Sex, Power, Feminism and the New Adult Heroine (Part 1)

Now is that a blog title or what?

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This might seem a little weighty for a Thursday morning, but it’s been on my mind for a while, and I think it’s worth talking about.

When the New Adult genre first began to emerge a few years back, there was considerable confusion in both the author and reader worlds about what defined this type of book. Was it age of characters? Age of readers? A specific type of situation? Or, as some began to insinuate, was it the enormous amount of sex happening in these NA romances?

The answers have been slow to come out. Most of us agree that NA means the main characters are post-high school and pre-30. That’s a fairly wide gap, so we might further define it via situation: the characters are usually either in college, just out of college or in a situation (job or otherwise) happening in place of college. Age of readers is immaterial; as in YA, the readership for New Adult romance spans from pre-teen (yikes) to senior citizenship. As for situation, most of these books showcase characters in transition, either physical, academic, emotional or relational.

Sex? Yeah. Most–not all–NA tends to feature a lot of that.

But for me, it’s not the amount of sex in an NA book that’s intriguing. It’s how the sex is handled. I’ve discovered that in my favorite stories, the female leads have one thing in common: a healthy sexual attitude and appetite. Thinking about that led me to another line of questioning: why is it that until recently, a healthy attitude about sex in a female lead who was under 30 and/or unmarried usually signified a character flaw in that woman? We were okay with the heroine fawning over the hero’s eyes or voice or his take-charge attitude, but most of the time, she wasn’t checking out his other, ah, assets. On the other hand, they male leads were all about the curves in their love-interests; it was perfectly okay for the hero to exhibit obvious signs of sexual interest in the girl, but rarely did we see likewise from the women. Her heart might pound, or she might feel butterflies in her stomach, but we didn’t delve too far into what was going on in other body parts.

And most of these books also faded to black during love scenes. The only female characters with overt interest in the bedroom activities were the ‘bad’ girls, and you knew damn well those gals weren’t getting the guy–he was reserved for the dewey-eyed good girl.

I’m happy to see that changing. Nowadays, we’re seeing female leads who take charge of their own choices, including sexually. They’re comfortable with their bodies and with finding pleasure. Most are mature in their decisions, being both responsible and sensible.

Now, I’ll say right here that I’m not coming out as an advocate for premarital sex or suggesting that the choices made in books are necessarily right for all girls. The only one who can make a good decision for a young woman is that young woman, hopefully with the guidance and counsel of her mother or other wise relatives/friends.

My point is that books are now offering a wider option of role models. There’s no longer only the virgin or the slut; New adult has opened the door to the advent of the sexually-confident and responsible female. While we can find these women in a growing number of wonderful books, I’ll spotlight a few that have impressed me recently.

Sarina Bowen’s The Ivy Years series is a terrific example of healthy sexuality, explored in a matter-of-fact setting. If you’re a fan of NA romance, you really must read these books. My favorite is probably the one I just finished, The Shameless Hour, in which the female lead is unabashedly sexual and sexually active. Over the course of the book, she experiences numerous attempts by others to change this in her, and how she deals with it was extremely well-done.

My own journey as an author of NA romance has been a learning experience. When I began writing, I wrote young adult books, and I was happy not to have to tackle the sex topic. I’ve been married to the same man since I was 20; we’d been dating since I was 17. I have three daughters, and I wanted to write a story that they could read (and even though they’re older, two of them don’t read books with sex!). I had no doubt that Tasmyn and Michael would wait until they married, and that decision worked for them . . . until we came to Restless and Rafe got in on the action–figuratively speaking. Rafe is probably one of my most sexual characters, and for him, being with Tasmyn and sensing her reluctance to touch him was a blow. Tasmyn’s experience with Rafe played into her relationship with Michael in Endless, where both of them are tempted to take their physical bond to the next level. Of course, they don’t, because these are YA books.

Best Served Cold was my first NA romance. I struggled with the right balance for Julia; she was undeniably attracted to Jesse and they did have a sexual element to their relationship, but it wasn’t actually consummated until the end of the book, mostly because Julia had been burned by Liam. Through flashbacks, though, we learn that their sex life was probably the healthiest aspect of Liam and Julia’s relationship.

But it was probably the process of writing Undeniable that opened my eyes. Joss, Rafe’s love interest in that book, was an unknown quantity for me at the start. I knew what her role was, but I didn’t really know her. Once I began writing the story, suddenly Joss blossomed into a main character whose assertiveness and independence helped shape the plot line. She was the perfect foil for Rafe, the hot guy who’d just spent a summer sleeping with a different woman every night in his attempt to forget Tasmyn. And Joss was also a nice difference from Cathryn, who presents herself as aloof and almost cold (although those of us who’ve read Stardust on the Sea know differently!).  Joss is comfortable in her sexuality. She knows she can enjoy Rafe without being in love with him, though maybe this doesn’t quite work out the way she’d planned.

Writing Joss was so freeing for me as an author that it changed my subsequent NA romances. Joss made way for Ava, who lusted openly for Liam even when she was wracked with guilt–it wasn’t a sexual guilt. And Meghan is clearly comfortable with her own desire; she makes no secret of her feelings for Sam, even when he can’t handle it yet.

Writing Flynn and Ali’s story was especially fun, because through the flashbacks, we get to see them discover each other. Their honesty and frankness helped them in the future, when they needed that re-established connection. And even Rilla, as protected and innocent as she is, responds eagerly to Mason.

So how does that increased sexual assurance translate into a twenty-first century feminism and female and empowerment?

Come back next week and we’ll talk about that.

 

Peace, love and romance~

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