“Where did you learn about sex?” This provocative question opens a recent article referencing bodice-rippers and sex ed by Jennifer Weiner in The New York Times. Weiner reminds that few of us really learned about sex from any great sources. By Jennifer’s account, her pie chart is 10% parents, 10% school for the technical bits, and 80% friends or pop culture. Luckily she was a voracious reader and by 14 had realized that achieving an orgasm takes time and how “Villains were easy to spot: They were the ones who left a woman ‘burning and unsatisfied’.”
Weiner’s takeaway was that for however unrealistic, throbbing, poorly written or politically incorrect the stories may have been, romance novels “taught readers that sexual pleasure was something women could not just hope for but insist upon. They shaped my interactions with boys and men. They helped make me a feminist,” she writes.
Mary Joe Murphy, in her “Love Notes” article published in the The New York Times Book Section, praises modern romance fiction because it leaves women optimistic and eager to find the good in men. Sex is scary for many women, yet “taking risks and winning out against all odds is one of the great pleasures of fiction. In a romance novel, the heroines put everything on the line and they win,” reminds Murphy. Modern heroines are no longer grabbed and thrown onto horses. “[They] have their own darn horses, and they invite their chosen heroes to come along for the ride,” Murphy chimes.
Sadie Trombetta, writing for Bustle, also supports learning by example from romance novels. She feels “They provide narratives that star women, concern women, and are driven by women. Does storytelling get more feminist than that? …By telling stories that involve women embracing their sexual sides, women enjoying sex, and getting pleasure out of it without guilt, shame, or judgement, romance novels are empowering female readers to do the same.”
From Roni Loren’s Off the Clock: “After an evening of verbal sparring turns into a night of steamy hate sex, Lane’s ready for round two. But Elle proposes a business deal. How better to keep things strictly physical than to pay him for his service?” What a suggestion. Who will be in control now?
The internet has brought discrete learning to our laptops. Modern romance novels, erotica and porn are all easily accessible. Porn, focusing only on process with actresses faking easy orgasms, leaves viewers clueless and unable to emotionally or verbally relate. Good novels can be road maps for people wanting to experiment with their sexuality, or even just get in touch with what they want or need in a sexual relationship.
In modern romance novels – even if there is a plethora of happy endings with the heroine vainly resisting and submitting to almost always blissful sex – a wide range of relationship possibilities and emotions are covered. Greater liberties and choices are displayed for heroines to break free of societal constraints and pursue love and lust on their own terms.
Good sex is anything but instinctive. Experience is the best teacher, yet learning from romance fiction, erotica and classic how-to books is better than the alternatives: ignorance or porn. Excite and indulge in inspiring ‘novel’ versions of sex ed. Sex can be daunting, but everyone can be a winner if we insist on female sexual pleasure and happy endings for all. Claim your own pleasure.
Image: detail of the cover artwork for Madeline Baker‘s novel Beneath a Midnight Moon.