tradition, the narrative core of that tradition is essentially a romance story. The mythic narrative of Christianity follows the pattern of the romance narrative, with a guaranteed happy ending (for well-behaved believers or the “saved”), wherein all works out and you live forever after. “Find your one true love and live happily ever after” is one way to describe the narrative content of Christian theology, of the ideal relationship between the believer and the One True Love of Christ the Son or the Christian Father God, and then the believer’s reward of life everlasting. “Are you the One?” the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus, as many a lover has pondered early in the game (Matthew 11:2-3; Luke 7:18-20). “God is love,” asserts a key New Testament passage (1 John 4:8, 16), a theological notion that erotic faith easily flips into its own central dogma that “Love is God.”

This two-directional religious analysis allows us to see both the romance narrative within the Christian religious story, thus highlighting the omnipresence and cultural power of this narrative, as well as the religious aspect of the romance story itself, thus highlighting the mythic work of healing and salvation carried out by this story.  The point I seek to make through this parallel is the deep-rootedness of the cultural belief that there is a resurrection power to love. The love of a good woman (or man, or God, or Son of God) heals all wounds, forgives all sins stretching back to the stain of original sin, resurrects a dead man, saves a lost soul, integrates false persona and true self, can make a real man—or real woman—out of you. The belief in the healing power of love is the central trope of erotic faith,  western Christian culture, and romance novels alike. Whether the romance narrative borrows this belief from the Christian religious tradition or whether the latter takes this perennial belief and incorporates it as central to its theology is a chicken-and-egg question that need not concern us here. Either way, love, in various forms of agape, phile, and eros, is the central emotional dynamic in the life quest for meaning, happiness, and—the point on which I want to focus—the crucial category of wholeness or healing.

To make this argument clearer, we need to consider one particular aspect of the romance novel: namely, the ending. In romance, the ending is crucial. Romance novels, as well as the romance narrative more generally, are defined by their “HEA”: the happily-ever-after ending, or what RWA calls the “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending” (Web), wherein the protagonists resolve their various internal and external conflicts and commit their lives lovingly to one another. Stereotypically, this ending involves the hero and heroine solving the problems that kept them apart, declaring their mutual love, getting married, and often conceiving or bearing a child. Increasingly in contemporary romances, the protagonists may not marry and reproduce, but still make some sort of deliberate decision to be together, a decision that brings to their lives a sense of fulfillment, joy, and the ongoing promise of hot sex.

This ending is important because it highlights the core fantasy work of the romance narrative: everything will be all right; it will all work out; whatever pain and betrayal and disappointment and loneliness haunts you will end; you will be loved by a most worthy partner despite your flaws: absolutely, devotedly, without fail, never-endingly (“for all eternity, and even beyond” promises Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl [386]). This fantasy is the idealized version of reality that Northrop Frye (1957) sees as the central characteristic of the romance myth.[5] Authors I’ve interviewed talk about the ending as a contract they have with their readers: no matter how wounded are their characters at the book’s beginning and how further tortured are those characters by the plot conflicts in the book’s middle, all will be well by the end. The HEA is a sacred guarantee in a romance novel: the author will not let the readers down by failing to provide the emotional resolution in the reading experience of love conquering all, healing all wounds, and leading to the promised happily ever after.

The true significance of this HEA, I submit, lies not in its presence at the end of every romance novel, but in its presence in the larger culture. The Christian mythic narrative and the romance narrative both highlight eschatology. Both are narratives concerned with the eschaton, the end of the world or the ultimate destiny of the characters involved (from the Greek eschatos for “last” or “farthest”). A romance, from the very beginning of the story, promises its HEA; the end of the story is inherent from the very beginning, as part of its very narrative structure. The romance story is narrative eschatology. A romance is a story about how to get to a healing end—an eschaton of love, commitment, completion, fulfillment, happiness, generational continuity, maturity, and hope. The happily-ever-after ending functions as a foundational psychological component of human wish-fulfillment: we yearn for this ideal paradise where we are loved, where the quest for wholeness is granted, where wounds are made right, where pleasure and security reign guaranteed. To be human is to desire and quest for love. This is what is both wonderful and foolish, even dangerous, about the human condition. The romance narrative tells this story of love and the human condition, in all its vulnerability and risk and wonder and foolishness.

To connect this analysis back to the context of patriarchal culture—true to eschatology, this HEA ending is not just the ending of a particular book nor of a genre of popular literature. The ending of romance novels—in which the heroine and hero will love each other well, for all their lives, and their love binds up their wounds—is not just the conclusion of a story. The romance ending, like the Christian eschaton, is the end of all endings, the ending beyond endings. It is the foundational premise of hetero-normative masculinist culture: that a woman must be under the protection of a man, yoked to him and to at least some extent in his control. But here’s the rub: as evidenced by the enormous female readership of romance novels, this premise is foundational as well to much female fantasy life: that a woman will be protected, yet also pleasured, by the perfect love of a good man.

Lust, Loins, and Literature: Romance Novels as Mirror of Changing Sexual Norms for Women

Feminist scholars of the romance genre have long been engaged and troubled by this paradox: women seemingly love to read novels in which they are bound to men. Thus, the genre limits women (but does it?), yet the genre empowers women (but does it?). Much scholarship has prodded, and continues to prod along these lines, as variously nuanced feminist critique and/or apologia for the genre (e.g., Radway 1991, Coddington 1997, Regis 2003, Goade 2007). From a feminist perspective worried about romance novels’ take-away message for women, there is room for concern. However, while readers may sometimes consume these novels in voracious quantity and with great attachment to the genre (reading “religiously” in another sense of the term), they by no means read uncritically. The advent of online readers’ communities exposes the rich interplay among readers, texts, and authors; far from accepting characters’ choices and any views implied by authors, readers often argue back (Wendell and Tan 2009). They post comments deriding the “too stupid to live heroine” along the lines of “why would any sane woman act like that?” or “why would she fall in love with a jerk like him?” Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume readers, perhaps especially young adolescent girls, do derive something from their reading experience in terms of a “moral of the story,” and that this moral may well have some sort of ramification in the lives of women. In the books’ complex and ambiguous nexus of women’s imagined fear and desire, shame and pleasure, hurt and healing, vulnerability and protection, pleasure and anxiety, risk and reward, bondage and freedom—what lessons then emerge for readers?

Contemporary romance novels do feature, almost universally, strong and empowered heroines in storylines bucking patriarchal convention mandating male leadership and female submission, but they also, by definition, pretty much always end in monogamous pair-bonding. In contrast to the second-wave feminist slogan “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” to live happily ever after in a romance novel, a woman does need a man (and a man needs a woman). To the extent that romances push a vision of women’s lives as incomplete unless they are with a man, a vision of women’s happiness and mature fulfillment necessarily achieved through monogamous, heterosexual marriage and motherhood, this would remain a rather limited, traditional, and patriarchal vision of a woman’s life possibilities. In this regard, I am heartened by the growth of erotica, paranormal, and the new lines of gay and lesbian romance with their ménage stories; non-“vanilla” sex scenes; and heroines who even after pair-bonding remain kick-ass vampire-killers, or vampires, or some other form of strong female alpha or high-achieving professional. Although romance fiction can sometimes seem to offer a narrower vision of women’s lives—perhaps even create false expectations and impossible goals—on the other hand, judging by its massive readership, this vision is hugely appealing to women. So, why, and is that a problem? Just what is at stake in the romance novel? What does happen in reading it? What work does it do for its women readers, and does this work have any feminist liberatory potential?

I want to take a new tack on these issues by focusing on the recent rise of erotica, which I argue allows us to probe this paradox differently, by picking up the lines of inquiry I’ve laid out in regards to the HEA and its central motif of the healing power of love. I grew up reading romance novels (indeed, an important part of my motivation in this project is the chance it offers to interrogate my own fascination with the genre). I used to call the books—with amused affection—“trashy novels.” My friends and I, and my mother and some of her friends all bought, read, traded, and discussed our trashy novels. Were I to parse this descriptor now, I would see in it, on the one hand, a fondly-intended denigration of the genre as lowbrow (not the “good” literature I read for school), and on the other hand, a somewhat titillated adolescent sense that I was getting away with something naughty. I wouldn’t have been allowed to read Playboy or watch porn videos in the house, but although these stories were equally sexually explicit, and thus in that sense “trashy” or smutty, they were acceptable because they were both “romance,” with its legitimizing married HEA, and “novel,” thus still better than reading nothing at all. The genre has developed in many ways over the thirty years I’ve been reading it, but one of the most fascinating developments is the rise of the entirely “trashy” subgenres of erotica (which doesn’t necessarily end with monogamous pair bonding) and “romantica” (which generally does).

This rise is a controversial one, and benefits from a brief contextualization within the recent and equally controversial rise of sex-positive culture and sex-positive feminism. Kayla Perrin is a USA Today bestselling romance novelist who wrote this speech for her character Lishelle in the erotic romance Getting Some (2007, 133):

See, this is what I don’t understand. If guys fuck a hundred women, they’re heroes. They feel no shame in bedding a woman they’ve just met. But if a woman has a one-night stand, my God, she’s a dirty whore. How dare she like sex? This is the twenty-first century, honey. It’s high time we women embrace our sexuality and bury the shame. We have needs, the same as men do. Why do we feel so friggin’ bad about going after what we want?

Lishelle’s passionate endorsement for women to embrace their sexuality highlights how the story of romance is rapidly changing, especially for young women today. A new era is opening up wherein women can write or read such erotica, “hook up” with multiple partners and different types of partners, post images of themselves on altporn sites like Suicide Girls, attend Tupperware-style sex toy parties, wear porno-chic fashion, work as strippers, or simply revel in Sex and the City and Desperate Housewives, yet still be “good girls” (“Good Girls Do,” reads one recent newspaper headline). The gay rights movement (LGBTQ) is an important part of opening up this narrative; “romance,” including in publishing, no longer means only heterosexual, female-virginal, monogamous, deeply-in-love pair-bonding. The category of what is culturally acceptable in love and romance has—at least in some quarters—grown much bigger. To use Polhemus’s term, our faith in what legitimately counts as the erotic is expanding. This phenomenon of potentially liberating new attitudes toward women’s sexuality is what commentators and scholars characterize in various forms as “sex-positive culture” or “sex-positive feminism” or “striptease culture” (Nagle 1997, McNair 2002, Johnson 2002, Roach 2007). We see its boldly playful echo in such romance groups and blogs as History Hoydens, Smart Bitches, Word Wenches, Historical Hussies, Rip My Bodice, and the Smutketeers.

This effect is further seen in the recent publishing rise of erotica and romantica, and the concurrent intensification of sexual content in much of mainstream romance fiction. Romance novels, like the wider romance narrative, are in the midst of a sea change as they become affected by this sex-positive culture—indeed, I would argue that many romance novelists today are doing sex-positive feminism in their writing. How can we evaluate the complex implications of this change as a current large-scale cultural experiment, both potentially liberatory and at risk of re-inscribing tired patriarchal norms of women’s erotic desire, fantasy, and pleasure? Does today’s romance fiction help move women’s sexuality from margin to crossroads to center, or simply re-marginalize it anew? How are romance novels affected by—and also responsible for shaping—new societal changes about what’s acceptable sexually, in terms of the novels’ level of graphicness, underlying attitudes toward sexuality, treatment of pregnancy and STD protection, etc.? And how does this new trend toward more explicit sexuality in romance novels and more sexual choices in lifestyle relate to such apparently opposite cultural trends as, for example, the premarital abstinence movements of “True Love Waits” and father-daughter “Purity Balls,” as well as the rise of inspirational romance novel sales (with little to no explicit sexuality)?

I take the rise of women’s erotica as indicative of an important cultural moment of change and counter-resistance. Romance authors are opening up restrictive sexual taboos in ways that have true potential to lessen social injustices (for women, sexual minorities, and men too long restricted to a narrow macho role). These new romance narratives can unchain young women from an often destructive and desperate sense they have to find “Mr. Right” early on and not let go. They can give people permission to explore love and sexuality, and ultimately themselves, in new liberatory ways, but these ways are, admittedly, at the same time clearly fraught with risk and danger. Part of the risk is women turning themselves into what author Ariel Levy (2005) termed “female chauvinist pigs” through the internalization of a sex-bunny sensibility that simply gives flesh to every boy’s wet dream fantasy, and then those women experiencing the type of losses Laura Sessions Stepp laments in her book Unhooked (2007) about the campus hook-up culture. Another part of the risk is the early sexualization of the “porno-tot” phenomenon and the loss of innocence and health risks feared by the abstinence movement. In all of this, there is a daunting challenge for the “new erotica” to pull off, but—perhaps—real potential as well, to help us live in ways that are richer and, ultimately, more loving.

Getting a Good Man to Love in Patriarchy: “Come Back to the Bed Ag’in, Alpha Honey!”

We arrive finally at the crux of the tension, the paradox at the heart of the romance narrative. If romance is one of—or even the—central cultural narrative(s), with roots stretching into the culture’s foundational religious story, and if this narrative is being experimented with in new and potentially liberatory ways for wider sexual justice, then romance novels are doing deep work for their readers and for the culture. By “deep work,” I mean that this work is partly unconscious (Modleski 2008), operating at the level of both individual psychology and larger socio-cultural dynamics. The purpose of this work, I argue, is to assuage the drag and rub of patriarchy, to try to make up for the costs to a woman’s psyche of living in a culture that is always just a little, at least potentially, in certain ways against her. As Frye says, “Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but will still contain that reality” (1956, 136).

Let’s put it this way: if, to at least some extent, it’s still a man’s world out there, if the name of the game is patriarchy, then a woman is safer from the dangers that game poses to women—rape and other physical attack, diminished pay rates, employment discrimination, abandonment with children, restricted travel and other life options, general infantilization, misogyny, a life-long low-level anxiety over her sexual vulnerability—to the extent she is in committed relationship with, and thus protected by, a good man. The notion of “good man” here is represented by the romance hero possessing the unlikely profile of high alpha traits that both guarantee he can protect the heroine, and that render him immune to the predations of patriarchy—for patriarchy is a system of violent control and power-over that victimizes lower-caste males as well—in combination with the high sensitivity of the most enlightened pro-feminist lover. This good man/alpha hero is a fantasy, an illusion, in the sense of a powerfully-appealing figure based in wish-fulfillment. As Freud (1927) said, an illusion may have truth to it—for certain lucky young girls, their prince really does come; think Grace Kelly, for example. The story of the alpha hero does have such truth to it—in that love does heal wounds, romance does offer sweetness, most people do seek such and generally find such, to at least some extent—but it is also a fantasy, or illusion, and in the sense of a wish-fulfillment, is highly unlikely to be literally and wholly true. Such is the power of fantasy to offer both truth and illusion. I suspect the resonance of romance novels lies in the central paradox of this interconnected fantasy power of deep truth and of wish-fulfilling illusion.

Romance is fantasy in the sense of pleasure and escape from reality, where true love does not always conquer all nor heal all wounds—key premises of the romance narrative. But more specifically, romance does deep psychic work for its readers by functioning as a fantasy antidote to patriarchy, to the extent that it is still a man’s world out there: the heroine and, vicariously, the female readers get that fantasy paradox of an alpha male who is strong and dominant, yet also caring and sensitive; sexy and desired, yet devoted totally to the heroine and her sexual pleasure; indeed he is helpless and lost without her love. Part of the reading pleasure, too, is the fantasy conquest of patriarchy. According to Frye, one of the central and climactic images in the romance is that “of the monster tamed and controlled by the virgin” (1957, 201). In my reading, this taming is the central dynamic of the romance novel as well. Apart from any realism imparted by rich details, these novels essentially represent a mythic fantasy world in which Woman: the Virgin, the Maiden, the Princess Warrior, Everywoman, tames and controls the monster, Man: the patriarchal alpha hero, who has the power to easily harm her, but who will not, because she has cracked open his frozen patriarch’s heart and taught him to love (Frantz 2002).

These are large claims that must await full unpacking and exploration in future research and writing, but as an exemplar here, I want to focus on the HEA and healing in a final argument that both the subgenres of erotica and paranormal (often combined) highlight or intensify the dynamics of the HEA and of its central reparation fantasy of redemption, salvation, and wholeness. Both erotica and paranormal are highly effective at doing the deep work of the romance novel HEA and thus can more clearly reveal this deep work. The messages to women here are three: you can’t fight patriarchy, you must fight patriarchy, and patriarchy will end. All this is encapsulated in the complex HEA promise: you will get a good man to love. Vignettes from three recent romance novels illustrate these messages.

Maya Banks’s Sweet Persuasion (2009) is a BDSM romantica tale, featuring Serena, a successful business woman whose fantasy is to be a sex slave to Damon, the charismatic owner of a sex club. This, and similar plot lines, allow for exploration of a submission and surrender theme to the erotic desire and possessiveness of a powerful man not widely seen since the “bodice-ripper” domination and rape plots of the 1980s (Wendell and Tan 2009). BDSM romantica allows for a more politically-correct exploration of this dynamic, as here the heroine surrenders willingly, in a fantasy power game, and Damon’s complete authority over her—“I want the security of knowing I am … owned,” Serena says (70)—is ultimately benign. While he puts her in bondage and takes a crop to her, Damon also feeds, clothes, and bathes her—literally by hand; fully supports her professional ambitions; puts up charmingly with her meddling friends; buys her a wardrobe; and sends her to the spa. He demands total control over her, but he’s also a good man, who loves her well and devotedly. “I wanted to own her. I wanted her to own my heart” (253), he says of a previous failed relationship, when explaining his desire to Serena. The lesson Serena learns in the end: “it takes someone strong to give up ultimate power, to allow a man to take care of her, to make decisions for her” (284). Patriarchy is literally the name of the game here: Serena wants to play sex-slave to a strong alpha master. Thus, the message: you can’t fight patriarchy, lest you be a bad slave and displease your master; but you must fight patriarchy, in the sense of holding out for no less than this perfectly egalitarian master. For while the master here rules, no matter—by the time of the HEA, it’s clear he rules to serve and to cherish. And so patriarchy ends. Although he’s in charge, she has him: she owns his heart. Through identification with both the heroine and hero, the female reader experiences her subordinate and vulnerable position within our still-patriarchal culture as one that nevertheless promises her safety and pleasure, precisely because this particular patriarch has capitulated to her, fully and completely.

In Joey W. Hill’s BDSM romantica novel Natural Law (2004), the power dynamic is reversed between two under-cover cops; instead of patriarchy ruling, here it’s the “matriarch” or Mistress in charge. Violet is petite, a “pixie,” yet formidable: a dominant Mistress born. Patriarchy is already overturned here, in that the deep fantasy work of this story is that of resisting and rejecting male rule for a matriarchy where man is the subordinate, required to obey the woman’s every command, and wanting nothing more than to fulfill her will and satisfaction as his own. Yet although Mac is a willing male submissive, he is still the alpha through and through: physically much stronger, a seasoned detective, no weakling who would leave you prey to harm (he in fact takes a bullet for Violet by the end of the story). Like Serena and Damon, Violet and Mac finally find each other after a long and painful life quest of loneliness and self-doubt; these couples complete each other and find healing and wholeness through surrender to their special form of love. Violet, unlike Serena, upends the patriarchal dynamic; she is “someone strong” in a different sense than Serena, but not in any sense that emasculates Mac. He enjoys “serving a Mistress’s pleasure,” he says self-confidently, as much as he enjoys “being a cop, or watching a Buccaneers game, or spending a day out in the Gulf on my boat. Being a sub doesn’t make me less of a man” (277). The female reader fantasy here is one of overt power, but although she’s nominally in charge (you must fight patriarchy), he’s the strong alpha male all the same (you can’t fight patriarchy), perhaps even more so—because if it takes a real man to eat quiche, wear pink, and drink Chardonnay, surely it takes a man on the archetypal level of a romance novel warrior-king to accept bondage and open himself to the pleasure of anal penetration by his Mistress (patriarchy will end).

The warrior-king becomes real, and becomes vampire, in my last example: J.R. Ward’s Dark Lover (2005), the first book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood series. In paranormal romance, the hero can be more alpha—bigger, stronger, more deadly—than in non-paranormal: he can grow fangs, possess supernatural strength, teleport, heal miraculously fast, etc. While “Wrath” is all that—indeed, his name says it all—he, like all males shaped by patriarchy’s “tough guise” or mask of emotional straight-jacketing, cannot love. He can only disdain erotic faith as the religion of women and weak men. He is the über-patriarch: violently aggressive against all enemies, an arrogant macho hardass toward the brotherhood, “six feet nine inches of pure terror dressed in leather” (3). Yet he’s immediately drawn to Beth, a beautiful woman thrust into his keeping, about to turn into a vampire herself. He gives into lust, but fights love. For a man to open himself to love means he’s weak, “pathetic … pussy-whipped,” Wrath goads a happily-mated brother (186-87). But by the end, as Wrath and Beth find peace and completion in their love bond and a new life mission together to rebuild vampire civilization, Wrath is a changed man. Still the ultra-violent patriarch toward any who would dare hurt his queen, he has literally had Beth’s name carved into his back; kneeled at her feet; offered his body, heart, and soul as hers to command; and then asked, with head bowed, “Will you take me as your own?” (333). The reader fantasy here is that patriarchy ends, yet patriarchy continues, and you get a good man to love; that is, you now have the alpha-king for your own, as you have fought and vanquished him on the battlefield of love.

All three of these examples have in common what I am calling a reparation fantasy in the HEA’s work of imagined healing. One of the Latin etymologies for the term “religion” is re-ligare, “to re-bind” or “re-tie” (the term “ligament” has the same root). From this perspective, religion represents a threefold sense of original unity, recognition of loss or wound, and attempt to repair and reconnect sundered parts back into a whole. Plato’s Symposium dialogue famously casts this threefold sense as an origin story of humanity and humans’ rather foolish yet poignant endless quest for love. In the dialogue, humans began as four-footed symmetrical beings, then were cut in half by the gods, and now are forever on a quest for their missing other part: our better half, our soul mate, our one-and-only, our One True Love. In the Symposium and the three romance novels above, love renders us whole, heals and completes us, resolves life’s quest, brings true peace. From this perspective, both romance and religion are reparation fantasies, deep mythic stories of the powerful healing that comes about through meaningful and intimate relations.

One last idea: for Leslie Fiedler, the American literature critic of the mid-twentieth century, American fiction is driven by the dream of interethnic male bonding and the “myth of the dark beloved,” in which people of color forgive and love white folk, despite the predations and horrors of racism. “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!” (1948) is his controversial essay on Huckleberry Finn and also The Last of the Mohicans, two iconic American stories authored by white males about a “dark beloved:” an African-American or Native American male other who shares an adventurous quest with a white male protagonist. Fielder’s essay is essentially about the literature of white male America as a reparation fantasy for racism, offered with remorse and affection on the part of the racists. Romance fiction is a different, reverse type of reparation fantasy, one centered on sexism and patriarchy and offered not by those who perpetuated the discrimination (as in Fiedler’s formulation), but by those subjected to it. Instead of a myth of the dark beloved, we have a myth of the “alpha beloved.” Women readers/authors/fictional heroines, like Jim in Huck Finn and in Fiedler’s provocative title, bear no grudge and invite the master, “Come back to the raft”—or the bed—“again, honey.” A woman can proffer this invitation because she has taken her stand against patriarchy, and though the system remains, so too has it ended. The romance fantasy, in other words, is that the hero will come, in all his fierce and possessive patriarchal warrior-king glory, but that he will also forever stay: emotionally vulnerable, devoted unto death, serving his mistress with his sword and with his heart. The fantasy is that patriarchy overall remains in place—he remains a ruling alpha, and so can protect her—but this system, and he as its representative, never threaten or diminish the heroine.

She gets a good man. And she gets him to love.[6]


Works Cited

Banks, Maya. Sweet Persuasion. New York: Berkley Heat, 2009. Print.

Bright Star. Dir. Jane Campion. Apparition, 2009. Film.

Coddington, Lynn. “Wavering Between Worlds: Feminist Influences in the Romance Genre.” Paradoxa 3:1-2 (1997): 58-77. Print.

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[1] In my use of the cultural descriptor “modern West” here, I draw on Stephanie Coontz’s (2005) history of marriage, with its central thesis that starting in the later eighteenth century, a “gigantic marital revolution had occurred in Western Europe and North America during the Enlightenment” (5). The ideal of the sentimental and passionate love-based marriage—in radical contrast to the more economically and politically pragmatic notions of marriage that had predominated before that time and that continued as the norm in other parts of the world—came to dominate in  western culture through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

[2] By “patriarchy,” I adopt Allan Johnson’s definition of a cultural system that “promotes male privilege by being male dominated, male identified, and male centered” and that valorizes violence and control (2005, 5). High rates of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and violence against girls and women form a central part of such culture, as well as high rates of violence against men. I share in Johnson’s analysis that contemporary American culture remains marked by such patterns, although these patterns have clearly lessened through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with the growth of human rights and the influence of the successive waves of the women’s movement and feminism. To the extent that both patriarchy and popular romance fiction reading are phenomena with global reach, this analysis could be broadened beyond contemporary America as well, but for now, I confine my analysis to this cultural complex.

[3] Romance Writers of America (RWA) is the US-based professional writers’ organization devoted to the publishing genre of popular romance fiction, with a membership of approximately ten thousand published and aspiring authors. For publication and sale statistics, visit the organization’s website at rwanational.org.

[4] Northrop Frye’s (1957) archetypal criticism in his classic theory of myths is useful here as well, where he lays out a theory of generic plots or mythic narrative structures: “In terms of narrative, myth is the imitation of actions near or at the conceivable limits of desire” (136).

[5] Although what Frye (1957) means by “romance novel” differs from the popular women’s fiction under consideration here, there is significant continuity between these forms of prose fiction as well. This issue of the historical lineage of contemporary women’s romance novels in terms of the long-established literary forms of both “novel” and “romance” bears further study.

[6] I thank two very astute anonymous peer-review readers who helped me see my text more clearly with excellent suggestions for revision and expansion. I am grateful as well to the College of Arts and Sciences and New College at the University of Alabama and to the Romance Writers of America for academic grant support that made this research possible. Academic audiences at the Popular Culture Association 2009 annual conference and a Women’s Resource Center talk at the University of Alabama provided useful feedback as well in working out my ideas. Finally, I thank Eric Murphy Selinger for leading me to Robert Polhemus and colleagues Deborah Weiss, Fred Whiting, and Ted Trost for helping me think through key ideas in this paper.

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