Monday, January 23, 2017

[Let's Talk]: Romance Survey Results (Part 5)

If you recall, in September I mentioned my senior project and the survey I posted for it. I've since turned in that project, and now that I have a bit more time, I'm going to be discussing the results here on the blog as promised. I'm not sure yet how many parts this discussion will be -- 4 or 5 6, at least? -- but I'll link to all the previous posts each time I post a new one.

These posts will be a combination of the data results from the survey itself, some of the quotes from the survey answers, and my own thoughts and observations. Parts of it will be taken directly from the giant ethnography I turned in, but I'll also be adding more to it in these posts, often in a much more casual way than what's in the paper. :)

I hope that these posts will start some great discussions within our community. But at the very least, I hope you find this series interesting rather than boring.

Catch up:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

Today I'll be discussing the stereotypes and comments that romance readers receive, how we react to them, and why these judgments are so prevalent.

Bodice rippers. Dirty books. Smut. Mommy porn. "Those books". Romance novels have received a lot of names over the years, almost all derogatory in nature and created by people who are not even part of the community. It is easily the most judged genre out there, and it's easy to see why: it's a predominantly woman-focused genre and it (typically) revolves around sex. The genre, the community, and the readers are all shamed and made fun of on a regular basis, purely for reading books that celebrate relationships, sex, and love. Any given week, someone on the Internet is writing a think-piece about romance novels and readers – and it’s always from someone outside the community, an inaccurate and condescending look at a community that is so much more than what people stereotype us as.

This post will be covering 3 questions related to stereotypes and outside judgement. There is some data, but for the most part I'll be focusing on the many amazing responses I received to these questions, followed by some of my own thoughts at the end.

Have you ever received negative comments from others because you read romance novels? If so, how did those comments affect your confidence about being a romance reader? 

Percentage of Participants
Number of Participants

The results for this question were not at all surprising: 161 (70%) said yes, they’ve received negative comments from someone because they read romance, with only 66 (29%) saying they have not received any such comments. It should be noted that many who said “no” went on to add that they don’t really talk about what genre they read; if no one knows that they read romance, it’s not very likely that they’d be on the receiving end of said negative comments.

For the second part of the question, I didn’t group the responses for the data analysis. However, many who have heard negative comments said that they don’t really care what others think of their reading choices. That being said, quite a few admitted that, especially when they were younger, they did feel slightly embarrassed when people would make a remark about their genre of choice. Most of the remarks mentioned in this survey were fairly innocent, though obviously annoying and even condescending to romance readers, such as dismissive remarks that romance novels are not “real” books, or a “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” that they read “those” types of books.

A lot of those comments were made by people that they did not know, so it didn’t bother them as much. A few mentioned they heard such comments from friends, family, or coworkers. One reader (Law) even shared this:

“I had a teacher threaten to throw me out of class if I brought a "trash" Sandra Brown book (flower on the cover) in again.”

Even if a reader has been lucky enough to avoid such comments, they’re still very much aware of what the general population thinks of romance novels and romance readers. Which leads to the next question.

What negative stereotypes have you heard about the romance community? How do YOU actually see the community (that is, how does the community challenge and prove these stereotypes to be incorrect)?

Percentage of Participants
Number of Participants
Listed stereotypes in their response
Haven’t heard any stereotypes/no answer

Considering the genre and who (generally) reads it, it’s not at all surprising that 88% of participants said that yes, they’ve heard negative stereotypes associated with romance readers. Many went on to not only list the stereotypes they’ve heard, but also to share how, in their experience, romance readers are the exact opposite of these stereotypes.

Common stereotypes that were mentioned: lonely women/bored housewives; unintelligent women/airheads; sex-starved women; virgins, spinsters, and prudes that can’t get a man in real life; women stuck in a fantasy world and unable to separate it from reality; and women who don’t understand what it means to be a feminist.

Common responses to argue against these stereotypes: readers who run the gambit between being in happy, healthy relationships to being single (and happy) by choice; smart, informed and educated women who have a wide variety of education levels and degrees as well as careers; readers who are comfortable with their sexuality and the exploration of it—be that purely within a romance novel or in their real life; readers who understand the difference between fantasy and reality and do not see romance novels as some handbook for life and relationships; and women who are often more aware of true feminism and consent that those outside the community.

The biggest take away from this question, and perhaps from this entire paper is this: the romance community is incredibly diverse in all aspects, from sexuality and gender identities to education and careers, from religious identity and culture to race and world views, and so much more. For almost any negative stereotype you hear about the community, you probably can find at least one reader who fits that mold. But you will also find dozens of others who are outside that mold. We each bring our own experiences and identities to the community, and the community is that much better because of it.

Two quick notes: 
1) Love Between the Covers, which was mentioned in a participant’s response above, is a newly released documentary on the romance community and industry, and includes interviews with countless romance authors and others in the community. It’s available for purchase on video streaming sites, such as Amazon, and is worth watching for anyone who wants to hear the genre and community discussed in a very smart way.

2) I used the term “readers” rather than “women” simply because the community is not just limited to those who identify as women. While it is true that a majority of the community is, in fact, women—as one participant noted, that is “a stereotype and a reality” (Scandal)—I do not wish to deny the presence of all readers for the sake of the majority.

There were a lot of fantastic and thoughtful answers to this question. Below are just a handful of the quotes that stood out for me:

“Despite any negativity that occurs within the community, it is still the most powerful and most supportive community of writers in existence.” (Julie L.)

“I see the diversity and complexity because I'm in the midst of it all every day. Those on the outside have seen one small portion and assigned that to the group as a whole.” (Selena L.)

“Supposedly we're all trailer park cat ladies who can't get a man.... but what I see is a community of diverse, strong women who come from a variety of backgrounds. As Beverly Jenkins points out in Love Between the Covers: ‘There are a lot of powerful women (writing romance)’ and an equal number reading it. So many people subscribe to the "bored housewife, mommy porn" stereotype of romance reader. And the truth is that we are all kinds of people, from every profession, every social strata, uniting in our love of books.” (Jessica C.)

“There the obvious that we are all lost in a fantasy world looking for our fantasy men. That romance is all about women subjugating themselves to the hero. That we are all bored housewives. But when I look at the community I see housewives and working moms and childless women, gay, straight, bisexual, asexual, lawyers, doctors, scientists (Carrie Ann Ryan obtained THREE Ph.Ds. before she started writing). I see smart women who know the difference between reality and fantasy, and have no problem spending time in both worlds. They're married, single, divorced. widowed, men, women. They have every gender identity you can think of, and nearly all of them love romance and want to share that with the world. It's a community that is primarily for women, about women, and written by women, and it's wonderful.” (FishWithSticks)

“I've heard romance readers are anti-feminist, don't understand consent, are 'stuck in the past', and 'only read trash.' I think well written romance can be INCREDIBLY feminist. Consent can be meaningfully explored. A love for the historical subgenre certainly has nothing to do with being 'stuck in the past.' And romance is NOT trash. Some of the most beautiful books I've read have been romance novels.” (Kay TR)

“I am over the FSOG generalizations, the mommy porn idea, the anti-feminist arguments!  I am more feminist and accepting of myself from reading romances.” (Kim M.)

“I see the romance community as very broad, very diverse, and worthy of embracing, warts and all. Every "stereotype" can be supported by evidence, and can be disproved by other evidence. Just like every other generalization about every other heterogeneous mass of humanity.” (Kate D.)

"There's the stereotype that we're all poorly educated, women sitting around reading, neglecting our housework and pining for some kind of uber-man. I think we disprove these by being who we are and the majority of romance readers are well-educated, professional women in healthy relationships." (Sara H.)

"The negative stereotypes are always some version of the idea that romances train women to be bad at personal relationships, whether by giving them standards that are too high or training them to be extremely submissive to men. All the people in the romance community who I have interacted with are remarkably strong women who are aware of their own desires and aren't afraid to chase them no matter what other people think." (Me-see-world)

"The perception I see outside of the community is one of white, upper class women sitting in circles drinking wine and talking about the hunky Scottish rogue they're reading about. The perception is hugely heteronormative. I have learned that while it does seem majority heterosexual cisgender women, there is so much more and finding your gender and sexual orientation is possible if you look hard enough." (Maekala W.)

"Most of the negative stereotypes I hear are that romance readers are just air headed, sex starved women and that's not true at all. A lot of romance blogs I follow are actual scholars and PHD students." (Shaina B.)

"Biggest one, that it puts "unrealistic" expectations about men in our heads. I am well educated, most of it on my own, so I would hope that when I speak I prove that just because I read romance I am not just a fluff head. My arguments are logical and well thought out. I see us as a group of people who have nothing to prove to anyone; we can make our own decisions and we know exactly what we want." (Thebabeontheback)

"Vapid, too prudish to get "real porn", general grossness against feminine interests. The romance community tends to have very smart people in it who do a lot of talking about sex positivity and female-friendly erotica and how emotions tie into sex drive." (Emmerson H.)

"The stereotype is often that the romance community is just straight women who want a vanilla beach read. In reality, there are as many types of romance novels as there are people in our community, which is a lot!" (Molly D.)

"We're not REAL readers; we live in a fantasy world; we have unrealistic expectations of love, romance and relationships. The community is intelligent, astute, and their words and actions regularly disprove the stereotypes. " (Bea's Book Nook)

"I keep hearing that we're just a bunch of desperate, lonely, old ladies. But I don't see that. Most of the romance readers I know are in committed relationships. They are all ages and don't seem that lonely or desperate. They're just a fun group of people who know what they like and want to celebrate it." (Kezia K.)

"I have had to deal with the belief that they are not appropriate books for intelligent people.  This is entirely untrue and I am consistently impressed by the level of intellectual and social engagement demonstrated by readers and authors." (JLM)

"Pretty much every article about romance readers includes all of those negative stereotypes -- you know, that we don't know fantasy from reality, that we have an unhealthy fascination with sexual content, that every story is the same one over and over and we don't intellectually challenge ourselves. And I *do* think there are some readers (and authors) for whom that might be true (and that's okay.) Not everyone is picking up a book hoping to be intellectually challenged; they want to lose themselves in a fantasy (although that still isn't the same thing as not being able to differentiate between fantasy and reality.) Some readers ARE reading to be turned on, and that's awesome, too. I think it's false to say that's ALL we get out of romance, though, and I personally know many writers and readers who thoughtfully approach every text with the intent of getting something new out of it, to learn more, to challenge themselves. So I know we're not intellectually lazy. I know it's not just the sex but the context in which sex fits into our emotional lives and relationships. It's also a process of negotiating the political realm of being a woman -- what is expected of us, how do we subvert or use those expectations? It's all part of the genre and the readership." (Meljean)

"I think people think it's all unrealistic wish fulfillment, and I think that's a.) only part and b.) nothing to be ashamed of as fantasy does have value." (Law)

"I've heard that romance novels have no substance.  I completely disagree. I've read some romance novels that have stuck with me for days.  Bad writing is bad writing; it can happen in any genre." (Alexis J.)

"People hear 'romance' and think sex and lots of it. It is so much more than it. It is HEA, no matter the kind." (Kame)

Why do you think so many are judgmental of the romance genre and those who are part of the romance community?

I did not fully realize it at the time, but this is a question that truly requires its own paper and discussion to fully understand and appreciate what I was asking. While almost all the participants did answer this question, I ultimately decided not to group their answers for the data analysis. It’s too complicated and simply grouping the responses into “X number of participants think Y” would not do this question justice at all.

Romance novels are primarily written by women, for women, and about women. Society is very much patriarchal, sexist, and misogynist; is it any wonder then why romance novels are looked down upon and labeled as “trash”? Society has a very love/hate relationship with sex and sexuality. On one hand, it’s shamed and labeled as taboo; on the other hand, it’s the greatest temptation and, as we all know, sex sells. These views are compounded even more by the fact that women’s sexuality is still seen as a threat. And what could be more threatening than women reading about sexuality, therefore taking control of their own sexual agency in the process?

Romance novels are seen as less than because their purpose and creation is tied to women. And even though this is the 21st century, women are still seen by far too many as the weaker sex, as “less than”. Romance novels show women that sex is not only okay, but healthy and pleasurable. And for many, that view just won’t do. There’s no great secret about why romance novels receive the negative treatment they do. The world feels threatened by women taking control of their own choices and sexuality and attacks accordingly. The only hope we have of stopping this, of someday changing the view, is to hold our ground, to take control of our own lives—and especially our own pleasure—and continue to stand up for the change we wish to see. Romance novels, and the powerful community surrounding them, can help to do that.

My experience:

I’ve heard the condescending comments and the cringe-worthy stereotypes. I’ve seen the looks and heard more than a few “Ooooh” when I tell others what I read. That’s the reason why, for years, I didn’t mention that I read romance novels. I’d lie to avoid those comments and glances, even as it broke my heart to hide my love of something that’s not shameful—after all, wasn’t that what I was told in the books and taught by the community, to be proud of romance novels and sex? But I’ve found that with age comes confidence; the confidence to stand up straight, look the person in the eyes and say “I read romance novels and run a blog reviewing them. Is there a problem with that?”. It’s a process, and some days I still avoid mentioning it to some people simply because it’s too exhausting to deal with the negativity.

As to the stereotypes, I’ve heard them all, but I know that they’re wrong—or at least, mostly wrong, since all stereotypes can usually be found true for at least a small handful of people. I know that romance readers are all different and that most of us don’t fit into those stereotypes. I see it when I look around at my community. Perhaps it’s not visible to those on the outside, but to those of us within, it’s crystal clear: calling all romance readers the same is just as bad as calling all romance novels interchangeable and disposable. We are each unique, brought together by our love for a genre.

I could also go off into an entire discussion on how some who are "in" the community are not supportive of romance. At all. The number of authors whose books are technically romances, sold as romances, and loved by romance readers, who then turn around and look down on romance novels, is quite high. But that's truly a topic for another day; otherwise this post will never end! :)

Have you experienced judgement and negativity for reading romance novels? How do you see the community AND genre compared to how outsiders judge it?


Until Next Time,
  *TBQ's Book Palace is a member of both the Amazon and Barnes and Nobles affiliates program. By using the links provided to buy products from either website, I receive a very small percentage of the order. To read my full disclosure on the matter, please see this post!

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