THERE’S more to romance fiction than what those those book covers suggest. Natalie Ng chats to Smart Bitches Trashy Books’ Elyse Discher and Amanda Diehl and shares how reading romance can open up new perspectives on sex, preferences, health and relationships.
When people think “romance novel”, they think of a shirtless Fabio on the cover carrying a beautiful woman with heaving bosoms. Romance fiction is stigmatised and perceived as shallow and frivolous and its readers and writers are similarly assumed to be silly and sexually unfulfilled. But this perception could not be further from the truth. Romance writers have diverse backgrounds and are all intelligent and accomplished women.
I have always been a romance reader, enjoying classics like Jane Austen to modern writers like Nora Roberts, but only plunged fully into the genre about two years ago when a group of friends and I started a little community online reading and sharing romance novels.
And it is through reading romance that I have learnt about sex — or rather specifically about female sexuality — as well as the diverse spectrum of sexualities, sexual experiences, preferences and misconceptions around certain sexual kinks.
In my journey through romance reading, I came across Smart Bitches Trashy Books (SBTB), an online hub dedicated to the romance community. In producing this piece on romance fiction, I sought out Elyse Discher and Amanda Diehl, two of the ladies who help run SBTB, for their opinions of the portrayal of sex in romance novels and how their perspectives were shaped by it.
Female sexuality and pleasure
For many of the women I’ve talked to, reading romance was their first introduction to sex (otherwise, it was fan fiction). I was the same.
I’m Singaporean and my country’s culture is fairly conservative, like most Asian cultures. While my mother was much more liberal than most Asian parents, she would only talk about sex with me in my later teen years. She skipped the birds and the bees talk by giving me a copy of Memoirs of a Geisha when I was 10 years old, which, while not strictly classified in the romance genre, is very much a period romance.
For Elyse and Amanda, their mothers were very open about the mechanics of sex but for Elyse, she was “not sure [she] had as much of an emotional understanding of sex until [she] started romance novels.”
“I knew how sex worked but didn’t fully appreciate how it could affect someone emotionally or change the dynamics of a relationship,” Elyse said.
Though its significance in introducing a predominately female readership to sex should not be discounted, portrayals of sexual experiences in such books early on could be described as ‘ill-informed’.
“When I first started reading romance, sex scenes were still very much about shimmering waves of pleasure and explosions of light and all sorts of euphemisms. I think that romance novels probably led me to believe that having orgasms didn’t take that much work and that simultaneous orgasms were the norm,” Elyse says.
The genre has come a long way since then, with authors researching to better write sex scenes just as they would do research to depict the social cues of the regency era.
One such book, the historical romance The Study of Seduction by Sabrina Jeffries, credited Dr. Emily Nagoski — a sex educator and author of the bestselling book Come As You Are: The Surprising New Science that will Transform Your Sex Life — on her input about female sexuality.
Besides getting the sex scenes right, Jeffries’ novel also explores issues of consent and rape, something which early romance novels were often guilty of skirting around. The priority to more accurately depict the biological or behavioural aspects of sex, along with intimacy and communication (this includes educating readers on consent) is something that is more apparent with the romance novels of today.
A spectrum of sexual preferences
Reading romance also opened my eyes to a whole spectrum of sexualities and preferences that I would never have come across anywhere else. In my reading, I’ve found the genre to be generally very respectful of people’s sexual preferences and kinks.
While stories of LGBTQ characters or BDSM romances have always existed, the internet has opened up new doors for writers to write characters with more diverse sexual preferences.
“Self-publishing gives authors more of a chance to take risks, I think,” Elyse said. “Traditional publishing has its own issues, especially in regards to diversity, so self-publishing allows authors to get their work out there.”
This aligns with what I have observed. Last year, I interviewed author CS Pacat on her fantasy/romance series, the Captive Prince trilogy, which featured a complex relationship between two princes from rival kingdoms. She initially published her story on Livejournal, then self-published, thus giving her the freedom to write a relationship not normally seen in mainstream publishing. Of course, the beauty of her story was that she eventually landed a book deal with Penguin.
Reading erotic romance helped me to also better understand the reasons behind certain sexual kinks and overcome certain assumptions I had. One of the erotic romances I read last year, Lilah Pace’s Asking For It, followed a grad student whose sexual fantasy was to be taken by force. Non-consensual sex is something I am very sensitive about, so I was very cautious going into this book, but to my surprise, I ended up loving it.
Pace demonstrates sensitivity and respect in discussing consent and sexual fantasy in her book through the heroine’s psyche. Like me, Amanda from SBTB also loved Asking For It.
“I read a lot of BDSM and erotic romances, and those genres have definitely helped with my communication of what I want or what I want to try. It’s bolstered my confidence in asking for things from my partner when it comes to sex and I think having that self-assurance in asking for something you want is really empowering. Even if it’s just something you want to experiment with to see if you like it,” Amanda said.
Still, there is a niggling stereotype in that the romance genre is populated with virginal heroines, ready to be deflowered by the perfect duke, which Amanda notes can be somewhat archaic by today’s standards.
“I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having little to no sexual partners, but a lot of the time, you don’t see heroines who reflect the sex lives of women in the 21st century,” Amanda notes.
And besides depicting more diverse sex lives of women, there just needs to be more diversity — period. Elyse agrees.
“Right now there are some amazing stories being self-published or printed by indie publishers, but I’d like to see much more diversity from the bigger publishing houses.”
The romance community
In reading romance and discovering SBTB, I’ve also learned about the generously supportive community behind the genre. The Smart Bitches have a podcast which covers interviews with authors, historians, academics and other professionals and how their work crosses paths with the romance genre.
An interview with Dr. Emily Nagoski in March led to readers opening up about their sexual health — one reader wrote into the podcast and shared her history with vaginismus. One particular line stuck out: “I know that hearing a story like mine would’ve helped me immensely before I had a diagnosis”.
More than just a book club, the romance community encourages frank discussion about sexual health and general well-being. On one episode of the SBTB podcast, Elyse shared her history of fibromyalgia and also wrote about it on the website.
“A while back I wrote a post about how romance novels have helped me cope with chronic pain and it got a huge response — both from authors and readers,” Elyse said.
Amanda recalled being nervous about the response from when she discussed her sex life on the podcast, shared one of her Tinder experiences and spoke with Dr Nagoski. Those fears however were quickly doused.
“[The] comments and emails we received on my podcasts were so great and touching. I even had people come up to me at last year’s RT Booklovers Convention thanking me for talking so frankly about sex. It made me a little misty-eyed.”
There is an immensely powerful and comforting sense within the romance community that no matter what you struggle with in life, or however you approach sex and relationships, you are not weird or alone. The romance genre is full of stories not just of women, but also those of minority groups and of people with diverse and alternative tastes and lifestyles. It has also allowed for frank discussions of sex, sexual health and consent within the books and outside of it.
The genre still has some way to go in finding and depicting the diversity of its readers’ experiences, but with the outspoken and supportive nature of the romance community, I believe it can and will.