Swollen loins and love tunnels…not your grandma’s romance novels

Her Son's Hero by Vicki Essex, Harlequin Superromance

In advance of my interview with author Vicki Essex whose Harlequin romance novel, Her Son’s Hero, is on books shelves next month, I’m running a story about romance novels from my archives. Mostly, I just want to run the glossary which has such gems as “engorged wand of passion” and “feminine receptacle.” (Use some of that in the bedroom.)

This story was originally published in the National Post: Saturday, February 09, 2008

In Bobby Hutchinson’s first romance novel, the heroine, a teacher for the deaf, meets the handsome owner of a coal mine in small-town Sparwood, B.C.

The protagonist finds the hero high-handed and arrogant, but halfway through the book they are making passionate love: “His need for her was tangibly apparent as his hands cupped her hips, drawing her tight against his maleness.” The characters get married three pages from the end.

Sheltering Bridges was published by Harlequin in 1985.

Ms. Hutchinson’s more recent romance titles still follow the same formula: man meets woman, they overcome obstacles to their union and live happily ever after. But much of everything else has changed.

Her 2002 book, Gentleman Caller, is about a single mother working as a phone-sex operator. And later, Straight to the Heart begins with a woman screaming at a man, “I don’t want a relationship. All I want is sex!”

The romance-fiction industry, which generates more than $1-billion in revenue each year and makes up nearly 55% of all paperback fiction sales, has been reinventing itself on a regular basis for the past decade to keep up with a increasingly sophisticated and demanding audience. Books have traded virgin brides for sexually aggressive businesswomen. Authors have abandoned “pulsing tumescence” and “turgid manroots” for frank language.

In the past few years, publishers have flooded the market with sexually explicit erotic literature, touted as “not your grandma’s romance novels.” Writers say the raw intimacy is a reflection of modern relationships. Pop culture experts say the graphic material is due to a cultural desensitization; young readers are more blase and have a morbid fascination with vulgarity, having been brought up on music videos and the Internet.

By the time Ms. Hutchinson, 67, started writing, romance novels were moving away from rape scenes which were more prevalent in the ’70s (leading to the ‘bodice-ripper’ label). Heroines were bolder, more independent, culminating in 2004 with Harlequin’s line, Silhouette Bombshell, featuring former cops, spies and martial arts experts embarking on dangerous missions with sexy results.

“There is a strong element of escapism in it,” said Gisele Baxter, an English literature and popular culture lecturer at the University of British Columbia. “Life has become threatening. Life has become very stressful.… But here is something that you can escape into where people experience emotions that seem larger than life.”

Ms. Hutchinson, the twice-divorced proprietor of a bed and breakfast in Sparwood, B.C., has written about 50 books, drawing inspiration from her own life. One of her three sons is deaf, inspiring her to write Sheltering Bridges. One of her friends once worked as a phone-sex operator. “Feminism has influenced romance. The Boomer generation certainly has.”

Jo Beverley, a prolific and best-selling writer of historical romance novels, says she is hard-lined about the romantic finale.

“When you get into books that have more to do with a woman’s journey, which end up with her setting off on her own, they are wonderful books but they are not romance novels,” she says.


A few euphemisms found in romance novels which have since been replaced with more frank terminology in some books:

Breasts mounts, globes, orbs, twin peaks

Erection arousal, male tumescence, hard maleness, savage insistence, swollen loins, engorged wand of passion

Ejaculation release one’s seed

Penis turgid member, quivering staff, shaft, manroot, manhood, velvety sword, love rod, lance of desire, tube of fire, beast of lust

Vagina sheath, treasure, citadel, love valley, love tunnel, womanly wetness, womanhood, feminine receptacle, moist warmth, nest of desire, welcoming folds

Take her virginity breach her maidenhead, conquer the barrier to her womanhood

Clitoris nubbin of desire

Nipples hard little berries, pebbled peaks

French kiss tongues engaged in a mating dance

Orgasm throbbing waves of desire, magical cataclysm, soaring to the heavens


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