Two people meet, fall in love, and then live happily ever after—that’s romance.
But is that really all romance is about? Love songs and romantic comedies may be feel-good entertainment, but for readers of the genre, these describe a lot more than just two people falling in love.
“I read romance to feel connected to other women and to experience the world from a perspective other than my own,” said Sabrina Flemming, editor assistant at Forever (Grand Central Publishing). “These books make me realize that I’m not alone in the hardships I experience.”
Women and teenage girls may form the primary readership for romance fiction, but the audience has expanded because of the genre’s newfound coverage of diversity and other significant topics.
“People think that romance readers are mostly teens and stay-at-home moms, but I’m a male who reads romance,” said 26-year-old Noel Hernandez. “I was raised by women who read these books, and growing up, I thought their only purpose was to give women unrealistic expectations.
“But then I started high school and had no idea how to talk to girls. These books taught me the importance of consent and how to make my partner feel good. Sex is about the woman just as much as it is about the man, but when you’re 18, it’s easy to forget that.”
For decades, romance novels focused heavily on consent, sexuality, and women’s empowerment, but the conversation has widened to include the discussion of such topics as infertility, menstruation, mental health, self-worth, assault, and domestic abuse—topics that were long associated with shame or even weakness.
Books such as The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary and It Ends with Us by Colleen Hoover address abuse in relationships, mental health, and self-worth. While It Ends with Us focuses heavily on physical abuse and self-worth, The Flatshare discusses mental health as well as emotional abuse, manipulation, and verbal assault in relationships.
For a long time, domestic abuse was mostly associated with physical maltreatment, but the romance genre has shown its readers that emotional and verbal harm are just as destructive.
“When I picked up The Flatshare a couple of weeks back, I was expecting a really sweet romance,” said 21-year-old April Aungle. “But after only a handful of chapters, I was completely floored by the heroine and her experiences.”
This recent release, though heartwarming and even comical at times, tells the story of Tiffy Moore, a young woman who’s struggling with self-esteem and mental health after leaving an abusive relationship.
“I had always thought about abuse as something physical, but The Flatshare made me realize that emotional abuse is just as common and should not be overlooked,” said Aungle. “Belittling someone with words is just as awful as putting a hand on them.”
The Friend Zone by Abby Jimenez is another romance novel that recently addressed various significant yet stigmatized topics. The book follows the story of Kristen Peterson, a young woman who suffers from uterine fibroids and extremely heavy periods, as she struggles with the decision of whether to undergo a surgery that could affect her ability to have children.
Like other feel-good stories in the genre, Jimenez’s USA Today bestselling novel serves to educate readers and give a voice to the women who might be experiencing similar situations. As a matter of fact, the reason readers feel a strong connection to the heroine is because the author based her protagonist off her best friend’s real-life experiences with uterine fibroids.
Apart from addressing abuse and women’s issues, romance novels also focus heavily on consent, sexuality, and empowerment.
Fan favorites such as The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory, Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey, and Not the Girl You Marry by Andie J. Christopher are loved for spotlighting these issues.
“I grew up in a home where we never talked about sex. We were definitely NOT discussing female pleasure and how to feel empowered,” said Estelle Hallick, Publicity and Marketing Manager at Forever (Grand Central Publishing).
“There are so many romance novels I now wish I would’ve had when I was younger. I think they would’ve helped me feel a lot more comfortable with my body and sexuality,” said Hallick. “Nonetheless, these books are constantly reminding me that I am resilient, that I am in charge, and that I have a voice.”
Other readers love Guillory’s and Christopher’s novels for their representation of diversity, POC characters, and body positivity. For millions, getting to know the characters in these books who share their traits, characteristics, and hardships, gives them the confidence to feel strong and empowered.
“The Wedding Date truly is a wonderful, modern love story. It celebrates love, color, and individuality,” said O Miami Intern Gabrielle Alexis. “I related HARD to Alexa—A black girl with curls, confidence, and a little meat on her bones.”
Like The Wedding Date, Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston captivated the heart of thousands and gave a voice to an underrepresented group of romance readers—the LGBTQ+ community. Unlike most romance novels who focus on white male-female relationships, this novel tells the story of Alex and Henry, two young men who are learning how to navigate their romance while living heavily in the public eye.
“I remember bawling in my room and thinking about how good it felt to have a voice,” said 19-year-old Roberto Casas. “While I wish that I would’ve had this book in middle school, I feel good knowing that boys now have Alex and Henry to make them feel less scared and alone. Coming out, especially in the Latin community, can be so frightening.”
There is no doubt that the genre is about love. But besides finding it in a partner, romance advocates for readers to find it within themselves.
“What I love about romance novels is that they teach readers to love themselves first,” said bookstagrammer Jasmine Brown (@diaryofaclosetreader). “The characters in these novels have to fall in love with themselves—to confront the things that are holding them back, to face their fears—before they can find their happily ever after with someone else.”
While millions love the genre for its hopeful love stories, one thing is certain: for readers, these books are about more than just two people falling in love.
“These stories are about the journey to the happily ever after, about confronting obstacles and overcoming the challenges,” said reader Luis Padrille.
The romance genre is about the “meet cute” and the first kiss… but it’s also about finding light at the end of the tunnel and holding on to the hope that no matter how hard the journey is, it will all be worth it in the end.
Liked the piece? Here's a chat between me and Kamrun Nesa, Associate Publicist at Grand Central Publishing and half of the duo behind @literallyuspodcast. In the interview we discuss what romance means to her and some of our favorite books.
A big thank you to Kamrun for taking the time to chat with me and to Estelle Hallick, Sabrina Flemming, Gabrielle Alexis, Jasmine Brown (@diaryofaclosetreader), and Morelia Garcia (@strandedinbooks) for participating!