Erotica may be the new buzzword, but romance novels have been busting sexual barriers from the beginning.
It began with the first romance novels, where the female writers, while apologising in their forewords for having the audacity to put pen to paper, used the genre to expose the sexual double standards of the day. Seduction, at the time, was a legitimate pastime for gentlemen, while sex outside the marriage bed led to scorn and ruin for most women. In novels like 1688’s Ooranako, or The History of the Royal Slave, heroines were often sinful, but found happiness and redemption regardless through love—a direct opposition to the traditional novels in which fallen women met with dishonour and death.
The next generation of romance novels, the Gothics, Jane Austen, the Brontës, and their contemporaries, undermined the social mores of their day by using their heroines’ femininity to gain power. Women were not much more than reproductive machines, while men held all the money and control. In these novels, the heroines have neither money nor power. The heroes have both. By gaining the love of their heroes, the heroines also gain control— over their husbands and their own destinies.
In 1908, Gerald Mills and Charles Boon joined together to form Mills& Boon Ltd. These two-penny novels drew on the long history of romance stories. The heroes remain strong, dark, experienced, mysterious, and rich—progeny of both Heathcliff and Mr. Rochester. The heroines are generally 18-year-old brides, poor and grateful, who grow into strong young women and claim equality with their besotted husbands.
The war era romances saw a shift in the power struggle. Showing less emphasis on the hero’s income and social position, these novels focused on the heroine’s profession—years before the new wave of feminism. Now no longer having to find their strength solely through their relationships, heroines in these novels unconsciously manipulate men to achieve their happy endings. After all, nothing can withstand the love of a good woman.
In the 1970s, American writers started a romance revolution, with the creation of the ‘Bodice Rippers’. The heroines became more adventurous, both physically and sexually. They engaged in pre-marital sex without fear of censure. They were formidable, witty, and determined to get what they wanted.
However, these new stronger heroines forced a change in the hero as well. He needed to become someone who could tame this new heroine. This power struggle gave rise to the rape fantasies that still overshadow the genre.
While the rape fantasies caused wide ideological shifts in the hero in the 1980s, the heroine only became stronger. As the hero morphed into the SNAG (sensitive, new-age guy), the heroine became more outspoken, more demanding, and more successful in both her personal and her professional life. She was firmly in control of her own sexuality. Rape scenes quickly became obsolete, but the publishers maintained the sexiness of the ‘bodice rippers’ by including explicit details of the hero and heroine’s sexual relationship.
The 1990s saw the tamed hero disappear. Heroines now had careers, families, university degrees, and full control over their destiny. They needed a hero who could keep up with them intellectually, debate with them vigorously, hold their interest eternally, please them sexually. This hero is the alpha-male. Strong, confident, and passionate, he is the exact mirror of the romance heroine.
Significant changes were also taking place inside the novels. Stories began to include attitudes and events once believed outside the realm of women’s fiction. Novels explored physical and mental disabilities, rape, racism, sexism, homophobia, single parent families, unemployment, and disadvantaged peoples. The storylines in the 1990s depicted the constant flux of concerns and expectations of the women who read them, taking romance novels permanently away from the quest for love and making them about a quest for life.
And now, in the aptly-named naughties, romance novels have opened up to include the entire spectrum of love. Gay and lesbian romances have hit the mainstream. And inspirational or Christian romances have also increased in number and popularity. But the sub-genre making the most news is Erotica. The importance of the sexual relationship between the hero and the heroine has been acknowledged and documented from the 1970s. Erotica explores new sexual landscapes. The heroine can dabble in bondage, fetishes, or fantasy, exploring what excites and arouses her sexually, without censure or scorn.
The recent spate of publicity surrounding the erotic evolution of romance novel simply reflects the more obvious nature of this step in the sexual progression. But it’s not new. The romance novel revolution has been happening for centuries. With or without the publicity.