One aspect of Ong's essay which I found particularly interesting, because of its implications for the popular romance novel (and especially the erotic romance sub-genre) is that she mentions
Christine Overall's analysis of identity and sexual relating in "Monogamy, Nonmonogamy and Identity" (1988). Overall argues that "[t]he convention of sexual relating, outside of paid work, is that in that context the woman expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" (p. 8). As such, a sexual relationship becomes a form of chosen vulnerability. This convention of connecting identity with sexual relating is subverted in the conventions of sex work. Overall writes that sex workers structure sexual relating differently and "define themselves by reference to the paid labour they perform rather than by reference to the men with whom they interact and usually choose not to be vulnerable, self-expressive, or genuinely open" (p.9). (Ong 211, emphasis added)
One definition of "erotic romance" is:
stories written about the development of a romantic relationship through sexual interaction. The sex is an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development, and couldn’t be removed without damaging the storyline. Happily Ever After is a REQUIREMENT to be an erotic romance. (Day)
Sex can presumably only be "an inherent part of the story, character growth, and relationship development" if, at some point (perhaps not in initial encounters but certainly in later ones) the heroine "expresses herself, becomes and is most truly and genuinely herself" while engaged in sex with the other protagonist(s). Indeed, if the narrative is constructed primarily via sex scenes, then the sex must, perhaps, be deemed much more meaningful in, and important to, a relationship than in romances which show the development of the relationship via other interactions.
Perhaps this is one reason why Amanda, a reviewer at the romance blog Smart Bitches Trashy Books, has stated that "my experience is, I have yet to be mirrored, or, or even my viewpoints on sex as a woman in the twenty-first century have yet to be mirrored in a romance that I’ve read". Amanda has:
compartmentalized sex and intimacy –
Sarah: – into a very convenient option where if you would like to have sex, that’s a thing that happens, and then it’s over and you can go do your other things. It’s not something that has to be built on a relationship.
Amanda: It’s like a chore that, you know, like, I tick off my to-do list.
Sarah: But it’s a nice chore.
Amanda: It’s a, it can be a very nice chore. (Wendell)
Amanda will also
nickname the people that you have Tinder conversations with.
Amanda: I do. I do nickname them.
Sarah: So it’s almost like making them characters.
It seems as though Amanda is creating a narrative of her sex life which contains nicknamed male characters and differs noticeably in its plot from that of a romance novel. Perhaps it more closely resembles texts like Belle de Jour (Dr Brooke Magnanti)'s The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl which, in foregrounding
modern womanhood [...] humorously and light-heartedly as the texts chronicle protagonists' cosmopolitan lifestyles and their efforts to navigate work life and their personal relationships [make the] enjoyment and pleasure of sex a major theme [...]. These texts align with contemporary chick lit. (Ong 204)
Their emergence, and the life-styles they describe, have perhaps been
facilitated by the emergence of new paradigms of family and community [...] that [...] has resulted in isolable individuals with profoundly transformed models of sexuality, new configurations of intimate life and new erotic dispositions: "[b]oth the traditional 'procreative' and the modern 'companionate' models of sexuality are increasingly being supplanted by what sociologist Edward Laumann and his colleagues have referred to as a 'recreational' sexual ethic" [...].
This recreational sexual ethic is premised upon the depth of physical sensation and emotionally bounded erotic exchange [...]. The authenticity of recreational sex is bounded in the sense that the emotions of erotic exchanges are delimited to their discrete episodes and sex is free of lingering emotional attachments. (Ong 209)
I have the impression that contemporary popular romance (generally) expresses a commitment to the 'companionate' model of sexuality and the view that sex has, or should ideally have, a strong emotional component which, unlike "bounded authenticity", continues to exist long after the sexual encounter is over.
That said, neither Amanda nor Belle de Jour are completely unemotionally involved during sexal interactions. Amanda clarifies that:
sometimes the guys that I find to be really attractive and really pretty are dumb as a box of rocks, and I can’t. Like, if there’s a spelling mistake in your profile or you can’t string together a sentence with proper grammar and punctuation, I’m not –
Sarah: You’re not interested.
Amanda: Yeah, ‘cause I’m not, I’m not emotionally stimulated to carry on a conversation with you.
Sarah: Right, so it’s not just, hey, you’re pretty, let’s bang. There are other things at work in creating the connection that you’re looking for.
Amanda: Yes. Even though if it’s not, like, a love connection, there’s definitely, there has to be some kind of conversational connection first.
Ong's analysis of Belle's sexual interactions with clients similarly reveals a need for some kind of emotional connection. In one of the two
client interactions where they are uninterested in bounded authenticity and seek only sexual gratification [...the fact that] he [the client] remains unshakeable and disinterested in her efforts to create intimacy or eroticism in the session evidently unnerves Belle. [...] In these two entries, Belle's narrative voice is serious and flat, in stark contrast to her usual light-heartedness. Since humor denotes her ability to process her emotions and indicates her self-composure, the grave tone of these entries suggests that she is unable to fully own these experiences in her reframing of them. She is impacted deeply because her provision of bounded authenticity enables her to find her work meaningful, and their disinterest in bounded authenticity means she is unable to find work meaningful in these bookings. In addition, their disinterest in intimacy and blunt usage of her for their sexual needs removes the distinction of her brand of "meaningful" sex work to that of the merely physical service of street-based workers. (221-22)
Day, Sylvia. "What is Erotic Romance?"
Ong, Victoria. "Selling Authentic Sex: Working Through Identity in Belle de Jour's The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl". Women and Erotic Fiction: Critical Essays on Genres, Markets and Readers. Ed. Kristen Phillips. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland 2015. 204-24.
Wendell, Sarah. "172. Tinder, Sex, Romance, and Relationships: A Frank Discussion of Sexuality with Amanda". 18 December 2015.