by Cecilia Tan, guest blogger
Our tale begins in 1970, which is the year some point to as the beginning of the modern romance genre, with the arrival of the manuscript The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen E. Woodiwiss on the desk of editor Nancy Coffey at Avon. The book would be a huge bestseller, kicking off a new era of romance publishing, and Woodiwiss was the first of the “Avon Ladies.” In that year, the average age at which American women married was 20.6 years old.
But 1987 that average was up to 23.3 years old, and according to the US Census Bureau, by 2003 it was 25.1 years, where it remains today.
Meanwhile, the percentage of female teenagers becoming sexually active rose from 30% to 40% between 1982 and 1988, and now, 20 years later, the rate of high school students who have had intercourse is close to 50%. (They don’t count it as “sex” unless you have intercourse, you know.) In short, that means a lot of young American women, who used to go into their marriages with no sexual experience, now tend to have a significant amount of time as sexually active people before they marry–most as much as a decade.
Not only that, but as the generations have progressed from the swingin’ seventies to today, the kinds of sex that women are having has proliferated. The likelihood that they have experience with spanking, bondage, multiple partners, bisexuality, and other things that would have once been considered outre is now quite high as well, with 48% of people currently in their 20s reporting they have at least “experimented” with these activities.
Is it any wonder, then, that romance novels have changed, too?
This doesn’t mean that every romance reader wants in her life–or in her fiction–non-stop sex, kinky sex, or partner swapping. But the “bodice rippers” that were a staple of past generations are now often seen as either laughable or even anti-woman by modern readers, and the breathless euphemisms that used to be standard in the genre come off as quaint or unintentionally funny. The back cover copy on Woodiwiss’s “Flame…” speaks of “…the Carolina plantation where Brandon finally probes the depths of Heather’s full womanhood!”
We might make fun of the old style of marketing, but there is no denying that whatever language is used, romances have always been about passion as well as love. And just as fewer and fewer women would find a chaste kiss to be satisfying after a romantic dinner out, and now they want the same desires reflected in their favorite fiction.
But what distinguishes erotic romance from “erotica”(a broad term in itself)? Is erotic romance just a hybrid between romance and erotic fiction? In actuality, it’s the strength of the romance genre that allows so much flexibility in what we can call “romance” these days. The two unchanging aspects are the focus on love and the core relationship, and the happy/emotionally satisfying ending. That leaves a lot of room to have different historical settings, mystery subplots, fantastical aspects. As Beatrice Small wrote in a 2007 essay on the history of the genre, “[In the 1970s] romance [grew into] a billion dollar baby for publishing. It was a two-headed baby to begin with: Historicals and Category. But then as women’s palates grew more sophisticated, baby grew more heads. Historical and Category were joined by Western, Thriller, Paranormal, Glitz, Chick-Lit, Christian, Contemporary, and OHMYSTARS! Erotic, just to name a few. And the Historical sub-genre had sub-sub-genres. Regency. Georgian. Medieval. [and so on.]”
In other words, romance is a great-looking model on which you can put any kind of outfit, whether a medieval ball gown or six-inch spike heels and a leather corset.
For me, it isn’t the amount of sex in a book, nor how graphic it is, that makes a book “erotica” and not romance. I am one of those women for whom love and sex go hand in hand in my real life. I wouldn’t dream of spending my life with someone if I didn’t know we were compatible in bed. In a love story, especially a contemporary one, I feel like I need to see some erotic interaction between the characters in order to believe that their love is real and can work. In historicals I find Unresolved Sexual Tension more believable than in stories set in the modern day, but what I am still seeking is the ultimate release of that tension. I love writers who can wind the ratchet tighter and tighter, but just like someone who is great at teasing in bed, I want them to eventually deliver me that mind-shattering release.
More sex scenes do not necessarily make a “hotter” book, the way more salt and pepper doesn’t automatically make a meal taste better. What is most arousing is when the sex is convincing, when it makes sense with the characters and when it follows a logical progression through their emotional lives.
There are plenty of books of erotica out there. I know, because I’ve written them. Many of them are collections of short stories, because erotica can so often be about the fling, the one-night stand, the exploration of a character’s sexual growth, but doesn’t necessarily have to be about love. Short stories are flings, but novels are relationships. And just as I found I need to see some sexual interaction between characters for me to believe they are falling in love, I also have to see them falling in love in order to believe that they are going to keep having sex for the space of an entire novel! If they aren’t, if the plot is not a love story but just an vehicle to get us from one sex scene to another, inventive and arousing as the scenes may be, I’d classify a book as erotica, and not erotic romance.
When I sat down to write my book MIND GAMES, which I’d classify as an erotic paranormal suspense romance, I had already come up with the characters many years before. I’d originally envisioned Wren and Derek as an established couple, and I was trying to write them in a kind of detective/spy scenario where their partnership and relationship were already long since established. But that idea never really firmed up. I kept asking myself how they had come to be a couple, and how did they find out that sex enhanced her psychic abilities? Ultimately I realized I couldn’t write what happens in their future until I wrote their love story and answered those questions.
It was an incredible experience writing them falling in love. After over a decade of writing and publishing dozens of erotic short stories, in places like Ms. Magazine, Best American Erotica, and Nerve, having the room to follow the characters from their initial meeting and spark of attraction, right through to their eventual emotional break-throughs, felt like a decadent luxury to me. I really was able to focus on the emotions, not just on Wren’s attraction and feelings of arousal, but also her conflicted feelings, her fears, her past wounds, and her determination to make this time different from the failed relationships of the past.
Now that I think about it, I did the exact same thing in my second romance novel, THE HOT STREAK. If anything, THE HOT STREAK concentrates even more on the relationship because there is no mystery sub-plot. All the “action” revolves around our heroine falling in love with a baseball player and learning to negotiate the ups and downs of being a “major league girlfriend.” It’s a much more light-hearted book than MIND GAMES, but again there’s that theme of her not yet having found Mr. Right, and then all the doors it opens in her heart and her life when she finally meets him.
Ultimately, this is why erotic romance is still romance, because although we want him in bed, we still want Mr. Right. It’s just romance created to satisfy the women like me who aren’t satisfied by a story that doesn’t meet their own sexual reality, and those are the women I set out to please, too. And I’m sure as the needs and lives of women continue to change in the 21st century, the heroines and stories we find in romances will change to meet them.
Cecilia Tan is the author of the erotic romances MIND GAMES, THE HOT STREAK, and the forthcoming MAGIC UNIVERSITY series, as well as numerous books of erotica and baseball nonfiction. Read sample chapters more at http://www.ceciliatan.com/.
“More Girls Are Sexually Active, Study Finds,” by Felicity Barrington, New York Times, November 10, 1990 (http://www.nytimes.com/1990/11/10/us/more-girls-are-sexually-active-study-finds.html)
“Facts on American Teens’ Sexual and Reproductive Health,” Alan Guttmacher Institute, September 2006 (http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_ATSRH.html)
“Most Americans Have Had Premarital Sex,” By Sharon Jayson, USA TODAY, December 19, 2006, (http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2006-12-19-premarital-sex_x.htm)
America transformed: sixty years of revolutionary change, 1941-2001, by Richard M. Abrams, Cambridge University Press, 2001
“A Brief History of the Romance Genre,” by Beatrice Small, Shorelines newsletter, August 19, 2007 (http://www.authorscene.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=60)