Can There Be Hokey Without Pokey?

November 3, 2013 Opinion 13

cautionI’ve been thinking a lot about Ridley’s excellent post on disability in romance. While I am completely over talking about the feminism of romance, I think I’m about to address romance and feminism. Except not really. (Romance and patriarchy, maybe?) All of it is Ridley’s fault. First she linked this blog, and my reaction was immediate. I rejected the very concept of sex without PIV as something acceptable for a woman to choose. My societal programming says you can reject (or accept) any number of things in a mutually agreeable relationship, but PIV sex is required.

Wasn’t that an interesting thing to poke at?

Next Ridley reviewed The Sinful Art of Revenge, where a heroine is a PIV Goldilocks looking for just the right P for her sad and damaged V. Why? Why does she need to have PIV sex for the HEA to occur? Given the number of women who require more than the steady application of a penis to achieve orgasm, why is PIV sex such a genre focus? For decades anything other than conventional representation of PIV sex was considered really out there for romantic fiction. Sure, she could blow him but if the hero had an interest in reciprocating half the readership started clutching the pearls. She’s the heroine. He’s the hero. It’s not like she needs anything but his magic stick, right?

Once I realized that we, a largely female readership, had accepted PIV sex as the gold standard I started to wonder why. What does a PIV requirement uphold? Well, it limits our disability options. A paraplegic hero must have full pelvic function. Leaving aside the urology and life expectancy aspects, what are we reinforcing? Why are m/m couples more popular than f/f? When we pick up an erotic menage we generally expect m/m/f to be the mix. How shocking would it have been for the hero of The Art of Revenge to accept a lack of PIV sex and move forward with the heroine? How many readers would have rejected the HEA because the hero “has needs”?

Is dissatisfaction with PIV as the be all of sexual satisfaction behind recent enthusiasm for the awkward sex scene? Or is the recent enthusiasm about realism alone? In the Who Ya Wit’ series I was surprised at the very different presentation of female sexuality. Although PIV sex was not the primary focus it still played a large role in the heroine’s satisfaction with her sexual parters. Romance has long fetishized male sexuality, often at the expense of female sexuality. What is the core message when PIV is a requisite? No matter how damaged the female character is, she’s whole as soon if she finds pleasure in PIV sex. What if she no longer has (or never had) a vagina capable of PIV? What if her traumatic past (a romance staple) precludes comfort with PIV as her sexuality? What if PIV just doesn’t do it for her?

For the romance heroine all of these scenarios are unacceptable. There will be penis. (But not many) She will like it (but not too much).  Sex in heterosexual romance is like a cookie store with one flavor. Everyday is Chocolate Chip. Sometimes the chips are chopped. Sometimes they’re chunked. Snickerdoodle day? What are you even talking about?

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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13 Responses to “Can There Be Hokey Without Pokey?”

  1. Ros

    I wonder if a large part of this is because PIV sex is linked to conception. In a genre where infertility is so often magically cured by the end of the book, it’s not hard to believe that for many readers PIV sex is necessary to achieve that happy ending.

  2. willaful

    All very true. The only movement we’ve seen in this area is the very occasional acknowledgement (as in The Duchess Wars) that just thrusting is not gonna do it for some women.

    I’m reading a kind of gawdawful old Penny Jordan in which the main characters put off intercourse while waiting for the pill to kick in… and though of course it’s seen as this magical goal for their relationship, I was pleasantly surprised that they were also having plenty of fun while they waited.

  3. Laura Vivanco

    This is reminding me of the whole “I did not have sex with that woman” saga. It’s been pointed out that

    A risk-free and condom-free alternative to intercourse is sex without penetration — a practice that some call “outercourse.” However, men are usually brought up to think that only penetration “counts” and that other forms of sexual expression are childish or unsatisfying for themselves or their partners.

    This is absolutely not my area of academic expertise, but I’ll go ahead and comment anyway. Although I’d agree with Ros that part of this has to do with reproduction, I also think it has a lot to do with the phallus being constructed as powerful and manly (and therefore needing to be sheathed in something passive i.e. a vagina or an anus rather than something with more agency (i.e. hands) or power of its own i.e. a tooth-filled mouth). Of course, mouths can be rendered more passive if the person with the mouth is forced to kneel on the floor and have something forced almost down their throat, but that would just seem to prove the point about the constant need to see the penis/phallus as powerful and active.

    A slightly more benign symbolism of PIV sex (and PIA sex) is the idea of “becoming one” by inserting a body part deep into someone else’s body/accepting the insertion of someone else’s body part deep in your body. It seems to be perceived as creating a “deeper” sense of commitment/union between the people involved.

    I also have a feeling that Ridley tweeted a link to a post/series of tweets by a gynecologist who was challenging the way in which the vagina is portrayed as an empty space (which, in turn, implies that women need to be completed/filled by a man).

  4. Las

    I guess in a world where only PIV/PIA is considered real sex–and, therefore, not optional for men–an HEA that includes ultimate satisfaction by Penis is part of the fantasy. When it comes to a successful HEA, that so many women need more than PIV (or no P at all) doesn’t matter for that reason.

    Years ago a heterosexual sex blogger I regularly read casually mentioned that she rarely had PIV sex, it just wasn’t a big deal to her. That blew my mind, because this is a sex blogger we’re talking about, and PIV=sex, right? It wasn’t until I went back and reread past posts about her various sexual encounters that I noticed that PIV was rarely featured, I had just subconsciously filled in the nonexistent blanks the first time I read them. Despite the various things I personally enjoy when it comes to sex, I lacked imagination when reading about fulfilling sexual relationships–my own experiences and feelings didn’t apply. I wonder how much of that is true for romance readers in general when it comes to our requirements for an HEA–we lack imagination, or we think our lived experiences are anomalies and wouldn’t make for a believable HEA.

  5. meoskop

    I do think the baby aspect is huge. Even this week we have comments on romance blogs that “sex is for procreation” which invalidates a huge section of human sexuality. In many ways, societally, fictionally and legally, women are still viewed as vessels for children instead of whole humans.

  6. Ros

    @meoskop: I totally agree.

    When I was thinking about this, it reminded me of one of the crackiest Lynne Graham books ever, in which the heroine conceives through IVF and then gives birth via Caesarian so that by the time she and the hero get together she is still a virgin. (I know. It’s an addiction. I can’t stop reading her books. Anyway.) It made me think that virginity trumps reproduction and PIV sex, in the skewed value system of romanceland.

  7. Meoskop

    Wait – WHAT? Why does she give birth via C-section? Also, why would the baby coming out vaginally mean she’s not a virgin (i.e., hasn’t had PIV sex) when she gets busy? What the ever loving….

    Now I’m thinking about OLTL circa 1984 when the pregnant Samantha Vernon is found drowned but her fetus is still omg alive so they transfer the child to her lover Rafe’s super crush, Delilah, who then successfully carries it to delivery. No really, that happened. This was a soap with a spaceship to heaven, an underground city and time travel. Magic implantation was nothing to those writers.

    Virginity goes back to Hermetically Sealed Heroines, where no matter what life experiences they have the precious vagina has never been sullied by The Wrong Penis so they’re nice and clean for the hero. With all the sex negative slut shaming implications thereby invoked.

    Wow, it’s really easy to get sidetracked from female sexuality, isn’t it? So why the PIV obsession, ladies? What’s in it for us, fictionally speaking? Why are we reinforcing this as the ultimate goal of all sexuality?

  8. Laura Vivanco


    So why the PIV obsession, ladies? What’s in it for us, fictionally speaking? Why are we reinforcing this as the ultimate goal of all sexuality?

    I think it’s because (as Anne Koedt wrote in 1970):

    Whenever female orgasm and frigidity are discussed, a false distinction is made between the vaginal and the clitoral orgasm. Frigidity has generally been defined by men as the failure of women to have vaginal orgasms. Actually the vagina is not a highly sensitive area and is not constructed to achieve orgasm. It is the clitoris which is the center of sexual sensitivity and which is the female equivalent of the penis.
    […] Freud contended that the clitoral orgasm was adolescent, and that upon puberty, when women began having intercourse with men, women should transfer the center of orgasm to the vagina. The vagina, it was assumed, was able to produce a parallel, but more mature, orgasm than the clitoris.

    So if the hero is to “make a woman of” the heroine (and I’ve often seen words to that effect), she needs to have orgasms via PIV sex.

  9. Ros

    Well, it’s not quite that bad. She gives birth via C-section because of problems with the birth (I forget the details), not because she actually chooses to. But it does give Graham the hermetically-sealed heroine who is also a mother. Which is quite some feat.

  10. Meoskop

    @Laura Vivanco: Ah, Freud. My thing is we’ve been writing and reading romance and female driven erotica for a long time. There are all kind of things we’ve stopped handwaving in the genre. PIV we cling to. So is it adherence to the male definition of female sexuality? Is it an offshoot of ingrained patriarchal assumptions? Is it because most women do find it the most satisfying sex act and therefore majority is ruling? What sets a standard in place isn’t always the same as what keeps the standard rolling, so is reader response to PIV that we need it like we need the babylouges?

    @Roslyn Holcomb: I’m giving Graham a lifetime achievement award on that book alone. And wondering why I never read her because I definitely hate myself enough to try. Wowsa.

  11. Laura Vivanco

    There are all kind of things we’ve stopped handwaving in the genre. PIV we cling to.

    Yes, but bizarre things like the mythical internal hymen persisted for decades, so I think it’s quite possible that authors are often writing what they think heroines should be feeling/wanting rather than reflecting the reality for the majority of women, which is that

    The majority of women — according to most studies, at least 70% – do not and will not reach orgasm through vaginal intercourse or
    vagina-only stimulation (like “fingering” that’s only about vaginal
    insertion) only. […] It’s unrealistic ideals and expectations which are the big problem here. In a lot of ways, when we’re talking about sexuality, especially female sexuality, the world gets it backwards in how it presents what real-deal sex and isn’t. The activities which are usually most likely to be completely satisfying for women are called foreplay, and the one that isn’t sex. Some of that backwards-thinking has to do with long-time ignorance, some of it with patriarchy, some of it with heterosexism, some of it with how some folks really, really, only want sex to be about reproduction. (Heather Corinna)

  12. Meoskop

    I’ve written before how bizarre it was to me that, following my second cancer treatment, my largely female medical team was obsessed with my PIV status. While I was not very concerned, they were. I was constantly urged to have PIV sex as often as possible & advised how retain PIV capability. Even my surgical choices were framed in terms of PIV preservation. Yet when I brought up my sexuality and sexual response it was … Crickets. Two years later they’re starting to understand how they quantify sexual function isn’t the same as how I do.

    Even as I rejected their focus on PIV as the benchmark of my recovery, I developed strong feelings of distress about the idea that I was somehow diminished by not having the ease with it I once did. This was an entirely externally applied concept and one my surgeon would be personally horrified to think she triggered. She is not personally a strong proponent of PIV – I think training has overridden inclination here.

    I don’t know why I never transferred my frustration with the focus on PIV in medicine to fiction. My surgeon and I occasionally meet up socially, I should ask her how other patients have reacted to this.