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S1 E4 (Part 1): Empowering Blow Jobs™ (Feat. Sarah MacLean)


Can blow jobs ever be empowering for women? In part one of this episode, Mackenzie and Lily give an abbreviated world history of blow jobs and begin their discussion with award-winning and bestselling historical romance novelist Sarah MacLean about what the romance genre tells us about women over the last 50 years, how Christian Grey became a recession-era daddy, and which romance author she thinks writes the best dirty talk. Part two of this episode (including a discussion about a very nautical-themed blow job) will be available on Wednesday, October 7th. Content warning: Brief discussions of rape, sexual assault, and non-consensual acts in a historical context. Major episode timestamps: Introduction (0:00), Housekeeping (1:18), Introduction to Episode Topic (2:24), An Abbreviated History of Blow Jobs (5:18), Introduction to Sarah MacLean (20:46), Sarah MacLean Bio (28:20), Question About How Sarah Got Into Romance Writing (30:55), Discussion About the Twilight Franchise's Influence in the Romance Genre (33:08), Question About What the Romance Genre Tells Us About Women in General Through the Decades (37:44), Discussion of the Rise of Consent in Romances (47:48), Conclusion (51:05).


Content warning timestamps: Discussions of Sexual Assault in a Historical Context (13:15-13:53), Discussion of Rape in Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame and the Flower (42:07-43:41), Romances with #MeToo Themes (48:09-48:58). You can get full show notes and episode transcriptions on the Bad Bitch Book Club website: http://badbitchbookclub.com/podcast. Give us a five-star rating wherever you get your podcasts, and say hi to us at @F2LPodcast on Twitter and Instagram. You can also join the private F2L Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/292095932008569/.

If you want to support Bad Bitch Book Club's initiatives (including this podcast), become a Patreon member: https://www.patreon.com/badbitchbookclub. Buy all books mentioned on Friends to Lovers: https://bookshop.org/lists/friends-to-lovers-podcast. Friends to Lovers is a Bad Bitch Book Club podcast hosted by BBBC founder Mackenzie Newcomb and writer, editor, and bestie Lily Herman. Each week, they use books as a jumping off point to talk about sex, relationships, dating, love, romance, and more. Podcast logo by MKW Creative Co. (https://mkwcreative.co/) and music by Eliza Rose Vera (http://www.elizarosevera.com).

Show Notes


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Other Tidbits


Episode Transcription


Introduction (0:00)


Lily Herman: Hey everyone. Welcome back to Friends to Lovers, a podcast where we use books as a jumping off point to talk about sex, relationships, dating, love, romance, and more. Friends to Lovers is part of the Bad Bitch Book Club network, and you can learn more at badbitchbookclub.com/podcast.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Hi everyone, I'm Mackenzie Newcomb. I'm a retired relationship blogger, a former sugar baby, and the current founder of Bad Bitch Book Club.


Lily Herman: And I'm Lily Herman, a writer, editor, avid Selling Sunset fan, and one of Mackenzie's best friends. And I feel like you just dropped this sugar baby stuff without—I don't think I looked at our little script or whatever beforehand, so I was like, "Oh yes, I knew this, but I was like, oh, Mackenzie's is dropping some things today."


Mackenzie Newcomb: I'm empowered by it recently. So I figured in our most scandalous episode, I should have my most scandalous introduction.


Lily Herman: Ooh, is this our most scandalous episode? Perhaps we'll find out after the fact.



Housekeeping (1:18)


Lily Herman: So we're now gonna move to our 60 seconds of housekeeping. As usual, you can find show notes to every episode, including every book we talk about, at badbitchbookclub.com/podcast. You can also join the Bad Bitch Book Club Patreon at patreon.com/badbitchbookclub for only $7 a month. Hopefully you've been listening to the other episodes to know what the perks of that are by now. You can also follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @F2LPodcast, and that's two as in the number 2. And join our Friends to Lovers podcast Facebook group—that's the name of the podcast Facebook group as well. You can lastly follow Bad Bitch Book Club on Instagram at badbitch.bookclub, and then on Twitter, and Twitter is the only place where we don't spell out b-i-t-c-h. The handle is @badbtchbookclub, but b-t-c-h because thank you, Twitter character limits. And that's how it's going to be.


Mackenzie Newcomb: No censorship here. No censorship, just character limits.



Introduction to Episode Topic (2:24)


Lily Herman: Thanks, Twitter. Mack, what are we doing today?


Mackenzie Newcomb: So right now you all probably know what's in store for the podcast. This is our fourth episode of Friends to Lovers, and we have six more to come this season. As you know, each episode is, instead of being dedicated to one book, each episode has a theme, and today that theme is Empowering Blow Jobs™. And we have a very, very special guest today, author and podcaster Sarah MacLean. And I'm just so glad that this is a podcast and not a vlog because I am already blushing at the topic.


Lily Herman: Also, I went down a bit of a rabbit hole beforehand of if the term "blow job" is one word or two. I was like, is there an AP guideline to this? And apparently not. 'Cause everyone does something different. So I'm still not sure if we're going to do one word or two words when we put this episode up, but I guess y'all will know. But the perfectionist in me is really stressed out. Who would have thought, where has my life led me to trying to figure out if there's like an official journalistic guideline to how you spell "blow job"?


Mackenzie Newcomb: Losing sleep over it.


Lily Herman: Ah, how the mighty have fallen. Okay. So Sarah MacLean is the best fucking person ever. She's incredible and amazing. I think before we obviously get to her interview, we had a couple of things we wanted to discuss on the background/research end of things. Obviously the question on everyone's mind is why are we talking about blow jobs? And I'll get to Sarah's part in this in a little bit. For one thing, we needed a little shock factor in the title because we live in a Buzzfeed clicky headline world, and I enjoy scandalizing folks as does Mackenzie.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Own it!


Lily Herman: But more specifically, we wanted an episode that explored intimacy and the realm of sex acts that are often thought of as emotionally or politically loaded for particular groups and dive into how romance novels deal with that. So I think one big disclaimer slash caveat slash asterisk is blow jobs obviously, in particular, mean very different things to very different people. And so for this episode, we're diving more into blow jobs in the context of heterosexual, cisgender relationships and the fact that oral sex has often been and is still often seen as one-sided and blow jobs in that particular lens are painted as degrading for women. So again, it will mean different things to different identities, different genders, things like that. And we'll dive into more of those as episodes of this podcast go on over different seasons. God-willing that we have multiple seasons. Basically in the context of women and kind of sex acts in between women and men, this is where the term Empowering Blow Job™—and that's capital-E, capital-B, Capital-J trademark symbol—was born.



An Abbreviated History of Blow Jobs (5:18)


Lily Herman: So for the purpose of this, I went down a rabbit hole, I literally typed into Google and I did it Incognito at first and then said, fuck it. Like I'm an empowered woman.


Mackenzie Newcomb: You did an Incognito browser?!


Lily Herman: And I needed a moment where I was like, I'm stressed by this, but I was like, you know, if the U.S. government wants to steal my fucking information, they can see I'm looking up the history of blow jobs.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Having a good old time! It's so funny. You did incognito, like your mom was going to check your searches.


Lily Herman: Someone help my mother who's probably listening to this podcast 'cause she's a very supportive person, supportive mom.


Mackenzie Newcomb: She's here. Hello Mama K.


Lily Herman: Oh, Mama K. She's probably like, what happened between birth and now?


Mackenzie Newcomb: Damn it, your mom liked me so much probably until episode four of the Friends to Lovers podcast.


Lily Herman: Now she's just like, well, okay. It's a lost cause. So essentially we're going to dive into an abbreviated history of the blow job. I will point out that Mackenzie has not seen this, so she's going to be sort of reacting to what I have curated. And I want to be a good podcast host and actually give credit where it's due. So first of all, all of these articles and things I mentioned will be in the show notes, so you can click on them. You can learn more. There were also some articles that I didn't end up using but wanted to include because we learned in school that you need to cite all of your sources. So we're citing all of those. But a lot of the research that I talk about in the next couple of minutes comes from a 2017 book called A Brief History of Oral Sex by David de Pierre, a 2000 Salon interview with scholar and author Thierry Leguay, a 2016 Mic article by Anna Schwartz—oh yeah, Anna Schwartz, I think she also went to Wesleyan a couple of years ahead of me. So hi Anna, we don't actually know each other, but hope you're doing well.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Shout out to Anna, a Wesleyan alum.


Lily Herman: And it's going to be real embarrassing if we're talking about completely different people. And a 2015 Bustle article by Gabrielle Moss. So good. I love Gabrielle's book, her work, it's amazing. So that is where we are starting. So this is LKHerman's history of blow jobs, abbreviated, curated version. Someone help me please. First and foremost, it needs to be stated that humans are not the only creatures in the animal kingdom that participate in oral sex. We are not special. Obviously there's been talk of chimpanzees and other creatures that are more related to humans, genetically speaking. But also I think I read that like fruit bats also can like suck their own genitals. So good for them.


Mackenzie Newcomb: I wish I didn't know that.


Lily Herman: Fruit bats, like congratulations. So that's fact number one, that's where our story begins. But anyway, amongst human history, I know Mackenzie is already like cackling and just like losing her shit.


Mackenzie Newcomb: I'm sorry. I'll be growing up.


Lily Herman: We're on like sentence two of this like multi-paragraph odyssey. Okay.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Just don't say anything else about bats sucking their dick and we'll be fine.


Lily Herman: I just said genitals. I did not specify. I am being inclusive, 'cause I don't know bat genitalia well enough, nor was I about to go down that rabbit hole on top of this rabbit hole. But anyway, if we're talking human history, the first recorded blow job is actually mythology that dates back to the 24th century BCE and it takes places—I love this, oh my God, I screamed when I saw it—it takes place between the Egyptian god king Osiris and his sister-turned-wife Isis. And it should be noted that mythology has a lot of relative- or sibling-turned-spouse stuff. So you've been warned, but this is very common in mythology. Osiris is murdered. And then he's chopped to bits by his brother Set because Set is an asshole.


Mackenzie Newcomb: I'm kind of on Set's side here. Sorry, if two of my siblings are fucking. Continue.


Lily Herman: There's just a lot happening. So Set murders him. Osiris is like—oh, sorry. It's his wife. Isis is like, "Oh shit." So she takes the pieces of, again, this is mythology. She takes the pieces of him and puts his body back together. But oh no, Isis couldn't find his dick. So she forges a makeshift penis out of clay, like super-glues it onto Osiris' crutch. And she "blew life into him" by sucking his clay dick.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Wow. What a beautiful story that I'm so glad I know now.


Lily Herman: Isis Is the MVP. There's just a lot occurring. Anyway. That's literally paragraph one of this saga on the history of blow jobs. I'm already stressed. So anyway, that's where our story begins is this Egyptian mythology and no one knows the origin of it or whatever, just that it's been around for a millennia. Anyway, if we move along to the ancient Romans and Greeks, they have a very long and complicated history of fellatio, and the ancient Greeks actually referred to it as "playing the flute," which sounds like something Cosmo would write today as one of their like sex guides, like playing the flute, a move for you to take with it what you will. And actually one of the earliest pieces of phallic poetry is written by a famed writer named Arcilicus, and he mellifluously wrote, "As on a straw, a Thracian man or Phrygian sucks, his brew forward, she stooped working away." True poetry about blow jobs. So Mackenzie, you're taking like a second to realize what's happening. And then you have a moment of panic. And it's very funny to watch.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Yes. I was kind of a little bit of a prude when it comes to blow jobs, but it's good to know what my ancestors were up to.


Lily Herman: Those are the ancient Greeks and the Romans will come back to the Romans in a second, but the ancient Chinese and Indian civilizations also had texts to suggest an openness to blow jobs and fellatio. They, in fact, in Indian culture, the original Sanskrit copy of the Kama Sutra, which we've all heard of, has an entire chapter dedicated to what it calls "oral congress" or oral sex. And one of the articles I read had this illustrated drawing from like some art piece back in the day that, you know, that was like on pottery or something. And the move was literally a woman doing like a yoga bridge pose, like backbend into a blow job, which just seems way too acrobatic and way too much effort to do. That's so much, like so extra. And the Kama Sutra some believe was written in the second century, but no one actually knows. Another fun fact.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Oh, that is a fun fact.


Lily Herman: So anyway, where did terms like fellatio and then blow jobs come from? The term of fellatio actually didn't come about until 1894, when sexuality researcher Havelock Ellis coined it after the Latin verb fellatus which means "to suck." In fact, the term "blow jobs"—some people know this from like being horny high school students reading Shakespeare—but the term below job dates all the way back to the 17th century where blowing was actually a phrase used for talking about making someone orgasm, generally speaking, like not due to a specific act. But it didn't start showing up as a reference specifically to oral sex until—and I'm talking like in literature and art—until the 1930s and 40s. And then, I'll put this in the show notes, but if y'all are interested, there's a guy named Jonathon Green, who, his job is being a slang historian, which is fascinating.


Mackenzie Newcomb: That's a cool job!


Lily Herman: Right? What am I doing with my life? I could get a PhD and become a slang historian.


Mackenzie Newcomb: If you put your mind to it, I know you would do it. I know you would do it.


Lily Herman: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. But he actually created an interactive chart where you can see all the different terms for different sex terms over the course of many centuries and then recent decades. And that includes fellatio. And then also interestingly includes words for like the person giving oral sex versus just like the act itself. Very, very interesting. But of course, I think I have to obviously mention that there's a much darker history to blow jobs as well. In parts of ancient Roman society, forceful fellatio was actually seen as a punishment for a crime. So that would be your punishment that was handed down as opposed to a fine or another form of sentencing. And all of this was also simultaneously going on while there was a ton of art and writing celebrating oral sex. Obviously we're talking about sexual assault basically here and a complete lack of consent. So that's something to keep in mind. Old Incan pottery also suggests that there was a power and domination aspect to oral sex between heterosexual pairings in that particular culture. And then in the 19th century in Europe, because Europe is always fun when it comes to sex, priests who were also doctors started preaching against what they called onanism, which essentially states that sex should just be for procreation. So any act of sexual intimacy that isn't for procreation is a sin that will lead to the apocalypse. So heavy petting, homosexuality, oral sex, masturbation. They claimed that this was going to lead to like a dystopian horror world, essentially. So they were really, really fun. Definitely want to invite them to your dinner parties and—


Mackenzie Newcomb: Is this why the world seems like it's ending right now? We've all just been like dry humping too much?


Lily Herman: Apparently.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Giving too many blow jobs?


Lily Herman: I know they were called, but they, they basically, um, yeah, predicted it. And then if you look at Jonathon Green, the slang historian's interactive sexual slang chart, it's also interesting to see that many of the terms that are used for the person giving oral sex, especially if it's a person giving a blow job, many of those terms have derogatory feminine origins; they're meant to be degrading women. So that's important to note too. Interestingly, oral sex then wasn't really seen as foreplay or a regular part of sexual intimacy until the early decades of the 20th century, but something interesting to note that even a quarter of a century ago, so back in the year 1994, one study found that 90% of men and 86% of women reported having sex in the past year, but only 27% of men and 19% of women stated that they'd had had oral sex in the past year. That was only what, 25 to 26 years ago.


Mackenzie Newcomb: That's interesting.


Lily Herman: Yeah. And then the other interesting last of this whole thing that I'll state is that there was this real panic in like the pre-recession 2000s about youths having a lot of sex, especially a lot of oral sex and going about it very nonchalantly or were just being very cavalier about it. So one 2005 report from the National Center for Health Statistics analyzed data from a 2002 survey of thousands of Americans. And it found that teens ages 15 and 19, um, or amongst teens in that age range, 55% percent of them said they'd had oral sex while only 50% said they'd had vaginal sex. And also the terminology here, it's the early 2000s. It's not as inclusive as it probably would be today. But that was a panic. And then in a different survey from 2011 to 2013, found that teens ages 15 to 19, so that same age range, 47% of girls and 51% of boys were engaging in oral sex of some kind. So it makes sense, definitely a little bit of a complete difference. If You want a book that, I think it was written at the time, so I think it only partially stands up to the test of time in terms of it's a little problematic or a little exclusive or exclusionary is, Ariel Levy, her first book, Female Chauvinist Pigs. It's nonfiction, it's 200 pages. But it talks about raunch culture in the U.S.; It came out in 2005. And so it's very much a book of its time, but kind of explains this culture. Part of the book dives into this kind of obsession with sex acts that are not penetrative sex that comes up in the early 2000s.


Mackenzie Newcomb: "Be a virgin." I mean, yeah I was having oral sex as far back as 2008 when I was 14—yeah. 14—and didn't have vaginal sex until I was 17. So I feel like that's definitely very much a teenager thing. Maybe a thing of the past now that I'm 10, 15 years out.


Lily Herman: The funny thing is, and I can also link to these articles too, is there's been this conversation recently about the fact that Millennials and Gen Zers are having less sex than previous generations. So there was an article that was titled in the Atlantic or somewhere similar that was like, "are we in a sex recession?" So anyway—.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Let's have better access to sex toys.


Lily Herman: Yeah. And also like people are tired and there's a lot going on and capitalism sucks. And everyone just—who has the time, honestly, to deal with another person—.


Mackenzie Newcomb: And the bravery to have another person in a pandemic.


Lily Herman: Truly, truly. So yeah that's like overarchingly basically the point is that there are very convoluted feelings about blow jobs that are simultaneously happening. They go back centuries and even millennia. And basically all of this is leading us to ask this question around how the romance genre is taking on this act. That so much of history has felt many different ways about, and trying to reimagine those power dynamics, trying to make it empowering for those who are typically not empowered during the act or are forced into it. So that is the topic of discussion today. Mackenzie, how are you feeling after going back to school and getting a history lesson?


Mackenzie Newcomb: You know, Lily? Yeah, I have to say, when you told me you were going to give an oral history of blow jobs and I saw the length of which this oral history was—I didn't read it ahead of time—I was like, wow, this is going to be dull, but I have to say, I thought you were a great sex ed teacher. I feel like I learned so much about the history of the blow jobs and it makes, it kind of reaffirms what I thought, which was that blowjobs are degrading in society. And maybe it's not just my own perception and that's actually how a lot of people view it.


Lily Herman: Oh, and I also want to mention too, while this is all going on again, we're talking about just like heterosexual relationships here or partnerships. But for instance, in ancient Roman society, it was very normal for men who identified as straight to give each other blow jobs. That's a separate history that would take us another like hour to get through, keep in mind that all of this stuff is going on simultaneously with each other, like it's all happening. But yeah, I do think it's interesting how our society and societies in the past all have this habit of looking publicly at sex as very degrading, but then it's really in oral sex and blowjobs is really degrading, but then it's in the art, it's in the writing, you know, all the artifacts we have of those times painted it in a different light and maybe don't tell the full story of what was going on at the time. So yes, that is more than any of you ever wanted to fucking know about blow jobs in like the Incan empire or in the Kama Sutra or whatever. But I think any history that begins with a woman piecing together her murdered brother-turned-spouse and then sticking a clay dick on it and blowing into him is going to lead to a very interesting turn of events.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with us, Lily.


Lily Herman: You're all welcome.



Introduction to Sarah MacLean (20:46)


Mackenzie Newcomb: So how does relate to what we're talking about today?


Lily Herman: Oh yeah. So how do we get to the romance genre? As I said up at the end there, we're thinking about how romance is kind of flipping the script that we've seen culturally and socially throughout the times of human history. When we were thinking about a potential guest for this episode, my thoughts immediately turned to author Sarah MacLean. Back in March of 2020, which I know for sure feels like the land before time, like 800 years ago, I interviewed Sarah for an article I was working on for Bustle all about why we're seeing this gigantic increase in romance reading at the beginning of the pandemic. And we were so young back then, oh my God. But she gave me the most mind-blowing 15 minutes of context to how the romance genre fits into how we look at women socially and what it says about women culturally. Basically romance is one of the few genres that is largely written by women and for women. And obviously too, that's expanded to other kind of marginalized groups. But what I love is that she advocates for the genre as a whole, in addition to writing an absurd number of bestselling books. So a little bit about Sarah before we bring her on. Her latest series is called the Bareknuckle Bastards series. And it follows three "siblings." You'll have to read the books. It very quickly becomes apparent the whole sibling connection there. But they leave behind their traumatic childhood and find success in London's underground, vice-ridden society. And it's actually her second book in that trilogy, which is called Brazen and the Beast, that inspired this episode, because in it there's an aristocratic protagonist named Hattie. Hattie is turning 29 and she decides she's going to make it her best year yet before flinging herself into full on spinsterhood. But of course that plan goes to shit when she goes out to celebrate on the night of her birthday and finds a hot mysterious man, who is a Bareknuckle Bastard going by the name of Beast, his real name is Whit, and he's tied down in her carriage. Alittle frisky there, but not—.


Mackenzie Newcomb: You'll see. You've gotta read this book, full disclosure. You really do have to read the first book in the series to understand the second book. And the first book is good. The second book is amazing. So make sure to read both.


Lily Herman: Yeah. And read all three. Read Daring and the Duke as well, which is the third book. So given the title of this episode, you probably have suspected—shocker—that it contains a great, an empowering blow job. So we wanted to unpack that whole scene with Sarah and the larger context around it and sex acts like it for this episode. Oh my God. Hattie is one of my favorite romance heroines of all time and this scene, which is, I will say nautical in nature. I'm not going to give more because it is—


Mackenzie Newcomb: Nautical in nature!


Lily Herman: Yes, it is nautical in nature. Yeah. If you're a fan of maritime settings, this is for you is, is my, my little teaser. I remember reading it at the time and my other friends hadn't read it yet—my friends who read historical romance. And I literally like, I was going crazy, not being able to talk about this book with anyone because it's just an expertly written sex scene, but in particular it's an expertly written blow job scene.


Mackenzie Newcomb: It is indeed.


Lily Herman: The power dynamics are not at all—they are completely equal. They are interesting. They're sexy, there's consent involved. There's water involved, not directly, but like nautical. That's all you need to know, and it's just really, really fucking well done.


Mackenzie Newcomb: It's perfect. It's perfect in every way. And Sarah does have a thing for the empowering blow job. There's also a good one in the third. It doesn't really hold a candle to Hattie's blow job, but it's still really, really good. And she definitely made me personally reconsider "can a blow job be empowering?" 'Cause I have to admit, and maybe this sounds really prude of me, I didn't really think it could be. I thought it was just kind of one of those things you did to make your partner happy and it was a submissive act. But Sarah and Hattie do you change my mind.


Lily Herman: Yes. We love to see it.


Mackenzie Newcomb: We're growing. I'm growing as a person and as a partner.


Lily Herman: I'll also say too how it is—I don't know if she's exactly plus-size, but definitely is very clear about the fact that she's not petite in a world body-wise that that is kind of celebrating petite women. So that's another layer to this of this book that I think is excellent is her not only having this—she wants to have this banner here for herself, but is also dealing with her body image issues and all of that. All of those shenanigans. Mackenzie, before I dive into heads-up spoilers and the future stuff, do you have anything that you want it to say about it?


Mackenzie Newcomb: Yeah, I would just say that when Lily first proposed this idea, this concept, this episode to me, I asked myself, I was like, what even is an empowering blow job? Is there such a thing? And now that I'm a Sara MacLean fan and also worth noting, I'm very new to historical romance. I know now that it is very much a thing and so does my fiance and he would like to send Sarah a gift. So let me know the right address when you get the chance when you're hearing this episode. But in all seriousness, it's rare to read a blow job excerpt in a romance novel that feels empowering or makes you actually want to give head. And Sarah does this. And to me, that is amazing. And her character Hattie is an inspiration to all. And I know Lily already kind of drove the point home on this, but we love Hattie. Like we love her, we would die for her for sure. And I would die for her for sure. And I think she's just a really inspiring romance protagonist. And Sarah writes a really good character.


Lily Herman: So fucking good. Sarah also dives into this, I think, when we talked to her, but she is very into like dark and twisty backstories and some mystery. So if you're into that too, that pops up a lot in her books, especially book three.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Book three is like really dark and twisty. You have to kind of reckon with some people you were taught to hate in just the other two books being, oh, maybe I want this person I hate to find love.


Lily Herman: Yeah, Sarah definitely in multiple books, not just in this series, plays around with the idea of like what makes a character irredeemable or forgivable. And so I think that's always an interesting sort of like moral concept to play around with, especially in a romance book. That is Sarah MacLean, that's our informal introduction. And we'll explain her bio in a second, but I just want to note before we dive in that y'all know that we generally stay spoiler-free in this podcast, but this is one of those few exceptions. So in particular, this episode will contain some spoilers when we ask specific questions about the Empowering Blow Job™ in question that inspired the episode. So I'll give you a poke when that's coming up and you can skip ahead a few minutes, but we'll also provide more accurate timestamps for those spoilers in our show notes in our episode description for if you want to avoid them altogether, or if you're someone who wants to just skip ahead and just hear about this specific blow job without, you know—but anyway, basically if you, if you want to listen or not, listen without missing major chunks of the episode, we'll provide all of those details.


Mackenzie Newcomb: We just give so much.


Lily Herman: We're givers is the theme here, but without further ado, let's jump into this interview with Sarah MacLean.



Sarah MacLean Bio (28:20)


Lily Herman: Today, we are super excited because we have Sarah McLean here. Sarah is a New York Times, Washington Post, and USA Today bestselling author of historical romance novels that've been translated into over 20 languages. And two of her books have also won the Romance Writers of America RITA awards for best historical romance. For those who don't know, the RITAs are basically the Oscars of romance writing. So Sarah is a two-time Oscar winner, essentially. But arah also, as I had mentioned previously, Sarah's a huge leading advocate for the romance genre and speaks not just about obviously tropes and character development and all of that, but also widely about the place of gender and cultural studies within romance. She's also a romance columnist and co-host of the really amazing weekly romance novel podcast called Fated Mates, which you should absolutely check out. Jezebel actually once put her on their Sheroes list, and Entertainment Weekly referred to Sarah as, and this is one of my favorite quotes, "the elegantly fuming, utterly intoxicating queen of historical romance." And you also, Sarah, are a graduate of Smith College and Harvard. You live in New York and your latest book by the time this episode comes out, came out a few months ago and it is the third and final book of the Bareknuckle Bastards trilogy, which we will discuss in a bit. But Sarah, how are you this morning?


Sarah MacLean: Oh, thank you guys so much for having me. I'm great. I'm great. I'm in New York City, you know, in my apartment. I was working on a transcript for one of the podcast episodes from, I dunno, months ago and it was day 15 of quarantine. Oh my what sweet summer children we were. So now here we are much, much later.


Lily Herman: We don't know her, day 15.


Sarah MacLean: I know, I know I was so young. But I'm really excited to be here talking to you and about this topic, which was very exciting for me when I heard this is what you wanted to talk about. It's not a thing I think I've ever talked about. So let's do it.


Lily Herman: Also we have to give a shout out to Kristin Dwyer, who's your publicist. Kristin is like, friend of Bad Bitch Book Club, friend of the podcast, just like ultimately amazing.


Sarah MacLean: She's fabulous.


Mackenzie Newcomb: We stan.


Lily Herman: Kristen Dwyer stan club over here. Mack, I think you at the first question that you wanted to do.



Question About How Sarah Got Into Romance Writing (30:55)


Mackenzie Newcomb: So first of all, thank you for joining us today, Sarah, I'm so excited to talk to you. First of all, for our audience, could you talk a little bit about how you got into romance writing in the first place?


Sarah MacLean: Sure. was a romance reader and that's, I think a lot of our story, a lot of romance writers. I mean, a lot of writers in general, right, start off as readers, but romance writers tend to start off as romance readers. And I read my first romance novel when I was probably 10 or 11. My sister who was much, much older than me had been, she was a member of at the time, there was a Harlequin mailing, like a mail-in book club. So they would ship you five books every month. And my sister was a member and she would read them and she kept them a secret from my parents and we shared a room. Very clandestine and I would read them, I would sort of pull them out from under her—she would shove them under the bed and I would pull them out from the other side. And I really don't think I knew quite what I was reading at that age, but I sorta knew instantly that this kind of the kissing book was really where my heart lay. It's like, these books peeled, open my brain and like poured romance into them. And then for me it was if, for me, that was the future, right? Like I just read romance novels forever. I still think of myself more as a romance reader. And then as a romance writer, though I just finished my 16t book, I started writing them because I lived in New York City and I had a lot of friends who worked in publishing and everybody who works in publishing kind of has a secret desire to work, to write a book, I think.We were all out at drinks one night and someone dared me. We had just all read Twilight and I was like, "I feel like I could write this! This is a romance novel!" And someone, a friend of mine, dared me to do it. And I had had just enough alcohol that I thought that was a good idea. And now here we are 11 years later.



Discussion About the Twilight Franchise's Influence in the Romance Genre (33:08)


Lily Herman: It's also funny you mention the Twilight connection because we interviewed Christina Lauren. So for those who are listening, Christina and Lauren are a duo, but we interviewed them and they met very famously on a Twilight fan fiction site. The number of romance writers who got their start, especially contemporary, recent romance writers writing, were related to Twilight in some fashion.


Sarah MacLean: Well there's Christina and Lauren, there's Sally Thorne. I think Anna Todd was also a Twilight fan ficker. Obviously E.L. James very famously. I mean, obviously E.L. James. But for me, the Twilight piece is very ancillary. It was sort of, for me, really like my romance novels come on the backs—sorry—my romance novels. They stand on the shoulders, how about, of the romances they came before for me.Twilight was so far into my romance experience or my romance knowledge. Like I'd been reading romance for 20 years by the time I'd read or 15 years by the time I'd read Twilight. But it's just so clearly a romance novel that, you know, you can sort of tell Stephanie Meyer knew the beats.


Lily Herman: She did know the beats, there's many questions about other things she did and did not know, but the beats were there with that series and this episode was already, is being prerecorded, but by the time it airs, over the summer, Bad Bitch Book Club had a Twilight reread in preparation for the Midnight Sun release. So everyone was reading Midnight Sun, which interesting to see, you know, it hits differently when you're 12 versus when you're in your late twenties, early thirties. Very different books.


Sarah MacLean: I mean, it's a different book. It's also a different time, right? I mean, Lily, you and I have talked about this, but romance is really a genre of a time. Always, even when you write historicals, like I do, you're writing a historical through the lens of, you know, when I started in 2009 and now through the lens of 2020, and those are very different lenses. So the books are different. They have to be. And so I can't imagine how she took a book that was so old and figured out a way. I haven't read Midnight Sun, but it has to be a very, it has to land differently now.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Yeah. It turned from a reread to a roast, that's actually how the hosts have spun it. No, it's okay. They meet every three weeks and they're all best friends. The 14 girls that are having this reread, Stephanie Meyer has brought them joy in one way.


Sarah MacLean: Well, that's nice. Also, Stephanie Meyer sold, I think I saw yesterday, a million copies in the first week. So like, I dunno, get it like, I don't have anything to say except congratulations.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Congratulations, Stephanie Meyer.


Sarah MacLean: Great work.


Lily Herman: I mean, she came out with it in a hyper—which we can talk about in a sec—it's a hyper-nostalgic time right now and everyone's stuck inside. So like the idea that you're going to go back to what you were reading during like the second Bush term, you know, to, to like kind of sink into that and who you were 15 years ago is just sort of, yeah, it makes sense.


Sarah MacLean: I think it's really interesting that you're pointing to nostalgia right now, because I think that's really true of romance reader. I mean, romance is a genre that's designed for comfort, right? I mean, there is something the happily ever after in itself is a real safe space for readers. You know, as I like to say, I'm going to take you on a rollercoaster ride and there are going to be moments when you're not sure you're going to survive it. But the covenant that I have with you is that at the end, you'll be happy. There will be a happily ever after, you'll believe in love, you'll believe in the future for these characters. And I think part of what mayhem and the pandemic has done over the last few months is made us all really covet that safety in the reading. And so I think a lot of us are going back and rereading, I think a Twilight reread must've brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.


Lily Herman: Also a lot of TikTok memes and TikTok was not around when, when the books were first published.



Question About What the Romance Genre Tells Us About Women in General Through the Decades (37:44)


Lily Herman: My kind of overarching question I'd mentioned earlier in the podcast that I'd interviewed you back in March, and the article I was writing for Bustle at the time was about how everyone is reading a lot of romance in the pandemic. You gave this incredibly amazingly wonderful and also concise history of American romance writing in particular. And you talked about how it's always sort of mirrored the inner thoughts and anxieties and concerns of women, depending on the day as you were just kind of explaining. So I'll let you kind of take it away with that, but I know that you've talked about Kathleen Woodiwiss' 1972 book The Flame and the Flower, which is considered the first ever real modern-day romance novel in the way we conceptualize of them. And also, you know, in the present day, we obviously have this pandemic going on. I won't be surprised if pandemic or forced proximity romances become big for a little bit of time after this, but we'd love to hear you expand on this concept of what romance novels can illustrate about women's larger romantic and sexual desires and just their anxieties about life and the world around them.


Sarah MacLean: Sure. I mean, Woodiwiss is where it begins at least for writers like me. What I mean by that is obviously internationally, there are a lot of different histories for romance, but in America the book that is widely pointed to as the first is Kathleen Woodiwiss' The Flame and the Flower, which was written in 1972. Kathleen Woodiwiss was a Midwestern housewife. That's how she would've described herself to you. Her husband was an adventure novel reader. He read westerns and adventure novels, and they were everywhere in her house and she read them too. One day she kind of, the story goes that she sort of said, well, I don't understand why women can't be at the center of these stories. And so she sat down and she wrote what is essentially an adventure novel with a woman protagonist. And instead of this woman dying or being used to propel the hero along his heroic journey, she lives and she triumphs and she falls in love and she has sex on the page and she has orgasms on the page and it's this like truly transformative text for women. And, uh, the story goes that she sent it into Avon books, which at the time was a pulp fiction publisher. And it sat on the slush pile and someone pulled it off the slush pile and read it and decided that it was going to be an Avon original, which was rare for them. They did reprint some pulp they put it out in mass market paperback because that's the right size for a woman's purse. And it sold 2 million copies in the first year, which at the time, I mean, I mean, now 2 million copies in a year, like I would do backflips for 2 million copies in a year. So she—and it sold 2 million copies. I mean, it was just unbelievable. It flew off the shelves and then suddenly publishing was like, Oh, wait women read, I don't, I don't know if you knew that, but in 1972, women learn to read


Lily Herman: Out of nowhere!


Sarah MacLean: And then the romance novel took off. I mean, it was the seventies and eighties and early nineties were like the heyday of the romance novel. And when I say that, I mean, millions of copies, billions of dollars, just women everywhere, like reading these books and gobbling them up. And the reason why is because for the first time ever women got to see themselves, American women got to see themselves centered on the page. The story was told through their gaze, they experienced all this sort of trauma and anxiety and stress that women were feeling in the world. And then they overcame it and ended up with love and partnership and parody and fabulous sex. And who doesn't love that as a general life story?


Mackenzie Newcomb: Lily, we need to read this book for our podcast.


Lily Herman: Yes we do, well, so I was about to say, The Flame and the Flower deals with rape.


Sarah MacLean: So The Flame and the Flower is problematic from a 2020 lens. So the hero of The Flame and the Flower rapes the heroine four times in the first 100 pages of the book.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Oh.


Sarah MacLean: This is something that was very common in the seventies and early eighties in romances, the hero raping the heroin often times, and there are lots of different reasons why historians and academics and writers all believe that this is the case. But one of the big things is that rape what rape is still assault is real for women in the world. It wasn't illegal for a husband who raped his wife, like the courts didn't acknowledge marital rape as a thing. And what's interesting is that on the page and these first 100 pages, the heroine and the author, Kathleen Woodiwiss, and the heroine, Heather, both refer to it as rape. They call it, they name it. Brandon, the hero, he's punished for it. She puts him in cold storage on a ship across the Atlantic. There's a lot of power dynamics that starts to go on here. And it's a really interesting book from a cultural kind of historical perspective. It's not a book that I would ever hand to somebody and say, you want to read a romance novel for the first time, try this. But what's interesting is that over time, that's what romance has always done. It's named the issues that women and now many and always, but now even more, all marginalized people are facing in the world. It's tackling those issues from a perspective outside of the view and outside of the lens of this cis, het, white male gaze, able-bodied gaze, and it's centering these marginalized gazes and centering them in triumph. So what we saw was throughout the seventies, we saw a lot of this power play between like a true alpha, like a sort of beast of an alpha who might assault the heroine at the beginning of the book, and then ultimately have to be rebuilt as kind of somebody who is softer and more caring. And these books always end with equality. They always end with partnership, with parity. Um, and then in the early eighties, we started, as we started to see women enter the workforce, we started to see work working girl, contemporary romances became a thing. These were, you know, in some ways problematic, right? Boss/secretary romances, or like certainly sort of things where you would probably have to talk to HR now, like in the eighties, they were, they were very popular. And then in the nineties with, you know, a sort of general American cultural, like happiness or sort of satisfaction the economy was doing well socially. We were doing well. There was a general sort of sense of happiness and comfort in America. We saw the rise of the beta hero, the hero who now we would call a cinnamon roll. That hero gave us, you know, he was just a decent guy and somebody like Julia Quinn basically just popularized the beta hero. And then she launched the thousand ships of betas. And then in the early 2000s, 9/11 happened in 2001. And we saw the rise of the paranormal almost immediately. And what we were seeing there is the anxiety of American women, particularly in dealing with this kind of big bad that couldn't be named, couldn't be touched, couldn't be vanquished, but these characters, these paranormal beings could do that, right? They were big, they were bad. They could save the world and also give you a great orgasm. And then in the early 2000s, there was a massive recession and we saw 50 Shades of Grey and the billionaire romance came into power. And the reality is that there are a lot of things to say about 50 Shades, but the idea that a hero would, you know, take care of you, absolutely soup to nuts, put food in your fridge, buy you a new car, put money in your bank account, buy the company you work for so that you have a solid work-life balance, pay all your bills. During a recession where more men lost their jobs than women, that's a really powerful, it's a powerful fantasy that romance was handing to people and giving women an opportunity to sort of think about their anxieties, confront their anxieties and their fears, and also like see their fantasy play out before them. So that's what romance has always done. It has always centered those gazes and said, you know, and told a really domestic story. And I don't mean domestic like women need to be in the home. I mean, domestic in the sense that the conflict of the romance is very internal. Always, even when you're me writing like kind of big set pieces being exploded, there's hugely internal, intensely emotional personal conflict that I think is why the genre speaks so, so well to so many people. I mean, that's why it's the most popular fiction genre out there.



Discussion of the Rise of Consent in Romances (47:48)


Lily Herman: Oh, that was so beautiful. Yes. I was like, Sarah is going to come on and just give us this history. That's going to be like, yeah, concise yet all encompassing. And I think now, too, you know, we've seen for instance, in recent years, the rise of a lot of romances that deal with #MeToo, for instance, that's becoming a huge theme of a lot of, especially contemporary romances.


Sarah MacLean: I just think this consent that a lot over the last few years, I've done a lot of interviews where people have said like, is consent now a thing in romance? And I always point back to those early books, right? There's something really powerful about seeing rape named as rape in a book from the 1970s. Like, yes, the hero rapes the heroine, but yes, everybody calls it as it is in there. So I think there's something to be said for the idea that consent has always been in play in romance, whether or not we've sort of written it correctly or whether or not we've written it with care is a different kind of thing. And I think some people still don't write it with care, but I think #MeToo highlighted the work romance has always been doing rather than romance writing highlighting the work of #MeToo.


Mackenzie Newcomb: Well, it makes perfect sense. I mean the idea of consent, I think, in romantic relationships has changed dramatically even in the last 10 years from—I've been in a relationship for six years. I'm only 27. So I pretty much have not been an adult in the dating world. But when I was, I don't think consent looked the way that it looks today. It's just kind of you both nodding and smiling and kissing. And no one really asks, you know, should we keep doing this? And they always do that in the modern contemporary romance novels, which I thought that I like it.


Sarah MacLean: It's great. I mean, the reality is that in the hands of a great author, like dirty talk is, I mean, dirty talk is valuable on the page, a romance novel because it's ongoing enthusiastic consent. Right. And so people like Tessa Bailey, for example, who is like—.


Lily Herman: Oh yeah, her Hot and Hammered series.


Sarah MacLean: There's just even—every bit of it is just so perfectly done and perfectly, like it's perfect consent. Even when it's fantasy of, you know, whatever.


Lily Herman: Yeah. Oh goodness. So for those who are listening, Tessa Bailey, her latest series is Hot and Hammered and it's Fix Her Up, Love Her or Lose Her, and why am I forgetting the last book that comes out in the fall? Oh, goodness. I know it's going to come—oh, Tools of Engagement. I love that one.


Sarah MacLean: Do not be fooled by those cartoon covers. Oh no. Oh good.


Lily Herman: Yeah, no, I always have to warn people. I'm like, just so you know, I know you think cartoon covers means that it's going to be like fun and flirty, but like prepare to be slightly scandalized depending on the person. Her dirty talk is kind of next level.


Sarah MacLean: I mean, I think we're all aiming for Tessa, right?


Mackenzie Newcomb: You're achieving it.


Sarah MacLean: Ha, thank you!



Conclusion (51:05)


Lily Herman: Hello there! You are probably wondering where the fuck Sarah MacLean went. So Mackenzie and I made the game time, 11th hour decision to split this episode into two parts. So similar to our interpolitical romance discussion, there's going to be one part which you are listening to right now that comes out on Monday as usual. And then the second part, which is all about Sarah and the blow job in her book, which will be coming out on Wednesday. So stay tuned for that. We really didn't want y'all to have to listen to an hour and 47 minutes or something in a row. That just seems a little excessive, even if you like the content, which I hope you do. But we'll see you all on Wednesday. So the same rules always apply. Please make sure to give us a five-star rating and review and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. As a reminder, you can find full episode transcripts, show notes, and all of the books we mentioned at badbitchbookclub.com/podcast, and yes, for this particular podcast, that's all of the blow job history you've ever wanted. So if you needed a syllabus for that, it exists on our show notes on our website. So please head there. We'll see you all in two days for part two. And it is very, very juicy. So see you then.


 

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