There’s an expectation in Romance that a Leading Lady is only supposed to be with her One True Love. We always know who the love match is supposed to be; we apply this knowledge to the characters and impose on them an expectation of celibacy and monogamy even prior to that love match being realized.
Our Leading Lady might have other lovers in her past, but we have an unspoken belief that she shouldn’t have had many, and those she's had should be regrettable or forgettable. We expect her past experiences should be bad experiences, or at least lackluster enough to pose no comparison to her One True Love.
I was a little shocked recently, while re-reading Stephen King’s It (which isn’t even a Romance novel), to find out the female lead Beverly had a more limited sexual history than I remembered. Given her personality, background, and chosen career path, she seemed to me like a woman who would have pursued her sexual interests more at length. The book confirms that, prior to her marriage, she’d only had two other lovers, and remembers neither one fondly. And why? Because even in one of King’s most terrifying stories, the romantic interest must remain in a state of relative “purity” or at least “have made forgivable mistakes” that her One True Love can rescue her from.
This expectation is outdated and, quite honestly, boring. I won’t go into the deep-seated anti-feminist nature of it here because, under the rose-colored lens of Romance, it escapes criticism. We say, “oh, it’s just fiction”, or, “It’s just a silly romance novel, it’s not meant to be serious". But I have a real problem with this idea that Romance cannot be a serious genre. Here's one of the reasons why the world of readers at large feel it can’t be taken seriously: women always predictably preserved within the ephemeral bubble of sexual chastity.
It's no accident my Leading Lady in Goblin Fires is a Casanova, and it’s not something she’s meant to regret. As I've noted before, I wrote Reagan with the intention she could be either male or female, if I only changed the pronouns. Maybe this is why it felt so natural to me that she could be a sexual creature before discovering her true love match, and still be perfectly capable of deserving that love match in the end. We accept men as Casanova all the damn time, and unlike female characters, men are allowed to have fond memories of their prior conquests. The women in their past are allowed to have moved them or helped shape them in positive ways, where the past lovers of women should never have any lasting positivity in the face of True Love.
Are we really to believe a woman can only experience positive sexual realization with one lover? That one love, and one love only, can truly unlock a woman’s sexual self?
I reject that, and I think anyone reading this post can see how ridiculous it sounds on paper.
Readers of Romance as a genre are conditioned to expect a fairy tale. Publishers tell writers that women want a story they can slip into, becoming part of the fantasy, and that seems to implicitly mean NO COMPLICATIONS. Or at least, none that aren’t eventually easily overcome.
Are readers really so fragile? Exactly why is there no room for a female character who is perfectly happy having satisfied her sexual self with experience? Why can’t a woman have perfectly authentic sexual histories without threatening the legitimacy of her eventual love match?
I challenge writers and readers to reject the idea that women can’t have active and positive sexual encounters other than that of their One True Love. Not just “offscreen”, but within the pages of the story itself, if that is what the plot calls for. Remember that all interactions, sexual or otherwise, bring something to the character, and there’s no reason sexual encounters must bring painful lessons, regret, or shame, instead of positively shaping and satisfying a woman.
This doesn’t mean we must throw out the journey and the joy of finding that ultimate love match. For Reagan, there is and always has been more to her love for her princess than what is gained through a sexual culmination. We all know love isn’t necessarily sex, and sex isn’t necessarily love. In Romance, isn’t it more meaningful for the Love Match to share more with each other than what is expressed through sexual chemistry? Can’t that “more”, whatever it is, also elevate their sexual culmination above all others, for its own reasons and not because prior experience was somehow flawed?
Not all Leading Ladies need to be Casanovas, either. But a character should be nothing if not true to herself, and if that means she has a history of love and sex along her path to that ultimate match, it serves both the character and the story better.
To me, this is more fully realized Romance. This is what a true love story should acknowledge and also welcome.