The problem with our times is that we categorise sex with such lack of finesse: pondies, lesbian erotica, vanilla porn, and the Internet’s brimming troves of what might be called Bhabhilust. Several centuries before Mills & Boon and YouPorn had commercialised our erogenous imaginations, vanilla sex flourished in Bhartrhari’s verses, in the Kuruntokai, in the Tamil poems written by women in ancient India.
“My virgin self of which he partook is now like a branch half broken by an elephant, bent, not yet fallen to the ground, still attached to the mother tree by the fibre of its bark."
I’m not sure the author of this verse, from the Kuruntokai, realised how closely this lament would mirror the dilemma of the women protagonists of romance novels.
In the ’70s, the true dream was to find a perfect, sensitive, sensual lover: who’d call you the next day!
In Red Feather Love, Gillian McBride falls hopelessly in love with the enigmatic Dirk von Breda—but does he want a “precocious kid”? Can Wilda, an innocent pawn in a sordid divorce, convince the scornful Damien Demonides of her virtue, in The Love Battle? And what will Sally Walling do with the yearning Gavin Huntly arouses in her breast—or the raging feelings that no man has made her feel before?
This was the stereotypical plot line of Mills & Boons and Harlequin romances for decades. It wasn’t till the 1970s that M&Bs allowed a glimpse of premarital sex, or discovered “other ways to kiss” in Antigua Kiss. Romance for an M&B heroine meant marriage, and children, with a man who might understand her need for a career but who would always come first. At least, that’s what I thought, until my grandmother—who had an astonishingly wide-ranging collection of M&Bs and Woman’s Weekly romances—inducted me into the true mysteries of the rose of romance.
Turn your attention away from the M&B heroine for a moment, and reflect on the Mills & Boon hero. He was almost always a strong-willed, independent man, often good-looking, but more importantly, blessed with an excellent physique. (Oh, those manly chests, those steely shoulders, those hard-muscled thighs. I searched in vain for a hero of romance with a paunch or man-boobs; none is to be found.) In the apparently conservative romances of the ’70s—by the ’90s, sex had taken over romance to the point where my grandmother complained M&Bs had, literally, lost the plot—the real fantasy seemed to be to find a man who could keep his woman happy in bed.
Only in the ’70s did M&Bs allow a glimpse of premarital sex, or other ways to kiss.
From Blake Mahoney to Miguel de la Santos to Zachary Farrell, then, they had this in common: most M&B men were experienced. But the thing about Max Zappelli’s playboy life or Carne Radley’s previous experience with women is that it left them able to slide their hands possessively (or feverishly, depending on circumstances) down (or up) their partner’s (trembling, eager) body with practised assurance, usually taking her to unknown (or quivering) transports of delight. In other words, this was the true dream: finding the perfect, sensitive, sensual lover who would call you the next day. The wedding ring and the happy fade-out was just the sop to conscience: of course, it was all right for women to dream of having incredible sex, so long as there were wedding bells in the end.
Casual sex, though, was for the Other Woman who occasionally appeared in the pages of a romance—usually in the guise of a jealous lover (the tempestuous, stormy Bella LaBlanche; the sultry, spoilt Clara St Claire). One-night stands led inexorably to either path A, in which the heroine experiences remorse, berates herself for being carried away by the tempest of passion, and learns some 50 pages later that it’s all right, because it was True Love, not True Sluttishness, after all. Or there was path B, in which the heroine gets pregnant (condoms appeared in romance novels only in the ’90s) and resolves that the hero will Never Know, until there is a happy ending where the hero returns to claim child and beloved with due drama, obligatory passionate clinch and much in the way of musing over fatherhood. (Those formidable M&B men were also awesome in the diaper-changing department. That’s why M&Bs were called “fantasy fiction”.)
The problem with Blaze, Spice and the parallel lines of “sizzling” or “raunchy” romance now coming out is not the content, nor is it the timing. Though M&B only launched Spice in 2008, it had, like most other romance novel publishers, a range of novels suited for the reader who wanted steamier sex, where the hero and heroine were seldom willing to wait beyond page 15. (My grandmother, a formidable literary critic in her own fashion, was absolutely right when she said too much passion wrecked the plot, but that’s another matter all together.)
Pulp romance today offers all benefits of having a man around, but none of the trouble.
Spice, for instance, features every female fantasy previously explored by Cosmo, feminist theorists, or Japanese and Scandinavian filmmakers. Rough sex and bondage? Check. Role-playing fantasies? Check. Kink in the safe zone—1 to 5 rather than 5 to 10—of sadomasochism and domination? Check. Group sex conducted on the lines of Tupperware party or kitty party? Check. We-did-every-position-in-the-Kamasutra-including-the-boring-one-with-the-chicken sex? Check.
But here’s the thing. The new novels, the ones that promise to liberate women’s erotic fantasies and allow space for today’s reality, where hookups and booty calls are just as much the urban woman’s prerogative as it was once the urban male fantasy—they are still selling a dream.
Two generations ago, the dream was passion, safety and a wedding ring. A generation ago, the dream entered Erica Jong territory—sex without responsibility or commitment, but with anonymity preserved. (Get out of bed and go back to looking for Mr Right.) The erotica Spice and Blaze offer is (usually) balanced by the safety that goes with having one key sexual partner, the possibility of romance is replaced by the guarantee of mind-blowing sex, and the no-strings-attached relationship is presented as desirable—all the benefits of having a man around with none of the trouble.
So what won’t you find in the shiny, happy new world of casual-sex romance? STDs and herpes, for one; accidental pregnancies are also rare; the fuckbuddy relationship seldom develops complications; the woman isn’t slut-shamed, the man isn’t a boor or a clumsy lover or a rapist. Here’s Mr Right: he’ll give you a great time in bed, he’ll call back in the morning, even send roses, ask for no commitments, won’t judge you for your sexual appetite. And since he’s selling briskly in the romance section, here’s the kicker: he’s just as much a fantasy as Mr Right circa 1970 ever was.