Earlier this year, I almost quit writing. The hours are endless, the pay is wildly unpredictable, and writing emotionally driven books is draining. So in pursuit of a new career, I took classes, applied for jobs, and imagined a life without deadlines. But in the end, I was pulled back in. And of course, it was a book -- two books, in fact -- that reminded me why I write, and why it's romance novels that I write in particular.
I can't remember how I stumbled across The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women by Jessica Valenti, but I remember reading it on the train from Boston to New York and feeling all the feelings. The book examines all the weird and subversive ways we tie a woman's entire worth to her sexual status--from purity balls (cringe) to Girls Gone Wild. Women, as many of us probably know, are put in an untenable position: We're supposed to flaunt our sexuality through skimpy clothes and an overtly sexual appearance, but if we actually act sexually (whether by choice or not), them comes the slut shaming. "We're teaching American girls that, one way or another, their bodies and their sexuality are what make them valuable," Valenti writes. Not their brains, their abilities, their relationships, or feelings, but just their bodies. Their virgin bodies.
I remember getting so angry, so emotional, and so determined to do something to let girls know they are more than just their sexuality or their bodies; that they were worthy, valuable, cherished, and loveable no matter what. But what could I do?
Perhaps I could write a blog, I thought, scowling out the window. No, that wasn't enough. Perhaps I could write a book. But it would have to be a book people would actually read; it couldn't be too preachy, and it had to reach all kinds of women in all kinds of circumstances.
It could be...a romance novel. I could definitely write a girl-power story that all kinds of girls would read. (I know, duh).
And, in fact, at that point, I had already written the book for every girl who was told that her worth was inextricably bound to her virginity, her sexuality, or her marital status. What a Wallflower Wants is about a heroine named Prudence discovering her own strength and worth after she has been "compromised against her will," to put it delicately. (But it wasn't delicate. And it wasn't by the hero.).
In the historical era in which the story is set (1820s England), a woman's virginal status was everything. If it was discovered that she had been "compromised," she would have to be married to her attacker--fast. No one else would have her. Without her virginity, she was worthless.
Sadly, this is still the reality in many parts of the world. I was motivated to tackle this story by all the tragic news stories about rape culture and sexual assault, and those against women's pleasure and sexuality. I wanted to provide an alternative story showing that women, no matter what their experiences, are worthy of love and respect. I wanted to write a happy ending for all the girls who never got one.
Romance novels are inherently about the heroine claiming her own sexual pleasure on her terms and finding love, happiness, and safety with a hero who cherishes and respects her--hopefully, without losing a part of herself in the process. That is a story that I want to write over and over again until it's not "unrealistic trashy fiction" but just another realistic happily ever after. That's why I won't quit writing.
Maya Rodale is the author of multiple historical romance novels as well as the nonfiction book Dangerous Books for Girls: The Bad Reputation of Romance Novels, Explained. She has a master's degree from New York University and lives in Manhattan with her darling dog and a rogue of her own. Visit her online at mayarodale.com, or say hello to her @mayarodale on Twitter.
For more from Maria Rodale, visit www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com