I am on vacation! I’ll be back next week with a Cara Recommends and a new podcast on the Feminist Romantic. Have a great week!

Romance Pet Peeves: Alphaholes

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Before I begin this blog, let me direct you to a few pieces of information:

  1. Sarah MacLean’s article about how she re-wrote Day of the Duchess after the 2016 election. She discusses the alpha male trope in romance, from a mostly positive perspective, and then how she had to do something different in light of the very toxic “alpha” male culture that is very real, and present, and damaging in our world right now.
  2. Adam Ruins Everything: Alpha Males


I’ve said this here and elsewhere on the internet–one of my “to be written” story ideas is about a wolf shifter pack that is based on actual science and studies of wolves. Pack structure would be familial, and the “alpha” (aka Dad) would be the one who plays with the young, makes sure the smallest members of the pack are fed, models good wolfly behaviors, accepts his mate and older children’s input on pack decisions, and exerts order through respect and assertion of boundaries, not threats of violence and subjugation of anyone not as strong as him. In situations where packs would need to combine for some purpose, duties would be shared according to ability and proximity, and while decisions are ultimately up to the alphas, they do what is best for the pack, and the alpha in larger packs isn’t always the biggest and strongest. Mating is generally monogamous (although situations can lead to changes in pairings, so they don’t always mate for life), but there are also polygamous groups.

Also they would be aligned with raven shifters who are their allies.

But I digress.

The point of this blog is to talk about the alpha male in romance.

In Sarah MacLean’s article for the Washington Post linked above, she writes about the kind of alpha I actually like–the one who was always good, caring, and compassionate, but was socialized not to show it. The one who was taught incorrectly and needs to find his mate to learn that he is wrong.

The pitfall there is that some authors treat his love interest as some sort of singular oddity among women, and so when he comes to respect her and treat her as an equal, he doesn’t have to extend that respect to other “less worthy” women. Not everyone falls into the trap, but I’ve seen it happen, and if you’re writing a story like this, make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

In general, though, I can live with that sort of alpha. I wouldn’t want to be in a relationship with him (MacLean’s assertion that he contributes to the culture of toxic masculinity is spot-on), and I don’t think he exists (or if he does, he’s very rare), but I can stand to read about him without throwing my tablet at the wall or wondering what in the hell his love interest sees in him.

Instead of an alpha male, however, some authors write an alphahole.

Alphahole is a mash-up of “alpha male” and “asshole” and it’s exactly what you’re thinking. Characters like Christian Grey live solidly in this category. Manipulative, gaslighting, controlling, abusive (physically, emotionally, etc.), jealous, obsessive…I could go on.

These are the characters who are supposed to make us swoon and want to be taken care of, but who are, in truth, terrible caretakers. They see their women as possessions, not people, and you can’t truly care for a person you consider an object to own.

I want to look at that last sentence a little more closely. I will admit that one thing that I like about romance is when characters claim a little bit of ownership over each other. I always want that to be equal–they belong to each other, not one owned by the other–but I do like it. And I recognize that as potentially problematic. But I think it’s a matter of degree. When people agree to be in a closed relationship, they are essentially giving ownership of some things over to the other person–usually including sexual activity (masturbation not included). But agreeing to only have sex with one person and allowing them to “own” that aspect of us, for whatever length of time, isn’t the same thing as being owned by that person. Sex isn’t the entirety of our lives, and in other areas, our mates shouldn’t rule us.

But that’s exactly what the alphahole wants. He wants to rule his lover and decide everything they do. Ostensibly, this is to keep them “safe,” but really it’s about control. Their lovers aren’t free, and if they aren’t free, that isn’t love.

Don’t blame the wolves for your alphahole. Wolves aren’t like that. They may (usually) mate for life, but they don’t control each other. Mated pairs work together for their packs. They survive because they are stronger as a team.

If you want to take something from the wolves and apply it to romance narratives, that’s what I would recommend: love is stronger when everyone is equal, contributing toward a mutual goal.

Please, no more alphaholes!

Announcing: The Feminist Romantic Podcast

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I said I would do it, and now it’s almost here! Beginning August 16th, the Feminist Romantic podcast will go live! It will be available on iTunes, YouTube, and LibSyn to start, as well as and here on my blog.

The Feminist Romantic will be a half-hour podcast, coming out every other week on Wednesdays. Topics will include many of the things I feature on this blog, but in a more entertaining form, such as my romance pet peeves, how to write sex scenes, and more. I also intend to look at various romances in books, TV, movies, and video games and discuss them from a feminist and sex-positive perspective. I will occasionally invite other romance authors onto the podcast as guests or for interviews, and will also occasionally read excerpts from my work in progress.

If any of that sounds interesting to you, subscribe now! And if I’m not already on your favorite podcast aggregator, let me know and I’ll try to get on it!

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Love Across the Universe Blog Tour: Refilling the Creative Well

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The authors of Love Across the Universe sat down and answered a series of questions about writing, science fiction, romance, and more.

We live in a busy world with lots of distractions and it can be difficult to fit in time to write and be creative. But just as important as time to create things is time to fill our creative wells. We asked the Love Across the Universe authors to tell us what they do to “refill the well.”

Refilling the Creative Well

Elsa M. Carruthers—“All B+ut You”

I read, watch shows, and walk.

M.T. DeSantis—“The Princess of Sands”

I read for the most part. Reading something amazing that someone else wrote makes me want to get back in the chair and produce something awesome. I also take days off every so often. Recharging away from my computer is nice.

Traci Douglass—“A Dream to Build a Kiss On”

Walks, naps, movies, going out with my friends, reading.

Read a Book

A.E. Hayes—“Tristan’s Tryst”

These days, I don’t have time for much else other than writing and editing, but when I do need to take a break, I go out with friends to get coffee, watch a few episodes of a great TV show with my husband, build some LEGOs with my son, or sing whatever my favorite song is that day in my car. I have escapes—I just don’t have a lot of time for them at the moment.

Serena Jayne—“You Only Love Once”

I fill my creative well by reading fiction across all the genres, watching movies and television shows, looking at art in museums, boxing, exercising, and spending time with writer friends.

L.J. Longo—“Breathless”

I read a lot, but I don’t see as much television or movies as I want. I’ve never actively filled the well. I’ve just drawn on it and never found the bottom.

Watch Movies & TV

Oriana Maret—“Renewal”

Reading is the greatest idea stimulator, and after that, walking.

Cara McKinnon—“The Pirates and the Pacifist”

Sometimes, all it takes is getting away from the computer screen for a while. I enjoy watching movies and TV shows, but I had to give up most of that when I started writing full time. Now, I read or get out of the house and go places. I’m lucky enough to live near several state and county parks, two mountain ridges, and a river. There’s always something to do outside!

Sheri Queen—“Red Sand”

I watch movies. It’s a defined amount of time that I can fit into my schedule. I also love to read, but I find I have to mostly listen to books because of how much I travel.

Mary Rogers—“Breakfast on Pluto”

I read! I also watch old movies, and listen to older music (The American Songbook, Broadway, and Modern Classics – I love Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra).

Get Out Into Nature

Emmerite Sundberg—“Fluid”

Hiking in the woods refills my flagging soul which also refills my well of creativity. Trees and a brook do wonders for my psyche.

K.W. Taylor—“Reprogramming”

I’m working at home this summer, and every day unless heavy rain precludes it, I run a slow but steady 4-6 mile stretch of bike path full of trees, shrubs, bits of swampy marshland, lots of friendly people to observe, and lots of animals to watch. The endorphins of the exercise itself keep me emotionally buoyant, and sometimes I’ll have interesting conversations or observations. It’s also a chance to meditate, zone out, and brainstorm my current works-in-progress. Sometimes I’ll listen to an audiobook or podcast on my runs, sometimes music, or sometimes I’ll just think. Any of those options gives me a ton of creative ideas.

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Announcing: Love Across the Universe

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Kindle Love Accross the UniverseLove Across the Universe
Twelve Stories of Science Fiction Romance
Set on Intergalactic Shores

From Stars and Stone Books

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Summer love is summer love, no matter the planet. Climb aboard your spacecraft and travel across the universe with these twelve tales of love on beaches in the future and among the stars. Includes stories by USA Today Bestselling Author Traci Douglass, Cara McKinnon, A.E. Hayes, Sheri Queen, M.T. DeSantis, L.J. Longo, K.W. Taylor, Mary Rogers, Elsa M. Carruthers, Emmerite Sundberg, Serena Jayne, and Oriana Maret.

Traci Douglass – “A Dream to Build a Kiss On”
A Dreamworld Short Novella
Can passion bloom between a bookish botanist and an analytical android?

Cara McKinnon – “The Pirates and the Pacifist”

Kai doesn’t believe in violence. Sam and Dek believe the ends justify the means. Will passion be enough to bridge the gap between the pacifist sent to broker galactic peace and the space pirates hired to keep him away at all costs?

A.E. Hayes – “Tristan’s Tryst”
One mysterious being. Two lovers who find her. Can this threesome handle the heat of this scorching summer?

Sheri Queen – “Red Sand”
If she can only save one thing, which will it be—the red beaches of Mars or a love she can’t imagine living without?

M.T. DeSantis – “The Princess of Sands”
Secrets and lies. Can they be each othe’s freedom?

L.J. Longo – “Breathless”
The manager of a resort planet and the head of its secret defense unit team up to save the guests—and discover danger is a potent aphrodisiac.

Serena Jayne – “You Only Love Once”
Carpe diem the hell out of love.

K.W. Taylor – “Reprogramming”
Alex didn’t want to be marooned on an alien planet with a robot, but it may just be exactly what she needs.

Mary Rogers – “Breakfast on Pluto”
A chance meeting of two people unaware of their destiny with each other results in an unbreakable bond, but even duty has its boundaries. Will love help them break free—and will love be enough?

Elsa M. Carruthers – “All B+ut You”
In a world where looks are so important that Genetic Modification is standard procedure, how will those without Genetic Modification cope, let alone find love?

Emmerite Sundberg – “Fluid”
She’s everything she’s ever wanted but with one flaw—they can’t actually touch.

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Get your copy of Love Across the Universe now!

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Delays and a Reveal

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I had so many plans for my writing this summer.

But as it often happens, those plans had to bend in order to accommodate real life. Back at the beginning of the year I talked about how difficult it was to write with the world in a tailspin and my kids underfoot, and that definitely hasn’t changed. If anything, the state of the world has gotten worse.

And I have both kids home unexpectedly this summer thanks to a broken arm and some financial factors. So my days are now divided between my day job and my kids and other family obligations–with writing coming in at a distant third place.

My original publication plan was to have Book Four in the Fay of Skye series out in October, around the same time as Theft of Magic came out last year. But that simply isn’t going to happen this year. My publishing company is doing a holiday-themed contemporary romance anthology that will be published around Thanksgiving, so I’m pushing Book Four to December.

So that’s the delay. Now it’s time for the reveal!

Book Four in the Fay of Skye series will be called Secret Magic.

If you’ve already read Memories of Magic, you can probably guess whose story this is, but for those of you who haven’t, it’s time for Evie Finn and Percy Seward!

Evie was first introduced in the epilogue of Essential Magic as a student at the Fay School in Glasgow, and appeared as a minor character in both Theft of Magic and Memories of Magic. She is Ronan McCarrick’s adopted sister (not officially–but they sort-of adopted each other as members of a street gang in Dublin) and recently finished her magical training.

Percy is the youngest brother of the Seward siblings. He was referenced semi-frequently throughout the series, but up to this point has been on the Continent and not actually in any of the books. He returned home during the course of Memories of Magic and was present for the epilogue. He is employed by the British Army in intelligence and diplomatic service, and has almost no magic–except for the ability to understand other languages and a tiny bit of fire starting.

I have already started the book, and I am very excited about writing it–it’s just that I don’t have enough time to devote to it to get it finished and polished before October. My kids will be back to school on September 5th, and I’m planning to write most of the book in September and October.

Here’s a link to my Pinterest board for Secret Magic. There’s not much on the board yet, but eventually there will be character-inspiration pictures, lots of period references, costuming ideas, location pics, and more.

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I’ll be revealing the cover of Secret Magic later next month, but if you’re signed up to my newsletter, you’ll get to see it in just a few days! Click here to sign up, and in addition to getting early access and exclusive newsletter extras, you’ll also receive my short story “Love at Dawn” from Crazy Little Spring Called Love for free! I can’t send that out until August 2nd because that’s when my rights revert, but anyone who is signed up to my newsletter by then (or who signs up in the future) will get the story.

Here’s the blurb:

Sometimes mortals need a little push from a god and goddess to fall in love…

Leora has been in love with one man her whole life. Unfortunately, the man standing beside her on the dais about to recite the words of the Sacred Marriage Rite isn’t her dream husband, Linden. It’s her nemesis, Reed. And yet–the way he’s looking at her  from behind his mask makes her burn with desire.

Reed sees Leora and nearly curses the gods. In this ceremony, the Harvest God and Dawn Goddess will consummate their wedding using Leora and Reed’s bodies. Tomorrow, he and Leora will be sworn to secrecy and have no memory of the ritual or the identity of their partner. If either reveals the truth, they’ll risk offending the gods and damning their country to twenty-five years of famine and drought. Reed doesn’t want secrecy and a coupling he’ll immediately forget. He wants Leora for real—and for always.

Will they defy the rules of the gods for love? Or is that what the gods intended all along?

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In the meantime, I have a story in a science fiction romance anthology coming out next week! It’s called “The Pirates and the Pacifist” and the anthology is Love Across the UniverseI’ll have two blog posts about it next week, including an excerpt! So stay tuned.

Here’s the blurb for Pirates:

Kai doesn’t believe in violence. Sam and Dek believe the ends justify the means. Will passion be enough to bridge the gap between the pacifist and the pirates?

Kaikoa meets Sameer and Dek—leaders of a crew of sometimes space pirates—when they abduct Kai and keep him from attending an important peace summit. But when the pirates’ payment never appears and a gunship shows up instead, Kai, Sam, and Dek find themselves on the same side of a galactic conflict–and tumbling headlong into a reckless passion.

Now they are searching for the truth about who hired the pirates to keep Kai from the summit—and whether the enemy wants one side to win, or simply chaos in the galaxy. But when the allies find the ones who double-crossed them on a terraformed resort moon, will Dek and Sam follow their new lover’s pacifist wishes, or will the pirate code of an eye for an eye tear their fragile threesome apart?

Pre-order your copy of Love Across the Universe now!

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Podcast Coming Soon


I believe I mentioned that I’m starting a podcast! I was going to start recording it this month and posting it in August, but the universe has intervened and I’ve had my kids at home for the past two weeks. I love them to death, but they are *not quiet.*

But next week they will be back to summer activities and I should actually be able to record.

First things first, though, I have to decide what to call my podcast! I’d like the title to be catchy, but I also need it to capture the essence of what I’m going to be talking about.

So what I want to know is: what do you want to hear?

Some things I’m already planning to do on the podcast:

  1. Romance Pet Peeves. An abbreviated version of my blog posts. Basically a fun rant.
  2. How Do They Do That? A deep dive into how successful authors accomplish certain tasks in their books: characterization, avoiding infodumps, pacing, description, sex scenes, etc.
  3. Author InterviewsOccasionally I will track down other authors and interview them on the podcast.
  4. Guest spots. I write with a bunch of other romance authors in a series of romance anthologies. I would like to invite them to the podcast regularly to talk about topics related to writing, romance, fandom, and more.
  5. Self-Publishing Tips. I’ll try to do one of these per podcast.
  6. What I’m reading/watching/listening to/playing/recommend. I’ll close out each podcast with a look at what media I’m consuming and whether or not I recommend it and why.

What other things would you like me to add to the list? You can comment here or email me: cara at caramckinnon dot com.

If you have any ideas for names, I’d love to hear them, and of course you’ll be credited for your idea on the podcast!


Cara Recommends: J.L. Gribble

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All of my recommendations are for authors that I love to read and respect as writers, but this month I’m also recommending an author who is a friend. I met J.L. Gribble through the Seton Hill University WPF program. She graduated before I arrived so we didn’t go through the MFA program together, but she always came to the yearly alumni workshop, In Your Write Mind (see my report on this year’s workshop here) and so I’d seen her around. Until about a year ago, I knew more “of” her than actually knowing her, but last year we joined a group of authors who mutually support and promote each other. That led to reading each other’s books, and that in turn led to us becoming fans as well as friends.

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J.L.’s books (to date) are all set in the same world: an alternate Earth where the existence of vampires, were-creatures, and elves caused massive changes to history, such as: the Roman Empire is still a thing, and the Romans and Britannia are at each other’s necks most of the time. Also, the Qin empire (China) and Britannia got into a huge war two hundred years prior to the start of the series, nearly wiping out the world with nuclear weapons and creating a vast Wasteland in North America. They were stopped by the elves, who cast a magical spell on the world suppressing technology.

SteelVictoryARC_cov.inddThe first book in the series, Steel Victory, acts as a sort of primer to the world. We’re introduced to our two main series protagonists, a vampire named Victory and her adopted human daughter Toria. They live in a neutral city called Limani that sits between the British colonies to the north and the Roman colonies to the south on the East Coast of what in our world is the US. Limani was founded by the Greeks before they were subsumed by the Romans, and it has held on to its tenuous neutral status for a long time. But that status is threatened by encroaching forces from without and prejudice and fear from within.

_Steel Magic-Jacket.inddIn the second book, Steel Magic, Toria and her partner Kane (partner here is a magical term–they’re a bonded mage pair, and were raised as brother and sister) go off on their first mercenary contract. In the course of fulfilling their contract, Kane falls in love and their group ends up uncovering secrets about the world’s magic that cause them to have to make some very difficult decisions.

Steel-Blood-Jacket.inddThe third book, Steel Blood, takes place concurrently with Steel Magic and follows Victory’s adventures while Toria and Kane are off investigating magic. Steel Blood officially releases next week, but I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy of the paperback at IYWM. The story starts when Victory and her daywalker Mikelos head to a Qin province during a trade negotiation with Britannia, and is complicated by a headstrong Qin princess who wants to escape her rigidly proscribed life and a reckless British Earl who wants to prove his worth. Their solution: get married, despite objections on all sides. And of course Victory finds herself right in the middle, since she’s assigned as the princess’s bodyguard.

I can recommend all three books without a moment’s hesitation. They are tightly plotted and written, with a great mix of action, mystery, family relationships, and romance. The characters are diverse, the women are strong (and not just because they kick ass with swords), and the worldbuilding is exquisite. Having beta-read the fourth book (which won’t be out until next year), I can also guarantee that the series continues to get better with each installment.

The Steel Empires series is not to be missed!

Con Report: In Your Write Mind


I enjoy going to conventions. I like meeting new authors and readers, and sharing my books with others. I like going to panels and learning new things. But there’s one convention/workshop that I look forward to every year and would only miss for a family emergency.

That’s In Your Write Mind.

IYWM is sponsored by the alums of the Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. Alumni run the convention and make up most of the module presenters (although we are open to anyone with expertise!). Every year we bring in a panel of guest presenters as well (usually 2 agents, 1 editor, and 1 author), and that’s always a highlight of the event as they take pitches and do critiques in addition to their presentations. There are also several large events such as a mass booksigning and a costume ball that are not to be missed.

This year was particularly wonderful. Last year I had a single book out, and although I participated in the mass book signing, it’s a very different experience to sit at a big table alone with one book and some bookmarks than it is to have four different books, lots of signage and swag, and beautiful new covers.

But I should tell this in order.

The first day of IYWM is low-key. There are a few semi-structured events such as pitch practice and query critiques, but mostly we all just hang out and spend time with our favorite people that we haven’t seen for a year. I am a highly introverted person with mild social anxiety, and when I first came to the SHU WPF program there were many times when I felt like I was on the outside of things looking in. I never once had that experience this year unless I deliberately took myself away from the group for some down time. There was always someone I knew and someone who wanted to chat, whether about writing or publishing or random stuff like kids and pets. So that was fantastic. I was also too distracted to take many pictures, so this con report is text-heavy and image-light. Sorry!

I stayed in the dorms, which is semi-equivalent to staying in the convention hotel, except with paper-thin mattresses and inadequate pillows. But it was nice not to have to drive in from another location in the morning–until I had to go pick up our guests.

One of the awesome things about IYWM is the opportunity to volunteer to be a “minion” for the special guests. I had a mini-van, so I ended up being one of the primary sources of transportation for Kurestin Armada, Sandra Kasturi, and Diana Rowland. We had a blast, even when I managed to get us completely lost one day.

But I’m getting ahead of myself again. That first day, I met the other minions and Sandra and Diana at the guest hotel and we all went to dinner. Kurestin didn’t come in until later, so after dinner I went to pick her up and took her to one of the “genre dinners”–a meal hosted by current WPF members in a given genre. This one was for spec fic. We had a good time chatting with everyone, but the service left A LOT to be desired.

Friday morning started with a critique session. I haven’t been to one in years, but I got some good feedback on my short story for the summer science fiction romance anthology (Love Across the Universe), and then went back to the guest hotel to get Kurestin. We both went to an excellent module on advertising given by J.R. Baird, and then went our separate ways. Other presentations I saw that day include one on writing passion that doesn’t equal sex, and another on writing video game guides. I also gave a presentation on indie publishing.

Then I went to dinner with some truly awesome people and afterward headed to the Performing Arts Center to participate in the book signing.


As I mentioned earlier, I very much enjoyed the book signing this year. There were problems (it was our first year in a new location and it POURED rain all night), but I got to talk to lots of authors and readers, and I sold more books than I expected to sell, so for me it was a success.

Saturday was guest presentation day. The first class I went to was on story structure with Diana Rowland, where I got some great ideas to implement as I write book four in the Fay of Skye series. She also showed us some very cool photos of when she worked in the coroner’s office! After that, I went to John Bowers’ presentation on foreign and film rights and got some names of agencies that specialize and will work with indie authors.

Then it was time for the hilarious author lunch with Diana Rowland, who told us the story of her publishing life and was a hoot.

After lunch I went to Kurestin Armada’s class on the first five pages of a manuscript, and how they should break down in terms of plot, character, and worldbuilding. I realized I didn’t actually introduce the plot for my kitchen witch book until the very last sentence of the first scene. Problematic!!

The last presentation of the day was a panel with all four guests, talking about various aspects of the publishing industry. That was fun, too, and the guests (especially Sandra and Diana) had us all laughing.


After the guest panel, we took the guests out for dinner at Primanti Bros and I took us on the “scenic route” around Greensburg thanks to letting Google Maps direct us instead of just looking at where we were going and figuring out the best way to get there. It was a little stressful and embarrassing for me, but we all joked about it and the next time I see any of them, it will be an easy way to remember me!

That night was the costume ball. The theme was “International Persons of Mystery.” Usually I try to come up with a costume, but I’ve been working non-stop all spring and didn’t have time to put together anything interesting. So I wore my Death Star dress from Torrid and my combat boots and decided that was mysterious enough!

At the ball, I finally got the chance to talk with author Andi Adams, and we had a good time sharing publishing stories and talking shop about reviews and marketing.

Sunday was more of a low-key day. We minions made sure our guests got back to the airport/train station, and I managed to go to a panel about military life and one about naval warfare before the graduate luncheon, inviting new MFA grads to the alumni association. Then there was just the business meeting to attend and back into my car to head home.

I’m still recovering physically (I’m writing this on Wednesday 6/28–the workshop was 6/22-6/25), but I’m creatively recharged and emotionally content after a fulfilling few days with my writing family. Going through the SHU WPF program was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life (student loan debt aside!).

As I said on my personal Facebook page while I was at the workshop, I have worked hard to achieve the success I am experiencing now, and I will continue to do so. But I would not be where I am without Seton Hill and the WPF/IYWM network. If you have any way to get to Greensburg, PA next June, I highly recommend you purchase a membership and join us for next year’s workshop.


Romance Pet Peeves: Hymens and Virginity

Romance Pet Peeves - Hymens & Virginity

I could probably write a 10-page paper on this topic, but I’ll try to keep it brief. Let’s start by getting the elephants out of the way.

  1. The hymen that most people believe in doesn’t exist.
  2. Virginity is a social construct, not a medical state.

I can’t really say it better than this Adam Ruins Everything video, so I won’t try (but I’ll discuss how it relates to romance after you’ve watched it).


There are a few things she didn’t mention (it is a very brief video), like how it is possible to have a hymen that looks like the “myth” example–but in those cases it causes exactly the problems she mentioned with menstruation (among other issues). Also, hymens come in all different shapes and sizes, so yes, there are some women who are going to have difficulties no matter what. But for most women, when they are aroused, the entire vaginal canal including the hymen relaxes and widens and things get nice and wet, meaning it is totally possible for sex never to hurt even the first time, and for a woman’s hymen to remain intact for her whole life.

Let me also caveat that I’m totally fine with awkward, uncomfortable first sex scenes in romance. Or even painful sex scenes when everyone is inexperienced or the woman is too nervous and that keeps her from being aroused. All of those things happen in real life, and I’m fine with handling that in fiction, even romance. Also, there are an increasing number of authors who treat virginity and sex much more realistically, and so my hope and dream is that this pet peeve will no longer be a thing in another decade or so.

But getting back to the pet peeve: what I don’t like are the scenes where everything is going swimmingly and the woman is extremely aroused and yet she still feels horrific pain. If we assume she has a larger-than-normal hymen, she’s going to continue to feel pain during intercourse for a while–possibly forever. If that’s true, it should be part of the story. But it never is. It’s always better the second time, despite some “soreness.”

Romance writers, please stop perpetuating hymen myths. I will suspend my disbelief for a couple to have lots of sex on their wedding night because this is a woman’s empowerment fantasy and sex all night is a fun ideal, but I will not do so for a myth that harms women and is used to subjugate, punish, and control them.

Now let’s tackle the idea of virginity.

There’s so much to unpack here, and I’m not going to be able to cover everything, so this is by no means an exhaustive look at the concept. But that’s exactly what it is–a concept. And as long as we’re all able to agree on that, then we can also agree that concepts change over time, and between individuals. One person’s idea of virginity might be that people are still virgins until either their parts are inserted into something else or something is inserted into their parts (a very hetero-normative idea of virginity). Others might consider any activity involving their genitals to be enough to “lose their virginity.” And there are thousands of variations in between and beyond.

But let’s get back to that phrase. “Lose their virginity.”

If virginity is a concept, how can it be lost?

I still struggle with this myself, because I think first-time sexual experiences are special and should be marked in some way. But I don’t like treating virginity as something that can be given–or taken. The problem stems from the idea of loss–as though virginity is a tangible marker of goodness that must be shielded and held close (note that virtue and innocence are all tied in here culturally, too).

Virginity is not inherently good or evil in and of itself, and neither is having sex (however you define sex). But I do think both are important, and that bodily autonomy and choice are also important, which is why when you choose to have sex for the first time that should be celebrated–even if it’s only in your own head. Calling it a “loss” of something is a slippery spiral into shame.

Instead, I prefer to think of it as crossing a threshold. What’s on the other side may hold no appeal for someone (I have several asexual friends who have no interest in crossing said threshold, for example), or it may be something desperately desired–or anywhere in between. Going to new places means change–but nothing is lost or gained except a different perspective.

That’s the way I approach virginity in my books. In Memories of Magic, Savit considered the active pursuit of his own pleasure to be the “line” inside of him that he had difficulty crossing. He could give Olivia pleasure, and even incidentally receive it as long as what was happening made her happy, but to seek pleasure went against what he’d been taught about using his magic. But he really wanted to cross the line. Fear held him back, not a lack of interest.

The only other virgin so far was Sorcha in A Theft of Magic, and that was only in the penetration/intercourse sense. She’d already experimented and was comfortable with her sexuality. And when the time came, she chose to cross her threshold with Ronan.

Most of my romance pet peeves are caused by lazy writing, but this one is based in a deeply-entrenched patriarchal world view. Lazy writing can be overcome with effort and knowledge, but this one is, understandably, a little harder because it means re-examining a lifetime’s-worth of beliefs and misconceptions. And then choosing a different path.

Romance writers (and everyone considering sex scenes with virgins)–please consider breaking with the trend. Look at virginity differently. Treat it more realistically in bed–which only means good things for your heroines, since in most cases any discomfort she feels will be from positioning/getting used to a new sensation. And you can easily write that into the scene as a source of humor or a way to have the characters become more intimate emotionally and mentally as well as physically. (Or not, if that’s the point of the scene).

If you made it this far in the blog post, congratulations! I know that was a lot. But it’s a complicated topic. In the future, I’ll be talking about things like this in audio form on my new podcast–so that should be slightly more entertaining.

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