Ah, L'Amour

>> Wednesday, October 8, 2014


Something of a dirty word in literary circles, not just because so much of what's published today under the category of "romance" is, well, smut. (Personally, I have a great deal more respect for those that publish graphically described sex under the unabashed title "erotica" but that's a separate point).

And that's a pity, because love, as a theme, has been popular since time immemorial, not just in women's literature but in legends, in mainstream novels and making some inroads in every other genre. I, personally, love romance, which is why I hate most romance novels I've been exposed to my last twenty years.

Why? Well, first there's the caliber of much of the writing. Just because the plot is basically pre-defined with only a few details to provide, doesn't mean everything else should be throwaway. Cardboard characters, substandard writing, implausible connections and plot devices make many of the assembly-line quality romances available as appealing as cleaning the bathroom the day after a major night of binge drinking. Nor is the caliber of such writing improved by use of a thesaurus (please, I'm begging you). If you don't know what the word means, the nuances of a word, don't bloody well use it. When I see someone riding over the "emerald verdant green grass" on the first page, it's the last page I'll be reading.

But the caliber of the writing is only part of the pain, because, as I've explained a few times in the past, what passes for romance tend to be three different things: (a) [least offensive but least interesting] two forgettable people thrown together in implausible circumstances who show no connection whatsoever but somehow end up as a couple, (b) two people who hate each other all the time, but who heat up the sheets like no one's business (a recipe for romantic disaster in my opinion) or (c) a variation on a or b where we "liven things up" by having the "hero" rape the heroine for spurious reasons. I find all of these the opposite of romance, with the last especially unadulterated misogyny, inflicted on women by other women.

It doesn't have to be that way. Georgette Heyer, still called the Queen of Regency Romance though she's been dead for forty years (and her books are still mostly in print, I might add) wrote engaging, historically believable, entertaining, hilarious love stories with characters of surpassing depth (yes, even her stock characters). Love stories because the people the heroes (and heroines) cared about were more important than themselves, were worth sacrifices, were precious and treated as such. Sex, naturally, was not much a part of these romances, in keeping with the times and the care with which our heroes guarded the virtue of their ladies - because that was one sign of respect and adoration. After all, if a girl was ruined, she suffered far more than the ruiner. I have to add that there's a sophistication to these stories, an appeal that's hard to describe but let me just say I've hooked more than one male friend on these books.

More recently, I've discovered Nora Roberts (who also writes under the name of J.D. Robb for some futuristic thrillers) who manages (at least in all the books I've read) to avoid falling into the trap of lifeless characters and hateful or raping protagonists. She's also quite humorous. However, from what I've been exposed to (and I haven't had the stomach the past decade or so to try many new romance authors for this very reason), she is very much the exception and not the rule.

That's how pervasive these attitudes are in our culture, not just men, but also women. So, why bring it up? I read something today that really got my mind thinking, something that surprised me. Now, as most of you who know me know, I tend toward liberal/feministic thinking. Not going to apologize, just a reminder for those of you who somehow missed that. Most of my friends on Facebook tend the same direction.

So, imagine my surprise when someone posts a link to an article about a young woman who chooses to stay celibate until marriage and how difficult this is to communicate with potential dating partners and how difficult it was to maintain a relationship. Among other things, she struggled with having the convey this message early enough in the relationship but not weird out potential partners on the first date. She even dated a very conservative Christian who not only was the women-should-be-seen-and-not-heard type she found hard to stomach, but also put more sexual pressure on her than her other dating partners.

If you're confused why I was surprised, let me explain that I wasn't surprised this was posted. What surprised me were the attitudes of my liberal, anti-rape, pro-feminism friends who described her as a "fundamentally an extremely dishonest, disingenuous and manipulative individual" because she didn't tell guys on the first date. And not just one person or one gender piped in with more along the same lines: that "Physical intimacy is a normal and healthy expectation of romantic dating" or that she should limit her choices to those on a "Christian website" because "she should stop trying to date men that aren't part of her pretty circumscribed social set." She was categorized as a "conservative right-wing Republican" (not sure why that had to be so) and "drama queen." 

Whoa, wait, what? Since when is it wrong for a woman to decide when and to whom she wants to have sex? Or that she has to give her sexual history to guys (on the first date no less)? Or that she has to justify her position in any way? That sounded to me (and still does) like the "expectation" that dating involved sex was somehow an obligation on her part. And that many, otherwise liberal pro-women people considered the onus entirely on her to warn away potential partners from the get-go. My response (which I'll repeat here) is, why shouldn't someone who feels sex is an expectation say it on the first date: "If you don't put out in a reasonable time frame, I'm walking. I'm only interested in dating people willing to be my sexual partner." (I'm sure that would go over well)

Why is the freedom we've all fought for (and I also defend) for women to share their bodies as they choose to (for any reason they want) not apply to women who, hey, don't want to share their bodies with just anyone?

To be honest, I was appalled, not only that this attitude was so pervasive (both men and women: "I think physical intimacy is a near given in romantic dating, otherwise it is a platonic friendship"), but how insulting it was to both men and women.  Men can't be passionate about someone, love someone without sex? Women can't find someone precious and charming, can't love to spend time and do things with someone she isn't copulating with? That argues that the freedom to have sex for pleasure mandates you must or you are somehow an aberration. And, even if that's the prevailing attitude, I think "majority rules" should have no bearing on what an individual wants to do with his or her body. Talk about the opposite of romance!

(What if your partner is parapalegic or otherwise physically incapable? Going to toss him/her to the scrap heap? Very "passionate!" Great love story!)

Now, don't get me wrong. I love sex. I also, however, see it inextricably linked to love. For me. I don't tell anyone else what motivation they have to have, but that's my motivation. I've had two sexual partners (total) who were also my two husbands. That's not a coincidence. I don't regret having sex with either (even the psycho) and I don't regret NOT having sex with all those people I chose not to have sex with. Someday, I'd like to have sex again, but I'd only be interested with someone I cared deeply about, someone who cared about me. For me, if someone told me they'd drop me if I didn't put out, I'd wave goodbye with a smile. I'm worth more than that. 

Here's the thing, guys (and girls), when people talk about removing the rape culture, we don't just mean brute force, we mean coercing girls into thinking they have to have sex to be loved. Girls (or guys, for that matter) pushed into sex before they're ready or for the wrong reasons often live with a crushed sense of self-worth every bit as painful as a rape victim's. And we need to stop pushing it if we want it to get better. 

I'm all for romance, real romance, where people learn to love each other and, when they're ready, when they both want it, finding love culminated in each others arms. 

But that's just my opinion (repeatedly documented in my own books, I might add). I'm open to hearing what you think. Feel free to chime in.



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