One of my favourite novels irrespective of genre is The Rosary by Florence L. Barclay. The book, a romance, was first published in 1909 and it is still in print. My copy is old, the pages yellowed and brittle, and it was a fixture on our bookshelf all my life. For thirty-something years I never gave it a glance, mistaking it for a religious tome. It's big, thick and worm-eaten and best suited (I used to think) to serve as a makeshift doorstop.
I was cleaning bookshelves one morning when something prompted me to open the old book. I began reading, and was immediately captivated. The language is simple and elegant, the story of the love between the plain, sensible Miss Champion and the handsome, artistic Garth Dalmain deeply moving. To me, the novel is transcendent. And there isn't a single sex scene in the entire story.
This novel was written at a time when love was idealized, women were (allegedly) virgins when they married, and the writers of love stories did not dare venture beyond the threshold of the bedroom. What the couple did behind closed doors - and this was post-marriage, of course - was private. Whenever I re-read The Rosary I can't help feeling a trifle nostalgic for those times. Although I enjoyed writing the love scenes for my first romance novel, by the time I got to the second one I found myself groaning whenever I came to 'those' scenes. How graphic should I get? Shouldn't less be more? At what point does romance become erotica, and erotica become pornography? And do these distinctions even matter?
Don't get me wrong - I enjoy a sexy contemporary romance as well as the next gal; hell, I even write 'em. But I'm ambivalent about the raunchy sex that has become a requisite today. Writing it and making it fresh is a challenge, but that's not all. I feel more and more a responsibility to convey positive, safe messages with regard to sexual behaviour in light of the current pandemic of STIs. We must change our sexual behaviour, and so must our characters. We have to reexamine the old values of abstinence, monogamy and fidelity of necessity - and so must our characters. It has become a matter of survival. So sensitive are some publishers to this issue that they now require condoms to be a part of sex scenes between unmarried couples (yes, I've read the submission guidelines) although we know that condoms are unreliable and they're not the solution to STIs.
Do you think that writers have a social responsibility with regard to the sexual behaviour of their characters? Or should our books remain a fantasy arena, the readers' respite from the wearying realities of life, a place where no holds are barred, anything is possible, and nothing irremediably bad ever happens to our hero and heroine?