Eloisa James glides effortlessly into Le Monde past the sea of empty tables and the listless waiters and joins me at the banquette in the back. Right away I’m struck by her timeless, sylph-like beauty. With her high cheekbones and strawberry-blonde hair, she looks like she should be beckoning from the cover of one of her many New York Times bestselling romance novels instead of meeting me for a late afternoon pastry to discuss themes of consent and slut-shaming in the regency period. We kiss hello and briefly consult our menus. In the end, after James leans in and confesses, laughing, how mediocre all the food is and admits that’s why this is her fave spot for meetings, we both order tea and forgo the dessert. . . the first in a series of radical, post-feminist moves.
Of course, James has always been a radical. Or at least, she’s lived what her many loyal fans call her “double life.” Her father is poet and author Robert Bly. After graduating from Harvard University, James got her M.Phil. from Oxford University and a Ph.D. from Yale, eventually becoming a Shakespeare professor. She’s also published a whopping 26 romance novels, 23 of which have hit the bestseller list. Her newest novel, the brightly entertaining “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” about a woman who runs an agency for governesses and against her better judgment falls for a demanding rake, was just released in January and hit the NYT and USA Today Bestseller lists. Its central plot point, a sexy kidnapping, is the focus of our meeting. How does one write things like kidnappings responsibly and yet still keep the heat? What are the ways that this trope has evolved over time? And whatever happened to the alpha brutes? Are they so 2007?
“Our culture continues to change in terms of eroticism,” James informs me, futzing in her bag. “On one level, it has something to do with economics — we’re all exhausted! It’s the ‘Fifty Shades’ question: How far would you go for someone who’s solvent and owns a car? Because in a contemporary romance, the girl can make love to 15 people. The parameters are defined by her. This is refreshing and fun to see. But in a historical romance, for instance, which is what I write, slut-shaming isn’t a viable thing. Because there’s no space in which you wouldn’t be shamed in the Regency period. It’s like being gay before the Wilde trials. You can’t say ‘gay’ in Shakespeare’s time. These words — slut-shaming, rape, gay — didn’t have the meaning and impact that they do today. You have to remember how culturally specific sex is. When Keats says ‘shagging’ we don’t know what he means. We think of ‘Austin Powers’ but that isn’t it.”
In other words, if you once obsessed about the incestuous flowers in V.C. Andrews’ infamous attic, or followed Luke and Laura over the summer with “General Hospital,” the sticky pickle of soft-pedaling sexual assault has possibly fallen on literary hard times. Or has it?
For starters, if you live in a culture where women are chattel and have no agency, a woman is an entropic force. She is merely a dowry. She can only give birth to the people who get to own the property and then quietly die. She is even not a separate gender, but the absence of maleness defined for and by men. So the assertion, or rather, insertion, of maleness through marriage or, in the worst-case scenario, rape or war, is a negation of the woman’s absence by filling her. She can neither grant nor take away consent. This is the rub.
It makes sense, therefore, why the honorific ‘Ms.’ was so essential to Gloria Steinem and all the other white second-wave feminists as a redefinition of women’s social identity. It was no longer “who squirted me into my mother?” or “who’s squirting other people into me?” Suddenly, you had your feminism. What’s more, the Pill became widely available. At first glance it would seem that “bodice rippers” (a term no longer in parlance for obvious reasons) were a secret bedroom backlash against the “The Feminine Mystique” and “the Female Eunuch.”
Here’s where it gets icky-sticky: Old-school classic rippers such as the the 1972 romance Ur-text “The Flame and the Flower” and “Sweet Savage Love,” though leaning more toward the dubious consent tip, are more about seduction than empowerment. Think of it as “Westworld” lite — a show where the protagonist gets repeatedly raped by the love-of-her-host-life only in future time. The problem, and it’s a biggie, is what’s more hateful than the above and how do you justify it in a narrative the central focus of which is love and the Happily Ever After?
NYT best-selling romance novelist Sarah MacLean, author of “A Scot in the Dark” — a sexy historical romance about a woman essentially slut-shamed by a scandalous portrait — chalks it up to more of the consent motif, which she calls the “defining characteristic” of romance novels, and traces much of the genre’s “bodice-ripper underpinnings” to ye olde “The Flame and the Flower.”
“In that book the hero rapes the heroine four times in the first 100 pages,” Sarah says. “She calls him on it repeatedly in the story. The violent angry male becomes the husband. When we move into the 1980s and 1990s, it becomes ‘forced seduction,’ in which the sex starts out as forced and then the woman starts to feel pleasure and then at the end of the scene she’s had an orgasm.”
Let’s face facts, Khal Drogo and Khaleesi’s epic love in “Game of Thrones” legit started with the r-word and everybody ships them. As in, no one is taking the Mother of Dragons to counseling. Meanwhile, take Ovid. Many classics scholars grapple with how to parse and teach the rapes depicted in his “Metamorphoses,” some even going so far as to say all sex in classical antiquity was rape. All. Sex. Now, on some level, since rape is a homonym — meaning it’s understood in different cultures and contexts differently — and homonyms are fluid, it’s impossible to assign a static meaning to it, yet you can’t ignore the narrative: A god comes to have his manly way, the woman later morphs into some mute bird or tree or beast, end of story. In other words, consent cannot exist when it cannot be given.
Plus, no one wants to turn into a cow.
“In historicals, a young lady couldn’t offer consent,” James reminds me, chuckling as she pours more tea. Her eyes behind her glasses are clear and bright and I sense briefly how much I’d enjoy taking one of her undergraduate classes. “Consent was offered to her. I write mostly in the Regency period when virginity was tremendously important. It was everything. When I think about consent, I’m not thinking about a guy taking sexual liberty they way it might happen in a contemporary [narrative]. Women couldn’t make sexual choices. For instance, in the Middle Ages you couldn’t not believe in God. By the same token, ‘slut-shaming’ implies there’s a space you could be sleeping around and not be a slut.”
I nod, wondering, does this space really exist for women now, and if so, where, and if not now, when? If so, I would like to take Monica Lewinsky there and wrap her in a shawl and hold her.
Later, I put these questions and more to stalwart comedians Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson, the frank and frankly funny vaj-power duo behind “Guys We F*cked: The Anti Slut-Shaming Podcast,” which boasts over a million listeners worldwide. Meantime, their new book — “F*CKED: Being Sexually Explorative and Self-Confident in a World That’s Screwed” — is currently on the verge. It includes essential topics such as why shame is a made-up construct, sex talks with celebrities, stuff we lady-folk should stop doing (like faking orgasms) and “butt stuff.”
I ask Fisher the history of the podcast in terms of her journey of self discovery. She tells me, “My boyfriend of two years who I thought was ‘The One’ dumped me in a Panera Bread and I had a full-blown theatrical meltdown for which Krystyna was the main audience. After a year of manically doing stand-up all over the city, not sleeping, and eating very little I decided I needed to get my shit together. I channeled my inner John Cusack and thought if I went back and talked to all of the people I had dated and slept with, I could perhaps become a better mate. The title ‘Guys We Fucked’ came to me simply because I wanted to interview, literally, all the guys I had ever fucked.”
Hutchinson throws in, “I added the tagline, "The Anti Slut-Shaming Podcast" because we like to do comedy with a purpose as often as possible. Using humor is the best way to make a statement and have that statement really sink into your brain to make you think or reassess. I love talking about sex and was always so turned off the the clinical, dry approach most people use when approaching the topic. So many people have a stick up their ass when it comes to talking about sexuality, which makes sense given how little we hear candid, overly honest conversations about it.”
“I feel like ‘slut’ is a very vague concept,” Fisher continues. “Once you really know a human being, it's hard to think of them as any shitty word, and that goes for all words with historically negative connotations. When you hear a person's story, their actions make a lot more sense — sexual stories are no different. Our intention was to be very honest about what we've done without apologizing for it. Slut-shaming is thinking less of someone, usually a woman, for the amount of sex, sexual partners, and kind of sex she has. I also think the real power in slut-shaming comes from creating a cloud of shame around people so they can be controlled. Once a person is free in any way (including sexually), they are less easily controlled. And that's no good. Especially for women.”
For Sarah MacLean, the idea of “policing women’s kink,” is the worst kind of feminism. Yet the romance writer’s job is still to pepper consent markers throughout any sex scene or even prior. In other words, no means no, but by all means, talk dirty to me! Another method is establishing clearly delineated boundaries and safe words, as in Lilah Pace’s controversial “Asking for It” — a novel in which the protagonist has fantasies of being raped and chooses to enact them safely with a partner — or other romance novels that push the boundaries of sexual consent (like pretty much all the books on your bookshelf by any Western author, because, rape culture).
And finally, there is, of course, humor.
I ask Fisher and Hutchinson about the connection, if any, between humor, their work and feminism, and Fisher tells me, “There is very little connection between humor and feminism right now. Hutchinson and I are trying to change that. I love the passion behind feminism, but the issue is no one is really concerned with the branding. And, whether you like it or not, everything that you want to catch on has to be branded. Feminism will not exist without men. We need to sell them on this. Or just murder them all in their sleep.”
I decide to leave “Lysistrata” out of the mix — the fact that comedy and sex and feminism have a long history, it’s just the feminists that have a short memory.
“Humor is everything!” Hutchinson agrees. “A lot of times it doesn't come from one of us making a joke, it comes from us uttering something so honest that it's a little uncomfortable, thus hilarious. With serious topics, we always take the guest's lead on what kind of tone they're comfortable with. If you've been raped and you want to come on the podcast and make jokes about it, awesome. If you'd rather have a serious discussion about how awful and empty a sexual assault made you feel, also awesome. We just want honesty, nothing more, nothing less.”
Eloisa James smiles and says, “If I wrote ‘Seven Minutes in Heaven’ in 2012 it would have been a plain old kidnapping.” I nod as she brushes her hair from her patrician forehead. She gazes off into the middle distance as though we were alone at the beach instead of at a mediocre French bistro. The afternoon light in her hair is almost Titian and I briefly think of placing my hand on her hand in intellectual solidarity but then wonder if that would be weird. “But in 2017 kidnapping is dead. I have to add a moment of consent. Eugenia has to agree to keep going in the carriage with Edward or he’s an asshole.”
And I wonder, as I often do, why there isn’t asshole-shaming, though a thousand tongueless birds, rocks and trees could probably tweet you the answer.