I was curled up in bed last night finishing a novel. The lines went, “Shifting down further, Westfall gripped her knees, lifting and parting them before he moved forward and licked where his fingers had danced. Emily jumped, sensation and heat and lightning shooting down her spine and up again.” It progressed from there, as it had been doing throughout the story. Boots and pants were removed. Explorations of both bodies were carefully described. She gasped with pleasure when she pulled him inside her.
Yes, I’m reading romance novels. This is a new experience for me, and one that keeps surprising me. Really? I read romance novels? But I do, and I’m loving them.
I’m a feminist scholar. This column is called “Feminism Y’all,” so it initially seemed contradictory for me to be reading books called A Rogue by Any Other Name: The First Rule of Scoundrels or The Handbook to Handling His Lordship. I was afraid these books would be filled with screaming women carried off by powerful men, or they’d represent woman after woman being rescued by the ultra-masculine love interest.
As it turns out, the books I’m reading aren’t that way. They feature sex scenes where the women are consenting, even if they’re not sure exactly what’s going to happen next — and then the women are really happy with what happens next. The screaming women are screaming for another reason: “Neil sucked the citadel into his mouth, slid a finger into the warm recesses of paradise. As the orgasm grabbed her and flung her to Topeka, Olivia screamed loud and long. But he didn’t stop. While she convulsed and arched and felt herself going mad, he dallied, licked, touched, and played…”
The novels feature female protagonists who initially may seem to fit the stereotype of the helpless woman, but who ultimately save the day — or play a very significant part in saving the day. They have fun plots with twists and turns, controversy and conflict, moments when you hold your breath because it’s clear that everything is going to fall apart. But everything doesn’t fall apart, because these novels always have happy endings. And the happy endings are crucial for me.
Conseula Francis, a professor of English and African-American Studies at the College of Charleston, studies romance novels. “Here’s why the happy ending matters,” she told me. “These novels force us, whether we know it or not, to take joy seriously. Literary fiction often asks us to consider the pain and angst and ennui of human existence. Romance asks us to consider the pleasures.”
Because I live in South Carolina, I spend a lot of time being outraged. This spring has offered so many opportunities for outrage that I’ve been talking about it nonstop. I’m glad to be doing it — challenging homophobia, threats to academic freedom, and legislative tyranny is crucial. We need activists of all kinds working to support the full humanity of all of us.
But outrage is exhausting. And it doesn’t resolve issues quickly. We have to fight and fight and fight again. This is one of the crucial things for me about romance novels: no matter how dramatically awful the situation is, you know that it’ll resolve in a satisfying way. Knowing that the ending will be happy makes it worth it for me. I’m not afraid. I don’t have to gear myself up for the tragedy, the conclusion of the novel where I’ll have to sigh and acknowledge that the world does, in fact, suck.
The world does suck. So occasionally it’s relieving — and important — to recognize the possibility for human connection and satisfaction. As Conseula points out, “The world can be awful, and these novels can honestly acknowledge the awfulness while still giving us a sense of a happy life in the midst of cultural challenges. Even as we’re fighting injustice, we’re allowed to be happy.” We’re allowed to enjoy reading things like, “She opened his trousers and pushed them down past his hips … His cock pressed against her inner thighs, hard and full. Emily arched her hips, opening to him, and without lifting away from her he slid inside.”
Conseula notes, “The novels are accessible, too, which means I can talk about them with all sorts of women. We can connect across our differences and enjoy feeling good.”
The female protagonists get to have adventures. They get to be competent. And they get to have great sex. Reading them is a fully feminist act.
And it’s really fun.