I'm Reading My First Romance Novel, and I'm a Feminist

Jul 30, 2013 | Updated Sep 29, 2013

I'm not prudish when it comes to erotic literature; in fact, I love sex scenes, will re-read sex scenes, have no problem writing sex scenes, and even taught a class about sex scenes to a group of very willing students. I believe in kink. I think women should express themselves in kink even if it means they want to be dominated and have no problem watching porn -- as long as no one is getting hurt. Unless they want to get hurt. A little.

But when it comes to romance novels, I'd say, outside of reading Forever when I was about 12, my first erotic novel was Fifty Shades of Grey. Really, I didn't even read it, I just sort of skipped to the slapping ass parts, took a few notes (ahem), and put the book down. Since then, I've heard from a number of friends, as well as bloggers that they are obsessed with romance novels. Yes, yes, the erotic literature business is a billion dollar enterprise, it would seem that all women at one time in their life read at least one full romance novel from front to back.

Maybe I've just been reading the wrong books. Maybe I've been looking at romance novels all wrong, as cheesy hallmark cards found in the supermarket aisle. In fact, some will argue that romance novels are the ultimate expression of feminism, including Jessica Luther who (via the Atlantic) demonstrated that women in romance novels make their own decisions and are in charge of their own sex lives. She writes:

In a society that often wants to boil women's sexual experiences into the polar opposites of purity or sluttiness, romance novels, even when we may as individuals judge their plots to be problematic, are the largest cultural space available for women to read about and imagine their own sexual fantasies.

The problem, I think -- besides the jacket covers, because, please, romance novel publishing houses, change the format already -- is that most of us don't see romance novels for their subtext. Yet, Jackie C. Horne who writes about feminist romance novels on her blog Romance Novels for Feminists, regularly discusses topics like slut-shaming, the "feminist appeal of the anti-hero" and patriarchy. Horne writes on her blog:

At the heart of the romance novel's central conflict is a struggle between two individuals intent on negotiating how power will be divided and/or shared between them. The romance genre provides not just one, but a multiplicity, of models of the ways in which two people might undertake such a negotiation.

Take that Fabio.

So upon the suggestion of a friend, I read Ruthie Knox's new book Making It Last. Tony and Amber are a married couple. Three kids. Struggling with the finances. He's never home. She's overworked with the kids. They go to Jamaica on a family vacation -- he tells her to stay because she needs a few days and that he'll take the kids home. And she does. She stays. It's a refreshing, surprising choice that Knox makes with her main character. I expected Amber to go home and be resentful, a martyr. The middle-class stay at home mom and her privileged problems.

But she does stay -- and gets a Brazilian to boot, hello! -- and contemplates her marriage. About a day later, Tony -- upon the suggestion of his mother-in-law who basically said, why aren't you in Jamaica with your wife you idiot? -- flies back down to the Caribbean. The two get into what feels like authentic passion; but more, they tease each other in the sadistic way that we do in marriages. They're both struggling in it. I wouldn't say the prose of a romance novel is anything poetic, but Knox is sharp and to the point. She allows her characters to process without too much melodrama.

If I put the sex scenes to the side -- which, I know, I know, it's impossible to because this is a romance novel and pow-chicka-pow-pow -- you'd find a book that allows the main character to maintain her sense of self, her agency. She never once compromises her position with her husband. She has realistic, equality-driven expectations of her marriage and expects the same of her husband.

I can't help but wonder how many romance novels dating back in time, say, Madame Bovary, or, yes, even Forever, allowed women to identify with a female character who is interested in self-preservation, self-pleasure and self-interest.

Because those qualities can be a turn on too.