"No sex without love" has always been the cry of the Mills & Boon heroine, in the teeth of all the evidence that human beings will screw around for almost any reason which seems good at the time, this presumably being the fundamental drive that keeps the species going.and she goes on to add that Dixon's
central argument that M&B stories enhance women's status rather than lessening it doesn't convince, because ultimately the fundamentals of the relationship between men and women have never changed in the novels: sex for women is still only acceptable in the context of "love", by which is meant sanctified romantic passionjay Dixon herself mentions a related view, and one with which she does not agree:
At the Romance and Roses Conference held at Liverpool University in November 1995, most commentators asserted that because Mills & Boon books end with marriage they reflect a "conservative patriarchal status quo". (1999: 183)There seem to be two questions being raised here. The first relates to whether the portrayal of sexuality in romance is unrealistic and sexist (in that female sexuality is depicted as being inherently different to male sexuality) and the second is about the relationship between sex and marriage. Both implicity raise a further question, about whether romance can be feminist.
Leaving aside the issue of whether monogamy is possible (I think it is), it seems to me that marriage is not necessarily incompatible with feminism (see, for example, Gornick). Certain forms of marriage, particularly ones where rigid gender roles are enforced, or where women lose property rights, are clearly not feminist in nature, but not all marriages are like this.
The other argument against romance being feminist is that it seeks to link sex with love, 'sex for women is still only acceptable in the context of "love" '. Clearly romances do link sex, love and marriage, although, as Dixon points out, there are plenty of exceptions:
From the beginning, Mills & Boon novels make explicit the link between love, marriage and sex. This does not mean, as some commentators have assumed, that the books condemn sex outside marriage. On the contrary, there exist many instances, from most decades, of the heroine having premarital or adulterous sex, which is not condemned in the novels. (1999: 134)What seems to me a crucial point, and one which is perhaps overlooked when arguments are made that romance is unfeminist, is that romance almost always advocates monogamy for both sexes (I know there are a few polyamorous romances, but they're a rare exception, but they too, from the reviews I've read, make a link between love and sex), and suggests that while people (of either sex) may enjoy sex without love/outwith a committed relationship, both women and men find greater fulfilment sexually when love is also present:
The Mills & Boon view of sex is very specific. Sexual intercourse is always better, for both hero and heroine, when there is a mutual feeling of love and desire and both protagonists surrender to that feeling, with body and mind in harmony. (Dixon 1999: 143, my emphasis)I wouldn't for a minute deny that there's a sexual double-standard operating in many romances, because the number of virgin heroines paired up with rakes/sexually-experienced heroes makes that fact undeniable, but the genre also goes a certain way to undermine that double standard, because however promiscuous the rake may have been, his promiscuity has not usually brought him the happiness that he finds with the heroine. Thus romance seems to argue that sex will only be at its most fulfilling for both sexes when there is love involved. For all that people like Jakeman may feel this is unrealistic, I don't think it's unfeminist.
Dixon, jay, 1999. The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s (London: UCL Press)
[Edited to add that the link to Jakeman's article is now broken and I cannot find it in the New Statesman's archive. However, I did find it in an academic database. The full details are as follows: Jakeman, Jane. “Hearts and Flowers.” Rev. of The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1990 by jay Dixon and Agatha Christie and the Eleven Missing Days by Jared Cade. New Statesman 128.4426 (5 Mar. 1999): 51-52.]