Thursday, September 20, 2007

Taking Sex Seriously: Harlequin Presents

RfP has found a very interesting article, published in Macleans this month, titled "Harlequin thinks unsexy thoughts" and subtitled "Impotence is just the start: the new romance novels put the 'fun' back in sexual dysfunction". The journalist, Patricia Treble, found that
in this month's Harlequins was Sandra Marton's The Greek Prince's Chosen Wife, about a woman learning to trust after being sexually abused in foster care. It's not a character or subject that most people expect to find in a happy-ending-in-200-pages serial romance. But today's Harlequin authors are increasingly devoting swaths of their books to upfront discussions of such serious sexual issues. Last month, Annie West's For the Sheikh's Pleasure focused on a woman struggling to be physically and emotionally intimate after being drugged and raped during a night out. And plots such as these are prominently displayed in the bestselling Harlequin Presents series, not tucked away in one of the publisher's more marginal lines.

Though sexual problems have been in HP books for years, they were often "alluded to, talked about euphemistically," explains Tessa Shapcott, executive editor of HP for 13 years. "Now we're just reflecting the fact that people are freer to discuss such intimate things. People are far more honest and open about suffering." For Shapcott, the breakthrough sexual dysfunction book was Lucy Monroe's Blackmailed into Marriage. Its entire plot revolved around vaginismus, a condition that causes vaginal muscles to involuntarily contract shut.
I mentioned Monroe's novel when I discussed the ways in which romance novels can provide sex education. Something I found particularly interesting was the fact that the authors of the Harlequin Presents/Mills & Boon Moderns which tackle these difficult sexual subject matters have solid evidence that their readers appreciate them:
today's authors, who all closely monitor their individual book sales, haven't seen a dip in purchases when the reading gets difficult. [...] I don't think it's a conscious thing but some part of you says 'Oh, I can go there' and the same thing is reflected in the publisher's overall sales." The financials are buttressed by the fan mail. "I think that women who do read our books know damn well that they're going to get something that could be light but could have some meat to it," Marton says. "They are not just perfectly happy getting that -- they're interested in getting that."
Works like those by Monroe, Marton and West may deal with some of the more harrowing problems which can make it difficult for a woman to achieve sexual pleasure, but rather than being aberrations in the Presents/Modern line, they are simply among the most explicit in tackling a theme which, as I found when I did my research for the paper I presented in Newcastle, is often present in novels in this line, namely a woman’s right to experience sexual pleasure without fear or shame or, as Monroe puts it, "I wrote this book for the tens of thousands of women who suffer in silence believing there is something wrong with them. [...] healing is possible. I hope that if you are one of the women suffering in silence, [...] you will realize that it’s not your fault.

I'd encourage you to read both Patricia Treble's article and RfP's analysis of it.


  1. Your blog is a great resource. Every time I come here looking for something specific, I detour into other interesting posts I'd never seen before! I found at least a dozen of your old posts that gave interesting perspectives on the Macleans article.

  2. Thanks, RfP, it's very kind of you to say so, and I'm glad you've found so much to interest you here. It makes me feel better about having borrowed some of your content ;-)

  3. Borrow away. I enjoy seeing the context you bring to the topic.

    E.g. I was glad to find your Newcastle paper, which supported my observation that challenging sexual themes have been an important part of Harlequin/M&B for a long time. I hate to argue from personal experience alone, as my reading is biased by my preferences. On the other hand, I've read a whole lot of Harlequins (not recently, but in the '80s and '90s), so my experience means something.

  4. Laura - just discovered your site via your comments at Dear Author and have just spent far too long reading it instead of doing some writing as intended this morning!

    Anyhoo - as regards this particular post, at least one Mills and Boon writer was writing about these types of issues as long ago as the late 70s and early 80s - Charlotte Lamb. E.g. The Long Surrender (1979 or 1980 I think)

  5. have just spent far too long reading it instead of doing some writing as intended this morning!

    Although I'm sorry you haven't got as much writing done as you intended, I consider distraction (of this sort) to be the sincerest form of flattery. So thank you and welcome!

    I'm going to have to try to find more Charlotte Lamb romances. I've only come across a couple so far, but they were interesting.

  6. I think she's a really interesting writer and worth looking at. Her most interesting books are around '78-'82. At the time, her books were pretty cutting edge although I suspect modern readers might object to some of the forced seduction stuff. At least two of her books feature what I suppose would amount to marital rape between the hero and heroine (Savage Surrender and Dark Dominion) but equally, she was (the first? certainly one of the first) to talk about female orgasm openly. In the Long Surrender, for example, the heroine had been the victim of an attempted rape as a young girl and her marriage failed because she hated sex. The book deals with her getting back with her husband and eventually achieving orgasm.

    Her daughter has an interesting blog about her mother's work. It's easily found through Google.

  7. Thanks, I found the blog about Charlotte Lamb.

    McAleer has the following about her:

    To Sheila Holland, who has led the charge toward more explicit fiction, these changes were perfectly natural, in line with giving the reader what she demands, and what she sees on television and in the cinema. ‘Every few years Mills & Boon changes,’ Holland explained. ‘A change is always author-led and mirrors what is happening in the world outside. We are not behind the times, at all, despite critical opinion; we are well aware of current trends and keep abreast of them. At one time we had a kiss in the middle and a kiss in the end – now full sex sometimes occurs quite early on!’ (287)

    A few months ago (on her personal blog) Sandra blogged about a Charlotte Lamb novel that she'd found particularly interesting.

    I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for her name next time I go round the charity shops, trawling for old M&Bs!

    McAleer, Joseph. Passion’s Fortune: The Story of Mills & Boon. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999.