National Post

Tuesday, January 26, 1999

They like it rough
Bondage, anal sex, even non-consensual sex -- today's romance novels often reveal the kinky, politically incorrect side of female fantasies

Donna Laframboise
National Post


Island Books / Slavery is a popular theme in modern romance novels, as this teaser for Virginia Henley's Enslaved demonstrates.

At the World's Biggest Bookstore in downtown Toronto, the section devoted to romance novels is right beside the one devoted to "erotica." Usually, it is men who peruse the erotica shelves, and women who browse the romance aisles.

But a peek between the covers of these titles reveals one of the best-kept secrets of the publishing world: Many of these books are indistinguishable from one another.

While romance novels in which the hero and heroine exchange little more than a chaste kiss are still being written at the end of the 20th century, large segments of this genre's predominantly female readership now buy the work of authors with more extravagant sexual imaginations.

Indeed, explicit language, sex toys, multiple partners, oral sex, bondage, and non-consensual sex are trademarks of some of today's most successful romance writers.

Virginia Henley, one of these best-selling novelists, divides her time between "St. Petersburg, Florida, and Ontario, Canada" according to the jacket of A Year and a Day (Island Books, 1998). The opening pages of that book contain a scene in which the heroine, bathing naked in an outdoor pool, is chased and overtaken by a wild lynx who rolls her onto her back with "one huge padded paw" and proceeds to lick her cheek, neck, breasts, and belly.

Later, the heroine hides in a closet and watches another couple scratch and bite each other as they have sex on the floor. Elsewhere in the book, a woman gives a man a sex toy for Christmas, and the hero stands the heroine in front of a mirror and says to her: "I want to show you how to touch yourself. When I'm away from you and the night is long, I want you to know how to pleasure yourself."

In one of Henley's previous novels, titled Enslaved (Island Books, 1996), the heroine is transported back in time and becomes the sexual slave of a general in ancient Rome. Even after they fall in love and he gives her her freedom, in the bedroom she still finds it arousing to pretend she is his property and subject to his commands.

Another of the authors pushing the explicitness envelope is Susan Johnson. Johnson is known for characters with insatiable sexual appetites who have a fondness for dildos, slinky lingerie, and aphrodisiacs such as hashish. One of the tamer passages in her novel Taboo (Bantam Books, 1997) reads: "Sliding his mouth downward, he nuzzled her throat, told her what he was going to do to her in a husky, deep whisper -- the words explicit, arousing, having to do with submission and need. He bit the soft flesh behind her ear, marking her, holding her like a male animal about to mount a female -- primal and possessive."

At one point the heroine tells the hero: "I love your c---" and "I crave sex like I crave food." There are explicit descriptions of oral sex, sex involving whipped cream, and occasions in which the hero with "predatory eyes, the softest of voices, and the capacity to make her tremble" demands that she caress herself and plead for his touch.

With more than 54 million copies of her 32 novels in print, Johanna Lindsey is one of the world's most widely read writers. The inside cover of a recent book advertises the fact that several of her books have made the No. 1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list.

'I'll find you when I feel the need of your body again'

While the degree of explicitness in some of Lindsey's novels is relatively mild, her loyal readers have clearly not been alienated by the many constructed around politically incorrect sexual scenarios. Lindsey's heroes may be fabulously wealthy as well as tall, dark, and handsome -- but few of them understand the concept that "no means no."

One of her earliest books, A Pirate's Love (Avon Books, 1978), is essentially one long non-consensual sex scene. The heroine is kidnapped by the hero, who takes her virginity against her will, threatens her with a whip if she isn't sexually compliant, and has sex with her while she's bound hand and foot. Despite his barbarity, she eventually falls in love with him.

In Prisoner of My Love (Avon Books, 1991), another Lindsey book, forced sex is a two-way street. Early in the novel, the naked hero is chained to a bed while the heroine has sex with him against his will over a 72-hour period in order to get pregnant. Later, he turns the tables and subjects her to the same ordeal.

This being the late '90s, even incest is flirted with in romance fiction. Elaine Barbieri, whose work also appears frequently on bestseller lists, is the author of Amber Fire (Love Spell Books, 1998). In that novel, the heroine enjoys passionate sexual relationships with no fewer than three men during the course of 500 pages. Her first lover is a friend of her father's whom she has referred to as "uncle" her entire life.

While the average woman wouldn't want to meet one in real life, within the safe confines of a fantasy novel even psychopaths are attractive. Of her three sexual partners, the heroine in Amber Fire is most fiercely attracted to the one who calls her sexually demeaning names and violently rapes her on several occasions. After one of these incidents, he tells her: "I'm through with you for now, but perhaps not for long. I'll find you when I feel the need of your body again."

In the view of her own publishers, however, it is author Bertrice Small who is "the undisputed queen of sensual romance." While always assertive and courageous, her female protagonists are notable for their sexual flexibility.

After being abducted from her true love and forced into marriage in another locale in Betrayed (Fawcett Gold Metal Books, 1998), the heroine is shocked "by the fact she had actually felt pleasure, keen pleasure, with this man. He was her kidnapper. A virtual stranger."

In an earlier novel by Small, titled The Love Slave (Ballantine Books, 1995), the heroine is captured by a slave trader and undergoes elaborate training to become a skilled courtesan. She receives instruction in oral sex and is required to submit to anal intercourse. Eventually adapting to the situation, she enters into the spirit of things -- including a threesome in which she shows another woman how to satisfy one of the male characters.

In an era in which anti-pornography feminists have denounced even the most mundane of male sexual fantasies, increasingly kinky female fantasies have flourished in a corner of the book market supported almost entirely by women.

The immense popularity of these novels profoundly challenges the notion that while men dream of raunchy, politically incorrect fornication, women are aroused only by thoughts of soft-focus, syrupy-sweet, egalitarian love-making.

Copyright Southam Inc.