Madame Bovary, Romance & the Female Mating Strategy

In a previous post, I wrote about men’s preference for novelty and how this influences their attraction to porn. The natural follow up to this is: what about women? Is there a female equivalent to the ‘male fantasy realm of pornotopia’ — one that reflects aspects of the female mating strategy? In their book, Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality, Catherine Salmon and Donald Symons argue that ‘if male-oriented video porn could be said to have an opposite, the romance novel would be it’.

Symons, a pioneer of evolutionary psychology and author of The Evolution of Human Sexuality, writes that, with respect to sexuality, female and male natures are ‘extraordinarily different’, and this difference is reflected in their choice of erotica:

In the male fantasy realm of pornotopia, sex is sheer lust and physical gratification, devoid of courtship, commitment, durable relationships, or mating effort. Porn videos contain minimal plot development, focusing instead on the sex acts themselves and emphasizing the display of female bodies, especially close-ups of faces, breasts, and genitals […] The female fantasy realm of romantopia is quite different. The goal of a romance novel’s heroine is never sex for its own sake, much less impersonal sex with strangers. The core of a romance novel’s plot is a love story in the course of which the heroine overcomes obstacles to identify, win the heart of, and ultimately marry the one man who is right for her

These differences are so well-established that they have become cliché. What is not so well known is that there is an actual neurological difference between men and women’s pathways of desire: ‘Visual cues trigger desire in men. If a man’s brain decides a picture is arousing, he swiftly experiences physical and psychological arousal’ (Ogas).

But while physical and psychological arousal are usually linked in men, ‘in women there’s a disconnect’. ‘Carnal signals’ are intercepted by what Ogi Ogas and Gai Saddam refer to as ‘the most sophisticated neural software on Earth’ — one that conducts a ‘careful appraisal’ of long term concerns and potential risks associated with sex. As it is ‘designed to uncover, scrutinize, and evaluate a dazzling range of informative clues’, Ogas and Saddam call this cautious neural system the Miss Marple Detective Agency:

The emotional software of the Detective Agency runs mostly on three brain structures. Two of the structures are in the cortex, where conscious thinking occurs: the anterior cingulate cortex and the insular cortex. These are both involved in the appraisal of emotions of self and others. These structures are slightly larger in women and also more active in women during social processing. When women are processing sexual stimuli, the anterior cingulate cortex tends to react by inhibiting emotion, perhaps one way the Detective Agency prevents a woman from reacting to an arousing stimulus until it has been properly evaluated. The insular cortex and the hippocampus are both involved in the storage and retrieval of emotional memories, and are both larger and more active in women than in men

This would explain why women prefer romantic literature to graphic sex: ‘they contain a greater density of psychological cues, especially in the form of emotional details’. The romantic hero differs according to context, but almost always ‘embodies the physical, psychological, and social characteristics that constituted high male mate value during the course of human evolutionary history’ (Salmon & Symons). He is ‘constructed from female psychological cues, in the same way that young, busty porn stars are built from male visual cues’ (Ogas). But what are these psychological cues? One characteristic that most romantic heroes have is a hardened exterior with a soft side brought out by the story’s heroine. Ogas refers to this as the ‘coconut template’ and argues that it has ‘been central to romances for a long time’. Madame Bovary, he notes, obsessively reads about ‘gentlemen brave as lions, tender as lambs […] always well-dressed, and weeping pints’:

when it comes to women’s preferences, they don’t just want a nice guy — they want an alpha who learns to be nice to her. In other words, women want their romance heroes to be like coconuts: hard and tough on the outside, but soft and sweet on the inside. But the hero’s sweet interior can’t be available to just anyone. Only the heroine gets to crack him open. The hero is granted free reign to be a badass with everyone else, as long as he’s tender and attentive with the heroine

The romantic hero is thus a sort of androgyne; that is, they are ‘likely to be an amalgam of traditionally masculine and feminine traits — if masculine traits include such things as being tall, reticent and sexually bold, and feminine traits include such things as being intuitive and a toucher’ (Salmon & Symons).

We know that women’s preferences determine the contents of romance novels, but to what extent is the opposite true? To what extent do the contents of romance novels determine women’s preferences? In regard to porn, we acknowledge that men can be conditioned (even to the point of impotence) by graphic contents. Can we say the same about readers of romance novels? Some of the greatest heroines in romantic literature have been portrayed as being avid romance readers themselves: Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary — even the protagonist of Fifty Shades of Grey — all influenced (some say corrupted) by romantic tropes.

An anecdote in Ogas’ book captures this influence well: One young man says, ‘I think every girlfriend I’ve had has turned to me after watching a romantic movie and asked ‘Why can’t you be more like him?’ […] I’ve never put on a Jenna Jameson movie and asked ‘Why can’t you be more like her?’’

If there is a female equivalent to ‘porn-induced erectile dysfunction’, it is what philosopher Jules de Gaultier calls ‘Madame Bovary Syndrome’, or ‘chronic affective dissatisfaction’, which is the idealization of true love, brought about by the reading of romance novels, and frustrated by the mundane reality of actual relationships.

Madame Bovary (2014)

Women who suffer from ‘Madame Bovary Syndrome’ are said to have learned about love from books and go out in search for what is essentially a fiction. I would argue that this view cynically ignores the opposite case. Sometimes, experiences of true love come out of nowhere, without any prior conditioning. The lover suddenly discovers the meaning behind love songs and rom-coms. They might then seek out romance novels in order to understand their predicament, to find some sort of precedent for their feelings.

As Roland Barthes describes in A Lover’s Discourse, the will to understand is an integral part of the disorienting experience of love: ‘Suddenly perceiving the amorous episode as a knot of inexplicable reasons and impaired solutions, the subject exclaims: : “I want to understand (what is happening to me)!”’

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