Is Safer Sex Romantic?

cdmsI don’t mind admitting that I’m old enough to remember when condoms didn’t make an appearance in romance novels. Heck, I’m old enough to remember when penises didn’t make an appearance, and certainly no part of the female anatomy below the chest. Sure, there were clever references (some of which we still use today) to his “manhood” and her “feminine core”, both of which caused many, many girlish twitters at my all-girls Catholic school, lemme tell you. Still, the actual sex act was shrouded in mystery when you read romance. All you knew was that the woman’s resistance to participating in it had to be “overcome” and that afterwards, she would “glow” and simper and pretty much belong to the man who’d succeeded in breaking through her defenses (pun intended).

If you’ve read any of my blog, you already know I think all of that is just eye-rolling drivel meant to perpetuate the myth that women don’t, and shouldn’t, initiate sexual congress. And if we do, for heaven’s sake, don’t be too obvious about the fact that you liked it!

But I can’t think of any modern romances that follow that follow that awful formula any longer, and few still feel the need to pretend that women have to be chased at length and convinced that they should give in to their sexual appetites. For me, a surefire killer of my enjoyment of a book that calls itself women’s fiction, and the moment I will put it down and walk away without regret is when there is some ridiculous inner conflict where the female protagonist tries to argue herself out of having sex because she is just too attracted to the male protagonist. Now the only way that works for me is if that conflict is part of a larger conflict like, “I can’t have sex with my boss ’cause then it’ll affect my career.” But if the attraction alone is the source of her resistance, I will go on record as saying I don’t know any woman who’s that repressed and seriously doubt she exists. But like I said, the books where that happens are few and far between, because we’ve come a long way, baby . . .

One indicator of how long a way we’ve come, not just in terms of women taking charge of their sexual persona but in terms of telling the truth about love and sex, is the appearance of the condom in romances, and The Conversation about safer sex. I did an informal tally when I was reading romances like crazy this past fall and I would have to say that roughly 85% of the books I read either referenced condoms or birth control, or had some explanation for their absence. If the characters didn’t use protection, the author would work into the plot somehow an explanation for that. Similarly, if they did, it was integrated either explicitly, or by implication. As someone who used to lobby for women’s reproductive health and rights, I can’t tell you how freakin’ happy that makes me.  And if the female protagonist is the one with the condoms, I’ll give your book a one-star bonus for that alone.safersex

In a world where women are still victimized, objectified and undervalued just for being female, it’s one the coolest things that in books that are predominantly written by (and for) us, we can unashamedly use the words: clit, pussy, and dick to describe the anatomy if we so desire. But what’s even cooler is that now we talk about how we protect ourselves, and we set as a standard for young women that even in the middle of hot, mind-blowing, and sometimes unplanned sex, you gotta whip out that condom! I’ll be honest; I used to think, in real life, that condoms were a buzz-kill but then we all faced the near-Apocalyptic effects of HIV and AIDS and that woke most of us the hell up. I’m glad that awakening extends even to the people in our fictional worlds. For me at least, safer sex doesn’t turn the heat down one bit.

What do you think?


Going Long

I’ve been trying, but I can’t do it.

After many, many weeks of “studying” the contemporary romance genre from a writer’s perspective, reading as much as I can get my hands on, downloading material to my Kindle like a woman possessed, reading reviews of other authors’ work and detecting patterns of satisfaction and dissatisfaction, I finally understand something. The average romance reader seems to want their resolution around page 250 or thereabouts. On rare occasions they will accept your going on for another 25 or so. Beyond that, there is impatience. And I think I understand. Honestly, two hundred and fifty to three hundred pages is sufficient to complete the basic romantic arc in most circumstances, unless there is a fair amount of suspense and action also involved. Or, let’s face it, if you’re a very skilled writer who can communicate vast amounts of information with relatively few words (which not many writers are).

Turns out, I just can’t do it. Certainly, I could work harder to say more with less or get a real cutthroat of an editor, and I think depending on the voice, in some circumstances I probably should. But sometimes it’s just not possible for me and now I think I understand why.

When I was writing Commitment, The Seduction of Dylan Acosta and Unsuitable Men, I never envisioned them as romance novels in the purest sense. I saw the main characters’ relationships with themselves, and their process of self-evolution as being equally important as whether or not they ended up with the person they were in love with. I wanted to say more about their lives and their worlds than that they had fallen in love, faced some trouble getting together with their love interest and then finally gotten it together.

In ‘Commitment’, I wanted to explore image, fame, the changing face of hip-hop (an art form I’m still very much in love with – as an aside, if you’re in love with it too, you MUST check out  The Anthology of Rap by Adam Bradley and edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) and a man’s process of learning who he is. In ‘Unsuitable Men’, it was about Tracy and Brendan falling in love, but also about Tracy learning to overcome demons from her past that made her loathe herself and love only her outward appearance. And in ‘The Seduction of Dylan Acosta’ it was about how not knowing who you are renders you susceptible to all kinds of influences that would seek to define you. The romance was the carrot to lure you in, but I hoped the core of the stories was more than that.

In ‘Unsuitable Men’, for instance, I debated with myself for days whether the main protagonists should end up with each other at all. And I was aware that if they did, what would be most satisfying to the reader would be a ring and a wedding. But that outcome didn’t make sense to me, given the very difficult journey of acceptance and self-acceptance that the Tracy character was embarking on. She wasn’t ready for any of that. Her love of herself was too new for her to have perfected love with another person to such a degree that she could marry them. So I just could not deliver that ending. Likewise, I find it difficult to deliver the standard 250 – 275 page romance and say all that I want to say.  And that has had me very conflicted.

No resolutions reached yet, but something tells me that when I come out on the other side of this debate, I’ll probably still go long. At least a little.