I want to talk about marriage, but I’m going to start by talking about sex.
One of the difficulties in writing sex scenes as a feminist writer is that so much of female desire is learned. What women have learned to be aroused by has traditionally been shaped by male desire.
I don’t want to just write my heroines as objects of desire – but just because it’s learned doesn’t make it any less real. In fact, when our learned desires come into conflict with our educated feminist ideas, they can gain a level of taboo that only heightens them.
So how do you write what’s genuinely arousing, without playing into an idea of female sexuality that doesn’t allow for real female pleasure?
As far as I’m concerned, Cara McKenna has figured it out.
Her characters are self-aware when it comes to sexual desire. They understand the role fantasy and objectification play in arousal, and they allow it to heighten their arousal.
In Curio, Caroly visits a Parisian prostitute to lose her virginity before her thirtieth birthday. Caroly is intelligent and self-contained – she’s almost cold. She’s no blushing virgin. Perhaps it’s because the whole premise of the book is about exploring sexual desire that I could see how McKenna sets her characters apart from their desires.
The following extract is a good example of what I’m talking about:
His hand abandoned mine to its clumsy devices. I measured him with light caresses, loving how tense the rest of his body had grown.
“You feel harder than I expected.”
“This is how I felt when I thought of you the other night. Thinking of you made me hard then, just as your touch does so now.” He was quiet for several strokes, save his labored breaths. “Do you like it?”
“Yeah.” Bolder, I wrapped my hand around him as much as possible through his slacks, squeezing to discover how thick he was. He moaned and I felt different, as I never had before—powerful and beautiful and wild.
“I’m the first,” he murmured.
The idea that he was fetishizing this experience gave me permission to do the same. I’d already grown quite fond of Didier—surely fonder than was rational, given our perhaps six cumulative hours of acquaintance—but reducing him to a stiff, suffering cock was electrifying. I’d always loathed this idea, openly lavishing a beautiful man with my admiration. As if such a fortunate specimen deserves more validation. But of course it felt nothing like that with Didier. I adored this glimpse into another side of him, a darker, cockier version of the man I was just coming to know.
“Kiss me,” I said.
He did. He turned and kissed me as no one ever had before, urgent and demanding. I ached for his hand on top of mine again, dictating—perhaps even forcing—the friction. But I was in charge. I imagined teasing him this way until he begged to be taken out and given release. I imagined denying such a request, degrading him with my refusal until he lost control, quaking and pleading and erupting beneath my hand, inside his clothes, perspiration shining on his forehead.
But of course I wasn’t ready for that. Indulging the idea was breakthrough enough.
In most romances with a virgin heroine, the virginity fetish is naively expressed in the narrative itself. By which I mean – the reader has the virgin fantasy by reading the book. McKenna adds another layer by having her character consciously experience the virgin fantasy, about herself, and allowing it to heighten her arousal.
McKenna separates her characters from their fantasies. When a novel becomes the fantasy of the reader, the characters are essential players in the fantasy and can’t be separated from it. In the above excerpt Caroly plays with different fantasies – different ways of constructing herself sexually – but none of them defines who she is.
In her essay Expressing Herself: the Romance Novel and the Feminine Will to Power Sarah Frantz explores the rise of the hero’s point of view in romance. She argues that
[b]y having ever-increasing access to the inner confessions of the hero’s mind, the reader can trust in his romantic transformation as he abandons his belief in a masculine economy of use (hence all the rakes and libertines among romance heroes), and recognizes the superiority of and adopts a feminine economy of exchange (hence the requisite exchange of vows at the end of the romance).
I didn’t entirely understand what Frantz means by “economy of use” and “economy of exchange”. Google tells me they’re actual economic terms, but the only academic references I found came from Frantz.
As far as I can tell, the masculine economy of use is a one-way relationship that involves the heroine satisfying a need for the hero; it requires nothing of him in exchange. The feminine economy of exchange is a relationship that passes back and forth and requires each party to give, take and be transformed by each transaction.
By getting inside the man’s head, by watching him fall in love, women are fantasising that they can understand and control the patriarchy – and also that they are freeing men of the constraints of patriarchy “into the emancipation of feminine exchange”. But Frantz goes on to point out that
romances seem to be “violat[ing] the cardinal rule of patriarchy, famously articulated by Jacques Lacan: the Phallus must remain veiled.” In lifting the veil from the hero’s thoughts, romances are pretending to readers that all the secrets of patriarchy are revealed as secrets they already know and control. However, the romance hero’s confessions are of course not representative of what a “real” man thinks—the narrator is seducing herself when she looks into the mirror of the romance novel. The reader believes that she is lifting patriarchy’s veil to find … “mortal men standing behind it, somewhat sheepish, perhaps, at having been exposed, but maybe a little relieved as well.” However, female authors and readers are actually lifting the veil to reveal a nonthreatening phallus that they themselves have created, one that bears little relation to the reality of patriarchal power structures besides their own fantasies about it…*
Frantz goes on to showcase some rather hair-raising examples of the power exchange in romance novels. In one instance the heroine likens herself to God – the ultimate patriarch – and her male lover becomes a supplicant. It’s a gutsy and appealing reversal, and it throws a powerful light on gender dynamics.
But the problem is, as Frantz points out, that it’s a woman looking into a mirror. It doesn’t bear on the reality of living with a subconscious, internalised view of the world that privileges men.
From within this world view all the signifiers of power are still male: God the patriarch, the breast milk spilling from erect nipples that becomes phallic. It’s a world trying to describe itself from the inside, with the language of power structures that already exist and which say – Female is defined by being Male or Not-male.
I think it’s incredibly difficult for women to re-imagine gender and power from within a patriarchal world without still privileging the great devirginator.
Partly this is because, as I said earlier, we learn desire a certain way and realising it’s biased doesn’t make it any less arousing. But partly it’s because we live subjectively in the world, and don’t have the words to describe ourselves from outside it.
What we do have is the ability to acknowledge and describe the way we react in the world.
This is why McKenna’s approach appeals to me. Her characters aren’t women trying to become powerful by becoming masculine or not-masculine. They’re individuals who recognise their patriarchal desires as separate to who they are as people – but who consciously embrace their desires, for their own pleasure.
McKenna’s approach acknowledges that gender and desire are constructed. It also acknowledges that there’s no way to live separate from how you are constructed.
Which brings me, finally, to marriage.
The feminist critique of romance that the patriarchy is brought into the “feminine economy of exchange”, represented by the exchange of wedding vows, bothers me.
Why is marriage the sphere of women? (Why is there a sphere of women?) What makes us so invested in the idea of marriage? What makes us tie our sense of success and accomplishment and status with the idea of marriage?
I don’t actually have an answer, because I would need a couple of degrees in sociology and anthropology and psychology and maybe even politics and history.
But I think it’s important to ask the question – and to reflect on it. Which isn’t the same thing as dismissing the fact that marriage is, for the most part, a female domain, or that women are emotionally invested in and fulfilled by it.
I would like to see romance address the idea of marriage the way McKenna addresses the idea of sexual desire – by having characters self-aware enough to acknowledge that their desire for marriage is learned, then choose it consciously, because of what it will add to their life.
When special k and I got engaged at 24, there was definitely some fetish attached to it. I would look at him – this vibrant, slim, intelligent, funny boy – and it gave me a thrill to think that I was turning him into a Husband. The idea of belonging and possessing is a fetish – just as a wedding ring is a fetish object.
None of that makes the fact of marriage in my life any less significant. It’s one of the most powerful forces that works on me every single day. But I know it’s constructed, and when I embrace that fact it empowers me to act out the Wife in ways that contribute to my life, and to be an individual outside of being a wife.
* I wanted to say something about this that didn’t really fit in the post. I don’t think all romance is disconnected from reality – not even the reality of “real” men. Frantz quotes Laura Kinsale’s theory that romance is an internal reality check that allows us to become adult, which requires us to turn away from “adventure, from autonomy, from what-might-have-been, and […] mourn the loss and deal with it”. But I think it goes further than coming to terms with our social reality.
I was really taken with this blog post about the reluctance of feminists to to deal with heterosexual relationships. For me, feminist romances dream up new ways for the world to be. They play with ideas about truly equal heterosexual relationships. They don’t look only at emancipated women, but at what their equal partners could be. They create a new set of expectations – a reality that we can live into, and create by living into it.
I would also like to thank Sarah Frantz for sending me her essay. Such nerd-joy to bring my literature degree and my love for romance together!