Jude Deveraux was, I was epically clueless. So I started reading it and got hooked.
This was 1999 which doesn't seem that long ago, but trust me on this - it was almost 20 years ago. I read a lot of books back then that I enjoyed, but the genre was still stuffed to the gills with virginal heroines who never had an orgasm until the hero came along. If you were lucky enough to find a book with an "experienced" heroine as the lead, she had to be screwed up in some way. Daddy didn't love her so that's why she had sex with other guys before meeting the hero and naturally the sex she had before the hero wasn't all that good. It was like there had to be a self-loathing component to the heroine in order for her to NOT be a virgin. I read these (and even enjoyed some) because I was, literally, that desperate.
Having lived away from home, having had the "college experience," and a wide swath of male and female friends - this sort of thing never rang true for me. Even some of the earliest (marketed as) erotic romances still featured virginal heroines who designed sex toys for a living. I think that's why I found Black Lace books so revolutionary at the time I discovered them. The heroines had healthy sex lives, multiple partners, weren't written as villains, and weren't punished for it. But Black Lace wasn't necessarily romance, although you could find books that featured what we now call HFN (Happy For Now) endings. Also, since they were published in the UK, they were pretty hard to find in the United States until the evil monolith that is Amazon came along (Black Lace is why I became an Amazon customer and no I'm not joking. At all.)
For readers who have just come to romance in, say, the last five years or so, the idea that 95% of all heroines being virgins is a foreign concept to them. These days, at least the books I'm reading, I would say the norm is that most heroines aren't virgins - especially in contemporary romance. But you know what? They're all still predominantly "good girls." Even in erotic romance where taboo is a teeny bit more acceptable.
For "reasons," I've spent the last several months sampling and listening to a lot of erotic romance on audio. Call it professional development. I like to expose myself (ha!) to authors I've never read before, check out books my library patrons are interested in, even if I don't finish everything I pick up - I at least have gotten a small plate tasting to give myself a good idea. It's a way to keep my reader's advisory skills fresh.
I've just gone through, roughly, 25 different erotic romance audio books. Some by authors I've heard of, some I haven't, pretty much all authors I've never read before. And you know what? If they weren't "good girls" they were "bad girls" who were looking to repent and/or be rescued. Good Lord above, if I hit upon one Rescue Fantasy, I must have hit upon 20. The hero swooping in to save the heroine. The heroine being the "emotional salve" to "heal" the hero's damaged psyche. The Alphahole Hero felled by the love of a good woman after he teaches her to be kinky in bed.
Honestly it's amazing I didn't give myself alcohol poisoning.
I hear what you're thinking. Wendy, you're yucking on someone else's yum. And you know what? Yes. Yes, I am. You wanna know why? Because I just slogged through 25+ audio books and 90% of them featured some variation on this.
It took me a while to figure this out, but slogging through those audio books, it was like the proverbial light bulb going off. I glommed on to erotic romance the minute Kensington Brava was launched in 1999. I was all in baby! So why now is the sub genre failing to spark with me. Have I changed? Or has the sub genre changed? And here's the answer: it's a little of both.
The Bodice Ripper Era gets a fair amount of grief from those who don't understand genre history because of how rape-y it was. What naysayers don't take into account is the era in which those books were written. "Good girls" weren't allowed to talk or think about sex, much less like it. The concept that women could actually have sexual desires, needs and fantasies is something society still wrestles with today, never mind the 1970s and 1980s. Authors were responding to society and addressing female sexuality with the means at their disposal. There was a lot of cloak and dagger tap-dancing these authors were doing because that's what they had to do. People talk about the 1960s as the "sexual revolution," but I have news for you - that revolution missed wide swaths of the population.
What romance has always told women is that it's OK for them to have sexual desires and fantasies - to own them. Good girls can like sex and good girls can desire sex. It's what makes the genre inherently subversive. Where the genre needs to do more work is with "bad girls."
Human behavior, god bless, is predictable. I don't care when or where you grew up, but we all knew who the "bad girls" were. The ones who "got in trouble." The ones who "let" boys go "all the way." These were the girls we gossiped about, snubbed, and talked trash about. Never mind that we knew nothing about their lives or, you know, the actual truth. Never let the truth get in the way of "good gossip" no matter how appalling and misogynistic it is.
We've all done it. We all need to own it.
But here's the thing: romance is still doing it. Maybe not as blatantly as it used to - where the villainess was always The Other Woman who enjoys kinky sex - although yes, those still exist in today's genre. But it's still a rare thing to have a bad girl heroine in the genre. A true bad girl. The one who has made mistakes, has a dubious moral and ethical code, and stays a bit bad even at the end of the book. If I'm to believe in a "bad girl" I don't want her morphed into a pod person and joining the PTA at the end of the book. Unless, of course, she's going to burn the PTA down to the ground. Then I'm all in.
As romance readers we swallow a lot of over-the-top (secret babies, amnesia, evil twins) and ethically squishy (boss/secretary, criminal heroes) plot devices. The hurdle we can't seem to cross is the ethically squishy heroine. We'll buy it for the gander but it sure as heck is not good for the goose. The goose needs to be above reproach. And frankly? That's SO boring. I want a heroine who is allowed to be just as "bad" as the hero and is celebrated for it. That's what I want. And frankly, given that romance authors are predominantly female, I should be able to find more of it. Yet, here I am, nattering away on my blog. Is it the desire to be more marketable? (Probably). Is it internalized misogyny? (Not out of the realm of possibilities). All I know is I want more of it. I truly want the girls to be on the same playing field as the boys because you know what? Women don't get that in Real Life. I'm not saying that all romance needs to be wish fulfillment but it should serve as a response to the social history around us. If you love "bad boy" heroes - guess what? It's time to let the "bad girl" heroines have their day in the sun.