Yesterday, I wrote about an article in the New York Times on the "graying of naughty." I promised to tie that article together with the recent interest in erotic romances.
Let me say from the outset that I have had a love/hate relationship with romance novels.
Like many woman, I began by reading Harlequin romances in my very early teens. I was looking for something to help me navigate the perilous terrain of male/female relationships. Anticipating my first boyfriend, I wanted help in understanding men and romance.
It was probably another six or eight years--after I'd accumulated a bit of romantic experience--before I began to find those romance novels formulaic and unrealistic. I became bored by the virginal heroines, and I eventually abandoned the genre altogether, choosing to read mysteries or thrillers instead.
By the time I approached thirty, my view of those innocent heroines had grown much more negative. I was concerned that romances encouraged passivity in women since the heroines always waited to be rescued by the hero. Romance novels promoted the belief that no woman could be complete without a man. In addition, I was appalled by bodice-busting rape plotlines in which the virginal heroine was taken forcibly by the hero. When my friends talked of their favorite romance writers, I sneered with contemptuous superiority or--worse yet--pontificated on my feminist manifesto.
A few years ago, stuck in a hotel overnight on business, I drifted down to the newstand, looking for a diverting read. My choices were extremely limited, and I picked up an historical romance. The publisher was Brava, the author was Robin Schone and the book was The Lady's Tutor.
I stayed up the entire night, reading that novel. The next day, lack of sleep made me a bleary-eyed participant in meetings. I had discovered the erotic romance.
When I analyze why that book made such an impact on me, I can point to three reasons: First, Robin Schone's genius in her choice of setting: the novel is set in the Victorian Age. The contrast between the very stuffy mores of the era and the sensual detail of Elizabeth Petre's sexual awakening makes the love scenes much more dramatic and erotic. It also raises the stakes for Elizabeth if she is caught having an affair.
Second, Elizabeth is no simpering, passive virgin waiting for Prince Charming. She is a woman who's been married for many years and who has two sons. Because she believes her husband has a mistress, she sets out, determined to learn how to lure him back to her bed. Her approach is extremely pragmatic. What Elizabeth wants is a disposable lover; one who can teach her the sexual arts and whom she can then discard. While not a contemporary heroine, Elizabeth is experiencing real life problems that a contemporary woman can appreciate. It's her solution that is the stuff of feminine fantasies.
The third reason I was so interested in the novel was Ramiel, Elizabeth's lover. Ramiel is the bastard son of an English noblewoman and an Arab sheik. He is disreputable, not fully accepted by English society. On the surface, he is the typical macho male. However, he is also extremely vulnerable. And it was that vulnerability that captured me. Ramiel has as much--if not more--to lose in his relationship with Elizabeth. He's not the cardboard hero I remembered from my earlier forays into romance reading.
I also appreciated the blunt language of the book. I am a straight-forward person. All the euphemisms of romance novels annoy me. The frank vocabulary of The Lady's Tutor held its own appeal.
And this brings me to the point of this post: the tie-in with the Times article. I talked yesterday about how Viagra, cosmetic surgery and people living longer are all contributing to an acceptance of older role models in porn movies. Our population is aging and, at the same time, our values are shifting. Not our values of goodness, honesty or fairness, but our values of what constitutes "attractive" and "vibrant."
I spent a little time at the U.S. Census Bureau's website this morning. You can find it here. Once you figure out how to navigate the site, it contains all sorts of valuable information.
I focused on the 2005 data estimates and found several things that surprised me. It's axiomatic that females outnumber males in our population, but did you know that this is not the case at every age? In fact, according to the 2005 data, males outnumbered females at every age level until 45 to 49. At that age, the numbers of men and women are precisely equal: each constitutes 7.7% of the total population.
After age 49, however, men start dropping like flies. By the time they reach 85 and older, women (1.7%) outnumber men (.9%) by almost 2:1. PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT FOR MEN: this is the reason why you need to get in the habit of going for regular physical exams and dental appointments.
In terms of the total population, according to the 2005 estimates, 28% of the total U.S. population is 19 and under, 43% of the population is between the ages of 20 and 49, and the percentage of the population over age 50 is 29%. That means that almost 30% of the U.S. is now over the age of 50. No wonder we're more willing to look at older role models for sex.
And what comes with age? Experience, confidence and, in many (although not all) cases, a willingness to relax and be playful. Think about it. Aren't you much more sexually adventurous now than you were at age twenty? Aren't you more confident and willing to say what you like in bed?
I believe this is precisely why women (and increasingly, men) are drawn to erotic romances. Young people are sexually active sooner these days. And the population in general can expect to be sexually active longer: we are living longer and we now have medications like Viagra to enhance performance.
The heroines of erotic romances are rarely passive creatures. They are more likely to be arranging the rescue of the hero than to be sitting around waiting to be rescued.
Let's not kid ourselves. Romance novels, like porn movies, are about fantasies. Remember: three-fourths of the population are older than nineteen. While a teenager may fantasize about her first lover, it grows less and less likely that a thirty-five-year-old woman is going to spend a lot of time fantasizing about losing her virginity. Her fantasies are much more likely to be about an adult relationship, one which includes sex. Sometimes it's hot, passionate sex. And sometimes it's gentle, loving sex. I personally like novels that include both kinds and, therefore, try to include both types of scenes in my books.
I've been reading blogs where writers speculate that the interest in erotic romance is dying out. What I think is happening is that erotic sex scenes are filtering into other types of novels in the same way that the chick lit attitude is so pervasive in other genres. While you see fewer and fewer books labeled purely as chick lit, you can find that spunky voice everywhere--in paranormals, mysteries and contemporary romances. I think the same thing is happening with erotic romance.
Publishers are already demanding more of their erotic romance writers. It's not enough to simply write hot sex scenes any more--unless you're interested in moving toward pure erotica. Erotic romances these days have to have fresh and compelling plots. Something that hasn't been done over and over already.
I personally welcome the trend, if for no other reason than I'm tired of the raised eyebrows when I say that I write erotic romance. It's time the genre grew up. I have.