Some people blame Disney princesses for their foolish romantic notions. I blame Moonlighting.
Tweens of 2020 have all sorts of television options where they can watch kids their own age work through their first romances, discover the unwritten rules of friendship, and ask the tough questions that no one wants to ask real life parents.
In the 1980s, Nickelodeon was in its infancy, and Disney was showing Mickey Mouse cartoons from the 1950s. So, I watched All My Children with my grandmother during the summer, and in the evenings I waited for my weekly dose of Maddie and David battling it out over the latest case to come to the Blue Moon detective agency.
Not the best role models for relationships, those.
I wasn’t looking for Prince Charming. Instead, I wanted dramatic passion. I wanted to spar. I wanted an intellectual equal who would challenge my brain, and then I wanted passionate kisses and steamy love scenes. Basically, I wanted every Harlequin novel ever written, but I didn’t even know those existed.
The genre of “romance” in literature is classified as a book that focuses on the romantic relationships of the characters. All of Jane Austen’s novels are romance. (And by the way, Pride and Prejudice is basically Moonlighting for the Regency, so this feisty version of courting is nothing new.) There is a whole genre of “chaste” romantic novels based on the Amish. But this is not what most people think of “romance” in writing. Most people think of Fabio, naked to the waist, about to ravage some poor woman who stumbled onto a pirate ship but now must fall in love with the man who has forced her to discover her sexuality through violence or coercion. The colloquial term for these type of romance novels is “bodice ripper,” and I’ll just leave you to overlay that term with the mental picture you already have with Fabio the pirate and his soon-to-be conquest.
The first romance novel I encountered, at the age of 11 or 12, was Forever by Judy Blume. Was there sex? Yes. Was there coercion? Yes, there was definitely coercion. But there was no rape, incest, or a happy ending with the boy who took the main character’s virginity. If you know anything about Judy Blume, she strove to make all of her characters real and accessible to modern readers. Forever is hailed as one of the classics of teen literature because of its realism and positive sexual messages.
My mom found the dog-eared copy, which I had taken from the library, and quietly suggested I go back to choosing my books from the children’s section. This, as you will see, was a mistake.
Stifled in my budding curiosity about teenage sex, I looked to my peers instead of the library’s teen section. The older neighbor across the street showed me a book she was reading by V.C. Andrews. Holy hell! There was rape, coercion, incest, crazy obsessions, and twisted family relationships. It made All My Children look like family entertainment. If Moonlighting gave me unrealistic expectations about the connection between anger and passion, V.C. Andrews threw everything I thought was normal out the window. Did this stuff really happen?? (Yes, but not on the scale of ruin that Andrews relates.)
As I became an actual teenager and people around me started to “date” and pair off, a friend of mine shared her Harlequin books with me. There were a lot of sex scenes. There were a lot of “bad boys” turned into “good men.” I couldn’t get enough. I also started watching old movies during this period, mostly because this was the beginning of my obsession with Audrey Hepburn. The morals of the golden era of Hollywood weren’t exactly helping with my research on romance, sex, and adult relationships.
My high school sex ed classes never spoke of “consent.” There was “no means no” and boys were either horrible rapists or perfect gentlemen. But the messages we got everywhere reflected the classic trope of women as “madonna or whore.” There was no in between. Honestly, the best source of information for all of this at the time was Beverly Hills, 90210. Seriously, people, this was the middle ages of sex ed.
We had an assembly speaker come to speak about date rape. The version the girls got focused on all the usual ways you needed to protect yourself from getting date raped. Because the responsibility of not getting raped is always heaped on the girls. The boys, instead of being taught all the ways they could avoid being rapists, were instead basically told they were all rapists and there was something about penetration with a glass bottle. I don’t know all the details — I heard secondhand from guys who were there. But, can we all agree that neither of these assemblies were helpful in any way?
By the time I got to college, everyone was in one of three camps. Camp 1: already having sex with various degrees of satisfaction. More satisfaction for the boys, I’m sure. Us girls were usually fumbling in the darkness. Camp 2: Not yet having sex but wanting to. I don’t know anyone announcing, “I’m going out tonight to lose my virginity!” but I’m sure there were a few. The rest of us were just stumbling into encounters and trying to figure out if they were interested enough in any one person to get the process started. Camp 3: Waiting until marriage. These were the minority, but they were vocal and adamant. None of my close friends fit in this category.
Rape and sexual assault (two different things, look it up) are often equated with violence. We say someone was “violated,” “penetrated,” “forced.” These words evoke power, but power is not always violently exerted. In the course of my young life, three women close to me experienced a sexual assaulted. Not one of them was violent. Only one of them involved alcohol. Every single one involved a trusted friend, boyfriend, or family acquaintance. Not a one fit the mold of what we were told “rape” meant, and not one of the men would ever consider themselves “rapists.” Those who have not experienced this cannot comprehend the inability to say the simple word “no.” In my own experience, I cried the whole time but couldn’t say no. One would think sobs would be enough to get someone who supposedly cares about you to stop what they’re doing to find out why you’re crying.
Combine this with the internet explosion of my college years and the suddenly free access to all kinds of pornography. There is some weird stuff out there. Fetish porn. Clown porn. Not kidding. And then amateur porn. I remember one particular evening when a group of guys from a school across the state from us popped a video in my VCR of some girl in their dorm performing various sex acts with guys in their dorm showers. I remember just wanting it to end, and I didn’t have the words or the confidence at that time to tell them to turn it off. I didn’t want to be the prude.
Honestly, it’s a miracle any of us managed to have healthy sexual relationships at all.
But we’re living in a new era now. The #MeToo era. The vocabulary is changing, and so is the literature.
Read Harder is Book Riot’s annual checklist of books to challenge yourself and expand your reading horizons. I’ve participated for the last three years, and I enjoy challenges that feature authors of color or memoirs about the LGBTQ experience.This year, though, one of the challenges was to read a romance that features a single parent. Luckily, Book Riot also provides lists and Goodreads discussion groups to help you complete the challenges. And this is where I found Tessa Dare.
Tessa Dare writes romances with characters living in the Regency period, just like my beloved Jane Austen. But the sex is all modern. Here you find heroines taking charge of their own sexuality. They aren’t waiting for the men to make the first move. Some of them aren’t virgins (wow — that one was a revelation versus other books from this time period). And it isn’t just the heroines that are modern. Every single man, before he makes that first thrust, asks the question — “Yes?” or “Are you sure?” Wow. A revelation. How many guys are taught to ask first?
And those aren’t the only words during the sex scenes. These are adults actually talking about what they’re doing, asking one another what feels good or right. Joking about things. Enjoying each other’s company. Doing all the things that I now know make sex with someone you love so wonderful.
Oh, how I wish someone had taught me THIS! That this takes practice. That it’s okay to talk about it. That it’s okay to ask for things. That this should be the norm. And, seriously, someone needs to explain to girls that they should enjoy it, and if they don’t their partner is doing it wrong.
I’ve quickly run through all of Dare’s books. I love that she gives the male perspective as well as the female, and that humor shines through it all. Because, really, copulation can be a completely ridiculous act. Relationship beginnings are hilarious in the ways that we fail to connect before we are completely comfortable with each other.
I also love that some of the heroines enjoy sex outside of relationships. I wrote a screenplay during one of my last semesters of college in which a man wants a steady relationship, but his female partner isn’t interested in an emotional attachment. One of my male classmates immediately branded the female character a “whore” or “slut.” But when I asked him if he felt the same about men who slept around without initiating relationships, he spouted a very typical double standard. “That’s different.” No, it isn’t, and both men and women should learn this. Everyone just needs to learn to have conversations up front about expectations.
My next frontier will be LGBTQ romance. What conversations are the same? Which conversations are different? And why is it so damn hard for us all to talk about sex?