Well, I’m sure there’s plenty more to say about MC Romance, but for now we arrive at the conclusion of Erin’s MC Smut Adventure.
Thanks for coming along with me!
1. The setting evokes feelings of free range biker cowboy men, even though most real MCs exist in urban areas and not in the Wild, Wild, West.
2. The brotherhood of the hero’s MC is at once a found family and a space for meaningful male relationships and also a space where being anything other than a “manly man” will be ruthlessly ridiculed.
3. Biker heroes have wild hair (including facial hair). Also they are emotionally constipated and domineering.
4. Biker heroines mostly need to get rescued and get a clue about the rules of MC life. They also throw down with other women over their men because, as we know, cat fights really say “I love you.”
5. Biker relationships are all about the special woman taming the bad boy hero. And then she gets his property patch.
6. MC smut is sexy sexy, with lots of bedroom bossing and dirty talk.
7. Most MCs in MC smut own businesses but are also engaged in at least some kind of illegal activity. Which, I guess, is why the bad boys are the bad boys?
8. It’s possible to avoid thinking about it while reading (as with so many issues of politics in smut), but please do note that these books swing to a decidedly conservative political ideology and that racism and misogyny are inextricably linked with MC culture.
And for you, gentle readers, a final chart! As I was going through the books I read, I thought about just how eyebrow-raising – how “yikes” if you will – the content of the book actually was. Now, I have a very high tolerance for yikes, as I discovered after loaning Holly some books earlier this year, but I think I made a relatively reasonable scale:
So you’ve got about a 50% chance of picking up an MC romance that is not super yikes. You’re welcome.
Now you may ask, “Well, Erin, what am I to do with all of this information?”
This is a very good question.
If my work here has led you to decide that MC romance is not for you, do not read it. There is plenty of other smut out in the world to provide entertainment and be thought provoking for you.
I do not think I have pulled my punches as I’ve discussed various aspects of MC romance during the course of this series. In fact, I could see how people who don’t know me personally would think that I don’t like or don’t approve of it based on what I’ve written so far. I’d certainly argue that the market for this type of story is niche and best suited to readers who, at a minimum, are willing to embrace some problematic content in their romance. And I don’t mean “problematic content” as in, “I don’t like to read about heroines who have been in abusive relationships.” I mean content that embraces or appears to embrace (depending on how the story rolls out) concepts and behaviors that we know to be problematic, either because they’re unhealthy or because they’re big picture harmful in a cultural context.
So here’s where we get into a space that I struggle with in romance. Because be it billionaires or criminals with hearts of gold or mafiosos or aristocrats or bikers, there are things we know to be, in their proper context, not good, but about whom we also enjoy gobbling up dramatic romances. It’s not hard to find someone in Romancelandia shaming just about every kind of content with problematic elements. And yet I can be hugely entertained by consuming this media while at the same time being able to identify situations and behaviors that are problematic. Is that a problem? I could go on a diatribe about how certain characterizations and situations are decried in, say, contemporary romance, but are lauded in paranormal romance. And not because we’re talking about different readerships.
So today we’re going to discuss the politics of MC romance, which is to say, we’re going to pull back the curtain from the fantasy world that these authors build and examine the reality foundation upon which these worlds have been constructed. I’ll break this into three components.
1. “Live Free” lifestyle
Every single MC romance – more or less explicitly – aligns with a libertarian political philosophy. More than one hero, while educating his heroine, discussed the importance of private citizens being left to themselves and/or allowing the free market to exist in some kind of Capitalist utopia. Beyond that, there’s no question that the entire representation of the outlaw biker lifestyle exists in a space that often ignores laws that don’t suit it. The first time I read Reaper’s Property, my first thought was that the MC sounded like one of those isolated Montana militias who kind of pretend governments don’t exist. (So it was amusing when the protagonist of Reaper’s Legacy made a comment about how stupid the militia people were, paying through the nose for his guns, but that’s neither here nor there.)
But the United States is a built on a notoriously 2-party system, so libertarianism doesn’t tell us much. We can get into a whole discourse on where political parties fall with respect to their political philosophies on the political spectrum, but that sounds like one of those political science courses I opted not to take in college, so let’s talk imagery.
Every single bike that is described as owned by a Club member in one of these books (not all books include branding) is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. (Dynas are the most popular, in case you were curious.) If there are other bikes mentioned, they are owned by people who are definitely not bikers (like: Can you imagine that guy in a Club!? lolol.). This is not just a book thing, either. In real life, there are clubs that only allow members to own Harleys.
This is one of those places where we can let the book stand on its own or take a look at where the rubber meets the road. Harley-Davidson has embraced a marketing strategy that embraces rugged individualism and an “American-made” image (even though Harleys are no longer exclusively made in the US).
I found sources that describe Harley-Davidson’s internal positioning statement as follows:
“The only motorcycle manufacturer
That makes big, loud motorcycles
For macho guys (and “macho wannabes”)
Mostly in the United States
Who want to join a gang of cowboys
In an era of decreasing personal freedom.”
So what does that sound like? (Hint: Read Settings) And since it’s an internal positioning statement and I can’t verify it externally, just look at the company’s mission statement, which is emblazoned on its website:
Our Mission: More than building machines, we stand for the timeless pursuit of adventure. Freedom for the soul.
Okay, but this post is talking politics, not just imaging, so what are the politics associated with Harley-Davidson? Well, for starters, branding and image draw a desired demographic that will buy the product in question, so the brand is speaking to those people. Now, no individual is any one thing, but we can look at this demographic from a bird’s-eye view.
In the US, political contributions need to include employer information, so we can’t necessarily see the political affiliation of every Harley owner, but we can glean some political leanings from the contributions of the PACs associated with the company itself and from personal political contributions associated with the company. And overwhelmingly, looking at election contribution statistics from 1990, Republicans are the party of choice. Elections in 2014 and 2020 were exceptions to this, but they also did not swing overwhelmingly Democrat. I mean, without much work at all, I found a 2017 investor disclosure that indicates where Harley-Davidson PACs contributed, and Mitch McConnell is the first name listed.
I won’t even get into the gun ownership conversations, because I feel I’ve already gone on long enough in this section, but these heroes do not shy away from disquisitions on gun ownership and why it’s important. Even if they don’t get all specific about the 2nd Amendment, it’s still right there, in your face.
It becomes difficult to argue, between the ideology described in these books and the real-life politics of elements that are used in characterization, that there is not a decidedly conservative bent here.
2. Racism and white supremacy
Unlike Sons of Anarchy, which was WHOA racist, among other things, most of these books don’t include overtly racist language, slurs, etc. But that doesn’t mean there’s not plenty to talk about. In addition, this is another space where looking at real-life Club culture paints a (pretty disturbing) picture.
I did not go through these books pulling quotes (for which we should all be thankful, because I know I can go on and on), so we’re not going to get into specific language that’s problematic, but, looking from a bird’s-eye view again, these books are super duper white. In most of them, BIPOC just straight up don’t exist. When they do, it’s usually something like, “There was a big, black bouncer outside the strip club.”
Or, in books with clubs that aren’t exclusively white (which is almost zero of them) the bikers who aren’t white are Indigenous American. Guess how most of them are characterized. I’ll tell you, long hair and alcoholism play a big part in those stories.
Kristen Ashley makes the greatest effort to include diversity in the Chaos books, which are a part of her bigger Denver worldbuilding, but even there we’re dealing with some problematic content because the primary character of color, Elvira, is essentially your stereotypical sassy Black woman (think Donna on Parks and Recreation).
Which would be less of an issue if she weren’t pretty much the only character of color included (the pretty much being that any other COCs, like Elvira’s boyfriend, or random women who go out for drinks with the girls, are flat and don’t contribute a ton), and that characterization was only one of many.
My point is that much of this content falls in the bottom portion of the white supremacy pyramid, in the “socially acceptable” forms of casual racism. It’s still racist.
But because we’re talking about how reality mixes with fantasy today, I also want to take a moment to discuss the politics of real outlaw MCs (or Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs / OMGs from a, um, citizen perspective).
It’s not great.
As I’ve mentioned before (I’m pretty sure), even if they don’t outright say that these Clubs are outlaw, they’re all basically characterized as outlaw MCs. But some books do specifically discuss the 1%er patch that appears on many OMG cuts. So let’s talk about that.
The “1%er” reference means that the club is an outlaw club, which sounds like something criminal or possibly exciting (and there’s disagreement about where the term originated exactly), but it really just means that the club isn’t sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) or doesn’t adhere to its policies and bylaws. That’s not to say that the AMA is all sunshine and roses. From its inception until the 1950s, the AMA was whites-only, and its racist history still results in very few members of color in the present. So it’s possible that an outlaw MC may have been one that included Black members at that time.
But in the present, in reality, it includes MCs that engage in criminal activities, which are typically understood to include vigilantism, running drugs or guns, or engaging in prostituion. And many OMGs are overtly and unapologetically white supremacist, including racist symbols or going by overtly racist names.
So that’s super yikes, and even if these books don’t overtly go as far as some of these OMGs, this is the foundation that we’re dealing with when we build these biker worlds in books.
Finally, we come to point the third!
I’ve already discussed some of the misogynistic aspects of these books when I talked about The Brotherhood, The Heroes, The Heroines, and The Romance. But for the sake of completion, let’s just put this whole misogyny thing right out there, yeah?
For starters, with one exception – that exception being the psychic Russian assassins who grew up together – every one of these clubs is men only. Because the culture of the club permeates the whole lives of these men, this means that women are second-class citizens in these worlds, even in situations where the relationship is more or less written as equal. Though, for the record, the hero cooking does not make the relationship equal, in fact. So I guess at least when the heroine is definitely a house mouse, at least there’s no pretending there?
Beyond the romantic relationship between the protagonists, there’s also the component of heroines being second-class when the heroes keep information from them because it’s “club business” and they shouldn’t need to worry their pretty heads about it. Granted, some of it probably legitimately is club business, and I probably wouldn’t fully disclose the extent of my criminal enterprises to an outsider either, but it does become problematic when the information withheld is pertinent to the heroine’s safety because there’s always some kind of something going down, and she always gets caught in the crossfire.
And property patches and other overt misogyny are only the beginning. Most of these books include at least one interaction in which the heroine is, like, wearing clothes, and the hero goes all caveman like, “You can’t wear that tube top in public when I’m not around. There are men out there.” Or, like, there’s the whole deal of having a prospect or another club member following old ladies around when they’re in public “so they don’t get bothered while they’re having fun.” I guess this is supposed to create a sense of “Ooo, alpha man is jealous and it’s so hot!” Which really just reinforces the idea that jealousy and mistrust are desirable and/or attractive and that men can’t be trusted to control themselves around women, because they’re animals.
This culture is focused on traditional views of hyper-masculinity, is derisive of any kind of gender-fluidity, and women fall where they traditionally have fallen when that’s the culture. I mean, read this whole mess. This guy pretty much makes my whole case for me. So while these books might fall into the “women having HEAs and positive sexual experiences” category of “look at that romance werk!”, it’s not a great look from a feminism standpoint.
I’m not about reader shaming, because I don’t like to be shamed, but I do think that it’s good to be conscious of problematic content while reading, and for readers who have never tried this romance, it’s important to understand what you might be getting into and whether or not you’ll be comfortable with it. So, um, there you go.
Want more MC content? Erin’s whole Motorcycle Monday series can be found here.
There’s not so so much to say about the business of MCs in romance novels, but if we’re looking at the MC in terms of characterization, there are some interesting things to consider.
First, it’s not always clearly stated – in fact, I can’t think of a single book in which the MC specifically refers to itself as an “outlaw MC” – but the MCs in smut are probably all outlaw MCs. Now, this sounds like something criminal or possibly exciting, but it really just means that the club isn’t sanctioned by the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) or doesn’t adhere to its policies and bylaws. That said, the overall sense of these MCs, even if they don’t directly address what kind of illegal business the club is involved in, is that they are shady. Why else would you need to kidnap a doctor to illicitly save someone’s life in the middle of the night? (Please see Striker by Lilly Atlas.)
In real life, MCs that do engage in illegal activity engage in all kinds of illegal activity, including prostitution, which is never one of the things the MC does in smut (there are things readers tend not to approve of, and peddling flesh is apparently one of them). I read that making, transporting, and selling drugs (not just weed, but the bad news kind) is the number one MC moneymaker in real life. In smut, we have varied illegal activity, depending on how rough is the characterization of the MC, but guns and drugs are the top performers.
Second, in most instances, the members of the MC are essentially employed by the MC, and they usually have some kind of legal operation that can, bare minimum, operate as a front for their illegal operations. Most of them run some kind of auto or bike shop, but I’ll give a shout-out to the Reaper’s MC of Joanna Wylde fame for having a gun shop and strip club in their diverse business portfolio. Chantal Fernando’s Wind Dragons have a strip club and a bar. You get the idea. These are working people who live in a world of hourly wages (though, to be fair, that’s most of us, because there are very specific requirements for categorizing an employee as exempt if we’re talking US employment laws).
These books are not for the readers looking for a white-collar guy in a sharp suit. In fact, as I continued to read, I began to think of some folks I know who really, truly, do not own dress clothes and who I have seen with my own eyes attend black tie dinners in jeans and a button-up shirt because that’s who they are and they don’t need to wear a black tie to a black tie event. Just throw a leather cut on that, and there you go. That said, these protagonists are typically portrayed as pretty sharp, as small business owners who have the same concerns as other small business owners. The hero in the first Reaper’s book is the club’s accountant, for crying out loud.
Finally, there’s a divergence between MC romance in which the club “got clean” versus is happily continuing to engage in definitely illegal activity, like running guns and drugs. In terms of characterization, the latter trends darker and more anti-hero than the former.
If we’re talking clubs that just don’t care about the fact that what they want to do ≠ what the government says it’s okay to do, then you’re looking at clubs like the Reaper’s MC by Joanna Wylde or the Undeniable series I mentioned above or, honestly, most of the other clubs I read about. In these cases, I found it interesting that most of the time the gun and drug running was addressed as a matter of course, as if there was no moral issue with this activity. Chantal Fernando in particular tends to address this business as a non-entity, which I found perplexing. (Like, why get bent out of shape about sex and not about other moral quandaries?) Even so, there’s an undercurrent of dark and dangerous associated with “club business” in these books.
I thought it was fun to pick apart what the club does for work as an exercise in exploring what type of work an author might show as valuable or not. How the business demonstrates the cohesiveness and success of the club. How smart the brothers might be, when from the outside world they’re perceived as thugs. (Though, let’s be honest, people are not generally super psyched about strip clubs either, so what does that tell us, if that’s the MC’s business?) How they do or don’t take pride in their work. The characterization of the MC’s business doesn’t only show that the heroes are employed (however that might be), it provides a ton of social commentary that significantly enhances the overall feel and tone of the book.
Well, that wasn’t the last chart I’ll provide, but I don’t expect we’ll see too many charts when we talk politics next. Smut is super political. Don’t let anybody tell you different.
PS: All my Motorcycle Monday posts can be found here
If I were going to describe MC romance sex, it would be like this:
Short story: There’s a lot of sex, and it’s super duper detailed, hot and heavy. And also, in case you’re not caught up on all the other posts in this series, the heroes are also all dominant in the bedroom.
How about a little like this:
Some of this?
This wouldn’t be amiss either:
Sex is sex, but there’s more interesting stuff going on with sex in MC smut than sexytimes so steamy I need to keep a fire extinguisher next to me while reading. Specifically, all the other stuff going on with the rest of the brothers and in and around the clubhouse.
If you cast your mind back to my discussion of setting, you’ll recall that one of the primary understandings we’re meant to have about these biker folk is that they’re wild and free. They’ve cultivated a space where they can be just that.
One of the ways this manifests is they do what they want. This includes have sex when they want and where they want. That might include…public spaces in and around the clubhouse. (Please see, like, all of the Reaper’s books by Joanna Wylde or Tracker’s End by Chantal Fernando.) Most often it includes promiscuity and a, erm, healthy sexual appetite that’s understood but isn’t necessarily on page. (Please just see all the books.)
All of this sex is usually with the club women I discussed last week, unless we’re talking about protagonists featured in that or prior books in the series. Club members who might have old ladies but who weren’t protagonists in prior books in the series are significantly less likely to be, erm, monogamous.
So what we’ve got is: clubhouses are portrayed as sex palaces and bikers as promiscuous, which means that in nearly every story there’s a point at which the lack of fidelity and monogamy between the club members and their old ladies (or any women at all, because club women are skanks, of course) becomes an issue for the protagonist couple. Or, more specifically, it becomes an issue for the heroine. People all over the world have sex…all over the world. But the centralized in-your-faceness of sex in the clubhouse I guess brings the idea of non-monogamy home for the heroine. Or rather, centralizes the idea of cheating, because it’s always about cheating, never about the possibility that couples might choose to engage in non-monogamous relationships. (One notable exception to this is Arrow from the Wind Dragons books. He has a non-monogamous relationship in book 1, and it becomes a small issue in book 2, Arrow’s Hell.)
This fixation on cheating is borderline obsessive, and the lack of consideration that parties in this “live free or die” lifestyle might choose to have open relationships is, for me, a head scratcher. I feel that if I saw people having public sex – copious quantities of public sex with miscellaneous partners – I might think their notion of relationships might not match my WASPy upbringing. It makes sense to me that heroine protagonists would think about what they want in terms of a monogamous relationship, but it makes very little sense that they would get bent out of shape about seeing a non-monogamous relationship in the context in which it occurs. Except inasmuch as this obsession serves to reinforce norms and ideas about monogamy, who is interested in monogamy (hint: it’s women), and the idea that a woman needs the special something that makes womanizers magically monogamous. Or inasmuch as it can act as a catalyst for relationship drama. Which, let me just say, is typically predicated on a lack of communication and trust between partners. So that’s not great.
In sum, there are quite a few value judgements occurring where sex is concerned in these books, which is interesting because you’d think that people who are all about doing their own thing would be less not more judgemental about who’s having sex with whom and where. But that’s not the case. It’s a rather incongruous take, when all is said and done.
Next week I think we’ll take a break to do an author spotlight, and then we’re back for our last three pieces about MC smut culture.
I don’t need any charts to tell you that one of the essential components of MC smut is that the heroes are extremely domineering. It’s fun because the heroes (many, but not all) might be terrible womanizers who are allergic to the word “relationship,” but when they meet the woman they want, it’s DONE.
Actually it’s probably more like:
Thus, we are typically looking at a certain level of one-sided courtship. The areas where there is still contention in the relationship tend to revolve around “What does this relationship actually involve?” and “Is it monogamous?”
Point the first: Biker dudes do not go on dates (I mean, some do, but not really). Relationship development centers on clubhouse parties and men showing up (uninvited) for meals and drinks at the heroine’s house. The romance romance is…seriously low key.
Now, on to those other questions, which are explored during the relationship development that does not occur on romantic dates…
I have found it interesting that most of the time the hero – willingly or unwillingly – wants a monogamous relationship. (It seems like there’s no question that the heroine always expects a monogamous relationship.) Even the two or three heroes I can think of who explicitly at first said they didn’t want to promise fidelity also don’t want anyone else after they’ve met the heroine. This is usually because there’s something about the heroine’s personality that they find intriguing (i.e. it’s not all about sex). Be she feisty or mousy (and it’s definitely mostly feisty), she’s got his attention, and he’s got eyes for no one else.
Therefore, most of the tension surrounding the question of “is it monogamous” tends to derive from citizen heroines being introduced to the club for the first time and seeing the debauchery that occurs. Instead of delving into this, I’ll simply say that this is one area where these books tend to buy into the idea that women need to prevent men from succumbing to their sexual animal natures. Because if a scantily clad woman is traipsing around the clubhouse, he just won’t be able to control his horniness (obviously). In the end, the hero and heroine do get to the point where she trusts him to be faithful to her because they really love one another. But until they get there, the “boys will be boys” perspective that some of these heroines have is extremely…off-putting. (Please see also the women vs. women relationships discussed in last week’s post…)
Jumping back up to the “she’s mine” mentality and the question of “what does this relationship actually involve?” it’s maybe not fun because, even when a moment is kind of swoonworthy, there’s a cringe factor when the hero categorically refuses to take no for an answer from the heroine. What the relationship involves is: he’s decided they’re together, he’s probably decided she’s his property (if the author gets into that language, which not all do), and her opinion on the matter doesn’t really factor.
No, that’s not quite right. This type of romance definitely uses the she-says-no-but-doesn’t-really-mean-it gambit, and of course when she says no, the hero knows she’s not being honest. It’s something that’s fallen out of favor in other areas of romance, given the consent and respect issues associated with it, but not in MC romance. Depending on the author, the hero might back off for a little while, because the heroine’s a citizen and she needs to get used to the idea of the club mentality, but it’s definitely a strategic retreat. He’s not really going to let her go. It’s all about bringing her around to his viewpoint and culture. There is almost never a grovel. In fact, I can’t think of one off the top of my head.
Usually there are some other dangerous shenanigans going on, so the hero and the club need to provide protection to the heroine. She might shy from this, but especially in the case of citizens engaging with criminal MCs, the counter-argument is typically something along the lines of, “Woman, you have no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into, you are way out of your depth, and I am in a position to protect you. And I’m going to protect you.” In which case there’s also a bit of forced proximity that will keep the heroine with the hero while she becomes accustomed to the idea of belonging to a domineering biker dude.
This relationship scene is probably also the best place to talk about the property patch.
As many of us would, almost all of the citizen women who become involved with the MC balk at wearing a property patch, so it’s no surprise that this is a conversation in the books that include women wearing property patches. These heroines don’t even necessarily buy into the idea after other old ladies explain the situation to them, but they always come around to feeling honored to become the hero’s property. As it were.
The idea is this: any woman who wears the property patch both reflects on the club and is protected by the club. Only women who are worthy of representing the club and having that protection will become old ladies and get the patch, and everyone will know what it means just by looking at the woman wearing the property patch. This is often especially important in club culture, because women wearing patches are protected from bikers in other clubs or from other chapters of the same club. Which is its own kind of problematic, considering that women really shouldn’t need a property patch to feel safe at a party, but this is not an in depth discussion of property patches, so I won’t get into that.
Anyway, I guess we can think of the property patch as a much more visible version of getting a guy’s class ring.
In short, even if there’s an instant connection, the romance still evolves such that the hero realizes that he not only wants the heroine, he loves her, and he wants a monogamous relationship with her, while the heroine realizes that she wants the hero the way he is, trusts him, and will love him for who he is.
Next time, we’ll talk sexytimes! See you then!
The rest of Erin’s series on MC romance can be found here.