A Rake Ain’t Nothin’ But A Garden Implement

by Tracey Pennington

You see them everywhere in the romance genre. Some are young; more are in their mid-thirties to early forties. The vast majority of them are handsome and desirable. Most are in professions strongly associated with masculinity—soldiers, sailors and ships’ captains, cowboys, pioneers, police and private detectives, knights, rebels. Frequently, they are of royal or noble blood; at the very least, they are well-bred gentry. If they are commoners, they have learned the speech and the manners necessary to speak to those of high society. They are intelligent, charming and witty, the men of the virginal heroine’s dreams.

I refer, of course, to those romance heroes who belong to the most under-acknowledged group in the romance genre:

The repressed homosexuals.

Now, of course, men with these qualities do not have to be repressed gays. It’s just that, based on their behavior, they so often seem to be. Despite their authors’ best efforts to make them attractive, their actions tend to be a little bit…off, thanks to the unrealistic, even ludicrous, expectations of the genre. It is, for example, highly unlikely that a man who had been at sea since he was thirteen would be as virginal as a child oblate cloistered in a medieval monastery. It is also highly unlikely that a thirtysomething or fortysomething lord described as a “rake” and as having scandals swirling about him would be coming to his marriage bed as pure as well water.

Yet romance readers want the heroes to have shunned sex and prostitutes, to have the heroine be the only woman he has ever touched. Which is patently ridiculous. It also carries with it the implication that sex is inherently bad and dirty, and you must only ever do such a disgusting thing with your soulmate, because only Twu Wuv can make sex endurable.

And heaven forfend that the man ever notice another attractive woman for a single second after he and his dewy, limpid-eyed, brain-dead little bride have fallen in love, become affianced, or, perish the thought, married. It is clearly impossible, say the conventions of the genre, to appreciate the beauty of one woman while being married to another…even though, down through millennia, males of all races, nations and cultures have done this with considerable ease.

Thanks to that whole “Sex is Bad” attitude, not only are romance heroes not allowed to look upon other women with desire, their authors frequently compel them not to look at their girlfriends, fiancées, or wives with desire, either…which leads to some silly situations. If your historical romantic hero exhibits most or all of the following traits, your reader may be excused for thinking that he is flamingly gay:

a) He’s a veteran of a bloody war recovering from a wound, and never exhibits any sign of trauma or pain, despite the somewhat limited medical treatment of his day…yet he almost faints when he sees his bride walking up the aisle toward him.

b) He tells his bride after the wedding that he shouldn’t have married her.

c) He tells his bride after the wedding that marrying her was very, very wrong.

d) He tells other people—when he is stone cold sober—that he should not have married his wife, and that the marriage was a complete mistake.

e) Shortly after the marriage, he finds an excuse to go off on a dangerous mission which will separate him from his beloved bride for an indefinite period of time.

f) He feels insanely guilty when he looks at her, for reasons that are never discussed, or even acknowledged.

g) He regards kissing his own girlfriend/betrothed/wife as “taking advantage of her,” and again feels severe guilt.

h) He pushes his girlfriend/betrothed/wife away in horror when she kisses him.

i) Despite the author’s insistence that he is deeply in love with his girlfriend/betrothed/wife and respects her mind, he avoids speaking to her unless other people are present, and shuns all private conversations with her.

j) He tucks her into bed as if she were a three-year-old, then scurries off to his own bedroom on the opposite side of the house.

k) Although physically capable and mentally sound, he has never had sex with his wife, whom he claims to love and respect, and shows absolutely no interest in ever doing so.

l) He has a male best friend from whom he is absolutely inseparable.

m) The best friend lives nearby and makes frequent overnight visits where the hero lives—if he doesn’t live in the same house/barracks/ship/etc.

n) The hero spends every evening, as well as every spare moment, with this best friend, and tells him things that he would never dream of telling his wife.

o) The hero tells the reader in vast detail just how handsome and attractively dressed the best friend is. He does this repeatedly, chapter after chapter.

p) His best friend shares his interests, has known him forever, hugs him “roughly” and “in a manly way” during moments of great emotion, often takes the hero’s hand while talking to him, and takes long contemplative walks in the moonlight with the hero as they discuss the hero’s troubles.

q) The best friend is either not married or not happily married. If he is not married, he shows no inclination to wed. Ever.

Honestly, people. DO THE MATH.

Some will clearly say that these are the conventions of the romance genre. But conventions can change and expand; they have in mystery, science fiction and fantasy. Romance, however, seems to be stuck between two extremes—the more modern romances which start with passionate, improbable sex in the first chapter and the more traditional romances in which love = virginity = sexual repression. I tend to think that the former is, in part, a reaction to the latter.

I think that it’s possible for a hero to have visited prostitutes for sex before his marriage AND to still be more than capable of loving his wife. I think that he could have personal, societal, cultural, legal, even medical reasons for wanting to remain chaste before marriage…AND feel and experience plenty of Unresolved Sexual Tension. I think that the hero can have a best friend that he loves—yes, let us use the right word for once!–and yet not come across as if he is secretly longing to elope to Massachusetts with the man.

I would like the hero and heroine to be intelligent adults—not nymphomaniacs or convent-raised schoolgirls who swoon in horror at the thought of S-E-X.

Romance. With grown-ups. Grown-ups who act like grown-ups, and not like boy and girl idiots of thirteen.

Wow. What a concept.

Any takers?

4 Responses

  1. Many years ago, now, I attended a session on writing romances at UC Irvine. We went over the formulas for writing romance and perhaps that was one of the reason I never really pursued it. The conventions were so restraining I found it distasteful and difficult to get into writing anything of the kind. Today, the genre is full of all kinds of different styles, but many of the “rules” are essentially the same. When I ever decide to creep out of the gay mystery genre and write that gay historical romance, I will probably follow my own rules. So we’ll see if it will get published! Here’s hoping!

  2. “d) He tells other people—when he is stone cold sober—that he should not have married his wife, and that the marriage was a complete mistake.”

    HA! I knew it! Remus Lupin was as gay as a Dutch window!

  3. Yes, Remus Lupin fulfills conditions d, e, f, i, l, m, p, and q.

    And, yes, the world does need more gay historical romances.

    Thanks for the much needed common sense, Tracey!

  4. *chuckles* I needed that laugh.

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