Quite a few of the (awesome!) issues many of you raised in the comments to my post on the League of Reluctant Adults about sex in UF were about age. Â Which, in turn, made me think about about something that has always bothered me about many UF and paranormal romance love-matches. Â I know there are untold numbers of exceptions, but one common scenario is that in which the male love-interest is like a bazillion-and-five-years older than his femaleÂ protagonist. Â That said, I am well aware that I quite obviously LOVE this setup. Â Not only is it the scenario at the heart of many of my favorite UF and PR novels, but I’ve DONE IT MYSELF. Â So I’m pointing the finger squarely at my own chest, here, people. Â Even so, I’m still bothered by it and it makes me wonder . . .
Do I have a great big supernatural daddy complex?
The irony is Â thatÂ in real lifeÂ I am single, very independent, rather commitment-phobic, and had I testes they would be made of a suitably tough and hard-wearing metal, albeit painted something shiny and bedazzled with rhinestones. Â In other words, I’m no wallflower, I’m ambitious, I’m successful in my own terms, and, if I’m honest, I’m a bit of a bitch.
So what the hell is up with my adoration of the alpha-male stud-muffin love interest, and with the obviously widespread Â generic obsession, in general? Â As an academic who deals with issues of gender and power, my cultural studies whiskers’ twitch at the idea of an entire subset of literatureÂ in which women are literally hundreds of years younger than their lovers. Â Especially when it’sÂ aimed, as in the case of paranormal romance, at a specifically female audience. Â This age gap between lovers raises myÂ FoucauldianÂ eyebrows, not least because of theÂ inherentÂ discrepanciesÂ that trickle down into other aspects of these relationships. Â For example, the sage and long-lived male tends to be outrageously wealthy. Â His great age make him vastly experienced, especially sexually, compared to his relatively inexperienced lover. Â He is often a cynical, world-weary soul pitted against the childishly optimistic and diamante-sparkling spirit of a fresh-faced young woman.
I can see a lot of reasons for the popularity of this trope, not all of which are nefarious. Â And I’m well aware that, especially in the case of paranormal romance, these are supposed to be just fantasies. Â And yet, as Freud established years ago, it is often through examining our fantasies that we discover the keys to our greatest strengths, most startling desires, and deepest insecurities. Â Unfortunately for our psyches, and luckily for both psychoanalysis and cultural studies, these three things are almost inevitably squeezed together into a big ball of hot mess.
So what are the “problematic themes” that I would latch onto and turn into a paper for a cultural studies conference? Â Well, first of all, the preternatural sugar daddy taps into well established gender binaries. Â The female is tagged alongside instinct, purity, inexperience, vulnerability, youth, etc., while the male is shelved alongside reason, sexual experience, wisdom, cynicism, age, and the like.
So this ageÂ discrepancyÂ utilizes recognizable gender dichotomies. Â But, again, it’s just make-believe! Â Right? Â As such, this big age gap handily lends itself to instant sexual-fantasy fodder. Â These guys, after all, have been around the block so many times they’ve left grooves. Â They leave their lovers gasping for air, not gasping, “Why in the name of all that is holy did you think THAT would be a good idea?” Â Experience is, quite frankly, sexy. Â I think it should be sexy for women, too, and I’m not as big a fan of the sub-sub-subset of the sub-genre that has super-experienced, millenia-old men and virginal women. Â I’m not NOT going to read such a book, and there are quite a few writers I enjoy who often have virginal heroines, but I feel this scenario does pander to cultural stereotypes that insist sexually experienced women (read: tramps) are not worthy of their own story while sexually experienced men are ranked as dream lovers.
But what really bothers me about these scenarios is what it assumes about “good” lovemaking. Â Don’t get me wrong, one of my own characters is this exact kind of take-charge, has-all-the-moves, supe. Â But the thinker in me recognizes that part of growing up in regards to sex and one’s own sexuality, especially for women, is learning to voice one’s desires. Â It’s true that most women probably don’t fantasize about sex scenes in which they’re saying, “Um, actually, can you maybe do this, instead,” or, “try that!” or, gods forbid, “Ouch!” Â And yet, these are the very conversationsÂ that both men and women must have when they take a new lover. Â Granted, you may want to use phrasings slightly more erotically charged than, “ouch!”, but the point is that communication is vital in the sack. Â We should pray our lovers, be they male or female, understand this and reciprocate. Â After all, not a one of us comes with an instruction manual, although we should. Â Our bodies are almost as fiddly as Dysons but, unlike Dysons, we’re all different models. Â And yet these alpha male characters pounce on their women, make sweet love to them, and all you ever hear are moans. Â Occasionally we get a “harder,” or, “more,” but theÂ instructionsÂ never get much more explicit than that. Â Because they don’t need to be! Â These guys are masters of the hootchie-cootchie, and it is the role of their female opposite to lie back and enjoy it. Â Despite the fact that women have fought for centuries to have a role in their own pleasure, to have a voice in the bedroom as well as the boardroom, and finally to give pleasure,Â without being labelled as wanton,Â as much as they receive pleasure.
So this is where I throw off my third-wave feminist cap and don my masculinity-studies cap. Â All of the men I’ve talked to regarding this subject have said the same thing: the idea of a woman who doesn’t communicate her desires during sex is terrifying. Â There are so many possibilities, so many opposing pleasures, what is he supposed to do with a woman who doesn’t articulate what she wants? Â All of my male friends express relief about women who bring their vocal chords to the bedroom, not to mention the fact they find it dead sexy. Â All of which leads me to wonder if, in creating these smooth-move lovers with their lolling heroines, I’m not only resurrecting decades-dead female stereotypes but also thrusting the responsibility for sexual pleasure back onto the only recently-unshackled shoulders of men. Â Which suggests to me that such old-fashioned female stereotypes are actually very much alive and kicking.Â Â And that men are still shackled by unrealistic expectations placed upon them by a society that devalues women’s sexuality even as it overvalues men’s. Â A point underscored by the number of spam emails I get offering to enhance the size and the performance capabilities of my penis.
In other words, as a feminist, a woman, and an academic I’m uncomfortable with the gendered scenarios that I apparently findÂ titillatingÂ as a reader and that I, myself, indulge in and recycle as a writer.Â Â My affection for this disturbing trope implies an ambiguity about contemporary gender roles, and, although I’m horrified to admit it, about my own expectations as a woman, not to mention as a reader, writer, and critic. Â I don’t know what this ambiguity means, or what I’m supposed to do about it. Â Besides write blog posts and maybe do an academic paper on gender roles in UF (hello, tenure!).
So what do you think? Â Is my having a bunch of much older dudes hanging out with fresh young chicks a great big supernatural daddy complex? Â Is it innocuous? Â Is it really just a fantasy? Â But what does such a fantasy say, to you? Â Do I need therapy?
Don’t answer that last one.