Thursday, May 21, 2015

Sneers and Leers: Sociologists on Attitudes Towards Romance

Sociologists Jennifer Lois and Joanna Gregson, who received funding from RWA, have had an article published in Gender & Society. Here's the abstract:
Drawing on four years of ethnographic research with romance novel writers, we show how their affiliation with romance—a literary genre known for stories containing sexual content—prompted outsiders to sexually stigmatize them. Our work examines both the application and management of this stigma. We describe how outsiders applied the stigma in two ways: by conveying blatant disapproval through “sneering” and inviting writers to display a highly sexualized self through “leering.” Writers interpreted outsiders’ sneering as slut-shaming rhetoric and responded discursively to manage the stigma; leering, however, sent a more complicated message that was harder for writers to manage. In revealing how these interactions threatened to strip writers of their sexual agency, our analysis suggests gender may be a primary mechanism by which stigma is applied and managed, which has theoretical implications for the stigmatization of women’s sexual selves. 
Although there has been research done on romance readers, this is the first research on "how the sexual stigma affects [romance] writers" (3).

Authors spoke of having to overcome
shame about the sexual content of their books. They discussed the work it had taken to reach that emotional state, to “mostly—mostly—kill the selfconscious voice inside,” as one writer explained. [...] Many writers credited the great support they received from others in the romance community who taught them how to contest the sneering shame they felt outsiders unfairly applied to them. (10)

And "As the antithesis of shame, pride [...] was one way to neutralize the slut-shaming discourse" (10). It's not clear to me how much of this pride was derived from authors' assessment of the literary quality of their writing. Lois and Gregson do, however, mention that quite a few of the authors they spoke to
told us they were “laughing all the way to the bank,” a conventional measure of success that offset some of outsiders’ sneering. The more legitimate their writing careers, mostly measured by number of books published and revenue earned, the more power writers had to contest the shame they felt outsiders imposed upon them. (12)
Although showing pride in their writing "was effective, writers’ realization that sexual shame is disproportionately aimed at women significantly strengthened their ability to contest it" (10). In other words, it helped authors when they put the stigma they faced into the wider social context of attitudes towards women's sexuality.

Lois and Gregson didn't speak to many male romance authors but,
Interestingly, the male romance writers in our sample experienced the sexual stigma of romance differently. As a “women’s” topic, romance called their masculinity into question. Unlike female writers, male writers rarely encountered outsiders deriding their shameful sexuality; instead they perceived outsiders to be disparaging their shameful femininity, a deviant emotional orientation that seemingly allowed them to write about love and relationships. (11)
In contrast to the disapproval expressed in "sneering", authors also had to deal with "leering":
leering invited writers to play the part of the sexual deviant by “approving” of their presumed willingness to share their sex lives and fantasies with their readers. In these interactions, it appeared outsiders wanted to be voyeuristically entertained by asking writers to play up the titillating aspects of their sexuality. (13)
"Leering" can include a range of behaviours: while many instances of leering "featured leering male outsiders propositioning female writers" (13),
we noted that leering included a broader set of behaviors in which outsiders seemed to presume writers’ willingness to share their personal sexuality by asking intrusive questions and engaging them in highly sexualized conversations. (14)
This latter type of "leering" could sometimes be difficult to distinguish from the "authentic approval from some outsiders who talked about the sexual content in a way that seemed more genuinely appreciative" (15).

"Leering" seems to affect writers differently:
Writers responded in two ways: granting the request by personalizing their sexuality or denying it by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books. (13)
In the first category were female authors who "personalized their sexuality by playing along with outsiders’ intimations that they were highly sexual women" (16) and male authors who "used outsiders’ leering questions to their advantage, positioning themselves as heterosexual men who celebrated their jobs for the focus on female sexuality" (17).
Though this strategy was not universally accepted, we saw many examples, such as dressing as dominatrices at book signings; singing sexually suggestive karaoke with romance novel cover models at a readers convention; and hosting “post the sexiest shirtless Navy SEAL” contests on Facebook fan pages, often with the explicit goal of growing readership.
Writers also expressed their sexuality because the romance community, with its shame-free orientation toward women’s sexuality, was a safe space to do so. (17)
writers ranged widely in their motivations for personalizing the sexual stigma. Some writers told us it was “fun,” “shocking,” and even “empowering,” while others specifically tied it to neutralizing the sexual stigma. One writer told us that personalizing sexuality was a way to “defang the critics” because “we’re calling ourselves trashy before they can.” (18)
Writers who adopted the other approach towards leering
mainly did so by depersonalizing the sexual content of their books and framing it instead as integral to the craft of storytelling. If writers could emphasize that the story sex was not about them, they could decline the invitation to display their sexuality, negate the assumption that they were documenting their own sex lives, and gain control over the leering interactions.
Embracing either a personalizing or depersonalizing strategy did not create a fixed division among writers, but some writers had strong opinions about how useful and appropriate each strategy was. (18)
Either way,
given the ineffectiveness of both personalizing and depersonalizing the sexual content, our data reveal that leering was much more difficult to manage than sneering. (22)

Lois, Jennifer and Joanna Gregson. "Sneers and Leers: Romance Writers and Gendered Sexual Stigma." Gender & Society (2015): 1-25. [The article has been published "online first" which means that it hasn't yet been assigned to a particular issue. The pagination is therefore provisional. The authors have also made available an unofficial, earlier version of the paper (click to download).]


  1. Very interesting. I do agree that finding out the context of sexism is empowering. I felt that way with racism too when I realized it wasn't so individual.

  2. Yes, seeing the structural causes takes the burden of blame/shame off the target of the criticism/prejudice and turns it back onto the people whose analysis is flawed.

    Same goes with poverty/economic inequality (which intersects with race and gender, as Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2014 article, which focuses on how, "in the mid-20th century, [...] the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day" makes clear with regards to race).