I am a romance novelist, which is a weird job. I dread the “what do you do?” moment at cocktail parties, because after I answer, people say the most astonishing things (and not usually good-astonishing). I get wink-winked, nudge-nudged about my “research methods” (to which I respond by saying if I wrote murder mysteries no one would think I had a bunch of dead bodies in my basement). Fifty Shades of Grey is frequently invoked.
People who mean to be kind use the phrase guilty pleasures. (Why feel guilty about something that brings you pleasure? I usually ask.)
People who don’t mean to be kind use the phrase bodice rippers.
Except nobody actually rips bodices in modern romance novels.
In fact, modern romance novels are models of consent. If you haven’t read one in the last couple of decades, this probably comes as a surprise. But I’m here to tell you that everything I learned about healthy, enthusiastic, sexy (yes, sexy!) consent, I learned from romance novels.
I’ll say more about that, but first consider another question I often get, and this one actually interests me: Are romance novels realistic?
Yes and no. Romance novels, like rom-com movies, are driven by tropes, which are time-honored set-ups or situations that propel a story. Think: enemies to lovers (You’ve Got Mail), people pretending to be in relationships for one reason or another (The Proposal).
And in that sense, no, romance novels aren’t “realistic.” I mean, you’re not that likely to run into a grumpy billionaire with a secret heart of gold who needs you to pretend to be his fiancée to close an important business deal.
But all of that stuff, the way a story gets told, is just a tool that lets us get at deeper truths. And in romance, the big truth is that everyone is deserving of love and respect. That’s the baseline assumption from which a romance novel starts, and the story is about how these particular characters in these particular circumstances get there.
Are romance novels realistic? I think that’s the wrong question. Romance novels are aspirational. They show us what is possible, both in what we demand from potential partners and in how we, as a society, expect people to conduct themselves.
A huge part of that is consent. In my books, consent is present, it is enthusiastic, and it is sexy. I am not a special unicorn. This is standard in mainstream romance novels today. This doesn’t mean you will read about people who stop in their tracks just as things are getting fun. They will not turn into robots who have paused to perform this chore of seeking consent. To the contrary, the seeking and giving of consent can be hot, hot, hot. It can be implicit: a pause, a questioning look, the withdrawal of a pleasurable sensation so one’s partner has to make a point to get it back. It can be explicit, too (hello, dirty talk!).
Is this realistic? Sadly, no. But I don’t care. “Realistic” is not my goal here. Ideal is my goal. I read romance novels because I want to see people getting the love and sex they want (I note that those two things don’t have to come as a package deal if you don’t want them to) without having to make any compromises. The key to that is respect. And the manifestation of respect is consent. Consent is necessary, but it doesn’t have to be a chore, a box to check. It can be so much fun.
I learned that from romance novels, my friends.
If you’re new to romance, here are a few recommended reads!
- Grin and Beard It by Penny Reid. This whole series, about a zany bunch of brothers in a Quirky-with-a-Capital Q small town, is a delight, but this one contains one of my favorite romance tropes: the famous movie star who comes to town and gets tangled up with a local. In this case, it’s a grumpy park ranger who keeps having to rescue Miss Hollywood, who is not known for her stellar sense of direction.
- The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan. Milan is a master of writing consent in both her historical and contemporary romances. This tale of a countess who’s secretly a scientist and her charming rake of a friend who provides cover for her, is set in Regency England. Think Jane Austen, but spicier—and sciencey-er.
- How to Bang a Billionaire by Alexis Hall. This book is part satire, part homage to Fifty Shades of Grey, except it features two heroes (there are romance novels all along the LGBTQ spectrum), and the original’s questionable treatment of consent is nowhere to be found. Beautifully written, it somehow manages to be funny and gutting in equal measure.
Jenny Holiday is a USA Today bestselling author who started writing at age nine when her awesome fourth-grade teacher gave her a notebook and told her to start writing some stories. She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family and is the author of the Bridesmaids Behaving Badly series (Grand Central/Forever). For more on Jenny and her books, please visit www.jennyholiday.com.