Friday, October 31, 2014

Romance Novels and Male-Centered Sexuality

I'm in the midst of reading sex educator Rebecca Chalker's The Clitoral Truth: The Secret World at Your Fingertips, a fascinating, polemical look the seat of female sexual pleasure, and it's making me wonder about the sex scenes in romance novels. Chalker points out how much more attention is paid in Western culture to the clitoris's male counterpart, the penis, in both popular culture and in the medical and scientific literature, and how this bias in favor of the penis has important implications for female sexuality. Though Chalker's book was written in 2000, her claim about the cultural attention paid to the cock as compared to that paid to the clit seems just as true nearly fifteen years later; a basic Internet search reveals

Google search for "penis":     14,700,000
Google search for "clitoris":    2,230,000
(a ratio of 6.9:1)

The statistics are even more skewed when it comes to scientific research, as a similar search of the online medical articles database PubMed reveals:

Pubmed references found when searching for "penis":    41,777
Pubmed references found when searching for "clitoris":   1,967
(a ratio of 21:1)

This penis/clitoris imbalance is not just an amusing sign of male arrogance, Chalker argues; this difference in attention has serious consequences for women and their ability to experience sexual pleasure. Because of Western culture's singleminded focus on the penis, the heterosexual male pattern of sexual response—quick arousal, erection, vaginal intercourse, single orgasm—has come to be perceived as real "sex." A female pattern of sexual response—slower arousal, pleasure stemming from the clitoris rather than from the vagina, the ability to orgasm multiple times—is "considered second rate, not 'real' sex," argues Chalker.

While reading Chalker's arguments, I began to think about how sexual arousal and response are portrayed in romance novels. Since romance novels are written primarily by women and for women, do they do a better job at portraying a female patterns of sexual arousal and response than our culture at large? Or is the male-centered heterosexual model of sexuality so ingrained that it serves as the basis for the sex depicted in this woman-centered genre?

Would you like to join me in a little experiment to consider this question? Take the last romance novel you finished, and examine each of its sex scenes. Do they follow the pattern that Chalker terms the male heterosexual model of sexuality? Things you might look for:

• vaginal intercourse as the centerpiece of sexual activity, the primary goal
• a single orgasm, rather than multiple orgasms
• orgasm as the end of the scene (climax reached = goal accomplished!)

Or do they follow a different script? If so, what does that script look like?

Looking forward to hearing the results of your explorations...


  1. I have always been so frustrated by this. I understand that sex in romance novels is always going to be a little unrealistic -- in real life even loving couples do not always have explosive sex -- but you've hit the nail on the head. I get so mad when heroines in romances were so easily/unrealistically turned on and orgasming constantly from p-in-v sex. Even the virgins!

    1. What do you think it will take for this to change in the genre, Andrea?

    2. I think that in many ways contemporary romance novelists (i.e. those writing today vs. in previous decades) are influenced by what has come before, and so they and their audiences have become used to sex being described a certain way. Which is to say that even if their own experience with sex is different or their more "modern" knowledge of sex acts are taken into account, there is this idea that that's not what sex in romance novels looks like. So I think in order for this to change in the genre there really just have to be more writers willing to write "non-traditional" romance novel sex. For example, instead of the traditional progression of escalation of sex acts culminating in PiV sex, or 100% of the time having the heroine orgasming simply from penetration, or continuing with sex after the hero has reaching his own orgasm, or even more openly discussing/showing the heroine being in more control of her own sexual experience/not being entirely dependent on the hero in the bedroom... According to The Society of Ob/Gyns in Canada ( "Only about a third of women experience orgasm regularly during intercourse. A third can reach orgasm with intercourse but need extra stimulation. A third never achieve orgasm during intercourse but can by manual and oral stimulation. Having orgasms by means other than intercourse is a normal variation of female sexuality." Having romance novels reflect that doesn't have to make the sex in romance less romantic, and I think it would go a long way towards changing the attitudes of readers as well!

  2. Yeah, the monopoly of PiV is one of those little-discussed big problems... I definitely want to see this change in the genre.

    1. The PiV pattern wasn't something I consciously noticed in romance, at least not until I read Chalker's book. But now, it seems so obvious. What do you think it would take for the genre to change, here?

  3. Honestly, I don't think it would be that hard. It would just be a matter of describing another act, such as a woman receiving oral sex, through the hero's lens, since that tends to be the appeal of those scenes, i.e. reading the hero's arousal and what turns the hero on. There are plenty of acts that see very little attention in romance, some that are impeded by social baggage, e.g. dry humping is seen as "immature" or incomplete, much like clitoral orgasms once were, a pale shade of the real thing, but this seems to me a result of our discussions about sex being male-focused, since women have a lot to gain from grinding and for many women this is a primary or secondary source of stimulation. It is a little surprising that it's so ignored.

    1. Hey, anonymous, thanks for stopping by. I'mi intrigued by your idea that certain sexual acts are "impeded by social baggage." I definitely see clitoral touching (separate from or during PiV sex) far more in more recent romances than in those from the 70s/80s. What did it take for clitoral orgasm to overcome the social baggage and make it into the romance sex repertoire?

  4. I've been on a similar quest recently. I've been searching romance novels for use of the word "vulva." It's not there, even though the vulva (not the vagina) is the female equivalent of the penis. As a romance writer myself, I have avoided the word vulva because it didn't sound "sexy." But, of course, that brings up the question: why would a feminist lesbian like myself dislike the word? That's society's hold on me!