Romance is a billion-dollar industry. In 2016 these novels made up 23% of the overall fiction market, and they consistently outperform all other genres. But while we’ve reclaimed the rom-com in film, these books are still often relegated to being “guilty pleasures” or considered “mommy porn.” This week we’re discussing these overlooked, often powerfully feminist books—that just so happen to have a happy ending.
Rule number one: Don’t piss off the romance community. They will come for you, pen in hand. Take it from Hillary Clinton, who told the Washington Post in a 2017 interview about the Me Too movement that the novels normalize men behaving badly. "You understand why somebody might believe that if you watch movies, and if you see how men often are very aggressive toward women who love it. The whole romance novel industry is about women being grabbed and thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance," Clinton said during a recording of the Post’s Cape Up podcast.
The comment was met with swift backlash from romance readers, with a multitude of think pieces to boot. (One even prompted the hashtag #RomanceNovelsForHillary, a call to create a syllabus for Clinton to teach her about the genre.) As it turns out, having women "thrown on a horse and ridden off into the distance" is a trope that many had furiously worked to dismantle, long before 2017.
In the early age of bodice rippers—1970s-era romance novels that helped to reignite the genre—consent was dubious at best. But in the intervening years, stories of "forced seduction" became increasingly taboo. In 1985, women at the Romance Writers of America conference—the largest meet-up for romance writers in the world—walked out to protest sexualized rape scenes. The action sparked conversations about how power dynamics are handled within the genre and focused attention on questions of agency, equality, and what constitutes enthusiastic consent.
Of course, as even women who’ve never cracked open a romance novel know, conversations about progress are different from actual progress, and romance fans are the first to concede that there’s still more work to be done. There isn’t an art form, workplace, cultural artifact, or institutions that doesn’t have to grapple with issues of power and authority—and then keep grappling with it. But romance readers finding a lack of consent sexy? That’s something fans are proud to say is a thing of the past.
Cindy Gallop, creator of the sex-tech platform MakeLoveNotPorn, and Some Like It Scandalous author Maya Rodale are two prominent changemakers behind the push for better representations of consent, and the women have teamed up to help ensure sex scenes go beyond the heroine “wanting it” and to showcase women fully in control of their relationships and desires. Here, Gallop and Rodale open up about the genre’s evolution, what Fifty Shades of Grey taught them all, and why romance novels should be required reading for everyone who wants to have good sex.
Glamour: You two come from seemingly very different backgrounds—porn and literature—but they’re two fields with a lot of overlap. How did you come together to advocate for more nuanced consent in the romance genre?
Cindy Gallop: Our parents bring us up to have good manners, a work ethic, sense of responsibility, and accountability. Nobody ever brings us up to behave well in bed. But they should because in bed values like empathy, sensitivity, generosity, kindness, honesty, and respect are as important as those values are in every other area of our lives. But the problem is that nobody knows what consent actually looks like in bed. The only way you educate people as to what great consensual, communicative sex is, is by [giving people more examples] of that kind of sex. So given that objective, I felt that there was a really interesting opportunity—given the massive reach of romance novels—to embark on a discussion about what actually happens in those thoroughly enjoyed literary sex scenes.
For many, The Flame and the Flower is the original romance novel. While it came out in 1972, it established the model that romance novelists still use today. But there are many instances of sexual assault in it, and the heroine ultimately ends up with her abuser. How have these novels evolved, in relation to consent, ever since?
Maya Rodale: It was rape [in The Flame and the Flower], let's just be clear. But the way we look at it now, is that those stories were written in a time when women weren't allowed to desire sex—I'm sorry—“good women” weren't allowed to desire sex. So this was a way to show it on the page, without a woman having to ask for it. But as the real-life standards changed about women’s desire—and how they could vocalize that desire—you see that change within the genre.
When did the romance community really start to grapple with the fact that these sex scenes were, in fact, rape—and move away from them?
Rodale: In the early 2000s, when I started really reading romance, we still had what we called the “forced seduction” theme. That’s when the heroine says, "No," verbally on the page in dialogue, but the hero’s like, "You don't really mean that." And then in her head and from her point of view, she’s like, "You're right. I don't really mean that. Sex is amazing." And that's still problematic.
Early on we were always talking about how we depicted condom usage. Incorporating it in a fun and sexy way became a matter of course. We talked about it among ourselves and that became a thing of like, "Oh, if you're writing a romance that's actually relevant to today's reader, you need to include [a condom]. [Explicitly emphasizing] consent functioned the same way. The interesting thing about romance is that the readers and writers are often the same and we're always talking to each other. So these things really flow out organically.
The Me Too movement completely upended how we talk about sex. Whether it’s in our relationships, onscreen, or at work. How did it impact the discourse around consent within the genre?
Rodale: There was consent on the page prior to Me Too. But I think what Me Too brought about in the romance community is an awareness of power dynamics. And maybe we can even say Fifty Shades of Grey woke us up to the power dynamics of consent. So your character can say, "Yes, I want it," in dialogue—but now we're also looking at the plot, and those implications. There’s a trope that’s “boss and secretary.” Which has an inherent power dynamic conflict, that makes consent questionable.
I think it’s interesting that you point to Fifty Shades of Grey as the moment you really started to evaluate power dynamics between characters. Can you tell me more about the conversations the community was having following that blockbuster of a series?
Rodale: The consensus in the romance community is that it was a terrible and unfair depiction of a BDSM relationship. But the thing that really struck me was the constant negotiation of what Ana wants and what her boundaries are—and that they're having a conversation about it. So say what you will about the quality of the book, or the relationship and what it conveys, but I thought that was very powerful to show a woman thinking about her boundaries, articulating them, and negotiating for herself.
So what are some ways that you can write a thoroughly consensual sex scene, that’s still literary and sexy?
Rodale: Writers should ask themselves things like, Does his mouth crash down on hers? Is she conflicted about the kiss? What are the power dynamics of the situation? If someone can easily leave and they don’t, they're implicitly making the choice to stay. Lastly, writing sexy and explicit verbal consent isn’t hard either. Someone whispering, "God, if we don’t stop now…" and the other person saying, "Don’t stop now. I want more…" can be enough.
When we’re writing these scenes, the author has control over every aspect: when, where, and what the characters are thinking and feeling. So we have the power to create something sexy, wonderful, and totally consensual. All we have to do is pause, look at what we write, and make sure all the characters have real agency.
But it’s not just sex! A lot of what has been coded "hero behavior" in our brains isn’t cool anymore. Stuff like exerting control or the heroine, or following her home "for her safety" and "because he cares." As authors we have a choice about what portray is heroic behavior, so we should use our power for good.
What do you wish that people who still think of romance novels as "bodice rippers" knew about what sex is actually like in romance novels today?
Rodale: I wish people knew that in romance we're not ashamed. We're really damn proud of it and we don't feel guilty about it. And you notice these characters never feel guilty for enjoying themselves. Not to mention that in a lot of [older] literature, the heroine dies after they have sex. There is some sort of punishment for a woman daring to enjoy herself. But with romance novels it’s like, "No. She's going to have a great time and live happily ever after."
Gallop: I would love romance novels to actually set the agenda for depictions of fulfilling and consensual sex in a way that no other area in popular culture is doing. Not least because every other area of popular culture is massively male dominated. There's a misconception out there that consenting sex means stopping every two minutes, going, "Is this okay? Is it okay if I do this? Is it okay if I do this?" And of course that’s not it. I would just love to see many more people actively turn to romance novels to understand what really drives fantastic, great, fulfilling consensual sex.
Romance novels have come along way, but what do you believe still needs to be done to push the genre forward?
Rodale: I might be alone in this, but I think there's a space for the characters to not have perfect sex the first time. People want sex to be perfect on the first time, but in reality it doesn’t always happen like that. I love [when writers] explore the process of two people learning each other. I think that's sexy and romantic. Then I think we need more overall inclusivity and favorable depictions of nontraditional relationships. Romance is still very one man, one woman, who are probably going to get married. That works for a lot of people and that's great. But I think that can also be kind of limiting. So I think it'd be interesting to read those stories and explore other definitions of "happy ever after" for people.
Samantha Leach is the associate culture editor at Glamour. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @_sleach.
Originally Appeared on Glamour