It makes me pretty unhappy, looking back at both Reuben nor Pomeroy's books, realizing that they, as well as my dad's stash of Playboy magazines (hidden away in the basement), the almost-sex scenes in Harlequin romances, and the sexualized rape scenes in John Jakes' best-selling historical novels celebrating the Bicentennial (The Bastard and its sequels) formed the core of my early adolescent knowledge about sex. Reuben's work, though engaging and humorous, is rife with sexual misinformation (a 1972 Playboy magazine article pointed out 100 errors in the book), and insulting to lesbians and gays. Pomeroy's book is better, yet passages such as the following hardly make this feminist's heart sing:
Much as feminists may deplore it, appreciative whistles from strangers on the street or from passing truck drivers are trivial. The feminists argue that such behavior degrades women by making them sex objects, but this has been so through recorded history. But half-joking sexual advances from a girl friend's father may or may not be another matter. If he puts his arm around her from behind and presses on her breasts, or strokes her buttocks affectionately, or likes to put his arms around her, it may be a hardly concealed sexual advance, but since it's done in the presence of other people. it's not necessarily dangerous. If it's done when the two are alone, however, warning signals should, and probably will, flash in a girl's mind. (50-51)
Given the above, when I recently came across blogger Clarisse Thorn's post about the "five biggest problems" with the way she was taught about sexuality by her sex-positive parents growing up in the 1980s, you can understand why I felt as much jealousy as sympathy. More to the point of this blog, however, Thorn's post, Liberal, Sex-Positive Sex Education: What's Missing, also made me wonder if and how romance novels contribute to some of the distortions about sex that Thorn claims are inherent in much sex-positive discourse.
Each of her five points is worth discussing, but I'd like to talk here about the last one, because it particularly resonated with me in terms of reading romance. Everyone recommends that you communicate with your partner about sex, Thorn notes, but no one tells you how to do it. "God, it's so hard to talk about what we want. It's even hard to talk about talking about what we want. I mean, it's hard enough to figure out what we want in the first place—but communicating it... eeek!" Eeek, indeed. I've been wondering if romance novels, despite their overwhelmingly positive depiction of sex and sexuality, in some ways might be contributing to making such conversations so difficult.
Of course, perfect sexual compatibility is part of the fantasy aspect of romance novels. Fantasizing that a lover can and does know us so well, so perfectly, that he/she can meet our sexual needs without our having to explain them seems at the heart of many a romance. Yet I wonder how often this particular aspect of the fantasy seeps into everyday sexual relationships as an assumption of "how it's supposed to be." I know it took me a very long time to realize that if I didn't like something my partner was doing sexually, I didn't have the right to get frustrated at him for doing it, not if I never explained to him, verbally or by some other means, that I didn't like it. Protecting his ego, or shielding myself from potential embarrassment, were simply not good enough reasons for failing to communicate.
|Use your words (or your Scrabble letters...)|
Readers, can you think of romances that show the protagonists actually communicating about their sexual likes and dislikes?
• Bunkbed cartoon: Jen's Love Lessons
• Scrabble sex: Bilgrimage blog
Next time on RNFF:
On January 4th, a list of my favorite 2012 feminist romance titles, and a request for yours