The curse of the historical romance

FAMILY, THIS POST IS NOT FOR YOU. Read if you must, but I'll deny everything if you ever bring it up.

Let me get right to it:

The historical romance (or any romance) novel is as fantastical as Lord of the Rings or The Wheel of Time. Where any young, underdog man can save the world from powers much fiercer than they, in a romance novel a woman is a fine, orgasmic creature who weds a dashing man with vast wealth and then is forever happy.

Yeah, pretty damn fantastical if you ask me.

Also, the woman is unnervingly beautiful, modest, feisty, and a virgin. If she happens to no longer be a virgin, then her previous sexual experiences were due to either rape or grudging obligation, the end result is in all things not directly hymen-related she is as virginal as a any young woman during her first sexual encounters. Or, otherwise clueless. Her cluelessness, however, does not affect her love for all things hot, hard, and male. She is not put off by bodily fluids or squishing sounds or a 250lb man grunting on her in ways she's never known were even possible. No, in fact, she relishes it and welcomes even more.

And why wouldn't she more? Her man is most likely some kind of rebel, outcast, or pioneer. He's incredibly wealthy, either by birth or happenstance, and he knows how to keep it coming. He loves all things female, including shampooing her hair in a giant copper bathtub, and he never climaxes before her. EVER. In fact, he makes it his manly duty to make sure she orgasms as many times as she's humanly capable.

So, yeah, if men the world wide were like this dude, probably named Sir Thrustalot of the Aisle of Longtime, I'm sure couples would be having sex everywhere you looked: on a horse, behind trees, in abandoned hunting lodges, beside that babbling brook, and of course on the giant master bedroom bed with a fire roaring nearby.


I picked up my first romance novel, a historical one, when I was about 14. It was probably the biggest mistake - of my own doing - in my sexual development. My mother, to my knowledge, had never read one (and still hasn't) and therefore she had no idea what I was sponging up all those years: the messages, the soft-core porn, the ideology. I would devour these books with half-clad girls on the cover being cradled or towered over by burly semi-dressed men by the dozens. I must have read hundreds by the time I finished high school. I was screwed, so to speak, by the way these girls were getting screwed.

From these books I learned that I was to fight a man, but eventually succumb to my own heightened desires. I was to find pleasure in his desire to seduce me whether I wanted it or not. I learned that a man would always know how to pleasure me, regardless of the level of emotional intimacy. I knew that to be considered truly beautiful I was to stop music mid note, lo, snatch the breath from every man in the room and be envied by every woman. I was to reach orgasm in any way a man attempted it in as little time as possible. My man would innately know my feelings, which automatically precluded any kind of dialogue between us. And lastly, a relationship based on lust and sexual satisfaction always parlayed into deep, intimate, lifelong bonds.

To say this fucked me up pretty bad is an enormous understatement.

I was all over the place with boys (and no where with girls). I thought boys were supposed to know when I liked them, wanted to go further than 1st base, and when I wanted to be "over-powered". I once took 3+ hours to kiss a boy because he wouldn't just grab me and kiss me and so he moved about a hair-a-minute until he was facing my lips and could get a good angle. And the funny thing was that I really wanted to kiss him! But my exclusive romance novel training had taught me that I was to wait and be told what to do.

It literally took me years to deprogram and then reprogram myself from this ideology of horny victim into horny participant. Lots of thinking about it and working to get out of my fantasy head space and into an intelligent, meaningful, participatory role with my partner.

As an adult, I continue to enjoy romance novels, but I now know the reality of sex and relationships and can digest these steamy tales as fantasy and not as how things are supposed to be. I can use them as spice to my life and not as the rule. And quite frankly, my tastes are discerning. I read novels where everyone is consenting, there's lots of discussion about feelings and the relationship, and where each of the characters are somewhat fallible. No one has silky soft pubic hair, either. I skip the dumbed-down romance novels of the ilk I first read. Yes, the ladies are beautiful, but often only to their men. And yeah, the men are ridiculously wealthy and hunky, but whatever: no bills to worry about so why not have some more lovin'!

At least now I have a filter through which to enjoy it all. As a young girl it damaged my outlook on everything sex- and relationship-related. I thought I fell short, that my young suitors fell short, and that the whole thing was somehow my fault.

I can't lay all the blame at the feet of the books I read, obviously I didn't have any real life role models on which to base my development. I don't really know how other girls do it. And I'm not alone in this: I have a close friend who feels the same way about the romance novels she read as a teenager as I do and feels it greatly altered her outlook on men and sex. In fact, I don't really know any women who weren't somehow affected by the expectations (of both men and women) in a romance novel. I mean, how many of you romance novel readers were ever disappointed that your partner didn't know how to make you orgasm five minutes after he met you?? Weren't they all supposed to just know that? Weren't they pulled aside in high school and taught by the friendly, and disease-free, town madame how to work it? Coached, as it were, into becoming unadulterated sex gods??

So, from one woman to any parent of a young girl out there who might be reading those romance novels, I beg you to open a dialogue with her about what's going on in her pages. To share with her that it's fantasy, not even close to reality, and why. That relationships take an open and honest approach, that no one reads minds. Tell her her imperfections are perfect: things sag and jiggle and it's beautiful and ok. Sexual pleasure in the form of climax takes work and often lots of experience and practice. And most importantly, that a to be a woman - a sexual woman - does not include giving up her power or accepting force, but involves instead a connection between her desires and her full consent. And nothing short of that is ok.

[Ed. note: This is a conversation I've had for years now with my friends. Interestingly enough, my male friends have shared that their fantasy books also screwed with their idea of what it was to be male in this world; that they felt somehow less because they haven't done anything miraculous or heroic in their lifetime. It never occurs to them to feel like a failure because they're not like Duncan Larksthrush. Funny how that works.]

[Ed. note 2: I don't even have a proper tag for this... am I really going to start talking about sex so frequently I need to add a sex tag??]


  1. This post is hilarious. I, too, read romance novels in high school. Actually, it's probably more appropriate to say that I devoured them. I probably read at least one book per week. I even went to such great lengths as to hide the covers because I was so embarrassed to be reading them, but just couldn't help myself.

    I tend to stay away from the bodice-rippers these days, instead opting for the more appropriately termed "chick lit". ;)

  2. Jessica, this was really interesting. My parents were strict and I wasn't allowed to read romance novels, but I grew up reading a lot of Sweet Valley High. They were "clean" but screwed me up big time. First of all, there were hardly any minorities and the characters were flawless in terms of appearance. For so long, I felt like the most attractive people were skinny yet curvy, blond, tall, blue-eyed, and so I thought I paled in comparison. Isn't it great when you grow up and separate conditioning from reality?

  3. I've long felt the same about my consumption of heavy metal music in high school - you know, the albums where 9 of the songs are about screwing her and 1 is about looooooove? Really alters your ideas of how men and women are supposed to behave.