Kim from Canada
I have always been really into reading. When I was growing up, the most easily available books where those dime store romance novels, usually Harlequin brand. My mom had quite a collection of them and new ones were always coming. Between the ages of ten and thirteen, I easily read over a hundred of these books. My mom had no problem with me reading them either. She was like whatever, she’s in her room reading, at least I know where she is.
It’s funny where parents choose to draw their lines. I think she was more concerned about me going out and doing stuff in the world than reading about it. If it was outright porn she would be like fuck this and it would be done in two seconds but this was ok. If it’s sold in a pharmacy, then it probably wasn’t too bad. It was breaking her Judeo-Christian rules to some degree but at least she knew where I was. I was the baby out of five kids so she couldn’t give too many fucks. She was just trying to survive.
I really loved reading but it was a lot of escapism too, it was so much easier to build worlds back then. I started reading these romance novels and recognizing in a very non-critical way that there were all of these kinds of tropes, dark princes, the stern guys who were hard to love and unyielding. Then there were some who were super flirty, which are the ones I liked. I didn’t like the stern ones, I thought they were assholes. Women were supposed to love you because you have rough hands? Who cares if you have rough hands? Treat me nice.
I never wanted to tell anyone I was reading these books. It was my private world, like Dungeons and Dragons for girls. I didn’t want to tell anyone else because if you hear their reaction to it and they don’t like it, it’s going to shatter your world. It’s so fragile, why would you do that? You have to protect so much about yourself when you are young. North America is a bully culture; there is no debate about that. You have to be so proactive in being a different person just to get some form of acceptance. You are trying to build something nobody else can touch. Not telling someone doesn’t mean you are shutting them out, it means you are maintaining it for yourself.
In these made up worlds in my books, I could imagine complete faces of people I had never seen before and really get into it. I was good at textures and how people looked, where they lived, houses they lived in. I was really into the details.
It’s interesting to see that kind of dance the two characters go through because it has this rhythm about it. It’s usually these people who meet and it’s intriguing but there is always some kind of weird conflict that is going on. Something tears them apart and there is some kind of misunderstanding. Then afterwards she realizes or he tells her that there is this misunderstanding, it’s like any rom-com. The misunderstanding is not what it seemed and then they can actually get together.
The getting together part was the most boring for me. It’s satisfying only for that moment. It’s like an orgasm. I was more interested in the whole thing leading up to it, the sexual exploration and figuring out what the boundaries were.
Since the characters weren’t able to be in each other’s company very often, the words were so sparse that they meant so much more. Usually the author is filling in a lot with things like, “he turned to her in this kind of a way,” or “he turned as if to say.” I found that interesting because it spoke to the way that we speak without speaking.
One thing I liked was most of the books didn’t speak down to you. There were some of course where the boy enters and you are supposed to be excited that they are there. That was boring. I didn’t want to faun over some guy who didn’t deserve it. I knew the important part was the way he acted or the way he held himself or the way that he talked to me. He had to do something to make you interested. Not just because this is the story and he’s the only person there is so make it work.
There was one that I loved a lot, it was called Unconquered, I think by Bertrice Small. What a name. If your name is Bertrice, what else can you do besides write romance novels? That book changed my life. It started off, spoiler alert, with a privileged woman in Maryland. They had this big estate and her father died and the rule was that the estate would go to the next male heir. So it was going to something like a half cousin and she was like fuck this, this is my house, I grew up here, it should go to me.
It had this feminist streak and I loved it off the bat. The guy, the partial cousin, was partial enough to be romantic, was her romantic aspiration in the end but there was so much fighting. At times I thought she would give in and other times she was so over him and couldn’t stand him. I thought that was kind of cool because she didn’t give in too soon. If they give in too soon it’s boring. She was losing something important, she was losing her estate so she fought tooth and nail but eventually, in order to keep her family estate, she had to marry him.
At some point, she gets sold into slavery into this harem in Egypt or somewhere but she has a good experience, which of course never happens. She experiences all of these orgasms and sexual pleasures with the man that runs the harem. There is always the possibility to go off to the consulate and be rescued but she has a real deep relationship with this guy who was not her husband. She said to him, “I feel really conflicted because I am a wife and I know I was kidnapped but here I am with you and I have had pleasures with you outside of my husband.”
He said “those are your pleasures, that’s no ones business” and it blew my fucking mind.
As a kid it’s just like what? Is this possible? I hope I get kidnapped! Ok for the record no, but for me it was so crazy. She had different relationships and then she went back to her husband. That was what was intriguing about it. She had all of these different lives. She was fiercely independent and fiercely herself. That was what made it interesting. Any time you get a whiff of different possibilities and different narratives you really feel alive and that is what I connect it to.
She also had a baby and her baby wasn’t the center of the story after. I resented that in a lot of novels. The ending in a lot of romance novels was oh they got married! I don’t need to see that, I was here for the sex and the intrigue. I don’t really care about you getting married, it’s implied. I was really bored by that and I felt kind of abandoned when a story ended that way.
That book also had one of my favorite lines out of all of the books I was reading. “His phallus was l like an ivory tower, veined and blue.”
You can’t beat that.
One of the things that I really liked about the novels was that it was exactly at the level that I needed at the moment.
As a kid I would draw things that were sometimes overtly sexual. I thought it was funny, haha look it’s a dick type of thing or people kissing. I would show them to my friends and I just thought it was funny. I never drew anything like penetration, that was so gross and foreign and violent to me. But people kissing, oh yeah, that was the level I was at. I was horrible at drawing people so they were distorted with these huge lips.
One time my teacher found some drawings and she called my mom. I was like oh no my life is over, she is going to murder me! You don’t understand man, it’s not a joke! It’s not a joke! My mom asked me where I saw this kind of stuff and I told her, in these magazines that I found from my brother and she lost it. My brothers were in their early teens so they weren’t exactly careful about hiding their porn.
He got in massive trouble, especially because she had some fucking teacher calling her. It’s always bad news when your kid’s teacher calls you. I’m sure you feel so much judgment as a parent, they are looking down on you. She’s this black woman raising kids by herself, it’s like I don’t need to deal with this shit, I am trying to keep shit together. Don’t bring me this crap.
Between the magazines I found from my brother and a soft-core porn that I saw once accidentally on late night television, I was able to understand the gist of what sex was. What surprised me about the difference between porn and the novels I was reading was that there didn’t seem to be any joy attached to the porn. I couldn’t attach those anguished sounds with pleasure.
There is the kind of porn where it feels like I am a potential victim and the kind of porn that is more drawn out with a story. Somebody has earned my interest, my care. I would have liked that kind of story where people didn’t have to have this forced coquettishness or coyness of oh my god, what are you doing to me?
You know what the fuck is going on. It’s either that or she is being attacked or violated and it’s not romantic, it’s not even cool. You never encounter sex as a good thing in porn. It’s something from a male gaze. It’s not about you, it just involves you because you have the parts.
I don’t remember where I heard this from but it really stuck with me:
“When it comes to women and sex, women like everything around sex almost as much as the sex itself.”
That is exactly what it was, sex itself wasn’t the plan. I liked everything around sex, especially since I didn’t fully understand sex. I knew how it worked mechanically but I didn’t quite understand how it worked organically. You don’t learn that kind of thing from porn and I didn’t get much information from anywhere else.
My sex talk with my mom was about three sentences at most. She said, “you know what it is, don’t do it.” That was it basically.
I am sure these romance novels affected the way I thought about relationships when I started dating, probably in some ways that I can’t even describe. I feel some of it gave me high standards and maybe some of it kind of entrenched me with a lot of bullshit. There are probably weird connotations going around in my subconscious that I don’t know about. My subconscious and I are friends but we don’t talk.
I had to get past a lot of things to get to the point of who I know myself to be. At least it gave me a place to start because what else is going to teach you? A lot of kids are starting with porn and that’s so far from what sex actually is. I try not to have too much judgment about it but sex is a powerful thing. It’s not a moralistic thing at all, sex is just reality, it’s where we come from.
There is a lack of diversity in terms of thinking about sex and how organic it is. It’s really to the point and to the detriment of the woman sometimes. You have to divorce yourself from it. Most of the time when you watch porn you’re like oh my god do I hate women? Just even to enjoy it you have to fracture parts of your mind because your empathy can’t stand a lot of it. Here the empathy wasn’t lacking because it was given the dignity of the story, some kind of evolution or background to say context matters and things lead up to other things and they all matter in their own way. In the way that life actually does.
Eventually I stopped reading the books kind of all at once. My friends started to have boyfriends and the mysticism of the relationships and sensuality and sexuality kind of fell away. None of these interesting things that were happening in the stories would ever happen in real life. By learning more and more about the real world, these imaginary worlds stopped being so intriguing.