the shameless orgasm

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.

Comments 13 Responses

  1. lisoo

    Exactly what I thought of the book. Loved it and the points that you made. Didnt think about the masturbation in the tent scene. But you are exactly right. Great review, well written. πŸ™‚

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, Lisa! It was such a fun read. The road-trip trope is an old classic, and can be great when done well – but this was such a fresh take on it. Can’t wait for her next book!

    1. anna cowan Post author

      I think it’s only digital at this stage (I probably should have mentioned that…) – however, it’s so popular that I wouldn’t be surprised if they do a paper edition. And her new book ‘About Last Night’ – released next week – is going to have a paper edition. It sounds so great – the uptight English banker and the American party girl trying to find a fresh start in London. (I have such a weakness for the uptight hero.)

  2. Decadence

    Funnily enough today I was telling someone about a book that I had problems with. Among other things, there was a reference to the angelic heroine having pleasured herself in the car during a traffic jam off-page for apparently no other reason than she is just intrinsically that sexual. Interestingly enough, if I tell a man, he’s like, “Well, yeah,” whereas women (myself included) lean more towards considering it sleazy.

    I’ve argued that her car on the street is a public place, but the men argue no one can see, unless the person next to her is driving a semi and can look down through her window.

    “But she’s an angel.” “So?”

    I still don’t get it, but that could be because I usually walk or catch a train. If I’m in a car, I’m certainly not alone. Also, I don’t get turned on by being stuck in traffic. I sometimes think that in principle I should see her as liberated and shameless, but I don’t. It’s not so much that she got herself off, but the setting and lack of stimulus to justify doing it then and there. Maybe the lack of stimulus was the justification for her. I don’t get it. I just think there’s a time and place and in the car while stuck in traffic is not it.

    1. anna cowan Post author

      “Also, I don’t get turned on by being stuck in traffic.” πŸ˜€ Yeah, I would find that scene a bit weird as well, I think. I can’t figure out whether it was a paranormal and she was ACTUALLY an angel, or whether she was “angelic” as an attribute. Either way. I think the difference is that masturbating in traffic because you’re just that sexual feels more like titillation than an essential part of the story. It doesn’t seem to add anything to her character other than her unusual libido. The scene in RWM fit perfectly in the arc of the story. It felt completely natural – of course that’s what would happen at some point on their road trip as their attraction ramped up. It was something I could relate to entirely. In the middle of traffic for no particular reason? Not so much. That scene wouldn’t resonate with me at all, or add to the conversation of my own experience – so I would find it less pertinent to the conversation of female sexuality. Other women might relate though, I guess? Maybe?

      1. Decadence

        Sorry, yes, the story was a paranormal and she was actually an angel, even if she didn’t know that at the time. Needless to say, that scene was not my only issue with that book, but I think the author was trying to justify the jump from virgin to full-on rough quasi-BDSM sex. So that means she’s obviously the perfect match for the hero *eyeroll*

        Anyway, I still find the differing reactions from the sexes interesting. No female I’ve discussed the scene with agrees with its inclusion. One reads really trashy smut and still wasn’t impressed by it. There may be some women who don’t think it’s a big deal (obviously the author must be one to have written it in the first place), but either I haven’t found them or they’ve been unwilling to admit it, possibly because I’m already attaching a stigma to it in the way I present it. One man suggested I was being a prude and on a separate occasion another one said, “All girls are prudes.” Prudish or not, I need context for that inclusion to work, while the men I spoke to clearly don’t. I suspect this could be because we as a society continue to judge men and women differently for the same act. Or at the risk of generalising, maybe men’s brains are more attuned to porn (which is arguably more about titillation than meaning) than women’s.

        It could simply be that I had loftier expectations of a romance novel. I wasn’t reading a letter to Penthouse!

        But getting back to what you posted, I liked what you said about Lexie pleasuring Tom. He’s consented to giving her the power to explore him as she wants, but instead, she chooses to do what he wants. Unless they’re so in synch with each other that the parts of his body she likes best are the parts he most enjoys having touched, it feels like she’s wasted an opportunity for them both, which is a bit sad.

        I haven’t read RWM, but if you’re attracted to someone but aren’t with them for some reason and feel the need to take the edge off, that could work. She may have been making do, but it beats the hell out of a cold shower πŸ˜€

        1. anna cowan Post author

          I got into a discussion with Ruthie Knox on twitter about the whole gender/sex dilemma, and she rec’d some Cara McKenna erotica for intelligent exploration of the topic. I read “Curio” and loved it. An almost-thirty-year-old virgin (woman) starts visiting an exceptionally beautiful Parisian prostitute (man). There were “woman is free to do what she likes with man” scenes in there, but she’d created a more interesting power dynamic than in RWM. Because of the nature of their relationship, everything they did was negotiated within a conscious “desire” and “object” paradigm. Good stuff! Then I read her book “Ruin Me” and wanted to kill her heroine. What can ya do? πŸ™‚

  3. Jen

    “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?”
    OMG YES. YES! I found myself shouting at the books I read, I was so baffled by this. The hero would be all sulky because DARN! He was aroused! And he stalks (because they’re always STALKING) off to the bathroom and I think, finally! Let’s get this party started and he hops in the *$%#$# shower. Riiiiight.
    So I asked my husband, “Hey, so you’ve got this boner. What do you do – rub one out or take a cold shower?” And he looked at me like I was insane. I knew the answer but felt justified in my rage when he drawled, “Ummmmm, I’d masturbate?”

    1. anna cowan Post author

      “Hey, so you’ve got this boner.” LOL! πŸ˜€ I love those random extremely direct conversations with husbands. Even when you’re married sex can be this kind of off-limit topic – and breaking through that can be super fun, and also surprising. Mostly in a good way.

      1. Jen

        I totally agree. I never thought reading romance would be the ice breaker, it’s really gotten us talking about a lot of things that I felt too embarrassed to talk about for a long time!

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