Friday, February 15, 2019

The Appeal (or not) of Compulsory Demisexuality

I've always had decidedly mixed feelings about the "fated mate" romance, but could never quite articulate why. Until this past week, when I came across the term "compulsory demisexuality." It's a fascinating concept, and one that helped me understand the sexist implications of the "I'm only sexually attracted to my one true love" ideology that's found in many single title and even more category romances.

Jodi McAlister, in her other guise as
YA author
Over the course of my years of reading about and studying gender and genre, I've often come across the term "compulsory heterosexuality." But this past week was the first time I'd heard the similar coinage, "compulsory demisexuality." The phrase appears in Lucy Neville's book Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys: Women and Gay Male Pornography and Erotica (about which I plan to write more in a future blog post), but the term was first coined by romance scholar Jodi McAlister. Wanting to find out more about this fascinating idea, I checked Neville's footnotes, and then tracked down the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture from 2014, in which McAlister's article, " 'That complete fusion of spirit as well as body': Heroines, Heroes, Desire, and Compulsory Demisexuality in the Harlequin Mills & Boon Romance Novel," was first published.

Lesbian feminist poet and essayist Adrienne Rich used the phrase "compulsory heterosexuality" to describe the way that our society compels its members to believe that opposite-sex attraction is normal and natural, and to regard same-sex attraction as unnatural and deviant. The phrase is meant to call into question these so-called "natural" assumptions, to point out that they are not inherent to humanity, but are instead social constructions.*

McAlister's riff on Rich's term, "compulsory demisexuality," has a narrower scope and but a similar purpose. At the start of the majority of Harlequin Mills & Boon category romances, the female protagonist, or heroine, is demisexual: she can only feel sexual desire towards someone for whom she first feels an emotional attachment. But compulsory demisexuality takes demisexuality one step further. As McAlister explains, "someone who is actually demisexual is capable of experiencing attraction to a number of partners, as long as they have an emotional attachment to those partners" (300). But in the HM&B romance, "demisexuality intersects with the narrative of one true love" (300), so that a romance heroine can only feel sexual desire for one man, the man who is her soulmate. Women, according to the category romance, are (or at least should be, if they are proper heroine material), innately demisexual. A heroine will know the man she loves because it is only with him that she will share "that complete fusion of spirit as well as body" (in the words of Denise Robins, author of the 1933 Mills & Boon romance Shatter the Sky).

McAlister goes on to make two additional important points about compulsory demisexuality in the category romance. First, that while the male protagonist in such books is rarely demisexual at the start of the romance, by its end, he, like the heroine, is decidedly demisexual. Think of those passages in your romances when, after being attracted to the heroine, the hero suddenly discovers that the pleasure he once took in looking at, or sexually interacting with, other women has suddenly disappeared. He's just not that into looking at other women, at playing the field, anymore; he only has eyes (and a hard-on) for her. Converting the hero to demisexuality signals the triumph of the heroine; she has brought him into her world, a world in which "sex and love are tied together." As McAlister pungently puts it, "she gives him love as a sexually transmitted disease" (307).

Cover of a 1961 edition
Second, the "way in which compulsory demisexuality has been realized within category romances has... changed over time." In Shatter the Sky, published all the way back in 1933, "the happy ending of the novel is less a victory for the heroine and more a victory for loving demisexual relationships in general... a victory for [heroine] and [hero], rather than a victory of [heroine] over [hero]" (308, emphasis added). But the demisexual paradigm becomes more, rather than less, associated with the feminine over the course of the twentieth century, especially in the period after World War II:

Although the idea that sex and love should be linked has been a consistent hallmark of the Mills & Boon novel, there seems to be a growing emphasis on the idea that this is a uniquely feminine viewpoint, and it is this viewpoint—her viewpoint—that triumphs at the end of the romance novel. (309)

McAlister describes the pattern of compulsory demisexuality in her article, but she doesn't speculate about its implications, or its potential effects on romance readers. Is it a problem that category romances demand compulsory demisexuality of their protagonists? And that many many single title-length romances do as well?

Sexier cover, same compulsory
demisexual message: 2009's
Desert Prince, Bride of Innocence
I think it is. First, by demanding compulsory demisexuality of female protagonists, category romances suggest that female sexual desire cannot and should not exist without first being activated by a man. And not just any man, but only by the "one true love" a heterosexual woman is destined to be romantically linked to for the rest of her life. If a reader identifies with the heroine of such romances, or sees said heroine as a role model, she may passively accept such beliefs without even realizing she is doing so. What's even worse, those beliefs implicit shame any girl or woman who experiences sexual desire before she meets her "one true love." Compulsory demisexuality functions to control female sexuality, to contain it within the safety of a patriarchal relationship. Hardly the sex-positive attitude a feminist would wish for her in her romance reading.

And compulsory demisexuality also works to instill the idea that there is and must always be a "one true love" for each and every woman in the world, a belief that can lead to the idealization of romantic relationships and unrealistic expectations of a romantic partner. It can also lead to the belief that life is not complete if one has not found "one true love," and/or to a justification for looking down on those who haven't yet found (or have no desire to find) a "soulmate."

Are there any upsides to compulsory demisexuality that I'm overlooking? Or when we come across messages of compulsory demisexuality in our romances, should we set them aside and look for romance options that don't promulgate the compulsory demisexuality message?

* Rich, Adrienne. "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 5.4 (Summer 1980): 631-660.

Photo credits:
Jodi McAlister: Goodreads


  1. This an embryonic thought, so I may be back after I've thought about it more, but this makes me wonder if this is a corollary to the woman who automatically believes herself in love with a man, just because she had sex with him...many of us have suffered through that delusion in real life...some sort of societal ( and/ or hormonal) protection from feeling shame about casual sex?

    1. Interesting idea, Teri Anne. Do you think that compulsory demisexuality came from real life, and then was added to romance novels? Or that it was put into romance novels as a way to heighten their intensity, and then had the perhaps unintended consequence of making women in real life think they had to only be sexually attracted to their "one and only"? Chicken or egg?

  2. This is very interesting. Is there perhaps a link between the One True Love idea and monogamy, which is a social construct? Now that western society accepts that the one true love is not a given and people can have more than one 'serious' relationship in a lifetime (so, serial monogamy, really), romances are more accepting of 'happy for now'.

    1. Yes, I think you're right, Rhoda. Makes me want to read more about the history of monogamy...

    2. My inner science geek wants to offer all the ethology she remembers from grad school thirty years ago, and talk about serial monogamy, mating for life, and polygamy in the animal kingdom, and tie that in with everything she knows about hormones and neuroscience, but it's once again Saturday morning before that second cup of coffee...but she's making a note to think about this later when she's more awake...

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