On Male Sluts and Man Whores

Lea’s AAR review of Susan Mallery’s Sizzling contains this interesting comment:

“I personally found it hard to hand Reid much respect. After all, do I really want to champion a guy who drops his pants at every opportunity and on an extremely frequent basis with many partners? Somehow when moved into a contemporary setting, that rakehell scenario loses some of its appeal.”

Lea also helpfully references Laurie’s AAR short piece on the Duke of Slut, which compares readers’ love of the virgin heroine with their adoration of the rake hero.

I could give you an easy and cheap feminist analysis of this (I said “a” feminist analysis, not “the”. Feminists are not the Borg. It’s also not “my” feminist analysis, which is still in process.):

Romance readers are traditionalists who want their conservative ideas of gender shored up in their reading. The more sexually potent a man, the more traditionally masculine, and the more sexually pure a woman, the more traditionally feminine. The fact that the virgin tames the man gives readers, the vast majority of whom are women, a brief, if false, sense of power in hewing to what is, in reality, an unjust gender structure, and operates to obscure their actual powerlessness relative to men in their real lives

(Laura Vivanco gives us a considerably more expensive, difficult and valuable analysis here.)

I could give also you the evolutionary biology take which would say pretty much the same thing, except cheerfully, and with some language about adaptive behaviors thrown in.

I’m actually less interested, however, in the virgin angle than the slut one, and especially in contemporaries. (As an aside, why do we say “male whore”, when the definition “whore” doesn’t specify a gender? Well, for the same reason some say “male nurse”, I guess.)

Lea’s comment raises the question of what’s wrong with the slutty hero, and also whether its wronger (hey, if it’s good for Kanye…) to be a manho in contemporaries than in historicals, which you would think would be absolutely backwards, given that sexual mores are so much less strict for men and women today, especially in the US and Western Europe, than they were then.

Seriously, who cares if the hero has had lots of meaningless sex? Why are heroines so hard on them for it? If everyone agrees, and nobody lies, and everybody takes appropriate steps to prevent STDs and pregnancy, and nobody is cheating on a spouse/SO, and no children are involved or harmed, what is morally wrong with it?

I actually do find something problematic, but I’m not sure if it is about the sex per se. In books like Sizzling and Broken and Nightcap the hero has sex all the time, often when he should be doing something else. There’s a compulsivity there, an inappropriateness, that bugs me. I think sex is great, but so is hard work, maintaining relationships, music, running, volunteer work, etc.. Sex is just one fulfilling pursuit which these guys seem to have mistaken for the only fulfilling pursuit. I think I would feel the same way if they were playing Runescape or texting all the time.

My other issue is that I think as we mature we get ready to take on more mature relationships. When a man has reached his thirties and is still having one night stands on a regular basis, with no history of long term relationships, I start to wonder. And this is related to the first issue, because if you are sleeping with a different woman every night, you’re probably too tired to find that long term relationship which is going to call on you to stretch and grow as a person in all sorts of ways.

But that can’t really be it, because if I think of a 24 year old man who manages to engage in a lot of fulfilling pursuits and has 4 partners a week, and doesn’t commit any ancillary moral wrongs like those mentioned above, I still don’t like it. But why? I don’t seem to have a good reason.

All of these guys, at some point or another, say something like, “I’m not harming anyone.” and I just think to myself, “true, but is that where you really where want to set the bar?”

I know I sound like a prude, so if anyone other than my mother is reading this, I invite you to tell me how wrong I am.

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Published in: on August 23, 2008 at 1:54 am  Comments (8)  
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  1. I could give you an easy and cheap feminist analysis of this

    For what it’s worth, my quick analysis of this is here. I was being a little tongue-in-cheek, but only in taking some of the conclusions to extremes.

    if I think of a 24 year old man who manages to engage in a lot of fulfilling pursuits and has 4 partners a week, and doesn’t commit any ancillary moral wrongs like those mentioned above, I still don’t like it. But why? I don’t seem to have a good reason.

    I’ve tried thinking this through and it seems to me that regardless of the reasons for the person’s behaviour, it just doesn’t seem very credible that someone who likes having sex with an ever-changing series of partners would suddenly change. This isn’t an area of research I’ve read up on, but I have seen findings like this:

    Some evidence suggests that people with a strong interest in sex are more likely to engage in sex outside their primary relationship (Liu, 2000; Treas & Giesen, 2000). Prior sexual experiences (defined in one study as the number of sexual partners between age 18 and start of first marriage or cohabitation) are positively associated with infidelity (Treas & Giesen, 2000) (from here)

    The kind of sex-lives romance rakes have had prior to meeting their heroines would seem to put them at high risk of being unfaithful after marriage. Romance traditionally ends in monogamy, so the rake-hero must change his behaviour. Romances try to provide some transformation in the rake’s mindset/circumstances which mean he’ll never go back to his old ways. Some of those transformations really fail to convince me unless you accept the plausibility of the most extreme versions of the Theory of the Glittery Hoo-Ha. If a particular transformation doesn’t convince you, then you’re not likely to find the happy ending at all believable.

  2. Thanks Laura, for pointing me to those other wonderful discussions and for helping me to see the link between the believability of the hero’s transformation and my enjoyment of the novel.

    I’m glad you mention sexual addiction in your article: certainly some of these guys read that way. It’s interesting to me that in some of the paranormal romances, what we (now) label as a disease state gets reinterpreted as a healthy state, a series of actions actually required for health.

    It would be interesting to compile a list of famous romance heroes who are sexually inexperienced by choice (and not due to sexual abuse, imprisonment, or deformity), and see whether readers think they are as manly.

    In Mallery’s Sizzling, the hero actually has a bout of ED, and I thought, “wow, I’ve never seen this before. This is like the antithesis of the romance hero!” But, alas, the dramatic possibilities there were not explored.

    Thank you!

  3. It’s interesting to me that in some of the paranormal romances, what we (now) label as a disease state gets reinterpreted as a healthy state, a series of actions actually required for health.

    I feel that way about vampires. Why are they so pale and in need of constant blood transfusions? Have they got an iron deficiency?

  4. Very interesting topic. I would say something but I may sound like a prude myself. LOL. Kidding. I am bothered by the amount of sex partners some heroes seem to have had – not because of the sex per se, as you put it, but because I sometimes, find it hard to believe that they would become monogamous all of a sudden.

    Having said that, and quite ironically, my number 1 romance hero is Sebastian St Vincent, whose life ambition numero uno was to have as much sex as he could until he fell in love with the virginal heroine and become completely monogamous, lord knows how. so yeah. It is a difficult topic to analyse. LOL

    The virgin heroine bugs me too. I love reading about a heroine who has had experience and who has had GOOD experience and is not simply waiting for the Amazing Dick that will make her come a 1000 times in one night.

  5. You really do have to suspend disbelief about some of these guys, as Laura’s data and Crusie’s “glittery hoo ha” analysis suggest.

    Yet I also love a rake, and I wonder what that says about me?

    I agree with you, Ana, about silliness of the genetically gifted virgin, as well. I am in the middle of Never Romance a Rake by Liz Carlyle, and while I am enjoying it, once again I am confronted with a heroine who, never having handled a bat or seen a ball, hits multiple home runs her first time at the ballpark!

  6. […] been on a real rake run lately, and I have had a chance to think about why I like them. I think it has to do with the […]

  7. It would be interesting to compile a list of famous romance heroes who are sexually inexperienced

    Behold, the list. (You might like to explore AAR’s Special Title Listings.)

    if I think of a 24 year old man who manages to engage in a lot of fulfilling pursuits and has 4 partners a week, and doesn’t commit any ancillary moral wrongs like those mentioned above, I still don’t like it.

    I don’t care what he does, but I wouldn’t clamor to be Door #4. Or Heavenly Gate #4, or Portal to Paradise #4, or what you will. He’s not a good risk, in several ways. Would he be any good in bed? His routine sounds rather perfunctory. Would he be potent, if he’s recently flown 4 ladies to the moon 4 times apiece? (Olivia Judson casts some doubt.) Would he be diseased? Who else is he involved with? The situation could be messy. Oh, and forget developing a relationship: that’s a nonstarter.

    In books like Sizzling and Broken and Nightcap the hero has sex all the time, often when he should be doing something else. There’s a compulsivity there, an inappropriateness, that bugs me.

    Of those three I only know Broken. I actually thought it was Sadie’s moral judgment (really Hart’s poorly-articulated judgment) that was at fault. Sadie met Joe once a month; his dalliances weren’t that extreme. But even if he were Mr Four Girls A Week, that doesn’t justify the kind of opprobrium she heaped on him (and he on himself).

    Laura: “I feel that way about vampires. Why are they so pale and in need of constant blood transfusions? Have they got an iron deficiency?

    Some paranormals and urban fantasies develop extensive medical explanations for vampirism. A number of books feature vampire researchers or doctors in an explanatory role, providing sustenance from blood banks, immunizing vampires against sun allergies, or being kidnapped to inject the vampire strain (with its health or longevity benefits) into an evil mastermind.

  8. Rfp — thanks for your very amusing take on the male slut. I tend to like my moral disapproval to have some basis in something other than rank prejudice, but I cannot seem to figure out what bothers me in this case, because you’re right, about, say, Joe in Broken: my moral code says that as long as it’s between consenting adults who are not committing other wrongs (like infidelity) in the process, sex is A-OK. Yet I was on the bandwagon that saw Joe’s character as improving with monogamy.


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