A number of recent social media threads came together this week in a get-off-my-lawn way. First there was a Defense of Romance at SBTB that came not to praise romance, but to bury it. While I’m tired of genre defense in general, I am especially tired of the point made in section three – the assertion that, as Harlan Ellison once said, Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled. I could spend three or four posts on the end of the SBTB post, so let’s move on. The next item is this great Quick and Dirty History of Erotic Romance by SuperWendy. It starts around 1995-1999 which is appropriate, since that’s when Erotic Romance as a category of it’s own truly begins. The comment that a debate over Erotic Romance really being romance or not is hard to believe could lead to Ranting Of Epic Proportions so let’s move away from that rail (for now) as well. The final leg of my triangle was a Twitter conversation about Reader Only spaces, their practicality and lack thereof, that led into how Romancelandia changed when the internet became a widely adopted mode of communication. Thus, everyone is on my lawn and I must leave this cut-rate collapsable chair to rail at them.
There is not enough profanity in my heart to express how I’ve felt watching erotica take over romance. There just is not. As I’ve written about before, I do not begrudge anyone their erotic read, be it romantic or not. I continue to assert that romance is not sex. It may include sex, and for some the sex may be essential, but romance is an emotional transaction between two (or more) people that involves a lot more than physical stimulation. I was shocked to find my best friend and his husband had ended their sexual relationship more than a decade ago because although they wanted to spend their lives together, they were not sexually compatible. Does that end their romance? No. In talking to other couples I found this wasn’t as uncommon as I assumed. Loving someone, partnering with them, considering them an essential and necessary part of your fulfilled life does not require a sexual connection. Being able to say cum or fuck in your book, adding role play or multiple partners, does not make your romance more romantic. It makes it more erotic. These are not the same.
So back to erotic romance. What did we do before we had a category to do it in? Pre-internet, Romance was less codified than it is today. Certainly there were publisher lines that indicated through experience what their comfort level was with sexuality. Signet Regency was well known for being a first kiss on the last page sort of read, until authors began pushing the edges with estranged marriage tales. Silhouette Desire came out in 1982 offering a higher heat level than Harlequin or Dell, followed quickly by Loveswept in 1983. (Both are tame by modern standards.) Soon everyone was inching it a wee bit hotter and then… well, that’s where SuperWendy picks up. What did readers do for erotic romance before Red Sage and all the rest? They crossed the color barrier. Before Johanna Lindsey kept it clean(ish) with Captive Bride in 1977 most extended length books leaving the shores of England or traveling into America’s South promised lots of sex. Tying into our (and by our I speak to a white American readership) racism was the unspoken agreement that non-white characters meant a different standard for acceptable sexuality. Our one drop Octaroon in the French Quarter was going to get raped by just about anyone she encountered. Our delicate white English heiress was off to be sold in the slave markets, after extensive tutoring in the ways of love (as it was often referred to, misspelling like mad) or a few near misses on the rape front.
Full length romance in the 70’s and 80’s was racism and rape laden. Readers loved it. People bragged in reading groups about how many page corners they’d turned down in a new title. Beatrice Small’s Kadin came out in 1978 and showed how the formula of exotic sex could be toned down from the plantation books and refined into a more mainstream romance experience. Readers were divided. Did Kadin have too much sex or not enough? Was this fish or fowl? If forced to nominate one book as the First Erotic Romance, Kadin would be a top contender. (It’s not quite that simple, of course. Angelique starts in what, the 1950’s?) Where Lindsey had made her semi-exotic sex acceptable by white washing the sheik (and tossing in a previously existing engagement) Small took no such cover. Her heroine was tossed out there to fend for herself. If she was going to survive, she was going to have to use her body. Romance writers were classed as Hot Reads or Safe Reads, depending on the number of men who raped the heroine. Because really, in a full length romance before Signet starts experimenting with their imprint, rape happens. (Woodiwiss made a splash of her own by whitewashing the slave in plantation novels to produce Shanna. I keep meaning to reread and review that one. It was a Very Big Deal when it came out. It’s also total inmate fetish fiction.)
Readers who wanted their erotic reads more graphic, or with less racism, turned outside the lines we’d now consider romance. The Collins sisters, Harold Robbins, Shirley Conran – all offered romantic reads with varying levels of sexuality. In their books multiple sexual partners were not unexpected. The heroine might sleep with her father (don’t worry, he will be revealed not to be related at all) or her mother’s lover, or anyone she chose. She tended to have more sexual agency then her romantic counterpart. Her happy ending wasn’t guaranteed. If she got one and the book had a sequel she was definitely ending it with someone else. Other readers mail-ordered erotic romance from small publishers via the same sources as their sex toys. If you were a few steps past the back massager from Sears you were well aware that a book existed for any reading preference. None of them were in your local bookstore, but all could be ordered for a suspicious glance by your postal carrier. Let’s say you wanted something stronger than Robbins, didn’t mail order and rape fantasy isn’t for you. In that case, you preferred to read literary erotica. The Story of O, the writings of Anais Nin, these were your preferred reads. Maybe you decided to study French literature more extensively and dipped into deSade. From there you’d find underground collections of literate sex. You may even find the current works of Anonymous. (As SuperWendy pointed out, the early erotic romances were often shelved with sex manuals or the Anonymous titles).
Enter the Internet. Usenet, Compuserve, AOL, Prodigy, all the many ways romance readers began to talk to romance readers who didn’t attend the same PTA meetings. Suddenly the whispered “Have you read” conversations became open calls for hotter reads, fetish specific reads, recommendations for romances that were not your mother’s romance novels. Because the books your mother handed you probably weren’t from her hot read stash. (Let’s be honest, mom had her hookups. Swinger parties were too common for it to be otherwise. Besides, surprise paternity revelations were a thing long before Jerry Springer.) Everything about romance changed, from the books being published to the conversations held to the relation of authors to fans and publicity to market. Connecting the entire country created a wave certain publishers rode to wealth and others rode to ruin. (That’s a completely different TL;DR post.) What was I talking about? I forget. You kids get home, now.