The Romance of a Simpler Way of Life – But No Sex
They routinely appear on bestseller lists. They have been adapted into major motion pictures and made-for-television movies. The top Amish romance authors sell hundreds of thousands of copies per year. The Amish romance genre is booming and shows no sign of slowing down. What is the appeal of Amish romance?
Luke sucked in his breath and let it out slowly. “Okay, I’m just going to flat out ask you. What’s it take to get to first base with you, Nora? You’ve been deflecting my — ”
“What do you consider first base?”
The wide-eyed expression on Nora’s face made Luke kick himself for asking such a crude question. Did she expect him to spell out every little detail? Or was she covering for not knowing what first base meant?
This is a conversation not between guileless teens but two grown adults, in Charlotte Hubbard’s Amish romance novel Harvest of Blessings. The next line is the giveaway, as Luke wonders to himself whether Nora missed a few lessons in romance after “being sent away at 16 to have a baby.”
As if sexual politics weren’t confusing enough, give them an Amish backdrop and they get elaborately more complicated. In Amish romance novels, there is no sex, but lots of babies; no nakedness, but layer upon layer of clothing is removed; and no physical contact between unmarried couples—unless perhaps God wills it through a tornado, or a house fire, or a buggy accident—and, well, it turns out that happens between attractive Amish singles quite a lot.
During an unsteady dismount from a buggy in Amish Redemption, a novel by Patricia Davids, the female protagonist, Mary, loses her balance but is whisked back to her feet by a prospective suitor, Joshua. “She would have fallen if he hadn’t caught her by the waist and pulled her against him. She clutched his shoulders to steady herself. He gazed into her wide eyes as he slowly lowered her to the ground, reluctant to let her go.” (Spoiler alert: A great deal of unsteadiness seems to always happen between couples around buggies.)
In a market overwhelmed with Fifty Shades of Grey knockoffs, it might come as a surprise to see books offering chaste titillation mass-produced in trade paperback for Wal-Mart (where both of those books are selling briskly). Yet the romance sections of bookstores are increasingly dominated by what publishers affectionately call “bonnet rippers.”
In this era of disposable, fast-food sex, the appeal of Amish romance is no mystery, says Wanda Brunstetter, one of the founding authors of the genre. “When people read my books, it takes them to a simpler way of life,” she says. “Hanging clothes on the line, cooking meals from scratch, turning off the television and mobile phones and just visiting. We’ve lost that way of life. I think my readers are craving that. Also, the Amish set a precedent for us in that their relationships are based on family, church and community, not just the sexual part of things.”
Of course, there is a sexual part of things, but these books have a subtler way of conveying it than E.L. James. More is left to the imagination, and the kiss, robbed some time ago of its momentousness in popular culture, reclaims its allure. In Amish Redemption, for instance, a torrid kiss goes on for three pages, with several more pages committed to the couple who shared the kiss agonizing over it, with the suitor castigating himself for being “impulsive” and torturedly reading passages from the Bible afterward.
In Brunstetter’s Going Home, it takes 327 pages of canoodling over sumptuous desserts and prayer time before Noah finally asks his crush, Faith, if he can court her—at which point, he blurts out that he loves her. From there, Brunstetter moves swiftly to an epilogue where we see the couple two years later, married with a son, Isaiah. Faith tells Noah, “God has been good and blessed our marriage.” Says Brunstetter, “We can show that the couples are consummating their marriage without giving details. For my readers, it is more refreshing to read between the lines and not hear step by step what goes on. We all know what goes on.”
At the same time, it can be rather jarring while browsing in a bookshop to see the shirtless-male-torso covers commingled with illustrations of pious Amish women in long dresses, hair tucked under kapp, alongside men in broadfall pants and suspenders. (In fact, the two side by side make both seem a lot dirtier.) But the erotica and Amish genres share much common ground: Both portray young ladies torn by deep desires, whose cheeks flush, blush and burn. Lip-biting by the women and whip-wielding by the men abound (except in Amish fiction only the geldings get harnessed and whipped). And similar to the Fifty Shades series, climactic moments are irritatingly punctuated by feminine exultations of “Oh my!”—only these are laced with dollops of Pennsylvania Dutch and High German.