Why do women read romance? It seems like only men ask this question. A few months ago, before the November election and its potentially world-shifting outcome, sex seemed relatively low risk—or, at least, less risky than it used to be. Now, romance, especially the novels we hide in our Kindles and behind brown paper covers, may be more important. Because there’s the rub: women read romance because sex, the kind of sex in romance novels, and the sexual culture we live in today, is dangerous for women. Romance, with its cheerfully pink cover art and reliably grumpy heroes, offers a safe space for women to enjoy and explore fantasies that would likely be traumatic and unwanted in the real world.
For example: nobody wants to be grabbed by a stranger, no matter how well known or self important he is. It’s demeaning to be handled, and even worse to be the subject of “locker room talk,” in which your personal charms are dissected by a group of leering strangers. Nobody wants to be raped. I’ll say that again: nobody wants to be raped. A rape fantasy is very different from a rape reality. Yet, these acts have historically taken center stage in romance novels. In fact, in the 1970s—considered the “golden age” of romance—the first sex scene was often a rape. At best, this was a violent deflowering; in other cases, it was frightening and graphic, punctuated by the heroine’s screams. Furthermore, the rapist ended up as the hero. Instead of taking revenge, the heroine won his heart. To this reader, it hardly sounds like a fair trade.
Considering that half of all women experience a rape attempt in their lifetimes, and that one woman in five has been raped or sexually assaulted, I think it’s safe to say that rape is as present a threat as ever. If anything, recent remarks reported by the press have only strengthened that message. “She was asking for it. What was she wearing?” “If I wasn’t her father, I’d date her.” “I just start kissing them. I don’t even wait.” In the context of a romance novel, this might be acceptable. In real life, it’s called rape culture.
The sexual revolution, feminism, and stricter punishments for convicted rapists has changed some things, but rape seems to be as inescapable as menstruation. The two great pillars that hold up human sexuality—the fear of rape, and the threat of pregnancy—may be altered by birth control, changes in cultural norms, and legal consequences, but still stand as strongly as ever. The fact that men feel emboldened to brag about their conquests in the press, or openly harass women because they know they can get away with it, is a step back from the gallantry women seek in romance. Normalizing rape culture doesn’t just threaten women—it steals something from the men who court them, as well. For every man who bleats, “But I’m not like that!” there is another one who shouts lewd things at ladies on the street.
The election has shown us that talk is not cheap. What may have passed for bad humor before is no longer a laughing matter—for anyone. And it’s women, not men, who deal with the fallout.
This is represented in the romance novel’s exploration of female sexuality. “What if he rapes me?” and “What if I get pregnant?” are two of the strongest story arcs in romance. For many women, these two fears are inextricably linked with sex because they are part of sex. Unlike men, who can rape or grope or impregnate with impunity, women bear the weight of trauma, of childbirth, and of motherhood.
Sex is risky, and not just to a lady’s reputation. By the time a romance novel’s heroine has completed her journey and come into her own, she’s explored her sexuality and its consequences. She may have been gang raped by a crew of pirates; she may have been sold as chattel; she may have traded her virginity to win back her father’s farm. But she will survive, and go on to have a happy ending.
For the women who read romance novels, that’s not a guaranteed experience, especially now. Romance, in many ways, is less about sex and sexual relationships than the heroine’s ability to ditch the sexual baggage that’s laid on girls as soon as they become girly. She won’t be restrained or restricted or hide. Her femininity is an asset, not a target of hate. She takes her life into her own hands.
Now that’s a fairy tale worth reading again and again.
Claire Rudy Foster lives in Portland, Oregon, where the rainy weather happily necessitates long days of reading indoors. An unabashed Janeite, she enjoys romance novels of all stripes. She’s the author of the short story collection I’ve Never Done This Before. You can follow her on Twitter @claire_rudy.