Sunday, June 26, 2011

Sexually Liberated Heroines in Sci-Fi Romance

Amazing StoriesIn a recent Dear Author review of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ landmark romance THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER, one theme that emerged from the comments pertained to the liberating aspects of this romance and others like it of the time period.

Such books gave readers permission to enjoy the fantasy of great sex at a time when women weren’t encouraged to even think about sex, let alone have any.

Regardless of a book’s quality or how it delivered the fantasy, I think it’s wonderful how romances in general celebrate and validate a woman’s sexuality.

I’m also keen to explore the expression of sexuality in science fiction romance given our current cultural climate.

Which makes for an interesting coincidence since right after reading the Dear Author review, I discovered the following passage in Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Big Love Sci-Fi Part 1: Sex Without Borders:

The "Big Love" Romance, PNR or SFR, novel that will get the kinds of celebratory reviews that Mieville's Embassytown is garnering has to appeal to that central audience.  So it has to depict the world the reader perceives around her/himself -- a world where there's no PRIVACY BORDER anymore, a world where the moment you meet someone who turns you on, you have sex with them.

There's a much-cited rule of thumb that defines where a girl stands with her self-esteem -- "No sex until the third date."

It's a little like "I don't drink until after 5PM." 

Such rules beg to be broken in fiction, of course. And they lead to this whole controversy over what exactly constitutes a date, what counts as something that gets you closer to being allowed to have sex without loss of self-esteem?

I would argue that the success of many romances is based on the extent to which they successfully deliver the fantasy of great, liberating sex. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the historical romances of yore have much in common with many of the stories from the paranormal romance boom. Both allow heroines freedom to have sex “without loss of self-esteem,” but this approach is predicated on the assumption that a woman has yet to realize her sexual potential and feel unapologetic about it.

What if a heroine is already aware of her potential? Both of the above posts caused me to reflect what I want from science fiction romance in this regard.

Future MagazineAs time went by, I discovered that as an adult woman I have a need for new, different kinds of fantasies as they relate to the physical intimacy between heroes and heroines. I don’t need a story to help me feel validated about my sexuality since I already feel pretty darn validated, even as I occasionally still read stories with the more traditional fantasies and completely understand their continued appeal and necessity for other readers. I view science fiction romance heroines as at a certain cultural and psychological stage, one in which their sexuality isn’t awakened by the hero so much as it’s already established.

For the most part, I expect SFR heroines in a futuristic time period to be sexually liberated (unless the story specifically dictates otherwise for a particular reason). In fact, the bedroom door can be closed or open. It doesn’t matter if I see them in action or not. Lucky for me, I’m encountering sexually liberated heroines quite a bit. Occasionally, authors will even make a point of conveying (e.g., via introspection or general exposition) that their heroines are free to enjoy sex without fear of judgment.

Sometimes, though, the whole “awakening sexuality” angle comes into play through certain bits of phrasing, and it’s interesting to see it crop up despite the fact that the heroines live in societies where no one has hang ups about a woman having sex (including the women!). I can’t help but wonder why.

Is it because authors are aware of what’s been done in historical and paranormal romances and are stopping short of completely rewriting the “script,” perhaps because many readers want the familiar, and the familiar is what’s being done in the mainstream subgenres?

Either that, or science fiction romance is in a period of transition. Or both.

My take on this issue isn’t that science fiction romance should take a different approach every single time from other romance subgenres in terms of a heroine’s sexuality. Rather, I see a benefit for both authors and readers in clarifying the type of fantasies that the subgenre is deliveringor could be deliveringwhen it comes to the heroine’s sexual union with the hero.

The fantasy of great, liberating sex is very powerful, but as powerful as it is, I’m on the hunt for different, yet equally powerful fantasies about sexuality in the context of a science fiction romance. Perhaps ones that are more tied into the emotional journeys and personalities of the heroes and heroines, or that address other types of sexual negotiations.

I’m sure I have more to reflect on regarding this topic. But first, what are your thoughts?

Joyfully yours,