Led Astray by the Smut Peddler

June is my book amnesty month.  For 30 days, I will try anyone’s recommendations, no matter how ridiculous they sound.  It would be easy to back out, but every year I find one or two things that make the whole exercise worthwhile.

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Last June, at the urging of a librarian friend (the titular Smut Peddler), I picked up a few titles for a trip.  They were adventure novels with a touch of the supernatural and a LOT of sex.   They were full of smart, feisty women who couldn’t be controlled by the patriarchal hierarchy that raised them. To my great surprise, I loved them.

Lately, there have been forays into books with racy covers and titles like Liberating Lacey and Willing Victim.  If it weren’t for the magic disguise of the e-reader, I don’t think I could read them in public.  As it is, I devoured them.

Here’s the thing:

I had no idea these books were out there.

The mega bookstore where I used to work had an enormous romance section.  When it was slow at the end of the night, we did dramatic readings of back covers and madlibs of sex scenes. One night we found ten different titles with both “Christmas” and “Cowboy” in the title.  The books were trite, occasionally violent, and overwhelmingly idolized a kind of womanhood that would have read as misogynistic in the fifties. Many of the covers featured Fabio look-a-likes ripping actual bodices off of vulnerable looking women with pert breasts.

I’ve worked around books in different forms for more than a decade and that was all I knew romance literature to be.  It was always one of the most trafficked areas at the bookstore, so I paged through enough titles to know that it’s definitely the majority of what’s out there.

I continued to follow the recommendations of the Smut Peddler, and this is what I found:

The prose isn’t purple.*  The sex is consensual (and really hot).  Oddly enough, the relationships feel real.  There’s definitely an element of fantasy – how many one night stands really end up as relationships? – but the characters struggle with emotions and insecurities that feel genuine.  More importantly, the women in these books are strong, independent, and, though hesitant at first, never afraid to ask for what they want.  They try new things, not because they read about them in “Savage Love” (I love you Dan!) or because the acts were alluded to on a new cable show, but because, however strange the idea was, it turned them on.

The romantic partners are often as well defined (abs AND personality) as their female counterparts.  While they are mostly gorgeous, they aren’t all buff or athletic.  They are healthy, lanky, not always the tallest guy in the room, or occasionally the guy who looks like a bruiser but isn’t.  They are living with abandonment issues, unsure what love is, let alone how to express it, taking care of relatives, running small businesses, and, in one case, completely agoraphobic.  None of the characters I’ve “met” in the past month look like Fabio, and none of them behave like Chris Brown.  They only take complete control under mutual agreement.  It’s a completely different paradigm of male attractiveness than the one we see in most modern media.

There are no he-man action heroes and wilting flowers.  There are no sex object girls next door or dorky guys who “deserve” them because of long infatuations.  There are only partners in exploration and pleasure.  Both parties jump at the chance to discover one another’s quirks.  There is open discussion; there is joy.

And here’s what occurred to me: No one talks about this kind of sexuality anymore.

We are so concerned about whether our teenagers are having sex (which, of course they are, they have for centuries, just give them condoms already) and whether pop culture is influencing them, that we lose sight of the way pop culture affects adults.  Look at any magazine or billboard, watch any TV commercial (except maybe the ones with the Geico lizard) and you will see female bodies as objects of public consumption.  Curves are used to sell beer and cars to men, and then held up for ridicule by the diet and fashion industries.  It is getting worse for men as well.  These days, chiseled – airbrushed – abs are trying to sell me everything from diamonds to macaroni and cheese. Our bodies are up for grabs, auctioned daily to the highest bidder, and somewhere along the line, we forgot what our bodies do.  We forgot how to listen to them.

When I brought the subject up with an older friend, she immediately suggested finding a copy of the 1970s Joy of Sex.  The current version, though updated with the newest safety information, lacks the joy in exploration that gave the original its name.  When did we become so afraid of physical intimacy that even the books about sex are afraid to tell you to really enjoy it? Why is it that the most welcoming, non-judgmental exploration of sexuality is now found in books like Coercion and Ruin Me?

This is a problem with our cultural attitude toward sex education that goes beyond pregnancy and illness.  Somehow we ended up with a system that teaches us to be afraid of our own bodies.  How long before we revert to the Victorian woman who doesn’t even know what to expect on her wedding night, who views wifely duties as a burden and not an expression of love or desire?  And what, if anything, can we do to turn the tide back around?

I don’t have an answer.  I do have several more romance novels in my Nook queue.  Maybe by the time I finish them, I’ll be closer to a solution.

Recommended reading coming soon.

*Purple prose (in romance novels) – When overly flowery or ornate language is used to avoid pornographic or clinical descriptions during sex scenes.  Examples include “throbbing manhood,” “turgid member,” “the hot wet tumult of his love,” etc.  For a more classic example of purple prose (and one that won’t make you blush) check out John Scalzi’s The Shadow War of the Night Dragons, Book One: The Dead City (Prologue)

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One comment on “Led Astray by the Smut Peddler

  1. The Smut Peddler says:

    I love this post. I think the best romance writers are actually writing really transgressive fiction, fiction that gives women permission to be authentically sexual and not just pornified, male-object sexual. I’m also a huge fan of the idea that romance can re-shape our notions of gender and what’s attractive–read enough caring, sensitive heroes and you begin to see a broader picture of what masculinity can look like, or read alpha guys with big muscles in books that examine how/why we fetishize that type and what it really means.

    There’s a lot of bad romance, but there’s a lot of bad sci/fi and fantasy, too, and all three genres are ones where we take our world and play around with it to see what other possibilities are out there.

    Oh, and romance novels are hot, too.

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