October 20, 2013

I Miss Zipless — Are Nice Girls Retaking Romance?

By Alexa Day

A very sweet person almost talked me out of romance.

I don’t remember what she did for a living, but I think it was something that involved lots of nurturing. She was probably a teacher, surrounded by lots of small children. She didn’t date all that much, but at the same time, she was really upset that she wasn’t married by the time she turned 29. And then … well, I don’t want to speak out of turn … but she was a virgin. She’d never even seen a naked man before.

This very sweet person was the heroine of almost all the romance novels available to me when I started reading romance. She drove me crazy, and not in a good way. Then I felt bad about being frustrated with her. She was such a sweetheart. Didn’t she deserve happiness?

Of course she did. But you know who else deserves happiness?

I do. A non-nurturer who likes kids well enough, as long as their parents aren’t planning to leave them here with me. A woman who has dated long enough to reach a certain age without getting married. And while I’m sure not going to speak out of turn about myself, I don’t mind saying that I have seen a couple of guys in their birthday suits without falling in love with them.

Now before you say my mother was probably insulating me from the more provocative romances, you should know that Mom introduced me to Rosemary Rogers. THE INSIDERS and THE CROWD PLEASERS are both full of not-so-nice people who have been everywhere. Everywhere. Mom also gave me the copy of LOVE GAME on my keeper shelf, as well as the Helen Gurley Brown book, HAVING IT ALL. The onslaught of sweet heroines was not Mom’s fault.

There are no innocents here.
There are no innocents here.

Still, those nice girls almost put me off romance entirely. I don’t remember how I decided to start writing the heroines I wanted to read, the women who had been around and seen a lot of the world and certainly weren’t going to fall in love with the first dude they shared a bed with. By the time I started writing those stories, those heroines had begun to appear in greater abundance, and I was able to start reading with hope again.

Today, I’m concerned that the sweet girl is gaining a foothold in romance again. Even in my chosen genre, I see heroines with self-esteem problems. I see negative self-talk about their looks as they undress for sex with the hero. I see doubt in the strength of the relationship within hours of their weddings. I see heroines relying on duty to pack and species as a reason to get laid, despite their ladylike reluctance to pursue a good time.

I don’t think romance is guilty of slut-shaming just yet, but I do think the road to slut-shaming starts with slut-shunning, where heroines must have a specific reason to be sexual beyond the sheer, guilt-free pleasure of it. The road starts with stories that place conditions on pleasure.

The future of romance? Say it ain't so!
The future of romance? Say it ain’t so!

There is hope. I still see heroines wanting to bring a third into their relationships, to stir things up or to get That Other Man out of their systems. I see heroines choosing one partner from many. I see heroines too busy getting their hands on their heroes’ amazing bodies to be freaked out about their own appearance. And I see all of that in contemporary erotic romance, leading up to the happy ending suitable for the characters involved in the story.

I just wish I saw more of that. As I write this, I’m asking myself whether I want to see a new subgenre: Slutty Romance. Well, I’m not sure. First, I’d like to see a definition of “slutty.” Right now, I live in a world where all the couples in the Trojan commercials (and the lotion commercials and mattress commercials and so on) are married, as if single folks don’t use condoms (or lotion or mattresses). If “slutty” means unmarried but eager to engage in sensual and sexual contact, then yes, I’d like to see more of that. Maybe we shouldn’t have to be shoved into our own subgenre. Maybe I would be more okay with it if we work on the name a little.

Am I overreacting? Am I missing a vast, untapped reservoir of sexually bold heroines? Let me know. I’m always looking for something new to read.

And for a good time, follow Lady Smut.

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  • Post authorsarannadewylde

    A lot of my heroines are proud, strong, and tough. Smart-mouthed and a whole lot like me. But some of them do go through some of these same issues. Slut-shaming, body shaming… but I write them that way more as a commentary on how they don’t have to think that way and they don’t get the HEA until they change their thinking, not the their actions or physicality.

    In my third 10 Days book, it’s really over the top. My heroine has teeth in an uncomfortable place. But it’s there for more than shock value. It’s there to show that she had to fall in love with herself, flaws and all to get the HEA. Not that she needed the hero’s love. That’s a plus, but it was her own acceptance of self. And in the end, she still has the teeth. She didn’t change her body, she changed her thinking.

    But I see what you’re saying with the Miss Mealy Mouth. I find that for the most part, overly innocent heroines I can’t relate to as a reader or a writer. Even many of the women who are still virgins that I know are more educated about sex than these heroines.

    I’d like to see more examples of women being taught that their virginity and sexuality isn’t a gift to give another person, but something you give to yourself. That’s what I’m teaching my daughters, anyway.

    Reply to sarannadewylde
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Yeah, the line between innocent and ignorant is really blurry these days! I definitely prefer the kinds of stories that focus on the sorts of real-world relationship problems many modern women have. Like with your book (which I am now very curious about), the heroine’s dilemma between changing her body and changing her mindset is a real-world problem against an unusual backdrop.

      I’m really grateful that erotica is stepping more into the mainstream, too. It’s good to have a place for stories about sexual exploration and discovery in and of themselves. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorChristine Blackthorn

    I agree. I think there is a recurrence of the perception of the innocent heroine again, the naive. I would also argue this recurrence is not limited to romance, but travels a lot further (see Twilight and Shades of Grey). Increasingly we find a backlash against the image of the sexual woman in politics and even feminist writings. I suspect it might be a direct reaction to the economic situation, the uncertainty many feel in day to day life which makes them retrench in traditional images and perceptions of morality. (I also suspect I might have to go and do some research now and muse about this on my own blog tomorrow – thanks for the evocative thought).

    Reply to Christine Blackthorn
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Yes! In the back of my mind, I fearfully anticipate a modern morality play, where “good girls” get the reward they’re supposed to want, and “bad girls” receive a punishment we are all supposed to be afraid of. That really scares me. It’s still at the bottom of the slippery slope, but it’s mighty slippery up here.

      I’ll keep an eye out for your post!

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorSheila

    Good column. You may be right. I know as I get older I have a hard time relating to those heroines that are young, virginal ingénues. The stories are fine but their hang-ups drive me crazy. I want mature women whose attitude is I am what I am, take me as I am, I’m happy with who and what I am and I’m not going to second guess me. I like when she may be a late bloomer or inexperienced because she married early and is now a widow and rediscovering or exploring her sexuality and finding it did not die with her husband. I like many of the sub-genres available today–ménage, BDSM, f/f. I hope we do not go backwards.

    Reply to Sheila
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      That’s my biggest problem with the sweet, innocent heroine — I can’t relate to her. I just think the woman who’s had some life experience, who knows herself, is a more interesting character in her own right, and that makes for a more interesting story.

      I love the variety of stories we have now, too. Oddly, I didn’t feel so threatened when any other set of tropes and characters seemed to be tipping the scale. I guess this is triggery for me in some way that I would explore if I were a better person. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorC. Margery Kempe

    As a writer of ménage and wild erotica, I do feel there’s a certain puritanism out there. My CHASTITY FLAME series started out with my female James Bond character having sex with anyone she pleased. I remember one reviewer distastefully commenting on the F/F scene. I love too how BDSM offers opportunities to show how people seek control over the life — even if it’s to offer to someone else as a gift from time to time.

    Reply to C. Margery Kempe
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Do you think there is more puritanism now than there used to be? Or do you think the same contingent is just more vocal now through the magic of the Internet? You’ve got me thinking about that now. Maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg thing.

      I love the idea of wild erotica, and I double-love the idea of a lady Bond doing whomever she chooses. Really, the freedom of it, the whole idea of *anybody* and just how much that includes, I love that. And I love what’s being done with BDSM romance now. That genre is home to some of the most emotionally rich romance to be found anywhere, and it gives me hope!

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorMichelle

    I like to read about GROWNUPS, especially women, which is why the NA genre frustrates me. There are entirely too many innocent ingenues and the “epidemic” of “women in crisis” is staggering. There is nothing entertaining about women in dysfunctional relationships, to me. This lead me to read the descriptive book synopses carefully for words like “rock star,” “billionaire,” “biker,” “college,” “grad school,” “first job,” “broken family,” etc. All have turned into euphemisms for poor story development. (I blame 50 shades.)

    Where were the professional, independent, ADULT women, who like sex and are not afraid to DO something about it? None of my friends (or I) were virgins when we got married. And, we all had premarital sex with our husbands. GASP!! Those are the women (and men) I gravitate towards. They are simply more interesting.

    Reply to Michelle
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I blame Fifty Shades for some of this, too. I came really close to mentioning that in my post. If nothing else, Fifty Shades is sending the message that there’s money to be made on innocent heroines, and the resulting surge is part of what’s scaring me so much.

      I love reading and writing about the grown women you’re describing! They populate my corner of the real world, and their mosaic of life experiences and emotions make life much more interesting. I hope the body of stories about them continues to grow. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
      • Post authorMichelle

        As long as authors are willing to write about them, readers like me, will buy and read the books! Don’t stop!

        In fact, I’m off to check out your books, Alexa. 🙂

        Reply to Michelle
  • Post authorJackie Horne

    Have you tried reading Julie James? Victoria Dahl? Laura Florand? Anne Calhoun? The timid virgin may be trending right now, but you can still find plenty of romance authors who write for adult women with feminist sensibilities, if you look for them…

    Reply to Jackie Horne
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      It is the trend itself that distresses me! But it’s like I said to Sheila, the resurgence of the nice-girl heroine bothers me in a way that the rise and fall of other characters hasn’t, for reasons that are probably buried way back in my subconscious.

      In the meantime, I’m grateful that we have people writing grown-woman romances (I’m one of them, too). And now I’ve got an opportunity to deepen my reading. Thanks!

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorelfahearn

    I hear ya, girlfriend. My latest book, Lord Monroe’s Dark Tower, got slapped by a reviewer because my heroine gave in too soon and enjoyed it too much. Really? Really? I don’t know about you all, but when I was 19, my instincts were pretty overpowering, and once I figured out what was going on “down there” it was sort of entertaining, ya know.

    Reply to elfahearn
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      Oh, wow. Maybe we’re seeing a cultural revision of what 19 years old looks and feels like. Certainly I remember awareness and knowledge of The Way The World Works at that age, even if I lacked hands-on experience. 😉

      In the meantime, I hope there will always be hot Regencies. I just think a society with that many rules is a breeding ground for rulebenders.

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorsaschaillyvichauthor

    One of the things you have to keep in mind i s that all things in fiction are cyclical. When I first started writing, exactly what you’re talking about (the sweeter heroines) were the mainstream until Harlequin kept pushing boundaries with their Temptation and BLAZE lines. Then other publishers took “loose” chances, and then e-book publishers such as Sizzler Editions and Ellora’s Cave popped up, giving women what they wanted.

    More of these women who weren’t afraid of their sexuality. It’s been almost 15 years since that started and NY is finally coming around, but they still dictate (at least in their minds) the markets. That means something about traditional values (which I’m all for, just not in MY world) and an attempt to coerce us into what they believe they want, despite things like a polyamory conference held here in Berkeley recently, or all the BDSM stuff I do in cities you’d think weren’t kink friendly.

    In the end, people want a good story. If I have to write sweet…I can fake it for a paycheck haha!

    Reply to saschaillyvichauthor
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      You’re giving me hope, Sascha! I’m crossing my fingers that you won’t have to go sweet. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
      • Post authorsaschaillyvichauthor

        I can write it but I’m a versatile author. I don’t fear I’ll have to though.

        Reply to saschaillyvichauthor
  • Post authorAuthor Charmaine Gordon

    As one your older women followers, I’m an author and my latest stories are about Mature Romance-sexy seniors. Widowed now married again, for me I never lost the desire to yearn for the intimate company of men. Check out my series of three stories under the umbrella title of The Beginning. . .Not The End and see what’s happening between the sheets of seniors full of mischief and fun. Excellent post. P.S. I was a virgin when I married at twenty. Mother said. . .

    Reply to Author Charmaine Gordon
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      That sounds cool! I’m definitely behind the idea of heroines *and* their heroes getting older … especially since I’m starting to write at the older end of the mainstream romance envelope. I can hardly remember 20 myself. It’s possible that my mind is trying to protect me from some of it. 🙂

      Reply to Alexa Day
      • Post authorMadeline Iva

        Ellora’s Cave has that call for over 50 romances.

        Reply to Madeline Iva
  • Post authorElizabeth Shore

    Excellent post, Alexa, and certainly thought provoking. I used to read a ton of historical romance and those heroines, of course, were the personification of naive. Given the morals of the time that’s as it should be. But nice girls now almost seems like an anachronism, at least compared with the confident college girls I see around where I live, and not something I’m interested in reading.

    Reply to Elizabeth Shore
    • Post authorAlexa Day

      I have a really hard time rooting for the nice girls, so it’s hard for me to maintain interest in them for long, too. Mostly I end up feeling frustrated with them, shaking my head and wondering where they came from. They do feel like an anachronism, don’t they?

      It’s funny, though — when I started reading romance, I had little patience for the historical girls. Today, I don’t mind them or their innocence as much. It’s weird how one’s tastes and impressions change, right?

      Reply to Alexa Day
  • Post authorStephanie Piscatelli

    All of the commentors here seem to accept your contrived premise, but I don’t see a simple dichotomy of naive, young, good girls and mature, independant, sexually adventurous women. Perhaps I am an anachronism, but if women like me are a minority, we are a sizable minority and most of us read. I am mature (in my forties), informed, self-assured, and “nice.” I know exactly what I want, and what I want is a rigorous, bountiful, monogamous sex life with the father of my children. I know and like my body and I really like sex, rough sex, sweet sex, loud sex, quiet sex, outdoor sex, attic sex, tied down, on top, in the tub, but always, only with my husband. For the last decade my husband has been unable to meet my needs and I have made due on my own. This is not a matter of naivety, nor a lack of offers from other men (and a woman, and a couple), but is my true preference.
    As a ‘tween, I read dozens of novels with simpering young heroines who experienced their first kiss after the marriage proposal, a HEA that seemed disatisfying then and would be unreadable for me now. However, I must assert that virginity, abstinence and fidelity can be viable choices, not just defaults for the naive and self-conscious. Self-denial is an element of true love and should not be mistaken for weakness.

    Reply to Stephanie Piscatelli
    • Post authorLizEverly

      Very interesting comment. Thanks for stopping by.

      Reply to LizEverly
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