Note: A version of this article was originally published in the San Antonio Current in 2002, and was reprinted in the Detroit Metro Times in 2003.
She gasped as he plunged his fingers beneath her heavy skirts. He grinned like a pirate when he discovered her honeyed folds — No, wait — as he plundered the honeyed core of her desire. Yeah, plundered is more pirate-like. Arrr! She reached out, tentatively, until her trembling fingers brushed the soft suede of his breeches. She felt enormous heat and hardness there, and knew she touched the pulsating evidence of his manhood. Pulsating evidence? Hmm… the throbbing shaft of his manhood. “Oh,” she gasped, her swollen, tortured lips sheened with the dew of her desire. “In truth, you may prove to be far too much man for me, Aelred.” “There is only one way to find out, my lady,” Aelred growled. In one move he bared himself to her, the enormous beast of his need rearing up from its inky thatch…
If I tell you I write romance novels, odds are you’ll think I sit around all day in my pink satin robe, popping bonbons while dreaming up passages like the one above (the purplest of purple prose that sprang, like Aelred’s manhood from its inky thatch, from my own imagination). For those who have never read one, the idea of a romance novel conjures images of a shirtless Fabio clutching a frilly female on the cover of a book filled with references to his throbbing shaft, her velvety sheath, the glistening dew of her passion, the devastating extent of his arousal, and the quivering mound of her femininity.
No wonder the romance genre still exists in so many minds as a ridiculous and easily dismissed form of fiction.
Fact for the uninitiated: Those flowery, gooey allusions to penis and vagina are generally found only in historical romance novels, not contemporaries. Another fact: Even historicals have updated themselves, often beyond recognition as “just” a romance novel. Read Patricia Gaffney’s fabulous Wild at Heart (Signet, 2002) for a case in point.
Take the term “bodice ripper.” Coined by the media and still used — by the media — to describe any and all romance novels, the phrase has been both outmoded and out of favor for decades. Originally invented to describe historical romantic fiction of the 1970s and ’80s, in which rape was, unfortunately, a common initial phase of the courting process between hero and heroine, the term “bodice ripper” is now, thanks to the efforts of feminism, frowned upon by the romance writing and reading communities.
The popular view might hold that it is an oxymoron to juxtapose feminism with romantic fiction. Of course, any romance reader or writer could tell you there is nothing more feminist than creating a story in which a woman realizes her every dream, including finding a true and devoted mate.
Think about it: A romance writer creates for her heroine a man the likes of whom are difficult to find in real life. This man possesses not only incredible sex appeal but also the qualities essential to making that sex appeal last a lifetime: kindness; ready affection; the ability to listen, to provide comfort and support, and most importantly, to allow the heroine the space she needs to follow her dreams outside of her romantic relationship.
The rape-leads-to-love scenes that inspired the term “bodice ripper” 25 years ago were certainly not feminist. The first romance novel I ever read, Sea Jewel by Penelope Neri (Zebra Books, 1986), featured just such a scenario. The novel’s hero, Alaric of Kent, a mighty Saxon lord, takes Viking princess Freya prisoner during a raid. Their first physical encounter occurs when Alaric brutally rapes Freya. By the end of that forced-sex scene, Alaric has tamed Freya and made her pant for more. By the end of the novel, he has taken her as his wife, and she has sworn to love him forever. (Sorry, I just spoiled the ending.)
I am semi-embarrassed to admit that Sea Jewel is one of my favorite romance novels. Apparently, deep within some unreconstructed part of my soul, I respond to the idea of the frightening spear of his masculinity conquering the dew-slicked folds of her feminine desire (my gooey allusions, not Neri’s).
Incidentally, this type of scene didn’t occur only in romance novels. Folks who watch daytime TV might remember the infamous rape scene between General Hospital‘s Luke and Laura. Luke Spencer raped Laura Baldwin on an episode of GH aired October 5, 1979. Later, Luke and Laura fell in love, had a kid, and became one of daytime TV’s most popular and stable couples. Obviously, I am not the only one susceptible to decidedly unsavory, non-feminist and unrealistic fantasies.
Thank goodness for feminist politics, which enabled romance writers and readers to recognize that rape as seduction is a concept both offensive and inaccurate. Rape victims rarely grow to love or desire their rapists; those who do likely suffer from Stockholm syndrome, the condition of victims who feel affection for their captor or abuser.
In my teens, my romance novels of choice were the (now defunct) Harlequin Temptation line. I originally sought them out because Temptations were Harlequin’s “spiciest” books (read: most erotically explicit, a designation since overtaken by the company’s Spice imprint). These short contemporary novels featured sexual encounters between hero and heroine that were as deliciously erotic as my then-teenage libido could wish — even without the hero “conquering” the heroine and “taming” her into submission.
Better yet, Temptation novels didn’t rely on such turns of phrase as “passion-tightened loins” or “swollen buds of desire” to describe what went on in the bedroom (or on the desk at the office, or wherever the randy lovers might find themselves overcome by passion). Temptation authors even incorporated safe sex into the mix: Heroines would hear the crinkling sound of a foil package being ripped open. Sometime in the mid-to-late ’90s, they actually started calling those little foil packages “condoms.” Things seemed to be looking up.
Still, even through the late ’90s, direct references to sexual organs remained a big no-no, even for Temptation novelists. They still had to refer to our favorite body parts indirectly: He feasted on her… He filled his hands, his mouth with her… He pushed deep, deep into her… (all from Donna Sterling’s The Daddy Decision, Harlequin Temptation, 1999). We can tell he is probably not “feasting” on her nose or her kneecaps, and we know what it is that he is pushing so “deep, deep” into her.
Contemporary romance novels have always been more down-to-earth and plainly written than their historical counterparts. Through the ’90s, contemporary romance authors circumvented the problem of what to call the equipment between their heroes’ and heroines’ thighs largely by not calling it anything at all — by writing around the body parts, so to speak, focusing instead on action and sensation, texture and scent, and, most of all, emotion.
Who knows why the romance genre insists on goopy, oblique references to body parts that already have perfectly good names? Why did Jennifer Blake write about the moist and tender rose of her mouth (in Arrow to the Heart, Ballentine Books, 1993) rather than, simply, the heroine’s mouth? In the same book, Blake referred to her heroine’s vulva and vagina as, respectively, the tenderly folded, lavender-flavored juncture of her thighs, and the warm, velvet-lined iron band of her.
Pretty and imaginative language, yes. I imagine the idea behind it must be that more clinical terms would sap the romance right out of it. Some people shudder when confronted with “penis” or “vagina,” and a shockingly high number of people — many of them women — don’t even know what a vulva is.
For my part, I’m thankful for the further improvements to romance writing ushered in with the new millennium. While “erection,” “orgasm,” “nipples,” and “buttocks” are now common in contemporaries, Harlequin Temptation author Janelle Denison also used both “penis” and “clitoris” in her 2002 novel, A Shameless Seduction. And those clinically correct terms did nothing to detract from the eroticism and romance of the scene. In her excellent 2003 novel Faking It, the hilarious Jennifer Crusie even broke the mold of “heroine has earth-shattering orgasm every time the hero so much as brushes against her”: To shorten a not-so-hot sweaty sesh with the hero, the heroine of the novel fakes an orgasm. Noticing her moans and shudders don’t seem genuine, the hero gets plenty pissed. Hooray — how refreshingly realistic!
Here’s another perhaps unanswerable conundrum: Why are so many love scenes in romance novels described in battle terms? Battle metaphors, like baseball ones, are more typically used in traditionally masculine arenas: “slaughtering the competition” in sports, “touching base” with a coworker at the office. But in both historical and contemporary romance novels, written largely by and for women, body parts are routinely “conquered,” “captured,” and “claimed,” as if a woman is actually a small, vulnerable country open to attack. (Oh, wait … I think I just solved my own conundrum. In this lovely patriarchy of ours, women are just that: open to attack, physically and otherwise.)
Again in Arrow to the Heart, Blake’s hero didn’t just kiss the heroine, he plundered her sweetness, as if he were stealing something from her, violently and without conscience. And in Shirl Henke’s Broken Vows (Leisure Books, 1998), the hero didn’t simply have sex with the heroine, much less make love to her; no, he impaled her with the hard length of his phallus.
It’s true that sex, like war, is a messy, sweaty, sometimes bloody business, full of advances and retreats, explosions and resultantly limp, wasted bodies. Despite their many and ongoing peccadilloes, I am grateful for romance novels, which bring both humor and love into the mix. Then it’s no longer just sex; it is making love, and it is a transcendent experience for characters and readers alike.
And a brief, respectful note to Ms. Henke: While I am a proponent of calling body parts by their correct names, I could do without the word “phallus” in my fantasy life. I’ll take “the throbbing shaft of his manhood” any day.