Link: The Evolution of Romance at Harlequin

Harlequin Romances are Becoming More Sexy

An article from February 11, 2021, by journalist Chris Lambie at addresses How Harlequin Romances Got Spicier. A study of 500 books found the covers got sexier as time has passed, just as the stories have. This phenomenon is not limited to Harlequin, but Harleys are the biggest players in the romance market, and they’re the oldest ones around.

From the article:

“All this begs the question, why study Harlequin romance covers over the decades? ‘If you want to understand what straight women want over time, I think this is a really telling way of looking at it,”’ Fisher said. ‘There’s only a certain segment of women that would be interested in these books. But I think it’s really useful in terms of understanding women’s idealized fantasies about mating.‘”

I’m afraid I have to disagree with this sentiment. I know straight women, lesbians, gay men, and straight men who read romance. It is evident that it’s mostly straight women read heterosexual romances. However, we shouldn’t ignore almost 1/5 of male readers or the other out-lying groups. Approximately 50% of romance readers are between the ages of 18-45, so of course, there are those looking for something different from their mothers or grandmothers. However, there is still a considerable number of readers who appreciate older perspectives on romance.

Younger Readers Want a Change From the Past

The problem really is I think there’s a stigma associated with Harlequin romance novels in particular. Younger women don’t want to be caught reading grandmothers’ romance novels. They want chick lit. They want something fresh and new and I think that’s a challenge for a company that has such a long history.” 

That statement is full of irony because the books that younger readers are eschewing are now primarily catered to their own interests. Those who’ve been reading Harlequins for decades are losing interest in modern books. While this article talks specifically about Harlequin Romances, I will tangentially touch upon that line to springboard to other ones.

I am 43 and a longtime fan of Harlequin Presents. I have no interest in them as they exist today. That line has devolved into chick-lit: chock-full of one-nightstands, brunches with the girls, and psychological angst. The vintage romances had more character development, slow-burn romance, and distinctly unique plots. The heroes were men of their times, although they were not all made from the same mold.

I’ve spoken to women around my age who read HPs and feel similarly. Perhaps there’s a favorite author of theirs that they follow. Still, for the most part, the newer romances fade compared to those penned by Anne Mather, Roberta Leigh, Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer, Robyn Donald, Charlotte Lamb, Michelle Reid, Lynne Graham (who still writes), Miranda Lee, and many others.

cheap thrills
Cheap Thrills, Tiffany White, Harlequin, 1990, cover artist TBD

The Romance Future is Now

Younger readers shouldn’t shy away from Harlequins as the imprint is more diverse than it’s ever been before. And the belief that Harlequins have always been stodgy, old books is just silly. I grew up reading the Temptation line, starting at around 11 or 12. It was fairly erotic for its day. Condoms, all forms of birth control, one-night stands, sex flings, oral sex, masturbation, multiple partners… I remember reading about all these things in Temptations.

The Blaze line tried to be even more erotic. That line failed, in my opinion, because the books attempted to fuse Romantic Suspense with outre sex scenes, but the stories just came off redundant. Sex toys, dildos, massage oils, and handcuffs, combined with plots about fleeing from stalkers or abusive boyfriends, did not mesh well. The Temptations were so good because they focused on sex and the relationship. I know the Dare line is pretty racy, but I am an “older” reader and have no interest in that line. Explicit sex isn’t what I’m looking for in romance; it’s the story.

Something New in Romance Novels

I find among youthful readers that they look at “vintage” romance in either one of two ways. 1) They feel the books are boring due to fade-to-black sex scenes and mild kisses, with heroes as too enigmatic and stoic. 2) They dislike the dynamic between the battle of the sexes in older romances, The heroes are seen as too cruel, or the books too “rapey.”

To me, there seems a bit of cognitive dissonance going on here. BDSM is embraced, and so, too, damaged heroes in New Adult romances or the-villain-as-the-hero tropes. The more Alpha, the better.

What does Alpha mean to this generation? A large, muscular, jealous, protective man who also sleeps around a lot. This hero has been incredibly popular for ages, especially over the past decade or so. As for BDSM, many female readers are perfectly accepting of a heroine who is “trained” by a dominant Alpha to be his sex slave, even perhaps chained, whipped, spanked, etc., because they see the heroine as having given consent.

Something Old in Romance Novels

What these readers fail to acknowledge about the older so-called “rapey” books was that the reader was giving consent to the story. It was pure fantasy, experiencing a tale about a beautiful woman who an animalistic, attractive male so desired that he would be reduced to coercing her with some amount of force if she were not willing. However, the heroine was often willing; it was a struggle between her inner desires and the outside society she often felt. The allure was about being sexually active and fully enjoying it without any hangups.

Despite “forced seduction/ dubious consent” tropes having faded away to almost obscurity, young readers are quick to give up on a hero if they feel he even gets close to being verbally, physically, or emotionally abusive. Let me dispel the notion that the reader wants to be abused.

Some readers enjoy the thrill of the hunt, whether it’s the hero doing the hunting or even the heroine. A wild man of a hero tamed by his passionate, yet redeeming love for one woman is a fantasy. Or perhaps, folks enjoy these crazy stories for the thrill of seeing something shocking and out of the ordinary. A hero in a novel who asks for consent before every sexual touch may appeal to many women; for others, it may hinder escapism.

The Romance Genre is Big Enough to Include All Readers

While the outside covers and inside content of Harlequins have gotten sexier over time, that’s a separate matter from using these books to gauge what heterosexual women want in their love lives. Marketing whizzes know sex sells romance, not just cars! 🙂

The romance market is bigger than ever, with over a billion dollars in annual sales. There is something out there for every reader of romance to enjoy, young or old, of whatever color or social standing, and we should be accepting of that great variety. Plus, if Harlequin were really savvy, they’d focus on pleasing their older readers and creating new lines for the next generation. Win-win for everyone.


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