Harlequin thinks unsexy thoughts
Impotence is just the start: the new romance novels put the 'fun' back in sexual dysfunction
PATRICIA TREBLE | September 24, 2007 |
In the usual mix of mistaken identities and long-lost loves 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. When the typically alpha-male hero discovered his bride's plight, he morphs into the most understanding husband on the planet, reassuring her that intercourse isn't the only way to sexual pleasure. "I am a 30-year-old man who understands the limits you have laid before me. I will not pressure [you] for what you cannot give ... If I say we can make love in a way that will leave us both satisfied, you need to believe me." The book is laden not only with explicit depictions of a wide variety of sex acts, but also jaw-dropping clinical-yet-romantic descriptions of the couple engaging in the most common treatment for vaginismus: the insertion of a series of dilators. And, of course, Lia and Damian live happily ever after.
"One of the reasons I believe in writing such graphic love scenes is that there are lots of women who are ignorant about their bodies," says Monroe, who, even after counselling others for nearly two decades, "can't believe the number of women who, still, in this day and age, are convinced they aren't capable of sexual satisfaction." The writer has also delved into themes of impotence -- in a novel about a wheelchair-bound hero -- and the female-centric sexual issue of endometriosis. She had no problem selling the vaginismus book to Harlequin, after another publisher rejected the book as too "risky." Like Monroe, Australian writer Annie West has sold tough topics to Harlequin, including her drug-rape book. "The plot wasn't even raised with me as being an issue," she says.
Why so many earnest plots? In part it's because today's authors, who all closely monitor their individual book sales, haven't seen a dip in purchases when the reading gets difficult. While some Harlequin Presents have the traditional "boy meets girl, boy and girl don't get along, boy and girl end up together plot," explains Marton, "some authors have moved toward a more serious approach. 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."
While all the writers detail the extensive research needed to deal with such topics, the brevity of the books can force quick solutions. At Maclean's request, Rae Dolman, the sex therapist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital, read her first Harlequin, Monroe's Blackmailed, and was critical of the speed with which the heroine's disorder was overcome: "There may be women who get cured in one night but certainly not the women who come to my office," she said. Dolman did commend Harlequin for accurately tackling the myths and issues surrounding vaginismus.
Sometimes, though, the serious plots are too intense for their format. A recent book featured the European sex trade, physical abuse, pornography and the hero's prostitute sister beaten to death by the heroine's father. The mandatory happy ending after 187 pages felt anything but romantic.