Friday, January 8, 2016

Do You Read Lesbian Romance?

In putting together the RNFF Best of 2015 list, I was more than a little aware of the imbalance in my LGBTQ selections: 6 books with two male protagonists, but only one with two female lovers. This is due in large part to my own reading choices; I read far more gay male romances this past year than I did lesbian romances. Why, though, was that, precisely? I began to think about some of the reasons why this might be:

• Because there are more m/m romances being published than lesbian romances?

Nope. Turns out that a search of m/m romance published in 2015 (via amazon) turns up 12,112 titles, while a search for lesbian romance for the same period returns 14,002 titles.

• Because fewer lesbian romances are available as e-books, and thus tend to cost more?

Apparently not. Another amazon search for the period 2015, limiting the format to "Kindle edition" returns 10,180 m/m ebook romances, and 13,097 e-book lesbian romances.

• Because m/m romance is newer, the hot new thing, while lesbian romance has been around for the past 50 years?

Amazon hits for m/m romance published in the past five years, by year:
2015: 12,112
2014:   7,482
2013:   4,646
2012:   3,559
2011:   1,641

Amazon hits for lesbian romance published in the past five years, by year:
2015: 14,002
2014:   9,082
2013:   4,821
2012:   3,545
2011:   1,508

Pretty similar growth trajectories, no?

• Because, as lesbian romance author and publisher Radclyffe suggests in her essay during 2014's Queer Romance month, lesbian romance is a niche market, and hence far less visible to those outside its niche than are other types of romances?

A general Google search turns up 128 million entries for "m/m romance" but only 26 million for "lesbian romance." Yes, visibility is definitely an issue.

• Because lesbian romances are marketed primarily to lesbian audiences, while m/m romance has its eyes on female, as well as male, readers?

Don't know if there is a way to test this one out—perhaps by conducting a survey of publishers? Or of self-publishing authors? A project for the future, perhaps...

• Because lesbian romance as a genre dates back to the 1970s, and often follows the format of heterosexual romance from that period (i.e., short category romance a la Harlequin and Mills & Boon), while m/m romance, which emerged far later (around 2000?), was born in a time when the romance format was less restricted? And thus m/m romance often feels richer, character-wise, than lesbian romance?

My own far from thoroughly-tested theory, based on the (admittedly) few lesbian romances I've read in the past few years. One I'd be interested to hear from lesbian romance writers about.

• Because lesbian romances have fewer, or less hot, sex scenes?

Again, far from any sort of expert on this topic myself; would love to hear from lesbian romance readers about their perception of how the portrayal of sex in their romances has changed (or not) over the years...

• Because I'm uncomfortable, if not outright homophobic, when it comes to lesbian sex? Or, to put it more kindly, I'm more turned on/interested by sex scenes where at least one male (my primary object of sexual interest) appears?

Could well be.

My goal for 2016 is to more actively seek and out and read lesbian romance. Would love to hear your recommendations...

And a question for of you: heterosexual readers who enjoy reading m/m romance, do you read lesbian romance, too? If you don't, do any of the possibilities I've mentioned above sound like the reason why? What other reasons might you not seek or enjoy out lesbian romances?

LGBTQ readers, do you read lesbian romance? Why or why not?


  1. I read lesbian romance to get a hit of lesbian culture and affirmation, because other than my wife, most of my friends and family are straight. Also to enjoy a romance without having to deal with the annoying ways men are socialized and positioned in our culture.

    Lately I can't get enough Melissa Brayden-- her Soho Loft series is shiny and fun but with all the emotional processing we lesbians are known for. I have to prompt my local library to please keep acquiring each new book of hers, but so far they have!

    1. Interesting reasons, grrlpup. Do you think lesbian romances are free of the "annoying ways" that women are socialized and positioned in our culture?

      Thanks for the Melissa Brayden rec; I've read one of her books, and will have to more a try.

      Yes, the library issue is something I've encountered, too. Even though I belong to a library system with a wide ILL program, I rarely find lesbian romances there. Will have to start sending in those acquisitions request forms!

    2. Do you think lesbian romances are free of the "annoying ways" that women are socialized and positioned in our culture?

      Hm, interesting question! It's more that women tend to fill almost all the roles in the book, except for a few secondary characters. There's more room for variation, and less of the feeling that characters' traits and interactions are inevitably also a discussion of how to navigate gender roles. A little space away from the patriarchy!

      I do gravitate toward happy, idealized romances with glamorous jobs and little or no homophobia affecting the characters... Nina LaCour's YA romance Everything Leads to You, for instance. A small and non-representative sample of what's out there in the genre, I'm sure.

  2. The last one is most likely the largest factor given that romance is mostly read by women.

  3. I think the primary reason that romance readers avoid lesbian romance is sexism. Women are second-class citizens. While women are sexualized in our culture, sex between women is portrayed as amusing or disgusting, or "hot" but only through the male gaze, when sex between women is performed for men.

    The vast majority of romance readers' reluctance to read lesbian romance boils down, in my view, to one explanation: we don't like women very much.

    Also, I think a lot of what we (readers of het romance) find "sexy" in het romance is the male hero's objectification of the heroine -- it is HIS attention, his gaze, his approval, his desire that makes the book "hot." This is true right now more than it has been for many years in romance. What we *don't* find sexy is any behavior of a male character that we would normally assign as "female." So what attraction is there for the current mainstream romance reader -- and I include here female het readers who have drifted to m/m -- to read lesbian romance?

    There is also a reluctance to believe that lesbian romance can generate the same kind of romantic or erotic tension as het romance, because it may be believed that tension is created through differences in gender performance, or differences between men and women, rather than through good characterization.

    I guess what I'm arguing, then, is that "hotness" is generated through tension between characters. But if what you believe is that characteristics assigned to women will never generate tension that is erotic, then you're never going to seek out or buy lesbian romance. And this is what I mean when I say that we don't like women very much. Not that we dislike women as companions, partners, friends, intellectual equals, etc., but that we don't believe that women can generate or carry erotic tension except as objects of the male gaze.

    I love what @grripup says about their gravitation toward romance where all the roles are occupied by women, and so it becomes a patriarchy-free zone where the romantic relationship can be fully explored -- and how that becomes its own kind of fantasy and escapism. Such an interesting and powerful idea.

    1. Ruthie:

      Your point that the "hotness" for female heterosexual readers comes through getting to see inside the male's head, to see his "approval" of the heroine, his desire for the heroine, resonates with me. Western culture socializes us to believe that the male gaze is the normative one, so it feels odd, unsexy to many heterosexual women to read of desire for a woman through the female gaze. Will have to keep this point in mind when I read lesbian romance...

      Your point that sexual tension is often portrayed through gender difference, though, I'm not so sure about; doesn't the popularity of m/m romance with het readers complicate that claim?

      @grripup's point about a "patriarchy-free zone" is a fascinating one. Previous posts about m/m romance's appeal argue something similar, that the lack of women gives writers a chance to be free of the patriarchally-determined gender dynamics that inevitably come into play when the lovers are m & f. Others have argued, though, that even if the gender of the lovers is the same, the culture in which they live is still gendered. But perhaps that is the "fantasy" aspect of f/f romance--creating an all-female space where patriarchy is not at all in play.

  4. I have to admit I really don't understand the popularity in m/m romances written by women. I thought I wouldn't be into m/m sex scenes (assumed too much focus on penetration and not enough foreplay). I tried to find f/f books, but the only f/f books my library carried were lesbian erotica. After finally reading some m/m and f/f books, I have to say I don't connect with the m/m books and the f/f lacked the light touch and often strayed to the political. A couple of the f/f books kept telling me the main character was an out, smart, independent lesbian over and over again to point where it was too noticeable. It would be nice to read a f/f book where the sexual orientation of the characters is just another facet of the character like hair colour or ethnicity.

    I feel the same when authors write strong, professional women but have to keep reminding you. So she's a lawyer, lots of women are professionals, have careers, etc. --its not the early 1980s.

    Constantly highlighting differences only enhances them. Have you seen the movie The Weekend? Two guys hookup and discover a more meaningful connection, but it is treated like a love story not a gay love story or a gay movie. It is the example that should be aimed for not neutered Will and Grace and not in your face...just like the two guys on the 14th floor.

    1. Hi, KettleK8:

      Loved the movie THE WEEKEND! I'm not really sure I understand, though, why you think it isn't a gay love story? It's pretty sexually explicit, as I recall...

    2. Sorry, what I meant was that it isn't only a gay love story. It is a love story that hetros should relate to as well.

      You calling it explicit reminded me of my disappointment when the two guys first hookup the scene cuts to the morning after. At the time I was disappointed because I had thought the movie was supposed to be filmed as you would a hetro story. Of course, that changed towards the end. I don't think I've ever seen a movie (not including porn) where the shot includes gizz:-) Still it was so well done. The most explicit scene had me squirming a little not because of the explicitness but because of the intimacy of the scene. The camera holds their faces as they have sex to the point I felt a little like I was invading a private moment even though it was a movie.

  5. I also prefer at least one male in my romances, being that most romances/erotica I read for enjoyment, and I am sexually attracted to males. However, I would like to try a lesbian romance just to have the experience, but I worry. What if I ended up with a crappy book? I guess I'm waiting for a recommendation by someone with similar book tastes to mine first.

    1. Don't know if you think our book tastes are similar, Hazel, but if you do, you might try Nell Stark's THE PRINCESS AND THE PRIX, which was on my best of 2015 list.

  6. The Elite operatives series by Kim Baldwin and xenia alexiou are very good. A CIA type series about a group of women.

    1. Thanks, Gillette, for the recs. Will have to check them out.

  7. Great discussion and data, Jackie. I found your numbers very interesting. Some of your questions/reasons I have answers to or quibbles with.

    1. Is f/f marketed to the lesbian audience primarily? Yes, because the straight audience isn't interested in it, for the most part. There's a misconception IMO that readers will buy whatever is marketed to them. This may be true for some, but for m/m, I think readers seek it out. The demand is there, not simply good marketing and an abundant supply. I'd say the market grew *because of* audience demand.

    I also wouldn't make the leap you did about the origins of f/f vs. m/m. I'm guessing that m/m follows m/f genre conventions just as closely, if not more. There's a lot of crossover between m/f and m/m. Many romance authors write both. Fewer m/f authors read or write f/f.

    It's upsetting to me to see m/m upheld as less restrictive, richer, deeper, etc. Lesbian romances aren't less interesting. M/f readers are just less *interested* and less aware of what's out there in f/f. Someone on twitter just commented that f/f reads to her like teen boy fantasies, with bad grammar. I've had a vastly different experience with it.

    About the hotness factor. Lesbian romance runs the gamut, just like het romance. There's erotic, sweet, and everything in between. Perhaps there is less focus on sex in the genre overall than in female-authored m/m.

    1. Thanks, Jill, for sharing your thoughts. Some thoughts in response to yours:

      I think you're right, that het readers have been behind the demand and increase for m/m romances. I' still thinking about WHY, if m/m is popular, with het readers, why f/f isn't. Before m/m romance became visible in the general romance-reading community, a lot of het readers thought that a romance with two men would be gross. But they've since changed their minds, no? Might something similar happen if het readers became more aware of lesbian romance? If not, what's standing in the way?

      As for the origins question, it was just that, a question, a stab in the dark of my own lack of knowledge. I'm curious about the different cultural moments at which of these subgenres of romance emerged, and how those cultural moments may have affected what came to be considered the "norm" for each subgenre. Or if there is a norm at all? Lots more research would be required to see if there are interesting differences, or if m/m and f/f both follow m/f romance conventions.

      Didn't intend to suggest that m/m is, by its nature, less restrictive, richer, deeper, than f/f romance. Just that the books I've happened to read over the last year gave me that impression.

      "Perhaps" there is less focus on sex in lesbian fiction than in female authored m/m—what makes you think this?

    2. My impression is that erotic m/m is a larger part of the subgenre, but I'm not sure what the numbers are. I think m/m became popular with women during the erotic romance boom.

      I don't know if or when het readers will seek out f/f. Many bi and lesbian readers prefer m/m, so go figure!

      Another thing. There's a good amount of self-pub f/f or "lesbian" short stories that appear to be erotica, rather than romance. I don't consider them romance, even if they're labeled that way. I'm wondering if these titles skewed your numbers. I would have guessed that there are far more m/m romances published vs. f/f, based on demand & on the GLBT romance publishers I'm familiar with. Some m/m pubs have multiple new releases per day, while the top lesbian publisher releases maybe 10 a month? It just doesn't quite add up.

  8. My fave lesbian romances are by Cathy Pegau -- they're sf romance, so the political status / patriarchy burden of contemporary times isn't part of the narrative. I wonder if that's why I find them easier to consume? But I like f/f romance just fine (I'm straight). When I'm not reading het romance, I gravitate more toward f/f and the female gaze than m/m and double the male gaze. I guess I like reading about women more than about men. I don't have to be "attracted" either of the protagonists (beyond enjoying them as characters) to appreciate the romance aspect or even the sexual aspect of the book.

    I don't know. Just adding my 2 cents!

    1. Thanks, Jody W., for adding your 2 cents! I'll be interested in taking a look at Pegau's books.

      Interesting that you prefer f/f to m/m, as a straight-identifying reader. Outside romance, I tend to enjoy books about women far more than books about men. Which is why I've been thinking about why that does not seem to be the case WITHIN my romance reading...

  9. I've been reading more F/F romance lately. In part because I wanted to write some. but also because I always said that the sex wasn't the primary thing I read M/M for and that I liked stories about people who were walking a different path than most. If that's truly the case, then surely I should find F/F romance as intriguing as M/M romance? I've found that generally speaking find the M/M sexier to read, but in all other terms, with equally good characters and stories, F/F is just as interesting to me to read and write as M/M.

    I used the lesbian categories of the 2015 Rainbow Awards to help me add some F/F romance to my reading list for this year and have others recced by friends on there. The number of books on my F/F shelf on Goodreads still has a long way to go to catch up with the M/M shelf though. Partly as I'm mostly looking out for sub-genres like sci-fi, fantasy and mystery rather than purely contemporary.

    If, as seems to be the case, the F/F romance is mostly marketed to people who'd actually be involved in F/F relationships themselves, while the M/M romance isn't so much, then is there a more realistic feel generally to F/F stories? We've all seen gay men comment that even if they like M/M romance much of it's not particularly close to their experiences. But for many of the female audience that doesn't matter as long as they enjoy the book. But of course all Romance has fantasy elements to it. I mean how many people actually have "meet cute" with the person they end up falling in love with? Not as many as in books that's for sure.

    Hah, fairly incoherent thoughts. I'm still on a journey with reading and writing F/F.

    1. Thanks, Becky, for sharing your thoughts. I'm not sure if lesbian romance feels more realistic than m/m romance, as I'm a het-identifying reader myself. But the f/f romances I've read seem to feel more "normal," if that is the right word, more like "oh, these are women who are just like het women, except they happen to love women." In contrast, the m/m romances I've most enjoyed are the ones that dig into the specificity of being gay in a culture in which heterosexuality, especially heterosexual masculinity, is the norm. With more discussion/depiction of the spectrum of masculinities gay men inhabit.

  10. I read and write (thanks for the shout out Jody ;) ) lesbian and bi women because (a) I find women as attractive as men, and (b) if a person who enjoys m/m considers "two men better than one" (yes, that has been a much-used reason women read m/m) then my enjoying being in the head of two women as they navigate a relationship is just as viable.

    I have read a few m/m and enjoyed most of them, but it's not my go-to coupling. I feel more comfortable reading and writing f/f.

    As for heat levels, you can find everything from sweet to OMG! Same for genres, Contemporary to spec fic and everything in between.

    In f/f there is something for everyone :)

    1. Thanks, Cathy, for stopping by. I'm looking forward to checking out your books!

  11. As an experiment I searched for the number of M/M and F/F romances reviewed on the (mainstream) All About Romance site.

    They have reviewed 106 m/m romances but not a single f/f romance. It's not even included as a category/genre type to search for.

    1. Not a shock. A lot of places that claim to pub/review LGBT are pretty much all G. It's frustrating as a reader as well as a writer of the other aspects of the queer spectrum.

    2. Wow, pretty remarkable (or depressing) figures, Anonymous. Dear Author has a better track record (12 lesbian romances reviewed.) Smart Bitches has also featured some lesbian reviews, as well as general discussions of the genre. Although both have more m/m reviews than f/f.

      And I've found that even lesbian-friendly journals tend to not champion lesbian romance novels. For example, the AFTERELLEN blog had a "Summer of Love" feature this past summer (copying the NPR feature?), in which they reviewed lesbian romances. All of the reviews, at least to my eye, felt as if the reviewer were unfamiliar, as well as uncomfortable, reading romance.

    3. A reviewer who specializes in f/f romance really needs to contact AAR and sign up to review...

    4. Well, to be fair, 106 m/m reviews is really a quite minuscule amount for AAR, they have thousands of reviews and ca. 80-90% of those 106 reviews where done by the same reviewer, so it would not take a lot for f/f to catch up.

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