It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the States which means the traditional start to the summer season is upon us at least culturally if not meteorologically. I haven’t done so many essay-type posts lately, mostly because I’ve been trying to concentrate on improving my photos and recipes, but I sort of miss doing those more free-form pieces. And so when a question I asked on Twitter earlier this week seemed to spark some interest, I decided to go ahead and make a summer project of it.
The question went more or less like this: When did sex start becoming a major feature of category (aka series) romance? I’d just read and reviewed Roses Have Thorns by Karen Leabo, a Silhouette Romance from 1989, and there was hardly any sexual contact it in at all–just a few kisses and one over-the-blouse nipple pinching. It just got me wondering how we got from there (if there is really where it started, which we all had our doubts about, as you’ll see below) to where we are now, which has some kind of sex from fade-to-black to explicit in most major category lines.
According to a number of folks who have been around the romance business a lot longer than I have, it seems that the sex-on-page turning point happened long before 1989 and that the Silhouette Romance line or even that particular author chose to add none. Editor Jenny Haddon suggested that perhaps Sara Craven’s 1979 Mills & Boon title Flame of Diablo had the first on-page sex while Sarah Frantz Lyons recalled that a significant first might have been a Violet Winspear book. I have the Craven on order and it should be here next week. I’ll have to look into the Winspear thing though as the one I have of hers is from 1981.
But it got me thinking on a larger scale about the sexual content of category romance novels and how we got from a few chaste kisses in the Harlequin Romances of the early 1970s to the current situation that can allow for anal sex in some racier category lines. And not just penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex–what about oral sex, masturbation and other forms of sexual touching? Since I love old category romances and have a bunch of them already laying around my house unread, I thought, well, wouldn’t it be fun to do an utterly unscientific summer Saturday series sex survey (2U5S)?
I’d love to find some more books outside the Harlequin Presents line, but currently I have a selection of 16 books with publication dates from 1979 to 1990. The reason I chose those dates is that it encompasses both Craven’s 1979 book and a 1990 Anne Stuart book that lots of people seem to have found memorable for a particular oral sex scene. Though if I hear of a category/series romance with “full docking procedures” (Haddon’s term, which cracked me up and that I will use ad nauseum so fair warning) that has an earlier publication date, I’ll be happy to revise my criteria. Speaking of full docking procedures, I decided to define “sex” as orgasm achieved via manual, oral or genital stimulation. This may not be a good definition for sex in general, but it seemed a good enough definition for romance novel sex. If this were a real survey, I’d have to go into more detail about that and come up with a more clinical definition. But whatevs. Utterly unscientific.
Thus far I have books published by Harlequin Presents, Harlequin Romance, Dell Candlelight, Loveswept and Silhouette Romance. I think many of the Harlequins I have are actually reprints of Mills & Boon titles so those would also qualify. I just don’t often see them here in the US. I have two books each by Charlotte Lamb, Anne Mather and Iris Johansen, but the other authors are all unique.
I have set up a spreadsheet to track my reading and the sexual content therein. In addition to basic identification data, I developed a few categories of sexual content as well as some additional data that seemed tangentially related like whether the characters are explicitly named virgins and the type of language used to describe sexual acts and body parts (vague: he entered her, euphemistic: his sword entered her sheath, and precise: his penis entered her vagina). The spreadsheet is public, meaning anyone can edit, so if you want to read along and have books that would qualify, feel free to add them. I just ask the following: no historicals, no single title romances, no books outside the prescribed time period and if you add a title from a line not named above or have a category romance with sex and an earlier publication date, please email me so I can add it to my own to-buy list. All the books I intend to read are on the spreadsheet though I may revise if I can balance out the publisher & author distribution via new purchases. Our weekend forays into the Virginia hinterlands tend to yield some pretty good category hauls.
So…it’s not completely unscientific, I guess. I’m a Virgo after all. I really can’t help it.
Anyway, tomorrow I’ll post my first 2U5S book, Sea Lightning by Linda Harrel. No food, just romance. And my weird musings about the sexual content of 1980s-ish category romance.
Finally, if you want to read along or pick up some other early-ish category romances (again, not single title, not historical, not books outside the date range of 1979 to 1990), I’ve included a blog link-up thing below. I’ll link here from each of the review posts so if you want to read just one or a bunch over the course of the summer other folks interested in this stuff can find your post too. Feel free to link up GoodReads reviews, blog posts or articles. Just be sure only to link content written by you. Sorry, but I’ll delete posts that don’t conform to the guidelines above.