Treat yourself to the AAR bookbag!

At the Back Fence Issue #199

 From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books

April 15, 2005

When I proposed during our last ATBF column that we consider four of the female sexual archetypes for women in romance novels, what I failed to mention was how the idea for the piece came to me. It was, as usual, in an extremely roundabout fashion after considering some of the impossible sexual situations we find ourselves reading in romance novels. The first that came to mind was the English lord reknowned for his love-making prowess even though the only women he’s ever had sex with were women paid to sleep with him (prostitutes or mistresses). From there it was a hop, skip, and a jump to the historical virginal heroine who decides after her first look at a penis that she simply must kiss it all over. Which naturally led me to the “stalwart” hero (so defined by author Alexis Harrington) who performs oral sex on the heroine either right after her defloration (sans condom), or after a full night of love-making (also sans condom, or, for that matter, a bath). In my mind it was then perfectly logical to think of the heroine who has multiple orgasms even at the moment she is losing her virginity. And then, finally, to the hero who wants to perform oral sex on a woman he believes is a prostitute.

None of these scenarios are unique, and as crazy as they sound, upon occasion the books they are a part of have been successful reads for me, but on other occasions all they do other than give me a good laugh, is to drive home that in most romance novels it’s the hero’s job to provide the heroine with the fabulous orgasms she surely deserves – regardless of circumstance or premise. Thinking about these premises, though, particularly the one I mentioned last, which I find the most “out there,” led me directly to consider The Ho, Virginal Widow, Fake Skank, and Mistaken Skank.

Among the most useful things I’ve learned over the years in running AAR is this: people go where they want to, and maybe that’s for the best. I make this observation as a result of watching the ATBF Message Board discussion last time go in a direction different from the one I’d envisioned. Because while I specifically asked readers not to focus on virgin heroines, for the most part that’s precisely what happened. And when I saw that the discussion was going to go that way regardless of what I did, I decided to go with it. Rather than ending up with tidy lists of terrific romances featuring The Ho, Virginal Widow, Fake Skank, and Mistaken Skank to share with you this time around, I found myself, instead, getting in touch with authors who participated on the message board as well as contacting those who were mentioned in the initial segment and requesting their input. Each author took her “assignment” in a different direction and offered a unique perspective on heroines, sexual archetypes, and sexual situations.

Mary Balogh is perhaps the best-known author of The Ho, and among the first authors I contacted for comments about the writing of this female sexual archetype. Why has Mary so often explored the “fallen woman?” Mary responded by sharing the genesis of three such heroines she’s written in the past, two from traditional Regency Romances, btw, which made these heroines all the more startling when they appeared on the written page.

None of these scenarios are unique, and as crazy as they sound, upon occasion the books they are a part of have been successful reads for me, but on other occasions all they do other than give me a good laugh, is to drive home that in most romance novels it’s the hero’s job to provide the heroine with the fabulous orgasms she surely deserves – regardless of circumstance or premise. Thinking about these premises, though, particularly the one I mentioned last, which I find the most “out there,” led me directly to consider The Ho, Virginal Widow, Fake Skank, and Mistaken Skank.

Among the most useful things I’ve learned over the years in running AAR is this: people go where they want to, and maybe that’s for the best. I make this observation as a result of watching the ATBF Message Board discussion last time go in a direction different from the one I’d envisioned. Because while I specifically asked readers not to focus on virgin heroines, for the most part that’s precisely what happened. And when I saw that the discussion was going to go that way regardless of what I did, I decided to go with it. Rather than ending up with tidy lists of terrific romances featuring The Ho, Virginal Widow, Fake Skank, and Mistaken Skank to share with you this time around, I found myself, instead, getting in touch with authors who participated on the message board as well as contacting those who were mentioned in the initial segment and requesting their input. Each author took her “assignment” in a different direction and offered a unique perspective on heroines, sexual archetypes, and sexual situations.

Mary Balogh is perhaps the best-known author of The Ho, and among the first authors I contacted for comments about the writing of this female sexual archetype. Why has Mary so often explored the “fallen woman?” Mary responded by sharing the genesis of three such heroines she’s written in the past, two from traditional Regency Romances, btw, which made these heroines all the more startling when they appeared on the written page.

In my novels I try to give equal emphasis to heroes and heroines. In many ways heroes are more fascinating – which means that heroines are more of a challenge. In the close to one hundred novels and novellas I have written, have tried to deal with all kinds of women in all kinds of situations. And so a few of my books and novellas have “fallen women” as heroines. I’ll talk about three of these.

Verity Ewing in A Handful of Gold (a novella to be republished in Harlequin’s Christmas Keepsakes this year) sells herself to the hero for Christmas, though by the time she sleeps with him it is a love encounter and so it could be said that in a way she never really does become a prostitute. Fleur Hamilton in The Secret Pearl (to be republished in November) becomes a prostitute with the hero as her first client and has no encounters with other men. She was my tentative foray into writing the prostitute heroine. Priscilla Wentworth in A Precious Jewel, on the other hand, is a working girl at a brothel and a regular of the hero’s until he takes her away to be his mistress. I was a little more daring by the time I wrote her story (a traditional Signet Regency, would you believe?)


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. The novella and the two novels are set in the Regency era, when poor women had very few options in the work world. Verity agreed to the Christmas orgy because with her earnings she could finally buy medicine for her desperately ill sister. Prostitution was Fleur’s only alternative to starvation, and so she sold herself to the Duke of Ridgeway outside a London theater. Priscilla did have an option–she could have lived at the brothel as a dependent of the owner, a former governess of hers. But pride and a sense of fairness led her to earn her keep as the other women in the house did.

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.


To get back to the main point, though – people who have touched bottom often develop a strength and depth of character they would not otherwise have known themselves capable of. Women who have been forced to sell their bodies fall into this category. And all three of these heroines are strong women of firm character, very worthy of their heroes (indeed, their heroes have to become worthy of them too in the course of each story) and of their happy ending. Priscilla, in particular, is never an abject victim. Having made the decision to become a whore, she works with integrity, treating her work like any other job, and keeping her real self apart from it all. She is actually stronger, more intelligent, more accomplished than the hero, a beta male of whom I grew very, very fond. I loved the challenge of creating this woman, who was a great person despite what she did for a living. Indeed, I found the whole book so fascinating that I could not let it go once I started writing it – it was finished in two weeks! Many readers name it as among their favorites of mine.

So to me prostitution is a nasty, degrading thing, both for the woman and for the man who seeks out her services. It is a low point for both heroes and heroines in my books. But to me the great fun of writing is taking two characters who reach these low points and then showing them rise above them, becoming stronger, better, more compassionate persons in the process until together they reach a point at which they are whole enough, healed enough to be able to commit their lives and their love to each other.

Although none of Tracy Grant’s novels were mentioned in the initial ATBF segment, the heroine of her current historical mystery series was much talked about on the message board. After participating in the discussion herself, Tracy followed up with a segment detailing not only Mélanie Fraser, but the heroine of a trad Regency she co-write before she’d even graduated college:

Although none of Tracy Grant’s novels were mentioned in the initial ATBF segment, the heroine of her current historical mystery series was much talked about on the message board. After participating in the discussion herself, Tracy followed up with a segment detailing not only Mélanie Fraser, but the heroine of a trad Regency she co-write before she’d even graduated college:

The interesting March 15th ATBF on heroine types and the follow up discussion got me to thinking about the heroines in my own books and which of them fit into the four types discussed (ho, virgin widow, skank, and mistaken skank). I realized only two of my heroines precisely fit any of the categories. I was intrigued that they were the heroine of my very first book (The Widow’s Gambit, a traditional Regency co-written with my mom under the name Anthea Malcolm) and the heroine of the series I’m currently writing (Daughter of the Game and Beneath a Silent Moon, Regency-set mystery suspense novels).

Though I’d never thought of it in these terms before, Livia Neville, the heroine of The Widow’s Gambit, could be said to fit the virgin widow category. She is, in fact, only pretending to be a widow, so that she can chaperone her sisters for a London season and her beautiful elder sister can find a husband and repair the family fortunes. The book was very chaste, so the fact that Livia was a virgin masquerading as a woman of experience was never explicitly dealt with. I confess I didn’t really think about this aspect in the course of writing the book, perhaps because I was a teenager at the time. I can’t speak for my mom in that regard, but I suspect she was much more aware of the unstated implications. Toward the end of the book (when all the characters converge on a country inn and complication piles upon complication), Livia tries to clear up matters by saying that she and her supposed husband “weren’t really married,” leading to a brief time where the other characters think she’s a “fallen woman.” Among other things, this allows the hero to make it clear that he doesn’t care about her supposed fallen virtue and is only concerned with protecting her and ensuring her happiness.

Livia pretends to be a widow so that she can chaperone her sisters and have more freedom than an unmarried girl. This goes to why I much prefer to write about experienced heroines (in thinking about this topic, I realized that all the heroines I’ve written on my own and five of the eight I wrote with my mom could be called experienced). They tend to be able do so much more than unmarried, sheltered girls, either because of the greater freedom accorded to wives and widows or, if they’re “fallen women” because they’re living outside of society and having broken one of its chief taboos are free to break others. And sexual experience – anything from marriage to an unhappy love affair to prostitution – tends to go with life experiences that make for rich emotional baggage.


This last is certainly the case with Mélanie Fraser, the heroine of my current series and the only one of my heroines who fits the ho category. Mélanie ended up in a brothel as an orphaned teenager in Salamanca during the Peninsular War (after having tried to survive on the streets as a pick pocket). Later she became a spy. She definitely didn’t cavil at using seduction in the course of missions, though it was by no means the only or even the primary way she obtained information. She married her husband Charles to spy on him. When he learns the truth, the fact that isn’t the woman he thought she was of course colors his perception of every encounter they’ve had, including in the bedchamber. Nothing about her was as he thought it was, including her prior sexual history. Charles cannot help but wonder if any of her physical responses to him were genuine. Being considerably older when I wrote Daughter of the Game than I was when I wrote The Widow’s Gambit, I was very much aware of this tension

Mélanie’s past (not just prostitution but rape, starvation, war, the death of her family) has made her hard-eyed realist in a way the more idealistic Charles never will be. The fact that she was willing to sleep with men in the course of espionage missions shows just how far she’s willing to go to achieve her objectives. She has as little care for her “virtue” as she does for her physical safety. (Charles recognizes this even before he knows the truth about her; in Beneath a Silent Moon he tells her “You’ve got to stop thinking you can heap any abuse on yourself without fear of the consequences.”)

With her perfect wife and mother image, Mélanie is in a sense the inverse of the fake skank – she’s a fake “good” girl. The secondary female characters in the two books I’ve written about her so far also reflect a range of experience, in large measure because of the themes of the books. In Daughter of the Game one of the things I was trying to do was examine women’s roles and the choices (and lack of them) for Regency-era women. So we have Helen Trevennen, an actress and mistress turned respectable wife (like Mélanie, concealing her past); Helen’s sister Susan who’s sunk from opera dancer to prostitute at an elegant house to whore at a crumbling, gin-soaked brothel; and Charles’s aunt, Lady Frances, a worldly widow with a brood of children to rival the “Harelian miscellany.”


In Beneath a Silent Moon I wanted to use the mystery to examine a variety of sexual and romantic relationships in an era when many conducted love affairs for sport and yet unmarried girls were expected to stay pure until marriage (one of my /wp-content/uploads/oldsiteimages for the book was Fragonard paintings, which to me portray a world of decorous, sugar-coated romance with carnality pulsing beneath the surface). So the characters include the seemingly virginal Honoria Talbot (like Mélanie, a fake “good” girl); governess-with-a-past Aspasia Newland for whom exposure could mean the loss of her precarious employment; and Charles’s young sister Gisèle who in the first chapter declares that “Everyone in the Glenister House set has a lover. Or two. Except the unmarried girls. It’s so boring being a virgin.”

Though Livia and Mélanie and the books in which they appear are very different, thinking about the books from this angle I realized that Livia’s pretend past and Mélanie’s very real one both made for stories which I could could explore Regency-era morés (some of which, I think, are in some form still with us today). The different rules for men and women and for unmarried girls and married women; the Madonna/Whore dichotomy: the often fragile line between a “good girl” and a “fallen woman”; the delicate balance of sex as a power game, an animal impulse, or an expression of love. Neither Livia nor Mélanie is who she seems to be. In the end, I like to think both women find men who love for the women they are beneath the surface, regardless of their pasts.

dukeofsinOf the four sexual archetypes explored in my initial segment, it is perhaps the Virginal Widow that created the most controversy. Adele Ashworth, whose Duke of Sin generated vocal discussion on that very topic when it was released and received DIK status here at AAR, very bravely agreed to jump into the fray once again to talk about the book and her publisher’s concern about its saleability. She wrote a lengthy piece that I’ll excerpt below (click here to link to her full article – it’s well worth the read, and I can probably count on both hands the number of times an author was this open and honest in a public forum).

Adele writes that in the original synopsis for Duke of Sin, the heroine was not a virgin, but an average, sexually experienced, married woman posing as a widow. When she addressed this at AAR back in October, she wrote that her preference is to write experienced women “just…because, and until this book Avon never had a problem with [her] heroines.” But because the author wanted to center her plot around the passing of the Divorce and Matrimonial Causes act that granted divorce in England without having to go through Parliament, the heroine need to be a married woman. And had she kept to her original synopsis, even though the heroine was only posing as a widow, Adele would have no doubt offended a tremendous number of readers for whom adultery is a major bugaboo.

It’s hard to say what bothered readers more – that her publisher suggested this change – or that the author deferred to their judgment that by sticking to her original plan she might alienate so many readers that her career would be damaged. Because while some readers would find the virginal widow premise annoying, the concept of infidelity has major moral implications for a much larger group of readers. And so, as Adele writes:

First, before I get to specifics from the board, let me say that the heroine in Duke of Sin is not a widow. She poses as a widow. Yes, that’s kind of a spoiler, but in my view a very, very minor one, just as I thought the virginity thing was a minor issue. But because, through most of the book, the reader thinks Vivian, the heroine, is still married, my publisher was concerned that having her engage in sexual acts with the hero would turn off more conservative readers because technically the hero and heroine would be committing adultery. However, if it’s discovered that she’s a virgin when the hero and heroine consummate the relationship, there would obviously be more involved (and in my mind more interesting questions), like … why didn’t her husband sleep with her? What happened to him? Why hasn’t she taken a lover? What is she thinking in terms of her continued virginal state?

I can’t speak for other publishers or writers, but in my case, as I was writing Duke of Sin, I really believed there would be more scuttlebutt regarding the issue of why the heroine’s husband didn’t sleep with her rather than why she was a married/widowed virgin. I thought I was doing really well to come up with something other than the “gay husband” approach; I used opium addiction and impotence instead. But immediately upon the book’s release last November, on the AAR Reviews Board, lots of people jumped in, upset with me and/or my publisher, regarding something I thought was a non-issue. A couple of readers said they read and enjoyed the book to the point of consummation, then “threw it down in disgust.” To say I was floored by this reaction is an understatement. I mean, the hero discovers she’s a virgin after their first encounter, she explains it, and that’s that. After less than a two or three paragraph discussion between the two, it’s hardly mentioned again and the story continues regarding her husband and what happened to him, the hero’s murder charge of five years previously, the bad guys, the kidnapping and extortion plot, the rescue, the near-death scene, the “I love yous” and on and on and on. The hero couldn’t care any less about her virginal state; he’s falling in love with her.

Adele’s article addresses what she felt were more important issues than this and points to other premises that have been utilized far more often than the Virgin Widow, but her focus is on reader reaction to the book – and some of the reaction from readers who hadn’t even read it when they commented on it.

I don’t blame Adele Ashworth for being “floored” by the reactions about her book. A lot of those reactions floored me, too – after all, many favorite romances utilize premises and plot devices we’ve seen over and over. There are great romances, to be sure, that invent something entirely new, but isn’t it wonderful as well when an author can take something tried and true and make it seem fresh? If I remember correctly, some of those who commented decided not to buy or read the book solely because the heroine turned out to be a virgin. As for me, I’ve learned never to say never…never to say “no” to a plot device or premise because, invariably there’s an author who makes it sing for me. Here are a few of the plot devices and/or premises I never thought I’d read because, after all, I’d hate surely hate them: Infidelity, forced seduction, romances in which the “I love you’s” don’t come until the last page, and lead characters who are, for their times, middle aged. In each instance I was proven wrong. So I have to wonder – as readers, do we sometimes cut our noses off to spite our faces?

In Adele’s full article she mentions the conservatism of many romance readers. We know that the majority of those readers who participated in our recent demographic survey identified themselves on the liberal end of the spectrum, but personal philosophies of life, politics, and economics don’t always match up with what someone chooses to read for entertainment. I’m currently in an extended glom of Harlequin Presents romances, which feature ultra macho heroes, often wimpy heroines, and plot lines that aren’t quite as dated as the titles that correspond with them, but which are nonetheless, shall we say, less than modern. My real life wants and needs are diametrically opposed to what I’m reading in most of these HP’s, and yet I’m having a wonderful time reading them! Maybe one reason some books are our “guilty pleasures” is because they are diametrically opposed to the way we live our own lives.


With so many readers willing to judge a heroine because of sexual experience, or because of her lack of it, it seems a tricky thing to create a character whose sexual identity isn’t as it seems. Mary Reed McCall was another author who participated in the online discussion, responding to some criticism about her medieval romance The Crimson Lady, which features a heroine who is a Faux Ho (a combination of The Ho and the Fake Skank), sold by her mother at the age of fifteen to an evil lord who forced her to become his sexual partner and, seemingly, a prostitute. The premise was controversial when the book was released, but for some the controversy was not because of what the heroine supposedly was, it was because of what she really was not. In her review of the book for AAR, Jane Jorgenson laid out the reasons for her disappointment:

“I initially liked the idea of Fiona’s character. She’s described as a former courtesan and I thought what a nice change it’d be to have an experienced woman as the heroine in a historical romance. A few pages into the book and I realized that my initial hopes would be dashed. Yes, Fiona was Draven’s mistress for a number of years, but that’s the extent of it. She never slept with any of the legions of men in her past. Instead Draven dosed the men with a secret sleeping potion. As Draven wanted to keep her all to himself while making money on the side, each man only thinks he had sex with the famous courtesan.

“A disappointing scenario, not because I wanted Fiona to have slept with hundreds of men, but because it was such a romance cliché way of getting the character out of it. She’s a wildly experienced heroine. Ah, but not really.”

According to the author, her original synopsis for The Crimson Lady featured a heroine who truly was a prostitute, “brought into the life and used by the villain, who then set her up to be subsequently used by hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of other men.” But she defends her editor’s suggestion that the premise be changed, and emphasized that it was a suggestion and not a demand:

When my editor suggested (didn’t command – suggested) that I reconsider her background of having experienced eight years of twisted and emotionally damaging sexual slavery with thousands of partners, I was initially disappointed but then I thought about it a little more objectively and decided she was right. There’s a part of me that still wishes it could have been otherwise, but the truth is that the story as stands fits Fiona’s personality and the emotional fallout I’d portrayed her as experiencing far better than it would have, had I needed to show a woman in the true state of emotional dysfunction and damage that eight years of serving as a several-men-a-day prostitute would need to be. I’m sure there are writers out there capable of making ring true the possibility that “true love” could heal that kind damage…but for me, after all the research I read concerning the emotional devastation that being a true prostitute carries with it, and in most cases the permanent dysfunction (social, sexual, and just about every other area you can think of) that results, I couldn’t write Fiona with that burden and write her out of it effectively. Not with her as I’d envisioned her.

Now that’s not to say that some day I might not tell the story of a true prostitute – but for The Crimson Lady it wasn’t right. She suffered about as much emotional (and physical) scarring as I felt I could realistically bring her back from; she’d been sold as a sexual slave to an obsessive man who kept her his captive for eight years, not to mention that she’d had to carry the burden of society’s assumption that she was the notorious whore he’d set her up as being. Even so, I still worried I’d be stretching readers’ suspension of disbelief, to try to convince them that a woman who had been through so much perversion and pain could heal enough emotionally to have a full and lasting love with even a good and noble man like Braedan de Cantor.

Although it could not have been a pleasant experience to essentially defend your work on a message board, Mary was gracious enough to agree to go further and, responded to my list of unbelievable sexual scenarios, agreeing that most “seem a bit whacky.” The only one she’s written herself is the “virginal heroine has orgasm upon first encounter,” adding that she doesn’t “especially like – and tries to avoid – most of them.”

Only two of Mary’s five heroines to date have been virgins, but even so, she doesn’t believe that it’s impossible for a virgin to achieve a pinnacle of ecstasy at some point in the interlude because heroes are supposed to be a “sexy blend of strong and tender – very sensitive to their women, while being unassailable, elite warriors (in a very literal, sword-wielding sense) in the harsh world of their times…so the fact that their virginal heroines achieve orgasm on first encounter has more to do with each hero’s sensual skills, gentleness, patience, and personal restraint until his lover is ready to experience the ultimate physical joy with him, than anything else.”

While as a reader I often roll my eyes when reading about the first love-making experience for most romance novel heroines, I agree with Mary that it’s certainly more romantic for a hero not only to patiently prepare his heroine for her first intimate encounter, but for his efforts to “pay off” for her. Realism is nice, thank you very much, but I’d much prefer to read a love scene that is mutually satisfying than one during which the virginal young heroine is so frightened by the idea of doing the deed that she’s incapable of relaxing and enjoying herself. In my reality it took weeks before pleasure superceded “what’s the big deal?” superceded pain during intimacy. Love-making for me at forty is far better than love-making at twenty, but the reality is that I don’t relish the idea of only reading romances featuring middle-aged heroines.

Which is why, even though I do occasionally question the notion that all those “cold fish” English lords who’ve only had sex with prostitutes and mistresses are such accomplished and unselfish lovers, that they are fits into the fantasy and makes the romance work. Some of the other scenarios I mentioned at the start of this piece, rarely – if ever – work for me, although others have surprised me. In Carolyn Jewel’s historical Lord Ruin, a romance which came thisclose to being a successful read for me, the virginal and naive heroine lies drugged in bed after being dosed with laudenum for an injury. When the hero goes to the wrong room, gets into bed and discovers her asleep, he assumes she’s a doxy hired for his pleasure (or the ex-mistress of his host). In a sort of dream state she experiences total ecstasy and provides him an ecstatic run for the money in return. This opening love scene, which occurs very early on, is certainly erotic, but was marred by one thing: this virginal, half-asleep woman agrees to give oral sex to the hero – including swallowing – and enjoys it so much she wants to do it again. I found the idea that she would participate in something she’d likely never even heard of to be unlikely in the extreme, and a check went into the negative column of almost the same size as the check in the positive column for the lusciousness of the love scene itself.

How accepting we are of various hard-to-fathom situations, sexual or otherwise, varies from reader to reader, situation to situation, book to book. I had no real problem with the Alison Kent’s gIRL-gEAR long-time gal pals working together but reading about four women all living in the same building and working at the same jewelry store as though 20 Amber Court (the premise behind a four-book, multi-authored series, the first of which was Elizabeth Bevarly‘s When Jayne Met Eric) were some sort of 1800s “company” boarding house reminded me more of the story I wrote in high school about me and my high school friends all growed up than anything else. And all it took to turn me off to Gwynne Forster’s Swept Away was the mention of a “national bar exam” – there’s no such thing! Yet I accepted that a merger between two high-tech companies might be conducted by members of the companies as opposed to investment bankers and lawyers when I read Lucy Monroe’s The Real Deal, and that very thing was a deal-breaker for Robin. Go figure. But let’s get back to the sexual realm, and Mary Reed McCall’s response to unbelievable scenarios.

I think much of what happens in the sexual realm between hero and heroine in romance novels, especially historicals, can tend to come out on the side of fantastical, mind-blowing perfection – sometimes without thought to the mundane necessities to make such an encounter pleasurable in the real world (like bathing post-coitus before engaging in oral sex, the possibility of picking up STDs from a prostitute etc) – simply because the nature of the genre is to highlight the idea of there being a perfect soulmate for everyone. The tendency, perhaps, then, is to emphasize the “glorious” aspects of lovemaking in all its forms, without a lot of focus on the nitty-gritty.


How many books, for example, make a point of describing the hero or heroine using the chamber pot immediately upon rising in the morning, as most of us ordinary “real” humans need to do (and those books I’ve read that do mention such necessities do so only in certain circumstances and with certain types of characters, it seems to me). Same thing with the mention (especially in historicals) of cleaning one’s teeth. It’s just part of the overall fantasy of romance, I think…a given that the hero’s and heroine’s breath is minty fresh, that he or she doesn’t pass gas in front of the other or burp (unless it’s part of the characterization to make such things noticeable points. For example, my second book The Maiden Warrior features a heroine who was raised, for all intents and purposes, as a male warrior, and she has the habits to prove it…including rather loud burping at the table in one scene, when she is trying to annoy the hero, who has compelled her through circumstances to dress in a gown and attempt to behave like a “regular lady”).

Even in contemporaries, I’ve read more than one lovemaking scene that takes place first thing in the morning, before either h/h has used the bathroom or brushed their teeth. The reality of that is quite off-putting, but the fantasy of it, provided one doesn’t focus on those little details, can seem romantic, it seems. I think many readers’ “alert-meters” for lack of a better term, are on low setting when it comes to these kinds of things – and that includes the virgin heroine who is simply overcome with curiosity and desire to kiss the hero’s erect penis the first time she sees it during their first lovemaking. Of course in reality, this isn’t too likely, especially in a historical time setting – but this is her “soul mate”, remember…and so she is unafraid of experiencing all of him – especially if he has acted in kind with her, thereby opening her mind to the possibilities of oral sex.

Now I’m not saying I buy these kinds of scenes too readily. Each reader’s threshold for this kind of thing is different, of course, but overall the reason I think so many of these kinds of whacky sexual scenarios you’ve mentioned end up going to print is because in general its accepted as part of the fantasy of perfect love/lovemaking (as another example of this concept, slightly different but still salient, I think, is that even when the first – or subsequent – sexual encounters between hero and heroine are written as less than stellar and sometimes even difficult or painful, I can’t recall a single book where the two didn’t eventually reach a point of explosively enjoyable lovemaking…the culmination of that perfect love they share as each other’s soul mates).

As mentioned, each reader’s threshold for sexual situations/realism is different, and it sounds like yours is fairly high on the reality side. Mine is pretty high, too, I think – though I do find myself glossing over, even as I’m writing lovemaking scenes, some things (i.e. my stories are set in the middle ages, when of course sanitation, deodorizing soaps, teeth cleaning etc aren’t exactly high on the list of living conditions, and yet I don’t make a point to have the h/h chewing on mint leaves right before they end up making love, or even always bathing directly beforehand – though I do admit to trying to work a bath in prior to a lovemaking scene whenever possible *g*…). It’s trying to find a balance between fantasy and reality, I guess, that every writer must confront when sitting down at the keyboard, and every reader must discern for herself when she picks up a book. This goes for lovemaking scenes in particular, but also for other kinds of scenes as well, especially in historicals (speech anachronisms vs trying to evoke “period” language, political attitudes, gender attitudes, etc).

blackiceaAs far as authors go, not only does Anne Stuart do perhaps the best job of creating heroes who come as close as possible to crossing the line in terms of acceptable behavior without toeing over it (her May release, Black Ice, is wonderful in this respect!) – and, hey, sometimes she misses and they do cross it – but she also creates wonderfully tormented, misunderstood, and sometimes in-your-face heroines who are forced into untenable positions by circumstance. In the upcoming Black Ice, for instance, the heroine takes a last-minute interpreting job that lands her squarely into a pit of vipers. The hero, one of those “the ends justify the means” spies, is convinced she’s a spy too, setting her up as a sort of Mistaken Skank Spy. Their initial sexual encounter is explosive, difficult, and as erotic as it is hard to read. And then there is the heroine from A Rose at Midnight, who sold herself to save what is left of her family in the aftermath of the French Revolution. In another of my favorite Stuart’s, To Love a Dark Lord, the secondary heroine is believed to be the mistress of the hero, when in fact she is not. Furthermore, though this woman feigns a thorough enjoyment of carnal pursuits, she fears intimacy and is frigid. It is only through the love of a seemingly priggish younger man that she is healed.

I asked Anne to consider the various female sexual archetypes. She is “quite fond of the Virginal Widow, having used it in Lord of Danger and toying with it in a recent historical that I had to toss after 115 pages (oh, the pain!!!).” But her fondness for the Virginal Widow may be because she is a “sucker for disguise – characters pretending to be something they’re not.”

Most of the characters in her latest Medieval, Hidden Honor, are characters pretending to be something they’re not. Although it didn’t earn a great review here at AAR, I liked it, and one of the reasons I liked it was that, yet again, Stuart created another terrific secondary couple. The secondary heroine, while mistress to a powerful nobleman, was an interesting amalgam of “world weariness,” as our reviewer called it, and innocence. So much so that when she finds herself escaping a dangerous situation in a wagon with the secondary hero and to hide she must lie beneath him, she doesn’t have a clue that, fully clothed, he is awakening her body with his until…she’s awake!

Anne continues her discussion of her interpretation of female sexual archetypes:

Very few, if any of my heroines have had a full, satisfying sexual relationship in the past.  For me it’s part of the fantasy — you can only find real bliss (and multiple orgasms) with your soul-mate, and even if you’re kicking and screaming and biting you still know you belong together. Since I don’t like innocent young virgins, who are often twits, I go for Fake Skank and Mistaken Skank, again because I like my main characters to go through a period of discovery, where the hero finds that the woman they’ve been battling/falling in love with isn’t the woman of dubious honor he’d assumed she was.  These situations work best when the heroine is, in fact a virgin, so you have proof positive that she’s innocent.

I’m also extremely fond (perhaps too much so) of a heroine who’s had two or three relationships, found them enjoyable, but hasn’t discovered real passion.  Therefore she’s a bit unsure in bed, astonished by the unexpected power of her physical response, and my bad boy heroes are usually unscrupulous enough to take advantage of that fact.

Particularly for contemporaries, it’s hard to sell a virgin who isn’t seventeen (unless you make her nun like I did in The Soldier and the Baby). So instead I make them, and in fact, all my heroines, prostitute or not, emotional virgins.

Author Lucy Blue, aka Jayel Wylie, initially got into the message board conversation asking “Do we have to call them skanks?” She understood that one of my main points was that neither the Fake Skank or Mistaken Skank are really skanks at all, but I’d hit one of her personal hot buttons.

This “hot button” is the notion that any female character who is experienced is not only not heroine material but a “skank.” Even though you explained your reason for using that term – that the women considered skanks never are actual skanks – I hate that word, and I hate the assumptions that make it so appropriate to a discussion of characters in romance. If we can have heroes who are rakes, who are known by all to have cut a wide swath through the ton with their sword, so to speak, or who have had mistresses uncounted, or whatever, why can our heroines not have done the same? Why must any female character who enjoys sex be punished by the plot? One of the best things about romance novels is the sexual liberation they represent for women, both as characters and as readers. So why do we ask them or even allow them to symbolically reinforce the misogynistic stereotype that defines a sexually proficient male as wickedly attractive but a sexually proficient female as a skank, probably evil and pitiable at best?

It drives me crazy. And plots that use the fake skank, the virgin heroine who is mistaken for a party girl, make me scream out loud, particularly if the hero, upon discovering her “purity,” suddenly likes or even loves her better. ARRGGHHH!!! I write medieval historicals; I accept that a noble knight of the 1100s would always prefer to marry a virgin in the abstract. But in a specific, fantasy-tinged relationship where the man cares more about his true love’s pleasure than his own and even says “I love you” without the application of hot irons to his feet, can’t he also get past his raising and fall so deeply in love with this woman that her virginity or lack thereof become less important to him than her tender heart or wicked sense of humor or all the other qualities that drew him to her in the first place? And if not, why should we – or our heroine – love him?

Lucy seems to have hit it on the head as far as many readers are concerned. But I’ve had less trouble falling in love with romances wherein the hero has a change of heart upon discovering the heroine really is pure because it seems historically accurate for people at that level of society. To be sure, most often the hero had already “forgiven” the heroine her “lapse,” but I tend to be an equal opportunity reader. A favorite scene in many a romance novel has featured the heroine giving the hero a major dressing down because of his own Duke of Slut behavior – I think Patricia Oliver did it perhaps best of all in the first traditional Regency I ever “got,” An Inconvenient Wife:

“And pray, whatever gave you the notion that you would make a good husband, my lord?” she said coolly. “Have you ever assessed your worth in terms other than rank and fortune? Take those away – and believe me I value neither of them – what is left? An aging roué who spends his life in the pursuit of dissipation and debauchery in all their most disgusting forms. A libertine who would seduce a brainless chit for a paltry wager of five hundred pounds. What sensible female would consider such a man an eligible match?”

Once Lucy got to talking about those sexual situations that led to my original segment, I couldn’t help but say to myself (when I wasn’t LOL), “that makes perfect sense – it’s finally been explained to me in such a way that I understand why they keep writing this stuff!”

Romance novels, regardless of subgenre, are defined by sexuality; even so-called “sweet” romances are what they are because of sex, or rather, the lack thereof. But very little of this sex, no matter how explicit, could be called realistic in the strictest sense – romance novels deal in fantasy, an ideal of romantic love. Readers come to them looking for the vicarious experience of falling into perfect love, an extremely complicated concept which not only means something different for every reader but must be repeated, book to book, in a brand new way. So the challenge for the writer is two-pronged: 1) make it equally sexy to a wide number of very different readers; and 2) keep it fresh.

The conventions we cling to and bemoan in equal measure have, for the most part, been created and solidified in an attempt to address Prong #1, I think. Based on sales, most readers seem to really like A, B, & C (say, virgin heroines, alpha heroes, and desserts as sex toys) but D, E, & F (unashamed strumpets, the French Revolution, and multi-racial relationships, for example) not so much. So writers, who are also readers, probably lean toward A, B, & C naturally and are certainly encouraged to do so by their editors. This is not to say that D, E, & F can never work and/or sell books; some of the best romance novels grow out of a writer’s perversely creative determination to blow standard wisdom clean off the fence. Nor are these conventions static. Something that’s considered absolutely essential in one era can become poison in another, either because social beliefs change (all those near-rape “love scenes” in the novels of the 1970s, for example) or because readers get sick to death of them.

These “impossible sexual situations” you’re talking about come, I think, from these same writers trying to maintain Prong #1 while achieving Prong #2 – keep it fresh. Most people who read romance novels read a lot of romance novels, and no writer wants to bore her/his readers, particularly in these all-important sex scenes. As the societal definition of acceptable, non-deviant sexual behavior has opened up and become more varied over the years, the sex our heroes and heroines are having is getting hotter (by the AAR definition of the word). But the most basic standard conventions of romance remain, if you’ll pardon the expression, intact. Our heroine must still for the most part be sexually inexperienced to underscore the fantasy that the hero really is her one and only true love. Our hero must still at some point care more about his lover’s pleasure than his own, even if he thinks of himself as a rake and a rotter (and if that’s not a fantasy, I don’t know what is). And the action of the novel must represent the beginning of the romantic and therefore sexual relationship of these two people; very few romance novels begin with already-established couples as their main focus. They’re about people falling in love, not people maintaining a marriage.

So if we want our characters to engage in oral sex, for example (and we do because that’s one of the things that we know turns us on and turns our readers on), they have to be able to do so in the early stages of their relationship with the female half of the equation still learning the ropes, as it were, of sex. Realistic? Probably not. Sexy? Sure, it can be, if we’ve established the characters as people who might conceivably do such a thing. If we haven’t, then our reader will roll her/his eyes in disbelief, the polar opposite of vicarious arousal. (And as always, what will work for one reader will making another snicker.)

So would I personally like to ignore that Big 3 of romance convention every once in while? Oh yeah. For my own self, I would love a heroine who is already comfortable with her sexuality, who knows what she likes and how to ask for it. Frankly, I could identify with her a lot more readily, regardless of historical epoch, and I suspect a lot of other readers could, too. Secondly, I find it much sexier if the two characters are mutually engrossed in one another’s pleasure; the whole sex slave/”I must give her an orgasm, my own needs go hang” concept doesn’t really do it for me – this is the one that really seems unrealistic to me, and I do tend to ignore it more than most writers of historicals, I think. And finally, I would love to do a sequel romance that instead of introducing a new hero and heroine focuses on the development and deepening of a long-time couple’s sexual relationship; that could be really hot, I think, in a way that no beginnings tale could ever realistically be. But right now, the rules say otherwise. These are the conventions that make a romance a romance, and writers ignore them at their peril. The question is, as always, what do readers think?


In My Demon’s Kiss, the heroine, Isabel, is a virgin at the beginning of the book, but when the possibility of giving up that status in the form of the hero, Simon, shows up, her internal debate centers on social class and politics much more than morality. As the orphaned daughter of a noble knight and a peasant woman, she sees her public image as the noble (and therefore virginal) Lady of Charmot as part of her responsibility to her retainers, a responsibility she takes very seriously. When she risks this image to be with Simon, she thinks of it, in part, as a liberation from this cage of obligation, a chance to be her true self, and any regrets she has about her loss of virginity are connected directly to a tarnishing of her image, not her core identity or moral soul. Simon, being a knight of chivalry, begins by hesitating to “ruin” this noble maiden, but, being a vampire, he worries more that he might murder her, and this more practical concern continues to outweigh matters of virginity as their relationship evolves. If for some reason Isabel had not been a virgin, he would have been surprised, but he wouldn’t have wanted her less.

P.S. About all those personal hygiene issues – people giving oral sex after conventional sex without stopping for a bath, etc. – again, it’s fantasy, so the writer may consider personal hygiene pretty much a non-issue to be ignored, like hairy legs in a medieval. But personally, I find it sexy, not gross, and not unrealistic – there are heroes out there that do that kind of stuff, and heaven bless them for it.

Something in Lucy’s comments really resonated for me. Many years ago – in May, 1997 to be exact – I wrote about the Big Gulp, and how taken aback I was to have read it in a couple of romances because “swallowing” seemed such a male fantasy. A month later I wrote a follow-up that included comments from authors Lisa Kleypas and Marsha Canham, and a variety of readers. The consensus at the time was that indeed, “swallowing” was a male fantasy as opposed to a female one and at the very least, took readers out of the moment when they read it in a romance.

Shortly after writing these columns I came across a love scene in Deborah Simmons’ Tempting Kate that featured the Big Gulp, and because of its context in the scene and book, I wasn’t turned off by it…but I wasn’t exactly thrilled to read about it either. For a good number of years, that was the only Big Gulp that I’ve been able to swallow, you should excuse the pun. All that has changed recently, and I’m not sure why. I’m also not sure this is a topic that can be discussed in any sort of a discreet manner, but I’ll attempt to do so regardless.

In my opening paragraphs I wrote that it is a basically romance novel fait acompli for the hero to provide the heroine with the fabulous orgasms she surely deserves. And, as Lucy pointed out, something that comes as no surprise to any of us who read romances that go beyond subtle sensuality, the hero performing oral sex on the heroine often puts her over the top. So I wondered…many of us find the idea of a virginal heroine annoying, unrealistic…any number of adjectives would do, frankly. But in the end it’s because of the double standard when applied to women as far as sexual experience goes that many a reader objects to the virginal heroine. So why not object to the double standard in how sex between a hero and heroine in many romance novels is depicted? Isn’t what’s good for the non-virginal goose also good for the gander?

If reading a love scene is a way for a woman to live out her fantasies, why are so many non-defloration love scenes so one-sided? Does it all, in the end, trace back to the very early days of the “modern” genre romance, which was born during the end of the sexual revolution? Way back when, in the 1970s, the sexual revolution hadn’t quite trickled down throughout the rest of the country. So that for a woman to enjoy sex at that time wasn’t necessarily a given, and perhaps, just perhaps, for it to be socially acceptable for a woman to read about sex in a novel it had to be wrapped up in such a way that the woman wasn’t actively seeking it.

We’ve come a long way since then to be sure, and these days we women own our sexuality, except perhaps in many romance novels where most of the activity revolves around the hero pleasuring the heroine. Now, one way to look at this would be to say, “It’s about time! Sex has always been about the man’s pleasure.” But another way to look at it is to look into our own bedrooms. Is lovemaking a 50-50 experience in your house or is it one-sided? My guess is that it’s not a one-sided experience, and not only because that’s what’s “fair.” It’s because your partner’s enjoyment plays a large part in your own enjoyment. When you love somebody you want them to feel as good as they make you feel, and in doing so your own pleasurable feelings multiply.

And if it’s true that arousing our lovers arouses us, and we’re all for removing double standards, than why do things like the Big Gulp remain such taboos in mainstream romance? I’m not talking about the same sort of arousal achieved from watching a porno, btw. Watching an oral “money shot” in an X-rated movie is not at all like reading an explicit love scene. The difference is the love, of course, and the trust intrinsic between partners in a loving relationship. Because romance novels, after all, are about relationships and emotions and to me that seems an important distinction. So that my long-time held view that certain things may be sexy but not romantic has changed. Anything that creates passion and arousal between two loving people is both sexy and romantic. It’s romantic because it comes out of love, which is why, I dare say, Laura Kinsale’s S&M-tinged Shadowheart was a hit for so many people who otherwise would not find S&M romantic in the general sense, or in fact might find it outright “icky.”

I had this epiphany after several months of reading Romantica. While much of it has not been very good, some of the short stories (I’ve mostly been reading anthologies as opposed to single title Romantica) are both romantic and sexy, and in ways I never would have imagined. In the past if I read certain words or phrases in a romance, I’d be turned off…they were somehow too clinical and too sexual at the same time in the context of books that were supposed to be romantic. There are obviously terms and events in Romantica that go beyond what is written in a “Hot” romance, and I wonder whether or not it’s simply the exposure to these words and activities in good stories that has changed my mind. It’s quite possible, but then I started to wonder which came first? Is the chicken my desire to read Romantica or is that the egg?

The combination of sex and romance in Romantica works, at least for me, because of that trust factor I mentioned. I honestly have no desire to read straight Erotica, featuring sex between people (often more than two) who aren’t in a committed relationship (if I’m not reading about a couple whom I believe are or will be in a committed relationship, the story will fail for me, whether or not I’m expecting a romance). It also works because the sex between the hero and heroine is more of a 50-50 proposition, and to me that’s very exciting. It’s exciting to read about because these heroines really do own their sexuality, and to be honest, it’s quite freeing to read stories wherein a woman actively gives her man as much pleasure as he gives her.

Perhaps paradoxically, many Romantica stories work off of capture/held hostage themes, so how could it be that in these stories the heroines own their own sexuality? Go back to the premise that in the earliest genre romances, love scenes were possibly built around the idea that a woman reading a romance could indulge her enjoyment in those scenes only if the heroine hadn’t actually sought sex, but instead of stopping where the hero takes all responsibility for her pleasure, go a step further. Because, eventually in these Romantica stories, the tables are turned and the heroine becomes as sexually aggressive as the hero. It’s not only freeing, it’s actually taught me something about myself. I asked Lucy about this and loved her answer:

As for the deliciously salacious topic of learning-through-romance-reading, I would love to read that. I’ll bet it applies to a whole lot of romance readers, whether they would own up to it or not. For myself, oh yeah, I learned the theory of all my best moves from romance novels. And you’re so right; reading about something (like The Big Gulp – too hilarious, the perfect phrase) in the romantic, respectful context of a romance novel, where the people involved have a powerful emotional connection as well as a sexual attraction to one another, makes it erotic, while the exact same physical action in a porn piece could come across as humiliating, uncomfortable, or just plain gross. And again, it comes down to the empowerment of the female – in a romance novel, sex, as important as it is, is just part of the multi-layered experience of romantic love, with the heart and mind and body of the heroine all engaged and respected. In that context, almost anything can be erotic.

Given my own change of heart, I thought it would be interesting to contact Marsha Canham (who, btw, won in AAR’s first annual Purple Prose Parody Contest). If I’ve had a change of heart reading about, among other things, the Big Gulp – whether because I’m, as they say, “in my sexual peak” or because I’m reading such events more often, or both – did she? So I asked, and she answered:

  • Do you still have the same opinion of the Big Gulp today as you did in 1997, not thinking about it in terms of a virginal heroine, but as part of a romance novel love scene?

    My opinion hasn’t changed a bit. I think, if a swallowing scene is included, it is done so purely to gain the shock factor. I agree with previous opinions that swallowing is based in male porn territory and possibly hard-core erotica, but for a romance novel which is read by anyone from the ages of 14 to 84 (dear lord, I just had a visual of my grandmother’s eyes bugging out and her taking a long gulp of prune juice as she reads a swallowing scene) and that has to be kept in the minds of the authors. I have been guilty of it too…tunnel vision writing…when I’m sitting and writing a scene that is keyed to someone my own age reading it. It is a subconscious tendency we all have, to assume everyone reading the book is the same age as we are, with the same experiences. But many women go through life without ever touching a man’s penis to their lips. [And] to think of a virgin kissing it all over is to be writing pure fantasy. Most virgins would probably react by lifting their eyebrows, staring, and thinking “no f**king way that’s gonna fit inside me”. Hmmmm. *Jots that down for a future scene.*

  • Have you ever read something in a romance novel that has had a “freeing” effect? Does reading more explicit love scenes make you a more adventurous person?

    Speaking as someone who has been writing sex scenes for some twenty-odd years….I can honestly say that as experiences change, so do our cravings to learn and try more. I have often read a scene and thought: hmmmm…I wonder…. And then on a warm and cuddly romantic night with the hubby, gone ahead and tried it. I would also have to say that sex gets more….meaningful…the older one gets. There isn’t that need for a man to prove himself bullish, nor for the woman to prove she can hang from stirrups upside down and scream “oh baby oh baby do me the way only you know how!” Sex becomes slower, more deliberate, more delicious, mainly because in all honesty, it comes less often than when we were rabid sex crazed teens, and so every time there is love-making it is heartfelt and not rushed and the partner tries his or her best to make sure it is memorable.

  • Certain words that I used to find either clinical or unsexy I now find erotic, and that certain things that I used to consider solely male fantasies I no longer consider in that fashion. What about you?

    We only have our words to create pictures in the minds of the readers. How we use those words, how we paint those pictures changes and expands, for without change we, as authors, run the risk of growing stagnant. I for one, was always searching for new ways to say the same thing. And just as TV or film has changed incredibly over the past twenty years in what is considered adult content or passable by censors…so has the language of [what we read] progressed. Many more use the word penis whereas twenty years ago it was strictly a throbbing manhood. And frankly, I find the word penis far more sexy (or perhaps just more adult) than manhood or shaft or organ – whether it throbs or not.

Marsha certainly makes valid points, and she has every right to view the Big Gulp as “[with]in male porn territory,” but I think it might help better explain my own position by thinking about it in the abstract, and under what circumstances it might demonstrate the sort of closeness that good romance novel love scenes provide for most of us. How could such an explicit activity demonstrate romantic closeness, you ask? Well, consider, for instance, a tightly controlled hero raised to always do the “right” thing. He holds his emotions, his passions, and his relationships in check – perhaps he’s even a control freak. What would it be like if a heroine worked her way under his skin, found a way through his defenses so strongly that he realized she trusted him enough, and he her, to lose control in such an elemental way? Gee…I think I’d like to read that book.

While I’ve specifically mentioned the Big Gulp, it’s more of a talking point, an example of what you’re not likely to read about in most romance novel love scenes. In no way is this a polemic in favor of Gulping – it’s my way of questioning whether or not other readers notice that love scenes are often one-sided, and further, to ask if other readers would like more two-sided love scenes upon occasion, for the reasons that they are not only more sensual but show in a very physical sense the closeness between a couple that derives out of love and trust.

I’m not advocating that all romances become explicit in the future, or that all of us must read Romantica. My own reading habits veer crazily enough, between “kisses-only” YA fiction and traditional Regencies to Romantica – and everything inbetween – most of the romances I’ve read are in the “warm” range. And Marsha makes a point I hadn’t considered, but is echoed by something Adele wrote earlier on in the column. While writers must write their hearts, if they want to sell they must write what readers will buy. And publishers believe that going for the wide approach and appealing to many readers is what works best. Adele needed to consider what a hint of infidelity might do to torpedo good sales of Duke of Sin. Marsha must think about not only a reader who came of age during or after the sexual revolution, but those who came of age before.

Before finalizing this column I asked many people for advice, because the final section was bound to be so controversial. It occurred to me after all these discussions is that I hadn’t tied everything together very well. You’ve heard me say dozens of times – and no doubt will hear me say it dozens of times in the future – that I’ve learned never to say no to anything in a book. At one time I was convinced it was impossible to write a romance with an infidelity premise that I’d care to read, and yet Mary Balogh did it wonderfully well, and romantically so, in The Obedient Bride. If I’d never read Beverly Jenkins’ Topaz, I’d never have realized that I could enjoy romance with a history lesson plunked down in the middle of it, or that I could love, as I did Christina Dodd’s A Well Pleasured Woman, a romance featuring forced a “forced seduction” scene. Which is why I am troubled to hear from readers who seem so stridently militant about certain premises such as the plethora of virgins or virgin widows. Isn’t it better to judge each book on its own merits rather than make blanket statements about such things?

Which brings me back to the double standard I mentioned earlier. There’s a huge group of readers who are angered by the vast number of virginal heroines. Many, many readers express an interest in reading about more sexually experienced heroines, particularly those for whom it is simply a given and not an “issue.” But if this is the case, then where is the outcry about the vast majority of love scenes – across the sub-genre spectrum – featuring sexually passive heroines and heroes whose only desire seems to be in pleasuring his heroine? If we’re for more reality in love scenes, than why isn’t that troubling to more readers? Perhaps I’m asking, albeit in a different way, whether or not readers are as equally hung up on the hymen as the jealous heroes so many of them despise.

For me it all comes down to this: the skill of the author. Reading The Obedient Bride was a terrific experience, but other romances featuring infidelity that I’d read in the past had failed for me, failed so utterly that I’d nearly made a pledge never to read another one. So most of all what I guess I’m saying is that as readers, we may be shutting ourselves off from possibly wonderful reading experiences because of an aspect of a romance that might not turn out to be significant for us, or may instead actually be what makes the book special.

And from there it’s not difficult to take this leap in logic: many longtime romance readers may be stuck in genre conventions and thereby have preconceived ideas as to what is or is not romantic based on the thousand romances we’ve already read. If we can find the romance in a formalized setting wherein only a kiss or two is stolen between a couple, most of whose time spent together is under rigid societal rules, is it impossible that we might find romance in a book featuring possibly shocking activities, or ones you are absolutely certain to find too explicit or even “icky?” After all, haven’t you ever read a book and were surprised you liked or loved it?

I’d like to thank all the authors who participated in this conversational exploration of women, sexual archetypes, sexuality in romance, and sexuality in general. I have no particular answers here, only questions, and I’d love to hear from all of you. So many issues have been raised that to devise individual questions is something I can’t do. I’d like you to think about what you’ve read here, then post about your questions and comments, thoughts and ideas on the ATBF Message Board.

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books, in conjunction with Mary Balogh,
Tracy Grant, Adele Ashworth, Mary Reed McCall,
Anne Stuart, Lucy Blue, and Marsha Canham

Adele Ashworth on her Virgin Widow

Post your comments and/or questions to our Potpourri Message Board

(AAR uses BYRON for its romance reference needs)

Subscribe to AAR’s weekly newsletter Powered by