Is M/M Romance Fetishizing?


Pride often brings up plenty of arguments about who “counts” as queer. Every year, we debate whether kink communities “belong” at Pride. People argue that folks in heterosexual-presenting relationships don’t belong in queer spaces.

Two masculine presenting people in rainbow shirts and shorts pose for a picture by crouching down in the middle of an urban street, probably during a Pride parade.
(Ronê Ferreira / Pexels.com)

Another argument often emerges alongside discussions about who “belongs” or “doesn’t” belong in the queer community. Every so often—and often around Pride, when these discussions are hot-button topics—people point the finger at m/m romance novels. A lot of these novels, they argue, are nothing more than fetishization of gay men.

So, is m/m romance fetishizing? Let’s look at the evidence.

M/M Romance Caters to Cis Women

The most common accusation is that m/m romance, as a genre, caters to cisgender women. These women are also often heterosexual.

At first blush, that might seem baffling. Why do straight women want to read about gay dudes?
There are quite a few theories floating around out there about the appeal. One is that sexual desire is encoded as masculine. As a result, it can be uncomfortable for women to read about other women expressing desire or engaging in sex acts. And, if you look at a lot of conservative discussion of women’s sexuality, this makes sense. After all, there are women who are afraid of touching their own hoo-has.

Another theory is simply that straight women like men. Gay romance books gives them two dudes for the price of one. Who would say no to double the dick (provided you are into dick)?

This penchant for enjoying gay relationships in fiction, no matter where it comes from, has made m/m romance into a bit of a phenomenon. I’ve definitely seen people complain that fandoms are overrun with “slashers.” It’s also spilled over into original fiction, where m/m romance titles are booming. While m/m romance isn’t going to knock the standard m/f Harlequin off the shelves any time soon, it has far outpaced f/f representation, queer m/f stories, and others. Basically, it’s become the “default” queer book.

Who Reads and Writes M/M Romance?

The explosion of m/m romance is a double-edges sword. On the one hand, it has increased queer visibility, far exceeding what one might assume would be a relatively small market. That’s where the problem comes in: most m/m romance isn’t by or for gay men.

Instead, the majority of readers and writers appear to be cishet women. That, in turn, raises questions about who m/m romance is “for.” By and large, m/m romance books tend to cater to the tastes of cishet women, rather than gay men. That is troubling in some ways, because what cishet women like or want to see isn’t necessarily representative of reality.

A very good example of this happens in yaoi manga and doujinshi. These relationships may occur between two male characters, but they often have strict top/bottom roles. The bottom is often hyper-feminized, while the top is (hyper)masculine. The stories become almost a parody of gay relationships and gay men. They might even leave us asking if the bottom is merely a stand-in for the female reader. In a lot of cases, he very well could be.

Three shirtless men pose for a picture in an urban street. They wear sunglasses, and the man in the middle has his arms around the shoulders of the men on either side of him while holding a beer. He appears to be an older man with a gray beard. Hairy men and older men aren't often seen in m/m romance books.
(Ronê Ferreira / Pexels.com)

This is where accusations of “fetishizing” find their feet. The argument here goes that cishet women don’t want to see gay men as they really are. Rather, they want to see gay relationships as performed for the straight eye. Queerness becomes a commodity to be consumed by straight individuals. The straight gaze thus demands queerness conform to its expectations. That means we don’t want to see overweight men, bears, or old, bald gay men. Most gay men in m/m romance tend to be twinks or extremely athletic. There is limited exploration of attraction to different body types. Instead, the queers in question are crafted to pander to cishet women’s tastes—and what they find attractive.

The Marginalization of Gay Men in M/M Romance

Given this reality, many gay men feel that m/m romance stories don’t reflect their realities. Worse, when they criticize or voice concerns about this trend, they are often attacked by the cishet female readership.

Gay men also represent a small portion of authors in the m/m romance space. This gives rise to concerns about how accurately the gay experience is being portrayed on the page. After all, cishet women can’t “write what they know,” because they aren’t gay men and they never will be.

Gay men who are writing in this space often feel pressure to conform. Those who write more “authentic” stories may find themselves attacked if those stories differ from what cishet women readers want.

That tendency means that books by gay men about their own experiences tend to be less successful. It also means we see less variety in the queer stories that are committed to the page. Further, gay men often feel marginalized and even oppressed in the m/m romance space. This further contributes to the lack of men in this space. They face limited success and more harassment, which means the space is unwelcoming and often pushes people out.

That is incredibly unfortunate. M/m romance should be a space to celebrate the wide breadth of gay (and queer) experience. Instead, it has become another space where queer people are oppressed by heterosexual, cisgender expectations. The people who most conform to those expectations are best able to reap the rewards. That this happens in what should be a queer-dominated space is troubling.

Are All Cis Women Always Cis Women?

Fetishization does appear to be occurring in the m/m romance space, because real gay men and their stories are discounted and even pushed out into the cold. In turn, stories by cishet women for cishet women gain traction and popularity. Gay men who are successful in this space conform to the expectations of the cishet gaze. In turn, m/m romance offers a fairly narrow vision of what it means to be a gay man.

Yet the fetishization argument rests on the fact that readers and writers of m/m romance tend to be cishet women. While many certainly do identify that way, there is a lingering question here.
An excellent example of the question occurs specifically in the mpreg space. While many readers and writers of mpreg appear to be cishet women on the surface, a good number of them have turned out to be “eggs.” Over time, they moved away from that cishet identity.

The mpreg space includes many trans and nonbinary authors. The m/m romance space also includes many individuals who are trans men or trans-masc, as well as queer women. These women may not be “straight”—rather, they are pan or bi. They may also be aro or ace individuals.
It often takes people time to arrive at queer identities. They may have no idea for many years, or they may actively resist identifying as queer.

The Cishet to Queer Pipeline

Often, the act of consuming queer media—even the “stereotypical” m/m romance—is a catalyst for the identity journey. Even then, though, it may take years for someone to travel the road from “firmly cishet” to “oh, no, I am queer af.” And we need to keep in mind that identities can be both fluid and evolving. What someone “identifies” as today may not be the same as tomorrow.

I myself am a testament to that. I started reading and writing m/m fanfic when I was in high school. At that time, I considered myself cishet. By the time I finished university, I had discovered I am (or was) bi. Thus, I was not a cishet person writing m/m fic; rather, I was a queer person writing m/m fic.

Over time, that identity has continued to evolve. Today, I’d suggest I’m bi/pan, in addition to being some kind of genderqueer. While I don’t identify as non binary or trans masculine, per se, I am decidedly not cis either.

Thus I moved from being a “cishet writer” to being a very queer (bi/pan, genderqueer) writer. That wasn’t an overnight process. For many years, I could have been criticized as being “just another” cishet woman writer appropriating gay men’s space.

To some degree, I am still hijacking the gay male experience—I am not a gay man. That is not an identity I have right now. If, however, my journey leads me to conclude I am a trans man at some point, then I might be a bi/pan man. My stories often take on gender anyway, so am I representing some sort of cishet gaze, demanding stories that conform to straight expectations? Or am I telling queer stories that showcase a different kind of masculinity?

Disentangling Oppressions under Capitalism

That’s not to say every story a queer person writes is inherently queer. And the fact remains that a lot of m/m romance writers currently ID themselves as cishet women.

We certainly can’t assume all of these writers will one day burst out of the metaphorical closet to announce they’re trans men or something. Most of them will remain cishet women. Yet I’d argue that the fetishization argument about m/m romance is reductive and, to some degree, misogynistic.

Is there a problem when gay men are attacked and pushed out of the m/m romance sphere? Yes, absolutely! Are many m/m romance stories codified for the “straight” gaze of a largely cishet female readership? Yes again.

I’ve argued before that the answer to this is to expand the table. Gay men should absolutely be celebrated in the m/m romance space. Cishet women readers need to understand they are in a queer space and respect that. Rather than attacking stories and writers for not conforming to their own narrow views of queerness, they should allow that encountering these stories can expand their understanding—even if those stories aren’t ultimately what they prefer to read.

After all, in many senses, m/m romance should not be for cishet women at all. That we stand in this position is a mix of queer oppression, cishet privilege, and misogyny, all rolled up and hopeless entangled. Detangling it is impossible. Instead, we should embrace that we’re all in this space together and learn to uplift and appreciate each other.

In doing so, we’ll expand the space for queer stories of all stripes and push forward queer visibility, instead of quibbling about who gets to tell which stories.

About the author

By Cherry

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