Writing prompt: Two characters, en route to falling in love, are about to fall into bed together. Make it steamy. Make it satisfying. Oh, but don’t forget to have them talk about safe sex and make sure there’s affirmative consent. And don’t make it weird.
Although romance has been dubbed “porn for women” by critics as diverse as the Family Research Council and the New Yorker, the fact is that the genre was less complicated before things got hot and heavy on the page.
For decades, mainstream romance novels skirted the issue of sex with a suggestive kiss and a fade to black. Then, in 1972, Nancy Coffey, a 25-year-old editor at Avon, published a book that broke down the bedroom door and changed the genre forever.
The Flame and the Flower by Kathleen Woodiwiss was a watershed moment for sex and sales. The book—a historical romance involving graphic depictions of both rape and consensual sex—kicked off the paperback romance boom and, by 2000, PW reported, it had been back to press more than 80 times, with four million copies in print.
Woodiwiss’s controversial hit pushed the boundaries as far as what was acceptable in fictional depictions of romance. Forty-five years after its publication, as attitudes toward communication surrounding sex in the real world continue to evolve, so too have depictions of sex in the romance genre.
Betsy O’Donovan is an editor and journalist in Durham, N.C.
Below, more on the subject of romance books.
It’s Still Complicated: Romance Publishing
There’s a taboo that governs even the rule-breaking alphas of modern romance.
Safer Becomes Sexier: Romance Publishing
Depicting bedroom scenes in a sexy and authentic way has necessitated that authors confront certain realities.
Consenting and Queer: Romance Publishing
How does LGBTQ romance fiction navigates questions of consent and safer sex?