More than you think.
Now, I'm not knocking romance novels. In fact, my adolescent dream was to grow up and be a romance novelist. As early as junior high, I'd go to the library to "study," and found myself in the Harlequin corner looking for the latest enticing bodice ripper.
Not to say I had a dirty mind — I didn't. I don't. But much like my fascination with soap operas, romance novels opened my eyes into a world of fantasy and romance. And obviously, sex.
For the uninitiated, most romance novels are fairly formulaic. Every book has a central love story, which will undergo some sort of major conflict and be resolved by the final chapter in a way that's simultaneously sexually and emotionally satisfying.
While the overwhelming theme of romance novels is romance — as per genre classification, obviously — any worthwhile one is going to have a whole lot of sex. And chances are, it'll be pretty darn explicit. Here's what I learned about love and sex from romance novels.
1. The old-fashioned notion of romance is alive and well.
When I was growing up, romance novels were fairly traditional in their mindset. Yes, there was explicit sex, but it was never graphic (i.e. "He would thrust into her welcoming warmth with his turgid length," but never would any body parts be called by its name), and there were certain old-school conventions that were never avoided.
Generally, while the man may possibly have more than one partner throughout the course of the book, the woman would only be with this one male protagonist, and usually, after they declared their love for each other in some big climactic way. By the end of the book they got married, or at the very least were engaged. Because, obviously. That's totally what always happens, right?
This isn't reality, but it was the reality of what publishers portrayed 15 years ago. As time went on, the new normal set in. But my mind was shaped by this bizarre erotic fairy tale view of romance and never quite escaped it.
2. Women are highly attracted to powerful men with seductive qualities.
The logic in the romance novels was that the development of the emotional relationship between the hero and heroine of the story made the sex an erotic portrayal of their feelings, and not the porn it sort of was. So what do we learn from this? Romanticize your torrid encounters. The better the sex, the more destined you are for a meaningful connection.
Movies, TV, romance novels — all have long subscribed to the notion that we're very susceptible to the seductive nature of the characters we fantasize about. And it's true. My greatest fictional TV loves include Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Angel and The Tudors' King Henry VIII. They're powerful, controlling men with absolutely possessive seductive qualities. It doesn't go away. And it's a version of this man that I'm attracted to in real life.
3. Fantasy is the driving force behind love.
I've always been very into historical romances, or those set in the supernatural realm. Those that involve queens and kings and vampires and ladies, all involved in deeply sexy situations. For these, we're obviously suspending our sense of reality, but we're also bringing our own reality into the fantasy.
We may not fantasize about a vampire falling in love with us one day, but those characteristics of the hero in that novel? It's going to follow you into your dreams and your alone time fantasies for some time to come. And that's great! Maybe even some role play ideas will come out of it.
4. Romance novels could easily pass as female porn.
Obviously, we know men react to the visual while women react to the emotional. Erotica plays into this. Have women (and men, I bet!) gotten off to these novels? Absolutely. But it's also about bringing the ideas of the fantasy into their own romantic reality.
That's a whole other story. And maybe not a good one. If your mind is shaped by the fantastical sexual non-reality, can real life ever live up to it?