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5 Romance Icks (from a lover of erotic romance)

It’s easy to enjoy something like romance novels and tell yourself (and others) that the things people write about, the way they put their desires on the page even if they don’t mean to, isn’t that serious. Or that you don’t need to read too much into it because it’s just a book


There have been times in the past where I’ve been able to overlook an annoying trope or an indication of an author’s problematic politics if the love story is good enough. Not so much anymore. Maybe it’s because I’m coming up on my 28th birthday, taking myself more seriously as a writer, or firming up my own political beliefs – but I’m finding it harder and harder to bypass the bullshit. 


So here are 5 of my romance/erotica icks that I’ve picked up over 15-ish years as a lover of all things romantic fiction.


Bully “romance”

“Bully romance” refers to a genre trope wherein a bully character (more often than not, a cishet man*) and their victim (usually a cishet woman) overcome their complicated relationship to ultimately fall in love and get their Happily Ever After (HEA). It is a very popular subtrope of ‘enemies to lovers’ (substitute the bully/victim dynamic for equally-yoked “enemies” or rivals) – though I firmly maintain that they are two separate, distinct tropes and one of them needs to die!


Aside from romanticizing a problematic dynamic, I’ve yet to read a bully romance that doesn’t feel like the woman is settling or sacrificing a huge amount of her dignity and self respect to be with a man who, a few short chapters ago, would’ve spit on her and told her to be grateful for it. It never feels like she gets the retribution or apology she deserves before the relationship somehow shifts to loving and romantic, either. Admittedly, I haven’t read many bully romances since deciding that I hated them, and I'll avoid a book if it’s mentioned in the promo. But still, I find it hard to understand how this coupling could be seen as romantic or desirable. 


I’m sure some might say it’s not that deep, but I’m always going to think about the real-life impacts of the things we let slide under the guise of entertainment or preference. And I wouldn’t want anyone, especially someone with less political/social power in the world, to enter into a relationship with someone who bullies them in any form, or to think it’s normal or acceptable because it happens to be a beloved trope in Romancelandia. 


*I haven’t come across this dynamic in the queer romance novels I’ve read, but I’m sure examples exist.


Age gaps, but specifically ones that rely on adultification to not seem creepy or weird

The role of age and experience in our romantic relationships is a touchy subject that I don’t have the knowledge to speak on outside of predatory behaviors. And in the world of romance, we don’t want to read stories about predators and their victims. We want to read stories of relationships built on consent, equity, and trust. So for this one, I’m speaking specifically on books that want the reader to assume both characters are entering willingly into a relationship where no one was groomed or coerced. 


With that being said, please explain to me the obsession with writing about the relationship between fresh 18-21 year olds and people who already have substantial retirement savings. My tolerance for these stories is pretty low because of my own preferences around age gaps. But, still, I think I’m pretty reasonable about the inclusion of them in my romance books (even if I do word-search reviews to make sure it’s not egregious or essential to the plot). 


In addition to simply not reading about college-aged kids and fully grown adults falling in love, my hard line is this: 


If you have to, at multiple points throughout the story, do either of the following things, please pause and reexamine both your personal biases and your outline:

  1. Assuage the feelings of the older character, who is uncertain about pursuing a relationship with ‘someone so young;’ or

  2. Employ adultification logic to rationalize the age gap i.e., repeatedly reinforcing the maturity, real-world experience, and level of self-actualization of the younger person.


The Big Bad Black (or POC) Ex

I’m never sure if the inclusion of this dynamic is an intentional choice the author made, or if human beings are just that bad at keeping our unconscious biases from leaking into our art. Nonetheless – and I’ll be pretty brief on this one – please stop making the toxic ex in your interracial love stories with white people Black/a person of color. You do not need to juxtapose Chad’s positive traits with all the terrible shit that Dante – or sub any stereotypical POC name of your choosing – did in your prior relationship. K, thanks!


While we’re on the subject of plot-embedded racism, it’s 2024, babe. If I read another fantasy-romance plot pitting “dark” witches/magic against “light” witches/magic, I’m gonna start unplugging computers and erasing hard drives. I’m so serious.


Transphobic/gender-essentialist language to describe pleasure, desire, and bodies

Intuitively, I understand I’m not the only avid romance reader bothered by the overuse of “feminine” and “masculine” to describe a sex scene. But it’s so pervasive throughout the genre that until I saw other people tweeting about it, I thought I was alone in my feelings. 


There are as many different ways to talk about people having sex and falling in love as there are words in the English language. (Why even limit ourselves to English? I love a bilingual lover.) There’s literally no excuse to be gender-essentialist in your writing aside from a commitment to transphobia. I can go to thesaurus dot com right now and find a million different ways to describe any number of erotic/romance elements: wetness, girth, strength, moan volume, voice depth, the sheer amount of squirt that now lies in a puddle between our main characters. Whatever it is you’re trying to convey to your reader, I promise you there’s a way to say it without sounding like a Podcast Bro. 


In addition to being exclusive, it’s boring. Seriously, it’s no longer merely a matter of bigotry--it's starting to feel like a skill issue.


(Not-so) Subtle whorephobia

I find this one hard to explain because whorephobia is like baseball (in America) – a pastime as old as the Constitution and as embedded into our institutions as racism. I often feel nitpicky when I’m turned off by things that other readers find romantic or wouldn’t even blink at. For instance, one of my biggest pet peeves is when a woman gets into a relationship with a rich man, he gives her money, and she goes out of her way to let him and the reader know, “I’m not a prostitute.” Oh, girl, please, bitch hoe. 


The tendency of our society to punch down on sex workers, make them the butt of the joke, and use them to distinguish who deserves respect and who doesn’t is sooooo tired. The romance genre is constantly being shamed by misogynists who use whorephobia to belittle and slut-shame us for the content of our art. What sense does it make to turn around and have your character wield that same kind of faulty logic against another marginalized group of people? 


Let’s put our thinking caps on and start interrogating our political values. I don’t care what anyone says; what we desire and the way we write about and conceptualize love and relationships can’t be extracted from the world we live in.


3 Comments


Guest
Jun 05

Age gaps make me SICK!!!

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Reading this makes me want to pick up some romance novels!! But some of the story lines are too similar to my own life experiences and other people I know. Definitely makes me question some of these writers🤔 I couldn’t fathom picking up some of these books!

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"Oh, girl, please, bitch hoe."

What?!? LMFAO!!! 😭

I thoroughly enjoyed this post.


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