Confluent Love and the Evolution of Ideal Intimacy: Romance Reading in 1980 and 2016

Publication year
Journal of Popular Romance Studies

Here's the abstract:

Using data from interviews and surveys with groups of romance reading women living in 1980 and 2016, this research compares the content that romance readers — who are surrounded by more or less conservative gender-role structures — want from their novels. By investigating the link between the narratives of intimate relationships that romance readers find emotionally gratifying and their social contexts, this research attempts to answer a similar question to one posed four decades ago: In this new age of gender equality, why do women continue to read romances? This research shows the most dramatic change in romance reading is in the meaning of, and desire for, sexual content. Compared to 1980 readers, the group of 2016 readers wanted to see heroines with more than a deep emotional bond with their partner; passionate sex was a necessary part of a gratifying romantic relationship narrative. However, despite shifts towards wanting to read about women with sexual desires more equal to men’s, depictions of gratifying intimacy continue to represent femininity characterized by emotional adroitness and masculinity characterized by stoicism. This incomplete transition to depictions of egalitarian intimacy – where women and men’s sexuality but not emotionality are similar – may be at least partially explained by the importance of familiarity in narratives. The norms these narratives rely on may not correspond with readers’ rational and conscious values, but they remain affectively intuitive and thus allow readers to avoid the anxiety and effort that comes from rationally interrogating the rules of intimate heterosexual interaction. Romance novels, therefore, provide a window into the familiar structures surrounding intimacy that readers rely on to lose themselves in narratives. This study of romance reading may be used to deepen understandings of what has changed, and what remains “stalled” in the gender dynamics at work in intimate relationships.