How Can a Writer Change Society if Readers Don’t Want to be Challenged?

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A decade ago I wrote a manuscript in which the female protagonist went on dates with 24 different men over the course of one year and had sex with four of them. And only after having had at least three dates with said men.

The man whom the protagonist was most interested in having a relationship with was someone she’d known for years. She never did sleep with him in the story. But their relationship was central to the character’s growth arc.

I had an early draft of the manuscript read by a developmental editor — a woman who was quite progressive in her social beliefs — and she was unequivocal in her advice:

She: Do you want to try to sell this as a mainstream book?

Me: Yes.

She: Then reduce the number of men your protagonist dates to fewer than five and have her sleep with just one man — the one she knows at the beginning of the story and ends up with at The End.

Me: But this is not a romance. Certainly, it doesn’t have to follow the expectations of romance readers.

She: Shaking her head at the naïve writer questioning her good advice. No matter what genre you’re writing you need your readers to like your main character. Nobody will cheer for a promiscuous woman.

Me: Wait, what? Serial monogamy is promiscuous? And what you’re suggesting is an entirely different story to the one I’ve written.

She: Well, if you want to save it, make your protagonist the man. Readers don’t mind a guy who plays the field, looking for Ms. Right. But nobody will cheer for a woman who test drives a few jeeps to make sure she finds one that’s a good fit. (Creative license taken with the quote, but the message was the same).

And this is where you insert language that would make any raping, pillaging Viking from a historical romance novel blush.

That conversation took place in the old days, back in 2006. Certainly, things are different in 2019, the ever-hopeful, but apparently, this still naïve writer thought…

Sadly, not at all. And worse, not just in novels, but in real flesh-and-blood life.

In my research for my current work-in-progress I read some academic research published in December 2018 titled, The Sexual Double Standard in the Real World: Evaluations of Sexually Active Friends and Acquaintances.

And what this study found is that the sexual double standard where men are socially rewarded for engaging in sexual activity and women are socially denigrated for sleeping with the men who are reaping those rewards is alive and well.

What does “socially denigrated” mean in real terms? Well, if you were part of this study of 4,455 American men and women between the ages of 18 and 35, it means that if you have a male friend and a female friend who have both had, let’s say, ten sexual partners, you’d give your female friend lower scores for attributes related to her values, likability, success, and intelligence than your male friend.

And here’s where this double standard gets really dangerous.

Imagine you’re a judge or on a jury in a case where a man has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman. It comes to light that the woman has had ten sexual partners in the last two years. But wait! So has the man, so they’re equal in morality, trustworthiness, intelligence, making good decisions and so on, right?

You know the answer. This virtually invisible double standard allows us to judge the woman as less moral, with less a trust-worthy testimony, lower intelligence and more prone to have made a bad decision that landed her in this pickle.

Silly woman shouldn’t have led him on. What did she expect? Blah blah blah.

And this isn’t just opinions of people who self-identify as being conservative or part if the religious right — this is how friends label their own friends based on their sexual activity.

This is depressing and disappointing and generally makes me feel too sad to be as angry as I’d like to be.

In 1969, author E. B. White said,

“Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.”

But, how can writers inform and shape a new way of thinking about sexual norms and mores when the majority of readers (being regular people) are, apparently, not willing to cheer on women who challenge these sexual double standards?

I don’t know the answer. If you do, please share it. Alternately, send more wine.

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How Can a Writer Change Society if Readers Don’t Want to be Challenged? was originally published in The Writing Cooperative on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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  • March 11, 2019
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