Is Male/Male Romance Fundamentally About Men?

Most of you remember Stuart who, some years ago, questioned many of the constructs and tropes used by male/male authors in their novels.  I used his questions as the basis for a few articles which were so popular that the hits keep coming even today. We reconnected a few weeks ago and after a lot of persuasion and bribes  😀 Stuart agreed to become a reviewer and guest contributor for the site. I’m really happy he decided to join us because his “voice” is like a breath of fresh air. This is his first post which as usual is hard-hitting, but also asks some valid questions that need to be posed. I hope you will comment after you read Stuart’s article.

Marcos Chaljub, 29, and Freddy Zambrano, 30. The first male couple in New York State to legally marry on July 25, 2011

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A few weeks ago my husband came home from work, tired, grimy, and horny from protecting and serving the people of New York City. Yeah, I married a cop and am living the dream. Seeing lustful gleams, crouching like wild beasts in his gold-flecked, hazel eyes, I gave myself completely to the demands of his love. Stripping, I looked into those masculine, yet profoundly tender, policeman’s eyes, and said, “Need.” He grunted unhappily, a bear disturbed while seeking a hive rich with man-honey, and said, “Stu, why have you suddenly stopped using pronouns? You always use pronouns.” (It’s true, proper syntax defines me as much as my improperly sinful body.) I hesitated for a second, a blush slowly spreading up from my sweaty chest to burnish my smooth cheeks. I knew this delicate pink, yet powerfully masculine, blush heightened my desirability and I would not be deterred from having him.

I pressed Mike down into the mattress. “Mine,” I growled…. “Mine,” I whined. But my beloved husband, my everything, pushed me away. “Stu, what the fuck, I hate when you act like this.” My chocolate brown eyes began to fill with unshed tears at his cruel rejection, and my delicate, kiss-swollen lips pursed in thought. I could talk with him… but I’m a man and we don’t solve problems by talking with each other. Should I angrily storm off without a word, slam the door, and go talk to my feisty, unattractive BFF? She’s always available to stop whatever she’s doing and take care of me. But I wanted to save the situation; my cock was hard and would stay hard until we had sex. It’s how men are. Did Mike need me to wiggle my butt? Perhaps some writhing might salvage the moment. No, I knew there was only one thing to do. “Need… need to mark you.” Then I bit him… bit him hard. My tousled, mahogany brown hair shadowing my face as I licked and sucked at the small wound. The slight, salty taste of his blood was sheer ambrosia and I moaned in ecstasy. Mike was mine, all mine now, everything was alright. We were two men, solving our problems through sex, like men do. Now Mike would fuck me through the mattress, crying out my name as he came. His orgasm would be a lightning bolt, perhaps a tsunami, I couldn’t be sure. My thick, black lashes hid my eyes, as they closed in anticipatory bliss. Suddenly, the carpet felt rough against the alabaster skin of my smooth, rounded, meaty ass! Mike had shoved me off the bed!!! “Goddamit, Stu, if you don’t stop reading those romance novels, I’m never going to plow your ass again… and don’t call it your entrance, it’s an ass.”

Like many gay men, my husband is not a fan of M/M romance. It’s probably my fault. When we’re side-by-side in bed perusing our iPads, I read unintentionally hilarious and/or insulting paragraphs from M/M fiction to him. Sometimes Mike will say, “Why do you read that Crappy McCrap?” If he really hates something, he’ll say, “That sucketh!” When Mike moves from faux Gaelic to pseudo-Elizabethan, an author should hang her head in shame, for she rideth the fail whale.

Despite Mike’s antipathy toward M/M romance, I don’t let him dissuade me from reading it. My love of the genre is rooted in personal history. Male/Male romance novels were integral to my coming out as a gay teen in 1979. Books by Patricia Nell Warren, Ensan Case, and Marion Zimmer Bradley helped me to name what I felt and provided positive models for gay relationships in a world where there was very little information. Without these authors (and forgotten others like B.A. Ecker & Ann Snyder), it would have been more difficult for me to accept that my sexuality was whole and good, not diseased, perverted, sinful, and broken. My indebtedness and gratitude to M/M authors is the foundation for the seriousness with which I approach the genre.

However, as the years pass and I continue to read M/M romance, I am increasingly ambivalent about the relationship between the expanding genre and gay male experience. How do I make sense of the relationship? Is it collaboration?… cooptation?… appropriation? Some combination of the three? While it’s amazing there are now so many books and authors, I am worried by the number of stories containing fundamental distortions in their depiction of the lives of contemporary gay and bisexual men.

I am frustrated, for example, when male couples are portrayed as very traditional Male/Female couples, complete with relationship dynamics from the 1950s. In many books, the couple is composed of different sized men: one ‘small, smooth, graceful, and beautiful;’ one ‘tall, hairy, muscled, and rugged’. Often the beautiful, smaller man is depicted as shy, requiring seduction by the more confident, larger man. Unsurprisingly, body type determines who gets fucked when the guys hit the sheets. (Hint: it’s usually not the big, hairy guy.)

I am also confused and annoyed by the body language many authors ascribe to gay men. From many M/M books, a reader might assume that gay men usually seduce one another via “hip swaying,” “butt wiggling” and other, odd, physical displays. Are gay men so different from our heterosexual brethren that we’ve developed a secret language based in ass shaking? And why do authors so often depict gay men as fascinated with each other’s lips? Lip-fascination is usually accompanied by descriptions of the resulting hot flush and/or erection that occur when one of the guys watches the other drink a beer or eat a spoonful of ice cream. And then there’s the disproportionate amount of sexual biting, bruising, hair pulling, and “marking,” in M/M romance. Why do so many authors believe that men want to give each other bruises as a sign of their love? I prefer a kiss (or, if it’s Chanukah, a new computer and 7 flashdrives).

As I’ve noted elsewhere, I am particularly baffled and irritated by the depiction of the penis in M/M fiction: ever-erect and leaking before the object of desire. At funerals, crime scenes, athletic competitions, political negotiations, business meetings or battlefields, no matter how inappropriate the location or situation, M/M protagonists are often written as captives to erect, twitching penises that need to be beaten into submission. This ridiculous penis destroys my ability to suspend disbelief, essential to the enjoyment of a romantic fantasy, and the story comes crashing down around me.

To be honest, unless I’m reviewing a book, I usually now skim or skip the sex scenes, few of them are integral to the plot or to character development. I sometimes wonder if authors who would otherwise omit an unnecessary sex scene from an excellent book, feel compelled to include one or more because increased sales depend upon it.

Other reviewers and columnists have posted at length about the problems with Instalove, Gay For You, the Big Misunderstanding, and the inability of gay couples in M/M fiction to sit down and discuss their problems rationally. Rather than duplicate their work, I point to it as further, multiple examples of the way many authors seem indifferent to the lives of gay and bisexual men.

So what’s a gay man to do when reading fiction that regularly portrays contemporary gay men in deeply distorted and troubling ways? I understand we’re talking about fiction. I understand we’re talking about a type of fiction based in exaggeration and fantasy. I understand I don’t have to buy it if I don’t like it. (Although sometimes it’s difficult to know what you’re going to get from the blurb.) Should I dismiss M/M fiction as lowbrow, escapist trash and have no expectations of the genre? I can’t do that because there are so many wonderful authors writing so many wonderful books. But what about the others: the generic works, so distorted in their portrayals of gay men that it’s difficult not to describe them as homophobic. These authors hope to make money from the sale of books showing little regard for my community and its history of agony and liberation? With the explosion in M/M publishing, has the percentage of works dominated by insulting distortions now reached a point where we can say the genre itself demeans gay/bisexual men? When gay men have suffered unimaginable brutality and worked with such diligence and sacrifice to create some safe space to love one another openly, I believe it is wrong when some authors reduce and distort our lives to a profit-making minstrel show primarily dedicated to serving up erotic satisfaction.

I increasingly question whether it’s beneficial to my married life and sense of self as a gay man to read so many constructions of same-sex sexuality that insult and demean my community. To ask the dreaded question: How many of these distortions are caused because the books are written by women and, in the end, imagination and research cannot substitute for lived experience? Is it fair to say that Male/Male fiction is a genre created by women, dominated by women and consumed by women? Wave told me in an email that “according to a survey on the site, about 25% of the writers in the genre are gay men, trans men and women, and genderqueer individuals.” Yet, I wonder how free these authors feel to step outside the conventions of M/M fiction and still have a reasonable expectation their books will sell. People often buy genre fiction because it fulfills an expectation that certain things will happen in a certain way. The great genre authors are the ones able to create new expectations within the genre or play with the existing conventions in new and thrilling ways. Often, however, authors with less imagination cannibalize the work of their more creative peers and a trope or motif that might have made sense in its original context spreads throughout the genre and becomes cliché. Is this what happened with all the biting and marking?

It is a long time since I was 16 and desperate for stories that might help me understand my terrified longing for the touch of another man, but I can’t help wondering what it’s like for teens today. Although they have access to the infinite resources of the internet and to communication and social networks unimaginable when I came out, a horribly large number still kill themselves even as a thankfully larger number discover the resources necessary to create self-acceptance and hope. I wonder how many of them go online and scroll through Amazon looking for a book to help them understand their lives and feelings. Do they download M/M fiction, hoping to find a representation of a life they might want to someday live? I hope they pick the right book because, frankly, some of what’s published today would only contribute to a young man’s despair. Should the authors and readers of M/M fiction feel any responsibility for these guys and, if so, how should it manifest?

And for the authors and my fellow readers, I have many questions. If M/M fiction is a genre dominated by the romantic and erotic needs and expectations of women, what is their responsibility to the gay/bisexual men they depict? Are contemporary gay lives just props used by some authors to lend realism to a spicy story fundamentally unconcerned with gay men? Should authors of M/M fiction feel any responsibility toward the vulnerable community to which they don’t belong but from which they hope to profit? What is the responsibility of readers?

It’s strange to be a gay man, yet feel on the margins of a creative community dedicated to the exploration and depiction of male/male love.

Charming
3 years 5 months ago
The most interesting thing to me about this post is that it echoes so strongly what feminists, including me, have often felt about straight romance books. The women are so bland, too stupid to live, and waiting for a man to come rescue them from their boring and annoying existence. The men are all big gruff alpha males, like that is what every woman wants. The sex is fabulous, with multiple orgasms, from the deflowering onward. Honestly, I rarely read M/F anymore. When I do, I read reviews and carefully select books that won’t annoy me with their gender portrayals.… Read more »
jeff erno
jeff erno
3 years 5 months ago
Stuart, Thanks for sharing your thoughts. This was a very interesting blog about a topic I’ve seen addressed numerous times from different angles. Actually, I think you raised several thought-provoking issues which could each be addressed at length in an exclusive blog. All the questions you asked were ones I’ve contemplated myself, and one in particular is important enough to me for me to take the time to respond. I don’t often participate in forum discussions because I tend to be more of an observer than a commenter. But I appreciate all you’ve said, so I will step forward and… Read more »
Naaju Rorrete
3 years 5 months ago
I’ve been away from here due to lack of time, but I’m glad to be back to read this. Stuart, thanks so much for taking the time to write it. This is a topic that needs to be discussed and this an excellent article to start doing so. There must be a balance between fantasy and reality in romance. An author has some responsibility in what he or she puts out there, but also, there must be an element of fantasy for a book to be interesting enough to keep us reading until the end. It’s common sense, if it… Read more »
Jeffrey
Jeffrey
3 years 5 months ago
I also found Patricia Nell Warren and Marion Zimmer Bradley at a critical time in my life and I agree with a lot of what you’ve written. It was only when reading this that I realized that I also skim over the sex scenes in some (many?) books and I agree it happens when the sex that pops up isn’t really necessary to advance the story. I am also troubled by descriptions of couples where size and body type determines the top and bottom. I’m always hoping for things to get more versatile in those cases but sadly it rarely… Read more »
Pete
3 years 5 months ago
As a gay men, I can see the issues that Stuart pointed out in the M/M romance genre. I start reading M/M romance two years ago after I got a Kindle and so far have read about 600s M/M titles. I can think of a few major authors right away that had all the elements that Stuart mentioned in the post. Personally, I have no issue with the smaller/taller couple since I am a shorter guy who would love to have 6’2″-6’4″ man of my own. Some of the other stuffs I just chalked up as the couple’s kinks and… Read more »
Raine
3 years 5 months ago
Outstanding parody…I think I’ve read that book and more than once. I agree with some of what you say and have shared some of your worries. As an older straight woman I came to the genre through Josh Lanyon’s writing and also the paranormal genre. I was worried at one time that I was treating the gay heroes as just another variety of cast members, but the reality of people’s live have thankfully educated me and I am now much more aware of the facts behind the fiction. This site and others have helped to educate me. I do feel… Read more »
Angelia Sparrow
3 years 5 months ago
Last I checked (around 2001) about 35% of the women writers in the genre fell somewhere within the QUILTBAG, as opposed to about 5% of the general pop. You do us a disservice to assume we are all straight and not involved in our local community. We, as writers, have a responsibility to get things right: sexual mechanics, political climate, geography. Beyond that, I adhere to Toddy’s statement in _Victor/Victoria_. “There are all sorts of men who behave in all sorts of ways.” We still write in the size differential, and the gender roles because these are the stories we… Read more »
Wave
3 years 5 months ago
Angel We, as writers, have a responsibility to get things right: I agree, which is why I think that characterizing gay men as women is entirely WRONG. I have gay friends and I don’t know many of them who fit the majority of characterizations in M/M romances. If an author is writing a book about MEN then she should not co-opt female characteristics and call her MCs men. Just call them what they are – WOMEN and not well drawn women either. Don’t get me started on how real women are disrespected in these books – that’s the subject for… Read more »
Angelia Sparrow
3 years 5 months ago
The only difference between my straight heroes and my gay heroes is their sexual attraction. Most times, even the mechanics are pretty much the same. The genre is actually about women. It’s about the women who write it and the women who read it. We use male stand-ins for our desires, for our dreams, just as the media has taught us to. I drove a semi for six years. I’ve done the pink collar ghetto and the blue collar dead-end. But at base, I was raised with very definite gender roles and expectations. Our fairy tales, adventure books, movies and… Read more »
Sirius
3 years 5 months ago
Rather than write about women in disguise by pretending one of them to be part of gay couple what I want to see is more full drawn multilayered supporting women characters in these stories and for the gay couple to be a gay couple . Seriously I just finished “Buchanan letters” by Neil Plaksy yesterday. At center of it are two professors trying to achieve tenure – one is gay man, who also has a romantic storyline and one is lesbian woman. Of course I cannot vouch for how believable Naomi is as a lesbian woman, but as a *woman*… Read more »
Sirius
3 years 5 months ago
Of course there are different gay men who behave differently and that should be reflected in fiction IMO. However my limit is when I can change the name of the man to a woman and what we see will be the woman from m/f romance. Just as there are different gay men, some straight women readers really do not care for those characters (of course I am only speaking for myself). And some do of course, I know readers who love them dearly, but I certainly understand why gay men do not love them. I guess I think it is… Read more »
Sirius
3 years 5 months ago
Oh Stuart I am not a gay man (very straight woman) and I agree with a lot of questions you posed. My consolation is that I feel that there are some writers (men or women) who treat their characters with respect even if they are writing a fantasy, the characters still behave believably ( at least to me – maybe you will question their behavior too, as I said I am not a gay man) and those are my favourite ones no matter what subgenres they are writing. I also agree that this genre was oriented on women originally (… Read more »
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