Smut Reporting

Let’s talk about Hunky Uncles

Today, I’d like to unpack a certain spin on the single parent trope that I’ve noticed in quite a few recent contemporary romances: where the single parent is not the father, but the Hunky Uncle. (Henceforth “Hunkle”™.*)

Here’s the deal with the Hunkle: his sibling (usually his sister) has tragically died, and he suddenly finds himself forced to ditch his bachelor lifestyle and become the guardian to one or more precious moppets. He struggles in balancing the needs of his new life. He doesn’t know how to be a parent! What will he dooooooo? Examples include: Tools of Engagement, Learned Reactions, The Twelve Dogs of Christmas, and The Story Between Us. There is also the much more rare Hunky Brother (A Princess for Christmas) and the even more rare Hunky Aunt (Big Boy), but we’ll stick with the Hunkle for now.**

Focusing on a Hunkle protagonist shifts the tenor of a single parent book in very specific ways:

  1. There’s no Other Woman

Result: Hunkles conveniently mean that there’s no competition for the Love Interest. No spurned first wife waiting in the corner to cause drama. No saintly dead wife who was way better with the kids than a step-mom ever could be. In fact, if the Hunkle has an ex, she left when the Hunkle took over guardianship, because she couldn’t deal with the change in his life, and is therefore a *bad person who hates kids*—no competition for the Love Interest, who is definitely good with kids and loves them and would never, ever leave if the going got tough. 

The Other Woman haunting these stories is more frequently the saintly dead sister, who was a perfect mom, and whose example the Hunkle can’t live up to. Which brings me to…

  1. The Hunkle is unsure of his abilities as a parent 

Result: A significant portion of the relationship arc is the Love Interest reassuring the Hunkle that he is, in fact, a good dad. The Hunkle may go so far as to consider relinquishing guardianship of the child to a different (female) relative, so there must be a scene where he is reassured that his saintly dead sister chose him for a reason. 

Because the Hunkle is insecure about his new role as a parent, these books may also include the Love Interest stepping in to help because the Hunkle doesn’t actually know what’s up. Think scenes of the Love Interest redecorating the kid’s room, braiding the kid’s hair, or actually talking to the kid about their dead parents. 

  1. The Orphan Child is processing a traumatic life change

Result: Frequently, the romance happens shortly after the Hunkle gains guardianship, and is still finding his feet. The Orphan Child has been recently orphaned. They are grieving for absent parents. They are adjusting to a new home, a new guardian, a new set of rules. This means that the child’s well-being plays a much larger role in the story than it usually does in single-parent romances. 


All of these factors combined result in a very specific kind of single parent book.*** The heroic Hunkle is both extra-sexy (bachelor lifestyle, heyo!) and sexless (he definitely never procreated!). The Love Interest’s relationship with the child takes on outsized importance. There’s a different kind of fantasy for a built-in family here, one where you aren’t replacing a dead or absent mother, but rather building a new family from scratch, without the pesky bother of pregnancy, childbirth, or the chronic sleep-deprivation of caring for an infant.****

Since I’ve only seriously started tracking the patterns in romantic fiction in the past few years—ie, since starting the blog with Erin and Ingrid and having smut take over my life—I cannot comment on whether this is a new trend, or an ongoing one that I just happened to notice because I read a whole slew of Hunkle books over the course of six months. 

Fellow smut readers, tell me your thoughts! Is this a new trend? Was I just not paying attention? Is there something else going on with all these Hunkles that I missed?


*My husband insisted that I give him co-author credit for coming up with that portmanteau. Instead, he gets an asterisk. Thanks, husband!

**The gender dynamics of mom-centered single-parent books and dad-centered single-parent is a whole other topic that I may or may not discuss in the future. 

***In many ways, Hunkle books are very similar to Governess books, where the father (or sometimes, random guardian) is frequently trying to figure out what parenthood looks like in a way that many single parents in contemporary romance are not.

****Of course, many Hunkle books end with an epilogue that sees the Love Interest pregnant, because we have to further bind this family together with procreation. 

Hot Takes by Holly

Why I read smut: some notes on catharsis

Let me tell you a story. 

I rarely read books that Erin or Ingrid has already reviewed. One of the pressures of running a blog is that I’m always on to the next book, the next thing; after all, there’s so much smut to discover! 

But sometimes, I want to settle in and read a sure thing and not even have to consider writing the book up. Which is how I ended up reading Kate Clayborne’s recent release Love at First. (Note: It’s really good! All the buzz is well-deserved!)


What follows contains minor spoilers for Love at First. Continue at your own risk. 

By the time I got to the Big Dramatic Moment, I could barely see the word on the page through my tears. And then the kicker: Will tells Nora that she’s the first person who’s ever told him “I love you.” 

And I am a wreck. 

But here’s the thing. This passage is written to be extremely emotionally manipulative. And I am crying while also being fully aware that I am being led to this crying by the way the scene is structured but it doesn’t matter because I feel so light and clean and empty afterward. 

That’s why I read romance. To get that hit of being blatantly emotionally manipulated (and know it!) and then the cathartic release. The tropes, the patterns, the sex, the shifts in the genre: all of that is fun, but at the end of the day, when I really need something good, it’s all secondary. 

Tell me a story. Make me care about the characters. And then punch me in the face with emotion. 

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Archetypes: The Sex Worker

This week, we’ll be featuring books featuring sex worker protagonists, and are kicking things off with a discussion post about the portrayal of sex workers in romance more broadly.


Bottom line: Do you like the sex worker archetype?

Erin: I didn’t always like it back in the day when I was reading about aristocrats rescuing their poor, tarnished mistresses, though at the time I didn’t quite understand why. Now I enjoy reading this archetype with caveats. I like that I have found stories that explore this archetype without being buried in sex shaming, but I have found even the most sex-positive versions of these stories still tend not to embrace or explore some ideas that I’d like to see, specifically that it’s possible for people to be in a healthy relationship even with the sex work continuing.

Holly: I’ll be honest, I kinda like the fallen courtesan historical romances. The heroines may be sad and jaded, but they’re also more worldly and sexually experienced than the average historical romance heroine. 

I’m not saying that these stories are sex positive or don’t have problems, but when I was first reading romance 20 years ago, these heroines felt like a breath of fresh air, and I continue to have a fondness for them. As the Music Man says: “I hope, I pray, for Hester to earn just one more A.” 

Ingrid: I think for the most part they tend to be refreshing when, as Erin pointed out, they aren’t done as a savior/fallen woman thing. I especially like when the sex worker hasn’t had a ton of terrible experiences and needs a magical ding dong to fix things for her.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as the sex worker archetype?

Erin: At least one of the protagonists is engaged in sex work, so one who engages in prostitution (mistress/prostitute/escort) or works in the adult film industry (porn star) or is a stripper or theoretically is engaged in sex therapy or does webcam sex work or is a professional dominant or the like, but I haven’t read any books that include protagonists who do that. Prostitution/porn/stripper definitely seem to be the literary faves.

Holly: Note: that thing that happens in bodice rippers where the hero suspects that the virgin heroine is a prostitute and therefore rapes her DOES NOT COUNT. 

Ingrid: Agree with all of the above.

What do you think is fun about the archetype?

Erin: It explores ideas about sexuality and power dynamics, especially when it’s thoughtfully executed.

Holly: Having a sex worker protagonist sometimes takes the mystique out of sex, you know? Maybe that means that casual sex is on the table, or maybe that means that characters are really conscientious about developing ties that aren’t about being horny. I don’t know, I made that up. 

Ingrid: I think in the examples I’ve seen and really enjoyed, I like that it levels the playing field. So often it’s one person, usually a guy, who has a plethora of sexual experience, and (usually the) girl kind of unfurls due to his sexual ministrations. But in this case they’re both bringing a wealth of experience to the table and it’s…pretty fun.

What do you find problematic about the archetype?

Erin: You don’t have to reach very far back to read this archetype as rescued from poverty and misery by the love interest who is willing to overlook the sexual partners in the past. Even in the more sex positive narratives, the archetype seems still to be primarily centered in ideas of shame and very traditional views of monogamy. I suppose it makes sense for the protagonists to have experiences and/or conversations that force the non-sex worker to confront biases, but the fact that it’s almost impossible to find a story that includes the love interest being unconditionally and publicly supportive of the sex worker or for the sex worker to continue the sex work once the relationship is cemented bums me out because it still feels like it’s supporting a cultural narrative that being a sex worker and having a happy, loving relationship are mutually exclusive things.

Holly: Uh, what Erin said. 

Ingrid: I really can’t add to that.

Would you say that you see authors representing sex work more frequently in a positive or a negative light?

Erin: Overall I do not think that sex work is portrayed in a particularly positive light. There are some authors exploring this archetype in ways that challenge cultural ideas about sex work, but I would argue that the reason books like, for example, Stripped by Zoey Castile or The Roommate by Rosie Danan or The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang have been so notable in recent years is (in part) because they include a character with this culturally taboo job. And all of these books that arguably do show the sex worker in a positive light include an interlude in which the sex worker is publicly shamed, even if the sex work is not entirely outed in the interlude. It makes sense that these scenes occur, but the fact that they are used in, like, every book indicates to me that, as readers, we are still grappling with the idea that we could view sex work without attaching shame to the occupation.

Holly: I absolutely agree with Erin. Sex work is something that characters do out of necessity and that they desperately want to leave behind (either by running away from their past or by finding a way to stop doing sex work). One exception I can think of is Priest by Sierra Simone, where the heroine is working as a stripper to escape from her WASP background, and who explicitly gets off on stripping. But sex work is still portrayed as negative and shameful—the character does it specifically because of the stigma attached, because it separates her from her other life, and there’s no indication that she will keep stripping once she and Father Bell figure out their relationship. 

However, I think we do have to acknowledge that while there are certainly sex workers in real life who choose their work because it’s something they really want to do, there are also a lot of sex workers who do this work because of economic necessity, and I don’t think that romance novels should gloss over that completely. 

Ingrid: I completely agree with this. I think that the issue in real life is pretty complex and there are a lot of factors and considerations for us as people in a society to weigh and discuss, so it goes to show that what we see in literature might be the same. I do think that the “shame factor” is a real thing that can’t be ignored–just because we believe things should be a certain way doesn’t mean they ARE yet, and so I can understand why we’d have that factor represented. I feel like there’s some opportunity to examine it in a more fantasy-based environment, where the characters exist in a society that has approached sex work differently (and perhaps in a healthier way).

What’s one book you loved that features this archetype? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the archetype?

Erin: Though in some ways I would have liked to see some elements play out a little differently, The Roommate by Rosie Danan was overall very sex positive. Josh is an adult film star who is dealing with his own career problems and has to figure out how to move forward in a way that he’s still comfortable with what he’s doing, and the solution that he and Clara come up with doesn’t take them away from the adult film industry, but spins their project in a feel-good, sex positive way.

Holly: First of all, I don’t think a discussion of sex workers in romance can be complete without bringing up Tiffany Reisz’s Original Sinners books. Nora might be known as a bestselling erotica author, but she makes her real money as a professional dominatrix. Though her relationship with Søren is tumultuous, she absolutely continues her sex work throughout the series as she moves towards her HEA. 

In a slightly different vein, Eight Kinky Nights by Xan West features a sex educator who gives demonstrations on how to safely engage in kink. Leah loves her work and is privileged enough to maintain control of her boundaries—and rather than being shamed for what she does, it makes her a more desirable partner for Jordan, who wants to learn about dominance from someone experienced in teaching it. 

And finally, I want to give a shout out to Jeannie Lin’s Lotus Palace mysteries. These books take place in the pleasure quarter of the capital city in Tang dynasty China, so bonus points for a unique historical setting. What’s interesting here is because the courtesans cater to a high-class clientele, they are well-educated and desirable (and maybe even powerful). This is not to say that they will continue to work in the pleasure quarter post-HEA, because they won’t, but it was still fun to read about a time when sex work wasn’t so furtive. 

Ingrid: I’m so bad at remembering books–I’m thinking off the top of my head of Priest, which we all know wasn’t my jam in some ways but it touches on the heroine’s work as a stripper (which was something she did for multiple reasons). Lingus by Mariana Zapata was an interesting read–in that one we have the hero who is a porn star and working his way through school. While he struggles with that career path, other major characters are also porn stars and have really positive experiences. So it was a pretty interesting read!


PS: Here are the books we’ll be talking about in more detail this week.

Book covers:
The Lotus Palace by Jeannie Lin
The Master by Kresley Cole
The Roommate by Rosie Danan
Stripped by Zoey Castile

Have a favorite romance featuring a sex worker? Let us know in the comments!

Let's Talk Tropes

Let’s Talk Tropes: The One-Sided Courtship

Bottom line: Do you like the One-Sided Courtship trope?

Erin: There are times when it gets icky (like, take no for an answer, dude), but for the most part it is a trope I really do enjoy. 

Holly: I don’t love it. But I don’t hate it either. 

Ingrid: I don’t love it. I also feel like when it works it’s paired with a sub-trope and that’s why it works.

What criteria are required for a book to qualify as a one-sided courtship trope?

Erin: I usually read this really broadly, so to me a one-sided courtship involves a protagonist pursuing a relationship because of feelings (no relationships-of-convenience allowed!) while the other(s) is/are more standoffish. My favorite instances tend to be the ones where the (hero) has one interaction with the (heroine), decides (she’s) the one, and is all in from the word “go.” Which isn’t necessarily insta-love…usually it’s more like insta-horny, and it takes a while for the love to be acknowledged. But I would also include here stories in which there is insta-love but one protagonist is standoffish while the other is more accepting of the feeling and is more willing to pursue it. 

Holly: I don’t even think it has to involve deep feelings on the part of the pursuer. Maybe the pursuer just wants to date the other person, and the other person has too much stuff going on right now, or thinks that the pursuer isn’t right (too young for me, too hot for me, too…much for me). 

I would also argue that Seducing My Spouse is closely related, or perhaps a sub-trope, of one-sided courtship, and that there is space in a marriage (of convenience or otherwise) for this dynamic to play out. 

Ingrid: I agree with Erin and Holly here…only I would argue that in order for it to not be icky it almost exclusively has to slide into a secondary trope.

What do you think is fun about the trope?

Erin: I am simply delighted by a protagonist coming to a realization that they’ve found exactly what they maybe weren’t even aware they were looking for and then cunningly setting about convincing the lover(s) that there’s no just fighting the feelings. Plus I suppose it taps into a fantasy of being desirable enough that someone is bound and determined to pursue oneself, and it’s always nice to be wanted…within reason.

Holly: It can lead to some great tension as the relationship dynamic changes from casual / friendship to romantic interest to love. I especially appreciate when the reluctant character is emotionally invested in the pursuer, but not ready or willing to date for whatever reason, and the slow and persistent courtship therefore becomes a way of learning to trust. 

Ingrid: I mean, deep down there’s something really validating when you see someone who just never gave up on “that person and only that person” find happiness.

What do you find problematic about the trope?

Erin: As a fantasy idea for putting people together on page, I don’t think it’s particularly problematic. That said, it is pretty easy for this to slide into Nice Guy™ or bully wont-take-no-for-an-answer territory, which is both problematic and not attractive. 

Holly: “Please date me.”

“No thanks.”

“But I really like you.”

“No thanks.” 

“I’m pretty sure you like me too.”

“No thanks.”

“Ok, I’ll pick you up at 8.” 

Duuuuuuuude. Learn some boundaries. It’s not cute. 

Ingrid: I have nothing to add here. That’s the problem 100% of the time.

Are there specific sub-genres that you believe work best for this trope?

Erin: It certainly could be applied in any sub-genre, but there seems to be less space for accepting it – at least in the form of “doesn’t take no” action – in regular old contemporary romance, where we see more of a trend away from hints of domineering behavior. It seems to be more popular in books that feature darker material, like Biker, Mafia, or other criminal archetypes, though I’ve certainly read it in historical romance (as in Slightly Dangerous or The Double Wager by Mary Balogh or in Indigo by Beverly Jenkins) and also in paranormal (sci-fi or fantasy) romance in which fated mates is not a factor (I’m thinking along the lines of Connor Rogan’s behavior in Hidden Legacy’s Nevada Baylor trilogy). In short, I would argue that it does work anywhere but the ways it might be applied and/or received by an audience vary by sub-genre.

Holly: Erin’s response is interesting, because I primarily associate the one-sided courtship with paranormal fated mates books for some reason. Like, one person knows it’s a fated-mates situation (“Her blood smells sooooo delicious!”) and then pursues the object of his affections relentlessly until she gives in. 

I don’t know why I think that, given that, when I look back through my reading, I see that I have reviewed literally zero paranormal one-sided courtship books in the past three years. 

Ingrid: I would argue that in contemporary romance you might see this trope paired with a sudden shift in enemies to lovers or in friends to lovers. Also seducing my spouse. So although I would say that paranormal and historical are the heavy-hitters in this category, it certainly makes a showing in others.

What’s one book you loved that features this trope? What’s so great about this book and the way it handles the trope?

Erin: Yeah, so, that’s not happening. One book? Please. (This is a terrible question. I always struggle to choose one book.) 

Off the top of my head, Motorcycle Man by Kristen Ashley is a good one. It begins with Tyra falling for Tack at first sight, but he doesn’t reciprocate and is a total jerk. Then Tack sees some of the personality he missed that first night, and he realizes that he’s all in while she’s no longer so sure about him. So there’s a lot of back and forth between them, but it’s also all on the table, not hidden, the whole courtship. It’s a messy one, and better suited to readers who are comfortable with messy characters and anti-hero archetypes. 

If you’d like better behaved protagonists, I’d suggest Love Hard by Nalini Singh (have I recced this book enough yet?) It doesn’t happen instantly for Jake, but once he realizes that Juliet is perfect for him, he’s totally zoned in on getting her to agree without any subterfuge or manipulation, which is more unusual for this trope (especially the older the pub date). It’s so gentle and so romantic. 

And, just for funsies, if you’d like to change things up and have the woman being the pursuer, then Marrying the Billionaire by Allie Winters was a great read. 

Holly: How about a histrom? I cannot recommend The Widow of Rose House enough. Sam thinks Alva is just great, but Alva’s now-dead husband was abusive, so she’s not too keen on the whole romance thing. So while Sam definitely pursues Alva, he’s also careful with her, and that balance is really nice to read. 

Ingrid: I’ve been reading a ton of KF Breene, and in her Demigod of San Francisco series I think she kind of skirts this trope because Kieran chases Lexi for her mad magical skills pretty aggressively and it’s obviously not totally a professional interest. But obviously because it IS presented as such it’s pretty funny and it shifts in such a satisfying way!


Do you love one-sided courtship books? Hate them? Wildly indifferent? Have a rec for one you loved? Let us know in the comments!

Smut Reporting

Let’s talk about chlamydia, or, don’t keep STIs taboo…

Last year Holly found a book titled Thank You, Chlamydia and, because Ingrid and I have Kindle Unlimited subscriptions but she does not, she, er, gently encouraged one of us to read it. Give me all the wild stuff, I said, and I read it. And it was really good!

Then, when I wanted to refer back to it later, I couldn’t for the life of me find the book anymore. At first I thought it was because the ‘Zon had pulled the book, which they do when KU books are pirated and end up free on other sites (so don’t do that!). But then Ingrid found that it had been re-released under the title My So-Called Perfect Life. Which, let me just put this out there, is waaaaaaay not as good a title as Thank You, Chlamydia. Why would I pick up a book titled My So-Called Perfect Life? Holly would never have suggested I do that. 

Now, I have no idea why the author actually pulled the book and republished it under a different title, but I have some guesses, and they make me really mad!

One is that something about the book or the title did get on the ‘Zon’s bad side and there was nothing the author could do about it. Which just makes me angry from a gatekeeping standpoint, but here we are living in a world of private businesses and fair is not particularly applicable when a business can decide what it wants to do within the confines of applicable business law. 

The (to me) more frustrating possibility for this shift is some of the reviews that I found under the original title. Full disclosure: I found the reviews on Goodreads because the Amazon page for the original publication no longer exists. 

About me: I don’t usually care about DNF reviews. These reviews can be informative! Or sometimes reviewers read the blurb and call out some problematic something. This is also informative! Short story, I might not like what some reviewers say sometimes, but every review isn’t for me, and I am fully willing to acknowledge that there is value in different kinds of reviews. 

That said, THE FIRST FIVE REVIEWS ON GOODREADS ARE PANNING THE BOOK BASED ON THE TITLE ALONE. None of my GR friends reviewed this book, so it’s possible that the algorithm might show you something slightly different, but…if that’s the first thing you see when you are looking into reading a book, how do you think you’re going to feel about the book after seeing those comments?

One of the commenters is merciless, citing the title of this book as an example of how this genre (romance) has hit rock bottom. Apparently Chlamydia is inappropriate even for a rom-com. 

Let’s discuss.

While HPV is the most common STI in the United States, the most commonly reported one is Chlamydia. It’s often asymptomatic, it can be transmitted to the same person more than once (bacteria – heyo!), and it’s easily curable with a course of antibiotics. And it’s extremely common among younger adults. Feel free to read this Chlamydia fact sheet from the CDC for all the deets. Or I’m also a fan of the Mayo Clinic, so you could read theirs instead. 

Now, one may think that sexually promiscuous people who don’t use protection are the ones who get chlamydia, so, like, they deserve it or something? Or it’s dirty and embarrassing, and only people who are dirty get STIs? 

I don’t even know. 

Actually, I do. It’s a holdover, hanging on for dear life, of the kind of sex shaming that believes that people who are promiscuous get the consequences they deserve for their behavior. 

That attitude does nothing but continue to stigmatize STIs, which are shockingly (or maybe really not so shockingly…) common. The notion that people who have STIs don’t deserve romance, or that romance and STIs are mutually exclusive is, frankly, repellent. Also, the stigmatization of STIs can prevent people from seeking proper health checks, treatment, and, importantly, from notifying sexual partners of the diagnosis. Which is a bummer. 

More to the point…

I’m not a healthcare…person. I review romance books and talk about romance-related…stuff. So let’s talk about what we see in romance. I am currently regretting that I have not not meticulously tracked which of my non-closed door protagonists used protection or how they used it, because that would be helpful right now, but if you are a romance reader you have probably read at least one book in which a protagonist fails to properly use protection. 

Maybe it’s a historical and prophylactics are dodgy at best. Maybe it’s a paranormal and somehow, in magic land, the characters don’t have to worry about disease or unplanned pregnancy. Maybe the protagonists are overwhelmed by their passion and forget…either to completion or to a pause for retrieval. 

Or maybe a protagonist pulls a condom out of a wallet, doesn’t check the expiration date, and tears the foil with his teeth. 

Just sayin’ – improper use of condoms can (and does!) result in more than unplanned pregnancies. 

Is it…could it be that – just possibly! – those protagonists could think they’re doing everything right? Are those stories – just possibly! – based a little bit on a concept of how those scenarios might play out in real life? Except for the wrapper tearing. There’s no way that turns out as sexy as it reads. Have you ever tried it?

Anyway, the ironic aspect of the Thank You, Chlamydia title is that Dani is doing everything right. She’s in a monogamous relationship with a long-term partner…who she finds out is cheating on her on their wedding day, so she goes on a bit of a grief/rage bender and hooks up with a stranger. And they (oops!) get a little carried away and have to back up to put the condom on before they, er, finish. When Dani finds out she has chlamydia, she thinks she got it from the random hookup at the bar (Obviously! She’d been monogamous so long she forgot for a moment and he was obviously a player!), but she actually got it from her ex. With whom she was not using protection BECAUSE SHE THOUGHT THEY WERE MONOGAMOUS. Her best friends are much more sexually active with different partners, but they aren’t the ones who end up on antibiotics. 

So…Does Dani actually deserve to be slut shamed for getting an STI?

Um, no. No one does.

Furthermore, from a strictly literary standpoint, having to go back to a one-night stand to let them know about an STI and then having sexual tension but being unable to act on it until the treatment is finished are actually not terrible ideas for forcing proximity but creating a little slow burn tension. 

Anyway, if you’re not going to like this book based on the cover, it should be because of the dude’s haircut, not because of the title….