If there’s one consistent criticism I get for my fae romance, Goblin Fires, it’s that the main character Reagan “sleeps around”.
Many reviewers feel Reagan’s lusty pursuits (she has three carnal encounters which do not involve her leading lady) undermine her likability as a character, and her devotion to Ceridwen, the woman she loves from afar.
Now, all my love to reviewers. I don’t mean to disparage the readers who have taken the time to leave their opinions on my work. The concept is one that sometimes troubles me, though, and that’s why today I’d like to talk about writing women in romance who aren’t abstinent.
As is often the case, this is a trope which is expected in Romance, but not as much—or at least, not in the same way—in other genres. Certainly there is an erroneous social expectation that a “virtuous” and “celibate” woman is somehow purer and more admirable than one who pursues an active sexuality, applied pretty generously to most aspects of our culture, but today I want to talk specifically about the way it hits us in our Romances.
There’s an expectation in Romance that a Leading Lady is supposed to be with her lead counterpart (I won’t say leading man because there’s no reason the counterpart must be male). We always know who the love match is supposed to be; we apply this knowledge to the Leading Lady as well, and impose on her an expectation of celibacy and monogamy, even prior to that love match being realized.
It can be stated that our Leading Lady has had other lovers in the past, though we have a sort of unspoken belief that she shouldn’t have had many, and she shouldn’t reflect on them with any positivity. Often we think they should be bad experiences, or at least lackluster enough that our Love Match should have no trouble comparing and coming out ahead. I’ll admit, I was actually a little shocked recently, while re-reading Stephen King’s It (which, obviously, isn’t even a Romance novel), to find out the main female character Beverly had a much more limited sexual history than I expected.
This isn’t to say I thought she was promiscuous, but that, given her personality, background, and chosen career path, she seemed to me like a woman who would have pursued her sexual interests more at length. Had the book been a touch more modern, I’d have expected she’d even have explored some same-sex interaction, as well. I think if we were discussing a real-life woman in the exact same situation and exact same time period, that woman would have more sexual exploration under her belt. The book confirms that, prior to her recent marriage, she’s only had two other lovers. Naturally, those two are reflected upon with negative connotation, and regret. And why? Because even in the midst of one of King’s most terrifying stories, the romantic interest must remain in a state of relative “purity” or at least “have made forgivable mistakes” which her Love Match can rescue her from.
I find this expectation incredibly outdated and, quite honestly, boring. I won’t go into the deep-seated anti-feminist nature of it here because, under the rose-colored lens of Romance, it escapes criticism. We say, “oh, it’s just fiction”, or, “It’s just a silly romance novel, it’s not meant to be serious’.
Well, as my readers may know by now, I have a particular vengeance against this idea that Romance cannot be a serious genre. And here’s one of the reasons why the world of readers at large feel it can’t be taken seriously: women who are predictably preserved within the ephemeral bubble of sexual chastity.
The fact is, it’s no accident my Leading Lady in Goblin Fires is a Casanova, and it’s not something she’s meant to repent of, even when she does find her lasting love. I’ve often said Reagan is a character I wrote with the intention she could be either male or female, if I only changed the pronouns. Maybe this is why it felt so natural to me that she could be sexually expressive outside the bonds of her intended love match and still be perfectly capable of deserving that love match in the end. We accept men as Casanova all the damn time, and unlike female characters, men are allowed to have fond memories of their prior conquests. The women in their past are allowed to have moved them or helped shape them in positive ways, where the past lovers of women should never have any lasting positivity in the face of True Love.
But all of that is so formulaic! Are we really to believe a woman can only experience positive sexual realization with one lover? That one love, and one love only, can truly unlock a woman’s sexual self?
I reject that, and I think anyone reading this post can see how ridiculous it sounds on paper.
Readers of Romance as a genre are conditioned to expect a fairy tale. Publishers tell writers that women want a story they can slip into, becoming part of the fantasy, and that seems to implicitly mean NO COMPLICATIONS to the Love Match. Or at least, none that aren’t eventually easily overcome.
But are readers really so fragile? Is the genre of Romance really so limited? Exactly why is there no room for a female character who is perfectly happy having satisfied her sexual self with experience? Why can’t a woman have perfectly authentic sexual histories without threatening the legitimacy of her eventual Love Match?
I once received a compliment on my short story Playing Hard to Get, from a male reader who mentioned he appreciated seeing a female character engage in sex simply because she wanted sex, without any contrived excuse. In Playing Hard to Get, there really isn’t much time or space to develop a genuine, fully-realized love connection. If I’d expanded it to a novella or full-length novel, sure, I could go through the dance of Brooke and Justin verbally jousting, flirting, maybe denying their feelings and coming together out of some irresistible and also spiritually meaningful attraction. Maybe one day I will write that story (I do love those characters). But I see no reason my Leading Lady can’t find some legitimate pleasure, fun, and self-indulgence in what might only be a one-night stand. That’s a perfectly fine plot, isn’t it? Is it not possible that such a plot might satisfy readers?
In my ongoing quest to see the Romance Genre fully realized and developed into something as dynamic and diverse as other genres, I challenge writers and readers to reject the idea that women can’t have active and positive sexual encounters other than that of their intended Love Match. Not just “offscreen”, but within the pages of the story itself, if that is what the plot calls for. Remember that all interactions, sexual or otherwise, bring something to the character, and there’s no reason sexual encounters must bring painful lessons, regret, or shame, instead of positively shaping and satisfying a woman. Allow your ladies to reap pleasure from their lives in the ways that are natural to them, instead of “preserving” their sexual selves for one and only one idealized mate.
This doesn’t mean we must throw out the journey and the joy of finding that ultimate Love Match. For Reagan, there is and always has been more to her love for her princess than what is gained through a sexual culmination. We all know love isn’t necessarily sex, and sex isn’t necessarily love. In Romance, isn’t it more meaningful for the Love Match to share more with each other than what is expressed through sexual chemistry? Can’t that “more”, whatever it is, also elevate their sexual culmination above all others, for its own reasons and not because prior experience was somehow flawed?
To me, this is more fully realized Romance. This is what a true love story should acknowledge and also welcome.
Not all Leading Ladies need to be Casanovas, either. But your character should be nothing if not true to herself, and if that means she has a history of love and sex along her path to that ultimate Match, it serves both the character and the story better if you let her be true to it, and let her love it, too.