Romance Novels Aren’t Just for Women – A Discussion with Professor Jenny Howe

Volunteer Writer: Emily Verre


On March 15th, the Center for Women, Gender,  and Sexuality at UMass Dartmouth hosted Professor Jenny Howe in a conversation about romance novels and their stigmas as a part of the Women’s History Month Speaker Series. 

Jenny Howe is an assistant teaching professor at UMass Dartmouth as well as a published author. Some of her work includes The Make-Up Test and On the Plus Side

In her talk, Howe discusses the issues of the stigma behind romance novels. 

She notes that romance novels immediately bring thoughts of half-naked people on the cover and, more than likely, a shirtless man with ripped abs and long flowing hair. 

The author/professor also points out that romance novels have been stereotyped as smut for bored housewives. Women have been fighting this stigma for centuries.

Howe employs the first use of written romance as a way to differentiate texts via language. All women’s writing was seen as romance through the 18th and 19th centuries, which lead to dismissive and derogatory views, regardless of genre. 

Unfortunately, this has been a hard reputation to shake. 

Not only are romance novels seen as smutty, but they are also stereotyped as having taboo content.

Topics such as incest, underage female love interests, and toxic power dynamics (such as teacher and student) have all been incorporated into these books at one point or another. 

This has caused all books in the genre to be labeled as containing such content. 

Readers often are embarrassed to admit that they read romance novels and call it a “guilty pleasure.”

There are more and more publishing companies that have begun using more discrete cover art in order to sell more books. 

People want to read romance novels, but they don’t want everyone else to know. 

The shirtless men riding horses turned into simple unassuming flowers, so readers could feel more comfortable enjoying their books in public.

 Howe discussed the unfortunate stigma behind romance novels and what we lose when we judge a book by its cover. She goes on to list the positive messages we are getting from these books:

What We Lose When We Devalue Romance

– New Conversations of Consent: Authors are including consent into their books to send a more positive message and spread awareness.

– Explorations of Relationships: What makes a good partner/what bolsters or breaks a relationship.

– Centering Inclusive Pleasure/Desire: More and more novels are being written to represent gay men, lesbian, and transgender romances.

– Mental Health Exploration: Situations dealing with trauma, grief, and loss.

– Representations of Community: Family, friends, and coworkers are being included as side characters.

According to Howe, romance is the most inclusive genre right now, with transgender and nonbinary representation. There are also main characters who are people of color, disabled, and overweight. 

“All bodies, all people deserve romance if that’s what they want,” said Howe. 

The broad range of characters in these new romance novels is not only refreshingly inclusive, but it also discusses issues outside the world of heterosexual cis-gender men. 

Howe also mentioned the contrast between books written for men and books written for women. 

The author notes that “manly violence with fist fighting is okay but a book about a widow finding love and having sex is not.”

One student in the crowd agreed by saying, “We don’t talk about sex but [women] are hypersexualized.” 

Another professor chimed in and said, “It’s another way of shitting on things teenage girls love.”

This discussion, led by assistant teaching professor/author Jenny Howe, was eye-opening and highly enjoyable. 

For information about more events like this one, go here.


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