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Why reading romance might just be at the heart of what men need

The "Bromance Book Club" series by Lyssa Kay Adams. (Courtesy)
The "Bromance Book Club" series by Lyssa Kay Adams. (Courtesy)

To all the men who struggle with talking about sex and pleasure in a meaningful way, have you tried reading romance novels?

While romance has traditionally been written and consumed by women, the steamy love stories at the heart of the genre can help all readers think about sex and intimacy in a deeper way.

And men are reading romance even if they aren’t talking about it. According to the Romance Writers of America, 18% of romance readers are men.

And their relationships and sex lives might be better because of it.

Lyssa Kay Adams is the author of “The Bromance Book Club” series about a group of men who secretly read romance to save their relationships.

For Gavin, the main character in the first book of the series, romance novels are the key to rescuing his marriage in crisis. Through the book club, Gavin learns that communicating his emotional needs is as important as his physical ones.

“There’s a funny line in the book that people will sometimes quote back to me. And that is, ‘Hey, if there’s problems inside the bedroom, they usually start outside the bedroom.’ And I think if you think about relationships, that’s usually true,” Adams says. “Sex is a form of communication between people, and if you’re not communicating in other ways, you’re not going to communicate well that way.”

Adams’ work inspired many men to pick up romance — including  Jason Rogers, a former Olympic Fencer who started his own real bromance book club.

Rogers says that reading romance can help men learn to be vulnerable.

“I think a lot of men mistake the genre for being exclusively about sex. And in my view … the climax of any romance novel is actually the moment when the two partners are making themselves the most vulnerable,” he says. “I think that’s something that men don’t really grasp about the genre or about real life relationships”

And that vulnerability can eventually lead to more sexual satisfaction within a relationship.

“Sex and intimacy were not an area of my life that I felt particularly comfortable with when I was a teenager and and then really during my entire athletic career,” Rogers says. “It wasn’t until I started to kind of crack myself open with partners and now my now wife in particular and talked about what makes me feel sexy and what doesn’t make me feel sexy… that I really began to kind of understand myself and my needs in a completely new way.”

Rogers says men’s reluctance to openly discuss their sexual desires is part of a broader cultural problem.

“I do think that … men are kind of taught to sever off a certain part of themself, and they’re taught to have a certain kind of relationship with sex that is largely it’s an act that you do to somebody else. And it also is sort of interconnected with your status among your peers,” he reflects.

But Adams says romance novels can be a great way to unlearn some of the ideas men pickup about sex from mediums like pornography….

“[Romance]  gives him an opportunity to view the act of sex and intimacy through the lens of a woman. What does it sound like to her? What does it feel like to her?,” he says. “You’re not going to necessarily get that from pornography, because that is the male, idealized fantasy of sex. Whereas in a romance novel, you’re getting a sex scene from a very deeply internal, intimate lens, and it looks and sounds different.”

“It’s really an opportunity to sort of exit that [male] echo chamber and put yourself in a moment where you can learn something and experience something different,” he says. “I think one of those things, for example, is … an equal prior prioritization of pleasure between partners, which is not necessarily the case in traditional pornography.”

And while there may be a lot of stigma around men reading romance, Adams says you that shouldn’t stop you from getting in on the spice — after all, there are many discrete ways to read books.

“I’ve received lots of emails from men who say they have secretly read romance novels for years, but they are not going to walk into a bookstore and go in the romance aisle. They’re not going to read it on an airplane,” he says. “But reading is reading, and all sorts of stories can give us life lessons that are worthwhile, regardless of what the cover looks like.”

Romance recommendations

From Lyssa Kay Adams 

For men looking to try their first romance novel, Adams recommends Alexa Martin’s “Playbook” series about a group of football players. Adams’ personal favorite in the series is “Snapped.”

(P.S.: Adams also runs a book subscription service for men interested in reading romance. You can find more information here.)

From Jason Rogers”

Rogers recommends “Red, White and Royal Blue” by Casey McQuistion, a queer romance about what happens when the American president’s son falls in love with a British prince.

From producer and resident romance fan Kalyani Saxena:

  • The Soulmate Equation” by Christina Lauren for grounded characters, the fake-dating trope and a soft romance.
  • The Wall of Winnipeg and Me” by Mariana Zapata for a sports romance with a slow burn and just a sprinkle of spice. (Check out other sports romances by Zapata: “From Lukov with Love” and  “Kulti“)
  • Seven Days in June” by Tia Williams for a second-chance romance between two Black authors – featuring thoughtful examinations of trauma and addiction.
  • Find more recommendations from Saxena here

Book excerpt: ‘The Bromance Book Club’

By Lyssa Kay Adams

“Everyone ready?”

The guys nodded, mouths full.

“Good. First rule of book club?”

They finished in unison. “You don’t talk about book club.”

What. The. Heck.

Gavin looked around for a hidden camera. This had to be a prank.

“A book club? That’s your grand plan for saving my marriage?”

Del nodded at Mack, who rose on one hip and pulled a book from his back pocket. He tossed it at Gavin. It nailed him in the face.

“Nice reflexes. Hope you’re better at shortstop.”

Gavin bared his teeth. “I play second base, jerk.”

Mack shrugged. “Isn’t that basically the same thing?”

Gavin ignored him and retrieved the book from the table where it fell. He blinked at the cover. A woman from, like, the 1800s or some crap was leaning on a couch with a dude in one of those old-timey suits standing behind her. His shirt was open.

“Courting the Countess,” Gavin read slowly. He ground his molars and looked up. “Is this a joke?”

“No,” Del said.

“This is a romance novel.”

“Yes.”

Gavin shot to his feet. “I can’t believe you. My life is falling apart, and you’re making fun of me.”

“I thought the same thing when Malcolm brought me in,” Del said. “But it’s not a joke. Sit down and listen.”

Gavin pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead and shut his eyes. When he opened them again, everyone was still staring at him. Not a weird dream, then. “Wh-wh-what the heck is going on here?”

“If you’d shut up for a second, we’ll explain it to you, douchebag,” Mack said.

Gavin returned to his chair. “You guys read romance novels?”

“We call them manuals,” the Russian said.

“And it’s a lot more than just reading,” Malcolm said.

Gavin went cold. “If you’re about to drag me into some kind of kinky swinger shit, I’m out.”

Del leaned forward, elbows on the table. “I’m going to tell you something I never told you before.”

“Yeah, I’m not sure I want to know.”

“Two years ago, Nessa filed for divorce.”

The ground shifted beneath Gavin’s chair. “What? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“One, I barely knew you then. And two, probably for the same reason you’re reluctant to tell anyone what happened between you and Thea. It’s emotional, personal.”

“But you and Nessa are perfect.”

“Things are always different behind closed doors, aren’t they?”

Yeah, but in Gavin’s case, part of the problem was that he was too stupid to know he totally sucked in bed or that his wife had apparently started to hate his guts. The way she’d looked at him today . . . He shuddered. He seriously doubted Del could relate.

“Nearly every man at this table has been on the verge of losing his wife, girlfriend, or fiancée at some point,” Del continued, and Gavin recalled the cryptic thing he said last night. We’ve all been where he is. “And every one of us not only got our girls back but repaired our relationships better than ever.”

Gavin scanned the faces at the table. They greeted him with nods, smiles, and—from Mack—the finger. Gavin returned the gesture and then shook his head. “I don’t understand what any of this means or has to do with me.”

“Look, man,” Malcolm said, his Hulk-sized hands stroking a beard thick enough to qualify for federal forest protection. “Men are idiots. We complain that women are so mysterious, and we never know what they want. We screw up our relationships because we convince ourselves that it’s too hard to figure them out. But the real problem is with us. We think we’re not supposed to feel things and cry and express ourselves. We expect women to do all the emotional labor in a relationship and then act confused when they give up on us.”

Gavin puffed out a nervous breath. That hit a little too close to home. You seem to think that all you had to do was show up here, and I’d just smile and pretend everything was fine. I’ve been doing that for three years, Gavin. I’m done. “I-I still don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stammered.

“Romance novels are primarily written by women for women, and they’re entirely about how they want to be treated and what they want out of life and in a relationship. We read them to be more comfortable expressing ourselves and to look at things from their perspective.”

Gavin blinked. “You guys are serious.”

“Dead serious,” Del said.

The Russian with the cheese problem nodded. “Reading romance make me know how much my wife and I see world differently, and how I need to be better job of speaking her language.”

“Her language?”

“Ever said something to Thea that you thought was totally innocuous only to have her storm off and then claim for hours that she’s fine?” Malcolm asked.

“Yeah.”

“Or say something you thought was funny only to have her get super offended?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

Yan piped in. “Or tell her that you put the dishes in the dishwasher only to have her get all pissy about how you shouldn’t expect a gold star for doing what should be the responsibility of any adult in the house?”

A chill ran down his spine. “Have you guys been talking to her?”

Yan snorted. “You guys speak different languages to each other.” He pointed at the book. “You’ll learn hers by reading romance.”

“But Thea doesn’t even read these kinds of books!”

The guys exchanged glances and then burst out laughing. Del patted him on the back. “Keep telling yourself that.”

From THE BROMANCE BOOK CLUB published by arrangement with Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Lyssa Kay Adams.

This conversation also includes audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio from THE BROMANCE BOOK CLUB by Lyssa Kay Adams; read by Andrew Eiden and Maxwell Caulfield.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.