On a wet autumn evening, a small crowd gathers at the Hustler Hollywood store on Sunset Boulevard for a reading of James Buchanan’s new romance novel, Personal Demons. In the book, a gay FBI agent is about to make love to his boyfriend, an LAPD officer.
“That man’s butt was fine,” the author reads. “The fabric of his slacks clung in all the right places. Enrique kissed him. Hard, passionate and warm, Enrique’s mouth devoured Chase’s senses. He hadn’t been kissed like that in ages. … He wanted to see Enrique naked. Lick his body. Explore every inch.”
Exuberant, nasty sex ensues, explicitly described by Buchanan. Soon after, the men wake up to find a dead chicken on their car. Those in the Hustler store audience love it. “James is so great, so real,” whispers a fan, Zoe Nichols.
At first glance, the reading seems fairly conventional — except for the fact that James Buchanan is not a man, she is a heterosexual mother of two, whose husband watches her read from the back of the room. She uses the pen name “James Buchanan” because in the niche of the gay-romance novel, publishers see male writers as more authentic and, more importantly, so do readers.
It’s an entirely hollow gesture to the genre’s growing number of fans. They know Buchanan is a woman, just as they know that most gay-romance novels are written by women like her. Which leads us to the other oddity on display at the Hustler store this night. The audience of some 20 is mostly female. In fact, most readers of gay-romance novels are — like most readers of straight-romance novels — women who devour 300-page stories of men falling in and out of love with each other, all the while having abundant, glorious and oh-so-graphic sex.
With an eager audience urging them on, Buchanan and other female authors are reinventing the ages-old romance novel to accommodate — and accentuate — gay love. To read widely in this genre is to delve into the minds and hearts of male cops, detectives, private investigators, spies, assassins, pirates, sharpshooters and military officers who let nothing stand in the way of love. The brooding sea captain falls not for the blushing maiden but his own dashing first mate. The licentious boy-band rock star couldn’t care less about the pretty female fan, but her cute boyfriend, on the other hand …
On the receiving end of these books are people like Nichols. As the 20-year-old explains, “It’s more fun to read about men going through the stuff women have gone through for thousands of years. In some ways it defeats the novelty, but it comes back to them being on equal ground. And two guys together? Seriously hot.”
That, in a nutshell, is the latest twist in romance fiction, a $1.37 billion industry that dominates the consumer-books market, and is in turn dominated by women, who buy more than 90 percent of all romance novels. This being the youngest of the romance disciplines, there are no definitive industry numbers on gay-themed love stories. The genre really came into its own in the ’90s as an Internet and e-book phenomenon, and the old-school print-publishing houses are playing catch-up. (The first house to take the plunge, Running Press, sent out its initial raft of books just this year.) In many ways the growing popularity of gay romance represents nothing less than a tectonic shift in a culture that says women don’t (and shouldn’t) consume porn. Hot and steamy gay-romance literature is to women what Internet porn is to men: They get off on it, mostly in secret, and keep coming back for more.
And like porn, reading gay romance can be downright addictive. Through the safety and anonymity of e-mail, women from around the country responded to our questions and confessed their obsessive reading habits. Emmy Frost, a young nurse in Hawaii, admits that she reads 15 to 20 gay romances a month. “Two gorgeous men rubbing off on each other is flipping sexy,” she says. Nearly one book a day? A 36-year-old accountant named Ana Maria can top that: She reads 25 a month.
The reasons these women give for reading gay romance range from curiosity and escapism to empowerment in seeing the age-old struggle between the sexes reconfigured. A love story between two men, Kerrita K. Mayfield points out, creates new, enticing questions: “Who pitches? Who catches?”
Then there are the men on explicit view, the books’ male characters, and not just the standard alpha males who populate traditional romances — the knights in shining armor who sweep women off their feet — but the sweet, subservient beta males, too. The bottoms, in other words, as well as the tops.
Some respondents see these novels as a harmless way to “explore without ‘consequences,’ ” but others, like Toni Rapone, find deeper connections. Rapone, a retired commodities day trader in Montana, speaks of her love for the archetypal loners. Forced into isolation or desperate circumstances, these guys depend on each other to survive. “If they can find love,” Rapone says, “with someone who is their equal, so they can express themselves and be accepted for who they are, then it somehow feels like the chances of my doing it are increased.”
Regardless of their individual reasons, these women speak of the appeal as being wrapped up in an undeniable heat. Asked if reading about two men having sex is a turn-on for her, Ana Maria says, “Does the sun rise every morning?”
Why are straight women turned on by watching two men having sex?
“Why not?” counters UC Santa Barbara’s Professor Constance Penley. “That’s really the question. Would you ask men why are they so turned on by two women together? We take it for granted that guys love their girl-on-girl. Why shouldn’t women have an appreciation for guy-on-guy? It is as deep-seated a fantasy as the male fantasy of putting two women together.”
That may sound somewhat dubious — if it’s so deep-seated, why did it take 100,000 years of human history and the invention of the e-book to become evident? — but then Penley ought to know. A professor of film and media studies, she teaches a kind of Porn 101 at UCSB. There are other “porn professors” in the world, but Penley was the first to teach it as a necessary part of a comprehensive film-and-media-studies curriculum, and to treat it as a genre like westerns or science fiction. She was certainly the first to bring in industry experts. You’d show up for her class and find Nina Hartley or Jeannie Pepper — Hustler’s “Rosa Parks of porn”— as a guest speaker. A decade ago she was named one of Rolling Stone’s eight most dangerous minds in America.
Over the phone, Penley is pleasant, affable and irreverent, with the remnants of a Southern accent flitting in and out of her voice. The idea that men only identify with the man in a sex scene, she says, or that women only identify with the woman, is too simplistic. “Why couldn’t men be identifying with the woman and be, at the level of fantasy, in her body?”
Or vice versa. Why couldn’t women be putting themselves in the bodies of men? Has Penley ever heard of anyone doing that?
“Yes, I think people do it all the time!” she answers, laughing. “Freud said, at the level of the unconscious, we’re all bisexual. … People are capable of a much greater range of fluidity of who they identify with, and whom they objectify, or take as a sexual object of desire.”
As for why a straight woman writes gay romance, Penley suggests, it has to do with body politics. Women’s bodies are a political and social battleground. Women are told how to behave, and whether or not they can abort fetuses. They are held to impossibly high standards of beauty. Maybe they write with men’s bodies, she theorizes, because those bodies aren’t as problematic as their own. Maybe men’s bodies are just easier.
Linda Williams, a Berkeley professor who wrote the first serious book about porn film, Hard Core: Power, Pleasure, and the “Frenzy of the Visible,” suggests a similar freedom — specifically, one from worry. When women watch straight pornography, there’s always the problem of who’s on top, or who’s on the bottom. “On the other hand,” Williams says, “if you’re watching two men having sex, you don’t have to worry about a woman being mishandled, or abused or overpowered.”
Or it could simply be a fantasy of abundance. “If you presume that these women are heterosexual,” Williams adds, “and their own desire is for men, then you’ve doubled the pleasure.”
Another prevailing belief is that the pleasure these women derive from reading erotic romances about two men has less to do with the sex than with the romance. The main pleasure comes from the romantic story, i.e., the plot. And the plots are essentially female. The sex is just the cherry on top.
For UCLA psychologist Paul Abramson, author of the forthcoming Sex Appeal: Six Ethical Principles for the 21st Century, pornography is to male psychology what romance fiction is to female psychology. These books are “the story of a heroine overcoming all these obstacles to unite with a hero,” he says. “That is what pushes these male-male romance stories. If you make it two males, they still embody female psychology. There’s still the quest for romance, love and intense emotional feelings.”
The male characters in gay romances, then, are perhaps men only superficially. At heart they’re women. They may look like boys, and make love with male bodies, but they think and act and love like girls.
But can the body and mind be divorced so readily? Or at all? Desire, after all, is shadowy, the daughter of both flesh and mind.
Penley finds evolutionary biology too reductive, but ironically certain biological studies bear her out when she says that who we are aroused by, and who we identify with, is much more fluid than we might expect. (At least, the studies support her thesis where women are concerned.) In 2004, Northwestern University Professor Michael Bailey published the findings of his study on sexual arousal. He had shown to men and women brief, sexually explicit films of two women having oral sex, two women with a strap-on dildo, two men performing fellatio, or male-female couples.
In a move that could itself be the basis for a sexy, erotic romance, Bailey measured his viewers’ responses both by asking them to self-report, and by using a device called a plethysmograph. For male participants, a mercury-in-rubber ring was placed around their penis. As an erection developed, the ring expanded, and Bailey recorded the change in circumference. For the women, a clear acrylic rod inserted into their vaginas contained a light source that shone on the capillaries of the vaginal wall. The more aroused a woman became, the more engorged with blood her vagina became and the more darkly her vaginal walls glittered with moisture.
The results for men, Bailey says, were as expected. Their arousal was “category-specific.” Men were turned on, in other words, only by the categories of people they prefer to have sex with. The women, however, had a different, far more surprising pattern of arousal: It didn’t matter whether the women said they were gay or straight, they were turned on by all the films. Bailey concluded that men’s and women’s brains are likely organized differently.
As you might guess, Bailey is a controversial figure. That study, published in the journal Psychological Science, as well as his other research concerning the etiology of sexual arousal, has been attacked by everyone from The Washington Times and conservative congressmen to gay activists. (Bailey was also one of the first researchers to suggest that homosexuality is substantially genetic.)
But why should a woman be turned on by a variety of stimuli any more so than a man? It may not make sense politically, but one of Bailey’s co-researchers, Meredith Chivers, might have found an answer by pushing the reasoning even further. She speculates that women’s genitals tend to lubricate in the presence of sexual cues as a defense against rape. Ancestral women whose bodies didn’t automatically lubricate during unwanted vaginal penetration might have sustained more serious injuries and would not have survived to pass the trait along to offspring. Becoming physically (if not mentally) aroused by a whiff of sex in the air, in other words, is evolutionarily adaptive for women.
Which is not of course the same thing as pleasure. On that score, Bailey’s findings are reinforced by Abramson’s scientific experiments on masturbation from the early ’70s. He showed his subjects films of people masturbating to orgasm. As in the other studies, straight women were aroused equally by both genders. Abramson concluded that women are equally adept at imagining themselves as either the pleasurer or the receiver.
Or simply the observer. Women, it seems, are hardwired to love gay, male sex.
“This is not something new,” Prof. Penley says. “It just has more possibilities to manifest itself now.”
Stephanie Vaughan scans the romance shelves at the Orange Town & Country Barnes & Noble. “Nope, nope. They won’t have it,” she says. Vaughan is one of the genre’s best-known authors, yet none of her books is here. For that matter, neither are those by Buchanan or other gay-romance authors.
There aren’t any gay romances here, in fact. Not even in the gay and lesbian section, which is lumped in with philosophy. Here, absurdly, Aristotle can be found next to The Guide to Ultimate Gay Sex. Vaughan flips through the guide, turning it this way and that. A man in the next aisle raises his head, sees what she’s looking at, and scurries away.
With auburn, bobbed hair, wearing a necklace of colored hearts, and a blousy red sweater, Vaughan is the quintessential suburban soccer mom. “I get that a lot,” she says, smiling at the contrast. “Writing smut is such an odd talent. I’ve always believed in finding what your gift is and giving it back to the world. Mine is to create romance for people who haven’t had a lot of it.”
“Vaughan” is a pen name. She lives and works in famously conservative Orange County, and has a husband and a 17-year-old son. “I have yet to find a genetic XY human who writes gay, erotic romance,” she says, trailing her finger along the rows of glossy, candy-colored paperbacks, all heaving bosoms and naked torsos.
“This stuff! There doesn’t seem to be any limit to how well it sells,” she says, picking up a book by Stephenie Meyer off an entire table of Twilight teenage vampire novels. “See? You look at that and think, ‘Why not me?’ ”
Vaughan is beloved for her Off World series, in which Sarhaan, a gruff, manly, genetically enhanced soldier falls for Caleb, a svelte, young, aristocratic diplomat. It is an attraction of opposites, set in outer space. “Sarhaan is based on Worf, from Star Trek,” Vaughan explains.
Her first five books were straight romances. Then she ran across an ad on craigslist: “The guy had had it with girls. He said he’s jumping the fence.” Soon followed Jumping the Fence, in 2005, her first gay, erotic romance. Next came a short story in the gay-romance anthology Kegs and Dorms, about college boys. “That was my ode to Grant Imahara in the TV show MythBusters. He’s so cute. It takes place on a train. Grant and someone else hook up en route.” The sales were miserable. Not even 100 copies. Off World did better, though, selling in the thousands.
Vaughan once wrote four pages at the company where she is a health-care administrator. When she got home, a page was missing. She imagined the horror of asking her co-workers, “Excuse me, do you have my smut?”
Yes, there’s a sense of horror when she tells the story, sure, but there’s also pleasure lurking beneath the surface, a thrill at almost being caught. A sense of the illicit. It’s hard to say whether these novels would be as compelling if mainstream culture accepted being gay.
Sometimes Vaughan’s stories are based on her office mates, a man she works with maybe, who doesn’t know he’s gay. Or, at least, doesn’t know that Vaughan wants him to be gay. It starts with a look, a charged moment. “I think, ‘What would give them the most difficulty,’ ” she says. “What would torture them the most?”
This sort of “what if?” fantasizing is in one sense what really fueled the gay-romance revolution. The bulk of today’s writers in the genre started writing “slash” fiction, where you take two preexisting characters who are normally straight and make them gay. Such combinations are indicated as M/M (two men) or F/F (two women), or M/M/F/Werewolf (two men, a woman and a werewolf).
Women would write stories as part of what Prof. Penley calls a “gift economy.” In slash fandom, where almost everyone is a writer, you create something, hoping it will inspire someone else to write another story. It’s a sexed-up game of Exquisite Corpse. “In other words, I will write this really hot story, and maybe in turn you will write one for me. They’re doing it for their own pleasure,” she says.
Slash found its best, most perfect medium online, but it’s been around for decades. Penley first came across it in 1986, when slash stories were being distributed as photocopied zines, like comic books. She was blown away by them, at the writers’ transgressions; by the way the women rewrote popular culture to meet their own social and sexual desires.
In the process, their act of consumption had turned into an act of production. These writers picked up on the homoeroticism of every male pair on television and gleefully ran with it. They slashed Kirk and Spock. Or Starsky and Hutch. “They were just doing what the producers didn’t have the nerve to do,” Penley says. It was, she adds, the first time she’d ever really responded to porn.
Author A.M. Riley, by day a film editor for PG animation, describes her descent into slash fiction as an act of rebellion: “One day I was working on a Winnie the Pooh straight-to-video and it was so, so bad. I went home and took Winnie the Pooh and slashed him. Winnie, Tigger and Piglet have sex.”
On a recent afternoon, Riley putters around the small Toluca Lake apartment she shares with her daughter. Riley is slim, with shaggy, cropped dark hair and expressive eyes. She snuggles deeper into the hood of her sweatshirt. “I sit there on planes when I’m traveling and wonder, ‘God, if everyone knew what I was thinking,’ ” she says. “But everybody on the plane is probably thinking it!”
Like Buchanan, Riley writes about gay cops. Evening is falling, and in the half-light, the G.I. Joes on her office shelves seem like they might spring to life at any moment and start fighting — or kissing. Writing fiction, Riley believes, is a lot like playing with dolls.
Her new book, Immortality Is the Suck, is currently in edits. “The vampire character used to be a vice cop,” she says. “Remember a few months ago, when they did the bust of the Mongol Motorcycle Club? ATF and LAPD got a couple people in there as undercover cops,” she says. “I wrote about the guy who busted them. He rides a Harley. Then they turn him into a vampire.”
Brokeback Mountain, the 2005 film that catapulted gay love stories into the mainstream, is often mistaken to be the work that started the gay-romance genre. But Brokeback did not go over well in the M/M community. It was slashed beyond recognition, online and off — much to the chagrin of author Annie Proulx, who was moved to complain to The Wall Street Journal about the endless “ghastly” and “pornish” manuscripts she receives.
Gay-romancers believe Proulx — and her readers — need their help. “Proulx writes these stories about people who create their own hell and then die in it,” Riley says, her voice dripping with scorn. “The guy in that story ruins everybody’s life because he can’t accept who he is. It’s just all so horribly painful. If these people only had the balls to be happy.”
Authors James Buchanan and Jet Mykles are sitting in the dining room of Buchanan’s 100-year-old Pasadena craftsman house, hunched over coffee, talking about their favorite subject: sex. It’s a cozy place, with a scattering of kids’ toys, pets running around, the perfect picture of domesticity. No whips, chains or leather bondage gear lying about — at least not anywhere obvious. But then again, Buchanan’s real name is Amy, the married mother of two. “James” is the name she would have been given if she’d been born a boy.
“Obviously, I am female,” she says. “But when I think of myself, if you say, Do you identify with being female? My answer is no. It’s just … me.”
At times she has felt like she was born into the wrong body and wished she was a man. But not so much that she’s actively sought to change anything.
Buchanan is a lawyer. She once wanted to be a criminal prosecutor, and the cops, detectives and FBI agents she writes about come from that world.
Jet Mykles is also a pen name. While Buchanan is lean and compact, Mykles is as voluptuous as a fertility-goddess statue. She isn’t married but has been with the same man for 12 years.
Buchanan’s and Mykles’ real selves reflect their adopted genre — on the one hand conventional, and on the other … not. The players have changed, but the romance novel remains essentially the same. Only one core story is told, after all: Two people meet, fall in love, overcome adversity and live happily ever after. Mix that with the naughty bits, and you have a killer, page-turning combination. Couched within the warm and fuzzy confines of a romance, the sex becomes safer, more palatable — even as it unfurls into ever more explicit and bizarre scenarios.
By page 12 of Buchanan’s Cheating Chance, Nevada gaming agent Nicky and Riverside vice cop Brandon are having enthusiastic butt sex on the balcony. They’ve just met. Brandon strips naked but keeps his leather chaps on. It’s always been a fantasy of Nicky’s to do a guy with chaps. Vice cops in chaps? If you’re thinking, What’ll they think of next, think ménage à as many people as conceivable.
“But it always has to end up in a committed relationship,” Mykles reminds.
“So far, Willa Okati is the only one who’s made that work,” Buchanan says.
“Oh, God, she did six? Six people?”
“I think it’s seven. They just keep adding beds.”
Some of the sex isn’t so much explicit as surpassingly weird. Purists don’t consider Laurell K. Hamilton’s books gay romance, but her work has recently featured strong homoerotic overtones. Her characters are shape-shifters who push the boundaries of “acceptable” sex. In one novel, a woman is at the bottom of a pile of naked people who all “shift” into cats licking each other.
“Some readers think it’s incredibly hot — and I’m one of them,” Mykles says. “Others think it’s 20 kinds of wrong.”
Mykles’ current book is about a race of bisexual male elves who abduct and impregnate human women so they can harvest their offspring.
Is there an audience for this sort of thing?
Yes, and publishers aren’t shy about asking writers to spice things up. They know what sells. Not long ago, Buchanan was shopping around her manuscript for her 17th-century gay, erotic fairy tale Lord Carabas. One publisher agreed to take the book only if Buchanan added four sex scenes.
Buchanan, who has been known to write 8,000-word rope-bondage scenes, threw up her hands in frustration. “I’m, like, Where?”
This year, Running Press made waves by becoming the first mainstream print house to publish gay romances. The publisher has a novel by Erastes about two handsome iron forgers who fall in love during the witch trials of 1642 England, and another by Alex Beecroft about a sea captain’s desire for his first mate. Erastes and Beecroft are pen names of two female authors living in the U.K. Lee Rowan’s Tangled Web, about closeted young men in Regency London high society, comes out this month. Running Press is keeping the sex soft-core as it tests the waters.
“Our research indicates that M/M is the fastest-growing trend in the romance genre,” says Running Press Associate Publisher Craig Herman. “We recognized an opportunity in the marketplace.”
Harlequin, the oldest of the romance houses, won’t commit to gay romances on paper, but just last month it welcomed LGBT submissions to its digital-publishing line. From a house that doesn’t allow its writers use the words buttocks or panties because it might offend Christian readers, this is nothing short of revolutionary.
Tamara McNeill is a fan of Buchanan’s books. At the Hustler store reading, she said that she believes formulaic straight romances of the Harlequin type work only when you’re a kid. McNeill is 37. “By then you’ve had life experiences,” she says, pulling her shawl closer around her shoulders. She likes the roughness and complications of Buchanan’s romances.
Happy endings are great, she means, but only if the characters suffer before they get it. In the same way that a porn video always ends with a money shot, a gay-romance novel always ends with a couple in love, which is possibly the real reason these novels appeal. They speak, however cheesily, to the deepest desires of both body and mind.
It is no surprise then that explicit sex is a must for McNeill. “Whenever they close the bedroom door, I always wonder what’s going on,” she says. “Are they as happy in there as they are out here?”