Too darn hot

Romance fans clash over a new breed of explicit, kinky love story.

Published October 5, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

With his hands and his mouth, he caressed her, his fingers moving down her body, pausing for a moment at her navel, then sliding lower. They sifted through the thatch of copper curls at the base of her thighs, gently eased her legs apart, slipped between the damp folds of her sex, and a long dark finger slid inside her.

Kat Martin, a bestselling novelist, writes some pretty sexy consummations, like the one above, which can be found on Page 121 of "Night Secrets," her latest historical romance. But Martin's love scenes are in the most common romance tradition: They're hot, yes, but not nuclear. And they're tame indeed when compared to the acts detailed by more audacious romance novelists like Robin Schone, whose contribution to the current -- and wildly controversial -- erotic anthology "Captivated" features anal sex:

Kneeling on the bed between her legs, he rubbed himself round and round her tightly puckered flesh, pressing inward, harder and harder with each circle until he felt it blossoming open, and then suddenly he was inside her and Abigail was crying out in the darkness. He sucked in a deep breath and held still. Her flesh nipped and milked him. The soft mounds of her buttocks quivered against his groin.

While the ordinary romance novel contains sex as only a fraction of its content, "Captivated," billed as "Tales of Erotic Romance," features four stories that are far more heavy-handed and "out there" sexually than is usual in the genre. It's not difficult to see why it has come under fire, prompting some in the romance community to insist that it should be removed from romance racks and sold at the back of the store -- in other words, as frank "erotica" and not as "romance."

The first story in the book, "Ecstasy," by Bertrice Small, would seem to make their case. It is an absurd and gymnastic amalgam of the Arabian Nights, "Exit to Eden" and "The Blue Book of Fairy Tales." In it a male sex slave conquers the heart of a frigid Amazon queen through dutiful applications of his 9-inch-long, improbably unflagging penis. Involving a full menu of pointless and glib "Penthouse Forum" sex acts, and told from a psychological distance of about six miles, it is at once hilarious and distasteful. The contrast is extraordinary between it and the deeper and more emotionally believable novella by Schone, the final piece in the volume. In "A Lady's Pleasure," the anal episode comes at the climax -- you should excuse the expression -- of an interlude of escalating emotional revelation and physical intimacy. The "transgressive" act signals the shattering of the last barrier between the couple.

Schone first pushed the erotic envelope in her 1995 romance novel, "Awaken My Love," which was based on the unique -- and some say wacky -- premise of time travel via masturbatory orgasm. Not surprisingly, that high concept was a little too heady for the first 28 agents Schone tried to interest in the manuscript. "You simply cannot start a romance book with a masturbation scene!" one scolded her. Finally, though, Schone's daring book was accepted by the 29th agent she approached and sold to romance publisher Avon five days after submission. Schone recently announced that she'd signed a contract with Kensington Books for $500,000.

Today's billion-dollar romance novel industry offers readers an astonishing spectrum of styles and types, from "inspirational" and Regency romances (which feature chaste kisses at most) to the explicit -- and even downright kinky -- eroticism of writers like Schone. The chasm between the advocates of "sweet" romance and the devotees of the "scorching" became especially apparent in June, when Schone posted a spirited essay on the popular book review site All About Romance, justifying a place for her approach to sexuality in the genre and claiming that her work contributed to feminist and artistic liberation. "Do romance readers want a clueless virgin who regularly bathes but has no idea that she has a clitoris until the hero finds the magic button?" she asked.

Schone's lively rant prompted All About Romance publisher Laurie Gold to ask romance readers and writers for their reactions, and the site's News and Views message board promptly exploded, logging hundreds of vivid -- and livid -- comments in a matter of days.

Some of the first responses impugned Schone's motives and sincerity: "I don't care what you want to put in your book," one "Irritated Beyond Belief" reader wrote. "But don't stand on a pedestal and declare it art. Don't whine about creativity and your right to write what you want ... Get real. It's publicity, and your books will probably fly off the shelf because of it." The next message agreed: "This chick is merely after sales figures, nothing more."

The question of the commercial appeal of sexual content is a vexed one in the romance community. Everyone denies that there is any overt editorial pressure on writers one way or another, but one author -- who preferred to remain anonymous because of concern about repercussions from readers and publishers -- nevertheless admits that other writers' successes have made her consider including more love scenes and putting them earlier in her books. So far she has resisted that particular siren song, but she says, "I wonder constantly, if I wrote more 'sexy' books, would I be higher up the ladder?"

Author Sabrina Jeffries denies that there is any general pressure toward more frequent or more unusual sex scenes: "Several new lines have opened up at publishers in the past three years that cater to readers who like no sex in their books," she says. "I think that the trend is not so much toward more sex, but toward more diversity. Publishers are finally realizing one size does not fit all -- no pun intended."

Gold agrees, pointing out that more than 70 percent of the books her site has reviewed were given sensuality ratings of merely "Warm" or less, and only 1 percent were rated as "Burning," like Schone's recent full-length novel, "The Lady's Tutor." A recent upsurge of interest in "PG-rated" romance has even prompted Gold to compile a special list of recommended books with minimal sexual content, called One Foot on the Floor -- a tongue-in-cheek reference to the infamous Hays Commission standard of film censorship. (To comply with the Hays code, the makers of studio-system Hollywood movies only included love scenes in which one of the actors' feet remained on the floor.)

Schone knows she's bucking a disapproving tide. But, she insists, beyond the necessity for a happy-ever-after ending, there shouldn't be limits on what is considered "suitable" in the genre: "Love cannot be contained or defined by moral conditioning,"
she wrote in her AAR essay. "Surely there is room for erotica as well as inspirational. For drama as well as lighthearted comedies. For reality as well as fantasy. Masturbation. Oral sex. Anal sex. Sex acts that are not always performed with body parts. These are great tools to advance a plot and develop character."

"Somewhere in that last bit of commentary, she loses me," publisher Gold confesses. "Silk scarves and feathers I can handle, but electrical devices and the insertion of foodstuffs or sex toys cross my line in the sand." Gold isn't the only one with concerns about dildos and anal sex as literary devices. Florida reader Lena Diaz was outraged: "If this is the future of romance novels, I'm going to go to the bookstore immediately and purchase everything on the romance shelves, before this new era of smut is unleashed!"

But it's not "a new era," romance veterans insist. The genre's already been there, done that -- and changed the batteries: "Bertrice Small, Rosemary Rogers and the like exploded the romance genre in the '70s by having all kinds of explicit sex," says Jeffries. "No bestiality, but just about everything else from rape to S/M to whatever they could throw in." Those were the days when the term "bodice-rippers" came into vogue.

An enormous backlash followed, fueled in part by feminism, and when writers began making their heroes more heroic and less violent, "readers pounced on those books with a vengeance," Jeffries says. "I think they had enjoyed the earlier books because they talked about sex, and that had been missing in popular literature for women, but what they really wanted was the focus on emotion and building of the relationship along with good sex. When they got that, they were ecstatic." And that, most aficionados agree, was when the genre really took off.

In a community that prides itself on its public civility and smiley mutual enthusiasm -- even if it is sometimes undertaken with secretly clenched teeth -- many participants found the open anger that the sexuality issue provoked on the All About Romance board made them uncomfortable. "Talking about sex is a little like talking politics or religion," says romance writer Michelle Jerott. "People can get pretty touchy about it." It's not surprising, then, that when religion entered the dispute, the heat flared exponentially.

DeeDee Wakabayashi, one of a number of conservative Christian women who were drawn to the discussion of Schone's manifesto, recently decided to give up reading romances with sexual content, and she was blunt in her assessment of the genre: "I think romance novels are to women what pornography is to men. The books in and of themselves may not be pornography but the sex scenes can be called nothing less."

That declaration outraged many other participants. "Calling romance 'women's porn' makes it sound as though it is the female equivalent of 'Debbie Does Dallas,'" said Gold. Mark Pottenger, a romance fan who at one point confessed that he found them more stimulating than Playboy pictures ("but I'm very verbal"), rejected Wakabayashi's categorical assumption that any material that caused sexual arousal was pornography. "There is a vast difference in intent and focus," he said. "Pornography focuses on sex without love and sometimes with violence or degradation. Romance focuses on love and character growth."

Other readers agreed with him -- at length and vehemently -- that 10 (or even 50) pages of lovemaking in a 350-page novel were no more than the "whipped cream on the strawberries" of the main event: the story of how a man and a woman fall in love against the odds and, unlike the bed-hopping characters on TV soap operas, commit themselves to each other forever. Said reader Alison Henry: "Let all these killjoys watch the daytime talk shows -- 'I don't know which man fathered my child/my sister slept with my husband/two pregnant mistresses' -- and I'll stick with romances and their happy-ever-after endings."

"Happy ever after" usually means marriage, and romance readers believe fervently in that institution -- as long as they perceive it to be a partnership between equals. Wakabayashi particularly disturbed the AAR forum when she confessed that a significant element in her renunciation of the genre was her husband's distaste for the books: "He asked me if there was explicit sex in them and exactly how explicit it was, and I told him, and he said he was not comfortable with that."

This concession to a disapproving husband struck some participants as bizarre, an echo of the days when Victorian women allowed their husbands to "shield" them from the corrupting influence of the scandalous daily newspapers. Few are surprised, though, that some men still feel threatened by women's interest in romances. In a highly entertaining essay, romance writer and researcher Jennifer Crusie notes that romances challenge patriarchic notions by making the heroine's needs central: "Romance fiction was critically doomed the minute its writers said, 'We're going to make our central characters female, and they're going to win,'" Crusie declares. "And then [they compounded] that sin by showing that love is a powerful force that should be taken seriously." Her shrewd examination of the critics of the genre caused Crusie to realize why she liked romance fiction -- it was "an equal opportunity debunker" of many cherished literary theories and political mythologies, both left and right. "It was not only entertaining and empowering," she says; "it seriously annoyed a lot of stuffed shirts."

Others reacting to Wakabayashi's compromise with her husband pointed out that a man who is against his wife reading romances might very well be shooting himself in the foot. A 69-year-old fan once confessed to Schone that she wished erotic romances had been available when she first got married in 1948. "She said it would certainly have made the first few years of their marriage easier on her husband," Schone said.

Research backs up the anecdotal evidence about romances' effects on the marriage bed. Two studies cited in Dr. Patricia Love's guide to "Hot Monogamy" suggest that women who read romance novels have about twice as much marital sex as those who don't, and that they enjoy it more. Discussion participant "Laura Jane" admitted that married sex "ain't red satin sheets and wild all-night sex every night," and said that she finds romance novels help when things become too routine: "After almost 20 years together, our sex drives ebb and flow, and when it is good it is very good, but when it's not and we're in a rut of the same old same old, that's where I will re-read one of my hot romances and try to schedule some time alone with hubby."

But Stacey Helms, another conservative Christian at AAR, recoiled from that idea. "I put all my sexual eggs in the basket of my husband," she said. "I save up and center all my sexuality on him. I do not wish to become aroused in some other way and then run to him for satisfaction." Helms acknowledged that she also experienced a crisis of conscience about the books, and she repeatedly questioned why sexual activity had to be shown in romances at all. Wakabayashi joined her in challenging the genre's defenders: "Why do you need the explicitness? Do you have a hard time thinking of what happens when the door closes?"

But romance authors say that imagining that scene is not the reader's job. The whole point of their fictional enterprise is to bring the audience as fully as possible into the experience of the characters, into their joys and sorrows and emotions and sensations. "I tend not to like stories that shut the bedroom door," says romance writer Jo Beverley, "in part because I think first sex is a very important part of a relationship, and when they come out and carry on with the story there'll be a huge hole there of things I don't know and don't understand."

"Closing the door" is unthinkable for Schone. "I simply cannot imagine writing about a romantic relationship between a man and a woman without including sexual love," she says. It is, for her, a crucial dimension of the story, the point at which the characters are most vulnerable to each other, most expressive of themselves as human beings. What goes on behind the bedroom door is an essential part of any romantic narrative, because, she says, "I believe that sexual love between a man and a woman is the most powerful force in the universe."

Meanwhile, back at the bookstore, it appears the prediction about Schone's books "flying off the shelves" has come true. The out-of-print paperback edition of "Awaken My Love" is up to $26 at auction, "The Lady's Tutor" is No. 2 on Amazon's Romance Bestseller list, and her contribution to "Captivated" is the major reason that volume has become the fastest-selling trade romance anthology ever -- at least according to reader reviews, many of which express disdain for the other writers in the volume. As one California reader put it succinctly: "Read Schone. Burn the rest."

By Julia Gracen

Julia Gracen is a writer and "book doctor" from Charleston, S.C.

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