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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at SJSU chapter.

TW: sexual harassment, rape

You don’t need to be a marketing specialist to know that as a genre, romance gets a bad rap. Whether it is being indicted for its “low-brow” content or the spirited history of the Harlequin novel, romance novels are just not respected. 

“A Natural History of the Romance Novel” by Pamela Regis details how in spite of what a powerhouse romance poses as a genre— a $1.44 billion powerhouse today, to be exact— it and its consumers are scrutinized by the general public. 

Regis attributes this to initial skepticism and scathing reviews from feminist critics in the 1960s when second-wave feminism was finding its legs. 

In newsletters and daily papers, they accused romance novels of preserving the values of “women who love their bondage,” a.k.a women who were complacent in the face of the culture and beliefs that relegated them to second class citizens. Romance novels were framed as the proof anti-feminists were looking for: when a woman loves the romance novel, she must have no qualms with her autonomy beginning and ending with love. 

When she wants to be charmed, to swoon, or to be married off, she is content with her passive position in society. Feminists pushing for a greater imagination of the female experience were understandably (if missguidedly) disdainful of that woman. 

Nowadays, more than half a century divorced from that time, the romance novel is seen as overly-indulgent yet harmless literature. 

Although few will accuse you of betraying your gender for liking it, the disdain people hold against you for liking it is still alive and well. After all, we live in a time where women exercise an unprecedented amount of economic and political freedoms, of sexual liberation and the room to escape the expectation of matrimony or childbirth. 

What do romance novels offer the modern woman?

Well, simply put, romance novels offer women an experience they can control. There are several false illusions about the presence, value and amount of respect that women should get even as women have secured more rights than ever in recorded history. 

In today’s world, where social hubs exist online and offline, there are few havens where a woman’s gender won’t be weaponized against them.

The level of hostility and rejection many women encounter online often goes undermined. Online, female celebrities and everyday women alike see harassment ranging from inappropriate comments and photos to death or rape threats skyrocket when they reveal their gender.

Whether online spaces have further compounded the way womanhood is weaponized or if it just gave us a digital paper trail of slights against women is debatable, but this is abundantly clear: in stark contrast to the cruel or unwelcoming environments that we observe in real life, romance novels offer women so much more than they receive in their day to day lives. 

As texts, they most often center on female jubilation, pleasure, and fulfillment. The antagonists are threats to these tenets of happiness— the inconsiderate partner, unfortunate timing, forbidden love, and tragedy (and these antagonists are typically eradicated). Potential long term partners pursuing romantic relations are not only encouraged but required to contend with every facet of the partner they court. 

As spaces, they offer modern women an impossible and infinitely more hospitable topography to safely explore. They promise messy, lush, and wonderful depths that, however shallowly or deeply traveled, are always traveled freely. 

In romance novels, Regis identifies women are guaranteed two types of independence: freedom to be in union with their partner and freedom to choose to marry them. 

However, romance novels serve more than just the white heterosexual couple. This was true before the genre’s invention. It is estimated that the world’s oldest love poem is “The Love Song for Shu-Sin,” written around 2000 BCE as a part of Mesopotamian fertility rites. Cultures all over the world have full bodies of romantic media: songs, paintings, rituals, etc. 

There are a million different understandings and experiences of love and lust in recorded history. 

The rising ubiquity of diverse romance in an increasingly globalized world means that media involving the spectrum of romantic and sexual experience naturally become sounding boards for larger conversations surrounding intersectionality; the creation of this media and how we react to it are benchmarks for who we as a society think gets to be in love and how. 

This phenomenon is dissected in Dr. Marlon B. Ross’ 2013 article “What’s Love But A Second Hand Emotion?: Man-on-Man Passion in the Contemporary Black Gay Romance Novel”. The paper delves into critical examinations of blackness, sexual in/discretion, and the ways romance novels with black gay romance strive to draw similarities of experience in love to white heteronormative couples. 

Over the course of the paper, Dr. Ross comes to the conclusion that the flawed literature that represents his identities proves that “…black men’s ordinary desires, […] the love they image, imagine, and represent indicates that black-on-black male passion, in the everyday experience of ordinary men, is anything but secondhand.” 

The idea of “secondhand” is the crux of most modern critiques of romance novels, as indulging in it is sad or embarrassing or an indication of your own inability to find “real” romance. We look down on simulacrums of love because we think we are (or should be) above it. We think we’re better than admitting to our own loneliness, our own unmet needs, our own desire to sit in a world where love and sex comingle in narrative harmony for a while. 

More than just that, for some women and other people in maligned or traditionally underrepresented communities, romance novels may offer one of the only spaces they can safely experience the emotions, events, and excitement of romance without the real-life repercussions, pain, or dangers of seeking it. 

People of all distinctions will find their truly most basic needs for comfort— whether it is compassion, companionship, or a safe lust— sated in part through romance-centric media. We do ourselves a disservice to live with the false illusion that we deserve to deny ourselves it.

Will you pick up a romance novel on your next bookstore run or trip to the library? Let us know @HerCampusSJSU

Hi! My name is Eleana Paneda. I'm a global studies major with a minor in advertising and I like spending too much time researching all things media, entertainment, and culture. I'm guilty of flagrant indulgence in media as framing.