Jane, You Promiscuous Slut: What Romance Readers Want/Don’t Want

1At Lady Smut today we had a guest post by Jill Sorenson which focused on sex workers as heroines in romance fiction. My mind is exploding with responses to this fascinating topic.

First of all, someone in the comments sections said: don’t sex workers deserve an HEA too?

*Of course* they do! Yet as Clint Eastwood said in UNFORGIVEN: “It ain’t about deserving.”

A great romance is about more than just a happy ending. THEORY: a great romance is about the specialness that a couple (or threesome) finds in each other, and the intimate connections they discover and build upon, until their love is strong and enduring.

6Years ago, I got a final ‘no’ from a big publisher after getting close to a ‘yes’ with the editor. Those crushing moments are always really motivating for me.  I realized I didn’t know what the f*** I was doing when it came to writing erom.  My husband suggested get my heiny down to a bookstore and start doing research. I ended up getting an armful of erotic romances and THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO WRITING EROTIC ROMANCE. Here was the first thing I learned:

A) Reader’s don’t like promiscuous heroines.
B) It’s okay if a heroine has been sleeping around BEFORE she meets the hero, as long as she’s miserable.  But AFTER she meets him no more nookie with other men.

And–the same rules apply with the hero (or heroes as the case may be).

At first I was huffing with disapproval. It seemed an un-feminist attitude at the least. And they didn’t discuss WHY — they just said, ‘hey readers don’t like it, so boom!’

Not everybody read this book, of course. You can find TONS of erotic romances out there that breaks these rules. Yet I soon learned that when a book breaks this rule and has a promiscuous heroine I don’t like her.

Doh.

I’m not talking erotica, that’s a whole other kettle of fish. I’m talking romance.

On the other hand, I don’t like promiscuous heroes either. If anything, I’ve been jonesing lately on Charlotte Stein’s sexually repressed heroes. She paints a portrait of the nice guy who needs the dirty talking girl to strip the nice off of him, and let his inner, filthy, lustful desires come whiffling out. A virgin guy, a near virgin guy, a nice guy–I like ’em all!

The man-whore who sleeps all around and up and down? Him?  Not so much.

2Yet in the end I think it has little to do with a lack of feminism, little to do with ‘well, that’s just people’s preference, what can you do?’ and much more to do with the building blocks of romance.

It goes back to that special and intimate ideal.

A woman happily sleeping with a lot of guys and then after she’s met the hero sleeping with a lot more? Where’s the special in that?

There’s a word scientists use — fungible. That means exchangeable. Replaceable. When the heroine is sleeping around–it doesn’t mean she’s a slut.  Maybe she’s a free spirit, ya? But it probably means the hero is fungible to her.

But we don’t like being considered fungible as humans. We want to believe we’re unique and irreplaceable.

On the other hand, if a hero or a heroine has slept around trying to scratch that itch, whether physically or mentally –but no one does it for them? Then suddenly THE ONE comes along–THAT’S special. THAT works. That person is giving them what no one else could, and it makes that person unique.

5Same goes with intimacy. When I read a book where the hero and heroine have boinked, you know, the whole world, or had five spouses between them, etc, it’s hard for the author to establish intimacy through sex. Why? Well, they’ve been there, done that.  What are they saying that they haven’t said before?

Okay, so what’s an author to do about this? I say what if the hero or heroine was still sleeping around, but there was some OTHER way in which H/h were special to each other? Some other form of intimacy that they bonded over?

You could show it in other ways. Soldiering together could do it. Hurting/caring for each other is a stable trope in fan fic, and it’s divine. I think that would work.  Whatever — just as long as the erotic romance authors who violate the promiscuity ‘rule’ makes sure to nail down that special and intimate thing between the two of them in some other way.

3I mean, isn’t this why we get so hung up on bromance? Isn’t this why we whinny at the whiff of homoeroticism in the air?

These ‘friends’ are learning to view each other as unique.  They are having special intimate moments no one else can share. They are building a powerful bond–even without sex.

THAT’s what romance is all about, in my book.

There was this great moment in the movie HER where the main character is in love with an A.I. (an artificial intelligence operating system) named Samantha. They can’t have sex, they can’t physically be together, but it’s okay ’cause they’re in love, and they’re emotionally intimate with each other. Until…

*SPOILER ALERT* Samantha reveals that she’s in love with, oh, 641 other people as well as him. Ptank goes his heart. Not so special or unique is he? They’re intimate–but she’s intimate with many, many, many others as well.  He’s not so special after all.

SO. Bring on your sex worker heroines. If she’s forced to do it (like in some Skye Warren books) then it de-facto makes all the men she’s sleeping with un-special and all the sex not intimate. So that’s not really promiscuity, is it? It satisfies the miserable with others rule.

4If she is gonna boink others cause that’s how she makes bank — then sex isn’t special to her and they’ll have something else they do with just the two of them together, in private. Something that matters to them both. Something that makes them very close to each other – so close that they’ll never be able go back to just being lovers or just friends.

Then you’ve got a romance cooking, mah friends, and I’d read that puppy, no problem.

I wince a little, because you may not have an erotic romance at this point — unless the sex they have together is radically different and special (or so satisfyingly kinky) compared to the sex she has with other people.

But I mean, it’d have to be different to the point where the sex she’s having with others doesn’t even seem like sex by comparison, like it might as well be fly fishing or something.

Yet I think it can work.  In the same way we like the repressed male stripped of his repressive covering, we like the shut-down-miserable-worm heroine who has numbed herself out and removed her mind elsewhere to feel herself suddenly respond, suddenly come alive.  We want to see her helplessly reveal herself–her passions, her intimate desires to someone.  You CAN do it, I believe, but you just have to do it the right way.

 

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5 thoughts on “Jane, You Promiscuous Slut: What Romance Readers Want/Don’t Want

  1. A few points.

    #1. Sex work extends far beyond simply full service sex work (having penetrative sex with people for money). Why do you assume sexual encounters with customers have to be on the page if the character is being presented as a SW? Isn’t it enough to accept that she’s said once, “I am a sex worker,” same as if she’d said “I am a bank teller.” Do we need to see her handling her billionaire boyfriend’s stacks of cash differently than the money she deals with at work to be assured that she’s telling the truth, and there IS a difference in her money-counting skills? I don’t agree that it’s such a stretch to accept a characters’ sexual relationships as possessing different kinds of intimacy or trust that can add substantially to the romantic conflict and drama of the main story. Just look at Pretty Woman. It’s got its own problems, but the contrast between some of the sex with Richard Gere and the implied lacklusterness of her normal clients stands as a solid counterexample to the situation you describe, in which the hero’s utterly replaceable due to the other sex she’s having. As laid out, Pretty Woman follows the unhappy sex before/happy with hero trope, but even if she WERE doing SW concurrently with her gig with Gere, if it weren’t a live-in gig, that sex with him would STILL stand out as starkly different from her encounters with clients.
    #2. Writing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Propagating tropes such as the trafficking narratives you describe harms actual sex workers AND sex trafficking victims, since that’s all the experience most people ever have of them, with the industry so heavily stigmatized and under the table. These tropes don’t represent the experiences of trafficking victims OR consenting sex workers well at all, and contribute to the erasure of those people’s voices in public policy and perception.
    It’s just as damaging in total as other problematic racial tropes, such as the black guy dying first in horror movies, and never being allowed to be the main character. Given that most of the SWs your average person is going to see in fiction are a) trafficked or b) a dead body held up as a prop or plot device, such as in procedural shows, that’s a very serious problem. It’s not about it being antifeminist, so much as it’s about an unwillingness to challenge these tropes contributing to sex workers being one of the most marginalized and misunderstood groups worldwide.
    #3. One of the reasons sex workers are some of the most amazing characters to write is because the work creates a LOT of interesting conversations around intimacy and nuance that you wouldn’t otherwise have- no two people view the work the same way, or have the same working boundaries. Think beyond sex. As Melissa Gira Grant says- consenting to the lifestyle is not consenting to ALL things that happen to you while you’re in the lifestyle. Consent is conditional, and negotiated, for sex workers, same as everyone else. All sex is not the same, whether it’s in a monogamous context or not. Is the sex someone has with a partner when they’re tired and just cranky about their partner being horny the same as the sex someone has with that partner in the middle of a lush vacation or after a really tender date night? Of course not.

    Finding ways to subvert a stereotype or trope while being respectful to the community affected is essential. That’s the right way to do it- and dismissing the intricacies of sex work as simple promiscuity is doing your work, and your readers a disfavor.

  2. But Katie…the issue about women and sex in romances isn’t just about how sex workers are represented in romances or why they’re unpopular — I’m talking about the wide net of distaste on the part of the bulk of romance readers for all women heroines who enjoy engaging in a lot of sex with a lot of different men within a short time span…so I AM talking about heroines who are engaging in simple promiscuity along with heroines who engage in the intricacies of sex work. I’m sorry if you do not like the two being compared side by side, but as a romance writer, I see the problems of presenting both types of heroines as having related issues — from a writer’s perspective.

    Also, I’m trying to analyze this from a writer’s/reader’s point of view, looking at romance books as little machines that deliver a dose of romantic/sexual catharsis. I will ponder your point more that sex workers should be treated as if they have a job just like anyone else, but man, my initial reaction is that with some kinds of sex work I don’t agree with you AT ALL. Some types of prostitution seems to involve every kind of potential evil known to mankind: from slavery, to child child abuse, to particularly egregious health and safety issues, and an almost total lack of worker’s rights in every possible way. I could perhaps imagine a romance in which the sw describes her job in swift detail and can convey that this particular SW job is about as safe and boring or whatever as being a bank teller, but how could a reader even BEGIN to make that assumption about the sex work unless it was spelled out?

    I’m not saying I advocate or endorse the sex trafficking narrative I described. I don’t write dark erotica. I’m merely analyzing WHY that narrative is swallowed by readers without a problem. Your comment is like blaming someone for endorsing porn if they’re discussing WHY men or women consume it. Someone simply looking at the topic and trying to figure it out doesn’t mean they endorse it.

    But I hear your passion and I’m taking in your arguments. It is making me more highly conscious of these problematic tropes. I will do my best not to perpetuate them myself in the future.

    I guess I don’t assume that the work of a sex worker is always penetrative sex, or that it’s shown on the page. As I wrote the blog post was casting my mind back to the last book I read with a sex worker heroine and how THAT BOOK showed her having sex with clients, as well as having sex with men she was interested in/attracted to. But I didn’t really care for the book at all, so I didn’t want to specifically reference it, even as I was trying to figure out why that book didn’t work for me as a reader.

    Finally – is commercial genre fiction a place to, as you say, ‘subvert a stereotype or trope while being respectful to the community affected’? Hey, maybe it is. Romance writers and readers on the whole seem like a fairly inclusive bunch. On the other hand, I mean, I’m already gagging on how often there is this expectation for heroines in romances to be totally self-sacrificing…I feel like I’m pushing the boundaries just writing about a heroine who’s NOT self-sacrificing and doesn’t want children to boot. That’s the boundary I’m interested in pushing forward. It’s going to be interesting to see how much changes in the near future with regards to romance readers and their attitudes. A new generation of women are going to have incredibly different perspectives on sex, nudity, etc. and we may advance far more swiftly than I can even imagine. At least I hope so!

    1. Commercial fiction absolutely is a place to subvert expectations and in the process build empathy for those left out of the dominant narratives. It’s what makes the greats stand out. Children who’ve read Harry Potter have been shown to be more empathetic, and sympathetic toward diverse people. Our brains do what we train them to. And when we never produce media in which sex workers are seen as part of a community, or loved, we create an environment in which we perceive sex workers to be outside of either of those. And that makes it easier to stomach violence against them.

      “I will ponder your point more that sex workers should be treated as if they have a job just like anyone else, but man, my initial reaction is that with some kinds of sex work I don’t agree with you AT ALL. Some types of prostitution seems to involve every kind of potential evil known to mankind: from slavery, to child child abuse, to particularly egregious health and safety issues, and an almost total lack of worker’s rights in every possible way. ”

      This is where you and I are gonna part ways again. What you’re describing isn’t prostitution, but trafficking and labor violations, which are common when prostitution is stigmatized, criminalized, and conflated with trafficking, negating individuals’ ability to negotiate or consent. Or when this stigma deprives workers of legal rights (US anti-prostitution criminalization and anti-trafficking incarceration), or makes it impossible for legal workers to advocate for themselves (US independent contractor misclassifications in strip clubs). There’s already laws against it, and it’s an issue that breaks down into many other issues that render some populations vulnerable to exploitation as well: institutional racism, multi-generational poverty, transphobia, homophobia, disability, classism, ableism and mental illness, stigma against drug users, lack of resources to target youth homelessness, etc. Conflating that with every commercial sex transaction only serves to drive both further underground.

      Only by talking with current and former sex workers about their experiences, and furthering THOSE stories will you be able to ensure sex work happens consensually, in the safest environments possible. In New Zealand, where sex work’s decriminalized completely, sex workers have both protected their own and worked with law enforcement to track down a serial murderer. (http://nypost.com/2015/05/21/why-sex-workers-love-their-jobs-in-new-zealand/) His kill count was 3. Compare that to the Green River Killer, who preyed on women for decades. When he was finally caught, he confessed to more than twice the number of victims he was convicted for- 49. Or Robert Hansen, who murdered at least seventeen women, though possibly more than thirty. Sex workers who got away from him sought help from the police and were mocked, turned away, and threatened. THIS is what happens when sex work is treated as illegitimate and forced out of sight. It ensures victims are too afraid to speak about it, and those who might assist police in investigating these crimes are afraid for their own safety. (http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/alaska-declares-open-season-on-sex-workers-922)

      Sex workers and clients SHOULD be law enforcement’s greatest allies in exposing the types of egregious crimes that you’re describing, however they can’t be so long as we are raised to believe them unrepentant criminals, broken people, or somehow “different” from people on the street, Nor so long as they face the potential of being arrested, themselves, for reporting it. Narratives like the ones I’ve been arguing against reinforce all of those harmful preconceptions, and make it MORE difficult to influence people to bring sex work into the light, where labor abuses and violent crimes can be treated as such without victims being viewed as natural collateral damage, and their suffering thus unavoidable. If you’re interested in learning more, the website Tits and Sass has great coverage, and pretty much everything written by Melissa Gira Grant, Maggie McNeill, Tara Burns, and Laura Augustin is spectacular. $pread produced an amazing print edition with great coverage by those in the industry, as well. All of these are great background.

      Sex work is a very difficult topic to handle in fiction, and I think the one thing you and I both agree on is that many of the people who tackle it lack nuance or experience. But if you’re careful and take the time to listen to sex workers, you’ll find plenty in there to create empathy and nuance without flattening them to unsympathetic sluts. Obviously, your mileage varies by subgenre. But romance as a whole can do better, even without compromising readers’ expectations for a sympathetic heroine who grows as her journey toward love continues. Not every heroine is for everyone- you’re more than welcome to dislike promiscuous heroes and heroines. But there’s more than enough room to create those characters for other readers in ways that are organic and respectful to the marginalized populations who bear the brunt of the stereotypes associated with them every day.

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