bucket list item: teach Sex Ed for Romance Authors class [UPDATED]

Regular readers know that I read romance novels. I like ‘em.

In Romancelandia at its best, the toxic sex negative culture of the real world is transformed into a place where women’s sexual pleasure and autonomy wins over the forces of misogyny and patriarchy.

But there are some specific frustrations that I have with the genre, as a reader who happens also to be a sex educator – and these are frustrations shared by authors In The Know.

Like, Sarah MacLean and I had this exciting twitter exchange:

@sarahmaclean So much true. Also pain w intercourse is MUCH more likely due to dryness, not hymen, even first time & hymens HEAL. #hymennerd

— emily nagoski, phd (@emilynagoski) October 27, 2014

For realsie, you guys. The hymen, if a person has one, is right at the mouth of the vagina. Also it stretches, rather than breaking, and if it breaks,it heals (PDF). And I remember very clearly that this is something I misunderstood for a long time, because of what I learned reading romances when I was like 12. And REALLY GOOD romance/erotica writers are still getting it wrong – indeed, the excellent Tiffany Reisz, whose Original Sinners series I really love, gets it wrong in book two, The Angel.

A reporter is reading a medical report about a potential sexual assault where the potential victim (our heroine) didn’t remember much but believed she had not been assaulted. The evidence:

The doctor’s report showed not only showed no presence of trauma or fluids, but an intact hymen as well.

No trauma or fluids? Pretty good evidence. Intact hymen? Not so much. This is a myth that’s been documented as far back as 1684 in Aristotle’s Masterpiece, and it’s no truer now than it was then.  And reinforcing the myth leads to women not being believed – like, “if she has a hymen, she can’t have been raped.” It’s accurate that this would show up in a medical report, because even doctors still get this shit wrong. But it’s frustrating that the extremely intelligent journalist bought it. Like, “Intact hymen? DEFINITELY STILL A VAGINAL VIRGIN.”   Dear Tiffany Reisz: I frickin’ love your books. Please please maybe stop with the hymen myths please? Thank you. Lots and lots of love, Emily (PS: natural family planning temperature-taking does not require anything beyond an ORAL temperature. Just FYI.)   UPDATE: I tweeted this post and @’d Tiffany Reisz and she was frustrated with the post, and I wanted to respect her point of view, so I’ve storified the key tweets in the series, here:  

View the story “Hymens in Romance” on Storify


Oh here’s another myth:

“Genital response means you’re “ready” for sex.”

I totally believed this one for a long time. And I learned it by reading romance.

And then I became a sex educator and found out: nope. Genital response = sexually RELEVANT, not necessarily sexually APPEALING.

I recently read Eloisa James’s Your Wicked Ways, which was charming and funny – there should be more romances featuring heroes who are crap in bed!

Now, Eloisa James is among my favorite romance authors, and this immediately became one of my favorite of her books. (Apart from her actual novels, I also love how articulate she is about the romance genre, women’s sexual pleasure, and feminism.) So I was stunned – STAGGERED – when this story not only recapitulated the arousal concordance idea, the whole plot turned on the hero’s ability to generate genital response in the heroine.

Look, first from page 182 then from page 222:

And the thunderous crack of my head on my desk rolled across the hillsides. Birds were startled into flight. Farmers turned their faces to the sky and wondered if a storm was coming.

With a literary reading, the genital response is clearly a metaphor for her pleasure, and the whole narrative was couched in the historically very real construction of women as either “ladies” or, basically, sluts. Which is part of why I liked the story so much. But all the literal story was, “You’re dry, you’re not ready” and then, “You’re wet, that means I win!”

Which… no. There is not a useful predictive relationship between genital behavior and subjective arousal. The way you can tell if a person is “ready” for sex is… drumroll… by asking them!

And if even the great Eloisa James is getting this wrong, EVERYONE is getting this wrong.


UPDATE: Eloisa James also responded to the tweet – with just three tweets, so rather than storify them, here they are:


@emilynagoski @tiffanyreisz I totally get what you’re saying (and found the info about the hymen interesting) — but there’s the thing…

— Eloisa James (@EloisaJames) December 9, 2014

@emilynagoski @tiffanyreisz Romance writers, like all novelists, describe their own experience of desire (or the lack thereof). ahem.

— Eloisa James (@EloisaJames) December 9, 2014

@emilynagoski @tiffanyreisz NOT that I’ve ever had feathers bonded to my hair!

— Eloisa James (@EloisaJames) December 9, 2014

Given that I read romance for the ways it transforms sex negative patriarchy, it interrupts my pleasure when these kinds of myths are recapitulated.

I’m not the only one who learned (wrong things) about sex from romance novels. Indeed, it has been suggested that romance and erotica are actually part of the self-help genre, and while I think no author necessarily writes to teach their readers about sex, their readers are learning. And so one day I will find a venue for saying these things, lovingly and supportively, to romance and erotica authors. To make the genre better. To make readers’ sex lives better. To create more space for women’s sexual pleasure and autonomy.