For the past three years, we’ve been conducting sociological research on the culture of romance authors. Together, we’ve conducted over 50 interviews with authors and industry professionals, attended conferences and signing events for romance writers, and followed authors through social media.
One of the first things we observed—and that romance authors suggested as a topic for study when we asked their opinion—was the negative perception of the genre. Romance readers know what we’re talking about; people call the books “beach reads” (translation: easy) or even worse, “trashy” (as in, having so little value as to be disposable). Not surprisingly, romance writers are constantly confronted with people’s negative assumptions, too: the perception that their books are easy to produce (they’re not), that they contain a “bodice ripper”/rape narrative (they rarely do anymore), and a host of misconceptions about the sexual content (it’s autobiographical, pornographic, and/or an invitation to sexualize the author). This last theme is the topic we’ll address here.
The source of the stigma around sexual content is the simple fact that sexuality is still considered a taboo domain for women—something that violates societal norms to such an extent that authors are shamed for writing it, just as readers are shamed for reading it. Interestingly, we haven’t talked to any writers who actually feel shame around sexuality. But our data show that outsiders constantly engage the sexual stigma. They do this in two ways: they sneer or they leer. People who sneer are those who make it clear that they disapprove of the sexual content (or presumed sexual content) of romance novels. They refer to the books as “porn for women” and describe them as being “dirty” and “smutty”.
One NYT best-selling author gave us a great example: My mother is horrified by what I write because of the sex in it. She’s horrified. I say, “Mom, you always raised me to have a healthy appreciation for sex, and that it is a beautiful thing between two people who love each other.” And she says [in snippy voice], “Yes, but you don’t do it on the street.” And that’s the way she sees it, that I’m doing it on the street for everybody to see.
Besides sneering disapproval, the other reaction the sexual stigma invokes is leering “approval.” We realized this reaction was distinct from the sneer when one author told us about the time she arrived at a checkout counter carrying a stack of books on bondage and BDSM for research she was doing for her latest novel. Seeing the look of disapproval on the bookseller’s face, she thought to herself, “Don’t judge me, I’m researching!” In contrast, the man behind her in line gave her a sexually suggestive look, which made her ponder these two different reactions. As she told us, “I don’t know what’s worse, the disapproval or the approval.” Of course, much more common is the dreaded questions authors receive, typically with some kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge gesture to imply a leering, voyeuristic curiosity: “How do you do your research?”
What these two responses tell us is that social control over women’s sexuality is alive and well. What do writers do when confronted with these stigmas? Some writers embrace their sexuality, displaying their sexualized selves on their own terms, posting pictures of shirtless guys on their webpages or tweeting about sex. As one author explained, it’s a way to “defang the critics [by] calling ourselves trashy before they can.” Afraid the stigma will affect their day jobs, their partners, or their children, some authors choose to write under pseudonyms. Other writers professionalize their work, framing sex as a necessary component in the story arc, pointing out the sexism in outsiders’ assumptions (our favorite example of this was the author who exclaimed “Nobody asks Stephen King how many fires he’s started with his telekinetic powers!”). As our research shows, the persistent stigma of women’s sexuality (whether through sneers or leers) limits writers’ and readers’ ability to be taken seriously.
What do you think? Do you experience negative reactions as a reader or writer of romance? How do you respond? Has this changed in our post-50 Shades world?
Professors Joanna Gregson (Pacific Lutheran University) and Jen Lois (Western Washington University) have been studying the romance author culture since 2010. In 2011, they received an Academic Research Grant from the Romance Writers of America. You can follow their research on Facebook (Romance Sociology) and Twitter (@RomanceSoc).