This has been my year for scrutinising the way gender plays out in romance. Mostly that process consists of discovering how very little I know – which makes me think I’m somewhat on the right track; hopefully an always interesting track that might never lead to any kind of truth, but will lead me to new and exciting and challenging places my whole life long.
After reading good reviews for months of Ruthie Knox’s Ride With Me I finally bought it the other day and had read it by dinner. It’s a truly gorgeous read, about a man and woman who undertake the trans America cycle tour together. Her hero Tom is delicious (she made licking an inner tube to test for punctures a ridiculously hot thing to do) and her heroine Lexie was a breath of fresh air: uncynical and optimistic without those traits turning her into a bimbo any more than they would in a real person.
I questioned some of the sex in the book – for example when Lexie’s expression of her desire and acquiescence is, “I want for you to have me.”
The observation that, above all others, awoke my curiosity about gender: Women are taught that their pleasure comes from being the object that is desired, not the person who desires. Lexie’s expression of her desire in that line smacks of this is sexy because you want me. Her own desire felt curiously erased. And later when Tom puts himself at her mercy – tells her she can do anything she likes with him – she chooses to pleasure him. In a way, I get it – she’s indulging her own desire, and I certainly wouldn’t want to say that pleasuring a guy isn’t sexy! That would be dumb. But though Lexie realised the power she had, she didn’t feel powerful to me in that scene.
There was one scene in the book that instantly makes this my number one feminist romance read. Lexie is all hot and bothered in her tent one afternoon, and she starts masturbating while thinking about Tom.
For those of you who don’t read romance: masturbation isn’t mentioned that often, and the masturbation scene is much rarer still. Off the top of my head I can think of The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt and Delicious by Sherry Thomas.
And if you do get one, there is always – ALWAYS – some sense of shame involved. Whether it’s the fear of being found out, the fear that it’s somehow wrong despite the pleasure of it, or the belief (ah, romance heroes) that it’s “making do”, something to resort to if one’s heroine isn’t available. Some heroes don’t even allow themselves that much – I was so confused when I started reading romance that heroes were constantly off taking cold showers and baths. Surely they had a better, more effective option?
I understand with historical romance that it’s period appropriate to have shame attached to masturbation. But I don’t think that’s why it’s written that way. Give the amount of shameless sex historical heroines are having.
Lexie doesn’t feel one second of shame. She lets herself imagine Tom, she lets herself go to it, she revels in the delicious feeling of her body afterwards. She’s actively enjoying herself. She feels embarrassed when she thinks Tom might know what she was doing, but as a reader that came across as very different to shame.
And that’s why this book rates as a feminist read for me – because it engaged me in a discussion about my own sexuality in a way that surprised and delighted me. It challenged a shame that is so ingrained it’s invisible – and it gave me permission in a way that few face-to-face conversations ever could.