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The traditional romance-erotica, or “bodice ripper,” cover has long depicted a familiar image: a muscular and strapping man and a windswept heroine in a state of undress, locked in an intimate embrace.

The cover of romance author Cat Sebastian’s book "Unmasked by the Marquessfollows that formula exactly, but, when long-time romance reader Es Davis opened the book, they were surprised to find a romantic relationship featuring a non-binary protagonist.

“It was the first time I'd seen queer people finding love and not getting punished for it on the page, that was really powerful for me,” they said. “And so, ever since then, I've read quite a lot of romance.”

From 2021 to 2022, romance print novel sales rose 52.4 percent, according to Publishers Weekly, which Davis said was supported by online platforms such as TikTok, where "smut," romance novels with explicit sexual content, became an entire subset of TikTok, or "BookTok."

Davis is the store manager at Golden Fig Books in Durham. Since 2020, they said that more young adults have approached them for smut recommendations, compared to previous years when the primary smut audience was middle-aged women.

“What might have mortified millennial shoppers a decade ago, it's just like, ‘Yeah, whatever’ to Gen Z people,” they said. “'Nothing matters, might as well read what I want to read!'”

Smut's rise in popularity and reduction in shame for young readers might allude to changes in how women and marginalized people are engaging with their sexuality, but Davis said smut is not inherently feminist, since problematic themes of patriarchy and toxic masculinity can still be found widely across the genre.

To presume that every piece of erotica or smut will present exactly the same feminist values is to assume all romance writers have the same beliefs, Katrina Jackson, an erotica and romance-erotica author, said.

“My particular Black feminist politics is anti-colonial, it’s anti-police and anti-prison industrial complex, because those are things that I value,” she said. “But to ask another book to do that, in the same genre, is to presume that we're all the same even if that author is also a Black woman.”

Jackson is a long-time reader of erotica and grew up reading romance books from authors Omar Tyree and Zane. While getting her Ph.D. in African American and African Diaspora history, she started writing erotica and romance-erotica on the side. 

Today, she is both a professor and author, writing stories featuring LGBTQ+ and racially diverse characters, and often about grief. 

Part of why Jackson loves erotica is not only because it explores women’s sexuality, but it is also an exploration of the wide-range of emotions people experience in life and in sex. One way she does this is through polyamorous relationships, which require ample communication to work.

“For all of its faults, romance is a uniquely, or it can be, a uniquely welcoming space for whoever you are,” she said. “Which is essentially what I'm trying to get at in all of my books — the world you want to be in.” 

Davis said they are critical of LGBTQ+ romance novels that oversimplify the romantic and sexual experiences of LGBTQ+ people to the act of coming out, a problematic popular genre convention still widely used. 

However, they said that many LGBTQ+ romances subvert problematic patriarchal expectations by emphasizing how sex and pleasure can be a way for writers to explore character dynamics and their emotional relationships — something that gives marginalized characters agency, but that they said can make men in particular uncomfortable.

“We are allowed to choose what love means to us, we're allowed to choose what sex means to us, we're allowed to choose the ways that we engage in those things in ways that society tells us we aren't allowed to,” they said

More broadly, they said, smut can help inform some marginalized people about the ways their relationships could be problematic and helps them understand what might be holding them back from forming relationships. 

Romance is a story about people, where the focus of the book is on the development of one or more emotional relationships, according to Sarah Ficke,a professor at UNC who studies the genre. 

Historically and conventionally, she said, romance is associated with women, and is part of an ongoing societal concern about what women are reading, and whether or not what they’re reading is a problem.  

Patriarchy, she said, often values literature which centers politics and war, and because romance fiction is historically considered the work of women, it is deemed less important or serious.

More recently, Ficke said smut has started exploring consent as a theme, an important development in the genre. 

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“It’s a fictionalized fantastical space, so there's room for people to also explore what it means when there's different kinds of forms of consent,” she said. “And I think all of those conversations are ways that help readers be thoughtful about what consent means.”

Julia Ridley Smith is a UNC professor and author, and her short story collection, "Sex Romp Gone Wrong," coming out on February 6, explores women’s sexuality across different age groups, how sexuality changes over time and how women learn to desire things. 

She said patriarchy places contradictory expectations on women and their desires can get caught up in these expectations. 

“So, is it any wonder that people are looking to a genre and an experience that involves some kind of release?” she said.


@dthlifestyle |