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On a wet autumn evening, a small crowd gathers at the Hustler Hollywood store on Sunset Boulevard for a reading of James Buchanan’s new romance novel, Personal Demons. In the book, a gay FBI agent is about to make love to his boyfriend, an LAPD officer.
“That man’s butt was fine,” the author reads. “The fabric of his slacks clung in all the right places. Enrique kissed him. Hard, passionate and warm, Enrique’s mouth devoured Chase’s senses. He hadn’t been kissed like that in ages. ... He wanted to see Enrique naked. Lick his body. Explore every inch.”
Exuberant, nasty sex ensues, explicitly described by Buchanan. Soon after, the men wake up to find a dead chicken on their car. Those in the Hustler store audience love it. “James is so great, so real,” whispers a fan, Zoe Nichols.
At first glance, the reading seems fairly conventional — except for the fact that James Buchanan is not a man, she is a heterosexual mother of two, whose husband watches her read from the back of the room. She uses the pen name “James Buchanan” because in the niche of the gay-romance novel, publishers see male writers as more authentic and, more importantly, so do readers.
It’s an entirely hollow gesture to the genre’s growing number of fans. They know Buchanan is a woman, just as they know that most gay-romance novels are written by women like her. Which leads us to the other oddity on display at the Hustler store this night. The audience of some 20 is mostly female. In fact, most readers of gay-romance novels are — like most readers of straight-romance novels — women who devour 300-page stories of men falling in and out of love with each other, all the while having abundant, glorious and oh-so-graphic sex.
With an eager audience urging them on, Buchanan and other female authors are reinventing the ages-old romance novel to accommodate — and accentuate — gay love. To read widely in this genre is to delve into the minds and hearts of male cops, detectives, private investigators, spies, assassins, pirates, sharpshooters and military officers who let nothing stand in the way of love. The brooding sea captain falls not for the blushing maiden but his own dashing first mate. The licentious boy-band rock star couldn’t care less about the pretty female fan, but her cute boyfriend, on the other hand...
On the receiving end of these books are people like Nichols. As the 20-year-old explains, “It’s more fun to read about men going through the stuff women have gone through for thousands of years. In some ways it defeats the novelty, but it comes back to them being on equal ground. And two guys together? Seriously hot.”
That, in a nutshell, is the latest twist in romance fiction, a $1.37 billion industry that dominates the consumer-books market, and is in turn dominated by women, who buy more than 90 percent of all romance novels. This being the youngest of the romance disciplines, there are no definitive industry numbers on gay-themed love stories. The genre really came into its own in the ’90s as an Internet and e-book phenomenon, and the old-school print-publishing houses are playing catch-up. (The first house to take the plunge, Running Press, sent out its initial raft of books just this year.) In many ways the growing popularity of gay romance represents nothing less than a tectonic shift in a culture that says women don’t (and shouldn’t) consume porn. Hot and steamy gay-romance literature is to women what Internet porn is to men: They get off on it, mostly in secret, and keep coming back for more.
And like porn, reading gay romance can be downright addictive. Through the safety and anonymity of e-mail, women from around the country responded to our questions and confessed their obsessive reading habits. Emmy Frost, a young nurse in Hawaii, admits that she reads 15 to 20 gay romances a month. “Two gorgeous men rubbing off on each other is flipping sexy,” she says. Nearly one book a day? A 36-year-old accountant named Ana Maria can top that: She reads 25 a month.
The reasons these women give for reading gay romance range from curiosity and escapism to empowerment in seeing the age-old struggle between the sexes reconfigured. A love story between two men, Kerrita K. Mayfield points out, creates new, enticing questions: “Who pitches? Who catches?”
Then there are the men on explicit view, the books’ male characters, and not just the standard alpha males who populate traditional romances — the knights in shining armor who sweep women off their feet — but the sweet, subservient beta males, too. The bottoms, in other words, as well as the tops.
Some respondents see these novels as a harmless way to “explore without ‘consequences,’ ” but others, like Toni Rapone, find deeper connections. Rapone, a retired commodities day trader in Montana, speaks of her love for the archetypal loners. Forced into isolation or desperate circumstances, these guys depend on each other to survive. “If they can find love,” Rapone says, “with someone who is their equal, so they can express themselves and be accepted for who they are, then it somehow feels like the chances of my doing it are increased.”
Regardless of their individual reasons, these women speak of the appeal as being wrapped up in an undeniable heat. Asked if reading about two men having sex is a turn-on for her, Ana Maria says, “Does the sun rise every morning?”
Why are straight women turned on by watching two men having sex?
“Why not?” counters UC Santa Barbara’s Professor Constance Penley. “That’s really the question. Would you ask men why are they so turned on by two women together? We take it for granted that guys love their girl-on-girl. Why shouldn’t women have an appreciation for guy-on-guy? It is as deep-seated a fantasy as the male fantasy of putting two women together.”
That may sound somewhat dubious — if it’s so deep-seated, why did it take 100,000 years of human history and the invention of the e-book to become evident? — but then Penley ought to know. A professor of film and media studies, she teaches a kind of Porn 101 at UCSB. There are other “porn professors” in the world, but Penley was the first to teach it as a necessary part of a comprehensive film-and-media-studies curriculum, and to treat it as a genre like westerns or science fiction. She was certainly the first to bring in industry experts. You’d show up for her class and find Nina Hartley or Jeannie Pepper — Hustler’s “Rosa Parks of porn”— as a guest speaker. A decade ago she was named one of Rolling Stone’s eight most dangerous minds in America.
Over the phone, Penley is pleasant, affable and irreverent, with the remnants of a Southern accent flitting in and out of her voice. The idea that men only identify with the man in a sex scene, she says, or that women only identify with the woman, is too simplistic. “Why couldn’t men be identifying with the woman and be, at the level of fantasy, in her body?”
Or vice versa. Why couldn’t women be putting themselves in the bodies of men? Has Penley ever heard of anyone doing that?
“Yes, I think people do it all the time!” she answers, laughing. “Freud said, at the level of the unconscious, we’re all bisexual. ... People are capable of a much greater range of fluidity of who they identify with, and whom they objectify, or take as a sexual object of desire.”
As for why a straight woman writes gay romance, Penley suggests, it has to do with body politics. Women’s bodies are a political and social battleground. Women are told how to behave, and whether or not they can abort fetuses. They are held to impossibly high standards of beauty. Maybe they write with men’s bodies, she theorizes, because those bodies aren’t as problematic as their own. Maybe men’s bodies are just easier.
Linda Williams, a Berkeley professor who wrote the first serious book about porn film, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” suggests a similar freedom — specifically, one from worry. When women watch straight pornography, there’s always the problem of who’s on top, or who’s on the bottom. “On the other hand,” Williams says, “if you’re watching two men having sex, you don’t have to worry about a woman being mishandled, or abused or overpowered.”
Or it could simply be a fantasy of abundance. “If you presume that these women are heterosexual,” Williams adds, “and their own desire is for men, then you’ve doubled the pleasure.”
Another prevailing belief is that the pleasure these women derive from reading erotic romances about two men has less to do with the sex than with the romance. The main pleasure comes from the romantic story, i.e., the plot. And the plots are essentially female. The sex is just the cherry on top.
For UCLA psychologist Paul Abramson, author of the forthcoming Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the 21st Century, pornography is to male psychology what romance fiction is to female psychology. These books are “the story of a heroine overcoming all these obstacles to unite with a hero,” he says. “That is what pushes these male-male romance stories.
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Gendy Alimurung (LAweekly.com) – 16 December 2009.