Sunday, 27 June 2010

Blowing the Curtains: The Changing Demarcation Lines of Sex in Fiction

A gentleman romance reader recently emailed to say how much he enjoyed the ‘blowing the curtains’ scenes in my story, ‘A Piece of My Heart.’ That’s to say, the love scenes. The term comes from film—the viewer follows the couple into their bedroom, then the camera pans to an open window, curtains billowing. Sex between the couple is implied but not shown.

I’ll start by defining the traditional differences between romance, erotica, and porn:

Romance – Romance is and has always been about the monogamous relationship between two people. The story follows the growth of the relationship and their love for each other; it’s in their hearts, in their words, in their actions. Their love is not necessarily exhibited sexually, but it has to be exhibited emotionally. And by the end, there must be an HEA...Happily Ever After.

Erotica – Erotica is about suggestion, titillation, and letting your imagination fill in where the author left off. It’s about arousal, sexual desire, the use of the human body in works of art, photography, film, sculpture and painting that’s erotically stimulating. The subject is usually posed naturally, but in the nude.

Pornography – The stakes are raised higher with this genre with crude words, advanced sexual positions, multiple partners, including graphic illustrations, photographs, etc. Models in images are posed nude, but in extreme positions to show off genitalia. Pornography’s sole purpose is to arouse sexually to the point of climax.

What we think of today as traditional has not always been so. The demarcation lines are constantly changing. This change is largely due to public perception and acceptability, the levels of which fall in and out of favor over the years. I could go back in time to the ‘Song of Solomon,' one of the five scrolls in the Hebrew Bible, where the relationship of a man and woman are followed from courtship to consummation. I could detail any number of medieval eroticas, including the 1353 ‘Decameron’ in which there are tales of lecherous monks and the seduction of nuns, or the 1423 bawdy tales of bed-hopping in ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ by Chaucer, or even the 1748 release of ‘Fanny Hill’ by John Cleland, which subsequently became one of the most prosecuted and banned books in history.

Rather than go too far back in history, let’s look at the 20th century.

Barbara Cartland

In 1923, Dame Barbara Cartland’s first novel, ‘Jigsaw,’ was published. It was a risqué society thriller, and was an immediate bestseller. In 1926, her play, ‘Blood Money,’ was banned by England’s Lord Chamberlain's Office, a department within the British Royal Household, citing the play was too racy. Ms. Cartland continued to publish her romances to an appreciative audience, but she was constantly criticized for writing about sex. In her long career, Dame Cartland published 723 romance novels, she sold ONE BILLION books worldwide, and was published in 36 countries. When she passed, left behind 160 unfinished manuscripts.

And while her narrative may have been racy, not ONE of her books included a sex scene. Not even in the 70s when a changed romance industry was demanding them. Her stories remained true from her origins. Her stories were about love and all the emotions that make us fall in love. Because of this, she remains the Dame of the Traditional Romance.

D.H. Lawrence

Cartland was an influential woman. Following her lead, D.H. Lawrence published his book ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ 1928. The book had to be published in Italy, as it was banned in Britain until 1960 for lewdness. The book was the story of an affair between an aristocratic woman and a working-class man. The story is explicit and used language otherwise unacceptable in print at the time, let alone mixed company. Yet this book became a classic.

Kathleen Winsor

In 1944, Kathleen Winsor published the now classic, ‘Forever Amber,' which tells the story of orphaned Amber St. Clare, who makes her way up through the ranks of 17th century English society by sleeping with and/or marrying successively richer and more important men, while keeping her love for the one man she could never have. The novel includes portrayals of Restoration fashion, politics, and public disasters, including the plague and the Great Fire of London. While many reviewers "praised the story for its relevance, comparing Amber's fortitude during the plague and fire to that of the women who held hearth and home together through the blitzes of World War II", others condemned it for its blatant sexual references. Fourteen U.S. states banned the book as pornography. The first was Massachusetts, whose attorney general cited 70 references to sexual intercourse, 39 illegitimate pregnancies, 7 abortions, and "10 descriptions of women undressing in front of men" as reasons for banning the novel.

I suppose at 972 pages, she had to fill the story with something! However, Winsor denied that the book contained any sex at publication, which her publisher had removed the two ‘sexy scenes’ she had written, and replaced them with ellipses . . .

Other classics of the 20th century include ‘Tropic of Cancer’(1934) and ‘Tropic of Capricorn’(1938) by Henry Miller, ‘The Story of O’(1954) by Anne Desclos under the pseudonym Pauline Réage, and ‘Little Birds’(1979) by Anaïs Nin.


This is the year the modern romance was born. In a daring move, romance publisher Avon released ‘The Flame and the Flower’ by Katherine Woodiwiss. Romance and erotica were very popular before 1972, as we see above, but this was the first romance novel that followed the characters into their bedroom. ‘The Flame and the Flower’ was also the first single-title romance novel to be published as an original paperback, and with a cheaper cover price and its daring theme, the book was an instant hit and readers cried out for more...even at 600 pages! And it sparked off a new revolution in romance.

The 1960s had been a major turning point on how people viewed themselves and the world around them. It was a decade of drastic change. Rock and roll was an unstoppable force and was as much a driving force as a backdrop to everything else that happened in that decade. The Beatles invaded American in 1964, San Francisco gave birth to the Sexual Revolution in the Summer of Love, 1967 had the Monterey Pop Festival, and 1969 gave us Woodstock. Music of that era defined the Vietnam War and helped fuel anti-war protests. In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and America put a man on the moon in 1969. We also saw the release of the first oral contraceptive, the original prototype for the internet was created called ARPAnet, and the first heart transplant was performed. The 1960s gave us today’s cult icons in Clint Eastwood, Doris Day, Elvis Presley, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon...the list goes on.

While other decades, even centuries, saw many changes that propelled our lives, there’s no disputing that the 1960s was like an explosion of psychedelic pun intended. We didn’t just move into the 60s when 1959 came to a close. We were catapulted at colossal speed. So by 1972 when ‘The Flame and the Flower’ was published, it represented everything we’d lived through in the 60s, particularly freedom of speech and freedom of expression, including and especially freedom of sexual expression. Avon’s foresight and ballsy gamble paid off in ways they hadn’t imagined.

What this did for the romance game was change the playing field. Romance was now allowing the reader into the character’s bedroom where we were previously either left at the door or before billowing curtains. Yet, romance still wasn’t considered erotica. The language changed too. Flowery prose took on a whole new dimension, taking on the phrase purple prose.

According to Wikipedia on romance novels, “The success of these novels prompted a new style of writing romance, concentrating primarily on historical fiction tracking the monogamous relationship between a helpless heroine and the hero who rescued her, even if he had been the one to place her in danger. The covers of these novels tended to feature scantily clad women being grabbed by the hero, and caused the novels to be referred to as "bodice-rippers."

A quick note on bodice-rippers and purple prose. As you can see by the image here, the traditional ‘clinch cover’ included a strapping hero embracing the heroine, her hair (and probably his too) billowing in the wind and possibly mocking the old billowing curtains. Historical romances dominated the market so characters wore traditional costume to match the era of the story. This included the low neck bodice of the heroine which was either falling off the heroine’s creamy shoulders, or the hero had ripped off same said shoulders, and her voluptuous breasts threatening to spill out. The term and the covers stem from scenes popular in books of the time where the hero is so overcome with lust for the heroine that he has to practically rip the clothes off her body to make love with her. Rip the bodice to expose a breast, lift the skirts to perform the deed. What else do you need?

Bodice-ripping is considered a dirty word in the industry today, as publishers strive to provide more tasteful artwork to represent their stories. Even the racier historicals.

Deb Stover wrote a piece for ‘How to Write a Romance For The New Markets’ (OOP) in which she writes, “The main area where romance writers in particular are accused of inflicting the reader with purple prose is in love scenes. Why? In the seventies, when authors first threw open the bedroom doors on love scenes in romance novels, writers had to devise creative ways to describe human anatomy. Apparently, the powers-that-be felt the reading public could only handle one shock at a time, so we formulated all sorts of interesting words and phrases to substitute for more clinical terms.”

If you've ever read a romance that included phrases such as his tumescent tube of fire, the bald avenger, the heat of her femininity, or anything similar that may also have included quivering, mounds, pulsating, throbbing, staff, sword, etc. to describe a person's state of arousal or bodily part then you're familiar with purple prose.

Bodice-ripping and purple prose aside, the 1970s saw a boom in the trade of romance novels which were now released as mass market paperbacks and widely available. Long time novelists Jude Deveraux and LaVeyrle Spencer were directly influenced by Woodiwiss’s ‘The Flame and The Flower.’ Deveraux said she started her first novel The Enchanted Land the day after finishing ‘The Flame and the Flower.’

Jump forward to the 21st century and things have taken another drastic change. Romance now takes readers into the bedrooms with characters. Not only that, we’ve become voyeurs as characters participate in things we only read about in eroticas. We also now have stories about vampires, aliens, shape-shifters, and celestial beings, and they’re all engaging in intimate relationships.

We’ve also seen the creation of many subgenre, including fantasy romance, sci-fi romance, romantic suspense, gothic romance, futuristic romance, paranormal romance, and gay romance. Traditional contemporary romance includes time-travel romance to marry the story within a historical romance. Even traditional historical romance has evolved into subgenres, including western romance and Regency romance, as well as retaining traditional historical romance...those plots set any time before World War II. But that soon will change, as those demarcation lines will shift once WWII reaches its hundredth anniversary.

Whatever the subgenre, the base of romance is still the same. The story is about the relationship and the emotional journey from meeting to falling in love. Sex scenes in romance must, at all times, be an integral part of the story. And in some of the best romances out there, the author waits until the end of the story before the consummation.

The 21st century has also given birth to the new Romantica. This is a blend of romance and erotica, the term first coined by erotica publisher Ellora’s Cave: "... any work of literature that is both romantic and sexually explicit in nature." The couple is still monogamous, but the author is allowed many more liberties for their characters to discover sex together, which includes using adult toys and the use of graphic descriptions. Romantica also has room for three-way relationships, but each character must be monogamous to the other two. If romance is 90% emotion and 10% physical, then Romantica is 70% emotion and 30% physical.

Traditional erotica is no longer just about titillation and suggestion. Today, the genre has grown to include erotic romance. These stories now include the use of crude words, advanced sexual positions, multiple partners, and anything else deemed racy or unexplored in the past. But erotica has taken on a new life beyond this. Erotic romances are also romance driven, but the sex must play an equal part as the story itself. As above, erotica is generally 50-60% emotion and 50-40% physical.

Erotic romance also allows same sex partners, advanced sexual experimentation, S&M, bondage and other fetishes, even self-pleasuring. There seems to be few limits, but they do exist. Rape is still a BIG no-no, as is incest, beastiality, choke games, and urolagnia (aka golden showers). I won’t link those. If you’re interested you can Google them yourself. For those saying ‘The Story of O’ was about the multiple rapes of O, remember she still had to give permission to her lovers before they could lay with her. She may have been a love slave, but she still had the power to refuse a lover. Does this sound like 50 Shades of Grey bye E.L. James? It should.

With the popularity of the new erotic romance, dozens of new small presses have started up to satisfy the influx of story submissions. Ellora’s Cave was one of the first on the scene in 2000, and while others have come and gone, EC has risen to the top of the list and has influenced how traditional print publishers operate.

Small press doesn’t mean books are only available online. These days many small presses offer both downloads and print books. Some of the top small presses include Tirgearr PublishingTotally Bound, Samhain Publishing, Siren Publishing,  . . . the list goes on.

There’s no denying it. Erotic romance is big business. There’s definitely a market for the more explicit romance. Anyone who read romance in the 80s will probably still have some of the fears of being found out reading erotica, but today, by and large, most women admit they read romance. And a HUGE number of them admit they read erotica and erotic romance and really enjoy it.

Part of what's driving the increase in popularity of more graphically written stories is the advent of the ereader -- Kindle, Kobo, Nook, etc. These devices lend a great deal of privacy where reading preferences are concerned.

The tag line for publisher Black Lace Books in the UK is "written for women by women"...because women know what women want. Men can learn a lot about their partner’s fantasies and what they want at home. A man paying attention while reading erotica and erotic romance can hopefully put it into practice with his partner.

One can always tell erotica written by women and that written by men. Women's erotica is 80% emotion and 20% graphic detail, as with men, it's 80% graphic detail and 20% emotion. Woman want to know how it feels emotionally and men want to know how it feels physically. I know I’ll get slaughtered for saying this, but this is why women are generally better at writing romance and erotica, and men are so much better writing thrillers.

Where does this leave pornography? Well, porn is mainly driven today through graphic novels, magazines, films, and illustrations. If it can be drawn or photographed, printed or publish in any medium, it’s included here. Unfortunately, those taboo things not allowed in romance or erotica tend to make it onto these pages, which are found “underground.”

So, how much sex should go into a romance before it becomes erotica? Well, after all I've said, it's really up to the writer and reader to determine. But I will say that there are a LOT of great stories out there that cater to all tastes.

I’ll leave you with this. In 2004, romance novels sold 55% of all mass-market paperbacks. In 2008, romance had 13.5% of the fiction consumer market. In 2013, the romance industry was worth $1.08 billion and had 13% of the fiction market share.

Looks like romance in all its forms is here to stay for a very long time.

{note: this article has been updated}


  1. Great post. You've made me want to reread the classics...again!

  2. Kemberlee, Great article. I especially got a kick out of a couple of things. I am really into all things Celtic and certain things would attract my attention, such as "Samhain Publishing, Cerridwen Press" I would have probably been very interested in them, without knowing that they are big publishers of erotica as well. Not that I'd mind exactly, but it would be kind of a shock when I first looked them up.

    Another thing that you said made a lot of sense and in fact struck me quite a bit in my own writing: "I know I’ll get slaughtered for saying this, but this is why women are generally better at writing romance and erotica, and men are so much better writing thrillers." I wouldn't slaughter you for it because I think you are right! I've tried romance, and the story turned into a story about the retaking of a kingdom, with some romance in, but not as much as I had originally intended. Second I had visited this one very romantic mansion and everywhere I went I saw how
    this place might have been designed by a woman with a romantic heart. Lots of secluded places,
    beautifully decorated. The minute I saw it I thought It would be a great romance setting.
    Well I thought long and hard about that, and gave up the thought of strictly a romance, but it did make a fairly good mystery, with a romance involved of course, I do like romance so I write it in a lot, though I am probably tamer in my writing than many of the writers
    I've read and never feel like I can do it justice.

    It's funny because I always wanted to write for women, but with consideration for women's feelings in it too, not just the usual male stuff. In most things I read, if males have written sex scenes I don't really think they
    are as good as ones written by women.

    And hopefully I have learned something from them too!


  3. Scarlett - Definitely get reading the classics again.
    Ray - Thanks for your comments. It's rare to hear from men who read romance. You should stand tall and proud and sing it from the rooftop! :-) Good luck with your own writing. Remember, there's nothing wrong with writing a story with romantic elements. It doesn't have to be a traditional romance to be romantic.

  4. I think there's a big difference between erotica and erotic romance -- as I wrote both -- but even with my erotic romance I skew much more to the male side of things according to your scale. While general trends might show that kind of disparity, I think there's a much greater variety now, not only with women having become more comfortable with explicit description, but also more male writers getting comfortable with emotions. One of the great things about romance is that it's such a broad genre as to have something for everyone, regardless of their tastes. Nice article!

  5. Scarlett - That was an interesting analogy of the history of written romance, erotica, and romantica. Your words clarify the lines, and the progression of the written word. My first experience with a romantic novel was The Flame and The Flower ... I've been hooked ever since. Thank you Scarlett!
    Julie Sorci

  6. This post was informative, as well as entertaining. As a romance author myself, I like to read about the different genres, as well as changes happening in the genre. Thank you for the time it took to research and write this post.
    You now have a new follower. :)