Recently, I was re-reading Naomi Wolf's The Beauty Myth, something I do whenever I start to find myself getting too critical of my appearance. One sentence leapt out at me this time, as she lamented that there were no true narratives focused on women's sexual pleasure, no story (or stories) that young girls and young women can use as a model for their own awakenings and enjoyment.
Wait, I thought to myself, what about romance novels? Romance novels do focus on female pleasure and I've noticed more and more hot scenes written from the woman's point of view. There's all kinds of variations, from the shy virgin being awakened to pleasure for the first time to the unshy experienced woman who finds a connection with the man or men of her choice (presumably the woman or women of her choice as well, though that's not a genre I typically read.) Some heroines like sex and are quite happy for more, some have had disappointing experiences, some are shy about their bodies (which come in all shapes and sizes) while some are flaunt-it proud. There is as much variety as one will find in any group of real women.
Perhaps the problem is that it is a fantasy. Life and fiction may bear a resemblance to each other but as the lack of werewolves and superheroes in my life show, they don't quite match up. Except the men's narratives she cites are equally fantasy. Men may frame their own sexuality through letters to Penthouse or Playboy images or a dozen other channels. None of them are realistic depictions of how actual love, sex and connection work. That may be a separate problem but fantasies are effective precisely because they don't come with the messy entanglements of reality.
Maybe she's simply unaware of the breadth and variety in romance novels. The book was written almost 25 years ago, when romance was still very much the dirty little secret in the closet. Intelligent women wouldn't be caught dead reading a romance novel, which was seen as low-brow, poorly written and anti-feminist. We haven't come as far as we might like to think from that viewpoint, but romance has always been a thriving industry, mostly written by women for women. Authors have used romance to explore issues of consent and safety, making the grab for the condom part of the sensual experience. We've shown how asking permission can be incredibly sexy and a turn on, rather than the province of the insecure and ineffective suitor. We've shown that women aren't alone in the fantasies they would rather die than tell anyone else, opening up dialogues about same-sex attraction, bondage, domination and voyeurism. If there is a fantasy which works for a particular woman, she can find others who share it through romance novels. She doesn't have to feel alone and isolated and perhaps most importantly, she can stop feeling ashamed.
There are still gaps to be filled, I'm sure. But with self-publishing, no woman's voice needs to be silenced. The doors are open and waiting. (Finding a market, that's a separate issue, but silence can no longer be imposed.)
I still find The Beauty Myth helpful in reminding me that making me feel bad about myself is a multi-billion dollar industry. But helping me to feel good about myself and having hope that all of my dreams are possible is also a billion dollar industry and I can find it at any local bookstore.