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Romance And Why Everyone Should Read It: An Essay

Brief (TL;DR):

Romance gets more hate and ridicule than any other genre of books, yet continues to outperform all genres. Maybe there’s a reason for it. In this essay, I will discuss why romance books are not just valid but essential for everyone, regardless of sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation, but especially for cis/het men and women.

The Long Of It

If you have ever bought, read, or discussed a romance book in public, it’s a safe bet to assume you have encountered some sort of negative response from the people around you. This could be as subtle as looks of disgust, or mocking snorts/giggles, or as complex as a prolonged diatribe about how romance is just “porn” that will rot your brain and give you unrealistic expectations of men/relationships, and how you’re going to end up dying alone and your cats will eat your corpse. If you are an experienced romance reader, you likely learned to keep your reading preferences to yourself, and only encounter this kind of ignorance online. It still has an effect.

You would think this sort of bullshit would get old after a while, that people would learn to live with the fact that romance books aren’t going anywhere, and find something else to make fun of, but no. It just demonstrates another (more minor) reason why the people who continually mock Romance without having any experience with it need to read it: they lack imagination.

But instead of focusing on the hate, let’s talk about why romance books are actually awesome, and necessary.

NOTE: Representation is incredibly important in all forms of media and entertainment and, while it has improved a lot in recent years, I am sorry to say representation for certain groups is still very much low or lacking even in the Romance genre today. Because the majority of Romance is still centered around monogamous, cis-het couples (which therefore become the target of the type of mockery described above), these are the books I will focus on in this essay. It is in no way intended to imply that these are the only types relationships present in the Romance genre.

Part 1: Humans are social creatures who reproduce sexually

This is not a philosophical point of contention. It’s a statement of scientific fact. We are a social species. We live and survive in groups. And we need partners to reproduce. This makes relationships of all kinds an inevitable part of life. Period. Hard stop.

Therefore, any story you tell, regardless of genre, will include relationships of some sort. Very often, those relationships will be romantic or sexual in nature. It plays into our hardwired drive to propagate our genetic line, gives the story emotional depth, and (in a society that sexualizes everything) titillates audiences and keeps them reading.

Without relationships and proper emotional depth, any story you tell will be meaningless and boring. The only difference between the genre of Romance (capital R) and all others is the level of emphasis placed on the relationship aspect of the story. Which just means more pages are devoted to the emotional and sexual connection between the characters. This makes a lot of people very uncomfortable, because they are not used to that level of emotional literacy. Because of our (used here to refer to “us” as a society) unhealthy relationship to sex and sexuality, they only understand the physical drives of their own bodies, but lack the emotional intelligence to grasp how someone else might feel differently, and how they might prioritize an emotional/spiritual connection over a physical one.

In today’s isolationist world, where we rely so much on digital communication, interpersonal relationships suffer. We are losing the kind of social interactions that have forged communications skills and strong personal bonds in the past. Romance provides case studies for how to interact with people face-to-face. And no, it’s not always positive, but by focusing on the emotional side, it showcases how certain actions or words affect the other person. It teaches that some things we were taught as a matter of fact are wholly unacceptable (objectifying women, unwanted advances, etc.), while others we were taught to avoid are actually necessary for our physical and emotional well being (casual affection, emotional vulnerability, etc.). It teaches not just how our actions affect others, but how the actions of others might have affected us in return.

Part 2: Patriarchal rules and mores have screwed over both men and women

Building on the point above, let’s explore the concept of emotional intelligence in the context of a patriarchal society.

What girls are taught:
Be patient, kind, gentle, and understanding. Be the shoulder to cry on. Your role is to be a nurturer and care-giver to your husband and children. You are emotional, and therefore the heart of the household. This makes you precious, but also weak and incapable of existing in this world without the protection and leadership of a man (your father, or your husband). Develop strong friendships and sisterhoods with the women in your life. They will understand your life experience and become your support system. But you can’t do that with men. Men only want one thing, and they will interpret any niceness or kind gesture as flirting. You shouldn’t lead them on. Also, be patient with men. They don’t mature as fast as you. “Boys will be boys”, you know. It’s your job to be the voice of reason and maturity, and just accept the fact that men will never understand you emotionally. But they’re more intelligent, so they’re better equipped to hold positions of power and leadership, in the household as well as in the world.

What boys are taught:
Be strong and stoic. You are the guardian and provider for your family. We don’t talk about our feelings. Emotions make you weak, and real men don’t cry. Don’t even talk about it with your buddies, they’ll just mock you for it. What are you doing, hugging your best friend? Are you gay? If a girl smiles at you, it means she wants you. Women only compliment guys they are really into. “No” means “try harder.” Cooking and cleaning are women’s work. So is child rearing. A wife will set your house straight and provide that “feminine touch.” Men can’t be friends with women. If they are, it just means one of them likes the other more, and the other is either oblivious or exploiting the situation. Don’t get stuck in the “friend zone.” Be the man of the house. Your wife should be obedient and subservient. Women should be pretty and quiet. Strong women are masculine. You don’t want that.

This artificial gender divide accomplishes a few things:

  1. It isolates us from each other and makes it impossible for us to meet on an equal footing, because we are taught from very early on that we are not equal and never can be. Women are the emotional ones, men are the logical ones. Women lack physical strength and intelligence, while men are completely useless in any and all domestic labors.
  2. It robs men of the opportunity and responsibility to develop their own emotional intelligence. Not only are they not taught empathy for others, they aren’t allowed to fully explore their own emotions and develop their own emotional support systems. This can be incredibly isolating and lead to loneliness, depression, and suicidal tendencies.
  3. It forces women into the role of “madona and whore” where they’re meant to be sex objects for men’s enjoyment, but at the same time never have any sexual desires of their own, because their only role and desire should be to become mothers. This creates strong feelings of resentment, bitterness, and leads to burnout, depression, and a host of other issues.

Romance to the rescue!
Romance novels, especially those written by women, very often feature strong, capable heroines who don’t take crap from the dismissive men in their lives. By doing so, they portray women as people first, and females second. In other words, it breaks women out of the restrictive role of wife and mother, and shows off their full potential in all its terrifying glory.

At the same time, it gives male characters emotional depth, portraying them as not just the muscle riding in to save the day, but as people who have the capacity to understand their partners, or learn to understand them, and value them the same way women are taught to understand and value everyone else. In other words, the “fantasy” of these romantic heroes is someone who puts in the same amount of emotional labor, but it does so without undermining their masculine strength.

And last but not least is the trope of “found family,” which spotlights interpersonal relationships outside the primary romance and provides a strong support network for both the primary characters. This will include both men and women, demonstrating that non-romantic relationships can exist between men and women without undermining the romantic attachments they have.

All of these harmonize together and teach by example the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships. Which leads to…

Part 3: What we expect and demand from our relationships changes

(Not-so-fun historical facts about women):

  • Historically, marriage was not a matter of love (or personal choice). It was a vehicle for shifting property, and ensuring that wealth remained within the man’s bloodline. In that arrangement, women were not considered as people but part of the property acquisition. They were “given” in marriage at an early age (sometimes as early as 13, when their menses began) to older, established men. They had no rights, no property of their own, and could not leave the marriage. The husband had absolute rights to the woman, and her offspring, and there were no repercussions for his treatment of them (up to, and including murder).
  • Wife beating or domestic violence was legal in the US until 1920, but women were not allowed to initiate divorce proceedings in the US until 1937, and then only in cases of adultery, cruelty or desertion. No-fault divorce wasn’t allowed until 1969 with a ruling in California.
  • Women in the US weren’t allowed to have their own bank accounts until 1974, and weren’t allowed to take out a business loan until 1988. This made women wholly dependent on men for their general survival.
  • Marital rape didn’t become recognized as a crime in all 50 states until 1993.
  • As of April 2024, only 12 states in the US have banned child marriage. As of March 2024, there are four states where there is no statutory minimum age for marriage when all exemptions were taken into account.

There is more, but this should give you an idea of the generational and societal trauma that women have carried for ages. And I do mean ages. Feminism is the fight against these injustices. It is not man-hate, it has nothing to do with trying to make one sex superior to the other. It is the battle women fight every single day to be seen as people. Not objects, not possessions, not toys. People. Anyone who says otherwise is doing so because they are fighting tooth and nail to preserve their patriarchal privileges.

And this is, again, where Romance comes in. Because Romance is the ultimate weapon we have against the injustices of the world. Romance tells us we are not irrational for feeling unloved, unappreciated, used, abused, and ignored. It tells us we are worthy, and we don’t have to settle for mistreatment for the sake of companionship. Because what we are asking for is the barest minimum of how a person, let alone a partner should be treating us. And by witnessing all these fictional women living their best lives, feeling their feelings, winning their battles, taking up space, making noise, and finding devoted partners who love and cherish them for every single one of those things, we learn that it is not only possible to find the same for ourselves, it should be a requirement.

Women now have every opportunity to take care of ourselves. We can go to school and get any degree; we can earn our own money; we can choose our own partners. And, for perhaps the first time in history, we are finally able to decide that no partner is preferable to a bad partner. Our standards have changed. And now the onus on meeting those standards is on the people who would be our potential partners. Which makes many of them bitter and resentful, because all they have ever been taught is that they are entitled to women as their natural right. They have never been taught how to earn a woman as an equal partner.

The good news is, we are literally handing out manuals for how to be a good partner. We are screaming it from the rooftops. With every book we read, every celebrity we idolize and thirst over, with every bad (and good) date and every reel we make about them, we are telling men exactly what we’re looking for in a partner. Seriously, there is no way for us to make it any more obvious.

But we can only control what we say, not what people hear and internalize. I can tell you a hundred different ways that Romance books are beautifully written, complex works of literary fantasy with incredible character development, engaging plots, and titillating love scenes. I can give you dozens, if not hundreds of recommendations, and in-depth analyses of what makes those books so amazing. But if all you ever hear is “love scenes” and dismiss me out of hand, there’s nothing I can do about it.

Thus, we at last arrive at…

The Conclusion

Romance tells the story of the human experience from the perspective of a subset of our species that has been silenced and swept under the rug for far too long. History is written by the conquerors. Men have conquered women for so long, we often forget that they make up half of the population. Just because we don’t talk about them doesn’t mean history isn’t full of strong women who lived their lives in ways that still terrify men to this day. We like to forget how powerful women can be. Romance reminds us of it. It showcases our strength without robbing us of our femininity. And it shows us that men can be emotional and vulnerable without being emasculated.

People who ignore or belittle Romance as a genre do it to their own detriment. Because Romance isn’t going anywhere. It’s been here since the dawn of the written word, and it will be here until humanity itself is dust. We read it and write it because, on some level, we all yearn for love, acceptance, and companionship. And within the pages of Romance books, we get to witness and live those things safely, without the risk of rejection, heartbreak, or physical violence. I genuinely don’t see how that can ever be a bad thing…

To those who say Romance is inferior as a genre and not worth the time to read or write, I say it’s a lot easier to write a scene of graphic, gratuitous violence than a good sex scene that doesn’t cross the line into humor or satire. But beyond that, there is nothing in Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Comedy, Tragedy, or Crime/Mystery novels that you can’t find in Romance. Even Horror has a part to play in Romance sub-genres. And all of those books have beautiful prose, incredibly detailed world building and complex story arcs. So when you say Romance is inferior, what exactly do you mean…?

To those who say Romance gives us unrealistic expectations of men, I say sit with that a moment, and ponder why that might be. What are the true expectations we get from romance? And what makes them so unrealistic? I’ll give you a hint: it’s not about the height, or the muscle, or the money. Look deeper (if you can…).

To those who say Romance is just porn in word form, I say so what? Pornography in all forms of media has been prevalent throughout the history of humanity, usually formatted for the male gaze. Why would it bother you so much that there is now a form of it created purely for the female gaze and experience? Is it because you don’t concern yourself with female pleasure? Because you don’t know how to give it? Or because you don’t think women should have it?  Maybe think about it for a minute, and consider if this is where your idea of “unrealistic expectations” comes from.

By the way...

For those of you just joining us, I am a voracious reader of many genres, and a writer of a few as well. The titles you will find on my website vary between Sci-Fi and Fantasy, but all will have various levels of romance and smut. Feel free to explore at your leisure. I invite you to check out the samples, maybe give one or two a try. You might find you actually like them…

And for my devoted followers and readers, I still love you all, and I promise I haven’t forgotten about you. I am very, very close to finishing the first draft of Shadow Hound (Blood & Shadows, book 6) but life keeps conspiring against me and pulling me away from the keyboard, so it’s taking a little longer than anticipated. I am working toward a late 2024 release date, but can’t promise it for sure. I also have a few other things cooking on the back burner, in various stages of development, so rest assured, this will not be the last book I ever publish.

As always, I am so grateful for your patience and support. If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading. If what I’ve said here resonated with you, please share. If you have a different take, I’m happy to hear it. I welcome all comments, as long as they’re respectful.

Until next time!

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