Better for You Than Porn: Why Men Are Reading Romance Novels
If I offered you something that enriched your sex life, deepened your connection with your partner, and made you more emotionally literate, you would, I assume, think you'd stumbled onto a questionable supplements website. Well, I'm not selling pills, I'm talking about romance novels. For guys. Which is not as strange as it might sound.
According to the nonprofit Romance Writers of America, 18 percent of romance fiction readers are men. Fully one-third of erotic audiobooks are downloaded by guys, another report says. In a billion-dollar industry comprising 23 percent of the adult fiction market, that’s a lot of dudes. Overall, romance is the second-most-popular genre in American fiction, below only thrillers, yet there’s still an archaic stigma about romance novels and the people who read them, rooted in sexism and snobbery. I’m here to tell you that romance novels are for guys—in fact, they’re for anyone who wants to live a more emotionally rich life.
If romance novels conjure images of drugstore paperbacks, the ones with Fabio's oiled-up abs on the cover and nothing but florid writing on lovemaking, let me bring you up to speed. Today’s romance novels offer more than sex (though, don't worry, they do contain plenty of it). Unlike previous generations, these books dig deep into the emotional lives of characters. They center smart, strong, frequently stubborn men and women who are putting in the work to live authentic and meaningful lives. Want to read a story about people breaking free of tradition to find modern love? Figuring out their careers? Committing sexy espionage? There's a romance novel for that. The genre is packed with sports, spaceships, superheroes, and again, really fantastic sex.
The magic these novels can work on men is profound. Romance novels open doors to important conversations many men aren’t having about partnership, pleasure, and consent. In a culture that teaches men to conceal or suppress their emotions, romance novels model a more emotionally available form of masculinity—one where a willingness to be vulnerable is the key to intimacy with a partner. Take Jasmine Guillory's While We Were Dating for example, in which we see a man working out his baggage in therapy to become the best partner he can be.
Jason Rogers, a Los Angeles-based writer and the founder of the Bromantics Book Club, a group of guys who read and discuss romance novels together, started reading the genre more than a year ago, and he’s not looking back.
“Romance novels gave me a more precise appreciation of intimacy,” Rogers said. “It helped me unpack what intimacy actually is. Obviously there’s a lot of sex in romance novels, but the books helped crystallize that sex is an antecedent to real intimacy. Sex is an expression of intimacy, but real emotional intimacy is so much more important.”
Transformative emotional intimacy can't be built in a day, so romance novel newcomers may want to start in the bedroom. Dr. Justin Lehmiller, a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and host of the Sex and Psychology podcast, pitches romance novels as a tool for men to diversify their ideas about sex, fantasies, and what turns them on.
“Sometimes we don’t know what we like until we see it or read about it,” Lehmiller said. “Men have a lot of emotionality in their sexual fantasies. That’s an element often missing from pornography, but present in romance novels. Men can find these novels arousing and appealing in a different way, because they offer something different than mainstream porn.”
No need to read solo, either. According to Lehmiller, couples who consume erotic material together report higher levels of sexual satisfaction. Whether you read alone to learn more about what turns you on, or you read together to formulate a shared fantasy, the benefits can be seismic: people who act on their fantasies report higher levels of satisfaction in their romantic relationships, as well as fewer instances of sexual problems.
Rogers put this principle to the test when he noticed that romance novels tended to feature talking and vocalization during hot and heavy scenes. He experimented with his own levels of comfort by bringing more talking into the bedroom, only to find it made his bedroom life more exciting.
Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life
If this all sounds like sexy homework, don’t get it twisted. Romance novels are also just plain fun, and not too far afield from the media you already consume. Whether you’re into superheroes, sci-fi, or thrillers, romance’s subgenres have subgenres, meaning that if you can dream it, there’s a romance novel about it. You’re likely already more clued into romance than you think, too. If you, along with 82 million other households, streamed Bridgerton, you’re well on your way to reading romance. When Lehmiller surveyed 4,000-plus people about their sexual fantasies for his book, Tell Me What You Want, he discovered that “it wasn’t uncommon” for their fantasies to involve elements of pop culture, like comic book characters or fictional settings. Let’s say you’re into Marvel—maybe a superhero romance will spark ideas for superhero roleplay. The endless genre permutability of romance can bridge your daily life and your bedroom life in sensationally surprising ways.
Romance novels reflect the world around us, and that world is a lot different than it was when your grandma was buying bodice-rippers. These novels aren't paperback relics of the past; they're more progressive and inclusive than ever before. “Whatever is going on in the world, and whatever is happening to women or marginalized people, is happening in the pages of romance novels,” said novelist Sarah MacLean. “But with the promise that everything will be okay. That no matter how bad it gets, happily ever after will come.” Romance is pure entertainment, designed to be enjoyed, that can expand your interior life along the way. What’s not to like?
Below, we’ve suggested six romance novels for beginners, from historical romance to sports romance to sexy time travel. So take a walk on the wild side. Pick up that romance novel. It might just change your life.
A Hope Divided
If you’re a historical fiction fan, you’ll fall hard for The Loyal League, Alyssa Cole’s mesmerizing three-part series about unlikely couples falling in love amid the Civil War. Each installment can stand alone, so we recommend starting with the second: A Hope Divided, the story of Marlie Lynch, a free Black herbalist in Confederate North Carolina who covertly resists the violent Home Guard by providing homegrown medicine to escaped slaves and prisoners of war. When Union soldier Ewan escapes from a Confederate prison and takes shelter in Marlie’s home, close quarters and shared interests bring them tantalizingly close. After a shocking family secret jeopardizes Marlie’s freedom, she and Ewan must run for their lives, catapulting the book into high-octane thriller territory. Where other historical romances flinch away from the ugly realities of American history, Cole confronts the hard truths head-on, making for a radiant, thoughtful read about romance and resistance.
How to Stop Time
“The first rule is that you don’t fall in love,” Matt Haig writes of The Albatross Society, a watchful secret organization that governs over time travelers. So inevitably two people are going to fall in love, right? How to Stop Time is the bittersweet story of Tom Hazard, a London history teacher with a secret: he’s actually over four hundred years old. Following painful losses long ago, Tom has spent centuries slogging through life, world-weary and unsentimental, but a chance meeting with a beguiling French teacher inspires him to live fully in the present. Zig-zagging from their unfolding romance to Tom’s storied past, where he worked for Shakespeare at the Globe Theater and imbibed with F. Scott Fitzgerald in Paris, How to Stop Time is a poignant fable about love, history, and breaking all the rules.
Sports can be sexy—just ask Alexa Martin, a former NFL wife and the author of the Playbook series, a four-part romcom romp through the personal lives of pro-footballers and the women they love. The first installment, Intercepted, introduces Marlee Harper, a longtime NFL girlfriend drowning in a sea of snarky NFL wives. When Marlee learns that her boyfriend has been two-timing her, she vows never to date an athlete again—until she reconnects with Gavin Pope, a former fling who resurfaces as the hotshot quarterback on her ex’s team. Fast-paced and fizzy, Intercepted is a big-hearted story about learning to love and trust again after betrayal.
Jennifer Estep’s five-part Bigtime series presents paranormal romance at the delicious intersection of sexy superheroes and seductive supervillains. In the first installment, Karma Girl, we meet Carmen Cole, an investigative reporter who becomes determined to unmask superheroes after she discovers her cheating fiancé’s true identity as a Spandexed crusader. When Carmen is abducted by the Terrible Triad and given one month to unmask Striker, she finds herself falling for the object of her mission—and she might need him to rescue her, given that she’s made an enemy of every superhero in Bigtime, New York. Punchy and flirtatious, this homage to Lois Lane holds plenty of winky thrills for comic book enthusiasts.
While We Were Dating
In the pantheon of romcom tropes, fake relationships are a time-honored classic, hallowed on high by readers around the world. You couldn’t find a better romance novel featuring fake relationships than While We Were Dating, a masterclass in the form by romance rockstar Jasmine Guillory. Set in glitzy Hollywood, While We Were Dating introduces us to Ben Stephens, an advertising executive who falls for Anna Gardiner, the A-list actress starring in the biggest ad campaign of his career. When Ben and Anna enter a fake relationship for Hollywood clout, they soon start to catch real feelings, opening up to one another about their complicated family pasts and mental health struggles. Guillory knows her way around an intimate scene, but the sexiest elements of While We Were Dating might just be the tender friendship and mutual respect between its leads—and the fact that Ben goes to therapy.
Meet Cute Club
The conventions of the romance genre come under the microscope in Meet Cute Club, a winning, self-referential story of when opposites attract from Jack Harbon. Jordan Collins is the president of a failing romance book club, who faces derision about his “grandma” taste in reading material from seemingly everyone—including Rex Bailey, the obnoxious clerk at his local bookstore. When Rex shows up at the next meeting of the Meet Cute Club, promising to give romance a try, Jordan must decide if he wants to let Rex into the club, and more importantly, into his heart. Celebrating the connective power of reading and the importance of second chances, Meet Cute Club is an unforgettable crash course in romance tropes.
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com. Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.