The TL;DR Erotic Romance Edition

October 2, 2014 Opinion 30

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.

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Meoskop's first non-compulsory book review was in 1973. Although a hit with the 3rd grade, concerns raised by the administration necessitated an extended hiatus. Reviews resumed in 1985 but the concerns are ongoing.

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30 Responses to “The TL;DR Erotic Romance Edition”

  1. SuperWendy

    I’m so glad you wrote this post because my knowledge pre-Internet days is non-existent having only gotten hooked on romance in 1999. And since there was literally no one in my Real Life I could talk to about romance novels, I literally was forced to turn to the ‘net.

    The increased codification (I’m just going to make up words now) of the genre is one I meant to bring up in my post and then – well, it didn’t happen. But that’s such a great point. I think of it as Spoon-Fed Marketing. It’s why suddenly “new adult” is it’s own genre. Also we’re starting to see BDSM splinter off into it’s own separate sub genre away from erotic romance which, well is kind of odd for me. I’m not a huge fan of BDSM stories in general, but do they need their own sub genre? It seems so….unnecessary.

    But what do I know?

  2. Jessica

    This is fascinating. I love these detours down the past of the genre. You can definitely put me in the “sex is not a substitute for love” camp. Sometimes gratuitous sex scenes just pull me right out of the book. In Sarah MacLean’s A ROGUE BY ANY OTHER NAME, which I enjoyed overall, the hero seduces the virginal heroine in an early chapter with a detailed scene of oral sex shortly after coming back in to her life after a long absence. They were neither lovers nor friends. Why? Why did he do this and why did she let him? It made no sense. I feel like it’s all part of a lot of unearned sex and unearned strong emotions that are making me DNF a lot of books.

    With Wendy, I agree on the one hand about the marketing getting more and more specific. It’s not just a contemporary… it’s an MC BDSM book! But then, I’m not sure how this is different from the very narrowly targeted category romances?

  3. Laura K. Curtis

    ” romance is an emotional transaction between two (or more) people that involves a lot more than physical stimulation.”

    Yes. So much this. Before I knew there was a genre called “romance,” I read a lot of epic fantasy…primarily because there were great romances in there. There was no explicit sex, but oh, the relationships were amazing. There was an element of “if these two cannot make it, the whole world will end” that was just…enticing.

    The first explicit sex I remember reading as part of a romance was in Jude Deveraux’s books. I was seventeen or so when her first book came out. My friends loved the books and gave them to me. I liked the stories but mostly skipped the sex parts. I bet if I read them now they wouldn’t seem explicit at all to me, but they did then.

    I mentioned last night on Twitter that I feel out of step with the romance genre. I still love the genre, but it’s *too* erotic for me. There are fewer and fewer authors I read a whole book from. A lot of them I end up going “yeah, yeah, blah blah blah sex sex sex” because everything seems to have to be so HOT.

    Now, I have nothing against hot. It’s great that people feel free to read a wide variety of books, but I do wish that the *variety* part of that had stuck around. Variety means tame books as well as hot ones. I like hot on occasion myself, but not all the time.

    I hate to admit it, but I feel as if some of the criticism lately leveled at romance for being thinly veiled erotica is accurate. An erotic story with a happy ending isn’t enough for me. I want to see the relationship develop slowly through the book. And that’s slipping away, at least in a lot of the books presented to me.

  4. Roslyn Holcomb

    I’ve been reading romance since the late 1970s and I’d say the author who took that whole erotic trope to a whole new level was Rosemary Rogers. I loathed her books with the heat of a thousand suns.

  5. SuperWendy

    I firmly believe erotic romance IS romance – but like every other corner of romance, there’s plenty of not-very-good E/R out there that lacks what I call the emotional accountability quotient. That phenomenon where the characters do whatever they want, to whomever they want and there’s literally no emotional fall-out whatsoever. That sort of thing drives. me. insane. I don’t want to spend my leisure time reading about sexual robots thankyouverymuch.

    What Jessica and Laura describe also makes me nutty because like every other component of the story the sex should be “organic.” It needs to make sense. It needs to feel like it belongs there. I’ve read plenty of books that would have been truly lovely as G-rated reads but it was like someone told the author, “Oh noes! You need to put a sex scene in!” and said scene feels tacked on and pointless. Likewise I’ve read a few books where there were no sex scenes at all and thought the story could have benefited from at least one (usually when one of the characters’ has a bedroom hang-up of some sort).

    And now I’m going to stop taking over the comments. Like Jessica I tend to get sucked down history rabbit-holes ;)

  6. Meoskop

    Oh yes, Rosemary Rogers. I hated her too so I tend not to think of her. If I was writing a list of seventies long form she’d have to feature heavily.

  7. hapax

    “There is not enough profanity in my heart to express how I’ve felt watching erotica take over romance.”

    There are not enough “likes” in the whole of FB to express how I feel about this post.

    Heckopete, THE CLAIMING OF SLEEPING BEAUTY was published in 1983; and every romance reader *I* owned the whole trilogy.

    Whatever merits tCoSB may or may not have, a romance it ain’t.

  8. hapax

    @SuperWendy: As I have said often (enough to be a bore), I always skip “sex scenes.”

    Because if the sex is well enough integrated into the characters’ personalities and emotional arcs to be worth reading, it isn’t a “sex scene”, any more than similar passages are “dinner scenes” or “courtroom scenes” or whatever.

    If it isn’t, it’s just gymnastics, and that’s boring FOR ME to read about.

  9. meoskop

    @hapax – I still recall being in an airport terminal in 1985 watching a woman in a business suit slackjawed reading volume 3 of The Beauty Trilogy, and laughing to myself. I knew why she was freaking out but no one sitting near her did. Oh, those lost days of innocence,

  10. Tina

    Ugh… Rosemary Rogers. I don’t even remember her books being sexy, just torture. Steve and Ginny hated each other. I think she was legit my very first DNF.

    The first book I read that could be considered erotic with real smexy sex scenes was Adora by Bertrice Small.

    I don’t mind open door sex scenes in my books, but I don’t want erotica all the time either. What really bums me out is that in Interracial Romances, erotica seems the be the rule rather than the exception. You really have to work hard to find those that skews closer to the romance side of the scale.

  11. P. J. DEAN

    @Tina: I agree Tina. Rosemary Rogers was just grrr. I read “Sweet Savage Love” in 9th grade and hated it. The heroine, dear Ginny, the love of Steve’s life was constantly being raped. Either by him or “swarthy Mexicans.” But the other 9th grade girls in my study period lurrrved it. The other topic of your post hit the nails on the head for me. Interracial Romances are plagued with the erotica bug. A large amount of them have pushed the IR couple’s romance into the fetish zone. I don’t mind sex scenes but when it veers into that zone, I DNF the book. I write historicals and paranormals with a varied cast and I have decided to no longer call them multicultural or interracial for that very reason. Readers see that tag and it spotlights the book in a whole other way. A book seen as full of sex and little to no plot.

  12. Merrian

    Thinking about these conversations reminded me that Baen arose as an SFF digital publisher around the same time frame as EC. I wonder what a case study in what drove their mutual success would show us?

    I was also thinking yesterday as I read all the things, of those Virginia Slims ads from back in the day ‘you’ve come a long way, baby’ contrasting women of the olden days with modern women of the 1970’s/80’s. I’m wondering how much the rise not just of romance but of erotica in the same time is aspirational – that it reflects something about a changing capacity to make choices? The possibility of a woman centring herself at the heart of her own life and story has to come before the stories which then reify it.

    I am always hesitant to talk of who did something first because the actions of an individual arise from the social and cultural and technological world around them.

    I also think that our romance genre world of books arises from and is created by the world using and refining shared metaphors, understandings and opportunities. In other words “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra, Temba his arms wide, Shaka when the walls fell”.

  13. Meoskop

    I was not expecting at Star Trek reference on this comment thread, I must admit.

    @SuperWendy: An entire tangent for me was codification. I could write a post just on how the UBS shelved, how the indies shelved, how the chains shelved, what was at the drugstore. While classification has gotten more rigid, I don’t think it’s new, exactly. There was obvious branding at work in visual presentation of titles and lines they were put out by.

    I do wish my memory was better. I read every Avon “Ribbon” title and every Signet Regency printed – in addition to a ton of other stuff. I used to read several books a day on my various commutes, so it’s not as staggering as it sounds. I might also have read all of Loveswept, I know I read a good portion of Dell Candlelight, Desire and half a dozen other imprints. Oh, all of Topaz I think – my reading is way down.

  14. Roslyn Holcomb

    Oh Rosemary Rogers had a rape in nearly every chapter. It was absolutely horrific. We were low income folk so we shopped almost exclusively in the UBS. One time the owner “gifted” us with a grocery bag filled with Rosemary Rogers books. My mama wouldn’t take them. I think the owner was offended, but yeah, Rogers was that bad.

    I liked Loveswept a lot. Back then I typically read no less than two books a day and lived in the UBS and the library. The librarians would stash the romances when they came in for me. Johanna Lindsay was a fave as was Kathleen Woodiwiss, though my mama liked her more than I did. Everyone talks about Shanna, but my fave was The Wolf and the Dove. And I think back to some of those old faves like Lisa Gregory. I remember those books being so sexy and now when I read them the scenes rarely took more than a page, but you know what? They’re still sexy as hell. Interestingly enough, the first scene I ever read with a woman receiving oral sex was in a Candlelight Ecstasy Romance. I wish I could remember the name of it, because I remember being so shocked as I had NO IDEA such a thing was possible.

    Carole Mortimer wrote some very steamy Harlequin categories back in the day and I just recently bought two of my old faves from the 80s. One still holds up fine, the other one is just horrific and incredibly rapey. What can I say I was all of about 14 and I thought Living Together was the most amazingly sexy book I’ve ever read. Now I think the hero is an asshole and rapey as all hell at that. I mean, she’s traumatized because her deceased husband raped her and tried to give her to his best friend, and the hero’s solution is for her to move in with him so he could spend the entire book all but raping her as well! Edgy stuff for an 1980s era category.

    Before I had kids I read several books a week, now I’m lucky if I get to read a book a week.

  15. meoskop

    @Roslyn Holcomb: Oh, there are so many single author titles I wish I could recall!! One long form I swooned over where the hero gives her a Balenciaga gown and I had NO idea what that was.

    Also, you’re right, as a book the Wolf and The Dove is KW’s best work, by far. For a long time I thought it was because it was my first long form romance but I’ve come to think it’s just structured better. It’s got serious problems, of course, but it holds first place for me too.

    I’d forgotten that Dell did the Ecstasy line. I was also low income – I read what my grandmother and aunt had until I was 10-11 then I started working for the local used bookstore. People at the flea market gave me their unsold books to take her and I would merchandise the store while she ate lunch. Grocery bags of whatever I wanted every week. The library was my source for non-romance because they rarely stocked it.

  16. Tina

    @Roslyn Holcomb: The Wolf and the Dove was my gateway Woodiwiss and still my favorite of hers.

    I remember seeing them on the shelves at Waldenbooks. Her books stood out because the covers were these bright glo colors. I eyes them for months, trying to get up the nerve to buy one (I was like 15 at the time). Shanna was the one I had my eye on, but its’ neon orange cover just seemed to scream ‘SEX, SEX, SEX you’re not ready!’ so I went with the tamer red cover of The Wolf and the Dove.

    I also loved the Loveswepts lines. In retrospect, I could tell my younger self was already getting bored by the Harlequin Presents formula (that my present self really despises). They just seemed lighter, had more humor and the heroines felt more modern.

  17. Nu

    Never understood the Wolf and the Dove love. My fave was always Rose in Winter.

  18. Roslyn Holcomb

    The Candlelight Ecstasys were my absolute faves. Funny thing is, I can remember every detail of that book, except for the name. It started with a one night stand, at a truck stop of all places! But the name absolutely escapes me.

    Our library was a very strange place, especially for a small north Alabama town. Looking back now I think the head librarian was a renegade or something because they would have some of the most outrageous books. They were like a repository of banned books. I have to assume that the folks who were opposed to that type of thing just never went to the library. And they had no age restrictions. I think I read the horror that is Mandingo when I was like 12 or 13! And the library was right next to the restaurant where my mama worked. So I’d go there after school, do my homework, then glom on whatever romances had come in. Then to the restaurant when my mama got off work.

    I quickly tired of the Presents line (except for Carole Mortimer!) and the Loveswepts just seemed to have a better variety of heroine. I did love the exotic locales in the Presents though. All those Greek tycoons and sheikh books were a real education for someone who grew up in a blue collar town in a working class neighborhood.

    I need to re-read the Wolf and the Dove. It’ll be interesting to see how well it has held up. I recently bought the Roselynde Chronicles in digital (My LAST EC purchase). It’s at least the third time I’ve bought that series and re-reading it this time I was stunned that the hero in Roselynde actually hit her. I don’t remember that AT ALL, but otherwise the books really stand the test of time. Of course, Gellis was never one for the sexy time, which is one of the reasons she doesn’t do romance anymore, but man can that woman tell a story!

  19. cleo

    I love all of these comments. As a teen (in the 80s), I read romance secretly, and exclusively for The Sex. It wasn’t until I discovered erotica in my early to mid 20s, that I started reading romance for the relationships. Now I read romance with a wide range of heat levels – mostly I just want the sex to fit the story and characters, because I still read romance for the relationships and characters. But if I’m in the mood for a hot read, I prefer something without a lot of pesky plot. I think that’s why I prefer novella length erotica or erotic romance.

    I somehow managed to miss the rapey historical romances from the 70s and 80s (although sadly, I didn’t manage to avoid the rapey sf/f of the same era). I remember gobbling up Jackie Collins and Judith Krantz (who introduced me to the twin concepts of the grudge fuck and mercy fuck). I also read Anais Nin and a couple anthologies of feminist erotica, including Herotica, ed by Susie Bright – I think those were mostly passed around by my friends in college. And then I discovered Black Lace, shelved in the back aisle of the Art and Architecture bookstore on campus when I was in grad school (why they carried them, I don’t know – I was certainly never brave enough to buy any, but I’m grateful that they did).

  20. Meoskop

    @Roslyn Holcomb: I downloaded the Kindle Sample of The Wolf & The Dove. What struck me is how more happens in the first few pages of the book than many full length reads today. It was still super rapetastic, but her father dies, her home is overtaken, her mother forced into servitude, she’s believe she’s raped (she is assaulted) but in actuality her mother has slipped them both a mickey, her mother has an escape plan but she refuses because her father is left unburied, they go to bury her dad, she fights with her mom, a bunch of other things happen… and the hero arrives. I might have to revisit it just to count how many books these events would span today.

  21. Cate M.

    I’m old enough that I feel I should know the answer to this, but: before the rise of the lots-of-sex bodice rippers, what romances did people read when they didn’t want erotic content? I mean, obviously there were the categories, but were there non-erotic stand-alones? It seems like there must have been, but I can’t remember any.

  22. Cate M.

    Let’s say the first half of the eighties and all of the seventies. I remember SO MANY romances-with-erotic-content stacked up around my house from that era, but…either I just have a bad memory for books without sex scenes, or none of the adults in my household bought books without sex scenes, because I’m drawing a blank on what the alternatives might have been.

  23. cleo

    @Cate M – gothics? Mary Stewart, Victoria Holt, Daphne du Maurier, etc. I’m a little foggy on the exact time period and story details, but I think a lot of gothics tended to have a romance but not much sex beyond punishing kisses. I may be wrong.

    Georgette Heyer – according to my friend Wikipedia, she was still writing and publishing in the early 70s.

    And Barbara Cartland – I don’t know if her books count as single titles or categories, but she was active in the 70s and 80s and there was no sex in those romances.

  24. Meoskop

    @Cate M.: Absolutely gothics (how I miss them) and Signet Regency and the Cartland – but for longer books some of the authors had what might have looked like higher sex content (Lindsey, McBain, etc) but it was primarily less than a page. If you compare a Sherwood, Small or Rogers to an early Lindsey the difference is apparent. It was a lot of word of mouth – learning the coded words on the blurbs and such.

    One of my relatives wouldn’t read anything over 200 pages to try and ensure lighter fare – another looked for the longest most “epic saga” possible.

  25. Roslyn Hardy Holcomb

    Janet Louise Roberts was like the queen of gothics to me. I remember a series of stories she did a series where the heroes were actual literal demons. I remember one called Her Demon Lover where I don’t think I slept for an entire week. She also wrote as Louisa Bronte and had a bunch of other names as well. Definitely pretty much sex-free, as was Cartland. I think Cartland’s books were almost all categories.

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