Some thoughts on the process that romance readers go through in dismantling their own internalised misogyny.

It’s that time again when the arguments over what romance book covers should look like are going around again.

(Did it ever really stop?)

We argue over face or no face, photo or illustrated (I don’t think any covers are painted like back in the day), this or that.

Every reader has an opinion.

And every reader thinks their opinion is the right one, because that’s the thing that suits that individual.

But as we know, humans are notoriously unreliable.

We say one thing, and do the opposite.

And the same is true with book metadata (covers, blurbs, etc.), even though readers call for different kinds of covers, the publishing industry (and self-published authors in their wake) are gonna stick to what sells and what’s cost efficient, not necessarily what’s the most creative.

But this whole discourse got me thinking about the journey we go on as romance readers.

Not all of us, obviously.

But enough of us progress through this noob-to-smut reader pipeline that I can see a trend.

A lot of us start out reading romance young.

And I mean really young

I think I must have been around 12–13 when I ventured into romance books for the first time.

Or, more specifically, a historical epic that had romance in it: The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel. 

Though the focus of the books was the history, it was the first time I ever read sex on the page in a novel.

And I was fascinated. 

And hooked. 😂

Though I will say, to this day, I’m not a very prolific romance reader. 

I get bored with books that are straight up erotica, because I’m a slow burn girly all the way (but I will settle for flimsy plot when it’s entertaining enough in between).

Anyway, I digress.

My point was that when a lot of us start reading romance at a young age, that kind of progression from sweeter romances to the dark side is logical as we age and delve deeper into the genre.

Of course, some people never go beyond the sweet or fade-to-black romances.

But some of us, go down that pipeline and straight into the dark romances.

As we read more books and immerse ourselves in the community of other romance readers, we start feeling more comfortable.

And that lends us courage to try new things.

Whenever I see those all-or-nothing type of statements about how something should be, I’ve noticed that it often comes from the younger, less initiated readers in the community.

There’s still a stigma around reading romance.

Reading and, God forbid, enjoying romance books still comes with a lot of shame.

And is it any wonder?

Reading romance novels is often seen as a women’s pursuit — both the reading and writing of it — and in a patriarchal society, traditionally women-led activities are devalued and dismissed.

Literature has long been shaped by male-dominated perspectives.

Works created and celebrated by male authors have traditionally held a higher status in literary and cultural circles, while female-authored novels have often been relegated to a lower status — romance or not.

As the patriarchy seeks to maintain control over what’s considered “appropriate” or “acceptable” reading material, belittling or dismissing romance novels is a way to reinforce the idea that women’s interests and experiences are less valuable or important than men’s.

It’s hard to get away from internalising that misogyny. 

Women readers dismissing romance novels as “not real books” or harping on romance authors for using “too many big words” in their books is internalised misogyny.

Feeling ashamed for being interested in reading romance, sex and literature that focuses or includes the two, is internalised misogyny.

Fear of being judged based on the books you read, simply because they’re in the romance genre, is internalised misogyny.

Feeling a pressure to conform to societal expectations, such as devaluing traditionally feminine interests, is internalised misogyny.

It takes a lot of inner work to get away from that BS.

When you come into romance books as a pre-teen or a teen, you care so much more about what others think of you.

And you wouldn’t want to be caught dead reading romance, because you don’t want to be made fun of, you don’t want to have to face the shame you have (stemming from internalised misogyny) and, no matter where in the world you are, you’ve got some level of shaming around sex and intimacy.

If not at home, then in the society around you: in the media, on social platforms, in conversations, in different social groups.

Hell, even some romance books that have explicit sex in them have a tone that is sex shaming (as antithetical as it sounds).

But shame around sex and intimacy is just that widespread and insidious. 

It’s everywhere. It’s in all of us. And it’s hard to catch.

So, getting comfortable with the more raunchy covers takes time.

And that’s understandable.

There’s joy to be had in that journey, however far down the line you travel.

It’s a sign of maturing and coming into your own when you can just shrug and say, “Yeah, I read romance. What of it?”

Early on in the journey, it can look like this: “Oh, yeah I read romance, but like not the crappy stuff. This has mystery. This has fantasy. The romance isn’t the main thing.”

“It’s not like those other fluffy, silly romance novels that sad women read. Um, this is different. I’m different, don’t worry. I’m not the thing you make fun of.”

This can also be reflected in the authors or sub genres that you choose to read.

It might also look like reading only traditionally published books and steering well clear of indie books.

A romance book from a Big Five is still higher in the hierarchy than a self-pubbed book (even if the self-pubbed book is better).

What covers are you comfortable with letting other people see you read?

Are you okay letting people see you reading a book with a cover that makes it clear what’s on the inside?

Or do you want discrete covers only?

And this isn’t me trying to change your mind or trying to get you to say that romance covers should be more racy.

Romance is a big world, and there’s space for everyone.

A lot of the time, since we live in a patriarchy, we have to be discrete simply to stay safe out there.

I’m just curious, because as a smutty author and illustrator, I’ll happily read very smutty books and comics (and draw smutty things), but I do need to keep a lid on it with kids in the house and more conservative relatives that would have a heart attack.

I’ve done a lot of the inner work to recognise what is internalised misogyny and I’m genuinely sex-positive. 

I’ll gladly discuss topics a lot of other adults and parents are hesitant to broach around kids, but with kids the key is to be at their level and not rush into complex, adult topics way ahead of time.

And because I’m a mother who lives half her life through her phone out of sheer convenience, I also read a lot on my phone (and listen to audiobooks) taking the cover question out of the picture entirely.

But so, as to my original point about these sweeping statements.

I look at them and think that it must be someone younger saying that.

Maybe someone new to the genre, someone who’s still finding their footing in reading, reading romance and in life.

And I feel like coming across and confronting this internalised shame is a part of the journey for a romance reader.

Maybe for readers of other genres, too, because there’s sex in other books too, but it’s kind of part and parcel of the romance genre itself.

So, it’s all a journey.

And hopefully, none of us get stuck in those early, shame-filled steps, but rather interrogate our own biases and take the next step soon.

And the next one.

And the next.

Until we get to a place where our preferences may remain the same, but we as readers are less burdened by the outdated stigma of reading fiction written by women for women.

Because then we won’t have those internalised ideas of what’s acceptable and what’s not — and creating empathy is precisely the point of reading fiction.

“Fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over.”

 — Neil Gaiman

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