Fifty Shades of Stigma

By Joanna Gregson and Jen Lois

For the past five years, we’ve been studying the culture of romance authors. Together, we’ve conducted over 50 interviews with authors and industry professionals, attended conferences and signing events for romance writers, and followed authors through social media.

One of the first things we observed—and that romance authors suggested as a topic for study when we asked their opinion—was the negative perception of the genre. Anyone who has heard of Fifty Shades of Grey knows what we’re talking about: people call the books “smutty,” “trashy,” and “porn for women.” Not surprisingly, romance writers are constantly confronted with people’s negative assumptions, too, which include a host of misconceptions about the sexual content: that it’s autobiographical, pornographic, and/or an invitation to sexualize the author. Though the romance genre contains a wide range of sexual content, from chaste Amish romances to BDSM-inspired romances like Fifty Shades, writers experience these stigmatizing interactions no matter the level of sexual explicitness in their books because the genre is known for its sexual content.romance novel

The source of this stigma is the simple fact that sexuality is still considered a taboo domain for women—something that violates societal norms to such an extent that authors are slut-shamed for writing it, just as readers are slut-shamed for reading it. Interestingly, we haven’t talked to any writers who actually feel shame around sexuality. But our data show that outsiders constantly engage the sexual stigma. They do this in two ways: they sneer or they leer. People who sneer are those who make it clear that they disapprove of the sexual content (or presumed sexual content) of romance novels. One best-selling author gave us a great example:

My mother is horrified by what I write because of the sex in it. She’s horrified. I say, “Mom, you always raised me to have a healthy appreciation for sex, and that it is a beautiful thing between two people who love each other.” And she says [in snippy voice], “Yes, but you don’t do it on the street.” And that’s the way she sees it, that I’m doing it on the street for everybody to see.

Besides sneering disapproval, the other reaction the sexual stigma invokes is leering “approval.” We realized this reaction was distinct from the sneer when one author told us about the time she arrived at a checkout stand carrying a stack of books on BDSM for research she was doing for her latest novel. Seeing the look of disapproval on the bookseller’s face, she thought to herself, “Don’t judge me, I’m researching!” In contrast, the man behind her in line gave her a sexually suggestive look, which made her ponder these two different reactions. As she told us, “I don’t know what’s worse, the disapproval or the approval.” Writers also told us about the frequency with which they got asked the dreaded question, typically with some kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge gesture to imply a leering, voyeuristic curiosity: “How do you do your research?”

What these two responses tell us is that social control over women’s sexuality is alive and well. What do writers do when confronted with these forms of slut-shaming? Some writers embrace their sexuality, displaying their sexualized selves on their own terms, posting pictures of shirtless guys on their webpages or tweeting about sex. As one author explained, it’s a way to “defang the critics [by] calling ourselves trashy before they can.” Concerned the stigma will affect their day jobs, their partners, or their children, some authors choose to write under pseudonyms. Other writers professionalize their work, framing sex as a necessary component in the story arc, pointing out the sexism in outsiders’ assumptions (our favorite example of this was the author who exclaimed “Nobody asks Stephen King how many fires he’s started with his telekinetic powers!”). As our research shows, the persistent stigma of women’s sexuality (whether through sneers or leers) limits writers’ and readers’ ability to be taken seriously.

In our article about the sexual stigma romance writers experience, we describe how outsiders applied the stigma by conveying blatant disapproval through “sneering” and inviting writers to display a highly sexualized self through “leering.” Writers interpreted outsiders’ sneering as slut-shaming rhetoric and responded discursively to manage the stigma; leering, however, sent a more complicated message that was harder for writers to manage. In revealing how these interactions threatened to strip writers of their sexual agency, our analysis suggests gender may be a primary mechanism by which stigma is applied and managed, which has theoretical implications for the stigmatization of women’s sexual selves.

Professors Joanna Gregson (Pacific Lutheran University) and Jen Lois (Western Washington University) have been studying the romance author culture since 2010. You can follow their research on Facebook (Romance Sociology) and Twitter (@RomanceSoc). Their article, “Sneers and Leers: Romance Writers and Gendered Sexual Stigma, is published in the August 2015 issue of Gender & Society. To view the article, click here.

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