Romances: Inclusive and Sexy AF

Last week I went into some of the problematic romances of a bygone era, with Romances: 90s era Bodice Rippers. I loved the discussion that came up around this! I think it's clear that a lot of romance in the past does not exactly reflect the feminist awakening of the #metoo movement.

So, how to write a romance that corresponds with modern feminist values? It can be done, and done really well. I've recently read some very good contemporary romances that both surprised and delighted with their diversity, their inclusivity and their very appropriate (and sexy) treatment of consent.

I also wanted to say that I realize I have been dealing with books that contain primarily heterosexual couples, and refer to heterosexual sex throughout. However, I think the discussion of consent and inclusivity absolutely transfers over to all types of romantic sex. I don't think it matters who you are or who you want to be with: there is nothing sexier than a partner (or partners) who is willing, eager, and expressing this with their words and actions.

Let me start with an observation. What is with the cartoony covers of romances/romantic comedies these days? You know exactly what I'm talking about. When you are in the library/book store, you know immediately that the book you're holding will be a romance, probably a rom-com, by the balloon lettering, the bright pastel colours and the cartoon characters without outlines. And I'm wondering why this is the face of romance nowadays. Shirtless men and heaving bosoms are nary to be seen.* Instead it seems rather facile and childish ... is it to make sex seem safer? Is it less embarrassing to read something that looks like it is written for a child? My gut instinct is to be offended, but I could be talked out of this. Let me know if you have opinions about this, would love to chat.

(* I realize as I am writing this that the shirtless thing is not entirely true. I don't delve deep into the romance aisle typically, but I am very aware that shirtless men still abound. And I've got no issues with that (at all, I like shirtless men!). But you basically know that if a man has his shirt off on the cover, you are dealing with the steamiest of erotica out there. Beginners need not apply. This cartoon covers are more specific to mainstream romances.)

On to the goods, though. First up is The Flatshare, by Beth O'Leary, which is very sweet and more in line with a romantic comedy, although it definitely deals with some serious matters as well. The concept is adorable: Tiffy, in a tight spot personally and financially, takes up Leon's offer to share his flat with him, and his bed, on the condition they never meet. Leon works night shifts, so only asks that Tiffy is not there from 9am to 6pm. They slowly begin to get to know each other through notes and leftovers. I adore this concept.

For inclusivity and diversity issues, there is some in The Flatmates. Leon's ethnicity is vague, but not white. He is described to have brown skin, which comes up sometimes when he's thinking that he's always chosen for "random" searches because he is browner than most, although his background isn't ever specifically divulged. And Tiffy, while actually described as having English Rose skin, is very tall, like over six feet. And that might not sound like much, but in a genre where the women were for generations always tiny and petite, this actually is awesome. Go tall chicks, rock those stilettos and don't ever let anyone bow you down!

Where The Flatshare really stood out for me is how the issue of emotional abuse is handled. Tiffy is coming to terms with the relationship she is leaving, as she realizes it was abusive and she had spent years being gaslit and beaten down emotionally by her partner. Leon is sweet about this and goes out of his way to make sure Tiffy is comfortable with every step of her new relationship. Talk about making consent sexy as sin ... this is the book to showcase how two partners who are in sync with each other's desire is both super healthy and amazingly hot. Never let it be said that "having to ask for permission" can't be mindblowingly sexy.

I also read The Kiss Quotient, by Helen Hoang, and went into it blind (as in, I didn't know what it was about). It was surprising (though it shouldn't be) that the main character was a brilliant autistic woman, Stella. In her determined way, she sets out to have a relationship with a man so she can give her parents grandchildren as requested. But she is terrible in relationships (and dislikes sex) so she seeks professional help, hiring an escort to help her get over her issues with sex and learn how to find comfort with a partner. Enter Michael, a sexy designer who needs to make money fast to help care for his financially strained family, and works as an escort.

This is a sexy sexy book. And in terms of inclusivity/diversity, Michael is specifically described as being half-Vietnamese, half-Scandinavian, and looks just like Korean heartthrob Daniel Henney (whoa!). And I spent the entire book assuming Stella was Chinese, although at the end of the book I realized that her ethnicity was never specified. For the record, I would be heartbroken if Stella wasn't depicted by an Asian actress were this to become a movie! Even more importantly is having a main character with autism, as it shows different life experiences than what we are often told is "the norm."

And a big thing I would like to highlight in both these books is that the men are in submissive jobs or roles, and it is never really a focus. Leon is a palliative care nurse. He is kind, quiet and works hard to care for others. Major props here too for pulling off the sexiest introvert in recent literature - introverts unite!

Michael is a prostitute, a very obvious role reversal of what we are used to in romance novels (and in life), and Stella makes a crap load of money from her very important job. Even when Michael is pursuing his passion, he works as a tailor and dreams of being a designer, which is also not entirely viewed as a power man role. I love how all the men in this book know their way around a sewing machine - it is sexy!!

I enjoyed all the aspects that make these more modern romances modern ... and feminist! This isn't to say that all romance pre-a decade ago is trash - far from it! But I think (I hope) there is a general consensus out there that says: sexual assault is not sexy and romantic. Forcing or coercing a partner into sex with you is not passionate ... it's rape. And I love love seeing confident men in non-traditional gender roles. I have only just realized that this is my jam. What do you love about romance novels - old or new?

#books #bookblog #bookreview #diverseromance #diverseromance2020 #theflatshare #thekissquotient