In which I ponder a certain kind of heroine reaction to a certain kind of hero endowment.
*This is one of those adult only posts*
If there’s a sex scene in a romance novel, there’s almost most certainly a reference to the large size of the hero’s penis. Interestingly, this is true regardless of whether the sex scene itself is explicit.
Before I go any further, it might be worth asking why romance heroes are so well endowed. If some aspect of romance is sexual fantasy, it may seem obvious. But real women don’t seem to care too much about this sort of thing. Five years ago, Candy Tan of Smart Bitches Who Love Trashy Books hypothesized that (1) some part of it is feminine fantasy, pure and simple, (2) being big is another way the hero stands out from other men, especially past lovers the heroine may have had, and, finally, (3) large penises in romance signal the hyper-masculinity that heroes are supposed to possess. Tan’s explanation works for me.
But what about the heroine’s reaction to The Big Reveal? It’s often fear, nervousness, shock, or awe. Perhaps a lot of that reaction can be attributed to the fact that so many romance heroines are virgins. But think about it: why does it make sense that a penis — even a big one — should be terrifying to anyone, ever? And, besides, even experienced heroines have the same reaction.
Too Wicked to Wed, by Cheryl Holt (2006), Historical virgin heroine:
Heroine: “I’m not sure about this.”
Hero: “You don’t need to be sure. You just need to relax.”
Heroine: “Relax! Are you mad? It’s too big; it will never fit!”
Total Surrender, by Cheryl Holt (2002). Regency virgin:
“I’m going to climb out of the bath. I certainly don’t mind if you watch, but I hardly suppose you’re prepared for the sight.”
Her eyes dropped imperceptibly, and she encountered all. Like a supplicant before a shrine, she pushed at the remaining material, baring him inch by glorious inch, until he was totally naked, and the reality was like nothing she’d imagined …
“Are all of these … these … cocks so large?”
Your Scandalous Ways, by Loretta Chase (2008). Regency courtesan:
She heard the rustle of clothing, as he bared himself. He pressed against her and she gasped. He was big and hot and she had an instant of panic — absurd panic, as though she were still a girl.
A Touch of Sin, by Susan Johnson (1999). Historical, nonvirgin heroine:
He seemed larger, more intimidating; she’d forgotten how big he was. He was terrifyingly aroused. And she wondered if reason had disappeared from her consciousness that she was willing to have that threatening penis inside of her.
Mackenzie’s Mountain, by Linda Howard (1989). Contemporary western with virgin heroine:
She couldn’t look away from his hard manhood. She was going to take him inside her, and accept his heavy weight as they joined in the act of mating, and she was a little frightened.
He saw it in her eyes as he eased down beside her. “Don’t be afraid,” he whispered…
A Perfect Scandal, by Tina Gabrielle (2010). Historical, featuring a virgin heroine with quick recovery time:
Her eyes widened as his cock jutted from a nest of dark hair. He looked alarmingly large, but with an inherent knowledge as old as Eve, she knew that she was woman enough for him.
Slave to Love, by Nikita Black (2007). Contemp erotic romance with sexually experienced heroine:
‘These pants don’t work for me’, he ground out.
Her gaze wavered, flickered down in sudden awareness to the blatant arousal in serious danger of breaching the low-slung leather waist. Shock rounded those fellatrice lips into an ‘O’ of surprise and she jerked her hands from his groin.
‘Yes, I see what you mean,’ she said, clearing her throat. He could see her struggle to appear undaunted.
Passion, by Lisa Valdez (2006). Historical. Virginal awe, sans fear:
His jaw clenched, and his hands fell away from her. ‘Look at it.’ His words were a demand, but his tone was a plea.
Passion lowered her gaze. Her eyes widened, and she stared hungrily. Protruding from his pants like some giant pagan phallus, his penis jutted massive and heavy in her hand. Threaded with cordlike veins, she watched, entranced…
Beyond Daring, Kathleen O’Reilly. Harlequin Contemporary. Freud could not have said it better than this heroine:
She stroked the velvety steel, feeling it pulse with each touch. All that power in her hands.
Sometimes, it’s the heroes who are afraid for the heroines. Dain, in Loretta Chase’s historical Lord of Scoundrels (1995) is one example (sorry but I could not find the exact page). And here’s Rhage in J.R Ward’s paranormal, Lover Revealed (2008):
Keeping his back to her, he stood up and stripped. With some finessing, he managed to get himself under the covers without flashing her a glimpse of what the front of him was up to. That monstrous arousal was nothing she needed to know about.
I do love reading romance, but whenever I read scenes of shock and awe over the penis, I find myself wondering if there’s a secret Freudian psychotherapy indoctrination room at the annual RWA meeting.
Freud’s take on women was that a crucial event in a girl’s development — something that sets her on the trajectory of femininity, with all of the narcissism, weakness of will, and passivity that implies for Freud — was her first sighting of a penis. Some relevant passages from New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis (1933) — much of which is here:
…The castration complex of girls is also started by the sight of the genitals of the other sex. They at once notice the difference and, it must be admitted, its significance, too. They feel seriously wronged, often declare that they want to “have something like it too,” and fall a victim to “envy for the penis,” which will leave ineradicable traces on their development and the formation of their character and which will not be surmounted in even the most favorable cases without a severe expenditure of psychical energy.
…One cannot very well doubt the importance of envy for the penis. You may take it as an instance of male injustice if I assert that envy and jealousy play an even greater part in the mental life of women than of men.
…The discovery that she is castrated is a turning-point in a girl’s growth.
…Her self-love is mortified by the comparison with the boy’s far superior equipment and in consequence she renounced her masturbatory satisfaction from her clitoris, repudiates her love for her mother and at the same time not infrequently represses a good part of her sexual trends in general.
You don’t have to be any kind of Freudian to think it may be because the penis symbolizes male power that it seems “natural” to view it in terms of fear and awe, instead of odd looking dangly bits. Hero penises rarely dangle, actually, because flaccidity is pretty much banned from romance novels. Penises are usually characterized by the exact terms used to describe masculinity: powerful, hard, demanding, commanding, etc.
Readers approach books from their own unique perspectives and backgrounds. It so happens that my background is saturated with feminist theory, and while I think I have come a long way understanding various aspects of the romance genre, the terrifying or awe-inspiring penis still stops me dead in my reading tracks. When I find a passage like that, I think something like, “For Pete’s sake! Could this genre buy into phallocentrism in any more obvious way?” How about a little decentralizing of the phallus as the locus of power, or at least as the locus of sex?
It’s more difficult to get past that initial reaction because of my background. It’s easier to read a sex scene in which, upon seeing the hero’s endowment, the heroine smiles and thinks, “YES!!” (Even then … I wonder, given the fact that, at least when they are answering surveys, most women don’t seem to care much about size, “Whose fantasy is this?’.)
But … there must be some other reading of penis fear, right? Got any ideas?