Sexuality and Same-Sex Romance: Placeholders, Power Dynamics, and the P-word

A guest post by romantic suspense author Jill Sorenson

Assuming that most romance readers aren’t familiar with all of the terms above, I’ll start with a few definitions.

  1. Same-sex romance.  In addition to the ever-popular m/m (male/male), there is also a little-known subgenre called f/f (female/female).  Same-sex romance doesn’t necessarily mean gay romance.  It refers to a sexual relationship or sexual contact/experimentation between two characters of the same sex.  These characters may or may not identify as gay or bisexual.  F/f and m/m romances are often written by straight authors.
  2. Gay or LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) romance, on the other hand, is usually written by gay or LGBT authors.  The characters identify or “come out” as LGBT.  Some authors of gay romance dislike having their books labeled m/m or f/f.
  3. Straight romance, aka heterosexual romance or m/f (male/female).
  4. Placeholders.  I believe this term was coined by Laura Kinsale.  It’s a theory about the reader’s identification with a character.  Many m/f readers “take the place of the heroine” and fall in love with the hero, for example.
  5. Sexual politics.  Macmillan defines this as “differences in the amount of power men and women have in a society or group.” Some readers are turned off by the sexual politics in m/f romance.  Or are they just turned off by the “weaker sex”?  M/m gets a lot more credit than f/f for having an equal power dynamic.
  6. The P-word.  It’s pussy, people.  This one makes so many female readers uncomfortable, I’m almost afraid to use it!

My inspiration for this blog post was a feeling of frustration towards m/m “purists” who express negative attitudes about straight romance and women.  Not all m/m readers hold these views, but there are those who think m/f romance is lame and sexist.  Others don’t want girl cooties in their smokin-hot manlove.  They certainly aren’t interested in reading about two women.

Because I write straight romance, I read f/f romance, and I’m a woman, I take offense.  In some ways, m/m seems like a rejection of female sexuality, an erasure of women.

But my self-righteous indignation is just an initial reaction.  Romance readers can be sensitive.  I get emotional.  You know how it is.  This post isn’t actually about male vs. female or “us vs. them.”  My agenda isn’t to shame m/m fans or rally around f/f.  It’s an attempt to understand why we read what we read and like what we like.

Let’s begin with placeholders.  Earlier this year, I read an interesting comment at Smart Bitches from a reader who only buys books with blond heroines, because she’s blond, and she likes to imagine herself in the heroine’s place.  This is an extreme example of place-holding, no?  Maybe it’s even “replacing.” I’ve also seen some Bitchy ads in the sidebar that feature middle-aged women fantasizing about getting it on with romance novel heroes.

Although I think the placeholder theory has merit, I don’t take my reading engagement that far.  I’ve never pictured my real-life self in the book, shoving the fictional heroine aside.  I don’t want to paste my face over hers, if that makes sense.  But I am inside her head, inhabiting her space and feeling her emotions, not just passively watching the action.  I am becoming her, rather than replacing her.  I can also slip into the role of hero, and especially enjoy sex scenes from the male perspective.

Not everyone experiences romance novels the same way I do, of course.  Obviously, there are various levels of engagement.  It may depend on the book, the reader, the situation, the sexual pairing—any number of variables.  The variable I’m most interested in is the reader’s relationship with her sexuality.

M/m creates a sexual space that’s difficult for me to get into.  I feel more like a voyeur than a participant, one step removed.  Part of this may be my unfamiliarity with the subgenre, or my general disinterest in two guys having sex.  I can also understand why some gay people feel objectified by this “eroticization of the Other.” Not that my reading of f/f sex is any less offensive, ideologically, but it feels more innocent because of my ability to lose myself in the story and connect with the characters.

For other women, the sexual space in m/m feels totally natural.  In a fantastic thread stemming from Robin/Janet’s thought-provoking piece on ethical responsibilities beyond the book, author Heidi Cullinan said:

    “Sexual identity is so hard to define. I can’t tell you why I am so at home in m/m, but I am. I’ve had it explained that this is some sort of psychology, or something, about how it’s my way of accessing my inner male, or how I wish I were male—honestly? I don’t know. I just know that I love it. Somehow it does feel like it’s about my sexual identity, but I can’t explain it. I am intellectually (and yes, often physically) attracted to gay men.”

It follows logic that some women find it easier to identify with gay men, sexually.  They aren’t just attracted to men, but attracted to the fantasy aspect of being a man, having a man’s strength and sexual power.  This is an odd concept for me because I’ve never felt that way. I love being a woman. I like sex scenes from the hero’s POV in m/f romance because I relish his enjoyment of the heroine, not because I’d fancy having a penis instead of a vagina.

But I can’t assume that all women, gay or straight, embrace femininity the way I do.  I’ve heard that some lesbians love m/m.  Say what?  Here’s a comment from another interesting thread about the differences between straight and LGBT romance at Babbling About Books:

    “It’s worth noting that a lot of GLBT sex is similar to straight sex in limited ways. It’s not as simple as one person penetrating another. If what every straight couple wants most in the bedroom is different, queer couples differ even more dramatically from each other. Just from an f/f standpoint, stone butches, often those who present as most masculine and would seem simplest to slot into the m part of the m/f trope, are so uncomfortable with their female body and experiencing female pleasure that they would rather their lover fellate a strap-on than give them direct stimulation.”  –Thursday

When I saw the above comment, I thought of a puzzling scene I’d just read in a lesbian romance.  One of the heroines wore masculine clothing and lived as a man.  She used a strap-on during sex and reacted with arousal when her lover caressed it.  I didn’t understand what could possibly be pleasurable about donning a fake penis or having it touched.  But now I get it.

Sexuality is more complicated than liking men vs. liking women.  It’s also about which sexual parts we identify with, and they may or may not match our biological parts.

I have another theory, on the opposite end of the placeholder spectrum: some readers actively seek out characters that are not like them.  They are different from the blond reader who only reads blond heroines.  Rather than inserting themselves into the novel, they want to visualize or “become” someone else.

I can understand the fantasy aspect of this tendency.  Although I have to identify with a character in order to inhabit his or her space, it feels more comfortable for me to become someone else.  I rarely make an appearance in my own fantasies, in fact.  It’s one of the reasons I started writing romance.  For as long as I can remember, I’ve created characters in my mind and imagined them making love.  To each other, not to me.

Is part of the popularity of m/m the anti-placeholder?  If it’s impossible for the reader to imagine herself in the scene, taking the man’s place, does the fantasy become sharper and more pleasurable?  A pure escape, not grounded in reality or spoiled by any of the reader’s real-life experiences, separate from the reader’s sense of self?

As an aside, I don’t mean “escape” or “fantasy” in a negative way at all.  I see these as healthy, important facets of the romance genre.  Feel free to disagree!

On to sexual politics.  Many m/m readers enjoy the lack of traditional gender roles in a romance “between equals.”

At RRR Jessica’s, I read the following comment, which I believe was made by m/m aficionada Dr. Sarah Franz.  “F/f romance doesn’t work to dispel power dynamics the way m/m does because readers are women.”

My initial reaction to this statement wasn’t positive.  It sounded like another diss on f/f, very similar to the constant criticism of all romance as “for/about women (therefore lacking value).”  Then I read it again, and realized I’d misunderstood. Now I think it means that women have been historically oppressed by men.  When we write and read about two hot guys doing it for the female gaze, it’s like taking a piece of that power back.

I still don’t know if I get this power dynamic thing, or agree with the concept that m/m “does it better.”  I do know that m/m celebrates men, and I like men.  I like open-minded readers and rainbow coalitions.  But when penis = power, are m/m writers really subverting stereotypes by championing male sexuality?

Maybe m/m isn’t pro-feminist, or even gay-affirmative in some cases, but I’ve read many comments from readers who say the subgenre has changed their views about sexuality.  They are more accepting of differences and knowledgeable about the gay experience.  This is a good thing, and I think it happens when character portrayals are authentic.  I know I’ve gained a wider perspective from reading f/f.

Which brings me to my last point.  Again, I can thank m/m readers for bringing the issue to my attention.  Why do we have such a serious aversion to the word “pussy”?

M/f authors also discuss this troublesome dilemma, on Twitter and everywhere else.  Flowery euphemisms are out, clinical terms a turn-off.  There is no “perfect word” for female genitalia. We bemoan the fact that guys get all the sexy slang terms, like cock.

The words for lady parts are so unappealing they make some readers sick.  Several m/m authors claim it’s the reason they write about men.

Oddly enough, I’ve never heard anyone complain that there’s no sexy word for anus.  Authors can’t wrap their minds around “moist channel,” but they’re hot for “rear entrance”?  What is that about?  Why are we so comfortable with cock, and uncomfortable with cunt?

Well, I’ll tell you, fine reader!  I think it’s the actual parts, rather than the representative terms, we react negatively to. I, for one, like pussy.  I’ve used it in sex scenes.  It doesn’t freak me out.  I’m not offended by cunt, unless you’re calling me one.  I can appreciate female parts just as much as male parts.  I like sexy words.

I’m not trying to tell authors what to like, or which words to use.  But I do think we devalue female sexuality when we shy away from descriptions of female genitalia.  If moist channel doesn’t get your juices flowing (ha), choose something else.  Make up new words.  Be creative.  Find your own way.

Or…write about hot man-on-man love. Just don’t do it because you hate girl cooties.

Thanks so much for reading!  Comments welcome.

Questions:

Do you have the placeholder experience while reading, or are you more of a voyeur?  Does the sexual pairing (m/m, m/f, etc.) make a difference in your engagement with the text or your enjoyment of love scenes?

How are power dynamics different in same-sex romance?  What appeals to you about m/m or f/f romance?  What turns you off?

Which slang terms do you like or dislike?

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