from Jack Spade’s flickr:

In one of those weird coincidences, my tweetstream and my email box are full of the same thing today: discussions of relationships and sexuality.

It started with an article that was, I think, meant to be a puff piece to shine a light on women who write male/male romance. The article was a disaster and the quotations from the authors were..unreal. So unreal that many suggested that the authors had been misquoted.

But here’s the thing: as bad as the comments were, none of them surprised me. Let me sum up the reasons these women were quoted as saying they wrote m/m instead of heterosexual romance:

  • In a m/m romance, both characters have equal power
  • Women are nasty, game-playing, underhanded, and “bitchy”, whereas men are straightforward

There’s some other stuff, too, but those are the biggies. And no, neither of those surprised me because I’ve never actually made it through a male/male romance. I am pretty sure most of the ones I tried were written by women. One was written by a man—a man I know and like—but the writing was bad and I couldn’t get more than ten pages in.

The books that were written by women share one thing: they completely fetishize men’s bodies and men’s relationships. It gives me the same, skeevy feeling I get when men catcall women. There’s a peculiar insistence in them that all men are the same. They are more straightforward than women. They relate to each other a certain way. They are physically and emotionally strong, but always, always scarred. And once you get underneath that scarring, they’re mushy-centered. (I’ve solicited recommendations on Twitter from some people whose opinions I trust…if you’re looking for something to read, try this list at Dear Author for starters.)

In my conversation with my friends on Twitter about m/m romance, one of them mentioned that she found her cisgendered gay male friends still very “male.” I wouldn’t say that was my experience. And then, in an act of complete synchronicity, a couple of hours after that a friend emailed me with the following:

The funny thing about living where I am is that almost everyone around here thinks I’m straight. […] What’s interesting about this from a social science experiment perspective, is that I never realized how much men really ARE pigs! When they think you’re another straight guy, they talk to you much differently.

If I’m outside chatting with someone in the smoking corral, one of the guys will inevitably make some remark about a woman’s chest, legs, or ass after she walks by.

Now, I know a lot of guys. Both gay and straight. I know men deeply in denial about their own sexuality, and ones who put it all right out there, loud and proud about the number of partners—male or female—they’ve had. I know some guys who comment about women who pass by. They’re not my friends. They’re guys I’ve worked with or my husband works with. In the area my friend B is living, apparently a lot of guys behave like this. But not all of them.

So I asked B if he were out with a gay male friend and he saw a hot guy, would he comment? Here is his response:

No, and no one I know has ever done that, which is what makes this so interesting.

What I have done with others is usually have a chuckle because a gay guy who’s really cute will carry himself in a “yes, I know I’m beautiful” way in front of other gay guys.

It’s an entirely different social interaction.

But just before I hit ‘send’, I remembered years ago I was with a friend in a department store, and he commented “that one looks tossable, eh?”, after some cute guy had lingered for just a brief moment too long in the aisle where we were, so his comment had been precipitated by an action by the other guy.

Now, I imagine that despite my friend’s experience there must be some gay guys who look at others as objects. I’ve sat with gay male friends and had them go “hubba hubba” to me when a particularly hot guy walks by. But now I wonder…do they do that only with their straight female friends and not with other gay guys? These are things I’ve never wondered because…well…I don’t really think that much about my friends’ sexuality. (The one exception being those friends who were miserable due to denial of their own sexuality or unhappiness with their sexual preference.)

"What is normal, Mommy?" "Just a setting on the dryer."So I started thinking about how I would even begin to write a m/m—or, for that matter, f/f—romance. What did I think was fundamentally different about a relationship between two men or two women versus one between a man and a woman? And, really, I couldn’t wrap my head around internal political differences. That is, within the relationship, the lasting m/m and f/f relationships I’ve seen look pretty much the same as the relationship my husband and I have.

Externally, the pressures a same-sex couple face are definitely different. I recall, for example, my sister’s absolute panic when she had a gorgeous baby girl. “What am I going to do?” she wailed, “I have no idea how to help her deal with boys!” We live in New York, where it’s not such a big deal to be a same-sex couple, but even here it’s not the same experience as being in what is still considered more “normal.” So, yes, I can see how the external conflicts the couples might face could be different. But would the relationship itself be different? How would those external conflicts reflect into the relationship?

I went back to that article and saw that one of the authors had posted a reply on her own blog. I realize she was trying to make it better, but as far as I could see, she made it worse.

The fact is, in an urban fantasy world or a fantasy world, heroines can have equal social heft with heroes, and they can look their heroes in the eyes and be taken as dead equals in any circumstance, because the rules of the fantasy world can give them that.

The same cannot be said for the rules of the modern world.

So the answer is not to write strong women? She goes on to assure us all that she’s not a normal woman in a normal relationship.

Now, when my husband made much more money than I did, it made sense for me to [be the primary caregiver for the children].  We both agreed.  It only made sense.  But now that we’re equal wage earners?  He doesn’t let me freak out about the house.  He spends as much time caring for the children as I do.  Why?  Because we both agree that we’re equals– not just as wage earners, but as life-partners.  If I ever make enough money for him to quit his job or take fewer hours to take care of the kids, we’re both all over that. 

Now imagine if I tried to write that female character into a romance.  Or that male character.  Selling that partnership to an agent or a publisher would probably get me kicked out of the romance department and right into literary fiction–but that’s not what I want to write!

Ummm…no. And not just no, but hell no. I disagree with this on just about every level. Every long-term relationship requires negotiation. And maybe if you hadn’t read a romance in 20 years, or if you only read a very specific subset of category romances, you might believe that none of that negotiation takes place between the pages of a romance novel. But right off the top of my head I can name half a dozen contemporary authors for whom these issues form some of the major points of their work. (Victoria Dahl, Roxanne St. Claire, Cara McKenna, Lisa Jackson, Molly O’Keefe, Suzanne Brockmann. Oh, right—and me.)

Do all romance writers write about the struggle to negotiate a happy place in a relationship? No. But I’ve said before that I find the ones who pay at least some attention to this more satisfying.

Here’s the thing:  all relationships are unequal in one way or another. Even romantic relationships between men. For example, one couple I knew in grad school had incredibly disparate incomes, but J, who made considerably less money was completely out and no one in his chosen career cared. His partner, M, made a lot more money, but didn’t have nearly as much freedom, and referred to J as his “room-mate” when around colleagues from work.

So…were they “equal?” Because that’s the main thrust of why women seem to believe m/m romance is “better” or “more fun” to write. Because the characters are “equal.” (I would imagine that gay men write m/m romance for the same reason I write m/f romance—it’s what they know.)

I hate to break it to those female writers of m/m romance: no two people in this world are equal. Especially in a relationship, there is never true equality. And it has so very, very little to do with money. It often has very little to do with social position. In my own marriage, for example, though I make a good deal more than my husband does, my health is appallingly bad and he is often in the position of literally taking care of me. He is romantic; I am practical. He’s an idealist; I am a cynic. We negotiate every single thing. Home repairs? Negotiation. Vacations? Negotiation. Puppy care? Negotiation.

Every relationship is different. Every one. Think about how you relate to your parents versus how each of your siblings does. Or how your siblings relate to each other. Or how your children relate to you. Or to each other. Relationships are complex and constantly changing. The idea that this kind is better, inherently more interesting or more sexy or more honest than that kind is patronizing and flat out wrong.

So, what do you think? Are there internal differences in homosexual versus heterosexual relationships? Can you think of books that show them well?