Gender, sexuality, and popular culture

Poster, We Can Do It!, J. Howard Miller, 1942
J. Howard Miller, "We Can Do It!," 1942.

I teach an undergraduate seminar on “Gender, Sexuality, and Popular Culture” with a unit on the romance genre. This year, for the first time ever, the class consists entirely of women. Also new this year is an exercise we invented of an online, collaborative romance narrative. One question that came up in our writing experiment was how, when, and why to include sex scenes. We talked a lot about depictions of sexuality in romance fiction, as well as in the sex-saturated corridors of popular culture. How are the love scenes in romance different from those in pornography or erotica?

The original Greek etymology of “pornography” means “writing that is about prostitutes.” (πόρνη, or prostitute, is a variant of περνάναι, meaning “to export for sale,” as prostitutes were often slaves.) A value-neutral definition of pornography refers to a depiction, either written or visual, of sexual subjects or activity. But the term often has a negative connotation: this sexual depiction can be seen as degrading or exploitative (especially toward women) and as unhealthy for the consumer and the larger society. Second-wave feminist Gloria Steinem made much of this difference in her influential essay “Erotica vs. Pornography.” To Steinem, porn is bad, based on “an imbalance of power that allows and requires sex to be used as a form of aggression,” even violence. Erotica, by contrast, “rescue[s] sexual pleasure” with the inclusion of “love and mutuality, positive choice, and the yearning for a particular person.”

Now, the romance genre certainly meets Steinem’s criteria of mutuality, love, sexual pleasure, and yearning that values the individuality of the beloved. The genre’s sex scenes can be erotic but are not pornographic in the sense of degrading, subjugating, or lacking in affection. But some of the third-wave feminist and sex-positive material that we considered in class views this linguistic move from porn to erotica as a little euphemistic, a little precious and apologetically ladylike, not fully embracing women’s sexual power and desire.

From this perspective, self-confident women, comfortable with their sexuality, can legitimately enjoy naughty depictions of sex ranging from sweet to raunchy, and—here BDSM aficionados further part company with Steinem—these stories may even feature power differentials, domination-submission dynamics, and elements of violence, as long as these elements and stories are framed within a fully consensual relationship.

Such a sex-positive feminist perspective suggests there’s nothing wrong with the term porn, nor with considering aspects of the romance genre as porn. We can playfully, honorably, reclaim and redefine that term—as fat studies does with “fat,” as queer studies does with “queer,” and as “Smart Bitch” Sarah Wendell does with “bitch” (e.g., in her essay “You Call Me a Bitch like That’s a Bad Thing” from Frantz and Selinger’s New Approaches to Popular Romance Fiction).

Central also to pornography is the depiction, not simply of sexual activity, but of sexual satisfaction. My students quickly noticed that the novels they read for class featured fantasy sex, in the dual sense of “really great” and “unrealistic.” Women enjoy incredible sex in these novels: guaranteed orgasms, often through intercourse alone. “That only happens in 20% of cases for women!” pointed out my students. (Male characters have incredible sex, too, but that seemed less fantastical.) If even in “sweet” romances the off-page implication of fantasy sex is crucial to the happily-ever-after satisfaction of the novel, then “porn”—in some sense—seems central to the genre.

I’m interested in the notion that a feminist is a woman who writes—a woman who dares explore ideas and fantasies that run contrary to patriarchal scripts for feminine docility, submissiveness, and sexual passivity. These scripts are still alive in the impossible contradictions and double standards my students report: be sexy but also pure, demands the culture. If guys sleep around it’s a sign of mastery and control, but if you do it you’re a slut.

Amidst such oppressive cultural messages, I find courage and poignancy and beauty in women writing lusty sex scenes. Precisely because such writing and reading is still not considered entirely “ladylike,” these acts can become feminist by opening up new space. “You go, sister!” I cheer all the women reading their Shades—or writing their own. In this sense, to say romance fiction is porn is to say it’s OK for women to be unashamed in their sexuality. While romance as porn points to the genre’s liberatory potential, the genre seems less feminist in its compulsive focus on happily-ever-after “fairy-tale” love that ignores the potential for fulfillment through celibacy, divorce, widowhood, serial romance, or casual sex. At its best, however, the romance genre offers a sex-positive imaginative play space for a diversity of woman-centered sexual fantasies of desire and agency: fantasies in which the lovers are always attentive and a woman’s pleasure is guaranteed.

Catherine Roach

Dr. Catherine Roach is professor of cultural studies and gender studies in New College at The University of Alabama. She has two decades of teaching, research, and publication experience on gendered fantasy spaces in American popular culture. She also writes historical romance fiction under the pen name Catherine_LaRoche. Find out more about Catherine Roach.

Share this