The fact that sex can and does take place ‘offstage’ in romances leads Monica Jackson to argue that:
Romance has sex. The most staid inspirational romance is about establishing a relationship that is going to lead to luscious, hot monkey sex, even if the sex happens to take place outside the covers of the book. There’s sex in romance, whether it’s an implied promise or frequent and graphically described variations. That’s why the controversy over romance sex is sort of silly. It’s as if folks were arguing over sweetener in chocolate. You can eschew sugar in favor of artificial sweetener or honey or use less–but if you’re eating palatable chocolate, it’s going have some sweetness, even if only a hint. If you read romance, it’s going to be about sex. If your characters don’t care about establishing a relationship that will eventually lead to some sort of sex, then you don’t have romance.Clearly she has a point, since marriage has traditionally been, at least according to the Book of Common Prayer, ‘ordained for the procreation of children’ and ‘to avoid fornication’. Quite whether the activities involved in this would always aptly be described as ‘hot monkey sex’, though, is another matter. Can you really imagine Fanny and Edmund Bertram engaging in ‘hot monkey sex’? I can’t (though it could be that this is because my imagination is lacking).
The crux of the matter is not whether or not people have sex, but whether sex should be depicted in romances, and whether, if implied/depicted, it should only take place between two married people. It’s clearly a highly controversial issue, and rather than get embroiled in an argument about the morality or otherwise of depictions of sexual activity (and the Bible itself can get pretty explicit, with lines such as ‘A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie all night betwixt my breasts’ (Song of Solomon 1:13), I’d like to take a look at a few ways in which romance novels can play a role in educating people about their bodies and in shaping attitudes towards sexuality.
In Lucy Monroe’s Blackmailed into Marriage the heroine is the not uncommon widow-who-has-never-had-an-orgasm, and the hero, of course, manages to awaken the heroine’s sexuality, but the twist is that this heroine’s got vaginismus. The treatment for this condition is described in some detail, and forms an integral part of the love-scenes and the author added a note to readers:
I wrote this book for the tens of thousands of women who suffer in silence believing there is something wrong with them. Only one in ten will seek treatment and of those, less than thirty percent will be willing to undergo physiological treatment such as the dilation procedure for vaginismus. I hope that if you are one of the women suffering in silence, you will be silent no longer, but most of all that you will realize that it’s not your fault. (2005: 187)This is perhaps an unusual example of very specific information on a gynaecological problem being presented in a romance, but it seems to me that it’s an indication of the possibilities offered by romance. In general, romances may give some basic information about the mechanics of reproduction, and though the incidence of contraceptive failure seems extremely high if one looks at romances as a group, as do the numbers of secret babies produced as a result, the depiction of the use of contraceptives during sex scenes, particularly of condoms, suggests to readers that condom-use is not incompatible with passion and enjoyment. Romances also challenge attitudes towards women’s sexuality. As Crusie says, according to ‘conventional wisdom’:
Women shouldn't experience a lot of sexual encounters [...] because that would soil them, and it's not in their nature anyway. Men who had a lot of sex and enjoyed it were studs; women who did the same were unnatural sluts. [...] God forbid a woman should know more about sex than a man. Romance fiction not only says women want that knowledge and have a right to it, it often gives it to them explicitly on the page, telling them it's not wrong to want a full sexual life and showing them how to get one.Whereas novels such as Tess of the d’Urbervilles tell a woman that, if she’s raped, she’s degraded, the modern romance genre, even with its rather high number of virgin heroines, does, on the whole, assert that a woman who has been raped or otherwise had sex outside marriage is still attractive, is still valuable as a person. Rather than condemning her, it celebrates her as a person. Some romances feature heroines who are/have been prostitutes, such as Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel, and Diane Gaston’s The Mysterious Miss M. Balogh writes that:
Priscilla Wentworth in A Precious Jewel [...] is a working girl at a brothel and a regular of the hero's until he takes her away to be his mistress. [...] Why do this? Just to give myself an excuse to write more sex scenes? Purely for titillation purposes? Emphatically no! Sex is surely not very joyful--and probably not very skilled or erotic either - between prostitutes and their clients. I did it to show that strong women can prevail over even the most dire and degrading of circumstances. [...]
There are sex scenes, of course, involving these women and their clients, but generally speaking they are either ugly or bland and emotionless. Those scenes provided me with a marvelous opportunity to write the contrasting scenes of love and joyfully erotic sex later in each book. I am firmly of the belief that sex can only be truly beautiful when it is combined with love. And so my books are love stories, not just sex romps or even just romances.
It’s also worth remembering that when it comes to sex, ignorance is not always bliss. In Polly Forrester’s Changing Fortunes, set not long after the end of the First World War, the widowed heroine, Flora, having been assaulted by her employer’s son, believes that she may be pregnant. William, the hero, asks her to marry him, because he himself is an illegitimate child, whose mother, ‘an ordinary country girl who made one mistake too many’ (1997: 166) was sent to a ‘home for fallen women’ (1997: 158). The stigma of such a status was immense, and William says that ‘I wouldn’t wish my fate on any child’ (1997: 166). Still unsure of their feelings for each other, having known each other for a short time, marriage seems like the only solution: ‘Marriage would be her only chance of escaping lifelong shame’ (1997: 166). On their wedding night, Flora experiences sexual pleasure for the first time, but this happiness soon turns to alarm when William spots some blood. He calls for the doctor:
‘Am I going to lose the baby?’Earlier in the novel, when William and Flora had visited a bookshop William had shown Flora his purchase: ‘Have a look. I shouldn’t like a respectable widowed lady to imagine I’d picked up the latest by Mrs Stopes.’ (102) Marie Stopes’ experience of her first marriage was not completely dissimilar to Flora’s:
‘What baby?’ the doctor countered smartly. ‘There is no baby. As far as I can see, Mrs Pritchard, you are not now, nor have you ever been, pregnant. In fact, in my view you were still a virgin when your husband rather comprehensively made a wife of you just a short while ago.’
[...] Flora remembered [...] ‘My first husband-’
‘How long were you married the first time?’ [...]
‘Only two days – it was in the war. He was killed...’ (1997: 187)
Marie Stopes [...] had a disastrous marriage to fellow scientist Reginald Ruggles Gates. They had a whirlwind romance, but the relationship was close to breakdown within a year. Although she was highly intelligent, it only gradually became apparent to Marie that her sex life was not quite right.A similar book in the US had falled foul of the Comstock Law which
After studying medical books in various languages in the British Library she realised her husband was impotent and that she was still a virgin. She did not believe in divorce, but took the extraordinary step of turning to the law and having her marriage annulled on the grounds of non-consummation.
The humiliating experience drove her to write her first book, Married Love. It was a sex manual - the first of its kind in the UK. It opened with these words: "In my first marriage I paid such a terrible price for sex-ignorance that I feel that knowledge gained at such a cost should be placed at the service of humanity… I hope (this book) will save some others years of heartache and blind questioning in the dark."
[...] The book was labelled immoral and obscene by the church, the medical establishment and the press, with its claims that women should enjoy sex as much as men. But it was an extraordinary hit with the general public. It sold 2000 copies within a fortnight, and Marie Stopes achieved fame and notoriety overnight.
forbade distribution of birth control information. In 1915, Margaret Sanger's husband was jailed for distributing her Family Limitation, which described and advocated various methods of contraception. Sanger herself had fled the country to avoid prosecution, but would return in 1916 to start the American Birth Control League, which eventually merged with other groups to form Planned Parenthood.Anti-obscenity legislation has also led to the banning of extremely important works of literature:
In 1930, U.S. Customs seized Harvard-bound copies of Candide, Voltaire's critically hailed satire, claiming obscenity. Two Harvard professors defended the work, and it was later admitted in a different edition. In 1944, the US Post Office demanded the omission of Candide from a mailed Concord Books catalog. [...] Aristophanes' Lysistrata, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Boccaccio's Decameron, Defoe's Moll Flanders, and various editions of The Arabian Nights were all banned for decades from the U.S. mails under the Comstock Law of 1873. Officially known as the Federal Anti-Obscenity Act, this law banned the mailing of "lewd", "indecent", "filthy", or "obscene" materials. The Comstock laws, while now unenforced, remain for the most part on the books today; the Telecommunications Reform Bill of 1996 even specifically applied some of them to computer networks.Censors often seem unable to distinguish between literature and pornography, and between educational material and what is ‘lewd’ and ‘obscene’. Of course, not everyone believes that romance is the correct genre for educating people about sexuality, but most would admit nonetheless, that, given the genre’s emphasis on sex taking place in the context of a loving relationship, even the more explicit romances do not, in general, encourage promiscuity and, as the heroine of Amanda Quick’s Wait Until Midnight says of her own novels: ‘although my themes and plots are often mature in nature, my characters are suitably rewarded or punished depending upon the morality of their actions’ (2004: 86).
Forrester, Polly, 1997. Changing Fortunes (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon).
Monroe, Lucy, 2005. Blackmailed into Marriage (Richmond, Surrey: Mills & Boon).
Quick, Amanda, 2004. Wait Until Midnight (London: Piatkus Books Ltd).