Guest Rant: Slut Shaming in Romance

 I received this email from Linda recently, and asked if I could run it as a guest rant. Linda mentions some specific books, cover copy, and plot points for romances she’s read that inspired this rant. If you’re a fan of these authors, or you love these particular books, we understand that using them as examples might tick you off. The point isn’t the examples; the examples highlight for Linda a larger point that’s been true in romance for a very long time: there is some slut shaming going on.

Dear Sarah,

I don’t want to become the resident crotchet, but a book rant burst out of me a little yesterday and has just been building up steam all day in conversations with friends.

I was skimming the description of The Mistake by Elle Kennedy that was linked in the deals post, and I ran across the line:

“If Logan expects her to roll over and beg like all his other puck bunnies, he can think again.”

What on earth is wrong if someone willingly and consensually hooks up with a hot hockey player, and how the fuck is the heroine any better for doing the same?

Are these women really doing anything wrong? Does engaging in casual sex with an attractive man or being a “groupie” make them dirty? If you want to bang the hot hockey player, go do it. If you don’t want to, or have reservations about him, or want a relationship, that’s fine too. Why the need for this dehumanizing language? And why is it always these faceless (or sometimes not-so-faceless) girls who get censure for their actions while the hero’s cachet is raised for doing the same thing?

Or, to paraphrase the words of a friend of mine, I don’t understand why a genre where books often hinge on a couple eventually having sex and enjoying it is so full of rampant slut shaming with a fixation on sexual purity. And I’m not trying to put Elle Kennedy specifically on blast just for her book’s blurb, because it’s a systemic problem in romance.

For example, Penny Reid’s Neanderthal Seeks Human has a heroine who organizes her comic books by how much they have been influenced by different waves of feminism, yet the protagonist refers to women who have had casual sex with the male hero as “slamps.” While it is somewhat balanced out by the fact that her friend who anchors the second book has a lot of casual sex and the heroine of this book gets called out for her attitude and says she doesn’t judge these women, it doesn’t change the fact the character used the word “slut” so often that she made up a slang term to allude to it. Using another word doesn’t change the meaning when the heroine thinks to herself, “I don’t want to be another of his slamps.” (Just like someone not using a slur when making a racist comment doesn’t change the racism. I believe the term d’art is “dog whistle.”) Or when the hero tries to “rescue” the heroine out of a nightclub because she’s “not like those girls.”

It is entirely possible to convey that the heroine is not interested in having sex casually in a non-slut-shamey way. Molly O’Keefe did it in Wild Child, Courtney Milan did it in Talk Sweetly To Me, Pamela Clare did it in Extreme Exposure and so on. You do it by not dragging other women down in comparison.

Let’s be clear that Neanderthal Seeks Human isn’t the only book that does it, but I’m singling it out because I read it in the last year and I hold books that make claims of feminism to a higher standard. The slut shaming in romance isn’t an isolated incident when it is literally more common than non-white heroes and heroines in mainstream romance.

TV Tropes houses this concept under Not Like Other Girls, which I think is often further emphasized in romance by the author also depicting almost all the major female characters as being a “bitch” or “slut” or some combination of both. And I understand. I used to be that girl too when I had no friends and escaped into reading books during recess and telling myself I was better than those girls anyway. After all, popular culture and certain YA novels taught me that, as someone who reads books and has quirky interests, all the hot men will eventually fall for my chasteness and intelligence and I shall inherit the earth (because obviously promiscuity and intelligence are mutually exclusive). Basically, I was a jerk, but I also grew up out of it by the time I was in high school and the romance genre as a whole should too.

When I talk up romance to friends, I always point them to authors I love, like Courtney Milan, Alisha Rai, Alyssa Cole, Lisa Kleypas, Loretta Chase and numerous others (all of whom SBTB introduced me to), but right now, when I look at the genre as a whole, I’m reminded of this College Humor parody where they make a Reddit themed cocktail with a giant piece of shit in it to symbolize all the racist and sexist subreddits and the man says, “Just ignore it, you’ll barely notice it.”

I wonder if I’m that man.

Thanks for reading this,
Linda

Amanda: I think I touched on this in my podcast with Sarah on Tinder & Dating, that sometimes romance novels can still have these more traditional views on sex: heroines are virgins or mostly inexperienced and the dude that gives them ALL THE ORGASMS is their true love.

And there’s also this weird test: sometimes a guy wants a girl who will sleep with them pretty soon (maybe they just want to get laid and there’s nothing wrong with that), but if I girl DOES sleep with them, then she’s somehow unworthy or less worthy of respect than if she had waited a few dates. This was my central issue with The Master by Kresley Cole. Hero hires an escort, which is a frequent thing he does. Heroine is an escort to make some extra cash, but this is her first night on the job. Hero doesn’t believe her and shames her for lying and then also slightly slut shames her because she’s an escort. WHAT.

A lot of that concept of women who are chaste being more valuable is reflected in romances and I get where Linda is coming from. It especially bothers me when it pits two women against one another. For me, a book will automatically get knocked down a grade if the only other women in the book (aside from the heroine) are used as competition to get the hero. Usually the “villain” woman is aggressive or overtly sexual, while the hero can’t help but be drawn to the heroine because of her sweet and possibly virgin qualities.

Unfortunately, I have no solutions on how to fix things. Just let my wallet do the talking.

Sarah: I am still thinking about Linda’s email, days after I read it. She’s right: for a genre that’s written for women, by women, about women, we often maintain very narrow, particular standards for women, especially heroines. I think those standards are changing, and there’s a lot more fluidity when it comes to heroine sexuality and the expression thereof, but still, slut shaming happens. And like Linda, I didn’t always see it until I saw it and connected those individual books to the larger pattern. For example: in a romance, a woman who behaves as if the hero is her possession and belongs to her is often the antagonist. But a male who behaves as if the heroine is his possession is more often the popular hero, specifically the alpha variety.

Romance has long prized virginity, which is itself a kind of sexual fetish. Somehow, there’s often an expectation that sex between the protagonists will be The Best Thing Ever With Waves, Shattering, and Possibly Explosions, because their status as Said Protagonists has to be reinforced and highlighted by Magical Sexxytimes. Whether it’s actual virginity, the absence of sexual experience, or something else standing in for virginity, such as a more different sexual act or sex without protection (which, no thank you), the sexxytimes must be singular and a pinnacle experience to underscore the unique and meaningful coupling of said couple.

Thinking about the way in which romance focuses on virginity, and the ways in which women who actively own their sexuality are portrayed in romance makes me sad. The happy-ever-after could be built on choice and recognition of sexual compatibility from both individuals, and not on overwhelming waves of orgasmic sexxytimes that have never crested that high before, or on the comparison between sexual initiation and sexual experience. Women who actively seek their own sexual satisfaction (and who don’t have it – ahem – thrust upon them) aren’t sluts or “other women” or the negative against which a protagonists can be judged positively. They’re normal.

This is another area in which the divide between Actual Reality and the Romance Version of Reality is wide and vast. In some ways, that distance between the two realities is funny, as Elyse mentioned in a recent podcast. In Reality, we have to brush our teeth in the morning before we kiss anyone, and people should pee after having sex. In Romance Reality, there’s no such thing as morning breath and no one gets a life-threatening UTI, ever, in any era. Sometimes those two realities are closer together, such as the way that Romance Reality values normal human emotions and vulnerabilities. Contrary to social expectations, human beings of all genders have feelings, and romance celebrates them.

In portrayals of characters with sexual agency, though, the distance between the two realities is disheartening for me. In Actual Reality, any character should be able to possess agency over their own sexuality without being judged for it. In Romance Reality, that doesn’t always happen, especially when an antagonist is used to highlight the virginal suitability of the protagonist.

What do you think? Have you noticed slut shaming in romances you’ve read? Do you think it’s an indelible part of the genre, or is it changing? What’s your take? 

Comments are Closed

  1. 1
    Squimbelina says:

    I’ve noticed this too. I identify as a feminist and, although I do adore a bit of romance, the old fashioned attitudes occasionally get my back up. It makes me wince, because mostly? The heroine ends up sleeping with the hero outside marriage, anyway, so how is she better than the ‘sluts’ that he’s slept with before? Heroes are almost always sexually promiscuous and it’s not a bad thing for them, so why are they treated differently from the girls they sleep with?

    I recently read The Billionare and the Virgin by Jessica Clare, where I think she tried to address this somewhat. Having read other books of hers, she’s got some situations where the heroine is more sexually experienced than the hero, so I’m definitely giving her the benefit of the doubt on the bits I’m still uncomfortable with. Anyway – here be spoilers, proceed at your own risk!

    So, the premise of this book is that arsehole slut-shaming TV network owner (who’s lead show is ‘Tits or GTFO’, a reality show whereby women are accosted by a camera crew until they agree to show their boobs on TV) meets and falls in love with virgin girl. I was about ready to throw the book out the window for the first few chapters (it’s a slut-shaming marathon, and full of that women act really out of character to snag a man bullshit). Anyway, after getting a little bit further in, I realised that the author is attempting to turn this trope on its head by having the hero realise how exploitative he is – for example, when his TV crew goes after his virgin girlfriend he’s outraged because she’s ‘not that sort of girl’ and she berates him later that actually, she is. He sells his shitty network, donates money towards helping battered women.

    But still! How does he come to this realisation? By getting to know someone he’s written off as a slut, and seeing her humanity, and falling in love with her? Nope. By being converted by a virgin. Eeeeeh. Basically, I think that although it tries to subvert the trope, it ends up failing and reinforcing it. Be interested in the thoughts of anyone else who’s read it, though.

  2. 2
    Jess says:

    Boy, *have* I noticed! Sweet Christ on a stick, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to escape. Like Sarah said, despite romance being, overwhelmingly, a celebration of women’s choices in and outside of the novels themselves, traditional ideas of true romance have led to some ultra squicky attitudes towards things like casual sex and, you know, previous satisfying relationships.

    This attitude is so pervasive, I can’t actually recall many romance books I’ve read in the last few months that DONT include some form of slut-shaming. I just finished Written in Red by Anne Bishop yesterday (thanks for the sale alert, guys!), and for the most part I really enjoyed it!… Except for the small nagging fact that *of course* the primary female antagonist was willing to use sex to get her way (gasp!) and the heroine was a pure virginal ingenue who knew nothing about the world beyond photographs. I don’t necessarily mind virginal ingenues, so long as they aren’t held up as the standard of womanly virtue.

    I was thrilled to see the rise of the sexually voracious alpha female, until I realized most of them held a similar “NOT LIKE OTHER GIRLS” stance.

    Come on, Romance, I know you can do better than this…

  3. 3
    Leah says:

    MAN I hate this trope. I hate how so often it’s used as either an obstacle to overcome (“I slept around because I had no self worth until I found true love!”) or a trait for a villain (“The hero/heroine’s slutty ex is here! Look how slutty and evil but mostly slutty they are!”). It’s either an indication of someone being the bad guy/girl, or an obstacle that someone needs to overcome in order to achieve/deserve their happy ending and be a better, more fulfilled person. And I say that as someone who has never had a casual sexual relationship. It pits women against each other, glorifies the concept of virginity and inexperience, and is a really lazy, shallow way to put the heroine on a pedestal. Think how often shy, blushing and earnest lack of experience is described as such a big turn-on to the male lead.

    Heck, how often in romance novels do they feel the need to have an excuse for the heroine to have ANY sexual experience? She’s usually either grieving and recovering from the death of her partner (“It’s okay! She didn’t actually sleep around, she saved herself for someone who died tragically!”), or has had a bad relationship with someone, and thus the sex she had then was tragically unfulfilling. (“I only ever gave my body to someone and was hurt for it! I didn’t actually enjoy it!”) Or, and this is my favourite, she was in a relationship but was for some reason or another unable to actually consummate it. This pops up SO often in historical novels, usually having the previous male either die before it could happen or turn out to be a villain or developmentally disabled (not exaggerating… read a historical once where the heroine was to be married to a man who literally had the mind of a child and had no idea how sex worked and zero interest in it), but it’s come up in contemporaries a lot too.

    There was actually a book, Beautiful Player, by Christina Lauren that directed slut shaming at the male lead, and I hated it. The gist is he has lots of casual sex… he’s not lying to everyone, they’re all on the same page, and they’re all enjoying themselves. But of COURSE all the women he hooks up with have to be vapid and catty and “slutty”, and several times throughout the book, the heroine and her friends unreservedly call HIM a slut and laugh while they talk about how he needs to be “taught”. It really caught me off guard, because if genders had been reversed, people would have been irate. And of course the heroine is so unexperienced she may as well be virginal, and is lauded for it (her innocence is praised multiple times), and the kicker is, the romance begins because she decides she wants HIM to teach her how to enjoy sex and become more experienced… so she wants the benefits of his sexual knowledge and history, but still gets to condemn it. This book really upset me. It also had my biggest pet peeve, the core conflict revolving SOLELY around neither of them having a simple conversation… he of course hasn’t been sleeping with anyone since they started messing around because gosh, but she sure has taught him how meaningless and empty his life was before with all that casual sex, but she still thinks he IS sleeping around, and thus flat-out rejects him several times when he tries to explain his feelings to her. Even if you ignore the paper tiger-y conflict, her dismissal of his feelings solely because of his sexual proclivities (and again, he’s never hid anything from her, he’s not cheating on or with anyone, all the women he’s been with are on the same page and quite happy) is really, really ugly. It’s not “You have to stop sleeping with other women because I’m only into monogamy,” it’s literally, “Because you sleep casually with other women, you don’t actually know how to have a ‘real’ relationship”.

  4. 4
    Alina says:

    Unfortunately, I 100% agree with Linda’s rant. For almost every book I buy, I get the ebook sample first, and slut-shaming within the first couple of chapters is almost an automatic “no” for me, even though it is so common that it eliminates a whole lot of books. I just find myself being able to “hold my nose and ignore it” less and less. “Not like those other girls” is not a characteristic that’s going to endear me to the character and especially not to the author.

  5. 5
    rube says:

    Ugh, YES to this. In het romance, I particularly dislike the way the glorification of the hero’s sexual experience goes means that he’s particular adept at pleasing a woman and that her inexperience means she’s pleasing to the man.

    I particularly hate it when writers say the inexperienced heroine’s enjoyment seems more “genuine,” to the hero and not like the “feigned,” or “theatrical,” enjoyment of all the other women he’s slept with.

  6. 6
    Milly says:

    YES to all of this – it drives me completely and totally batshit crazy on so many levels but here’s the thing… I’ve seen this happen in real life so many times I’ve lost count. I’m a woman in my late 40’s with a lot of single friends – Newly divorced, never married, etc friends. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the phrase if you want him to commit and respect you don’t sleep with him too soon because woman x got dumped by y guy as soon as they hooked up. AND THIS is being said by women to women. As if sleeping with someone and the following dumping was all her fault.

    How can our literature be any better when WE aren’t any better as a whole? Even those of us who grew up idolizing Gloria Steinham can’t get it right.

  7. 7
    Gemma says:

    This is spot-on. I’m sick of how it seems like a heroine isn’t allowed a satisfying sex life before she meets the hero. She can even have been happily married before, but then she meets the hero and discovers this wonderful thing called sex with real orgasms! Even if a woman isn’t a virgin, she’ll usually be an orgasm virgin. Blech.

    I was raised very sex-negative. Women who enjoy sex outside of marriage are sluts, was the message I was taught, and I didn’t realize how much it was reinforced by the romance genre. I would love to see this change.

  8. 8

    Yes, I’ve definitely noticed it, and I don’t like it, though there are many authors I can count on not to do this. Hard for me to say whether or not it’s changing, as I’m not a long-time romance reader.

    I sometimes see heroines who have reputations for sleeping around…but it turns out their reputation was false, they weren’t having sex near as much as people assume, and therefore they’re a better person than they would have otherwise been. Kind of tired of that.

    I recently read a book in which the heroine had *reasons* for sleeping around…NOT because she enjoyed sex. And that needled me a bit, though I did really like the book overall, because it felt like the heroine was supposed to be better than women who had lots of sex just because.

    Victoria Dahl’s Taking the Heat is another example of a heroine who doesn’t have much sexual experience but doesn’t hate on those who do. Love her books. They are sex positive.

  9. 9

    Also, MASSIVE double standard.

  10. 10
    Kelsey says:

    I also hate this trope! It’s so overdone – why does every heroine have to never have had an orgasm? Why does she have to look down on the other girls the hero has been with? In The Hurricane, which was reviewed here a while ago, the heroine frequently calls any other female with a bit of sexual agency a slut. She even says at one time that (paraphrasing) “if I was confident enough I would have coughed ‘slut’ under my breath”. Oh, so you’re not confident enough to judge someone out loud? It drove me nuts and it must have driven other readers nuts too because in the sequel, The Aftermath one of the so-called “sluts” calls the heroine out on her shitty, judgy behavior and basically voices everything I just said. I like that the author fixed this problem, and actually made the heroine feel ashamed of how she acted.

    The only time I’ve seen this trope done well is actually in another Christina Lauren book, Beautiful Bastard. I know others hated it for how horrible the main characters were to each other, and how technically what they were doing was sexual harassment, but the heroine, Chloe, initiated sex as much as the hero, was never afraid to speak her mind or to leave him hanging, was not turned off by his history (which was not manwhorish, he even said he is monogamous when that’s the expectation and had been in a 3 year relationship, so he was not one of those “I fuck I don’t make love” douches). When she reveals that he was the first guy to get her to orgasm, it’s not a big deal and it’s after they’ve been doing it for a while. That’s not even what attaches her to him “on a deeper level”, it’s just a thing that happens to be true.

    This genre, which is geared toward women, has a tendency to hate women. It’s understandable when characters are hesitant toward casual sex (because hey it’s not for everyone) but it’s not okay for them to be soooooo judgy. Some people get off. Get over it.

  11. 11
    MicheleKS says:

    I’m in total agreement here. One of my core personal beliefs is not to judge anyone. And it seems the romance genre needs to learn this. I don’t know if this ridiculous trope is because of editors or authors with outdated expectations but it seems our beloved romance genre is behind the times. And the bitchy female antagonist is so 80’s tv (a la ‘Dynasty’) that’s it’s just a terrible cliché. And this is why I’ve put down books because this stupid trope just spoils the whole book for me because it’s a weak, stupid, and incredibly insulting.

  12. 12
    Moose says:

    There are a ton of reasons why slut-shaming happens in romance.

    One of those (it’s not the only one by a long shot) is just plain lazy writing.

    “She’s not like other girls, she’s _______” <—- This is the fundamental question every romance has to answer.

    The author wants to establish why the heroine is special, and it's easy to do if you paint the others as just sluts. Slut-shaming is a huge part of the magic hooha trope: The other girls can't have magic hoohas because if they did, when he put his dick inside it, he would have noticed.

    Slut-shaming is an easy way to make a connection between two people, instead of actually figuring out how they connect on a personal, emotional, intimate level.

    So:

    * she's not like other girls, she's not a slut
    * she's not like other girls, she's smart
    * she's not like other girls, she doesn't care about her looks
    * she's not like other girls, she's not a catty bitch

    All these things are simply lazy writing. The author thought about how to actually make her heroine important to the hero and instead of working on what makes her special and different, how the two work well together, she decided to just make everyone else suck by default.

    But slut shaming and manic pixie dream girl and the magic hooha and so many of these other terrible tropes are all connected in that they only work by dissing womenkind in general in order to make THIS woman work.

  13. 13
    Jill says:

    Yes and amen to all of this. I’d like to point out that Julie James’ books are also blessedly free of this nonsense.

  14. 14
    Heather says:

    I admit to having a soft spot for virgin heroes for sentimental reasons, and I don’t give a flip if any heroine is a virgin, but like everyone else I can’t stand the slut shaming or the double standard. I grew up in a sex positive house where live and let live was the prevailing attitude and was taught that as long as everyone everyone was a consenting adult, knew the score and wasn’t hurting anyone it was all good. But I also saw the effect of slut shaming in the real world. My single mother enjoyed casual relationships. With very few exceptions she is still friend’s with the men she dated. That never stopped people from inserting themselves into our lives to cast judgement and punish us both (even when I was really little). Having lived on the side other side of the shaming it is the last thing I want to see in characters I’m supposed to care about.

  15. 15

    Once, just once, I’d love to read a novel where the hero isn’t turned on by the prim, shy virgin, but prefers the experienced woman who knows exactly what she likes and wants.

    Like Gone with the Wind, except written as a romance.

  16. 16
    Taffygrrl says:

    OMG, this is why “A Gentleman in the Street” was a balm to my soul! The main female character has lots of sex, in lots of combinations…and the hero is fine with it. The plot in fact turns on the fact that she thinks he considers her a slut, but he’s actually really turned on by her sexual openness.

    The most frustrating case of “she’s really pure!” was Grace Callaway’s “Her Protector’s Pleasure.” The main female character had been built up over the previous two books as a woman of great sexual experience who took pleasure where she got it and had no shame about it. And in her book it’s revealed that…no, she’s never been having sex AT ALL, all of those alleged sexual encounters she’s been having are a cover for her actually searching for her daughter! I was SO disappointed by this and it made it impossible for me to enjoy the book.

  17. 17
    Kendal says:

    I read a lot of historicals, so I don’t always notice the slut-shaming outright…but in contemporaries I am definitely bothered. If there is one thing that takes me out of a story it is characters casually referring to others as “sluts” or “whores” or other similar terms. I have yet to see this happen in a book in a way that makes it clear that the character is reclaiming the word. These terms are so gendered and indicative of misogyny that I have a hard time staying in the story.

    The other thing I really hate in books is when the hero doesn’t give a shit about other women having tons of casual sex, but feels a weird sense of ownership for the heroine’s sexuality. As though the possibility of the heroine ever having had sex with someone else will diminish her value as a human being. In historicals it bugs me when threats of rape (or actual rape) are seen through the hero’s perspective — making it about his reaction to it, rather than the person actually experiencing the trauma. Like, I get that you love her, but really?

    Rant over.

  18. 18
    CateM says:

    I think it’s changing, not in that there’s fewer sex-shamey books, but that there’s more access to non sex-shaming books. (Courtney Milan, Victoria Dahl, Sarah MacLean, etc.) Once we’ve got enough non-sex-shamey books, it’s just a matter of time before things change, if we’re willing to call out books that have slut shaming in them, even if they’re good, and willing to talk up and buy non-sex-shamey ones. I figure eventually sex-shaming will go the way of the rapey hero – still too many of them, still too many people who don’t see it as a problem, but no longer as prevalent, and no longer as accepted.

    I also think the lack of sex-shaming goes hand and hand with enthusiastic consent. The authors I know of who do a good job with sexual consent – letting virgin heroines still have sexual initiative and sexual knowledge, letting heroes value sexual agency in their partners, letting heroines have had physically satisfying sex before, letting heroes have had emotionally satisfying sex before – also tend to do better with not slut shaming. I think it’s because both problems – lack of female consent and slut shaming – stem from not being comfortable with a woman wanting sex. We still have to qualify it – she wants sex, but within the bounds of a relationship. She wants sex, but only because she’s been hurt too much to want a relationship. She wants casual sex, but she’s never done this before, really. Once we stop feeling the need to qualify women’s sexual desires in order to make them ok,
    slut shaming will stop being a useful characterization.

    Because it is useful – “slut” gives you a whole character in four letters. In genre fiction, where people are pressed to communicate quickly and efficiently, that makes slut shaming an easy, vivid, and effective way to characterize a background character. Once it stops being useful – once a heroine calling another character “slut” becomes a weight around the heroine’s neck that the author has to spend lots of spacing explaining in order for readers to get over it – that’s when people will stop using it.

  19. 19
    marjorie says:

    Amen, amen, amen. Preach, Linda.

  20. 20
    Tiffany says:

    This is something I have been thinking about as I have been unemployed and reading a LOT lately. Luckily, I recently found Forever your Earl by Eva Leigh on the library new book shelf and was totally blown away. The heroine is not only a non-virgin, she’s never been married, she’s enjoyed and had agency over her past sexual relationships and its so very sex positive. Yes she has concerns over getting mixed up with this man, but her concerns are more over the imbalance of social status and power. Yes, her friend is concerned for her sleeping with the Earl, but this is set in an era where there is actual danger associated with unmarried sex, it’d be weird if her friend didn’t worry.

    I read a lot of historical, which means I read a lot of virgin heroines, and personally I do identify with stories of women learning about their sexuality and gaining agency over it. I grew up in a household where it was made clear that sex is a good thing, but only within a marriage. It wasn’t slut shamey precisely, but there were rules. Frankly I wish my early sexual experiences were not at the hands of a virgin that hadn’t figured out what a clitoris was or checked a diagram at least. However the pitting of women against other, more promiscuous women, or the use of a former lover as conflict annoys me.

  21. 21
    Samantha Garman says:

    Jamie Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series was a virgin on his wedding night–and younger than Claire, the heroine. Claire was written as an incredibly sensual woman, in touch with her femininity and sexuality. She’s mouthy and lands herself into a lot of messes. She’s headstrong and knows her own mind. She’s a healer. She gets it wrong sometimes. Jamie would die for her. These are the characters we should celebrate, those that defy the tropes.

  22. 22

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  23. 23
    Kelsey says:

    Another trope I hate that goes along with this is the whole, “She cares about her appearance and wears high heels so she must be slutty” idea. This usually goes along with the heroine not knowing how to do makeup, hating high heels, and talking about how she always goes for comfort over style. Any girl who shows an inch of skin is labeled as a slut. Any girl who wears eye liner and lip stick, is a slut. It drives me nuts! I get that authors are trying to let natural beauty shine, but come on. In real life, women and men alike care about how they look. I wear three inch heels most days because I like how they look and I’ve been with my soon-to-be husband for five years. Sexy looking clothes and eyeshadow do not a “slut” make.

  24. 24
    Peggy O'Kane says:

    I have, unfortunately, internalized the good girl vs slut trope. As I fight the tendency in myself to think in that pattern I find it harder and harder to read the books I loved as a teen just getting started with my life long romance reading addiction. I’m 57. I wonder if younger writers are doing a better job of allowing women to be self confident in their sexual relationships than do writers of my age?

  25. 25
    Hera says:

    The other day I started a sample of a NA book called Rule, and threw it down in disgust after ten pages, in which the hero slut shames the girl he just had a one night stand with, before going off with the heroine. I read it in complete disbelief. He kicks her out of his apartment, and literally tells her that if she goes home with men, she can’t expect them to respect her, and shouldn’t be surprised that he doesn’t remember her name. Maybe later in the book this would be explained or he would learn the error of his ways, but I hated him so much after the first few pages that I didn’t care at all.

    http://smile.amazon.com/Rule-Marked-Novel-Jay-Crownover-ebook/dp/B00CGZXRQ6/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1453392356&sr=8-1&keywords=rule

    Slut shaming makes women enemies and men prizes, and that’s just not a dynamic I’m interested in reading about.

  26. 26
    Hera says:

    I’m also just at the point where if the majority of the hero’s character is that he’s a rake, I put the book down.

  27. 27
    Squimbelina says:

    @Hera, I didn’t finish Rule for the same reason. I have to say, though, that the first book I read by that author is Built, which I think is her most recent. The hero is averagely experienced, and has lots of hot sex with the (non-Virgin) heroine and the plot is generally about her learning to open up emotionally. I really enjoyed it. I think Rule is this author’s first novel, and felt very juvenile. I think she’s growing as an author though, which can only be a good thing.

  28. 28
    Malin says:

    Having just devoured the first four books in Sarina Bowen’s The Ivy Years and the novella Blonde Date, I found it refreshing and delightful how very feminist those books are, with women who own their own desires without any slut-shaming from the main characters. Bella, the heroine in The Shameless Hour IS slut-shamed, in the worst way, and the issue is dealt with in such a great way. While I can see the point of virgin heroines in historical novels, where there were other moral and societal mores, I just don’t get the extreme value put on virginity and purity in a contemporary novel. There should be more sexually experienced ladies out there, owning their awesomeness as heroines of the genre.

  29. 29
    Maite says:

    As someone said earlier, it’s lazy shorthand writing. And it is EVERYWHERE. The only way to stop is Amanda’s suggestion: Let your wallet do your talking.

  30. 30
    esha says:

    The older I get the more readily I will put a book in the DNF pile if it takes the L into racist or misogynist territory. Luckily, like Linda mentioned, we have authors like Hoyt, Kleypas, Balogh, and Carlyle who you can trust to write fully fleshed out characters in mature adult relationships, and are able to avoid these kinds of tropes.

  31. 31
    Dana says:

    I just read through the 7-novel Jennifer Crusie collection and I loved how all of the heroines were experienced sexually and nobody including the hero gave a damn. It’s never even mentioned.

    And then I sat up and thought, Wait a minute, why am I noticing this? So I scrolled through my Kindle, looking at the romance titles there and remembering how many of the heroines are above reproach by virtue (grin) of being virginal and how they are ever only debauched by the Love of Their Life and inevitably their future husband.

    Just once I’d like to read a romance novel where the hero is the virgin. Oh, wait again, Outlander. But it’s the only one I can think of.

  32. 32
    Samantha Garman says:

    Archer’s Voice by Mia Sheridan has a virgin hero!

  33. 33
    Tootie says:

    The reason I stopped reading a lot of NA…particularly Abbie Glines. She went so far as to have a character imagine an abortion to “justify” why she was “slutty”

  34. 34
    D.B. Sieders says:

    This is such a great post and great discussion! I’m also glad to have some recommendations for romance reads that don’t fall into the slut-shaming trap.

    I’m so glad others feel this way about these popular tropes! While I can appreciate some romances that feature inexperienced ingenues paired with men-of-the-world (read: had a LOT of women) heroes, such as in historical romance, this trope really gets on my nerves in contemporary and paranormal romances because it’s so overused. I’m drawn to romances in which women explore their sexuality and build upon their own previous sexual experiences as freely as men – especially when these experienced, well-rounded, heroines get to be equal and/or the dominant/assertive ones in bed.

    I try to incorporate this into my own writing.

    The point about female villains pitted against heroines in the quest for the prize (hero) leaves me a bit torn. On the one hand, I can see how it could perpetuate those shallow tropes/one-dimensional characters that fail the Bechdel test. On the other hand, given the number of male rivalries in romance, I don’t see why strong-willed, multi-dimensional female characters can’t duke it out for the man they desire. I’ve actually been called out for such a female rivalry in one of my contemporaries (though no my PR, oddly enough, but maybe that’s because both female rivals are the PR creatures and therefore their beyond-human stature negates the issue?). Since it wasn’t the traditional vixen versus virgin, though, so the reaction left me scratching my head. Still, I’m much more mindful now when I write my heroines and female villains, and that’s always a good thing!

    Totally sharing this post!

  35. 35
    Leah says:

    You know, I was thinking, and this was something that bothered me with a book I read recently too. I got it because it was reviewed here, Some Boys by Patty Blount, and one of the problems I had was so slut shamey it was. Which was perplexing, because the heroine is a rape survivor trying to get people to believe her. There’s a scene where he’s at a party or something, and a bunch of girls are hooking up with random guys, and when he asks his sister in disgust why “some girls do that”, she tells him they’re desperate. Because it can’t be that they actually enjoy it and that CAN’T be okay, and it’s perfectly okay that the guys do it. Similarly, later in the book, he tells his sister she’s prettier without makeup, and it’s supposed to be this big character moment for him, and all I could think was… maybe she likes wearing makeup and that’s okay? For a book that was trying to deal with such powerful subject matter, I found the way it reduced women to their sexuality and appearance REALLY demeaning. The only reason he starts to believe the heroine when she claims she was raped is because she doesn’t act like those other, horrible, slutty girls, even though *gasp* she wears a lot of makeup and is so much prettier without it. It’s the heroine’s sexual integrity that makes her worth believing more than anything else. It just really bothered me.

  36. 36
    Storyphile says:

    I think this is slowly changing, but there is still way too much of it out there. it can completely wreck a story for me too. It is all just part of the same crappy spectrum that brought us all the rapey 80s romances – the heroine has to be a “good girl” and “good girls” don’t consent to sex! UGH GROSS.
    I admit to having internalized a bunch of this bullshit, but I try to call myself on it and it’s working.
    Hurray for enthusiastic consent!
    And can I say, there is nothing wrong with chaste or choosy heroines either, but then maybe have some real awkwardness in the first smexytimes, not just “oooh I’m innocent, you better show me how, and NOW ITS ALL MAGICAL”. I want characters communicating and connecting as they figure out how to do this fun awkward thing!

  37. 37
    Lauren says:

    Thank you for posting this! This is one of the things that drives me absolutely batty in books. Though I actually think slut shaming is a symptom of the larger problem of fetishizing virginity or inexperience – as if it’s OK for men to enjoy sex for purely physical reasons, but god forbid a woman want a little action in the years between coming of age and meeting her ONE TRUE LOVE. Like we should celebrate women who spend their 20s celibate or in unsatisfying relationships.

  38. 38
    Jo McNally says:

    This is interesting food for thought, especially for writers. I’m not a huge fan of the virgin/alpha trope, so I don’t see this as often as some other readers might. The bigger issue may be “reality” and why people read romances. Reality is that women will sit around and talk trash about other women. We shouldn’t, of course, but we do. Which brings up the question – do romance novels have to be like “real life?” Yes and no. For example, romance writers have made a clear effort to support safe sex by making sure condoms and testing are at least discussed in the most intimate moments before sex – that might not be real life for everyone, but it should be, and romance writers are doing their part to encourage those conversations (bravo!). But this is fiction, and tastes vary. I’m uncomfortable with the idea that any novel, regardless of genre, should be held against some measurement of being realistic or correct. People don’t read fiction for realism – they read it for escape and enjoyment. There are obviously readers who want to read about billionaires falling for the shy virgin, bad boy bikers saved by the grade school teacher, step-siblings falling in love with each other, etc. It’s not my thing, but as bad as slut-shaming is, we need to be careful not to judge someone for what they want to read and why. Amanda said it best – let your wallet be your voice if you don’t like a particular genre or trope. Eventually the message gets across – I think that’s why we’re seeing stronger heroines with more self-worth these days.

  39. 39
    Ashley says:

    I cannot for the life of me remember which book it was but one in recent years had a scene where the hero and heroine were either debating taking their relationship into exclusive status or talking about faking through an engagement and the woman turned to the man and basically said, “No other women. If I’m going to be yours then you are going to mine.” I loved how she turned the possessive around. I think there was positive casual sex too on both sides.

    On a side note there is one thing I really hate in romance. When you know sexytimes will probably happen but the guy refuses to touch her because there are things he wants to do to her and she’s “not ready” or “innocent”. Dude…really?! She’s there, whipping her pants off for you and you’re waxing about purity?! I hate that in a hero. Unless you plan on doing something horrific then let her tell you when she’s done. BTW the thing he wants to do is typically missionary sex. It’s weird. It’s not like they’re pulling in a group or doing something that requires permission slips. It’s regular sex…in a bed.

  40. 40
    Anne says:

    I try to vote with my wallet BUT all of us share responsibility for posting reviews online that call out slutshaming and other anti-feminist tropes. Too often I think readers hold their tongues unless they can say only nice things. I’m not saying you have to rip in and be nasty, but at least pop in a signpost for the rest of us who follow in your footsteps.

    For example, yesterday I bought Talon by Carian Cole based on fantastic reviews on Goodreads and Amazon with no dissenting voices. Within the first few pages I tripped over slutshaming, homophobic insults, lavender eyes, etc… A big old pile of just no. That was a big fat DNF that didn’t need to happen.

    Seperately, if I see one more super-duper, vaginal orgasmic deflowering I will scream. Loudly.

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