Why Straight Women Love Gay Romance (2012) by gay-romance author Geoffrey Knight collects interviews with 32 women from nine countries on four continents. It is not an “academic” book; it is a sprawling, descriptive, and deeply qualitative text written for a general audience interested in the title question and in m/m romance in general. The women interviewed include authors, readers, reviewers, editors, cover artists, and publishers of gay romance. Despite its journalistic approach to the topic, the book contains quite a bit of information for the scholar researching m/m fiction, and that’s the perspective I’ll take as I discuss it below.
First, it’s worth noting that Knight doesn’t differentiate between gay romance and m/m romance. I and a number of other yaoi/BL researchers have attempted to draw a distinction between the two. We use boys’ love and/or m/m romance as broad categories encompassing a variety of narratives featuring a romantic and/or erotic relationship between two or more male characters that are created, usually, by heterosexual women with the intention of appealing to a primarily heterosexual female audience. By contrast, gay romance would be assumed to be written primarily by gay men with the intention of appealing to a primarily gay male audience. The sexual orientation of the m/m creator and/or reader is subject to discussion, of course; for example, my research on BL fandom suggests that the sexual identification of BL readers isn’t nearly as clear-cut in English-speaking countries as it seems to be in Japan. Nevertheless, most research on slash and yaoi has indicated that the majority of its authors and readers are heterosexually oriented women, and Knight also notes in this book, “It’s a fact that the majority of authors in the gay male romance category are women, mostly straight” (Chap. 3 para 2).
Like Knight, Josh Lanyon, in his Man, Oh Man: Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Cash (2008), also preferred not to make a clear distinction based on implied authorship and readership. On the other hand, both Knight and Lanyon are men who self-identify as m/m or gay romance writers, so it’s likely that they are viewing the m/m genre from that particular standpoint and that women might have a different perspective on it. The researcher might ask, have women carved out a particular subgenre of their own as the predominant creators and consumers of boys’ love/yaoi manga, slash, and original m/m romantic fiction, or not? That is, are women doing anything new with the m/m romantic subgenres that they either started or dominate, or are the differences between (gay-male-authored) gay romance and (straight-female-authored) m/m romance more of a historical artifact than a quantitatively useful distinction?
In Chapter 8 of Knight’s book, a few of the women address the question of whether there’s any difference between gay erotica and gay romance, which is not quite the same as the question asked above. The consensus seemed to be that gay romance offers more complex and emotionally nuanced plots in which sex scenes, when present, serve the story, while gay erotica focuses on sex, with little to no framing plot required. However, there was no clear differentiation in this discussion between who writes one or the other, which sets it apart from the conversations revolving around boys’ love manga, which is said to be mostly created by women for women, and bara manga, which is said to be mostly created by gay men for gay men. Does this reflect cultural differences in how the various genres arose and have been received? Or perhaps a technical difference between the media (graphic-based manga vs. text-based novels)? Has the discussion of m/m romance simply not evolved to that point yet? Or was it simply not clearly addressed in this particular set of interviews, even though the discussion may be going on in other places?
Most of the interviewees in Knight’s book report that they first ran across m/m romantic fiction as original fiction rather than as slash or yaoi. That surprised me. The book doesn’t specifically provide the women’s ages — though most give hints — which leads me to wonder whether there may be a demographic difference involved. Maybe older readers are more likely to have run across slash and yaoi first — because that’s what was most common ten years or so ago — and younger readers are more likely to have run across original m/m novels first, because of the recent expansion of original m/m fiction publishing? Or perhaps it’s that the fandoms are distinct — slash readers and yaoi readers and m/m romance novel readers are separate groups without much spillover. My assumption is that slash and yaoi, both of which appeared in the ’60s (though yaoi’s U.S. boom started in the mid-’90s) helped open the door to the mainstreaming of m/m romance novels, which seem to have started booming around the mid-2000s. However, that’s just an assumption; more research is required.
On the other hand, almost all of the women mention first or currently reading or publishing m/m fiction in the form of ebooks, which supports my belief that digital publishing has been another significant factor in the m/m romance boom — digital publishing makes the genre less expensive (and thus risky) to publish, easier to market and sell, and — of course — less obvious to consume. Since it’s become common practice to offer free samples of digital publications, curious but hesitant readers also have a better chance of being exposed to the genre, which may also be contributing to its growth.
So … back to the title question. Why do straight women love gay romance? No clear answer comes through. Although the question is addressed throughout the interviews in the book, the most direct answers are embedded in the ten interviews that make up Chapter 2. They do not differ greatly from the answers I got when I asked a similar question in my 2008 survey of yaoi manga readers — you can find those responses in a pdf under BL Survey: Qualitative Data. Some of Knight’s interviewees said they liked m/m romance because it avoids gender stereotypes they perceive in m/f romance, especially the damsel in distress. Some said they liked it because it’s arousing. Some said they liked it because gay romance is still transgressive and thus offers more plot complexity than m/f romance. Elisa’s answer struck me as the most introspective of the lot, offering the possibility (suggested by Laura Kinsale in the edited volume Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance) that if the female reader identifies with the male hero, then in m/m romance “the female reader can pick both heroes without having to choose and she is not annoyed by the weak heroine” (Knight, 2012, Chapter 2 para 27). I’ve read similar arguments about BL manga. Not surprisingly, none of the women’s replies address the kind of deep psychoanalytic theorizing formulated in some books and articles about BL such as Kazumi Nagaike’s Fantasies of Cross-dressing: Japanese Women Write Male-Male Erotica (2012). (That may be one reason why I found it so fascinating that Anna Freud was apparently psychoanalyzing her own childhood homoerotic m/m daydreams, as discussed in my previous post.) As always, comparing the responses of those involved in an activity and those studying the activity raises questions about personal experience versus scholarly interpretation — although, to be honest, I’ve found that many of the scholars who study BL and m/m fiction are also fans of the genre.
The other chapters in Knight’s book addresses how women write about gay romance and what they’ve learned about men in doing so, the cultural differences in attitudes toward gays that the women have encountered in their lives, how they started writing gay romances, how they “came out” as gay romance authors, what their experiences were when sharing their love of m/m romance with others, and why more women aren’t reading gay romance. The answers to the latter question seemed to boil down to (1) a lack of exposure (it’s still not a mainstream genre), (2) apprehension (fears of porn/of being found reading gay romance), and, more speculatively, (3) a spiral of silence (perhaps more women read it than are willing to admit to it in public). Other chapters in the book ask whether m/m romance has improved its authors’ and readers’ sex lives and whether it has the potential to advance GLBT acceptance in individuals or overall. This is why I described the book as “sprawling” in my opening paragraph — there’s a lot of material in here, and it’s not clearly organized or focused, but it’s all intensely personal and presented in what seems to be the women’s own voices with minimal editing.
In sum, Why Straight Women Love Gay Romance is a casual, not an academic, read. The information it contains has not been rigorously categorized and labeled; no qualitative data analysis has been carried out, and demographic data on the interviewees is too vague to allow the reader to draw any clear conclusions. To that extent, scholars hoping to tackle this book as a form of quickly accessible data may be frustrated. However, the book’s essentially journalistic nature shouldn’t deter scholars researching m/m romance from giving it a look. Anyone interested in hearing women involved in the m/m romance publishing industry talk at length about their own experiences, challenges, and hopes for the genre and for gay acceptance in general will find this an intriguing read and, possibly, an inspirational jumping-off point for further investigations.
Kinsale, Laura. (1992). “The Androgynous Reader: Point of View in the Romance,” in Krentz, Jayne Ann (Ed.), Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of Romance. University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 31-44.
Knight, Geoffrey. (2012). Why Straight Women Love Gay Romance. MLR Press, LLC. [Kindle Version]. Retrieved from Amazon.Com.
Lanyon, Josh. (2008). Man, Oh Man: Writing M/M Fiction for Kinks & Cash. MLR Press.
Nagaike, Kazumi. (2012). Fantasies of Cross-dressing: Japanese Women Write Male/Male Erotica. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV.