Thursday, February 20, 2014

Why Is Lesbian Romance So Unpopular When Compared to Gay or Straight Romance?

I've thought about this a lot. I've written both gay and lesbian romance and although my lesbian romance gets far better reviews and nominated for far more awards I don't sell as many copies. Period. People aren't as interested in reading it. Even when I do give-always people are far more likely to want a copy of my gay romance novella than my lesbian romance novella.

A lot of people say romance readers are straight women so of course they are naturally going to be more interested in books with hot men. I think that is the easiest, least complicated, least threatening way of looking at the issue though.

I also don't really buy it, never have. 

What i really think is that women have a hard time thinking about women; about female bodies, female sexuality and female characters in general.   

Our society tells us female sexuality is dirty, wrong and shameful. Always. It tells us the female body is only ever not shameful or acceptably sexual when a man is looking at it. When a woman looks at herself, she is conditioned to only see the flaws, only see the ways she isn't attractive, only feel ashamed. 

In her article about why female fans hate female characters more than male characters "For All the Women I Have Loved Who Were Dragged Through the Mud"  Aiffe writes:

"Women project the standards society has put on them. If they’re told they’re annoying for talking about their feelings, they’ll think other women are annoying when they talk about their feelings. It’s a continuous cycle of policing. I think there is a certain degree of truth to this. Women absorb the social rules of what women are and aren’t allowed to be (spoiler: it’s all contradictory and we’re not allowed to anything) and judge other women by those rules. She’s annoying when she speaks, her voice is too shrill, she’s too meek and quiet and passive, she’s too rude and direct."

I think for a lot of women reading lesbian romance makes them have to confront their own anxieties and insecurities about their bodies and their sexualities as well as other women's bodies and sexualities. 

If both of the main characters are women and you find yourself having a negative reaction to them or to their gender and sexuality, you might find yourself questioning why? Is it something about you? Something about them? Something about women in general? It might make you stumble upon a whole new level of internalized misogyny you didn't realize you had.

That can be deeply frightening and off-putting. Not something a lot of people want when reading a romance novel.

It is so much easier to think about male bodies and male sexualities which are constructed as natural, normal and overwhelmingly positive. Sexualized cisgender male bodies are not associated with the same kind of body policing or shaming (this isn't actually completely true for all men but generally the kinds of men who are policed and shamed don't get romance novels written about them even in m/m romance) that sexualized female bodies are.

I think this is also where some of the backlash against 'strong female characters' comes from. Anytime this subject get's brought up in the writing community someone always pops up (almost always a woman) to tell me "not all women are strong" and "we need to write stories about non-strong women too." It has happened so frequently at this point that I think it's moved past the point of critiquing the way Hollywood has constructed "the strong female character" (which I think genuinely does need to be critiqued). The conversation is hardly ever framed as "the way the Strong Female Character is constructed in say Hollywood  action films or the fantasy genre is problemtic" instead it it almost always portrayed as "strong women as characters are problemtic." This distinction has caused me to wonder if a lot of women get triggered by any kind of talk of strong female characters because they themselves don't feel strong or don't consider themselves strong and its anxiety inducing for them to have what makes a woman 'strong' talked about at all. 

In the same way I think for a lot of women it's triggering to see women portrayed as confident and sexual without having men involved. It brings up, all of their own insecurities about their bodies and their sexualities. It highlights all of the ways they've been told that they are bodies aren't good enough and their sexual desires are wrong without the 'safe space' of a male body or male sexuality to retreat to. 

But there is also I think another layer to the question of lesbian romance vs. gay romance and why one is so much more popular than the other.

I also think it also has to do with the way (white, cisgender, able bodied, middle class) gay male identity is portrayed in the media and in Western society. 

Because m/m romance does better than lesbian romance, and bisexual romance, and trans* romance. It just does better period. Also in the m/m romance community the men being represented are almost always in white, able bodied, middle class men who conform to a normative standard of physical male beauty. There aren't a whole lot of chubby guys in m/m romance, disabled guys, working class guys (unless he is falling for a millionaire in which case the class problem will be 'fixed' by the end of the book when he marries into privilege.) Gay guys of color are often not represented and forget about trans guys. That can't be a coincidence.

"Popular culture was teaching newly-out gay men that they could be welcomed into the heteronormative fold so long as they shoehorned themselves into these pre-approved [media constructed] molds of gay male identity. " 

Basically he argued that the media and society has created a gay identity that is acceptable and non-threatening to heteronormative culture. These are the kinds of gay characters even otherwise homophobic Americans enjoy seeing as bit roles in tv shows like Will & Grace.  

Lisa Duggan has pioneered the concept of homonormativity which is:

"a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption"  [1] (emphasis mine) 

Of course this heteronormatively acceptable homosexuality or homonormativity is really only available to white, cisgender gay men who conform to the acceptable stereotypes of a gay man. But these 'acceptable types of gay masculinity' are exactly what the overwhelming majority of m/m romance novels promote. They are comfortable and non-threatening images of gayness easily consumed by an audience that might even be, in many ways, homophobic. People can feel good about being "supportive allies" to the GLBTQ community through consuming these images of very normative white, able bodied young men. Whiles these images also mean that they never have to question any of the deeper homophobic, biphobic or transphobic views they might still hold.[2]
Lesbian or other queer women on the other hand, along with any and all trans* people and QPOC, are still threatening to heteronormativity. These unacceptable forms of queerness are just not as easy or comfortable for a large part of a wider Western audience to consume.

I think that, coupled with a lot of the internalized anxiety and shame women feel about female bodies and female desires, makes lesbian romance or romances that depict queer women significantly less popular.     

Thank you to everyone who read over this first and encouraged me to post it. 

1. Luibhéid, Eithne.  "Queer/Migration: An Unruly Body of Scholarship."  GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, Volume 14, Number 2-3, 2008, pp. 169-190 (Article) Published by Duke University Press

2. this needs to be an article in and of itself but I haven't written it yet, because it would involve a long discussion of the hierarchy within gay politics, assimilation, and representation.  


  1. Great article—brave soul for taking this on, but it's a conversation we need to have.

    As an author of gay romance, as a bisexual (for lack of a better term) woman, and simply as a woman--I will say another, related issue is that the waters feel dangerous from both ends. I have two lesbian romance books in my WIP file, two trans, and one genderqueer, but these are harder for me to write in part because, right or wrong, I fear the reception will be less welcoming. Now, I felt that way about writing about BDSM, and that has gone well, so I try to trust that, but that fear runs deep. The bisexual and lesbian characters in me run close to my personal bone, and it's hard not to feel I will be putting so much more of myself on the page than I'm used to. (I'm not even sure that's true. Just how it feels.)

    I will say, though, that having written several non-white characters, many characters with either disabilities or significant physical and/or mental challenges, and rarely shying away from admitting a character has a paunch, readers love those characters as much if not better than the standard perfect males. What readers have always loved is emotional honesty, connection, and triumph (together) over adversity.

    I'm challenging myself in the next three years to write beyond just the G and to include more and more of the great soup of life, not just the homogenized polished people. Thanks for writing this. I agree, women's misogyny against ourselves is some of the most dangerous and difficult to eradicate. There are some wonderful erotic romance authors handling this from the other side of the fence, particularly Kit Rocha and Lauren Dane and Vivian Arend come to mind. I think romance novels right now are part of a large, long conversation about sexuality. Appreciate this note in the great chord.

    1. Thank you so much Heidi for writing and sharing your thought.

      I feel you on the fear as a writer that your books won't be well received. Writing lesbian and trans romances are incredibly important for me as a person and something that I enjoy a lot. Still it's hard to keep on doing it knowing it won't sell as well, many reviewers won't take a chance on it and there will a negative backlash (the first review I ever got on my first ever book with a trans* characters was incredibly transphobic, basically trashing the book for not being a standard m/m romance with two cisgender characters) I am a relatively new author, I don't have a big pool of fans who will read a book just because I wrote it even if they've never read a lesbian or trans romance before.

      So it's tough, but I still want to keep on doing it because it's important to see people like me represented in books.

      I think to me the issue I see is not that there aren't amazing books with POC, or people with disabilities because I know there are. I also know there are readers who either seek it out those kinds of character or simply don't mind reading about them as long as the story is good.

      But I think for me the issue lies in the fact that when you look at say, the Amazon best selling list for gay romance for example, it is overwhelmingly white, able bodied, cisgender men who get described as "the handsome jock." And again there isn't anything wrong with that per say. It just fall very much into the way popular culture as a whole tends to portray gay male identity and there are problems with this image I think we, as a community of writers and readers, should be aware of. Not least because it helps continue to marginalize gay, bisexual and queer women both in fiction and in the real world.

      I see a lot of hope coming out of genre of erotica. I know a lot of really great queer and trans authors of erotica who aren't afraid to write the full spectrum of human experience and sexuality warts and all and still make it sexy. I learn so much from knowing them and reading their work.

      I think the shame and self hate we carry around in side of us is the most insidious and destructive a lot of the time. It colors so much of what we do and is so hard to get rid of. Overcoming my internalized misogyny, homophobic and transphobic feels like pretty much a full time job sometimes. But it's easier, I think, when I admit to it, and talk about it with others rather than pretending it's not there.

      Again thank you so much for reading, taking the time to comment and retweeting on Twitter.

  2. I started out reading straight romance because I didn't know there were any other options. I knew about gay 'literature' but not that there were happy books about people who were still alive and in love by the end.

    Then I accidentally ran into a couple of m/m books and I realized it was a thing. It rapidly became a thing I loved- it was one step (and really, a significant step) closer to my own experience. And there were lots of m/m books that were really well written which made me very happy.

    Once I knew the genre existed, I went and looked for lesbian romance. I was extremely disappointed. I couldn't find many and the ones I found I rarely liked.

    I've been wondering why this is the case. I thought I was perhaps easier on m/m because while the discussions about navigating family, friends, work, and society from an at least somewhat "other" position resonated, it was still distant enough that I wasn't looking for reality.

    Here is my reality- I'm 41, a lesbian, and I've been with my wife for 24 years, living together for 16, and married for 9. We have two kids, 8 and 10. I work and my wife is home and an active volunteer in the kids' school. I cook and sew. She shovels snow. A hell of a lot of snow this winter. Neither of us play sports (although our daughter does avidly). I read a lot. I'm telling you this because it explains at least half of the discomfort I have with the majority of the lesbian romances I've found. They tend to be either very depressing, deeply into butch/femme roles (which is fine- just not reflective of my experience), and/or very badly written. To be fair, there have been a few exceptions, each of which I cherish.

    I suspect there is a lot to what you are saying, but I also think it's a little bit of a chicken/egg issue. There isn't a strong audience because there aren't a lot of good books out there. There aren't a lot of good books out there because the demand for them isn't strong.

    Of course, now that I know you have lesbian books out, I'm going to find them and try them out. Also, Heidi, please do keep on with the lesbian romances. I automatically buy everything you write and I can't even express how fast I'd be buying that one.

    Thank you so much for talking about this. I hope it continues.

    1. My story as a read is very similar to yours. It took me longer than it probably should have to figure out there were books with queer people in them. When I did most of them weren't think I wanted to read, books with sad endings or ones that painted an out of date picture of what it meant to be gay.

      Than I stumbled upon m/m romance. I was lucky that the first author I ended up reading is still one of my favorites to day, and just an amazing writer period. Through her books I fell in love with this brighter, more hopeful image of gay identity and life. I was particularly appreciated that the gay characters were not defined by their sexuality. But at the same time their sexuality and love lives were celebrated instead of swept under the rug.

      I really wanted to find the same kind of amazing stories but with lesbian and transgender characters as well and so I want looking. My search for trans romance yeilded nothing and my search for lesbian romance very few books that I could identify with.

      Like I was saying on twitter a lot of lesbian romance doesn't speak to me because of the strong emphasis on high femme/high femme or butch/femme couples. For me having just those two choices didn't represent the full spectrum of what I new queer female identity to be neither did it represent my own experience of being gay.

      So that was when I started writing my own stories and books.

      I think there is something to be said for quality definietely. If there were more good quality lesbian romance books that represented a wider spectrum of lesbian identity there would probably be more readers.

      At the same time I have again and again run across people who were perfectly okay and even willing to spend hundreds of dollars on gay romance books but recoil in disguised from the idea of a lesbian romance book. In the romance community whenever lesbian or bisexual women are brought up there is usually practically a Greek chorus of "ewww vagina!" or "I only want to read about cock."

      Bottom lime is, it's been my experience that the average romance reader will take a chance on really horrendously written m/m romance but isn't willing to give even a really well written lesbian romance the time of day. I think the time has come for us to examine more closely why that is.

      Anyway I've rambled enough.

      Thank you so much for commenting and continuing the conversation and I hope if you do end up reading any of my books you enjoy them :)

    2. Don't mean to butt into this convo, but I agree with the butch/femme thing that F/F fiction latches onto far too much. I'm intersex,bigender, and pansexual, and I guess you could say that I've had a colorful sex life with cis-women (lesbian and bi) and trans-women. I've yet read an F/F book where I feel like I relate to it, because a great majority of it only caters to one crowd while having no regard towards others. There's only so many times you can read about femme/femme and butch/femme couples. I don't relate to the butch/femme thing at all, I never understood why a girl-on-girl relationship has to always boil down to that. I want there to be more to the story than just that dynamic. And I want the sex to be a bit raunchier and not so soft and cuddly. I want the characters to jump out of the page and engage me. Though I've read/reviewed many good F/F fiction I can't say I've read one that has blown my mind. Like you said, i think if there were more F/F fiction that was varied and diverse, maybe more readers will respond to it. It seems like that's what people want from F/F fiction, but hardly anyone is writing and publishing it.

    3. the butch/femme dynamic is extremely important to a large part of the queer community that I associate with. For a long time especially during the 80s butch and femme identities were really marginalized and reviled by large parts of the lesbian community and you still see some of that hostility in the lesbian community even today. I never want to be part of marginalizing these identities and relationship dynamics because I think they can be incredibly radical and fruitful for a lot of women.

      That being said the thoughtful radical butch and femme identities I have experienced in real life are often not the way butch and femme identity is expressed in lesbian romance, by and large.

      I am made uncomfortable that too often butch/femme identity in romance and the media seems to be portrayed as simply mimicking a heterosexual relationships. When it has been my experience that in the real world butch and femme dynamics can and often are much more subversive and nuanced.

      Aditionally I personally have never been attracted to the butch/femme dynamic. I am trans and have been in relationships almost exclusively with butches, studs and more masculine of center people. These alternative masculinity/alternative masculinity pairings are the ones I love writing about ones I would like to see more of. Sadly finding good butch/butch romance is almost impossible.

  3. Lovely article. I've wondered the same thing myself. There are even a few lesbian m/m authors and I wondered why they didn't write lesbian books. Especially because there aren't many out there. I imagine maybe they don't want to be pigeonholed? I would love to read more f/f but the few I've picked up either didn't do anything for me or were purely erotica and i'm not always in the mood for just bumping and grinding.

    1. not being a lesbian, or ever having this conversation with a lesbian author before, I can't speak to why lesbian authors choose to write m/m romance instead of lesbian romance. It may be a purely pragmatic move. M/m romance for the most part sells well, there is also more community support for authors who write it. I know for me that looks a lot more attractive.

      The question of quality of lesbian romance has been coming up a lot and has made me really think. There definitely seems to be a divide between people who wouldn't read lesbian romance even if it was plentiful and good (which are more of the sort of readers I am talking about in this article) And then there are readers who would read lesbian romance and do want to read it, just have struggle to find any they like.

      I myself totally fall into the second category so I hear you on that. I haven't found any lesbian romance that I really clicked with or enjoyed to be honest. That is one of the reasons I started writing it myself. So yeah, I think definitely the quality of fiction and how lesbian are represented is important to this conversation. Especially when trying to reach out to readers who are open to lesbian romance.

  4. To elaborate more on here rather than on Twitter, funny that you wrote this article because lately i've been thinking about why F/F erotica is not as popular as M/M. You were spot on. I also think though that with F/F, it seems like the common theme (from observation) is that readers just don't relate to the characters in the book and that the plot/story is not that compelling enough to engage them from beginning to end. I can somewhat agree with that. I've read more amazing F/F short stories than F/F novels/novellas, the latter being because a lot of it is just not really that interesting and the sex scenes are too soft core for me, personally. But it could also be because the audience for F/F is quieter and not as passionate as M/M readers. You can find THOUSANDS of groups, pages, etc. on FB that are solely dedicated to readers who love M/M whereas with F/F you find one or two groups, and there's hardly any discussion, book sharing, etc. it's just dead. The audience is far too quiet. The quality of some F/F fiction isn't the greatest. If there isn't a demand for better quality F/F fiction, publishers just won't sell it, they are businesses, after all, they don't publish something that doesn't or won't sell.It's sad but it's how many of them roll. So with that I think there's a lot more than what you said above as to why F/F isn't as popular but the points made were definitely spot on.

    As for M/M, I love it as much as F/F but i've always found it disturbing and annoying how the majority of M/M erotica only stars white, buff-bodied, middle class or higher class, nearly close to perfect, oversexed characters. Where's the plus sized men, people of color, disabled men, or "average" looking guys? And why does a good 95% of the book have to only be driven by sex scene after sex scene? In real life the gay men I know aren't gym gods and they aren't all white either. They have physical flaws like everyone else, including having a soft belly, and oh yeah, even a short penis lol, or being on the heavier side. And a lot of them want a serious relationship. One of the reasons why M/M as the genre annoys me is because of how it shamelessly supports stereotypes and tropes instead of breaking them down or at least having a more refreshing twist to things. I get many authors can argue that they're only entertaining their readers and writing what they enjoy, more power to them, not knocking it, but I'm getting tired of how played out it has been. I just wish more M/M authors can branch out and be more diverse with their stories, it's too much of the same thing. I don't think it's asking for much but I guess it is lol.

    Anyway, rant over. Great article, thank you for writing it :)

    1. one of the things I am interested in is asking why the readership of lesbian romance (or erotica) isn't louder. Why aren't more people agitating for better lesbian romance and more lesbian romance? Why aren't lesbian readers as passionate as readers of straight and m/m romance (and erotica)?

      I agree with you, publishers are less likely to take a risk if they don't see a demand for it and right now that demand just doesn't seem to be there.

      Why is that? What makes us (all of us) value stories about lesbian/bi/queer women less?

      "I get many [m/m romance] authors can argue that they're only entertaining their readers and writing what they enjoy"

      I get told this a lot too and personally, I think being able to not care how the images we create affect large issues and concerns is a privilege given to people who don't write about minority groups and oppressed people.

      I am all for fun but I think there are ethical issues that need to be taken seriously too.

    2. Well, about able-bodied, handsome, upper class guys. I'm an escapist reader, there are times when I want realism, but when I'm reading a romance I like to read about good-looking, smart people. I meet enough average looking, soft bellied ordinary people in real life in books I want to have something else.If they are gifted, all the better, as a teacher I meet so many with average abilites and some who are just plain stupid, It's just fun to read about someone who is a genious, the most gifted wizard of all times, etc. That is why I love fantasy too.the less close to real life the better:)

  5. Interesting question.

    My observation as a bisexual man who has seen a lot of relationships involving a lot of people is that women's idea of gay male relationships is a lot more realistic than men's view of gay female relationships.

    I think that there is a lot of overlap between what straight women find erotic about M/M erotica and what gay men themselves are looking for. So an M/M book can appeal to an audience of both.

    On the other hand, the stereotypical "lesbian" scene written for men seems to be very different from what lesbians themselves would consider to be ideal, or even believable. A lesbian romance written by and for women wouldn't fit what most men expect.

    Does that make any sense?

    1. Thank you for commenting Misha.

      This is very interesting and I think erotica might be a slightly different kind of a think to romance. I know the two genres have different tropes and different ways of constructing a story although there is some overlap especially now with erotic romance (which I personally find to be a problematic category, but that's a story for another day)

      My understanding of the romance industry is that while men certainly do write it, the vast majority of authors, across the board, are women.

      Most lesbian romance, while there are certainly problems with the way lesbian relationships are represented, are still written by a women for, presumably, a female audience.

      Erotica as a genre I am less familiar with but it's my understanding that it may function a lot like live action pornography in this regard. While both women and gay men can consume and enjoy main stream gay porn, girl-on-girl porn is made mostly by straight men for straight men. There is a however a growing subgenre of porn made by queer people for queer people and I believe the same is true in erotica.

      I am thinking of such great anthologies as Sometimes She Lets Me or Say Please, which are collections of erotica written by lesbian/bi/queer women for lesbian/bi/queer women.

      So it definitely does exist. I think it is a.) less plentiful than the stuff for straight men, and b.) might be harder for straight women, or a queer women who was simply not in the know, to find.

      When it comes to lesbian romance as apposed to erotica there seems to be a block with a large portion of the audience that doesn't have a problem with m/m or het romance even trying a story about two women.

      Some of this may come from an assumption that lesbian romance will be like girl-on-girl erotica and porn, and only appeal to straight men though. Which is something I hadn't thought of before.

    2. Your last paragraph sums up pretty much what I was trying to get at. In the media in general, lesbians have been portrayed primarily from a male perspective, either as male fantasy or male fear--when they aren't exhibitionist dolls they're anti-male thugs.

      So I think that "lesbian romance" as a genre has got an uphill battle. I do believe that there is a market for it, but I think that authors will have to work to overcome the stereotypes.

  6. I believe the tides are changing. I see more acceptance and openness with lesbian or F/F fiction, especially in movies and on television. There are more lesbian subplots such as on House of Cards, Black Sails, The Good Wife and there is now a show about a married lesbian couple and their adopted children. More people are open to reading lesbian fiction, especially romance and there is this need for more LGBT YA, especially lesbian.

    Like you, I write both lesbian and straight romance. My biggest sales are my lesbian titles, even though I don't have many reviews or word of mouth for them. Who are buying my books? Who is my audience? My first published book was a lesbian romance and since then the majority of my published work is lesbian romance. I still think lesbian fiction (or romance because that's what I mainly write) is still a niche market, but is following the same path as M/M or Gay fiction did. I thought I would never see the day a M/M romance would be the #1 best selling fiction book in the US last March, which was Lover at Last by JR Ward. I do see a day when lesbian fiction will be as popular as M/M, and in some cases as popular as straight fiction. I will continue to write lesbian fiction because I enjoy writing it, as much as I enjoy writing my straight or other LGBT titles.

    Heidi, I do hope you'll publish those lesbian titles you have because I feel the reception you're worried about will be accepting. I know for me it has been very welcoming and wonderful.

    1. I too hold out hope that lesbian romance (and romance novels with bisexual/pansexual and trans* characters) will be one day just as popular as gay romance.

      It is interesting for me as a writer, as a scholar, and as a radical queer to ask why gay romance has done so much better, so much sooner than these other kinds of LGBTQI niche romances?

      I also think it's important for those of use who write and read m/m romance (as I certainly do) to be aware that it isn't just rainbow hugs of awesomeness all the time but there are pitfalls, and problematic elements too. I think its easy to fall into the mind set of mainstream gay romance = unconditional support of all LGBTQI people when that's not actually the case and we as authors need to be sensitive to that.

    2. >especially in movies and on television

      There's also G.B. Hajim's STRANGE FRAME, an SF film featuring a lesbian romance front and center! I was so jazzed to discover that movie. Would love to have the equivalent in books.

  7. I certainly hope F/F is taking more a center stage and will grow! I like writing it but agree, it never seems to sell as well.

    I loved the blog post and agree, lesbian erotic romance brings up women's self judging...I had one editor dislike one of the women (when I felt she was just being strong and clear about what she wanted in life). I don't mean the editor wanted to soften the character a bit and clarify things in IM...she almost rejected the book. I had to change editors because I was so put off over it. Women can't/shouldn't always be nice. They have fights, they have deal breakers in relationships, and that's okay!

    In f/f books there is no man to 'approve' their bodies/feelings/relationships and choices. Unless they still got daddy issues...And that's society (we need to keep working to change it): men still hold the approval card...even when we don't need them.

    1. "In f/f books there is no man to 'approve' their bodies/feelings/relationships and choices. Unless they still got daddy issues...And that's society (we need to keep working to change it): men still hold the approval card...even when we don't need them."

      yes I think this is very true. I see a lot of stories with f/m pairings were the women gets her anxieties over her body or sexuality soothed by the man who basically tells her it's okay and 'allowed' her to feel good about herself.
      And you see it in m/m romance sometimes too were the less masculine (usually POV character) gets his anxieties about body image or sexual performance soothed by his older, more experienced (more traditionally masculine) love interest.

      I think, as you so rightly pointed out, that comes in part from society telling us that a woman can't be self confident about her body, her sexuality, or her worth. Instead she's supposed to think she's crap until a man tells her otherwise and that's ... just really fucked up.

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  9. I also write lesbian romance, and I write gay romance and M/F couples. In the past my gay stories sold better, but one year the lesbian stories surpassed everything else in sales. I'm not sure if that marked the beginning of an appreciation for this coupling or if it was a novelty. Anyway, last spring I attended a conference and hosted a panel on LGBT romance and a woman who identified as lesbian told me she preferred to read lesbian characters, not necessarily romance. I've since met a number of lesbians echoing the same sentiment. They want more lesbian characters and relationships portrayed, they just want other genres. I used to think maybe they saw lesbian romance written purely as titillation, therefore fetishizing their sexuality. That might be the case with some books, but I write romance to show a love between two people.

    Regardless of sales in the future, I'll write what comes to me. Be it lesbian, gay, or het. I just want to tell stories. Thanks for the opportunity to share.

    1. the comments made to you about lesbian romance vs. lesbian characters in other genres is interest.

      My personal experience of talking to people on the lesbian/bi/queer female community is that they, especially younger people, have a bad opinion of romance as a genre over all.

      This comes from the perception that romance as a genre, regardless of what kind of sexuality is being portrayed, doesn't interrogate its problematic tropes and elements. For instance the way women's sexuality is represented or how rape is handled.

      My own experience of being a romance write is that romance as a genre actually does interrogate and talk a lot about these trope and issues. A lot of authors take these kinds of things seriously and a lot of readers to do.

      Are we perfect? no. Do more of these kinds of conversations need to happen? obviously I think so or I wouldn't have written this post.

      Still I think the misconception that romance isn't a genre that will be respectful of queer women still lingers in some communities.

    2. Romance in general gets a bad rap, despite the genre raking in billions annually. To this day in the media you always see the term "bodice ripper" used to describe the books. The mindset of what a romance novel is seems stuck in the 50s.

      It's my hope, as people try the genre, the thinking will change.

  10. I think this is a great piece about F/F and I really appreciate a lot of what you're saying here. I write lesbian and bi erotica, romance and SF/F/H for a queer female audience so I come at this from a different angle. There are a number of LGBT presses that successfully market lesbian romances to a female audience: Bold Strokes Books, Bella Books, Regal Crest, and a number of others, plus successful indie authors. But there is a substantial gap between how presses with predominantly LGBTQ readership and how presses with predominantly hetero readership choose and present books. F/F often feels inauthentic to the lesbian audience that only reads lesbian/bi women writing romance and erotica, in much the same way M/M feels inauthentic for many gay men. One of the reasons that M/M is so huge is that it comes out of the online slash fan fiction communities which have a predominantly straight female audience. Statistically speaking, that's simply a lot more readers. Many of the current lesbian presses came out of Xena fan fiction, in much the same way but on a smaller scale. There hasn't been an equivalent fan base for either bi or trans work, unfortunately, but there's certainly lots of potential.
    In any case, you or some of your readers might be interested in the following:
    The GCLS gives out awards for lesbian lit in multiple categories -
    The Bisexual Writers Association gives out the Book Awards, which is new, as of last year -

    1. I definitely think there is something to be said for the way different presses market books. I've talked to a lot of publishers and authors who write/publish or are interested in writing/publishing lesbian romance about marketing to the queer community rather than straight readership. I think right now that's definitely the way to go.

      I guess from a scholarly perspective what I am interested in thinking more critically about is the gap I see between the sheer number of m/m romance books that are sold vs. lesbian romance books.

      For m/m romance there seems to be a huge and ever growing market and lesbian romance is, as far as I am aware, definitely lagging behind.

      I am interested in thinking about why that is?

      I think the same questions could and should be applied to fanfiction. Why is slash between male characters overwhelmingly more popular and more mainstream then fanfiction written about female pairings?

      A lot of people say 'well straight readers' but I think assuming these trends happen ONLY because these readers are straight essentializes sexuality and sexual desire. It also erases the way things like misogyny and heteronormativity affect what we think of as 'acceptable' desires and fantasies to have, regardless of sexual identity.

      I would love to see there be more of a market for bisexual and trans romance. Writing all sorts of romance novels with trans* characters is something I am deeply committed to and I'm excited to watch a community of authors and readers form.

      Thank you so much for taking the time to comment.

    2. I definitely agree with you on the overall numbers, heteronormativity and misogyny. I think that slash historically plays into it by working on those issues elements to make it safer to fetishize idealized gay romance/sex than lesbian romance/sex. As with consistently valorizing all things perceived as male over all things perceived as female, it's beyond even learned behavior into being completely normalized. Have you read Julie Serrano's "Whipping Girl"? Serrano's a trans feminist author with a lot if interesting things to say about how we do that in Western European culture.


    3. I've only read part of Julie Serrano's "Whipping Girl" although reading it in its entirety had been on my to do list for a while now.

  11. Addendum: I'm looking for F/F and/or lesbian erotica and erotic romance guests for my new blog for my alternate persona, Emily L. Byrne. Feel free to ping me if you're interested. I'm hoping to make it easier to get the word out about new titles -

  12. Thank you for writing this thoughtful and thought-provoking post! The question is one that I’ve found frustrating to contemplate, both as a writer and a reader of stories with lesbian romantic elements. Here are a few somewhat disconnected observations based on my own discussions and experiences.

    I believe there’s a very strong thread of internalized sexism in this phenomenon – a weakness of the imagination when it comes to identifying with female characters, either as an author or reader, even on the part of lesbian authors and readers. This perception has come out of a lot of individual conversations, but the most telling evidence is from talking to prominent lesbian authors whose GLBTQ-themed work focuses primarily or exclusively on gay male characters. What I’ve heard time and again is, “I wanted to write this particular type of plot, or this particular type of setting, or this particular type of character, and I couldn’t make the story work for me with female characters.” If even a lesbian author finds it easier to identify with gay male characters than characters like herself, is it any wonder that non-lesbian authors have similar difficulties?

    I’d also like to observe that the narrow scope of the existing lesbian publishing scene isn’t confined only to its focus on well-off, able-bodied, conventionally-roled, mostly white characters. Because I’m not really into contemporary romance/mystery/thriller stories, it’s extremely apparent to me what a tiny fraction of possible plot-space the current lesbian publishing trends occupy. We see the same plots and characters over and over again with minor variation. And when you step back and look at the field as a whole, it’s also startling how strongly “lesbian fiction” is considered synonymous with “erotic romance, erotica, and porn”, even by fans of the genre. Where are all the books that are simply gosh-darn good reads where the characters happen to be lesbian? Stories that aren’t _about_ them being lesbian, but where they just _are_?

    Like a number of other commenters, the greatest problem I had when first discovering the world of lesbian literature was the small number of books that “hit my buttons”. As a reader primarily of books intersecting the themes of science fiction, fantasy, history, and adventure, in 40 years of buying books I’ve filled perhaps one shelf of my library with lesbian books in these intersections … and some of them scraped in on a “better than nothing” basis. I’m not saying that anyone needs to stop writing what they enjoy if what they enjoy is contemporary romance/mystery/erotica, but we need to convince the market that there’s room for all 31 flavors of ice cream (to use the metaphor featured in my blog post on the topic: .

    I agree with several other commenters that we also have a “chicken and egg” problem. There is a perception – and it’s hard to say it’s entirely unfounded – that the lesbian fiction industry has a fairly low quality bar. Readers may have developed a reflexive assumption that they can either have quality writing or they can have lesbian characters but they have to give up on one. Unfortunately, this can steer better writers away from publishing with lesbian-oriented presses. And once steered away, there are a lot of pressures (see point #1 above) to avoid a focus on lesbian characters. To attract good writers, lesbian presses need to be seen to publish good writers, and the readership needs to be seen to appreciate and support good writers. Otherwise, the good writers will be sorely tempted to go elsewhere and adjust their writing to what attracts those other publishers want. And conversely, good writers have to have faith that there is a readership out there hungry for them to produce well-written, well-plotted stories with lesbian characters and be willing to take the risk of writing for those readers even when the marketplace evidence for their existence is thin.

    1. Thank you for commenting!

      I think as a writer I'm very aware of the politicized nature of writing about female bodies and female desires.

      Men are easier to write about even gay men, because they don't come with untold years of sexism and misogyny surrounding the ways their bodies are viewed and desires analyzed. So yeah, as a writer its definitely been my experience that m/m romance is a hundred times easier to right than lesbian romance is.

      I think you also make an interesting point about lesbian fiction = erotica and porn, always. Even in the comments I see a lot of people talking about erotica even though the article is actually about romance. I don't really know what to make of that.

      "To attract good writers, lesbian presses need to be seen to publish good writers, and the readership needs to be seen to appreciate and support good writers. Otherwise, the good writers will be sorely tempted to go elsewhere and adjust their writing to what attracts those other publishers want. And conversely, good writers have to have faith that there is a readership out there hungry for them to produce well-written, well-plotted stories with lesbian characters and be willing to take the risk of writing for those readers even when the marketplace evidence for their existence is thin."

      Yes, this. To put myself out there in a market that isn't going to make me a lot of money (lesbian romance, trans* romance) I need to know there are readers who will value what I write, who will push me to be better, who will stand up and say "yes this is something we love and something we are willing to fight for" even if there are only a few of them.

      I think that is how m/m romance has gotten so big. Because it does have readers like that. And that's the kind of readers lesbian romance and lesbian fiction in general needs if it's going to make it.

  13. I bump up against the same problems writing lesbian romance as I do writing straight romance: there are no non-problematic words for the bodies involved. I love writing interesting women. I just don't like writing them being sexual, because the words are an assault on my senses (They look, sound, feel and taste nasty to my synasthetic self).

    I write m/m, f/f, m/f and occasionally other. The m/m community as a whole does not consider stories with transmen to BE m/m. There are some of us writing PoC, and working class guys and disabled guys. But they aren't the main feature.

    And no, lesbians DON'T sell. My straight stuff doesn't sell either.

    1. I can be tough to talk about female bodies and female sexuality starting at the level of language and working our way up. I also struggle with the language thing and its tough.

      "The m/m community as a whole does not consider stories with transmen to BE m/m. "

      I will die fighting this one. Right now my plan is to write so much m/m romance with trans men in it that people won't be able to deny them a place in the genre.

      "There are some of us writing PoC, and working class guys and disabled guys. But they aren't the main feature. "

      This has been my experience as well. There are some people who write about these kinds of guys but that's not what the majority of the genre is. That is problematic as far as I'm concerned but another post for another day.

      Anyway thank you for commenting.

  14. Thank you for writing this. I'm a bisexual author with bisexual characters, and I've been sort of confused about why there aren't more F/F romances. I was thrilled to find Cathy Pegau's awesome lesbian sci-fi romances from Carina Press, which is part of Harlequin.

    I started out writing straight romances but then branched out to menages. It never occurred to me that apparently most menages feature two men and a woman until after I'd published my first M/F/F. At a conference last year I had a reader reply with "Eww, girls" when I mentioned the F/F relationship in my M/F/F menage. I was stunned into uncomfortable silence, for a few reasons--mainly because I like girls and don't see anything "eww" about it. But it also didn't occur to me that readers who enjoyed gay romance wouldn't also enjoy lesbian romance.

    1. Yeah I've gotten the "eww girls" response too along with "eww vaginas", "I've just never understood how you could want another woman doing that to you.", "vaginas aren't my thing, they're not what I want to read about", "the idea of having two women touching each other is a total turn off for me", "I'm straight, I only want to read about cock" "there is nothing wrong with being lesbian I'm just hard wired not to find that attractive." and on and on.

      All of these responses from women and all of them from women who are huge fans of m/m romance.

      I find it particularly telling that most of the negative responses I've heard from women towards lesbian romance has focus on women's bodies. There is a strong focus in the responses I've encountered to on the perceived unattractiveness of having those bodies shown in any kind of sexual way. These responses also portray women's genitals as disgusting, unsightly and possibly even shameful in contrast to male genitals.

      In fact one of the main arguments against trans men in m/m romance somtimes stated openlly and sometimes only alluded to is the fear that trans men's genitals will be too much like (disgusting, and unsightly) female genitals and not enough like (attractive and desirable) male genitals.

      "But it's okay because I'm straight" is used a lot in these kinds of discussion. But I think that's just a cover up for how we think and talk about non cis male bodies and non cis male sexualities. As well as the way that heteronormativity and heterosexuality is constructed.

    2. Huh, I'm a straight woman and I feel exactly that way "eww women" when it comes to f/f, I've never wondered why though. Interesting really, I like being a woman, but I don't particularly like reading about vaginas either, breasts are not a problem. I really need to analyse this.

  15. I like to read romantic comedies and chick lit: lighthearted romances, mostly. I am able to find that quite easily in m/m romance and obviously also in m/f romance, but I have yet to read any lesbian romances with a romantic comedy element. It's all drama/romance. There's no comedy. What's up with that?
    Somebody please write me a lesbian romantic comedy.


  16. PS. I was also confused by the comments that jumped straight to talking about erotica almost as if the two terms--romance and erotica--were interchangeable. I much prefer the emotions of romance to the getting-it-on of erotica.

    1. this is an interesting thing I noticed as well and happened during twitter conversations about this piece too.

      There is definitely an assumption among a good deal of people (usually who don't read either romance or erotica) that they are basically the same thing.

      However there seems to be something especially about the concept of two women together that people associate very strongly with erotica not romance.

      it could be that there is so little lesbian romance as apposed to lesbian erotica, although there isn't a huge amount of either.

      Or it could have to do with the way homophobia works when applied to women. Through which lesbian/bi/queer female sexuality is only really (or only exists) when it is constructed for the titillation and enjoyment of straight people (usually men)

  17. I’ve been pondering this since I started reading m/m a couple years ago and realized f/f isn’t as common or popular. As a bi woman, I don’t think I can ever completely understand a straight woman’s reaction to f/f - I find the "eww women" response completely baffling and disheartening (although it's in keeping with the "gay sex is icky" response I've encountered coming out to people).

    I think our attitudes about male and female sexuality are complicated. I was initially was quite skeptical of m/m, but when I tried it, it was such a relief to read a romance between two people without having to deal with all the stereotypes about women’s sexuality (relating to the h/h that is – the misogyny in m/m is a whole 'nother topic). In one of the first m/m books I read, the h/h had sex in an ambulance in a deserted parking garage a few hours after meeting. There was no slut shaming, there was no remorse or angst about it. And I wasn’t worried about either hero’s safety (and I probably would have worried about a heroine, although I wouldn't slut shame her). And it was nice to be able to experience that type of sexual freedom vicariously - to put on the male privilege of not worrying as much about personal safety when hooking up with a stranger. And I don’t think that’s available reading f/f - because women, especially queer women, aren't privileged that way. I also think you make a great point about the almost fetishized portrayals of a certain kind of (non-threatening) gay man in m/m.

    I think one of the appeals of f/f to straight women could be reading a romance without some of the problematic power dynamics and limiting gender roles in m/f (yes, I know there’s limiting gender roles in f/f and m/m too). It seems to me that f/f offers, or could offer, a viable alternative for romance readers tired of assholes in their romance. But right now, you can get that in m/m too and there's a lot more of it and it comes with hawt men. But I have hope that this genre will keep growing and that more readers will discover it.


    1. Heidi Belleau said on twitter that she thinks one of the draws for women to m/m romance rather than lesbian romance is reading about two men allows them to put aside the stresses and anxieties of femininity for a while. Which may be related to what you are saying.

      It's funny, I've never thought about safety when writing lesbian romance. Certainly you're write men, even gay men, have privilege that queer women don't and that does affect my experience writing about queer women.

      "It seems to me that f/f offers, or could offer, a viable alternative for romance readers tired of assholes in their romance."

      I laughed when I read this. Yes I would think so too but who knows? Asshole characters seem to be endlessly popular in any kind of romance.

    2. I laughed too. The problematic gender roles and abundance of assholes in m/f is also a big part of why I don't read much of it. (Occasionally I'm in the mood for a jerkass woobie, regardless of gender, but gah, the alpholes.)

  18. Really excellent post on this topic. As always, I agree with everything you've said here because it makes so much sense. I really love writing my female characters and it's disappointing to think my lesbian stories won't do as well. But that's just more incentive to keep writing them even better and more varied! There needs to be options out there for the people who do want to read stories other than the gorgeous white homosexual cismen, and I like to think these are the baby steps toward a genuine broadening of the reader and writer-ship.

    And I'm really glad to work with and know so many people who are committed to making that happen.

    1. I think one of the things I'm taking away from all the comments is that there are people who do want to read lesbian romance, they just want to read more variety. It makes me hopeful that if we break away from what has been done in the past and start thinking about the genre in new ways more people will become interested.

      "There needs to be options out there for the people who do want to read stories other than the gorgeous white homosexual cismen,"

      Amen to this. Actually know so many authors who are really committed to bringing diversity to the m/m romance genre. I just think it's nerve wracking for all of us because we know it's not going to sell as well. Even super well thought of or popular authors like Aleksandr Voinov or Jordan Castillo Price see major dips in their sales when they write books with POC as main characters.

      I've written several stories where one of the main characters is chubby but have shied away from writing a character who is really heavy because I don't want to give people yet another reason not to buy my books.

      I'm writing a book right now where one of the characters is a wheelchair users. He is in a lot of ways the more traditionally masculine of the two characters but I worry that readers won't see him that way because he's in a wheelchair.

      We definitely need to do it but it's tough.

  19. I'm a little late to this party, but I just wanted to say: this is a really thoughtful post and I've enjoyed reading the comments as well, which have echoed a lot of what I have also felt about the state of lesbian romance. I have long thought that there's some internalized misogyny at play (mostly in that often whenever anyone poses this question, a lot of female readers respond with "ew, girlparts!") but what you and many of the commenters here have pointed out about the deeper psychological resonance of that seems on the money to me.

    I also think lesbian romance suffers from the self-perpetuating cycle of people thinking readers won't buy it and so it not gaining much traction aside from a few small publishers, which means: 1) tiny publishers with small editorial budgets are putting out sub-par books (and I have read some doozies, hoo-boy); 2) small pubs have a smaller reach and so aren't getting the good books—and there are great lesbian romances out there—into the hands of readers who might like them; and 3) the general perception that all f/f is kind of crappy and/or unpopular. And then we're back at square one.

    I predict this will change. I talked to a Big Five editor a few weeks ago who is interested in f/f, actually. I think that as m/m gains more readers who have gotten over that hump of reading something that is not just m/f, some of those readers might take interest in f/f. There could still be a mega-seller breakout lesbian romance that will finally shatter the barrier between f/f and larger readership. More publishers are willing to take f/f now, so better editing and distribution means better books could find their way into the hands of readers. And I've seen a few lesbian romance reviews on the bigger romance blogs like Dear Author, which means the good books are getting some better exposure these days, too.

    Which is basically to say that while I'm not sure f/f would ever outpace m/f or m/m in terms of sales, I do think there is plenty of room in the market for f/f to grow and I'm optimistic that it will.

    The person above looking for f/f romantic comedies—check out Ann McMan. I've found her books to be well-written and funny and very entertaining.

    1. "I also think lesbian romance suffers from the self-perpetuating cycle of people thinking readers won't buy it and so it not gaining much traction aside from a few small publishers, which means: 1) tiny publishers with small editorial budgets are putting out sub-par books (and I have read some doozies, hoo-boy); 2) small pubs have a smaller reach and so aren't getting the good books—and there are great lesbian romances out there—into the hands of readers who might like them; and 3) the general perception that all f/f is kind of crappy and/or unpopular. And then we're back at square one."

      I think you are very right about this and I've had a few conversations with publishers who are willing to publish gay and trans* romance but not lesbian romance. I think this just adds to the over all problem.

      Like you, however I am willing to be optimistic that things will change in the future.

  20. Hi! I enjoyed your post a lot. :) It gave me some things to think about. I personally don't enjoy reading about or watching things that have to do with female sexuality, although I'm female. I like some romance sometimes, and I can enjoy male gay romance (and sometimes a bit of erotic stuff too, although I'm not a heavy erotica reader). I am uncomfortable with female sexuality, and it doesn't turn me on or intrigue me. For me, gay romance about men is a safe place to explore sexual thoughts and feelings and the dynamics of a relationship. It's important to me that the characters feel more or less equal or I can't enjoy it very much if at all. I rarely find a feeling of equality in stories with female / male dynamics, although I admit I've not looked hard! It seems like a lot of m/f features heavily in perfect-looking heroines with lots of insecurities and things they feel bad about. That really makes me feel bad about myself. I'm not as good looking or successful as they are! I don't want to wallow in bad feelings. I want a fun, playful, slightly sexy outlook, with confidence and...and cute guys!

    But sometimes I almost glimpse a portrayal of female sexuality that I could be comfortable with. Equality. Comfort. Not constantly being racked by insecurities despite the "perfect" body. I's hard to find and I'm more comfortable currently with male gay romance. (Even these reasons don't feel like the full picture, but are the best I can do at the moment.) But I do prefer if male gay romance features more middle-class or "regular" type guys, instead of millionaires. :) That's not so hard to find these days. There's a lot to choose from!

    It's interesting to think about why female sexuality is so uncomfortable to me. Perhaps because it's personal. Everything sexual I have to think about applying to my own body with a female sexual scene, and if it's something I am uncomfortable with I feel physically uncomfortable. It's less "removed" from me, and too close for comfort.

    Also, I grew up as we probably all did in a culture that glorifies and fetishizes pretty much every single aspect of a woman. From 'sexy ankles' to 'sassy' to 'long hair.' It's like there can't be any aspect of a woman that's not sexualized. I'm really uncomfortable with that. I don't want to feel like or read about women as sex objects. I feel like I had enough of that by the time I turned 13 to last the rest of my life! To me right now, gay male romance is a safer place to explore sexual and sensual feelings, to enjoy fun and sexy times, to enjoy a feeling of equality between partners.

    I hope the day comes when I can enjoy other aspects of sexuality that involve femininity. I may never be comfortable reading lesbian romance, though, since it would make me focus exclusively on my body, something I'm not really ever been comfortable with.

    I'm posting anonymously because I'm really not brave enough to say any of this any other way! :)

    Thanks for giving me things to think about. :)

    Oh, I just want to mention that I really, really love some female characters in the media, and I don't care who hates them. Rose on Doctor Who means soooo much to me. To me she felt like a regular girl I could identify with, and care about, and I just love her so much. I like the romance and friendship between her and the Doctor, but most of all I just loved her. She was one of the few female characters on TV who had flaws and made me feel good about being a woman and not having to be perfect. She was also confident and kind and emotional and just...complex. I know some people hate Rose, but I adore her forever. :)

    1. I think you've definitely hit on it when you said "It's less "removed" from me, and too close for comfort."

      I definitely think a lot of women readers have experienced this. Probably a lot of writers too. I know for me writing about lesbians and trans people is harder for me because it's more personal, closer to my own experience. While when I write about cisgender gay men it's more removed and when people judge those books or those characters it feels less like they are judging me.

      I think it's important to keep asking ourselves why books with female characters make us uncomfortable and keep working through those blocks because it's not healthy. More than that we don't want to keep perpetuating these cycles of women feeling so horrible about themselves, that they can't even read stories with other female character.

      I also get where you're coming from with the whole women being sexualized thing. For me I try to remind myself that there is a difference between being sexualized and being confident in your own sexuality. For a lot of women being sexual -- knowing who they are and what they like sexually -- is normal and healthy. When women are turned into objects to be desired and consumed that's a problem. But it can be hard to tell the difference because we are so used to only seeing women being sexualized and not sexual.

      I guess my only last thought would be, while I think it's perfectly fine for us to use gay romance as a 'safe space' to explore sexuality and romance, I want to be careful not to continue to perpetual harmful stereotypes of gay men. I love m/m romance, I love reading it, I love writing it, but too often I see m/m authors writing their characters or their romances in very stereotypical ways. While I'm sure those stereotypes only seem fun and sexy to the readers and writers who use them they actually do real harm, to real gay men and marginalize other queer people. I really want to see that stop.

    2. I actually write some gay romance as well as reading it, and it's very important to me too to tell different stories, where people can be vulnerable and individual and not perfect looking and not just stereotypes. That's sort of why I started writing it. I wanted more variety. We definitely need more stories not fewer. :) I also hope I will become more confident in my female sexuality. But it's a journey in progress, like so much of life. Thanks for answering my comment! It was really fun thinking about these things and discussing them here w/ you.

  21. Thanks for sparking such a great discussion. I have read a lot of f/f over the years, and I find that it seems harder for writers to give lesbian romance a happy ending. The stories don't provide the escapist fantasy that a lot of romance readers want in order to get away from everyday life. I also have to say that since I came out as a lesbian a few years back after ending a bisexual relationship, the response from many of my colleagues and readers has been surprisingly negative. How can a lesbian write m/m, they ask. I think that f/f and menage are gaining a foothold just as m/m has done in the last 5-10 years but like all other change, some things come more slowly and find acceptance in their own time.

    1. " I find that it seems harder for writers to give lesbian romance a happy ending."

      Lots of people have said this and I'm not really sure why this is? I think in really life lesbians get just as many happy endings as gay men do, so I'm not sure why it shouldn't be the same in fiction.

      "I think that f/f and menage are gaining a foothold just as m/m has done in the last 5-10 years but like all other change, some things come more slowly and find acceptance in their own time."

      I hope this is true. I think people need to understand though (as I'm sure you do) that the reason change comes more slowly to lesbian romance than gay romance is sexism and homophobia.

      I think things like marketing issues, and personal preference play a role in lesbian romance not doing as well. But part of the reason I wrote this article is that I think there is a large amount of sexism and homophobia that negatively affects lesbian romance and not gay romance.

      I think it's easy for a lot of readers, writers and publishers to see the preference towards gay romance or straight romance as just that -- a personal preference-- and not own up to the larger issues at stake.

      On the one hand I don't want to force anyone to read/write/publish something that they aren't comfortable with or doesn't make sense for their business. That's not the answer to anything.

      On the other hand every time we make that decision to raise up these very specific images of gay men over any and all images of women or other GLBTQ people we play into systems of oppression that have real world consequences for a lot of at risk people.

      It may feel like a depressing no win situation but it something that we need to be thinking and talking about even if it is uncomfortable.

  22. The part of the article about strong female characters was also interesting. I've recently noticed that the strong female in fantasy novels is becoming a stereotype too.
    Many of these women have some traditionally unfeminine job or interests. They often sweat a lot and use slang all the time, characters who use polite language are sometimes ridiculed and provoked. I notice this because I teach foreign langueages and translate and language is an obsession for me.(English isn't my mother tongue btw). It seems polite language is associated with weak women. Femenine jobs, interests too, you can't be strong if you are a music teacher or love ballet. (And few alpha males in fiction are ballet dancers or flutists)
    Then they become the first ever female leader of a traditionally male dominated society e.g. first female alpha of a werewolf pack and all the guys who are older, more experienced, better trained etc accept that without much trouble. Except the villains of course. And naturally this heroine is better in everything then all the guys, she is the one sho always finds the solution, etc.
    Last year I read Written in read by Anne Bishop and I was surprised when some reviewers complained that the heroine was weak. I mean she escaped from a compound where she had been held captive, started a new life among supernatural creatures who often ate humans, was constatntly learning new skills and towards the end risked her life to save the child she was often babysitting. What was weak about her? Well, she never swore, told off anyone, didn't become a leader, she just won over people with kindness. She also had strong skills as a "blood prophet". The only sex in this book was between a female villain and some guy she used to gain information, for a reviewer it meant that the villain was punished for her sexuality but considering how Anne Bishop portrays sexuality in her other books I don't believe that. (e.g. One of her heroines is a whore, etc)

    Or in The last Cato by Matilde Asensi the heroine who is a nun and a restaurator of books or something like that doesn't become Tomb raider and finds it comforting when the guy who'll be her eventual love interest holds her hand. Many reviewers also found it to be a sign of weakness. But honestly, she spent her whole life in a library, she isn't a female commando, why wouldn't she be scared?! She did overcome it and went along to actively participate inn all the adventures. This author also have a trilogy about a girl who becomes a swordswoman and pirate. (Martín ojo de plata, I'm not sure if it's available in Engsh.) Ddespite what Amazon says The last Cato isn't a thriller, more like an adventure with a romance and LOTS of history, and has nothing to do with the Da Vinci code, the original edition was in fact published earlier.

    1. I think this is an interesting topic and one that really deserves its own blog post.

      In fantasy genre (as well as others but I read more fantasy) and other media like actions moves there as come to be a stereotype of the Strong Female Character.

      This character is usually an attractive woman who proves herself through fighting, swearing, being just as stereotypically 'tough' as the male characters.

      And as you rightly pointed out there are many problems with this.

      First of all this stereotype is usually used as gloss or lazy writing to try and cover up the fact that the character doesn't have any actual character building. She's just as two denominational as the heroine sitting around waiting to be rescued by the hero. She isn't any more interesting, multilayered or complex she just kicks more stuff.

      Also the Strong Female Character is often just as centered on the male characters as her older counterparts. Often especially in action movies a Strong Female Character will need to be saved by the male character just as many times as her non-ass-kicking sisters. Her story arc is also just as often to be focused on finding the right man and letting him fulfill her life for her.

      But too often writers/creators who come up with Strong Female Characters expect to be praised for it as if they are doing something new, edgy, exciting, most of all non-sexist. Depressingly enough often they will get that praise, when in reality all they are doing is just feeding us the same old stereotypes but with a new veneer.

      Most importantly to me this stereotype also lessens all the ways people can be strong without being physically strong. I have to say I would consider most of the women I've known in my life to be strong. Not because they'd be able to fight their way through a horde of armed mercenaries but because they'd done incredible things and gotten themselves and the people they love through hard times. Raising four kids to be happy, fulfilled, hard working adults takes strength that a lot of people take for granted and shouldn't.


      that being said I am extremely cautious and I think everyone else should be as well, about the way we counter this stereotype.

      Because the fact of the matter is women who are physically strong and who value that about themselves are marginalized in our society.

      Women who work jobs that involve physical strength are more likely to be harassed and discriminated against in the work place.

      Female athletes even Olympic quality athletes are often forced to 'prove' that they can be traditionally feminine as well. The media will often critique these women on their appearance just as much if not more than their physical skills in their chosen field.

      During the 2012 Olympics there was a whole debate about Gabby Douglas' hair which had a LOT to do with her race but also with her femininity. She was a gold metal athlete at 16 but there was still a huge media storm over whether he hair looked 'unkempt.'

      Women who perform in sports not traditionally considered feminine enough like weight lifting are often passed over for funding and don't get the media attention that female athlete in more traditionally 'acceptable' sports do.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. In the US we are still debating if women can or do make just as good soldiers as men do. While women who do serve face huge amounts of discrimination, harassment and assault.

      Women who aren't traditionally feminine enough or who present in a more masculine way-- gender wise-- risk loosing their jobs or not being hired at all. They are also at high risk for other kinds of discrimination and physical assault.

      I think for all of these reasons we do need thoughtful, realistic images of women who are physically strong, or act in non traditionally feminine ways, or who are even masculine.

      I am very concerned that often conversations about the Strong Female Character stereotype often come down to saying we shouldn't be representing physically strong women.

      I also think that again when we answer the problems with the Strong Female Character stereotype by saying not all women are strong, or we shouldn't be representing strong women we lessen the value of the many different ways people, including women, are strong that aren't just about the physical.

      So it's a complex topic which I think can't simply be boiled down to strong female characters are bad, but unfortunately I think often is.

  23. I love this. My hesitation with the Strong Female Character stereotype is that we're essentially promulgating the idea that women are strong when they act like men. Physically strong women are awesome. So are women who are strong in other ways. But to narrow Strong Female to "fulfills all the masculine ideals" is bothersome and, depending on the person writing the character, possibly misogynistic. Of course, keeping traits and behavior divided along a binary isn't helpful at all in resolving this issue, but our society still does it, and it does bother me to say that women on one side of this binary are weak and women on the other are strong. "I act like a man" does not say "I'm strong" to me. It just says "I act like a man (and maybe am one)." That person could still be weak. Physically strong characters can still be weak characters. I guess for me, I'm all in favor of strong female characters, but I'm just sick of that meaning a woman who wears a gun and a power suit with her stilettos and fabulous hair. There are so many ways for a woman to be clever and brave and strong and successful and efficient; I hate to see it boiled down to "I proved I'm just as good as a man, so I must be strong."

    1. yes I absolutely agree Strong Female Character stereotype is problematic for a lot of reasons one of them being it devalues all the ways people can be strong without being physically strong.

      For instance I would totally consider my sister and my mother to be strong even though both are religious pacifists, who are also physically pretty small, and neither one of them are particularly masculine or spend a lot of time trying to be 'as tough as a man.' Yet my mom raised four kids, made sure we all went to college, is been active part of her religious community which includes working at different three soup kitchens, vocally supports GLBTQ rights, AND has spent the last two years tutoring children with disabilities.

      While my sister has worked as a hospital chaplain and in hospice care, pastors a large church single handedly, and is parents an almost-two year old.

      This is a huge, huge issue with the stereotype, but it's also an issue I see with a lot of responses to the stereotype. Because instead of saying "lets stop equating strength with masculinity." I see a lot of "lets stop making strong female characters."

      I don't actually want that, I want to see strong female characters. I want to see a lot more of them. I want to see female characters who are strong like my sister and mother is strong. AND I also want to see women who are strong the way female athletes are strong. But where that isn't constantly made fun of or where the female character doesn't have to constantly keep proving herself via how attractive the male characters find her. AND I want to see women who truly are masculine, just as long as their masculinity isn't automatically equated with strength, because no masculinity should be.

    2. "I don't actually want that, I want to see strong female characters. I want to see a lot more of them. I want to see female characters who are strong like my sister and mother is strong. AND I also want to see women who are strong the way female athletes are strong. But where that isn't constantly made fun of or where the female character doesn't have to constantly keep proving herself via how attractive the male characters find her. AND I want to see women who truly are masculine, just as long as their masculinity isn't automatically equated with strength, because no masculinity should be."

      YES. This is exactly what I was trying to say.

  24. It's also interesting that in m/m one of the guys is often rather girly in every aspect except having female genitalia. Maybe because that way female readers can identify with him but don't have to read about vagina and female sexuality?

    1. yes it's extremely common to have one partner in the relationship be younger/smaller/less experienced/less sure of themselves and one partner be older/bigger/more experienced/more sure of themselves.

      Also if you notice most sex scenes are written from the point of view of the younger/smaller/less experienced partners. Usually they are also the partner being penetrated in the sex scene, or the scene where they are penetrated is the 'climatic' or most important sex scene in the book. So we, as the reader, experience the sex from the point of view of younger/small character who is also the one being penetrated.

      Actually most m/m books are written with this characters as the primary narrator.

      I think this is exactly because most (straight) female readers identify more with this character and tend to see the older/larger character as an object of (their) desire. All this without the anxiety of identifying with a female character.

  25. This is an excellent post. I've thought about this a lot from the perspective of fandom, where I've seen over the years the "cis [white/middle class/able/traditionally attractive] male bodies/sexuality as safe space" thing rise in popularity. It fascinates me because whatever wires connect to make that possible for many women don't for me: reading *m/m* makes me feel anxious and erased and angry. Usually because I tend to desire the more femmy male character instead of identifying with him and resent the butch mandude because [my usual thought] "they get EVERYONE. why do they get *everyone*. why is what they're offering upheld as the most important thing??" They get women, who I like, they get the kind of men I like, they get both in the sort of way I like (domming/topping), though honestly men in Romance are so often abusive rapist assholes there's also part of me going "how DARE you betray your partner's trust like that? you get everyone and then you *abuse them*. my god i despise you"'s awfully hard to enjoy a story while virulently hating half the pairing lol. Anyway, my point is two-fold: 1) that there are women who, for various reasons specific to them, are left out in the cold when it comes to using m/m as a happy free escape and 2) that it's interesting how power plays out between the majority of women in fandom spaces who can make those wires connect and those who can't. Particularly in the way that m/m has been portrayed as not only an appealing flavor for those who have the taste but as somehow morally superior to het, ignoring the fact that people might be going to het just so they can have a woman around rather than because they're part of ~oppressive heteronormative wrongness~.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I am not actually sure that slash is more popular in fandom than het. I think in some fandoms it might be, but straight across the board I think het might still be more popular than slash. Still both are MUCH, MUCH more popular than any kind of lesbian content.

      Obviously this article is written from the perspective of published romance novels, not so much fandom, but you're right a lot of the same stuff applies.

      Aiffe's article that I quote is specifically about fandom and if you haven't read it yet I recommend that you do. I've also read some stuff about Mary Sue and how fandom has this specter of the "bad" female character (namely the Mary Sue) in a way that really doesn't exist for even the most perfect, self-insert male characters. Female fans use the Mary Sue to brand other female fans as not "good enough" writers or fans in some way. I would assume this is because female fans get policed so much by mainstream and geek culture that some of them feel the need to police themselves (even unconsciously) against female fans they feel with 'give female fans a bad name.' Sometimes, maybe even often, the fear of writing a Mary Sue and being the labeled the wrong kind of fan drives female fans away from writing any female characters at all.

      I have also seen the same thing happen with slash writers though over the years (but I just saw it happen last week so it's certainly not gone.) Where (usually virulently homophobic) female fans will attack slash writers for giving the fandom 'bad name' giving female fans a 'bad name' and buying into the stereotype that all female fans are just "Yaoi fangirls" in it for the porn.

      Statistical analysis (and its not up to date unfortunately) of published romance readers, including m/m romance, they did indeed tend to be heterosexual women. However recent statistical studies of slash writers show that most slash writers are in fact LGBTQ. So I think we need to be careful how we talk about slash writers as compared to romance readers. They may not be coming to the material for the same reasons.

      So yeah I think in the fandom context a lot of the article applies. There are also a lot of things specific to the way geek culture and fandom works that are also important though.

      Although that being said there is still a lot of writing about 'gay' men who fall into the homonormative model going on with slash ships too. In fact a lot of professional m/m romance writers first encounter that way of writing a gay characters as slash fans and then continue it into their professional careers.

      So the whole thing with fandom, female characters, female fans and slash is a complex subject that I would probably need to write a whole new article about to do justice.

      Also as a romance author I wouldn't say men in romance are often rapist assholes :) I think the romance genre has handled the portrayal of consent and rape badly. But as a genre we are becoming much more aware of issues of consent and the way we portray rape in our books. I also think that the stereotype that all romances are about women hating and rapist men hurts LGBTQ authors, who are trying to write romances that authentically represent LGBTQ identities, most.

      Anyway thanks for posting, I'm sorry I rambled at you.

    2. Perhaps I hang out in the wrong places, but certainly on the popular fandom site AO3 slash dominates. More information on that:

      Considering it was one of Time Magazine's 50 Best Websites of 2013, I don't think it can be considered a small, out of the way archive that's non-representational:

      Certainly in my experience on Tumblr the predominant interest is in white man/white man ships. F/F is usually reserved for a way to shuffle the "spare" women characters off stage into a secondary romance. And het, as I mentioned, is condemned as fundamentally regressive. Which leaves women characters and people who want to see romances with them in something of a pickle.

      However recent statistical studies of slash writers show that most slash writers are in fact LGBTQ. So I think we need to be careful how we talk about slash writers as compared to romance readers. They may not be coming to the material for the same reasons.

      I think that your argument can be extended to say that perhaps sexual/gender Others in general, not restricted to straight women, are encouraged by society to flee the discomfort they are made to feel in themselves by embracing the safe space of cis white able etc male bodies and sex.

    3. Also as a romance author I wouldn't say men in romance are often rapist assholes :) I think the romance genre has handled the portrayal of consent and rape badly. But as a genre we are becoming much more aware of issues of consent and the way we portray rape in our books. I also think that the stereotype that all romances are about women hating and rapist men hurts LGBTQ authors, who are trying to write romances that authentically represent LGBTQ identities, most.

      Sorry. I realize that was badly stated: I was speaking out of my experience 10+ years ago trying desperately to find Romances that worked for me in the mainstream het published material. I found it a really painful and disappointing experience where, yes, men were, if not straight up rapists, physically and verbally abusive and domineering in ways that were romanticized at every point.

      I get that LGBT Romance is distinct from that and I'm not as widely familiar with it; I shouldn't have used "Romance" to solely mean the mainstream het stuff.

  26. Long comment incoming, gonna slice it up a bit!

    Heya, I don't think I have a blogger account but this is Aiffe of the quoted passage above! (I've since edited that post to reflect some of my changing feelings and that might be an interesting read if you like long but I do stand by a lot of it in terms of like...internalized misogyny blows chunks, man.) I've also wondered why femslash/lesbian romance is less popular, and considered writing stuff about it, but I worried I wasn't eloquent enough to truly make a case for it and it would end up making femslash seem like the red-headed stepchild or the charity case that people would feel obliged to read out of pity, and man, I don't want that, I want them to read it because it's GREAT. It's sort of like, in tumblr culture, if someone writes, "Reblog this if you care at all about human suffering!" a lot of people will give it a pass because they don't like being told what to do, I wanted to avoid that effect if possible.

    And you're right that there is a difficulty in defining female sexuality in ways that makes us feel happy and comfortable. I think one of the issues there too is that, at least in fanfiction, a lot of erotica is being written by inexperienced people who end up with...inventive fictions about how bodies work. Like self-lubing anuses, cocks as big as arms, and a sort of...exaggerated fantasy sexuality. I see this sometimes in male-gaze erotica too, like absurdly-sized boobs in hentai that just...don't work like boobs. But when women define male sexuality in ways incompatible with the human body, it doesn't hurt or erase them or make them feel weird or inadequate or frustrated that no one knows how their bodies actually work. You know? It's easier to have the "scissoring fingers inside the butt to stretch for buttsex" or "what do you mean prep, blood works as lube" or even "people with dicks having four orgasms in a session is totally common" tropes because we're not the ones being erased.

    Yet when I look to f/f erotica, I want it to represent me, and that's something very different. One of my ongoing frustrations with depictions of female sexuality is I seem to have a different definition of the clitoris than the rest of the world although mine is backed by science in theory, a lot of medical diagrams and sex ed sites don't even support me. Basically what a lot of people mean when they say the clitoris is the glans clitoris, which is a bit like referring to the head of the penis whenever you say the penis. (And by a bit I mean exactly because they're developmentally the same organ.) What I really enjoy in sexual stimulation, to get into TMI, is rubbing/grinding the shaft of the clitoris, which is covered in skin and can happily be rubbed without any warmup or foreplay. But when I say clitoris, people think glans clitoris, which is much more sensitive and like the glans of the penis covered in mucous membrane rather than skin, and like with the head of an uncircumcised dick, doesn't feel good to just start grabbing and rubbing directly. So if I say, "Alice reached into Beth's jeans and started rubbing Beth's clitoris through her panties," I'm thinking something that could feel really good, while my audience is going, D: "Holy ow! This person knows nothing about how vulvas work!"

    That and stuff like how what one woman finds hot gets extrapolated to what all women find hot. Like I see a lot of, "All lesbians love cunnilingus, scissoring is only for male-gaze porn." I do write cunnilingus too because I know it's popular for a reason and other people enjoy it, but personally it's just not my fave, whereas tribbing is like proof that god loves women as far as I'm concerned! No one ever writes any goddamned tribbing because "scissoring is for male-gaze porn" wow where did we get the idea girls don't like to grind on other girls?

    1. Hey! thank you so much for commenting. I really loved the piece you wrote and it made me think both about the representation of female characters in fandom and obviously about published romance novels.

      This article is of course aimed mostly at published romance novels, the romance novel reading community and publishing community.

      I really like how you delve into fandom and fanfiction here, although I'm not sure (as I told unlikely above) how applicable the things I put forward here are to fandom.

    2. :D I'm glad! lol hope I didn't write so much it feels like homework. I get kinda wordy.

      I definitely agree that there's some differences in original fiction and I tried to touch on that though I have the most experience with fandom. I obviously read original fiction, and I do also write it, and I've been working on dealing with my confidence issues around submitting/publishing though to be honest it hasn't been going well. (I'm also bad at FINISHING original fics because I have so much anxiety that if I finish it I'll have to submit it, it's a mess.) But while I am an outsider to that particular niche I do think some stuff does translate, like the "bandwagoning" is definitely an effect I notice in original fiction, I've thought about how genres are like "fandoms" in a looser sense. I've been both in "tight" fandoms where like, you only write canon characters and OCs are frowned on, and "loose" fandoms such as some RPG fandoms (Dungeons and Dragons, also some video games, especially ones with customizable/unnamed PCs) where you're working with a few worldbuilding elements and maybe a map but expected to make everything else yourself, characters, details--and even "homebrew," or worldbuilding which diverges from canon, is fairly accepted. I thought how very like, say, the fantasy genre this is, where fantasy has subfandoms--your high fantasy, your royal intrigue, your sword and sorcery, your urban fantasy, your assorted vampire and werewolf tropes, your "the orcs were from space what do you mean fantasy isn't scifi," your boarding school for wizards/vampires/whatevers, The Masquerade, like really a lot of the original fic tropes you can find on TvTropes are in essence fandoms, where there's a larger conversation going on between authors and they're borrowing elements and riffing on others and trying to one-up each other but ultimately playing within the same structure. Whew!

      Why I talked about that so much is because I think those larger structures and contexts totally exist as much in original fic as in fandom, and that's why true originality can be so hard to make into a hit--it's in a small fandom! Whereas White Eurocentric Sword and Sorcery is already a megafandom. I hope that makes sense!

    3. "Why I talked about that so much is because I think those larger structures and contexts totally exist as much in original fic as in fandom,"

      I think this could absolutely be true but while I have experience talking about and analyzing romance in an academic way, I don't have that experience with fandom. So I'm just not sure I can say with any kind of authority that fandom and romance publishing are affect the same way by society.

  27. Continued!

    And it's like romantic stuff too! Like you have a lot of variety in types of relationships in het and slash--I mean, there's certainly oodles of fluff and domesticity, but you also have your creepy and badwrong, your rivalships and hatesex, your top/bottom dynamics, even some much darker fantasies. And this certainly DOES exist in femslash fandom, I don't want to give the impression that it doesn't--thank you Cersei/Sansa fandom u____u but I do think there's a certain...slant towards seeing fictional female romances as these idealized supportive kind loving fluffy affairs, and those are GREAT too don't get me wrong I'd still like more of those, but it can be limiting. Sometimes I think people see femslash as "the place you go if you want sweetness and light and tooth-rotting fluff" and I wanna be like yeah we've got that by all means come on over if that's your thing but it's the place you can go for other stuff, too! So some of the "nah I don't like femslash" is actually "nah I don't like fluff," and that can be frustrating. I don't know the original romance genre well enough to say, but maybe people are laboring under that impression too? And I think also people are afraid to do anything bad or hurtful with queer ladies, or say anything bad about them. Like in an original thing I recently made a character who's basically a horrible person, a sadist who puts another woman under a love spell and forces her into a relationship. This isn't "representation," this isn't something you want to show straight people as propaganda about how great lesbians are, and it looked uncomfortably like stuff written by homophobes to imply lesbianism is wrong. But I realized, het and slash are allowed to explore that kind of dark territory, and I crave that dark territory too sometimes--I didn't write it because I hate my own orientation, but because it turned me on. So femslash has this mix of just having a "goody two-shoes" reputation plus dealing with respectability politics and the struggle of reclaiming dark romance tropes from a lot of really homophobic and hurtfully-intended portrayals.

    But really what I think is a huge thing here is this idea of critical mass and bandwagoning. Like in fandom it's really apparent--and it's true, my slash and het get more hits than my femslash, BUT the caveat is that femslash of a popular pairing in a big fandom (like, say, Korra/Asami) will get a lot more hits than het or slash of a pairing no one's heard of. People definitely have an attitude of, "I'm into this thing right now, I want more of the same" which happens in original fic too more than people realize, like I know Old Europe-based fantasy has been criticized in its ubiquity, but the fact that it's been done so many times is actually not making it less attractive but MORE attractive to both writers and readers. People feel comfortable with the established tropes, and enjoy the feeling of riffing on other people's works, like it's easier and in some ways just more fun to play "our werewolves are different" than to invent an entirely new monster--and readers will catch on to even a "different" brand of werewolf because they know what werewolves are, but if you invent a new word and don't give it features anyone's seen before, they're not as drawn to that because they don't already know they like it like they know they like werewolves. Same reason why so many mainstream films now are adaptations and/or sequels. People are surprisingly conservative when it comes to experiencing new things, and just want more of what they've already had, and also tend to make variations of what they've had a lot of.

    1. I'm not sure what the preconception of lesbian romance is but the vast majority of lesbian romance tends to be mystery novels or gritty thrillers. So there is a large number of lesbian romance authors willing to go to darker places.

      I think you are right in that lesbian romance is less popular except when it isn't. For example Sarah Water's lesbian romance went mainstream bestseller years, and years, and years before any gay romance went mainstream.

      In general though gay romance is vastly more popular and I think you see this maybe more clearly in the publishing industry than fandom. I know my experience of fandom is licking on a fic that maybe new or you may not be a 100% sold on costs you nothing.

      While buy an actual book does cost you money so in general people tend to buy things they are already sure they like which tends to be either het or gay romance 99% of the time.

    2. Oh yep that's totally true with how people have written the dark stuff...but I wonder how many of those were by lesbian authors? I'm not usually as interested in straight dudes writing about femme fatales, though I did recently read the original Carmilla and was super into that with all its dark themes. But I think there's a difference between male gazey stuff or stuff that was written to literally say lesbians are evil, and the sort of unfettered id you find in a lot of fanfiction and in quite a bit of original erotica and genres like yaoi (as in Japanese original yaoi, not fan-yaoi which is already covered) but in general I'd agree that lesbian romance having any kind of limiting reputation is bad, like if it has a reputation for only being dark and gritty that's no better, what I want is for it to feel unlimiting and unlimited, I want people who want domestic fluff to know yes, lesbians can do that too! Maybe fandom's fluff-bent is a reaction to a lack of that in original fiction--it wouldn't surprise me.

      I'm planning to read some of Sarah Waters work very soon, a friend lent it to me and I'm looking forward to it!

      It's definitely true in fandom too though. On AO3, a very popular fanfiction site, someone crunched the numbers and found that 5% of fics were tagged with the f/f relationship tag. I also find that f/f works tend to be shorter. There's a noticeable underrepresentation.

      I agree that spending money can make people more conservative, but another factor is that fandom, being self-published, has no quality control, no curation. While clicking doesn't cost you money, it can waste your time, and there's such a saturation of free fiction that time becomes the valuable resource. We're already seeing that time is becoming more valuable than money--people buy games they don't play, have DVDs still in the shrink wrap, collections of ebooks they haven't read. While I think self-publishers have the worst of both worlds--you have to pay money AND no one is vouching that this isn't crap, I find that when I give original fiction away for free, pretty much only my close friends care to read it, people really want the "vouching" power of a prestigious publisher. They would literally rather pay money to know something probably isn't crap, than wade through unfiltered amateur fiction until they find something they like. So I think maybe a parallel to reclists would be getting under the wing of prestigious publishers? I think who publishes you might matter more to how many people give you a try than your price point or even how good your fiction is. Same as how my fanfic hits skyrocket when a BNF recs me. People are conservative and stick to genres they know, but they also stick to venues they know and look for trustworthy vouchers.

  28. Continued some more, I wrote you a book.

    So my theory is if femslash reaches a critical mass in a given community and people have already had a lot of it, they'll start to like it and see media with girlslash goggles and if they make stuff even want to make it. I actually sorta experimented with this? I used to be in this (fairly huge at the time) anime fandom, and at one point decided I'd make femslash the new thing. First off, I wrote and drew some, because no one is going to do as you say if you don't set an example, but I didn't stop there. I also used my existing connections in the community to start a conversation. Sometimes as simple as, "How do you feel about a/b pairing?" If people were taking prompts, I gave them femslash prompts, or did fic trades with people where I asked for femslash--they were all people I knew would be okay with this, it just gave them some motivation. I trawled FFN for femslash in that fandom and I found this author who'd been producing really good stuff but laboring in obscurity, so I promoted her throughout the fandom and made collections of femslash recs with her stuff and the new stuff that was being created. I wrote femslash for challenge communities where people had to read stuff because it was being voted on, so even if they wouldn't click normally they had to read it if they wanted to vote fairly. I didn't write femslash 100% or even 50% of the time, I didn't make it seem like an "agenda" or become "that weird lady who talks about nothing but femslash," I just sort of wove it into the tapestry of the fandom and made a space for it. I did it exactly as much as I wanted to (which was sometimes!) and didn't feel guilty about the times I wanted to do something else, or make other people feel guilty for having other things in their lives, but that space grew, until people were writing femslash completely unprompted because they had seen that it could be done, was being done, that people liked it and there was an audience for it, and maybe--and this is one of the greatest motivators--thought that other people hadn't done it as well as they could do it. That's what I like to see!

    Like I wrote in the edits to that female character post, I do think we're lacking in a cultural lexicon to talk about female bodies (definitely including trans female bodies and trans bodies in general, which also have their own unique lexicons and experiences, knowing about cis men's bodies doesn't translate to talking about trans men or trans women) just like...not having the words and not having the images because we haven't seen it DONE enough and we haven't formed that database. Like in promoting writing and drawing more PoC, I saw a lot of guides, ways for writers to describe skintones without being offensive but while being descriptive, and guides for artists on how to paint dark skin, a variety of facial features, and hair textures. It can be embarrassing to admit sometimes, but even if it's something we are in real life or are around people who are that identity a lot, sometimes we don't know how to translate it into fiction or images because we lack that cultural lexicon. And while writing guides is good, having lots of examples is better! That's why I think just as important as "make it yourself" is "make reclists," because it promotes people who are already doing it, and gives people a starting pool of material that wasn't all made by one person, a diversity of perspectives from which patterns can begin to emerge. It may seem counterintuitive to boost the competition, but if someone's reading another author's lesbian romance, they're more likely to develop a desire for it and check out your lesbian romance too.

    1. I agree that cultural we really don't have a good language to talk about women's bodies, or to be more accurate we don't have a good language to talk about women's bodies that WOMEN are comfortable with.

      I hear that a lot actually, women romance readers will tell me they'd like to read lesbian romance but they're not comfortable with any of the language used to talk about women's bodies.

      I hope that changes and that authors are able to build a language that makes a larger group of women comfortable reading about women's bodies.

    2. *nod* I just wanted to say that while this absolutely includes stuff like not having a word for the cis female genitals that sounds sexy rather than clinical or hurtful, it also extends to...larger patterns, in a way that's difficult to quantify. Like just having seen it enough times that it comes to mind easily and you know what it looks like. Romantic conventions--what's the plot structure, how do they speak to each other, what are the roles they play with each other? In what ways does it differ from other romances, and in what ways is it the same? M/m romance has a lot of tropes built up quite recently, like seme/uke dynamics in the yaoi subculture which is also quite relatively new--it's not even necessarily realistic or something that represents real humans, any more than het romance tropes do, but they're patterns for us to latch onto, human brains like patterns, we like the feeling of familiarity. It takes a lot of repetition for f/f to feel familiar, and for that to breed comfort--the lack of comfort is sometimes unfamiliarity rather than outright self-loathing. It's weird because like, a girl can know what it's like to fall in love with a girl, but not know how to describe it because she's never heard anyone else describe it.

      I definitely think this is shifting--I was talking with a lesbian friend just yesterday about how ten, fifteen years ago, we devoured anything with canon gay in it even if it was terrible, even if it was m/m gay because at least it was some kind of queerness, how we craved that critical mass of representations to begin to process and form a way of understanding our own feelings--and now there's more choices, I don't feel like I absolutely have to watch every last thing with lesbians in it, I only watch it if it also looks enjoyable to me, because there will be other lesbians! I didn't have that before, I was hoarding scraps. I definitely think the more we make media about queer ladies, the more the words will find themselves and the more we'll find ways of expressing ladygay in ways that make women feel good and comfortable and empowered. I completely agree that we have a lot more work cut out for us to make female sexuality a safe space because of the devastating impact misogyny has had on us. But I think that work is happening, and I find that really exciting!

  29. Getting near the end!

    I worry about femslash/lesbian romance having too much of a political agenda. I mean yes, it's political, that's true! Everything is political. But you know, women also don't like being told they're misogynists because of what they read to get off, if we're doing that we're not making a safe space for women where they can relax and get turned on. I mean, I really understand the frustration too, believe me, I've felt it. But it helps me to understand that it's about creating enough critical mass and momentum to get people genuinely excited about it--that feels doable!--rather than some kind of intractable problem with women. There was something on the Daily Dot recently about how a lot of straight women get off to lesbian porn, I think there's really something wonderful and exciting about lesbian romance that people of all genders and orientations can get passionate about. (As a matter of fact, there was a straight dude in the fandom I mentioned who was very hesitant to write femslash because he worried about the male gaze and taking over female spaces and etc--protip, if you're worried about that, you're probably all right--and I encouraged him to post his femslash, which was really wonderful and a welcome contribution to the community. I have a problem with men getting praised HIGHER than women for writing/liking femslash or dominating the space, but if they're respectful they're certainly welcome to join the party.) I mean, I'm really frustrated sometimes with fandom's love of able-bodied white dudes, but I wonder sometimes if this isn't about them being superior but feeling that other identities are somehow fragile and vulnerable to harm if mishandled? You don't have to research or be aware of stereotypes or even be respectful with the able-bodied white man, he's a champ and can handle rough treatment and bad spelling or the occasional self-lubing anus. He doesn't need to have justice done to him and he doesn't have to be exceptional. I wonder if part of seducing women into femslash is to get rid of the eggshells people are walking on. Like I love social awareness but it isn't the most compatible with erotica or even romance, much like in actual sex you need the ability to "let go" and feel rather than think. Like you mentioned anxiety and shame, but women clearly don't feel that about flicking the bean, they're doing that just fine to m/m romance, right? I wonder if the fear that if you go progressive you've then got to be progressive ENOUGH isn't more of a source of anxiety and shame than seeing two ladies being happy.

    1. I think you make a really interesting and good point about feeling like writing about women especially queer women is more of a political and 'dangerous' territory. I'm not really sure if there is an answer to that though because a think a lot of that does have to do with the misogamy in our society and how women are sexualized in the mainstream.

      I do agree that getting rid of that is going to make lesbian romance, erotica and probably femslash more accessible.

      Like I don't think saying "you don't have to think about this." is going to make people feel female bodies are the same kind of 'safe space' that cisgender male bodies are.

      The thing is I'm having a hard time imagining how in our society a sexualized female body isn't going to be political in one way or another.

    2. I think this is similar to how female bodies are constructed in other ways. For example, many years ago I decided to stop removing my body hair. This was to directly resist the mainstream idea that my body hair must be removed--it challenged people, and I was happy with that, and I was also happy with its appearance and function. But then my desires began to get more nuanced. I wanted to remove my leg hair--sometimes, when I felt like it, and let it grow back when I felt like doing that. I wanted to keep my armpit hair but remove my leg and pubic hair sometimes. I wanted to have leg hair in the summer because it protects me from sunburn while cycling (and I hate having to put sunscreen on and then sweat a lot, ugh) but remove it in the winter because I wear a lot of knee socks and I hate having my hair pressed flat against the grain and--I had this guilt that my desires were counter to feminism and that my way of being comfortable with my body wasn't feminist enough because if someone saw me with shaved legs they might think I'd given into THE PATRIARCHY and I'd fail womankind and etc. I eventually realized this was absurd. What was truly progressive about my stance is that I was viewing my body in ways that made ME comfortable, and none of it had anything to do with what other people thought of my body--except the "feminism." That was the last cord to cut to actually feel comfortable with myself.

      I started to feel weird about how we politicize women's bodies without their consent. Politicizing body hair when maybe it's just hair. Politicizing natural black hairstyles, politicizing fat women reclaiming their sexuality and aesthetic, politicizing trans women who are comfortable in being women even if they don't "pass." When these women are just trying to be them, just trying to live their lives, just on the bus trying to get home, just trying to fall in love and make a family and a life.

      I think we can get too wrapped up in respectability politics, in worrying about being the "right" kind of whatever for the movement, when what really feels the most right to me is being liberated from the dominant gaze and being able to see oneself with one's own gaze and simply be a complete human. I know the mainstream is very far from that right now. But I've tasted it, I know it's possible, and it feels amazing.

    3. I my thinking is that say I do write a book about a trans woman who is happy not passing and totally thinks of herself as a woman without making that political as best as I know how. But my publisher is going to make it political, maybe even my editor and certainly most readers.

      Because in our society trans women and their bodies are political. Especially trans women who don't pass.

      In order for them not to be society itself and the way it views trans women's bodies will have to change.

      So while I agree with your original point, I find it hard to imagine the a way for us in the society we live in right not now to portray women's bodies in a way that will not be read as political.

    4. Aha, well, you're talking about gazes here! Like, you may have heard of the internalized male gaze--the "inside every woman is a man watching a woman" quote. What you just did is recontextualized that story in terms of a non-trans gaze, the gaze of cis people on a trans woman. And in real life, a trans woman herself may have that gaze, and while she has that internalized, she only sees herself as she is seen, she isn't seen as she authentically IS.

      When I go out in public, when I speak, when I share my words online, men are looking at me, and judging me. Radfems are looking at me, and also judging me. And if I internalized all of that, if I looked in that mirror of how they were misrepresenting me in their gaze, I could very easily get sucked down into hating myself. I could forget what I actually look like. But when I refuse that, and insist upon my own gaze, no matter how I am misrepresented in the eyes of others--something I can't control--*I* still see me, I am still authentic to myself, I then have a space in the world to exist as a human without performing my identity to please or even displease the male gaze. I started out still viewing myself through the external, dominant gaze, "I'm going to do things that gaze doesn't like." But I hadn't begun to ask the question--what do *I* like? Now that I have, I'm sure lots of people have opinions on how I'm liking what I like. But I refuse to get warped around them.

      For the trans woman in that example to simply exist, she at some point has to let go of that external gaze which is going to happen beyond her control, and prioritize her own gaze. I actually recently read an autobiographical comic by a trans woman dealing with this very thing, it can be found here:

      So what I'm saying is, politicizing it that way forces women to drop their own gaze, and welds an external gaze back onto their eyes. If someone tells me, "body hair on a woman is always political," they're getting between me and the comfortable, authentic relationship I worked hard to build with my own body. Ultimately, I know more about seeing my own body than other people do, and ideally I'd like them to stop telling me about my body, and listen TO me about my body. If a lesbian writes a book about lesbians, it's true other people will impose their gaze on that book--but that isn't the purpose of the book, the purpose of the book is to share HER gaze with THEM. If a trans woman writes a book about a character who doesn't always pass, she's inviting us into HER gaze, and ultimately, our gaze on it isn't what matters.

      External gazes are going to exist, and we can't control that, but we don't have to live by them. :)

    5. we may just be disagreeing here on terminology. I wasn't necessarily referring to the male gaze or a cisgender gaze although do think these kinds of gazes or being watched at all are part of politicizing a body.

      But I realize that I may not have definite my turns by political I things that seen as needing to be policed or controlled by society, whether that be through social teachings, media or actual legislation.

      While I think you mean 'political' in a social justice/partisan politics way? Which is fine, but I think we ended up talking cross ways :)

    6. But even stepping back from the way I definite political, when I write trans romance as a trans person than yes my experience should carry the most way. But the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of people who read trans romance are cisgender, so their cisgender gaze is something that I will have to address or fight again. So in that way my trans characters are still political by the very fact that they are representing transness to a cisgender audience.

    7. I'm a little bit confused about how we may be using words differently? I don't think I meant partisan politics? I meant more, I might not think about an aspect of my body or my life at all, my reasons for doing it might not have anything to do with other people and when someone else steps into that intimate relationship I have with myself, and says, "that's bad" or "that's good," it forces me to be performative, it's an external value rather than an internal value. So I guess what I'm trying to say is...someone else placing values on bodies that aren't theirs, whether positive or negative, interferes with that authentic way of being. It isn't fair that a cis man can be simply and authentically himself while getting off, while everyone else has to feel...ashamed or proud or something which is about how society sees their pleasure and not how they experience their pleasure.

      I guess I'm trying to say that going against an unfair demand to be contrary is a bit different from not hearing or ignoring the unfair demand and doing what you were going to do anyway. The demand will still exist, but the latter still feels more satisfying to me. I don't wanna rework my life around people who don't get me. I wanna rework my life around me.

      I do recognize that fiction is more performative by nature than real life, and viewer gaze on fiction is always part of the chemistry of what happens when a work is read. But it's true in all fiction that that will exist and be beyond the writer's control--I'm pretty sure JKR wanted us to hate Draco Malfoy, but lots of people loved him. Sometimes a person's understanding of my fiction is so far from how I intended it I just gotta shrug and accept death of the author, and that you can't talk to people who wanna hear something else sometimes. know what you wrote, and that means something too, and people do pick up at least some of what you put down. And yes representation can be deliberate and political, just as body presentation can be deliberate and political, if you write it to get a message out then that's what it is and that's valid. I guess what I'm saying is some people are writing to get a message out, but a message and something made for no reason other than enjoyment are different things, and I really wanna see queer fiction able to be both--queer fiction that says something, and queer fiction that's just about fulfilling a fantasy the author had, most likely written by queer people, and if heterocis people don't get it then too bad for them, the work still succeeded in being what it was intended to be.

      I mean there's always gonna be sucks dealing with them, but they don't deserve to become the most important part of the audience, or have the work performed with them in mind. Though publishing is different in that way--you can't say "lol l8r h8r" when it's your publisher. :/ This is why part of getting the reins on this might be having the power not only to write what we want but to publish it prestigiously.

      I hope I made some sense since I'm kind of confused myself @___@ I thought the words we were using were understandable and if they're not I'm a bit at a loss. I've noticed "social justice" used pejoratively within academic circles to basically mean "amateurs who don't even lift sociology" and that's pretty accurately me, I am literally a junior high school dropout who learned everything outside of formal education so I can pick up shibboleths from tumblr social justice and the like and reveal myself as someone who learned outside the system, I don't really understand how social justice is different from "things that are seen as needing to be policed or controlled by society, whether that be through social teachings, media, or actual legislation," isn't that the same thing?

  30. Last one!

    I'm not saying there's no misogyny at play either! But it's something I'd like to overwhelm from a lot of angles. Make it a more comfortable genre for people to enjoy, build up the cultural lexicon, and maybe the ones who are still hanging back because of internalized misogyny will feel something conflicted inside themselves and seek to understand and resolve that--and maybe that critical mass of lesbian romance will be a safe space that can help them do it, too. Like if a lesbian romance becomes wildly popular, a pop icon, The Book, The Movie, The Fanfiction, etc, some people are going to say "Finally!" and some will say, "Didn't think I'd be into that but I am!" and some will say, "Meh, not for me," (this is true of every popular thing though, it's okay) and a few might say, "...why does this make me so uncomfortable? I want to better understand this reaction." It starts that introspection on its own. While I still believe internalized misogyny is a very real and awful thing, I don't think it's the biggest thing holding us back, and have started to feel that solving the other stuff through solving internalized misogyny is putting the cart before the horse--maybe if we can build a cultural lexicon of women being interesting and happy and exciting and arousing and aroused it can snowball. I'm really hoping for that snowball effect, though it's so hard to get started, I believe it's possible. We definitely snowballed m/m slash out of nothing these past few decades! We're amazing when we want to build something!

    1. thank you so much for taking the time to comment :)

      It had been really interesting to hear your changing thoughts on femslash and how to make it more popular.

      Originally I wrote this article to exploring the social framework that has allowed gay romance to become incredibly popular while lesbian romance (which has existed for much longer actually) has staid a very small subgenre.

      I also don't think internalized misogyny is the only (and possibly not the biggest) reason for this. For instance I think homonormativity is also a cause.

      I think we may have to agree to disagree though because I do see internalized misogyny and the sexualization of women's bodies (largely without there consent) in our society to be a huge reason why most women don't feel comfortable reading about women in sexual situations without the 'safe space' of a male body.

    2. *nod* Well I think the comfort with m/m erotica is also something really new! Like the history of it, m/m relationships for the pleasure of women is really only a few decades old as a shared culture, like the term "slash" comes from Kirk/Spock zines so it's no older than the 1960s. That's really recent in the history of women's pleasure. So in this last 50 years we've made a market for m/m for women, where there was none at all, where that was completely unheard of. That's a vast change in attitudes in a short period of time. And I think it's no coincidence that it coincided with a lot of liberation for women, being willing to talk about desires openly at all--and maybe, yes, veiled behind fantasy but the orgasms were real at least--and also a time of gender exploration, the beginning of women entering the workforce and wearing pants, it was definitely a time of women exploring things held to be traditionally masculine and incorporating masculinity into their identities and lexicons--which has an overlap with internalized misogyny and androcentrism, but also with loosening the chokehold of the binary and expanding what it can mean to be a woman in a way that allows some women more authentic expression.

      And I think maybe we needed that to get to here. We needed a safe space to even start the conversation about women's pleasure--and it's good that it got started, but m/m doesn't have to be the end of the conversation. Rather than rivals, I think m/m can be a gateway to other forms of erotica for women, and can be a stepping stone to increased comfort with women's sexuality. I think thanks to that popularity, we have an audience of women who feel safe investing in their own pleasure and comfortable talking about it--that's the audience lesbian romance needs to exist too, they're complementary. Maybe it's just going to take one mass realization of, "Oh, you know what's really hot? Lesbians!" for it to all catch fire, but that hasn't happened yet. It may seem outlandish, but 50 years ago, who would have thought m/m romance for women was going to be the sensation it is? People would have thought you were joking. And there would have been a lot of justifications--women find gay men disgusting, they don't want to read about things that don't involve them, it'll never get past the censors--but it wasn't true in the end, it just caught on and that was that.

      I think my problem with blaming internalized misogyny is that...well, internalized misogyny comes from somewhere, it comes from external stuff, it comes from men. And it's the external stuff that's ultimately the problem. The internalized misogyny is like...the echo, and it's such a painful echo and it's so awful to feel betrayed from inside your community and inside yourself--but it's still the echo, and outside is the noise, and the noise is doing more to hold us back than the echo ever could. Like how when people say that homophobes are closeted, it puts the blame for homophobia on queer people, when it's mostly heterocis people who are the problem. We've been denied that lexicon, and that's painful, and it's going to take a lot of work to build, but the fact that we're not using a lexicon that doesn't exist doesn't mean we're oppressing ourselves. That's how I see it! I didn't think this way myself a few years ago, so I understand if you feel differently. I think we're generally doing the same things on the same side anyhow, and I'm happy you're writing the stuff and getting it out there and people ARE reading it, even if it's not in the numbers it deserves. We'll get there.

    3. I heard your problem with concentrating on internalized misogyny.

      I agree that internalized misogyny is caused my misogyny is society in general. I talk about internalized misogyny here because I do think this is the kind of misogyny that plays a large part in romance readers buying choices.

      I also think that although we see things differently we are thinking along similar paths :)

  31. Wonderful article, thank you so much for writing it! I'm an author myself; and I write m/f and f/f erotica from time to time. And from what I have seen, I actually feel like the issue of hetero-normativity hits lesbian and bi-sexual characters just as much as gay ones.
    The sheer amount of f/f stories that basically read like a man's porn fantasy especially among the f/f books that do sell a little better is kind of staggering, and continues to not disappoint but also discourage me.

    Because what I feel like makes the wider lesbian and trans* community less heteronomative in general, is that lesbians and trans* people tend to be more aware of the broader issues surrounding homophobia, sexism, gender and racial inequality etc. than gay men who widely still benefit from white male privilege even within their movement.
    But there's very little awareness of that in f/f erotica and romance, as far as I have seen. (Queue a recommendation, please? ;))

    Personally, I haven't touched m/m romance - be it in writing or reading - since I was a teenager, when it swept through fanfiction communities. The sheer amount of bile these women readers and writers had for any female character, and the fetishizing, appropriating way they discussed gay men kind of put me off for life. But I do still like me a good literary story about a gay man ;).

  32. Thank you. I read this when it was first published, or shortly there after, but it was recently linked to and I gave it a re-read. I think it speaks to me more now than when I read it the first time. My own understanding has grown. Regardless, I appreciate you saying the things you've said here.