Sex as Liberation

One of my best friends gets completely sidetracked by the sex scenes in my romance novels. Not in a good way. I get that sexy romance novels are not everyone’s cup of tea. I’m positive that if she wasn’t trying to be a friend, she’d never read sexy romance. So there’s that.

But what triggered my recent, well, shock, was an email where she said I’d do just about anything to upset my parents.

It’s hard to hear something like that from a best friend. I’m stunned at her total lack of understanding about why I write sexy stories. Or, more importantly, why I’ve lived my life the way I have. We’ve shared experiences from our earlier lives and I’ve been honest about my adventures. She’s been aghast but not condemning.

I thought.

I want to sit her down and emphasize that my choices about sexual behavior have nothing to do with rebelling against my parents. But then, I really don’t think she can ever understand. Although she hasn’t specifically stated this in so many words, I’m pretty sure she’s only ever had sex with her husband.

That’s her choice and I haven’t made any judgment about her for limiting her life experience to one man. Or judged any other woman for any decision she’s made about how to live her life.

Unlike my friend – well, let’s say I lost count somewhere around seventy. This was over a four year period in the early 70s and maybe a few after-divorce flings in my mid-40s. (Okay, I’m old.) This information blows my friend’s mind and apparently causes her to decide (a) that I’m a hopelessly immature minx forever rebelling against my parents (my dad has been dead since 2004, but I guess that didn’t factor into her analysis) and (b) that I’m a unrepentant slut. A dear friend slut, but nevertheless…

I have to guess that this is probably the way she’d see herself if she enjoyed sex with multiple partners.

For me, sex with multiple partners has been the most educational and liberating thing I’ve ever done. I actually consider it an essential part of my growing up to become who I wanted to be. Writing explicit sex in my novels continues that essential effort, my personal mission to free other women from millennia of patriarchy, just as it freed me.

I took part in the free love movement, the cresting wave of the sexual revolution that occurred in the 60s and 70s and continues in some measure even today. In 1961, birth control pills entered the marketplace and assured women they could have fun just like men—without fear of pregnancy.

Also, hooking up for a roll in the sheets was an important healing counterbalance to riots in the streets, assassinations, and the Vietnam War. But it was more than that.

Sex served an important role in liberating women from the traditional degrading view that we were only valuable as baby machines and housekeepers, subordinate to men in all ways. Women weren’t ‘capable’ of making important decisions like handling money or owning real estate. Thus men were required to maintain firm control on the ‘weaker sex.’

More to the point, while men could go out and get ‘experience’ with multiple sex partners, women who did so were unredeemable sluts. Women required strict supervision both by men and by society’s rules. Those who stepped over the line merited our worst condemnation. This is the narrative that seems to run in my friend’s head.

Sex was a dirty act to be hidden behind closed doors. Or it was a holy rite reserved to those sanctioned by church marriage and under the control of the male partner, preferably indulged only for the production of children. If you ventured away from the sex-only-for-babies concept, you at least limited sex to a chosen partner whom you ‘loved’ and with whom certain promises had been exchanged. Largely, those promises had to do with fidelity to the chosen partner.

The sexual revolution blew the doors off this Victorian mindset. Sex isn’t dirty. Sex shouldn’t be hidden behind doors. Sex is an option for any and all kinds of relationships. Sex is a joyful experience, a supreme human pleasure, and could serve as a path to spiritual awakening and connection. Sex is beautifully transformative, opening its participants to the connection we share with all humanity. Sexual intercourse allows its participants to soar beyond words and rules.

To interact with someone through sex means stripping away surface judgments about appearance, clothing, or hair style. It’s a way to say ‘Hi, nice to meet you’ without the games. Whether a one night stand or the beginning of a passionate affair, such interactions can be and often are the foundation of lifelong friendships. With the trappings of civilization stripped away, nothing stands between us but our inhibitions.

Looking into someone’s eyes while lying next to each other naked is a damn good way to get acquainted.

For me personally, and what I’ve tried to explain to my friend, is that sexual freedom gave me my life back. Stolen from me since the day I was born female, my life had been narrowed, judged, and denigrated by the mere fact of my gender. I could never be ‘equal’ to a man, never aspire to lofty goals. Rather, I should content myself with a wife’s role and be forever penitent that I embodied the Eve who introduced sin into the world. After all, God was a He.

Well, fuck that. I rebelled against that entire sexist narrative from my earliest memory. I questioned church teachings about women by the time I was eight years old. As soon as I left home at eighteen, I never again set foot in a church. But that didn’t mean the weight of all that crushing propaganda suddenly lifted.

As with many women who have sought to move beyond the confines of tradition, I struggled with confidence. Sex fixed all that. As I pursued my desires, I became skilled at picking up men I wanted instead of shrinking into a corner waiting for a guy to make a move. I gained assurance about how I looked and about the fact that it didn’t fucking matter how I looked. I realized I could meet another person on a level playing field. I slowly acknowledged my value as a human being.

My experience in one-night stands and short-term affairs freed me from the constraints put on me by patriarchy and its religious teachings meant to keep women barefoot, pregnant, and silent.

None of that prevented me from falling in love, getting married, having children, and leading a fulfilling life as wife and mother. But by then I had no qualms about starting my own business in a career dominated by men. I didn’t hesitate to participate in or take a leadership role in advocacy projects that sought to bring about social change in a variety of pressing issues.

I accept no boundaries in writing explicit sex scenes, some of which go way past what I ever personally experienced and which explore some of the darker chapters of domination, submission, and sado-masochism. I write females with the chutzpah to do whatever they want including pursuing a career as a dominatrix or happily fulfilling her desires as a masochist submissive. I write group sex when it fits the story. I write ‘normal’ romance when that’s what the characters demand. Whatever sexual preferences and activities thread through my writing, I see them as the vital organs, the blood veins, of humanity, just as important as how we treat our children and neighbors.

In my view, I owe this freedom of thought to my willingness to break through barriers of sex norms. Norms are what we make them. I’m so proud of how much the ‘norms’ have changed during my lifetime so that now we can openly accept same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and transgender identities — whatever makes us happy.

Maybe someday I’ll tell my friend.

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The Childhood (and Parents) Lurking in our Writing

Recently I wrote a guest post on another romance author’s blog (shoutout to Delilah Devlin!) about how my male and female characters elicit very different responses from me as an author. For male characters, I am able to quickly get in their head and emotions. For females, it’s damn near impossible.

I’ve noticed this for years now, how my heroines are standoffish and overly analytical, while my heroes are full of angst and sympathetic conflict. This is not a good thing. Most readers of romance are women, and readers must be able to identify with the heroine in order to enjoy the story.

As in, feel her pain and understand her emotion.  Which doesn’t happen very easily if the heroine is standoffish and analytical.

Here’s part of what I wrote:

I’ve always had a soft spot for guys. In high school, I enjoyed hanging with a group of guys, not that I didn’t also have female friends. I did. But with the guys, I felt more relaxed.

There was also something about the conversation with males that I preferred more than conversation with females. It’s hard to exactly pin down what specifically annoyed me about chatting with females—maybe that there seemed so little substance to it. With guys, conversation tended to be more to the point. And the point seemed more substantive. And there was less conversation overall, which suited me fine.

Throughout my life, I’ve found less to like about women than about men. Women can be unbelievably cruel, vindictive, and easily provoked to violence. Verbal violence, that is, things like character assassination, gossip, and vicious bad-mouthing.  I seldom see the same kind of hatred spewed by men that I’ve seen from women.

No question that both sexes dish out their share of ugly remarks, but in my experience, men tend to walk away from that kind of confrontation whereas women can’t get your face long enough to suit them.

Maybe there’s some truth to the theory that while early man was out silently stalking game, women were talking up a storm around the campfire. By necessity, women had to develop words for every aspect of their close-knit lives that centered around children, food, and textiles. That setting bred endless options for intrigue, jealousy, nitpicking, and other negative traits for which women are infamous.

Men didn’t need words to signal other hunters about the elk he spotted or to carry dead animals back to the cave. If he used words, it would spook the game he planned to eat for dinner. Once he dragged the carcass home and turned it over to the women, and as long as everybody played fair, male tribal members just wanted everybody to get along. …

Things seem so much simpler with men than with women, at least, that’s how I see it. Maybe that too is part of my sympathetic affection for men. I tend to write my male characters that way, big, charming galoots with not much to say but determined to follow his heart. Not complicated, not conniving, not spun out over the least assumed slight, not changing his mind or mood every fifteen minutes…

Sooo… After I wrote the guest blog post, I started thinking about why my writing turns out this way. Why do I have this kind of attitude about women? Because without a doubt, there’s something off balance about my attitude. (Or maybe not…what do you think?)

Then I thought of my parents. Ah ha! My dad was my emotional support, the understanding one, the person who was there for me no matter what. It was my mom who always had something critical to say. Without thinking about how her words would affect an insecure, near-sighted daughter, she said things like how my knees were ugly or I was clumsy (her term was ‘slew-foot’), or how she and her mother laughed when, at fifteen and miserably sporting an optimistic A cup, I insisted I needed a bra.

So there—with volumes more that could be said about my lifelong difficult relationship with a woman who never ceased to amaze with her well-intentioned yet hopelessly hurtful interactions with others—is the key to my struggles as an author and with female characters in particular.

This revelation portends a hopefully fruitful introspection for me both as an author and a woman. I need to dig deep to see how I have internalized my mother’s attitude and determine what if anything I can do about it. Meanwhile, I’m going to try really hard to write more warmth into my female characters instead of recreating the strained and painful impact of my relationship with my mom.

This means I have to try to understand more about my mom.

How Primal Is Your Life?

What’s behind the popularity of romance fiction that features alpha males succumbing to women’s charms? Does it reflect the reality, that whether they admit it or not, men want women?

That’s what women want to believe. To some extent, it’s true. Men want women. They want the satisfaction of feeling manly, desirable, in charge. They want the pleasure of sex. Their libido is pushed along by the fundamental biological imperative to reproduce. Being the object of a woman’s attention gives men those satisfactions.

But men also need to satisfy other drives, and these other instinctual objectives can at times equal or surpass their interest in a woman.

It all has to do with evolution. For ancient man, survival meant traveling in small groups of tribal companions to stalk game, sit quietly for hours, then attack and kill the unruly beast and haul it back to the cave to share. Success as a hunter meant physical prowess, the ability to run, leap, throw a spear, and carry heavy weight.

Survival meant staying alert to possible intruders who might steal the food and kill you in the process. Or worse, steal your woman. Sometimes, men’s survival strategy meant attacking other tribes they considered a threat or who had resources they needed for themselves. Men had to be strong, wary, and focused.

Men don’t have much use for words. Successful hunting or preparing to attack another group of men meant not talking. When men sit on the deck with a beer or hang with the guys, they’re reliving the hunt mentality.

Men have built in alarm systems for other men checking out their women. Successful evolution meant keeping your woman because she took care of your children. When your man gives the stink-eye to your best buddy from high school, he’s reliving the need to protect the future of his gene pool.

Men think of faraway places they might explore, places where they might find more abundant game. It’s their duty to seek greener pastures where fewer people might mean less competition for scarce resources.

Who is responsible for teaching young people about the primitive past of our kind? About the reasons men are so different from women? What high school class delves into the basic natures of men and women?

Who teaches young men about women’s instinctive need to create a nest, a safe comfortable home where she might raise children? About the urge to talk and share information with other women, to express feelings as processes so essential to primal females as they kept the home fires burning in close company with other women and children.

Modern culture has moved so far from our early ancestry that many of us simply don’t know why we feel what we feel. But it’s important to know because these urges can end up putting us in places we really don’t want to go. Gangs, for example. Teenage pregnancies.

For males, athletics serve as an important replacement for the urge to hunt and wage warfare. For females, gathering with women friends to talk about men, about clothes, grooming, and a thousand other topics is simply a re-creation of the primitive conditions of survival. Knowledge of our evolutionary past gives us power over urges that need to be controlled but it also gives us important tools to enhance our daily lives.

Males need to find constructive outlets for all that machismo that no longer is directed toward stalking wild animals. Females need to understand that one of the reasons you tend to gravitate toward romantic fiction that feature alpha males is that deep inside, you haven’t changed much from the woman in the cave waiting for that big hairy muscle man to drag home an antelope.

Great books to help explore underlying primal motivations include “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff, and most anything by  Steven J. Gould.