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People, Baby Boomer Lit Is NOT a Genre, It’s an Audience

19 Sep

Yesterday I read an article by author and baby boomer Claude Nougat entitled “Is Baby Boomer Lit the Next Hot Genre?” and I almost had a slight brain aneurism. Why? Because there is no way that Baby Boomer Lit is a genre.

Sigh. This might be very librarian of me, but I think that when you are an author (hell, when you are an educated reader) you need to know what words mean. Take “genre” for instance. It’s a French word literally meaning “a kind” and that makes sense as it refers to “a category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, characterized by similarities in form, style, or subject matter.” (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

On the surface this sounds like you can pretty much apply this term to whatever you want, but when you are using it with literature, that’s not the case. The use of the term genre as it applies to literature is very specific. While I might tell my students that it’s not a good idea to cite Wikipedia over more specific sources, for general definitions particularly about BIG subjects (like the entirety of literature) it’s pretty spiffy, and its genre entry is dead on accurate.

A literary genre is a category of literary composition. Genres may be determined by literary techniquetonecontent, or even (as in the case of fiction) length. Genre should not be confused with age category, by which literature may be classified as either adult, young-adult, or children’s. (Wikipedia entry for genre)

With this in mind, the picture becomes a little clearer. A genre is a category of literature containing specific elements, for example, mystery, science fiction, romance (yay!), etc. and each of these genres is broken down even further into what are known as sub-genre categories (historical romance, cozy mystery, etc.). But you can never, ever label a genre by the intended age of its intended audience. Why?

Librarians and booksellers deal with many adults who are ashamed to be reading a YA book. Don’t ever be ashamed of ANY book you read. Reading is never shameful and people who want to make you feel bad are dealing with their own issues.

Because it reduces the comparison between books to the age of their protagonists which is wrong to do. You wouldn’t compare a shifter romance to a hard-core space romance to a small-town contemporary just like no one is about to argue who was a better writer, Jane Austen or Ernest Hemingway. It’s comparing apples and oranges.

Labeling an age audience merely introduces the idea of a target group who might be more predisposed to a collection of books. This type of label is a helpful way of directing interested readers toward potential books, but it in no way reveals a huge new genre. As author Claire Guyton states in her blog post, “YA is NOT a Genre!” “Thinking that all books written for one age group in various genres should be evaluated in the same way—that is simplified thinking.” For the record, Guyton published that line on Hunger Mountain, the online journal for the Vermont College of Fine Arts, which has one of the best degree programs for children and young adult authors. I think she knows what she’s talking about.

Not Everyone Who Reads YA Is A Teen, But Would Everyone Who Reads Baby Boomer Lit Be a Boomer?

A beautiful painting of a different generations reading by Finnish artist Carl Bengts. I think the title of the painting would translate to "Under the Reading Lamp".

A beautiful painting of a different generations reading by Finnish artist Carl Bengts. I think the title of the painting would translate to “Under the Reading Lamp”.

The entire point of reading is to pick up a book with the potential of experiencing something that is not currently your life or experience. Sometimes it’s an escape, sometimes it’s a deliberate journey. It can be deep or fluffy. But in the end, everyone brings who they are at that moment to the experience of reading. Writer Angela Carter was the one who stated, “Reading a book is like re-writing it for yourself. You bring to a novel, anything you read, all your experience of the world. You bring your history and your read it in your own terms.” The reason so many people read YA literature is because 1) there are a lot of really well-written books in this category and 2) everyone reading them has been a young adult.

The same cannot be said of “Baby Boomer Lit.” While a rapidly growing demographic, Baby Boomers (Europeans and North Americans born between 1946 and 1964 who come of age in a time of economic prosperity) will always be smaller percentage of the population and topics that people associate with this group are not necessarily appealing to younger readers. Yet I can easily envision successful genre literature with boomer-age protagonists – a terrific mystery with an older investigator, for example – and goodness knows fantasy and paranormal are filled with older werewolves and vampires. Are they boomers? I think they might be. 😉

Don’t let these two baby-faced models fool you – Absolution (the fifth in Kaylea Cross’ outstanding Suspense series) stars two characters in their fifties who are brought back together. The heroine has even just had a mastectomy, but you won’t find a tender, hotter romance on the market today, I promise.

Romance is a little harder as a sell for boomer literature, but it shouldn’t be. So much of romance is tied up with good-looking and sexy people, and in our ageist culture that translates to young. Even when a romance has older characters, there usually is a decent amount of reassurance about how they look younger than their chronological age, or how they still run marathons and that’s why they have a killer body. We’ve got a ways to go in this arena, just like in other areas of diversity of our characters in romance. There are a decent amount of publishing houses, especially smaller presses, that actually have put out specific calls for heroes and heroines (mostly heroines) who are over 40. Hopefully this is a good sign that things are changing.

Claude Nougat (of the original post that made my brain hurt a little) has brought up a great issue with the need for literature that address the issues and life experience of Baby Boomers. This category of literature deserves further exploration from publishers, librarians, and booksellers as these books will undoubtedly appeal to a demographic that may have gone neglected for too long. (Nougat’s even started a Goodreads group – where the description once again refers to YA as a genre – gah!)

My support for the proposed category of Boomer Lit is more an issue of desire for diversity than of tapping a market, which feels mercenary to me, no matter how true it is. Readers should always be able to easily find characters who are like them, be it racially, religiously, socio-economically, or by age or interest. They hopefully will read plenty of books where the characters are also different, but no one type of character should dominate literature.

But please keep in mind as you talk about books, that there is a difference – a big one – between a target audience and a genre. Both are worthy ways of categorizing books, but they do refer to completely different ways of doing so. Words are powerful. Please use them wisely.

Understanding the Sheikh Romance: The Roots of Romance in Our Relationship with the Muslim Middle East and North Africa

23 Aug

After writing the review of Sarah Morgan’s excellent category romance novel, Lost to the Desert Warrior, I began to be slightly fascinated with the idea that, in a post 9/11 world, there exists an entire sub-genre of romance featuring Middle Eastern heroes (and sometimes heroines). How does this fit with our culture as Westerners, with the current political and economic climate, and with the larger genre of romance?

When you’re a librarian, your life is more than “ask a question, find an answer.” Rather, it’s closer to “ask a question, ask a bunch more questions, read a crap ton of interesting sources, and immerse yourself in a subject” but it’s a process I clearly enjoy otherwise I wouldn’t do it as often as I do. A large part of my happiness in learning about this topic came from the discovery of the book that has given me a framework and staring point for exploration, namely cultural historian Hsu-Ming Teo‘s outstanding academic work, Desert Passions: Orientalism and Romance Novels (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012).

Incredibly well-written and exhaustively researched, Teo’s prose is riveting; this Australian author of both nonfiction and fiction makes the historical context of the sheikh in romance novels come alive. Because the subject is fascinating and lends itself to an understanding of current romance literature (both the writer and the reader can benefit greatly from the book), I’ve chosen to indulge myself in making this a multi-part blog post. This first installment will focus on the complex history of “the Orient” and the relationship of Western Europeans to this region.

First Things First. What Is a Sheikh?

A historical photo of a Bedouin family, circa the turn of the 20th century.

Let’s start first by defining some key terms, for example, what is a sheikh? Yes, that word can be spelled two ways “sheik” and “sheikh” and they both are correct with the same definition: simply put, a sheik is a title referring to man who is the head of a family. Done. That’s it.

Yet the word becomes more complex. It can be a gesture of respect toward a man who might also be a religious leader, but the term is largely rooted in the Bedouin community, indicating not just the head of a family but possibly of a tribe. The Bedouin people are the desert nomads of North Africa and the Middle East, traditionally focusing on animal husbandry as a way of life. Nowadays, Bedouins, who possess a rich culture of self-sufficiency and familial interdependence, are as likely to drive Land Rovers as ride a camel, particularly with government encroachment and nationalization of their lands. But no one disputes that the title of sheikh refers to a strong male leader in this environment.

The Orient Is Not a Place

The Orient can’t be found on any map…because it doesn’t exist.

So why the word “orientalism”? It’s a term confusing to modern readers since the Orient or the word Oriental has come to mean the many countries and cultures of Asia (China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, etc.) but in actuality this word is usually a generational one which has fallen out of favor for a specific reason. That is, there is no such place as the Orient.

Really. Go find your globe or a modern map and look for it. It doesn’t exist. To find something labeled “the Orient” you’d have to dig up an antique map from the 1500s or earlier, back when cartographers read sketchy sailor accounts or interviewed drunken midshipmen at the local tavern in order to produce horrifyingly inaccurate maps which were then used to pitch “Let’s Discover the Riches of the Orient” sailing cruises to aristocratic funders who would likely feel at home one of those ruthless time-share sales environments. Next to “the Orient” was probably the picture of a giant sea-squid or a mermaid and the phrase “Here be monsters.”

For Western Europeans using the term “Orient” in this time period, they were referring to the North African, Middle Eastern and Eastern Europe laying along the Mediterranean and Black Seas.

With this in mind, the Orient was then historically a synonym for the unknown East, and if that meant the Near East (like Turkey or Egypt) or the Far East (like China or Mongolia) Western Europeans didn’t care. It just meant “different from us and damn far away.” For most of the medieval and Renaissance periods, a geographic understanding of what areas are included in this sweeping term (which I refuse to use) can be absorbed by understanding where the Ottoman Empire existed from about the eighth century to 1918. North Africa, the Middle East, and Turkey are the predominant regions which promoted so much fascination and antipathy on the part of Western Europe and later the Americas. These areas were and continue to be dominated by Islam as a unifying religion and the shared background of Arabic culture.

After it’s publication in 1978, Edward Said’s book Orientalism quickly became the seminal work used to understand the complex and troubled relationship between the West and the Middle East.

Orientalism is a whole different animal. While in the past this term was used to refer to Western art or literature which attempted to use the culture of the Middle East or North Africa as a theme, the modern definition is the one promoted by scholar Edward Said in his 1978 groundbreaking work, Orientalism. Said put forth the idea that orientalism was any academic, artistic or popular work which “imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous.

For a variety of reasons (which I will explore in the posts on this topic) Western culture has become bizarrely focused on the “sexual fecundity and sensual appeal” of this area of the world. (Teo, p. 5) This is likely the historic juxtaposition between a culture which embraces love and sex in both a religious and cultural context, and the Western European tradition of Christian suppression and oppression of anything sexual in nature. Seeing how this juxtaposition has been handled throughout history actually gives us a tremendous opportunity to interpret modern sheikh romances with a new eye.

Modern sheikh novels often have compelling heroes and focus on emotional commonalities while still using the common trope of a character (usually the heroine) being immersed in a culture that is foreign, and one often laden with sensuality.

As Teo says in her book, “These novels certainly rehash classic Orientalist discourses, but not necessarily with the aim of differentiating, distancing and denigrating the Arab or Muslim in modern Western society. Because of the formal plot demands of the genre of romantic fiction…, cultural commonality and shared human interests and emotions are often emphasized instead of ineluctable difference.” (p. 10) In other words, while these books still oversimplify or gloss over the cultural meaning behind the “sheikh” title or have a hero who initially fits the stereotype of perhaps a powerful man unenlightened by modern gender politics (and this is not universal in these books), the same novels often celebrate the stability and strength of Arab families, contrasting this ideal against high Western divorce rates. This places modern sheikh novels in a strange limbo, one in which there are still orientalist themes present, but often where the novel itself promotes a view of Arab culture which actively fights the stereotypes prevalent in modern Western culture. (More on this in a later post!)

The Crusades: Bringing People Together Since the Eleventh Century

Even prior to the Crusades, trade with the Middle East was associated with items that delighted the senses – spices and aromatic oils. More fascinatingly is the fact that just like the majority of Western philosophy, history and medicine – which owes its preservation to the erudite Arab scholars which preserved all the Greek and Roman works that monasteries burned or didn’t preserve during it’s Dark Ages – the West owes its view of love to Arab culture.

The Muslim world had an established culture of romantic love long before the Europeans birthed courtly troubadours singing about knights satisfied by longing glances and a scarf around the arm prior to being killed while jousting. This ideal of unrequited, unconsummated love, which we associate with high medieval Western culture, is actually stolen kit and caboodle right from Arabic and Persian bards who felt this feeling was the ideal to aim for, a kind of martyr’s death, calling it “Udhrah love.” (Teo, p. 29)

Moorish architecture and art still abound throughout Spain and Portugal, dating back to this period where spreading the concept of Urdrah love through music and literature swept through European courts.

When the Muslim invaders decided the Spanish peninsula looked as good as where they currently stood in Morocco, the people who would become known as the Moors invaded that region, spreading art, music, advanced medicine – and thankfully the practice of bathing – to a group of Europeans living in comparatively barbaric conditions. This allowed translated Arabic poetry and literature to make the rounds of nearby European courts, stopping first in the French region of Provencal, where Udhrah love gained a toehold in the bardic traditions of those areas. Because of the scholarly understanding of where these stories originated, the Middle East and North Africa were seen as possessing “a sophisticated system of beliefs about love, seduction, sensuality, and the pleasure of the senses.” (Teo, pp. 30-31) Because of this association and various political factors, Islamic literature and poetry would spur Western literature’s attempt to interpret the relationship between the Near East and the West through the vehicle of romance.

The Crusade Romance: Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries

Pope Urban II giving the call to arms to warriors willing to take up the cross and take back the major historic sites of Christianity. Illumination from the Livre des Passages d’Outre-mer, of c 1490 (Bibliothèque nationale de France) via Wikipedia.

The first examples of sheikh-style romance actually were written at the time of the early Crusades in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The Crusades were initially spurred by the exhortation of Pope Urban II in 1095 for knights “to take up the cross” (which the French translated as crusade) in order to reclaim the holy sites of Christianity for the Catholic Church and Western Europeans. Clearly not caring that there were holy sites for two other major religions in the region, Urban II also didn’t seem to be too perturbed that he had stirred up what would become a few centuries of warfare, with the much vaunted sacred locations vacillating back and forth between the Christians and the Ottoman Empire.

Yet more than one modern scholar has drawn strong connections between the code of honor held by European knights in the High Middle Ages and the Saracen or Turk of this same time period. Rules of combat, styles of warfare and the treatment of high-born prisoners aligned between these two groups separated by ethnicity and religion. These similarities, when contrasted so strongly by the startling differences of physical appearance and opposing religions, provided a great deal of fascination for Europeans, an obsession which emerged in Orientalist literature of the time period.

In the literature which used the Crusades as inspiration, “the ultimate triumph was not the death of the Saracen, but his or her conversion to Christianity through love and marriage.” (Teo, p. 31) The common trope was the one seen by modern sheikh romance readers today, namely that of a European, Christian woman kidnapped against her will due to her proximity to the conflict or involvement of her male relatives in the crusades who falls in love with her Arab Muslim captor. While some stories certainly espoused the ideals of romantic love (albeit with a Christian conversion by the hero as a key part of the happily ever after), other stories held horrible warnings for couples without this cleansing sacrament. A child of an Arab/European union is seen as being monstrously deformed until the holy water of baptism morphs him into a normal child; the hero’s dark skin similarly fades to white while undergoing that same religious introduction. (pp. 32-33) Early writers did not shy from laying the emphasis on religion thickly, just so there was no mistake regarding romance inspired by a religious war. Subtlety did not appear to be a High Medieval period trait.

“Count of Tripoli accepting the Surrender of the city of Tyre in 1124,” (1840) by Alexandre-Francois Caminade (Bridgeman Art Library / Chateau de Versailles, France / Giraudon)

The flip side of the gender coin was also visible in literature of this time. While the modern theme of “white Christian sold into slavery” held the test of time into the 20th century, crusade romance even had handsome knights, captured in battle, who fell for clever and beautiful Saracen princesses. These feisty ladies were willing to deceive their powerful fathers, free their lovers, only to run off and get baptized and then married. Hsu-ming Teo offers the excellent observation that while these women were seen by male readers of the time as lustful and unscrupulous (no man of the Middle Ages would encourage a daughter to defy a father), in actuality these women closely resemble our strong modern heroines and provide a contrast to the dishwater European women trapped as subservient pawns to men during this time. (p. 33) Despite cultural and religious differences the high Medieval period loved challenges to romance and was willing to use its heroes and heroines to illustrate how love (and Christianity) would always triumph in a successful marriage.

From Renaissance to Not Quite Enlightenment: A Turning Point Regarding Race

Perhaps the greatest twist for me in reading about the history of the sheikh romance has been the changing concept of what constitutes race, and therefore what a couple is capable of surmounting.  Initial European conceptions of race were that a certain skin color denoted an unacceptable religion; with this concept, baptism would render the individual romantically and socially acceptable as a means of repudiating their heritage and proof of embracing European and Christian ideals. (Teo, pp. 34-35) Once race was seen as an unalterable difference which was in itself insurmountable, the interracial love narrative also changed. (Since race is a social construct and not a scientific fact, I encourage anyone interested in exploring the concept from either a historical or biological perspective to take a look at the amazing website, Understanding Race.)

“Othello and Desdemona in Venice” by Théodore Chassériau (1819-1856) via Wikipedia

In Giraldi Cinthio’s short story “Un Capitano Moro” (published in Hecatommithi in 1565), we see the foundation for Shakespeare’s Othello, which was written roughly forty years later in the early 1600s. A Christianized Moor goes from being a hero who saved Venice to the monster who murdered his European wife, Disdemona (Cinthio’s spelling), a wife who, while fighting with her husband prior to her death, warns women not to wed men so totally different from themselves.

This story (seen in translation at the above link) is virtually the exact outline for Shakespeare’s play, with an evil Ensign inciting his normally even-keeled Captain to insane jealousy, planting the seed of his virtuous wife’s infidelity, and driving the man to murder. (Teo, p. 36) Upon realizing how much he loved his wife, the Moor sinks into melancholy and despair and grows to hate the evil Ensign. Arrested and tortured for information by the government of Venice, the Moor withstands the privations of his imprisonment and is finally released, after which time he is anti-climatically murdered by his wife’s kinsfolk in revenge.

“Desdemona Cursed by her Father (Desdemona maudite par son père)” – Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863) (Brooklyn Museum) via Wikipedia

Aside from my astonishment at Shakespeare’s flagrant plagiarism (there was no such thing as copyright back then, but the librarian in me is horrified), this story represents a turning point in the romantic European view of race which went from being something linked to religion and therefore possible to “overcome” in the eyes of Europeans, to a deep-seated indicator of true nature. This paradigm shift rendered interracial love by and large an obstacle almost impossible to overcome.

There is also a simplicity in solidifying the view of the “other” by associating skin color with an insurmountable social barrier, a view which has served Western society throughout its history of oppression. In the United States almost a century after Cinthio’s work, the burgeoning American colonies, desperate for labor, had the problem of the discontented freeman without land of their own. Previously having worked for wealthy landowners, both indentured servants from Europe who had pledged their labor for a ticket to the New World and the Africans captured and sold for labor worked side by side in the fields. Both harbored a reasonable hope that they would one day be free of their obligations and certainly held the belief that their children would be free. At the time their contract ended, each worker regardless of race was given their “freedom dues” – usually a gun and a piece of land.

“Bacon’s Rebellion” by Sidney King (1907-2002), National Park Service, Colonial National Historical Park

As long as the servant being freed was a Christian, there was no objection from any man being bumped up the social ladder from servant to freeman, a label which still would have been seen as being part of the peasant class. (PBS, Africans in America, “The Terrible Transition”) But by the late seventeenth century, Virginia’s system hit a speed bump when there simply wasn’t enough land for these young men. A group of discontented young men, white and black, rioted in 1676 in what would become known as Bacon’s Rebellion.

The answer to the banner’s question is that this person used to be both a man and a brother to the white men working alongside him in servitude.

The elite of Virginia responded by not only putting down the rebellion, but solving their labor problem by turning all their attention from indentured servitude as the answer to the men and women bringing brought over from Western Africa. Wanting an easy way of not only having a permanent servant class but also a simple way to identify who was in service, these governing men decided skin color was the easiest marker. As historian Edward Morgan puts it, “Slaves could be deprived of the opportunity for association and rebellion. They could be kept unarmed and unorganized. And since color disclosed their probable status, the rest of society could keep close watch on them…” (Edmund S. Morgan, “Slavery and Freedom: The American Paradox” The Journal of American History 59, no. 1 (June 1972): 5–29.) For two disparate societies to live cheek by jowl with one another, and for the dominant society to discourage interaction (and particularly to discourage anything resembling sanctioned interracial relationships), a visible difference was crucial. Whether it was the slave collar of ancient Rome or the skin color of the Saracen, this instant visual cue was needed to warn Western Europeans away from the perceived dangers of close association.

Whether it was the writers of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment or the Virginia landowners, this fiction and legislation all points to a key development regarding race. European nations were acquiring colonies which both required cheap labor and often provided non-Christians who appeared visibly different and could fulfill that need. The Ottoman Empire, which had shared a border with Western Europe for centuries, had become enough of an historical threat to warrant the changing view of the Turk or Corsair as having a skin color which provided a window into the person’s true nature, no matter his or her religion. While the adoption of views of race are inherently complex in any society, that this turning point occurred at a time when the Ottoman Empire was being seen as even more of a threat to European nations is hardly coincidental. In actuality the height of the Renaissance and scholarship of the Enlightenment would bring greater polarization between these cultures, with literature and music furthering the promotion of stereotypes and misunderstanding.

Proliferation of Captivity Narratives, and the Fear of “Turning Turk”

The Ottoman Empire was most definitely a threat to Europe, both economically in their stranglehold on the trade to the East using routes through the MIddle East and North Africa traversed for thousands of years, and also in the Ottoman hunger for empire expansion and for slave labor, resulting in them constantly tickling the borders of Western Europe. The trade monopoly was one of the biggest spurs to the courts of Europe to fund discovery expeditions in the hope of finding new routes to the East across seas not dominated by the Ottomans. Signing a peace treaty with Venice in 1573 allowed the empire to consolidate its North African holdings without threat, but a thirteen year war with the Austrian Hapsburgs in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century drained resources on both sides.

Because of this constant tension between political powers, the late Renaissance and Enlightenment periods produced literature with themes involving the Ottomans, with the culture’s beauty and cruelty emphasized according to established Orientalist parameters. With the ongoing conflict with the Austrians and Turkish pirates regularly raiding the Irish and English coasts, captives were regularly taken either for ransom or enslavement.

Scholar Linda Colley in her 2002 work, Captives: Britain, Empire, and the World, 1600-1850, estimates that over 20,000 English and Irish men, women and children were sold in the slave markets of Algiers and Istanbul as a result of this accepted practice. Ohio State history professor Robert C. Davis in his 2003 work, Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast and Italy, 1500-1800 (Early Modern History), asserts that as many as one million Europeans, taken from the tip of Spain all the way up to Iceland were enslaved by pirates who worked in tandem with the Ottoman Empire during this time period.

The fear this constant threat engendered played out in the over 47 plays written from 1558 to 1642 which held the theme of a European captive at the mercy of a powerful Ottoman overlord. Stories and epic poems produced during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries also possessed this element, often being written from the perspective of the enslaved, a perspective often labeled “the captivity narrative.” Perhaps one of the most well-known fictional accounts of a captivity narrative occurs in Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1604, a year after Othello). “The Captive’s Tale” relates the story of a Spaniard who arrives at a tavern with a veiled woman. He proceeds to tell the story of how he was captured and sent to Algeria, where he he fell in love with a wealthy Moorish princess, Zoraida. She returned his love, betrayed her tyrannical father, freed her lover and converted to Christianity in order to marry her man and return to his homeland. Cervantes himself was actually captured by Algerian pirates in 1575 and spent five years in captivity (attempting to escape four times without success) before being ransomed by his family and returning to Madrid. (Irwin Edman in the introduction to Don Quixote) Clearly he had a lot of personal experience to bring to this part of his story. Other narratives, for example, The Loving Ballad of Lord Bateman” followed the almost identical premise.

The Arabian Nights is the English title for One Thousand and One Nights, with the majority of translations relying heavily on Gallard’s original work.

Probably the most famous story of a slave under a brutal Muslim overload is the Antoine Gallard novel, Les mille et une nuits (Tales from the Thousand and One Nights) published from 1704 to 1717 in multiple volumes which featured translated African and Persian tales. As Gallard was an archeologist – which in this period meant antiquities thief – he possessed some fluency in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. Purportedly possessing a 14th century Syrian manuscript with the tales in it, Ali Baba and Aladdin are thought to be Gallard’s own invention.

Essentially a series of stories within a story, this collection (usually entitled Arabian Nights in English) uses the framework of a Persian king who, having executed his wife for flagrant infidelity comes to the conclusion that women are all the same. Each night this seemingly heartless ruler takes a new concubine to bed and then executes her the following morning to avoid disappointment. When his trusted vizier can no longer find suitable women for the king’s bed, his daughter, Scheherazade volunteers to go. She tells the king a tale but leaves him with the cliffhanger at sunrise, necessitating him calling her back to his bed that night and postponing her execution. This continues for 1,001 nights until the king comes to his senses and realizes that Scheherazade is actually nothing like his dead wife and that he is in love with this clever, loyal woman. Some men are seriously slow on the uptake.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, “The Bath,” ca. 1880-85, Oil on canvas, 29 x 23-1/2 in. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; Mildred Anna Williams Collection. An incredibly orientalist painting, the stool she sits on even resembles a cage denoting her captivity.

While captivity narratives attempted to convey the heinous Muslim slave-owners (at a time when Europeans were doing plenty of slave-owning themselves), a main piece of the narrative was the immense pressure placed on captives to convert to Islam, and the captives noble resistance of these efforts. In actuality many captives cheerfully converted to their captor’s religion, the men largely because it enabled them to rise through the ranks and even gain their freedom, while women felt Islam was a religion kinder to women (that’s not a huge compliment given the state of both Catholicism and Protestantism at this time) and offering more rights. (Teo, p. 40) Europeans derogatorily called this conversion process “turning Turk” and the phrase eventually morphed into one insinuating a love of the perceived sexual depravities captives might endure in a harem.

What is fascinating about the captivity narratives from this time period is that rarely are women seen as being in danger of sexual defilement; it is the male captives depicted at risk for rape through sodomy (a danger I would imagine far more of a likelihood in the British navy of the time). Since this theme disappeared in the mid-1700s, right after Britain consolidated its role as a global European power, modern scholars believe the fear of sodomy to indicate the greater cultural anxiety of being “invaded” rather than having any basis the routine rape of male captives, for which there appears to be no evidence. (pp. 42-43)

The harem and what went on behind closed doors became the subject of fascination for Europeans, both in literature and music, yet many works featuring it still managed to insert larger messages about the Western view of the Ottoman Empire and of European views of sexuality.

The Allure of the Harem

The entrance to the harem (women’s quarters) at the Topkapi Sarayi, the famous palace occupied by the head of the Ottoman Empire from 1465 to 1856. The Sultan’s mother, wives, concubines and children, along with the female servants and eunuchs who served them, lived in this wing containing over 100 rooms.

While Western culture saw the harem as a guarded place of sexual license and indulgence populated by sequestered slaves, the reality was anything but. Haram in Arabic means “forbidden” or “sacred” and refers actually to women who choose to wear the veil, keeping their face for their near relatives alone. (Teo, p. 41) While wealthier women were often isolated, most women in Islamic culture of this time enjoyed greater freedom than their Christian counterparts. While calling the women’s quarters a harem was likely to be inaccurate on many levels, the later stranger moniker of seraglio was easier to explain. The Turco-Persian word sarayi (meaning “palace”) was commonly heard by Westerners visiting cities like Istanbul, and confused with the Italian verb serrare meaning “to lock up.” By the end of the 1500s, the French word serail and the English word seraglio did not just refer to a Turkish women’s palace but had become synonymous with “brothel” giving a clear indication of a Western view of such a place. This association became even more popular after Samuel Johnson chose to include it in his dictionary (perhaps for his friend Bothwell who knew far more about brothels than Johnson).

While European men were sure to exclaim “oh, that’s horrible!” in front of the clergy, secretly they dined out on this fantasy of sexual free-for-all (with one man as a focus, ahem) behind harem doors. No matter how inaccurate their perceptions, I think we can safely guess they weren’t fantasizing about converting the ladies within to Christianity.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who not only published her first hand account of Turkey but also brought back the knowledge of smallpox inoculation (the predecessor of vaccination) to England.

Even faced with actual evidence of their misconceptions, artists continued to perpetuate the above perception of the harem and Turkish women. By the mid-18th century, many Western Europeans had visited Turkey, publishing their travel accounts. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762), a good friend of Alexander Pope, traveled with her ambassador husband to Turkey, later publishing her first person accounts of what she saw in Turkey. Since actual first person accounts had been written by men (and many of them captives), Montagu’s Turkish Embassy Letters provide a completely different perspective on Turkish culture. Charming, lovely and full of wit, Montagu was received all over the country, and she avidly described the interiors and fashions of the women’s quarters she was invited into. While offering audiences plenty of titillation regarding feasts of the senses, she compared the harems she saw to the 18th century courts she had visited, declaring them in many ways enlightened since women could own property and had a degree of autonomy only dreamed of in the West. (Teo, p. 49) Rather than housing lesbian orgies and naked soaping, Montagu showed Turkish women and children living as loving families, engaging in domestic supervision and embroidery familiar to the middle and upper class women who would read her account. But this actual first-person reality check never quite made it into the male consciousness, at least not in literature, as fiction became more powerful than truth.

Pornography and the Harem Setting

I think what surprises me more than the somewhat pornographic quality of this picture is the lack of pubic hair seen on adult women in this time period.

Lord Byron, that truculent but handsome rake, is often thought by scholars to have successfully laid a titillating foundation for Orientalist pornography as the harem scenes he depicts in The Corsair (1814) and Don Juan (1819), painting the harem scenes in them with lush sensual images of naked women stretched as far as the male eye could see. (Teo, p. 57) By the 1820s, caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson, a member of the Royal Academy who produced lovely artistic works, was also chased by poverty. He occasionally turned to political caricatures but also made money producing illustrations featuring swarthy, large-penised males presented with pale naked beauties who either preened for his pleasure or caressed him.

Not only is this book still around (and in the public domain, so don’t think you have to pay for it), but it’s been made into a pornographic film numerous times. I know you are shocked by that tidbit, right?

He illustrated one of the most famous pornographic novels, The Lustful Turk, which was never given a named author, but went through multiple revisions and printing throughout the 19th century, beginning in 1828. In this work, the English Emily Barlow is being shipped to a distant relative in India because the man she loves has no fortune (and lacks the gumption to grab her and elope to Gretna Green). On the way, her ship is overtaken by Barbary Pirates and Emily is sold to Ali, the dey of Algiers who rapes her.  Recovering from her ordeal she meets other European women in Ali’s harem who have a similar experience, down to the ineffectual European lover who didn’t so much as steal a kiss. Like her predecessors, Emily grows to enjoy sex with Ali, due to his physical endowments, with her fellow Europeans succumbing to his ardor as well.

Scholars argue that The Lustful Turk, like The Sheik which followed it practically a century later, provides the Orientalist opinion that European culture had emasculated its men and distanced its women from their sexuality, both conditions thrown into stark relief when said European women were confronted with hypersexualized Muslim males. The Lustful Turk spawned numerous subsequent novels along the same themes and content (and illustrated), perpetuating the harem motif for European men.

One of the later 20th century sheikh novels (originally published in 1977) sadly involving rape as a plot device. Don’t read it unless you have to do an academic paper on the topic.

Is this all offensive? Hell, yeah, but through these offensive stereotypes of Ottoman men, the real revelation is clearly what the author is saying about the stunted view of sex in Western society. The male view of rape as some terrific trigger to liberate women from the culturally induced frigidity would even be adopted by female novelists (who clearly knew nothing about rape) in the 20th century. This choice gave romance fiction as a whole a taint from which it still hasn’t recovered, with many critics still referring to all romance novels with sexual content as “bodice rippers,” a term which only describes that small subset of romance for which rape is the first sexual encounter between the hero and heroine. (Teo, p. 63)

In my next installment of this series, I will specifically focus on E. M. Hull’s phenomenon novel, The Sheik, detailing the reaction to it, some possible historical and cultural reasons why it illicit such a strong wave of interest and highlighting how this book became the mother of modern sheikh romance.

Ladykillers, Seducers and Manwhores: Re-envisioning the Promiscuous Male via Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau

17 Aug

Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau (W. W. Norton & Co, February 4, 2013)

I’ve been remiss in not doing any nonfiction reviews for a while, and that’s a shame since I think there are a lot of materials out there which can inform romance readers and writers. One of the best books in this category that I’ve read in a while is Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them by Betsy Prioleau.

Prioleau, who has a Ph.D. from Duke University in American Literature and is a tenured professor at Manhattan College, wrote Swoon while a Scholar-in-Residence at NYU and her total immersion into this project is apparent. Using modern psychological research, biographies and interviews of actual renowned seducers, and examples from modern romance novels to illustrate what women actually want, Prioleau elucidates the features that the majority of these men possess which keep women enthralled. The romance reader will find many common themes in terms of the personality traits of their favorite heroes, but the romance writer can mine numerous ideas from the data and the examples she offers.

The Elements of Seduction, or Anatomy of a Seducer

Not exactly what you think you’d run to, ladies, am I right? Yet rock star Rod Stewart never had a problem getting women even prior to his immense success, despite his physical appearance resembling a legally blind electrician (which would explain the hair and the poor clothing choices).

Perhaps the most interesting point when analyzing men considered prime seducers throughout history is that appearance has absolutely nothing to do with it. Prioleau’s book is filled with snaggle-toothed, short, bald, paunchy examples of men who had women literally stowing themselves into closets and brandishing pistols at rival lovers. The men in question obviously had qualities that made them irresistible and, before you scoff, think about a modern man who – based on appearance – wouldn’t normally get the time of day. Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart anyone? Neither of them are tops in the looks department but there are other qualities (besides being uber-rich rock stars) that give them that panty-tossing quality.

While ladykillers don’t necessarily have all these qualities, they usually possess the majority of them and romance readers and writers will readily identify these common personality themes.

Cary Grant’s romantic character of cat burglar John Robie in the film To Catch a Thief demonstrates the “honor among thieves” morality necessary for the seducer.

Morality – Even a bad boy has some kind of code that he lives by, even if it’s an “honor among thieves” system he uses to model his behavior. When examining the behavior of Prioleau’s seducers, I didn’t pick out any one of them who wasn’t upfront about his love of and need for women, with several of them actually going the route of serial monogamy rather than the bedhopping associated with a true playboy or manwhore.

Another side of the morality coin is the display of kindness or benevolence. The proverb “No love without goodness” seems to readily apply here. Followers of this blog know of my love for the Regency series by Stephanie Laurens, the Cynster series, and my fellow fans will remember the book that was the prequel to the series, The Promise in a Kiss, which chronicled the love story of Sebastian Cynster, the Duke of St. Ives and thirty-something rakehell, who nevertheless possesses a network of secret female admirers, not because he bedded them, but because he helped them with either personal or charitable concerns with complete anonymity and discretion.

Mr. Darcy of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice might be stuffy and stuck-up initially, but Elizabeth Bennet doesn’t really doubt his decency. The turning point in her heart comes not from seeing the grounds of Pemberley, but hearing his housekeeper sincerely extol his virtues as a person and as a master. From a psychological standpoint, our desire for this expression of morality isn’t shocking; picking a potential mate should involve someone we think we can trust. Determining the nature of our partner’s character is clearly an extension of the desire to choose a man we can rely upon.

Casanova so won the loyalty of the women with whom he had affairs that he had medical care and comforts lavished him on his deathbed by past lovers who heard of his plight.

Courage – Prioleau cites the recent study indicating that women actually value bravery more than kindness in men. This could take a traditional expression in the fictional romance heroes who have jobs requiring this quality (like firefighters or military heroes) but it can also simply refer to a man’s ability to put himself out there and take risks while being uncertain of the reward.

In Swoon, readers are treated to several examples of men who were fearless in their pursuit of a certain women, to the point of what might be alarming to a modern woman. Renowned lover Giacomo Casanova (who actually was a serial monogamist who loved women rather the manwhore his name has become synonymous with) escaped jail, uncovered a woman disguised as a man, and seduced women from right under their husband’s noses. Women reciprocated by falling head over heels with such a bold man. Like Casanova, a man who would run across traffic to meet a woman who caught his eye, risking not only life and limb but possible rejection, is a potential mate who will brave enough to get anything a woman or her offspring might require.

French actor, the award-winning Gerard Depardieu, whose raw sexuality and charisma has women of all nationalities flocking to him. And yes, this was one of the best pictures I could find of him, so this charisma thing is damn serious.

Charisma – This point was one that had a whole section of the book devoted to it, and it’s really the essence of the whole cachet of the seducer, isn’t it? I’ve seen absolutely beautiful men who really don’t earn a second look because they are missing several of the qualities in this list, yet a man who is a beanpole with coke-bottle glasses and unbrushed hair can get every woman (and some of the men) in a room to sit up and take notice.

It’s charisma, that “compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others” which seems to ooze out of the pores and scent the air of certain men. Case in point, French actor Gerard Depardieu who on looks alone could easily play a live version of Shrek with his almost ogre-like physique and facial features. Yet Depardieu has been in public relationships with six renowned beauties, fathering children with four of them. He has made no bones about having dozens more in his bed, crediting two prostitutes from his rough neighborhood who became his sexual tutors and taught him how to bring pleasure to women. Sitting in on an acting class with a friend in Paris literally turned his life around, as he brought all that raw energy to play in his career and in his love life.

Seducer actor Richard Burton and the woman he loved so much he married her twice, the stunning Elizabeth Taylor.

Knowledge/Intelligence – Real sparks can’t fly when someone doesn’t have a lot of “there” there, so intelligence, even if it is confined to one or two hobbies or passions, seems to be a must. If a guy has never cracked a book but knows engines inside and out, there’s a partner out there who is going to be enraptured because his interests match hers. An offshoot of this quality is that a true seducer plies his arts through conversation, which is clinically shown in studies to be a way to prime a woman’s pleasure receptors. Talking can literally be foreplay to women!

With that in mind, the timbre of a man’s voice also offers it’s own erogenous capability. Elizabeth Taylor, in speaking glowingly about Richard Burton, a man she was so in love with she married him twice despite their tempestuous, alcohol-ridden relationship, said that one of the sexiest things Burton would do to her would be to whisper – in that low, Welsh voice – erotic lines of love poetry as he worshipped her body. *fans self* Check, please!

Twice-married David Niven was a chronic womanizer who genuinely loved women, so much so that they found it easy to forgive his indiscretions when confronted with the full force of his personality.

Social IQ aka “erotic intelligence” – While actual intelligence is vital for true seduction, emotional intelligence cannot be overstated. This social dexterity gifts its Mensa followers with the ability to read people and adjust tactics accordingly to get what they want. As Prioleau states, “…we owe civilized behavior today to women’s preference throughout history for interpersonal finesse – empathy, rapport, and good manners – over brute physical prowess.” (p. 79) Whether it’s the “fine divination” expressed by early 20th century sexologist (and Margaret Sanger’s lover) Havelock Ellis, or the “eighth sense” possessed by actor Warren Beatty according to his lovers, real seducers have the ability to say exactly what is needed at a given moment in order to demonstrate they are in sync with the person in front of them.

Actor David Niven was purportedly a maestro at this. His ability to read people and respond accordingly not only opened numerous career doors for him, but had dozens of women enthusiastically pulling back the bedsheets. Arriving in Hollywood in the mid-thirties, his conquests included Marilyn Monroe, Rita Hayworth, and Grace Kelly and he remained good friends with them throughout their lives, even through their various marriages. He didn’t lack a tortured past, having been born out of his mother’s affair with a prominent politician (who she later married and who refused to acknowledge David as his real son in order to avoid scandal). His mother and “step”father sent the young David off to boarding school where he suffered brutal sexual abuse from an older boy, leading Niven to wrestle with depression throughout his life, a strong counterpoint to the bonhomie which attracted so many women. He always named his first wife, Primmie, as the love of his life and never fully recovered from her sudden death at the age of 28 from a fall in Tyrone Power’s house while playing a parlor game. Yet the combination of past tragedy and scintillating conversation led practically everyone who fell into David Niven’s orbit to be pulled toward him, including the many women, one of whom called him “as delicious as a French pastry.”

Renowned satirical writer Kingsley Amis charmed women on both sides of the pond into bed with his humor and lack of inhibitions.

A sense of fun – So many of Niven’s lovers named his “playfulness” as the key piece of his personality which drew them, and that sense of fun is routinely listed as a major attractant for women. While romance novels are certainly populated with the stoic, strong silent type of hero who needs to learn to communicate and have fun (and the heroine is just the person to help him), a growing percentage of leading men fall into a category of cajoling, occasional betas, who can be plenty strong when needed, but in the meantime can help a too-serious heroine, perhaps recovering from past personal difficulties, loosen up and enjoy life.

This approach has its roots in our early hominid past, as prehistoric men were prone to violence toward stepchildren (and modern statistics support this as a continued issue). “Playfulness, as psychologists Geoffrey MIller and Kay Redfield Jamison observe, is an excellent fitness indicator, denoting youth, creativity, flexibility, intelligence, optimism, and nonaggression.” (Prioleau, p 196) A man who makes you laugh makes you feel safe, listened to, and appreciated all at the same time and this quality is often shown as being a key piece in long-term relationships.

British novelist and poet Kingsley Amis was no great shakes in the looks department, but in 1950s England and America his lack of sexual inhibition and humor had women lining up to get him in bed. Even after he was married, his personality could and did charm women into going into the garden during a party for a quickie, but his personality was such that no one seemed to hold a grudge. Case in point, after his second wife died, his first wife and her husband were happy to take him into their house to live his final days. From the man who said, “Only a world without love strikes me as instantly and decisively more terrible than one without music,” it seemed that there were plenty of women who were willing to agree with him, presumably with a smile on their face.

According to his lovers, Rubioso Porfirio’s height was the only thing small about him (ahem) but it was his legendary lovemaking skills and utter focus on the sexual gratification of his partner that made him the poster boy for the 1950s playboy.

Sexpertise – If there is anything that a romance reader can tell you, it’s that the sex scenes in romance follow a specific formula, namely that the hero adheres to the motto “She comes first.” Our heroines never have to worry about whether or not an orgasm is on the horizon, whether it be in a bed, shower, or in the front seat of Porsche with the door open for leverage. Chances are she’s even going to have number two or three and the oh-so-elusive simultaneous orgasm as the man ejaculates, perhaps with him commanding her to come at just the right moment. Yowza.

Yet these “sexperts” exist in real life (I promise), namely in the form of men who love being with women. These seducers understand women are more than their clitoris (although that’s important, too), creating sensual environments of sexy conversation, couples’ baths, and kisses that last forever and turn the woman’s whole body into an erogenous zone (which the man then plays like an instrument).

Dominican diplomat and playboy Porfiro Rubirosa in his 1950s heyday could control himself indefinitely having mastered the art of semen retention (like his contemporary counterpart, Aly Khan) and his rather sizable package could supposedly “go for hours” guaranteeing his partner’s gratification. Despite his mere 5′ 8″ height, he seduced some of the most beautiful women in the world, including Ava Gardner, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, and Zsa Zsa Garbor, and married the two wealthiest non-royal women at the time, Doris Duke and Barbara Hutton. Seemingly the playboy model Harlequin designed its Presents line around, he was also a ranked polo player and a Formula One race car driver. His skill behind the wheel didn’t stop him from dying at age 56 from crashing his Ferrari, and women around the world went into mourning at the passing of such a legendary lover. Yet despite his bedding what could reasonably be totaled hundreds of women, he always refused to boast or speak intimately of his conquests, citing that it would be “ungentlemanly” to do so. (Cohen, 2002)

Former model Carla Bruni with her husband French President Nicolas Sarkozy. No he isn’t a step lower than her, he’s actually that much shorter.

Self-actualization – The ancient Greeks had it right when they espoused the philosophy “Know Thyself” and seducers can say the same. The most powerful ladykiller is one who truly knows himself, possessing depths to his character and confidence that naturally accompanies this understanding. Because so many of these men are also financially successful, the billionaire doctor playboy of Harlequin fame doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched. Yet women are far more likely to ignore material resources (particularly modern women who can support themselves) in favor of multi-dimensional men who can continually surprise and intrigue them. Benjamin Franklin was a lady’s man from his teenage days as a printer’s assistant in Boston to his septuagenarian years in Paris, charming French women out of their powdered wigs with his witty salon repartee, much to the horror of the Puritan-descended John and Abigail Adams.

Modern day lothario and former French president Nicholas Sarkozy conquered supermodel, singer and songwriter Carla Bruni with his intelligence and ambition, as evidenced by her comment to a reporter, “He has five or six brains which are remarkably well-irrigated.” Bruni is his third wife and he met and romanced her almost immediately after his divorce from his second wife. Unlike America where that would cause a scandal, in France this actually rose Sarkozy in the people’s estimation. Heck, they claim to have invented romantic love, so who am I to argue?

Modern Lady Killers

With this long list of attributes (and I only skimmed the surface of Prioleau’s list, which had several more additions with outstanding examples – past, present and fictional), who currently walks among us ready to take on the mantle of some of these renowned seducers?

All the women of his acquaintance were thrilled that actor Jack Nicholson worked past his premature ejaculation problem to become a renowned modern lover.

A name that shocked the heck of of me was none other than Jack Nicholson, a man who I don’t automatically think of when the word “seducer” is mentioned. Yet this moniker has undoubtedly been earned by this Hollywood actor, who started off life with a premature ejaculation problem. Going through years of psychotherapy, Nicholson confronted his demons and embraced a spiritual approach to lovemaking focusing utterly on the woman who he was with. Preferring women he harbors emotion for, Nicholson has learned how to massage women “into the mood” with lovers mentioning such romantic gestures as carrying them into bed and asking them for verbal feedback on what brought them closer to orgasm. His string of women do nothing but gush about his prowess.

Don’t let the hair fool you, actor, director and Twitter powerhouse Ashton Kutcher has hidden depths which the adoring women he seduces are happy to plumb.

Ashton Kutcher is a more likely modern ladykiller in terms of his appearance, but that same brand of boyish good looks leads people to underestimate this industry powerhouse. He embodies a personality component of successful seducers (versus the more shallow manwhore) in that he genuinely likes and respects women, a factor he attributes to his upbringing due to his close relationship with his mother and sister. He sees women as friends, equals and ultimately lovers and lives his mother’s directive to “treat women right, to take care of them, to respect them.”

Seduction Today

Yet men like Nicholson and Kutcher are the exception rather than the norm. Prioleau makes quite clear that modern men are at a loss when it comes to learning seduction techniques. No longer do we have a set etiquette of courtship as in past decades and the majority of men feel the lack of this structure. Spotty sex education, pornography, and callous pick up experts producing best-selling books are where the majority of young men are getting their “information” and it’s hardly edifying. Incorrect, unrealistic, and downright manipulative, this data results in the majority of men being adrift at how to express an interest in women or what techniques actually work to properly seduce women and keep them coming back.

“At a glance, it doesn’t seem like a season for romance; in fact, writes Maryanne Fisher in Psychology Today, there is none on the dating scene. Gone are the old rituals and rules, and in their place reign confusion, anomie, superficiality, and cynicism…Rather than grand amours, we have ‘cold heat,’ desire without passion, and plural, light attachments. Although an advance for sexual liberation, casual coupling, hookups, and turnstile partners have shriveled eros.” (p. 223)

Prioleau’s work has the potential for tremendous impact on helping writers and readers think about the would-be heroes in their lives (real or fictional) while also advancing the conversation about what truly constitutes love and seduction. Having enjoyed this book so much, I am eager to read its predecessor, Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and the Lost Art of Love (Penguin Books, 2004), but I have a feeling there will be similar themes of passion and charisma in the ladies featured in that volume.

In a world currently populated with pick-up workshops like those by Neil Strauss, author of the Rules of the Game, or the more straightforward and offensive, Bang: More Lays in 60 Days (which women should read simply to be on the defensive), it’s not exactly a miracle when men who truly love women and their pleasure stand out. Yet there is a flip side to the manwhore and it’s an obvious one. Unlike the romance hero who finds the heroine and changes his ways, the biographical details Prioleau shares of both famous people and her non-famous interviewees rarely have a happy ending. These are men whose hedonistic love of pleasure and intimacy has them going from one woman to another. It’s understandable given their outlook on life, but it’s nevertheless sad to read if you are someone who truly roots for a happy ending.

Like any book which sheds insight on the human condition known as love, Prioleau’s book opens a broad door, letting us see behind the facade of these ladykillers to understand what exactly makes them so irresistible to women. From history to psychology, from fiction to real-life examples, Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them will leave your head spinning with understanding as to what truly seduces our senses.

Men Are Like Basketball Players, They Dribble A Little Before They Shoot: The Future of Condoms in Romance Novels

12 Jul


In a meeting last year in my local chapter of the Romance Writers Association, I was fascinated to hear some of the published authors discuss how much they hated having to write condoms into sex scenes. Some of them thought it interrupted the flow of the moment, others thought it was a pregnancy or disease reminder that the reader shouldn’t have.

But some of them, like me, were appalled at the idea that there would be sexual intimacy without them. Maybe it is the fact that I came of age in the AIDS crisis of the eighties and nineties, or perhaps it’s the fact that I majored in reproductive physiology, but if a guy doesn’t reach for a condom before having sex with a heroine, I classify him as a lunatic, asshole or shifter.

Dental dams – a small sheet of latex which allows for sensation but prevents the exchange of bodily fluids – come in all flavors.

In fact, many of the publishing houses, particularly the ones specializing in erotica, actually have the issue of condoms in their writing guidelines or editors will informally push for their inclusion – you HAVE to write them in. While the inference is that their inclusion is to model safe sex, the reality is that this is simply pregnancy prevention. I have yet to read oral sex scenes involving either gender where a barrier is part of the equation. Dental dams should be used on women (plastic wrap works great in a pinch) and condoms should be always be used when performing oral sex on a man. When they aren’t, as much as I try and suspend my disbelief and enjoy the writing, the back of my brain is actually shouting, “What about gonorrhea of the throat?!” or “Hello, herpes!”

In romance writing, there is the automatic assumption that the protagonists of a romance novel are automatically disease free, probably because having diseases doesn’t seem sexy (even though I’m sure there are lots of sexy people who are living with HIV and having great protected sex with their partners). Even if the hero is a the master of the one-night stand and has them all the time, readers are given the distinct impression that he has never, ever been without a condom, even if he chooses to go without this time. My favorite books are the ones where, in the heat of the moment, the couple draws away panting to have a brief conversation about the last time they got checked at the doctor’s office (thank heavens for the military and their stringent medical screening – what would all those SEALs do otherwise for information?) and how they haven’t been with anyone since then. The heroine indicates she’s using another method of contraception and then clothes fly…let the hot sex begin!

Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal or, the Problem with Penis Size

Shrimp sizing. The more you look, the more they appear like little penises, don’t they?

Back when I was a teaching assistant for the class “Contraception: Today and Tomorrow,” the professor and I would naturally go over all the available methods of contraception while detailing the strengths and weaknesses of each. One of the biggest problems with condoms (and there are more, detailed in the next section) is that the best condom is one which fits the penis well. Ideally this would mean that the man would buy a size of condom appropriate for his penis size, but while your high school boyfriend might not have minded buying a Hanes for Men t-shirt in a size small, there are few men who are comfortable reaching for the small size in a box of condoms!

Condom manufacturers actually looked at the shrimp industry *suppresses snicker* for sizing inspiration. The majority of shrimp sold are classified as Jumbo, Colossal and Super Colossal because, hey, shrimp people clearly have a wicked sense of humor. But it was still a no go. Kind of like me when I don’t want to look to find my size on the back of the Spanx package, men didn’t want the Trojans box to tell them they were merely Jumbo or the smallest size. Manufacturers stuck with one size fits all, only making an “extra large” size for the above average man.

Even that “extra large” size may be the same size or only a centimeter larger than the brands regular condom, so it’s not a guarantee of comfort and fit. Yet fit is vital. A condom that is too tight will not only uncomfortable to wear and decrease the ability to sustain an erection (and therefore be less likely to be used) but also is more likely to break in the midst of sex. Similarly, a condom that has too much room is far, far more likely to slip off (I had a friend in college who got pregnant that way). The need for condoms to match penis size is vital.

How Big Is the Average Man’s Penis and Can You Believe That These Research Conclusions Are Necessary?

meter-106419_640Just two days ago, the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a study Erect Penile Length and Circumference Dimensions of 1,661 Sexually Active Men in the United States which asked men to measure their erect penises (yes, the men did the measuring). The erect penises ranged between 4 and 26 cm or, for you non-metric folks, 1.57 inches to 10.23 inches. Can’t you imagine men feeling better about giving the measurement in centimeters? It’s like vanity sizing in dresses for women. The mean erect penis (no, it wasn’t angry, it’s another name for the mathematical construct of “average” but average is a word you don’t want to use with penises either) was 14.15 cm or 5.7 inches and the mean circumference of erect penises was 12.23 cm or 4.8 inches.

Interestingly, the researchers wanted to note any differences between how the subjects obtained their erect penis (I’m not making this up) and determined that men who used masturbation or hand play with a partner had smaller erect penises than those who received oral sex from a partner. This reminds me a lot of those “academic studies” proving that college students like to drink beer. Doesn’t really come as a shock, does it?

The Problem with Condoms, or LOTS of Problems with Condoms

basketball-100731_640Since people of my generation and younger have a synonymous association with condoms and sex (I hope), it often comes as a shock when you suggest that the condom has major flaws. I’m in NO WAY suggesting that they shouldn’t be used but people often place more confidence in condoms than they deserve. Back in college, I and many of my smart women friends would insist on the use of condoms along with another method of contraception – condoms and the Pill, condoms and vaginal sponges, condoms and spermicidal foam – you get the picture. This is because while condoms have a theoretical efficacy rate of 98% if used perfectly, the real efficacy rate factoring in user error is closer to 85%.

A large part of this error has to do with ignorance regarding the male sexual arousal process, specifically around what in romance novels is called “pre-cum” or that small amount of semen exuded on the tip of the penis as the man gets an erection. When I would do the condom lecture, I liked to emphasize that if that condom was going anywhere near someone else’s bodily fluids, it needed a condom on it, because:

A man is like a basketball player; he dribbles a little before he shoots.

When you see the problems people encounter using condoms, this adage immediately becomes highly relevant. That pre-ejaculate may or may not have sperm in it (studies vary on this with results showing both conditions) and it certainly can carry disease like any bodily fluid. The other types of mistakes in condom use comes from fumbling with latex condoms and/or getting caught up in the heat of the moment and making a mistake. For example, common condom mistakes are:

  • using them for only part of intercourse (never a good idea);
  • starting to roll the condom on the wrong way, and then flipping it over rather than using a new condom depositing the pre-ejaculate on the OUTSIDE of the condom;
  • not leaving room in the tip of the condom, which could cause it to burst;
  • using a too small (breaking issues) or too large condom (slippage);
  • not holding onto the condom while withdrawing.

Other more serious issues include a latex allergy or chemical sensitivity (to the lubricants used or to the spermicide on most condoms) or in many countries of the world, condom shortages which make them hard to get. With 15 billion condoms manufactured each year and 750 million people using them, that seems hard to believe, but it’s a major concern, particularly for countries still struggling economically or dealing with governments who do not support contraception or STI prevention.

The Condom of the Future

Enter the philanthropic team of Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation. The Gates Foundation has my undying admiration for taking on all of the unsexy problems of the world (i.e., the ones that will never make money for anyone but affect millions of people) and tackling them one by one, approaching each problem with entrepreneurial spirit and encouraging outside of the box solutions. Because of the foundation’s intense focus on HIV/AIDS prevention and cures, condoms have naturally received a lot of attention from them. Back in March 2013, the Gates Foundation announced a $100,000 prize for the invention of a better and more pleasurable condom. Yes – more pleasurable – because the way to get people to use them is to make them feel good while doing it.

The various types of Orgami condoms, made from flexible silicone which has tactile accordion pleats to extend or contract to whatever size necessary and offer maximum sensation during intercourse.

The current frontrunner is the Orgami condom. I know, the name makes me think of folded paper swans too, but their condom concept is brilliant. Rather than using allergy inducing latex, Orgami condoms are made with the far more stable silicone. Size is no longer an issue as the accordion pleats in the material expand or contract to whatever size necessary. There is no unrolling, just a quick slide and the person is ready to go. You’ll notice there are three pictured here: the male condom (made with a larger tip to eliminate reservoir pinching), the female condom (designed for female pleasure as well as disease prevention and contraception) and the RAI Condom which is for anal intercourse, a particularly vulnerable act when discussing disease prevention, due to the lack of lubrication in this area which can lead to microinjuries.  All of Origami’s condoms are internally lubricated, meaning that the sensation provided to the penetrator mimics the heightened sensation of actual intercourse. Take a look at their informative video and tell me you’re not convinced.

Ms. French Manicure is a little naughty in this video, yes? Yet the brilliance of the product shines through. It’s hard not to imagine this condom feeling good for all parties involved, transforming it from a necessary toiletry to fun sex toy. That attitude change would definitely help sales and usage! What’s amazing is that Origami has been restricted by FCC regulations regarding television and radio from accurately advertising their product (when was the last condom ad you saw?), making it extremely difficult to get the word out. It’s hard to imagine a society where we can showcase sex in all its forms in video but can’t have a commercial advertising prophylactics, but that’s the United States. Origami’s condoms are expected to be available on the market in late 2014 or early 2015, pending regulatory approvals, according to their video press release.

Condoms in the Romance Genre: What’s the Future?

With condoms like this in the picture, designed to enhance everyone’s pleasure, I think the future is bright for the inclusion of them into the literature. Still common enough in novels, imagine how sexual partners would feel when the other person produces not just a condom but a super-duper pleasure inducing one? These condoms, which will undoubtedly be more expensive than the latex variety, will become de rigeur for the uber-rich heroes of the Harlequin Presents line (although there were be fewer secret babies), be issued along with a SIG Sauer to members of yet another elite professional security firm, or be the fantasy focus of that quiet heroine desperate to unleash her inner vixen.

While I would never recommend that authors write specifically to educate, I think we cannot deny the fact that romance fiction is likely to be a profound source of sexual education to its readers. Only 65% of high schools and middle schools taught about condom efficacy (see the above failure rate) and a mere 39% taught students how to use a condom. Keep in mind that these statistics are for the schools not adopting an abstinence only health education approach (about 23% of all schools in the U.S.) or the many private schools whose religions affiliation would also preclude this information. This is a lot of people who are becoming adults with NO formal health education surrounding condom use. I’ve always considered the romance genre to be one of the few outlets which encourages women to set high expectations regarding healthy relationships and sexual pleasure, but with numbers like the above I’m beginning to worry that popular magazines and our brand of fiction probably reach a larger number of readers who have gone without vital information about condoms and other aspects of their reproductive health.

So let’s keep this in mind, shall we, writers and editors? The next time you are confronted with a hero or heroine about to engage in sex, make sure that some thought of condoms are part of the equation. Having them think about them might very well help someone else also ponder that decision the next time they are ready for a little romance in their life.

Orgasm, Inc.: What We Can Learn From a Documentary on the Medicalization of Female Arousal

16 Nov

In Orgasm, Inc.: The Strange Science of Female Pleasure, documentary filmmaker Liz Canner is hired by a drug company, Vivus, working on a female sexual dysfunction drug. She is hired to produce sexually explicit materials they can show to women trialling the drug who needed to become aroused for scientists to measure changes. The filmmaker ended up spending nine years documenting the medical industry’s approach to women’s orgasm and we benefit from this interesting (and occasionally scary).

What’s fascinating is how little the medical profession actually knows about the female orgasm – they readily admit they don’t know how it works, or even if clinically increased blood flow (like from the female version of Viagra) contributes to it. But in the United States, we are used to medicalizing any amorphous condition, particularly conditions that might be far more complex than a mere pill can tackle. Because you can’t invent a medical solution until there is a specific disorder, the FDA must approve the list of symptoms as a viable disorder before a pharmaceutical company can come up with a “cure”. In the 1990s, the FDA did just that for female sexual dysfunction, and the stock in pharmaceutical companies indicating they would pursue drug therapies to treat it soared.

What gets developed in response to this new diagnosis ranges from the interesting to the ludicrous. How many women would have an Orgasmatron (no, not the Sleeper movie version of one) implanted in their spinal column to be switched on at will? One older woman interviewed indicated she had never had an orgasm (and in fact is incredibly candid about her religious upbringing and internal battle with letting herself have an orgasm during intercourse) actually gets one of these devices inserted in her body.

Viagra, the little blue pill that changed many a man’s life, brought to you by Pfizer

The controversy is tremendous and not just around spinal implants. Many of the medical experts and doctors readily admit that many of the issues women experience are complex responses to environment, stress, and, um, expertise of their partner. Several news outlets covering the research on the “female Viagra” preferred to focus on the medical experts happy to speak about how this new path of drug therapy (no orgasmatrons were mentioned) would empower women to take charge of their sexuality, yet neglected to discuss these professionals’ ties to drug industries. In actuality, Viagra has been clinically proven to not work for women, so doctors prescribe women Viagra “off-label” since it can’t technically be used for increasing female arousal. But the idea of a pill to fix a frustrated woman wanting that orgasm during intercourse is tempting, particularly when you don’t want to do the harder work of figuring out other issues.

As for the video montage of the arousing images Canner produced? It turns out that even the placebo subjects experienced increased blood flow to their genitals using porn images. How. Shocking. And the lady who had the orgasmatron implanted? Her leg twitched great, but nothing near an orgasm was achieved.

But how much of “female sexual dysfunction” is a matter of partner expertise or an individual’s ignorance regarding their body? Many women can give themselves an orgasm because they know that 70% of women require clitoral stimulation for 15 to 20 minutes, yet movies don’t really show that, do they? This conversation reminded me of the TEDx Talk I tweeted a week or so ago by Cindy Gallop “Make Love, Not Porn“. Gallop, who admits to enjoying porn, discusses the disconnect she experiences in her relationship with younger men who think that the porn they’ve watched is an accurate depiction of sex.

Since most pornography is designed for male gratification, this proliferation of porn watching has the potential to be a problem for women (I’m guessing it’s not exciting watching that 15 to 20 minutes of clitoral stimulation in an hour long video). As I posed in my tweet, my question is: what happens when romance-reading women, who expect sensitive men who really know what they are doing and are happy to dedicate hours to their pleasure, fall for porn watching men who think that vigorous missionary position sex for five minutes is a surefire way to have a woman achieve orgasm? Neither view is realistic, so hopefully both parties will understand that each type of entertainment is fiction. I know that the survey data surrounding romance readers backs this up, particularly since the vast majority of them are in happy, long-term relationships, but I’ll admit to being worried about the porn watchers.

Sex education in America was also touched upon (no pun intended), particularly as it highlights our society’s contradictions. We’re developing an orgasm pill yet the majority of schools teach abstinence-only sex education? Canner interviewed one of the experts at Good Vibrations, the famous store supplying people with sexual aids since it’s brown paper wrapper days (there’s a great store in San Francisco for the brave browser). The doctor interviewed mentioned the historical treatment for “hysteria” when women would go to their doctors for a vibration treatment that would end in a paroxysm of relief, i.e. an orgasm. Yet little sexual education explores the details surrounding masturbation, which, if you’re a fumbling teenager, might very well be the only way you are going to get a reliable orgasm if you are a girl.

So much of the medicalization of the female orgasm is once again turning this conversation – which is essentially about women’s sexual pleasure – into something more clinical and “fixable” rather than dealing with more complex emotional and social issues which could inhibit women from achieving orgasm. With one out of six women having experienced sexual assault, 80% of women having body image issues, and the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes with caregiving and work, you begin to realize it’s amazing women have orgasms at all!

A tour of the Berman Center, headed by sex-expert and television personality Dr. Laura Berman, it was ludicrous the degree to which the “clinic” medicalized arousal. There was a “Patient Concierge” who escorted the “patient” to each professional who was part of the consult – a sex therapist visit to determine any emotional issues, and a nurse practitioner who puts vibrating probes around your clitoris and vaginal canal to see if you experience arousal, particularly while watching erotic videos. Then your concierge in her nice white lab coat can show you the lubricants and vibrators that the medical professionals recommend. The visit costs $1500 which is, no surprise, not covered by your insurance company. I think talking to the salesperson at Good Vibrations would probably be way more fun and a lot less expensive, even if you splurged on the Eroscillator 2.

The footage of the medical conference, complete with exhibit hall of new treatments, was chilling. Born-again virgin surgeries, laser vaginalplasty to make your labia look different (how often do women stare at that part of themselves!?) and special clitoral surgeries are all being added to some gynecological surgeon repertoires. A ton of fashion magazines have had articles about these procedures, but it’s unsurprising when you think that those same magazines are designed to make you feel bad about how you look and then tell you the solution, whether it be a diet plan, a makeup or skincare product, or labia surgery.

The Wondrous Vulva Puppet – $125 in silks and satin

My absolute favorite part of the whole documentary was when the wonderful woman who owned the sex toys store (she had helped Liz Canner chose female oriented porn to get her clips for the erotic video she was to show the research subjects at the start of the film) decides to go the International Conference on Female Sexual Health. She was not allowed by the conference promoters in the exhibit hall, so she rented a room in the hotel and did a presentation for the physicians and researchers interested enough to come take a look. The union of a playful approach to sexual education and arousal and the medial profession is nothing short of revelatory. I mean, seriously, the vulva puppet? I would have watched this documentary a lot earlier if I known this gem was nestled in here. What great way to help women learn about their anatomy! There is a terrific product to help women with Kegel exercises and the doctors seemed impressed with many of her products and their potential to help women maintain good sexual health.

I don’t think that there will be too much romance literature focusing on a woman struggling with the hero to achieve an orgasm, but many of these issues would be extremely valid for writers to bring up with heroine who has dealt with mental or emotional blocks like them in her past, and how a match with the right hero helps her overcome them. After all, fiction is fantasy, and there is nothing wrong with the complex event that is female arousal.

Web Meets Books: Small Demons Brings Depth and Understanding to Reading

22 May

So much of the conversation about reading and technology is centered around the great ebooks versus print debate, and it’s easy to understand why that topic, with all it’s monetary repercussions for publishers and authors, has top billing. But there are other ways the web is impacting reading, lending depth of understanding for readers and Small Demons is one of them.

Let me start off by answering your obvious question. No, I do not understand why this site is called Small Demons, but I think the name is kind of edgy and cool! The name in the end doesn’t matter more than the mission of the company. In a nutshell, Small Demons seeks to help readers make the connections of understanding by mapping the web of knowledge and references contained in each work.

This is of vital importance. I’m sure I was not the only person who read The Da Vinci Code or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, with art books and computers open around them to examine a specific work or track obscure Swedish politics. Frustrating! What if there was a one stop place on the web that had already gathered all those references together for me to enhance my understanding? Thank you, Small Demons, for doing just that.

Take the above screen shot of the book The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown. The top of the page looks rather standard, doesn’t it? Your established book cover shot with the synopsis and a link to sources to buy it seems rather blah.  But wait! Look down a little. Here’s where the Small Demons magic begins.

Next we have a visual catalog of all the people and places listed in the book, which you may remember happens in Washington, D. C. Our pictures show all the references (and it’s Dan Brown’s intellectual professor as a mystery solving protagonist, so there are a LOT of people and ideas mentioned), from Albert Einstein to Mickey Mouse to Zeus. Just having the picture isn’t sufficient – if you hover over it you can see the identification of who you are looking at and if you click on the picture, you get taken to a separate page dedicated to that individual with all literary references to them as found in the Small Demons database. The map indicates the places mentioned and the specific pictures below the map are actual images of those places, with a similar rollover experience where you can click to find out more information. The pages dedicated to a person or place are really cool and worth exploring. Take a gander at Issac Newton:

Clicking on any one of the many books listed will give you the specific quote in the window above of the mention. Enabling the “Like” button with the heart by the person’s image links your interest in this person to your account so you can know when other books mention Newton. (Check out that hair! Doesn’t it remind you of some of the vampire hair descriptions in paranormal romance? Just sayin’.)

Back at the ranch the main book page of Brown’s novel, we can see that the buck doesn’t stop with the cool people/places references. Small Demons also links to music, movies, and other books mentioned in the text. In this screenshot from The Lost Symbol page, we see the link to the classical pieces Brown’s characters allude to, as well as the movies and books in the text.

Any reference or item I favorite, whether it be an author, a book, a person or movie (ANYTHING) gets added to my account’s Storyboard (see below) where it tracks my interests for me. Based on the company’s “What’s Coming Next?” page, you can see they’ll be moving in a direction where they will offer recommendations based on my interests. Other cool features in the works – besides the obvious additions of lots more books and references – center on pages devoted to specific subtopics (like vampires), the ability to preview or purchase music and movies, and more lists of bestsellers and awards.  They only have a romance list linked to the RITA for Young Adult Romance, so with any luck they will continue to work on all the other categories of romance fiction for us!

Right now they have an interesting smattering of the genre (there’s a genre drop down menu for easy browsing) with most of the books having some rather skimpy references, but the company seems to be working hard to keep adding to their offerings, so I check back weekly. Seeing what your friends are reading by linking social networks is an obvious next upgrade as well as the ability to have Small Demons as a mobile app on your phone or iPad.

Maybe because I’m a librarian, my first question always is “where does this information come from?” – after all, if it’s not from a reliable source, then it doesn’t help the reader in the end. Small Demons makes very clear that their information comes from Freebase, with some information from Wikipedia. I hadn’t heard of Freebase, but was really interested once I perused their wiki.

Freebase is a Creative Commons licensed database with over 22 million entries that charts entities (a person, place, thing, whatever), giving them unique identifiers but also tracking relationships and differences between them. The best example I can give is that of helpful metaengines, like, which have taken your search terms and helped you figure out what you didn’t know. When someone searches on mercury, a search engine like is able to separate out results into relationships, so it can have categories like Mercury (planet), mercury (element), Mercury (car), Mercury (god), etc. with the searcher able to click on whatever category fits their search.

The easiest way to get more content into Small Demons would be to let users help, but since I’m not a developer it’s hard to imagine how you could have account members access to the Freebase data in a user friendly manner. That said, I sent a note to them using their “Feedback and Suggestions” page with the thought of having a button next to each category on pages (whether or not there was any data there) that would allow readers to suggest material as they were reading. I got an incredibly prompt and friendly response saying they were already working on it, so I’m definitely feeling the warm fuzzies when it comes to the developers of this website.

Really, what I want are these features embedded in my ebook, so I could just hover over the reference and listen to the song or see a description of the book if I choose while reading, but with the proprietary nature of ebook formats, I can’t even begin to imagine how they could integrate this into the majority of readers’ experience.

A great way to keep up to date on books as they are added to the lexicon is to follow Small Demons on Twitter, where you can not only get a real-time update on items as they are added, but also enjoy the witty tone of the company as they promote new offerings and related material on the internet. Small Demons is a great website that has the potential to become as important to my reading experience as Goodreads, so I will eagerly await seeing how this great website grows and develops.

Why Do We Kiss?: The Science and Sociology Behind One of Our Favorite Pasttimes

12 Apr

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that kissing the person I love is one of my favorite ways to pass the time.  Even when it doesn’t lead to something even more earth-shattering, there is nothing so intimate, so soul satisfying, as kissing a person for whom you feel love and passion.

After reading Sheril Kirshenbaum‘s book, The Science of Kissing, I now understand why I feel this way.  This well-known science writer has compiled a veritable ton of data from anthropologists, microbiologists, neuroscientists and sociologist to help the reader understand why we insist on kissing each other.

Probably the first big shock was that not everyone does kisses the way we do in the United States.  While French kissing has become more prevalent since the proliferation of Western media throughout the world, there still are cultures for whom open-mouthed kissing is an anathema.  Some cultures kiss only on closed mouths or focus attention on kissing the face and neck area as a prelude to or during sexual contact.

So when did we start kissing each other like this?  The Kama Sutra has depictions of kissing represented (so that makes 1500 B.C.E. fair game for smooching) but even Bonobo monkeys (and other primates) have been known to exchange kisses, open mouthed and otherwise, for the purposes of titillation and relationship reinforcement, so it’s everyone’s best guess that like our fellow primates, we’ve been at this kissing thing for a while.  Take a look at some of the highlights from the book, put in a snazzy format.

Since I read these types of books not just because I’m interested in science, but also because I’m thinking about romance writing, it’s hard not to absorb material with that angle.  One of the chief themes of the book is not just why we kiss (what is the biological advantage to doing it) but also seeks to discover how do men and women experience kissing differently.

The advantage part comes through loud and clear.  By being close enough to smell and taste someone, a person actually is enabling their body to literally sample the person’s Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC).  I had read about the studies that Kirshenbaum relates, where men and women are exposed to the personal scent of various individuals of the opposite sex (usually t-shirts that have been slept in and not washed).  As long as they aren’t (in the case of women) taking birth control pills that mimic pregnancy, human beings have the amazing ability to literally sniff out the individuals who are most biologically compatible with us.  Our noses (which are pressed so close to that significant other) can scent who is able to offer us a set of complementary genes which would boost our offsprings immune systems.  We feel greater desire and attraction for these people because they smell and taste better to us.  A kiss really tells you something!

But while men and women are both driven by the MHC agenda, it’s definite that they experience kissing, or maybe approach it, with very different goals in mind.  In an interview with CNN, Kirschenbaum discusses how she reviewed studies showing attitudinal approaches to kissing, with results that few men and women would argue with.  Women are more cautious approaching kissing, using the exchange as an opportunity to “take the temperature” of the relationship and determine whether or not it should move forward.

Men, on the other hand, see kissing as a means to an end. Rating face and body attractiveness higher than the person being a “good kisser,” men were more likely to continue kissing someone simply in order to have sex with them.  They liked kissing and but placed less importance on kissing overall, no matter how long they had been in a relationship.

In a far less scientific study, Harlequin does annual polls about topics related to romance.  Last year’s survey was entitled “Kiss n’ Tell” and asked people about their kissing preferences and the importance of the act.

I was worried that the data would be skewed to women considering Harlequin’s readership, but there was an almost even number of either sex who answered the poll. While still a small number, when asked if the person they kissed was a bad kisser would they end things, more female respondents answered “yes” (12% of survey takers) than male respondents (only 9%). Forty percent of both sexes said that kissing expertise wouldn’t factor into their decision, but I think that, while people might trudge along in a relationship for a while if the other person in it was a bad kisser, it’s not for the long haul.

Although, since 32% of men and 24% of women said yes to the question, “Have you ever kissed someone off-limits, such as a friend’s significant other or spouse?” maybe they weren’t in it for the long haul to begin with! Before you get too jaded, the best response was undoubtedly to “What is your best kissing memory?” since 28% of both sexes (a clear majority over the other options) answered that it was a kiss with their current partner.

D’oh.  I’m going to bet that the significant other was a good kisser though!

On the Importance of Archetypes: Jayne Ann Krentz’s Perspective on Romance Fiction

16 Mar

I vaguely remembered English course discussions (mind-numbing ones) centering on whether or not (insert protagonist name here) embodied the archetype of (hero, villain, trickster, etc.). Invariably some ass-kisser would bring in the Jungian archetypes (she had clearly taken a 200 level psychology class and wanted to show it) and I would start doodling in my notebook while the conversation took on the quality of Charlie Brown‘s teacher “wah-wah-WAH-wah…”.

So who the hell cares about archetypes anyway?  Well, it turns out writers should care, because a study of archetypes can offer tremendous insight into the characters we try to flesh out in mere words.  Sometimes books and writer’s guides call them simply archetypes, but there are other versions that exist like personality types, enneagrams, and zodiac signs which can all prove to be the brain jumper cable we require to see our character as a three dimensional person and transmit that understanding to our reader.

But before we go further, what exactly is an archetype?  At it’s most basic, an archetype is “a very typical example of a certain person or thing” usually seen as a general label that invokes immediate understanding in the listener or reader (like when someone calls your character a “player” in contemporary romance or a “rogue” or “rake” in historical romance).(New Oxford American Dictionary)

The psychology piece takes it a step deeper as Jungian psychology believes in archetypes as “a primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” (New Oxford American Dictionary) In this school of thought, the idea reigns that we have embedded in our cultural psyche ideas of “the hero” or the “wise old woman.” Jung and some other psychologists believe tarot cards to be an example of people channeling the idea of archetypes and creatively using them to understand their world and their future.  This is really rather helpful for writers, since it means that we can spin variations of this theme but often merely have to invoke this archetype in the minds of our reader with a few broad strokes and the reader’s brain will automatically categorize the character accordingly.

When entering into a “literary” discussion of the romance genre, it helps to get an intellectual heavyweight on your side.  Jayne Ann Krentz, known to her fans under either her actual name or one of her many pseudonyms – Amanda Quick or Jayne Castle, are two popular ones – is an award winning author who is able to encapsulate the key points of romance in language that ties critics in knots.  Try telling the following to the next brandy-swilling snootypants who attempts to suck the fun out of you.

“The thing is, romance novels, like the other genres of popular fiction, descend from a different storytelling tradition — the heroic tradition. They feature the ancient heroic virtues: honor, courage, determination and the healing power of love. Most modern literary critics are stuck in a time warp that dates back to the middle of the twentieth century when the only fiction that was considered GOOD fiction was that which was heavily influenced by existentialism, various social agendas and psychological theory.” (Source: interview with Jayne Ann Krentz)

Krentz knows what she’s talking about.  Not only did she get her bachelor’s degree in history and her master’s in library science (whoo-hooo!! fellow librarian!!), but she worked for years in academic libraries.  Add in her thirty plus years of being a published author and you have someone who REALLY has given a lot of thought to the genre.  (For an even clearer view, take a look at the collection she edited, Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance.)

Archetypes have definitely been a piece of this thought process.  In a recent interview given to the Popular Romance Project (SUCH a good site with one amazing video interview after another, like Jayne’s, and well-written guest articles, be sure to check it out), she paints with a few words why we love romance so much. It’s (thankfully) not about existential post-modernism or the deeper symbolism regarding the parrot on page 73, but instead about a story that is about two people on a journey, facing their problems with characteristics we can all admire. “[T]he hero and the heroine overcome their problems not with social engineering and not with psychology, but with core heroic virtues and they’re always the same. It’s courage, determination, a sense of honor, integrity, and the ability to love, and that’s at the core of all our heroic archetypes.”  Can you even think of a hero that didn’t have, at his or her core personality, these values?  Of course you can’t, because we wouldn’t love him or her as a reader.

Popular fiction employs archetypes as much as literary fiction or sweeping Greek epics do, because they are essential to our understanding of story.  Noting that no one seems to ask what need popular fiction fills in our mind and heart, Jayne has a theory.  “…I’ve, over the years, sort of evolved a Jayne’s theory of popular fiction evolution, which is that it wouldn’t survive unless it served a real purpose for the survivability of our culture; and I believe that it’s in popular fiction that we preserve our society’s—our culture’s—core values.”  If those core values are about love and caring, about courage and integrity, then I am incredibly glad that I live in a society that recognizes their importance.

One of the other criticisms I hear of popular fiction is how “unrealistic” it is. Conversely the opposite is praise for literary fiction (which never gets called popular fiction no matter how popular it gets) which is often touted for being gritty and realistic. But Jayne Krentz has a rebuttal for this negative perspective.

“It is not the task of popular fiction to be realistic. It may feel realistic upon occasion…. Popular fiction encapsulates and reinforces many of our most fundamental cultural values. Romance is among the most enduring because it addresses the values of family and human emotional bonds.” (Interview)

Is this the reason women in particular value romance so much?  Because we are geared to value those emotional bonds between people, particularly those of love and passion? The “realistic” thing always makes me cranky.  No Harry Potter is not realistic, or a girl falling in love with a vampire, or a guy who dresses in black and protects Gotham City with his ginormous wealth and infinite array of gadgetry. Are they stories people love to read?  Hell, yeah, and the characters are all archetypes at their core.

With this in mind, understanding archetypes is an important tool in the writer repertoire. There are plenty of books for writers out there that deal with character development, but one that might help is a book by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.  I have so many post it notes in this book, it looks like a pink paper porcupine!  After a brief discussion of archetypes and their importance, Victoria Schmidt goes into several female and male archetypes, discussing their overall character traits, their flaws and positive qualities, how other characters view them, and, for many of the archetypes seen as positive, how they could become villainous.

Supporting characters are also given their own mini-archetypes and it’s impressive how as you read, you can’t help but think of characters of books you loved.  The last part of the book is spent outlining the feminine and masculine journey our characters/archetypes might take.  It really gets the brain juices flowing!

So for writers or would-be writers of popular fiction, don’t underestimate the power of archetypes to help your character development and plot brainstorming. Remember popular fiction is worthy of respect and admiration for the same celebration of human values that literary fiction possesses. By learning about the commonalities between them, we can appreciate all fiction and what it teaches us about being our best selves.  Enjoy!

How Racy is Racy? Exploring levels of sensuality in romance novels

10 Mar

All About Labels

As a lover of romance, I rely heavily on reviews, both from blogs I follow as well as from professional sources like Romantic Times magazine. One aspect of the reviews that still confuses me is the ratings system regarding the level of sensuality or sexuality in the novel itself. While I read all kinds of romance, I have to admit to liking the more sensual ones, probably because the content doesn’t embarrass me in the slightest as well as the fact that I love authors who can show the emotional progression of a couple in the context of the physical act of sex.

But I’ve also discovered that these rating systems vary from source to source and are incredibly vague. There is always a danger with labeling, however, as bookstores and libraries know. Right around the time Tipper Gore spoke before Congress regarding a labeling system for records (and they were vinyl records and tape cassettes back then, blast from the past!), there was yet another push for the physical labeling of books by reading level, a system the American Library Association spoke out strongly against.

This really meant by content (sex, violence, language, etc.) rather than by how hard the words were in the book, and libraries and bookstores resisted (just as music sellers did Tipper’s advocacy), knowing that labels tend to push readers away from books, rather than help them select the right book for the right time in their life. Having worked in libraries for most of my professional career, I can honestly say that each reader is different – a younger teen who has been through a lot in their life or is just more mature can easily handle a book with strong, more adult language and themes, while an immature 16 year old would be repelled and horrified by the content. Luckily, readers are extremely good at finding the book they need, usually through recommendations from librarians, friends, and booksellers who already know what they enjoy reading.  In helping literally thousands of readers make connections with books, I’ve never come across one who was corrupted by a book – they simply put it down if it was not what they wanted.

Ratings and Definitions

But this brohaha was about the physical labeling of books, versus the labeling in reviews about sexual content. I imagine the romance novel sensuality ratings system was probably an effort to help readers looking for a specific kind of romance sensuality level, or to assist readers actively wishing to avoid certain types of books to avoid discomfiture or disappointment. The most commonly used ratings system is the rather vague, but still helpful, “Sensuality Ratings” system employed by Romantic Times magazine, the romance industry’s major publication.

From RT Book Reviews in the description of their ratings system:


Beginning with September 2006 issue reviews, these are the new sensuality ratings used for Historical Romance, Contemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense books:

SCORCHER — Borders on erotic. Very graphic sex.

HOT — Most romance novels fall into this category. Ranges from conventional lovemaking to explicit sex.

MILD — May or may not include lovemaking. No explicit sex.

What’s interesting is the fact that the Romantic Times‘ previous sensuality ratings system had more categories, yet were just as open to interpretation.  I’m sure the editors felt the revised version was a simpler approach when they made the switch to the current system in 2006, and I prefer it, but there continue to be a few loopholes. For example, the “Hot” category – what exactly do they consider to be “conventional sex“? I’m guessing they mean a man and a woman, but are we talking about just the missionary position? Does foreplay involving oral sex lean more toward the “explicit sex” end of the rating or does “explicit” just refer to word choice or level of detail in the description of whatever sexual act in which our characters are currently engaged?

For “Scorcher”, what does “borders on erotic” mean? This probably includes maybe a little bondage (like the regency romances who have the newly deflowered heroine trusting her lover/husband to tie her hands with his cravat) but my feeling is that it probably doesn’t mean anal sex or the use of sex toys, since that never comes up in any romance not labeled erotica or erotic romance. The “Very graphic” detail (my conjecture) means the level of description and maybe the wording used to write the love scene, but does it mean something else?  I don’t know.

The contemplation of the nuances of “Scorcher” brings me to the other hurdle of understanding erotica, a term which many readers feel is interchangeable with the preferred label of “erotic romance“.  The erotica industry experienced a major infusion of cash and interest upon the advent of the ereader market, since suddenly people could buy this material in the comfort of their own living room and have it delivered instantly and wrapped simply in their standard Kindle or Nook reader.  No one would guess that the reader wasn’t reading the latest nonfiction best seller on economics unless they noticed the flush or sweating (and even then, maybe the person just REALLY likes economics!).

But erotica is still confused with pornography, and while I would imagine people who find that level of explicit sexual description or conduct against their personal morality would undoubtedly label it as such, in actuality from an industry standpoint it’s very different. According to Ellora’s Cave Publishing House, a highly respected e-publisher of erotica, they actually define the majority of their erotic offerings as “Romantica.” Here’s their take on Romantica, which seems to define rather well the industry push toward producing erotic romance meant for women.

Romantica® is the name for the line of erotic romance novels published by Ellora’s Cave Publishing. Erotic romance is defined by us as: any work of literature that is both romantic and sexually explicit in nature. Within this genre, the main protagonists develop “in love” feelings for one another that culminate in a monogamous relationship.

Romantica® doesn’t begin from the premise that women’s sexual experiences are dirty and therefore in need of being perfumed up by flowery phrases. The premise of Romantica™ is that women’s sexual experiences are legitimate, positive, and beautiful.

Ellora’s Cave Romantica® must be both erotic and romantic. (from the Ellora’s Cave website)

There’s a lot to love about this description.  First the clarification that a work can be both romantic and sexually explicit (Jaci Burton’s novels are often termed erotic romance and I think they would have an extremely broad appeal to romance readers who enjoy “Scorcher” novels), and the reassurance that these are still novels based on the premise of two people pursuing a monogamous relationship. But then the awesome addition (and let’s face it, the judgment) of the sentence regarding women’s sexuality as not being dirty? This really hit home for me, as the euphemisms often employed by romance writers can border on the ridiculous and occasionally the confusing, particularly if the reader has less sexual knowledge or experience (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books recent hymen tirade was a hilarious but totally spot on example of myths perpetuated by romance novels that do NOT accurately reflect the realities of human anatomy).

For readers interested in true erotica, which usually takes the form of an individual character interested in sexual experimentation and self-discovery, the process of which may or may not result in the main character ending up in a committed relationship, Ellora’s Cave publishes a line called EXOTIKA™ in order to distinguish it from the erotic romance novels they also sell.  But let’s get down to brass tacks regarding the sensuality levels so we can ATTEMPT to really figure out what they mean.

Levels of Sensuality in Romance Novels

Sweet Romance (Mild Sensuality)

Christie Craig and Faye Hughes in their book The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance Novel defines a sweet romance as one that does not include “graphic depictions of sex or sexual situations.”  This could be a romance like those of the Avalon Publishing house (whose writer’s guidelines clearly state that there is no sexual content or profanity in any of their books) or an inspirational romance (which is also a sub-genre of romance) in which strong religious beliefs guide the main characters actions and usually don’t go beyond kissing without marriage.

An increasingly popular sub-sub-genre (can I say that?) of inspirational romance is the Amish romance, which naturally has a setting which subscribes to certain values.  I was interested to read that these Amish books have a strong readership in Hasidic Jewish communities along with Georgette Heyer‘s Regency romances.  It makes sense when you stop to think that the protagonists are in a culture which prescribes to strong morals regarding pre-marital sex, allowing the focus to be solely on the love and affection developing between our hero and heroine.

Some sweet romance novels have a history strongly rooted in the romance novels published decades ago in which there were sexual situations inferred but, rather than description, the author engaged in what became known in the industry as “shutting the bedroom door”.  The narrative leads up to the sexual situation with kissing, touching and conversation, and then stops, picking up again after the sex act has taken place with the reader reengaged in the narrative usually centering on the main characters’ feelings about what transpired. All About refers type of book in their own sensuality rating chart as “subtle”.

Notice also the cover art.  Usually there is only ONE of our main characters on the cover, or if both are present, they are not kissing or embracing.  Cover art is often a terrific cue as to the sensuality content of the novel, but more on this later.

Historical RomanceContemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense books (Hot Sensuality)

Let’s first begin the non-sweet romance with a look at what makes a book fall into the “Hot” sensuality rating.  All About actually labels this level as “Warm” and gives the following definition.

While our lovers do make love, and the reader is there with them, physical details are described, but are not graphically depicted. Much is left to the reader’s imagination and/or possibly the use of euphemistic “code words.” But what’s most important are feelings and emotions, not body parts. While there is sexual tension, there may not be more than one or two love scenes in the whole book. The vast majority of single title romances feature “Warm” sensuality. (All About Romance Sensuality Ratings Guide)

The best way to envision this description in action is to connect it with specific authors or titles.  Nora Roberts, one of the most successful romance novelists since Barbara Cartland, is probably the best example.  No reader could accuse her characters of lacking heat or sexual tension, but there are usually just a few described love scenes in her books and they conclude quickly.  When I read her recent book, Chasing Fire, about the special wildfire firefighters who parachute into locations to battle fires (it was so interesting!) our two main characters (who were wonderful) had a few love scenes where I double checked the pages, flipping back to make sure I didn’t miss something.  It was over so quickly, yet the emotion and tenderness was there.  They didn’t just have sex those couple of times, since other interludes were referred to in the narrative, but the timeframe was also compressed, so it didn’t feel like I was missing anything (other than the description I was used to from my other reading, which usually falls into the “Scorcher” category).

In terms of book cover clues, you can see from both Robert’s cover above and Mary Balogh‘s Slightly Scandalous cover that the trend is for an extremely tame cover, usually with the author name and book title in elaborate, feminine script, and maybe an image which hints at the content.  I think a big piece of the move to this kind of cover is both the fact that I can’t imagine it’s expensive to produce and the idea that it’s very tasteful.  No danger of being judged reading one of these on a plane (and airport bookstores carry a full selection of novels in this category).

This choice can also be a deliberate attempt of the publishing industry to give legitimacy to the romance novel, which, as a genre, underwent a huge public opinion downturn in the 1970s and 80s when “bodice-rippers” became the norm.  You can all imagine the kind of cover I’m talking about – some painting version of Fabio in a pirate outfit (which lacks buttons of any kind, so it’s waxed chest city) and a heroine of the heaving bosom variety (think Johanna Lindsey’s Savage Hunter).  Romance fans and publishers are still clawing our way out of this hole.  A few publishing houses and authors are moving to the “dress” book cover, which often just features a heroine (often cut off at the neck, so it’s just her body we see) in appropriate dress (perhaps with the ties in the back gaping provocatively open).  This is usually for historical romances only, but the body language still hints at sensuality.

Historical RomanceContemporary Romance and Romantic Suspense books (Scorcher Sensuality)

At the next sensuality level, we see books with more frequent, longer love scenes, often with more explicit language, or sometimes simply a higher incidence of euphemisms. As indicates “Both the emotions of the hero and heroine and the physical feelings of both are important during love scenes.” Stephanie Laurens, whose Cynster series I agree is one of the best Regency romance series EVER, is a master of this type of sensuality.  Her love scenes can last for seven pages easily, but the reader is gripped the whole time by both the physical orchestration of what is happening, and also the internal narrative of the character’s emotional process, as she switches deftly between the two viewpoints so we appreciate the emotion developing in our couple.

From a cover standpoint, you can see historical romances like Laurens’ still get the dress cover, but in the case of Karen Marie Moning‘s Highlander series, we begin to edge toward the what will be a determined trend in the erotic romance novel category, namely more skin on the cover and occasionally provocative poses that indicate a sexual connection. Moning is a good example for this category’s more explicit qualities.  While Stephanie Laurens got her start in writing Regency romance for traditional publishing houses (and her attachment to euphemisms continues even while what she’s describing gets hotter), Moning’s Highlander stories usually center around a modern woman zapped back into the past (medieval Scotland). This construct gives permission for the language to be more modern and explicit, shying away from the “throbbing manroot” brand of language (thank heavens!).  Other “Scorcher” authors include the ever fabulous Lisa Kleypas, paranormal princess Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jennifer Ashley’s Mackenzie series, Linda Howard, my personal favorite Nalini Singh, and Nora Robert’s mystery persona of J. D. Robb.  Publishing houses to look for are some Harlequin Blaze books, Avon’s Red imprint, and the Berkley Sensation line.

Erotic Romance Novels (Erotic Sensuality)

Welcome to the skin factory, aka erotic romance novels.  It’s of particular interest to note that Romantic Times magazine, whose sensuality ratings system we have just finished exploring, bumps erotic romance novels into the erotica category (lumping it with traditional erotica as described above). The problem with this is that erotic romance novels are often just a shade more spicy than their scorcher predecessors, and therefore have much more in common with that category than with the more explicit and hedonistic forays undertaken by characters in traditional erotica.

With such amorphous lines determining sensuality content, I guess you can’t please everyone, but I worry that there are a lot of Romantic Times readers who just skip the erotica section not realizing there might be some content that fits their taste.  While people who enjoy sweet romances might check out the Inspirational category (which is also separate, I guess making Inspirational and Erotica opposite ends of the spectrum), erotica has a somewhat dirtier or even more masculine association (with pornography) that could have women shying away from it.

It would be a shame if readers comfortable with scorcher level romance don’t try erotic romance novels, since the focus is identical to traditional romance – two people falling in love (and lust) with the goal being a committed monogamous relationship.  The Harlequin Blaze line falls into this category (and also into the Scorcher category depending on the author) as well as novels from the Berkley Heat imprint (which gives us the Jaci Burton novels pictured above).  Lisa Marie Rice‘s books are terrific erotic romance novels (she’s queen of the Alpha males) and offer commanding love scenes that make you need to dump ice in your panties!

Content usually is inventive and explicitly described lovemaking, still with a strong emotional connection. Profanity is common, so expect the occasional f-bomb or name for female and male genitalia that many people would consider vulgar or common. But, the fact is, after you read these words for a little while, they seem (at least to me) just another euphemism, albeit one you might hear more often in your daily life (particularly if you walk by construction sites or basketball courts with pick-up games in progress).

The sexual content often goes beyond what is in the “Scorcher” category, including sometimes (and I mean sometimes, not all of them have this) sex toys and anal sex and maybe some mild BDSM.  I realize this might make some people uncomfortable and I confess that my eyebrows were initially embedded in my hairline when I read my first few books which included this content, but a good author makes the sex all about trust and love with these acts placed in that context, so the reader quickly adjusts.  I think a valued part of the increasing popularity of this category is that readers have a more varied understanding of a wide range of sexual activity, maybe helping those people who interests lie in these areas understand that they are part of a normal sexual spectrum.

I confess to buying my erotic romance in ebook format both for accessibility but also for toting around with zero embarrassment (and this article in Fast Company magazine says I’m not alone).  I’m not sure I would take a print version of these books into a doctor’s office or hair salon without garnering extra attention or comments! Authors and series to look for in this category include Angela Knight, steampunk and paranormal author Meljean Brook, J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood series, Hope Tarr, my favorite shifter writer Shelly Laurenston, Lisa Renee Jones, paranormal author Larissa Ione, and Kresley Cole.

Implications for the Romance Industry

The way we view the incidence of sensuality in romance novels can have interesting implications for the industry and for society.  Tracey Cooper Posey, erotic romance author and industry commentator, had an interesting analysis based on the trend analysis All Romance eBooks distributes to their publishers. Regarding the heat index in romance novels (which they grade by “flames”, one being the lowest level and five being the highest), they state:

Heat Rating = over 97% of sales are on books rated 3 or higher, of significance is that the 5 and 4 flame sales have see a combined drop of 4% over last year with most of the difference shifting to the 3 flame rating.

Does this mean that the reading public is moving to the tamer “mild” or “hot” books, leaving “scorcher” and erotic romance novels to gather dust?  Tracey has an interpretation I agree with, that publishers are marketing books that would have been previously considered erotic romance right alongside their “hot” and “scorcher” books.  Just like television, which used to cordon off certain sexual situations or levels of violence to prime time but that you can now watch during your dinner hour, the romance publishing industry has come to understand that reader interests (and perhaps, tolerance levels) in that hot/scorcher/erotic category are becoming more permissive and accepting.

I hope this overview has helped answer some questions or directed you to resources that can help figure out this unending puzzle.  Labels are never perfect, but with a good understanding of what they truly refer to, we can use them as a guide to find ever more new and wonderful books and authors.

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