A Feminist Confesses:
I Write Romance Novels
My name is Ariel Atwell, and here are some things I want you to know about me.
I am former broadcast and print journalist turned business executive. I am currently a vice president at a large multi-national corporation. In my career, I have held leadership roles at a major telecom company, a large hospitality company, a leading breast cancer organization and one of the world’s most respected environmental organizations.
I am a graduate of the University of Virginia. I have been an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. I serve on several boards, including at Penn State University.
I have been happily married for 23 years and I make more money than my husband (he’s totally cool with that, as it means he lives in a very nice house and drives a very nice car). I am the mother of two college-aged children. I have a dog and two cats.
Why do I feel the need to tell you this? Why am I working so hard for you to think I am a serious person?
Because (gulp) in addition to all of the above, I also write romance novels. Erotic romance novels. As in there’s a lot of sex in my books. A lot. No seriously. A LOT.
I am trying to validate myself because I don’t want you to think of me as some crazy lady (only two cats, I swear) who writes dirty books. Because everyone knows that serious, credible people don’t read romance novels. And they certainly don’t write them.
Well I do. In my spare time, I write romance novels. Love scenes and sex scenes, and more plot and conversation between the heroine and hero than you might suspect. I write on weekends, in the evenings, in hotel rooms when on business travel, or wherever I can grab a non-work related moment with my computer.
This morning it was sitting on an airplane flying to a meeting with the staff of a prominent government leader. During the taxi ride back to the office, I imagined what my heroine and hero would be doing right at that moment. And I worried why I was having such a tough time advancing my story. It’s been stuck at 25,000 words for two weeks now, never mind that I need a minimum of 80,000 words to get my book published. For whatever reason, I am having a difficult time getting this couple into bed in a credible way.
By the way, my name isn’t really Ariel Atwell. But I digress.
With some 74 million readers, romance is the most popular literary genre in North America, which comes as a surprise to a lot of people. Ten percent of those readers are men by the way. Romance fans, just like book readers in general, tend to be educated--more than half have at least one college degree. Surveys show that women who read romance have sex more frequently and report being more satisfied by their sex life.
In recent years, the books have become more sexually explicit and adventurous, with books like Fifty Shades attracting a new audience of readers, making romance is one of only a few literary genres where the audience is actually growing rather than contracting.
Yet somehow you rarely see anyone openly reading a romance novel or leaving one out on the coffee table, such is the stigma. Women hide their romance on their Kindles and Nooks. There’s is a belief that intelligent, modern women should not be interested in reading such trash. Detective novels, murder mysteries and sci-fi are fine and dandy, but romance novels are worthless, with feminists being particularly critical of the genre.
You cannot be a truly liberated woman and enjoy romance, right?
Not surprisingly, I beg to differ.
As the genre has evolved, so have the characters. As a 2013 article in The Atlantic highlights, we’ve gone from reading about hapless heroines, who are almost too stupid to live, to strong women who have careers, make decisions and aren’t victims or passive players in their own stories. Heroines today are driving the action in their lives, even if the stories themselves sometimes take place in historical times.
My books are set in the Regency period, because it was a rather wild and romantic era—no cell phones or selfies on Instagram. The Regency era was sort of the last gasp of good times before Queen Victoria came on the throne and everything got so serious and repressed. I tend to think her uptight German husband Albert was responsible for clamping down on all the fun.
My books are rather traditional by today’s standards—the story of one man and one woman. The main characters in romance these days can be two men, two women, and threesomes of all sexes, as well as aliens, shapeshifters and werewolves and other supernatural creatures. There are no limits. But there is always love. That’s one of the ironclad rules of the genre. Somebody has to fall in love. And there’s usually a happy ending.
In my books, as with most good romance novels today, the heroine is the hero of the book. She takes action. She decides she wants something or needs something and she makes it happen, even when she lives in an era or in circumstances in which her choices are constrained by rules that cannot be changed. My heroines are sexual beings, even if they don’t realize it or have not fully explored their sexuality for whatever reasons.
But what’s really interesting for those of us who consider ourselves to be feminists, is that romance novels are, according to The Atlantic, “One of the few places where a woman is a subject in the sex rather than an object. Characters communicate about sex in romance novels, something women are rarely taught how to do in pop culture or real life.”
Even more intriguingly romance, says The Atlantic, is just about the only place where the hero cannot wait to pleasure the heroine with oral sex, which you don’t see regularly anywhere else in popular culture. Romance “not only turn their readers on but validates the many ways that women do get turned on. To find things arousing. To explore the boundaries of our sexuality. And they give women permission to have fantasies.”
Which brings me to the utter hysteria surrounding Fifty Shades of Gray. It wasn’t my favorite book of all time, but any book that sells 50 million copies has to be given credit for striking a chord with a large segment of the reading public.
So what do you think Fifty Shades was about? There was plenty of sex in it, but was it about sex? Personally I think it was one great big giant fantasy. But not the sort you’re thinking about.
Think about it for a moment. A smoking hot billionaire wants to fly me around the world in his jet, buy me designer clothes and look after my every need—large and small.
I am a working mother. I am up every day at dawn and I don’t stop going until late at night. Making coffee, making lunches, kids to school, working, paying bills, cooking dinner, supervising homework and college applications. Trying to be a good wife, mother, sister, daughter, employee and boss. I make a bazillion decisions each and every day and it’s exhausting. To my mind, the real fantasy of Fifty Shades is not the wicked sex or the domineering lover. It’s “I don’t have to make a decision. Someone else is going to look after things. I will be taken care of and looked after. For once in my overstressed, overwhelmed life, I can just relax.”
Now in my real life do I really want someone ordering my food at a restaurant or picking out my clothing? Dear god no. Not least of all because my husband would have me wearing tops cut way too low and skirts cut way too high for a woman my age. Ah, but what a delicious fantasy it is not to have to make any decisions. In return I get mind-blowing sex that includes a spanking now and again. Hell yeah, I’m in!
As it turns out, a good number of women find the fantasy of a sexually dominant man to be pretty hot. What the critics keep forgetting is that there is a wide ocean between gaining pleasure fantasizing about something and actually doing it.
As best-selling author Sarah MacLean puts it: “We aren’t saying it is okay for a man to sexually dominate or abuse women. We’re saying that it’s okay if at some point we find the idea of that threat hot.”
In a society that often wants to categorize women as either pure or slutty, romance novels offer one of the few cultural spaces where women can read about and imagine their own sexual fantasies, and be reassured that whatever turns them on is okay.
Says The Atlantic: “A genre centered on women, written primarily by women and consumed mainly by women cannot be ignored because it can teach us about what women want. The very fact that we are discussing what women want and derive pleasure from is very much a feminist conversation.”
Before I go, I do want to answer one of the questions I get ask most about my books: What does my husband think about them?
My husband doesn’t read my books. Not because he’s not proud of me or isn’t supportive of my writing—au contraire. He’s my biggest fan. He doesn’t read my books because I have asked him not to. The reality is we aren’t going to be doing the things that my characters do in bed in my book, and I really don’t want him to read it and then be disappointed with our sex life. The sex scenes I write are meant to fuel fantasies, and are not necessarily something anyone would actually want to do. Although, as I tell my husband, the moment we get a footman on staff, I might have to reconsider.