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Let’s talk about (safe) sex, baby.

This isn’t REALLY for #weloveromance but as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have one without the other!

Do romance writers have a responsibility to present safe sex?

 

This was the question I wondered as I read a really great romance recently. It had all the things I love, a snarky love interest, a crazy family, excellent characterisation and backstory. The sex scene had been delayed long enough, and was really hot and then… when asked by the male she was just about to sleep with for the first time if he should get a condom, the female replied ‘Don’t worry, I’m on the pill.’

 

Now, here’s the balance: do we present safe sex, knowing that young women learn about the ‘normality’ of relationships through books like these, OR do we stay true to what sex is actually like, and that sometimes that stuff happens?

 

Here’s what bothered me- I wouldn’t judge a woman I know, or just met, if she told me that story. I might have rolled my eyes and said that the pill doesn’t protect against STDs and it’s not really the same thing, especially when you’re sleeping with someone for the first time, but I wouldn’t have judged. But I judged the writer for presenting me with such a character. A cautious and thoughtful character, who never takes risks and is always in control…and yet, this. Especially after they’d just had a whole discussion about the fact that the male character has had multiple fuck buddies at the same time.

 

Fair enough, a lot of people don’t like writing condoms into sex scenes- they think it loses momentum, breaks down the romantic bit, or the ‘ravaging in process’ bit. Personally, I don’t think that’s true, and I make a point to include it, especially in the first few sex scenes. It doesn’t need to metaphorically flick you in the face every time you start a steamy scene, but it’s a part of sexual experience. We don’t tend to write about all the gross stuff that happens in sex either, because we’re writing the ideal most of the time. But the ideal includes being safe, doesn’t it?

 

If we were writing to be true to life, we’d include all the nitty gritty gross stuff, so I can understand ignoring it altogether, I have no problem with that. But bringing it up, only to dismiss it for something that doesn’t actually address the situation? That’s the kind of excuse brought up in erotic fiction on the internet, where rape fantasies and incest stories hide away. They bring it up to get it out of the way, so that women are expected to give that answer, and ta-da! There sits your male condom-free fantasy. Except….the majority of readers of ‘chick lit’ are female…so what is achieved here?

 

I haven’t got an answer for you, but I’m interested in what you think! Do writers have an obligation to present safe sex, or do we ignore it and accept that it’s just fantasy? Comment, I’m intrigued!

 

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When Did Chick-Lit become Thick-Lit?

For the moment, I’ll ignore the fact that ’Chick-Lit’ is an unfair, possibly derogatory term for literature aimed at women, as it clearly doesn’t reflect the true desires of women or portray heroines as real people. And considering WhSmiths have now taken down their ‘Women’s Fiction’ signs, we should now assume that men also like reading books about shoes, shopping and being ravished by a man with or without a handlebar moustache.

Yes, the terminology is incorrect, but the fact that men and women may want to read different (but sometimes equally awful) fiction is fair enough. I don’t tend to call Chris Ryan books ‘shooty shooty bang bang’ books, but that’s only because they couldn’t fit that on a sign in WhSmiths.

The point is that there is equal pandering to the macho males and girly females in the literary world. Publishers like niches, almost as much as they like books that are exactly the same as other books that have made lots of money, but with a few key details, like names, exotic locations and hobbies, changed. Because humans like patterns. And when you identify a pattern, you can automatically tell whether you’re going to like it or not.

Self-loathing writer finds love with snarky publisher on the Italian Riviera? Sure, okay, sign me up! Glamour model goes from rags to riches in Croydon, then marries a footballer? You know what, give me mediocre fiction any day. That right there is an excerpt from a Big Brother casting session.

The problem is that these poor Chick-Lit writers get a really bad rap. It’s not their fault that they happen to be good at creating stuff that is basically the literary equivalent of Marmite- if you do love it, you don’t get how everyone else can’t. You actually can’t comprehend their point of view, because it doesn’t make sense.

It’s easy to be snobbish about Chick-lit. There’s so much of it, and most of it is truly appalling. I say this not only as a (fairly snobby) writer, or as an English literature graduate, but as a female. If you’ve spent three pages describing the Versace dress that the heroine is wearing to some ridiculously posh gala in central London, well I’m sorry, you’ve already lost me. Maybe some people can relate to that world, but I would like my heroines mouthy and funny, and preferably carrying some extra weight and an anxiety or two.

This is why Bridget Jones was a success, surely, and was not relegated to the lowly shelves of Chick-Lit by the powers that be, but held up into the light as something funny and realistic, showing genuine wit and creativity. Which is why I’m so confused that Germaine Greer went all feminist on it’s (sizeable) ass and said that if Bridget Jones was the average woman, then humanity was screwed. Well, that’s pretty much what she said.

'I'm not happy about this'

Bridget Jones is the average woman, worrying about her weight, and whether she’s smoking too much, if she’s made a tit of herself yet again, and whether she’ll ever get anywhere with her job. She is a real person. A great character. Just because these are the things that some people worry about, doesn’t mean she’s a bad woman. Worrying about whether your knickers are a bit ugly when you’re about to do the deed, that’s a natural female response, isn’t it? I’m certainly not going to feel like a shitty feminist if I worry about that, sorry Professor Greer. I know, I’m a product of my society, and I shouldn’t shave my legs. Whatever.

To return to my rant on Chick-Lit. I do read it, although it’s more that I enjoy YA novels that have a romance element whilst you actually come to terms with some issues, and not every young woman in the city works in publishing or PR. Teenagers and their love affairs are a lot easier to relate to. Maybe that’s just because I’m young, or maybe it’s because the idea of getting on a tube to go work in an office every morning would make me want to shoot myself. I don’t care if your main character gets a cushy london flat, that you’re going to take four pages to describe, out of it. Plus, the teenage characters are more likeable, more unpredictable, less likely to be in a rut. Sexual experience is still a big deal.

This is where one of the two authors I trust in this area come into it. Sarra Manning is the author of a bunch of really excellent YA novels that I used to read parts of in J-17. (Younger readers, that used to be a magazine. For girls. Before you all started reading Cosmo at 14 years old). These were the Diary of a Crush books, where wicked-cool girl Edie fell for art boy Dylan and spent a lot of time wanting to snog him. They were funny, realistic, and made you feel less alone. Because, sure you want to get together with that longtime crush…but you also have to worry about fourth period French and what drama your best friend is going through.

These books were my first foray into teen fiction, and they glided me through it like a comforting, witty blanket. So when Manning (who very kindly gave me writing advice when I was 16, via Myspace- young readers, another lesson for another day, myspace happened before Facebook) released an adult fiction book, I ordered it straight away.

I was not disappointed. If more Chick-Lit (and I almost hesitate to use that term) was like this, I think the world would be a better place. The blandly titled ‘You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me’ follows twenty-something Neve as she tries her hand at dating. After being clinically obese throughout her uni years, Neve’s never really had a sexual experience. So, some light flirtation is all she’s ready for. Plus, she’s waiting for the guy she was in love with since uni to come back to England, and she’ll be a size ten and everything will be perfect. So, all she really needs is some practice. Like, a pancake relationship. After meeting a whole bunch of freaks on the internet, her sister’s boss Max, a boy-whore with a heart of gold, seems like a better option than she first thought.

What makes this book is the dialogue, how the characters interact with each other, how real the relationships between siblings, parents and old friends are. Neve is a strong female character, but she doesn’t realise it, because she’s too busy think about how shit she is. So when she finally does understand that she’s a bit of a hottie, it’s a revelation. One we could probably all learn from. No-one wants to shag a whiner. A moaner, maybe, but not a whiner.

It’s funny, witty, pro-woman and you kind of want to jump into that world and snuggle there. Plus, there was a dog. And that’s always good.

My other go-to Chick-Lit read (who, before Manning jumped into adult fiction, was the only person I trusted to do this well) is Jenny Crusie. This obsession started when I needed a holiday read, and knew that the six books in my case wouldn’t last two weeks, and the one in my bag for the flight would be done within the hour. So, around the terminal I run. And I find Jenny. I bought both ‘Bet Me’ and ‘Faking It’ and got through them both in record time. Faking it is still one of my favourite books, focused around an excellent family called the Goodnights, and the trouble that happens when people start sniffing around their failing art gallery, questioning whether there are forgeries. Chaos, hilarity and snippy heroines ensue. Bet Me is about two people who are thrown together, absolutely do not get on, despite the obvious attraction, and seem to need to be together, or the universe will maim them. Crusie’s power is her dialogue, it’s always snippy, sarcastic and clever. You want to be these women, just to be able to think of that right line at the right moment. And sometimes they can’t think of the right thing to say, and you want to cry with joy ‘Oh, you are just like me!’ Her characters are always well-rounded, emotionally and literally- her ‘evil females’ appear to be perfectly slim, with perfect hair and an understanding that they’re perfect. Exactly my type of enemy. Woo.

And the heroes always shun this type of shallow harpy (usually after having been there once and realising it’s not an easy life) in order to spend time with the quick-witted cute heroine. So, yay! Order is restored in the land!

Other points- It’s very rare that it’s just a chick story. There’s usually some sort of mystery case to be solved. I won’t say thriller because there’s not a lot of terror and suspense (although if there is it usually ends in the bedroom) but there’s more to it than ‘boy meets girl. Stuff happens’. Also, she can write a damn good sex scene. Representing female experience in these kinds of books is important, and whilst there is the danger of there being one too many orgasms in a scene, Crusie is very good at displaying the real and using it. Whether that’s sex that is amazing or disappointing, it’s always a crucial point in the story. She’s writing about interactions, and how they affect people, and that’s important.

Her characters are women we can respect and look up to, use as guides. Women who maybe feel that their lives aren’t going where they want, or their jobs aren’t perfect, or they’re hung up on the wrong person. Maybe these are worries that Greer would categorise as anti-feminist, but I would call them human.

Also, there’s always a dog. So, that’s cool.

Anyone out there got any decent Chick-Lit reads to recommend? Or are you all those snobby types who only read Russian Literature and poetry?