Illustration by Angelica Alzona

“No—no, please, no!” she whispered, but he laughed softly and kissed her on the ear, and then more gently on the mouth; and all the time his hands moved on her body, his fingers teased and aroused it until she was twisting and turning under him, desiring release, craving it, whimpering against his mouth. — Sweet Savage Love, 1974

A single book created the “bodice ripper” as a concept and cultural phenomenon: 1972's The Flame and the Flower. Written by Midwestern homemaker Kathleen Woodiwiss and published by Avon, the novel is widely considered to be the first sexually explicit romance novel, released just as the second wave of the feminist movement was cresting. As Roe v. Wade came before the Supreme Court, and Congress sent the ERA to state legislatures for ratification, the old sexual mores were unraveling faster and faster. Deep Throat made its world theatrical debut the same year.

Women enthusiastically snapped up Woodiwiss’s sprawling epic and the flood of books that followed, driving them up the newly created New York Times paperback bestsellers list. The “Tempestuous, Tumultuous, Turbulent, Torrid, and Terribly Profitable World of Paperback Passion” landed on the cover of New York magazine in February 1978:

Lately you might have noticed something new not only on the list but in your corner drugstore: a large number of big fat books, all of which seem to have the word ‘love’ in the title, or perhaps ‘passion’—books which have never been on the hardcover-best-seller lists because they’ve never been in hardcover. You’ve seen women reading these books on the subway—you may have even read one yourself.

If you haven’t, you’re missing out on the top pop phenomenon of the sweeping success of the mid-seventies, so new that it hasn’t yet reached your screen, large or small. This is the the Women’s Historical Romance.

The runaway popularity and the ensuing public fascination with these books—which appeared seemingly out of nowhere and were suddenly ubiquitous—explain why “bodice ripper” is one of the terms still tossed around by the uninitiated, despite the fact that many who work in the romance industry view that as an offensive way to describe these books. The term—the allegation, really—still dogs the romance novel decades later, collapsing a genre uniquely responsive to the changing fortunes of American women into a collection of stereotypes involving Fabio, bright blue eyeshadow, and retrograde sexual dynamics. In fact, these books were the first sexually frank popular literature for women, which surfaced from the cultural chaos of the ‘70s and thrives to this day, albeit in a much modernized form. It was the “Avon Ladies”—as they were known in the business—who first sexually liberated the romance novel.

Avon celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary this year. The publisher was founded in 1941 as a competitor to Pocket Books, which was turning a serious buck reprinting hardcover bestsellers in paperback form and selling them on newsstands and at drugstores to a dramatically expanded market, reaching customers who were too far from bookstores to shop there regularly, or simply wouldn’t have thought to visit. Avon was affiliated with the magazine distributor American News Company, a fact reflected in their mix of books. They were less interested in bringing modernism to the masses than Pocket Books was and heavily into fast-paced reads with a sensibility that skewed sensational. Those early pulps were often packaged with delightfully sleazy covers, but crack one open and you’ll find fairly tame stuff by today’s standards, as it took decades of legal battles over Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Ulysses to pave the way for the open and legal sale of a broader range of sexually explicit material.

But, as the story famously goes, America was ready for harder stuff when a 25-year-old senior editor at Avon, Nancy Coffey, was sorting through the slush pile of unsolicited submissions that came in without the introduction of an agent, looking for something to read over the weekend. She found the manuscript for The Flame and the Flower.

Published 1972 and 1974.

It’s England, 1799. Lovely, lonely virgin Heather Simmons leaves the home of her wicked aunt for what she thinks is a teaching position. Unfortunately, it turns out the man who arranged it—her wicked aunt’s even more wicked brother—wants a mistress. He gets aggressive, she stabs him and runs away, only to get lost in the docks of London, where a pair of sailors assume she’s a prostitute and take her to their captain, Brandon Birmingham. There begins a 400-plus page odyssey across the Atlantic to antebellum Virginia, much of which Heather and Brandon spend hating each other, then drawn to one another but unsure how to proceed, and finally together happily as man and wife.

Avon billed The Flame and the Flower as a lead title (or “Spectacular”) for 1972, pouring money and energy into its marketing, despite the fact it hadn’t previously appeared in hardcover—a risky move, since that meant it was launched without the benefit of a prior round of promotions, press, or attention on somebody else’s dime. But then again, as that New York piece put it: “Why not convey the book directly to its national drugstore, chain-store, subway-riding paperback audience rather than going through the usual farce of snide notices from ex-English major critics?” The scheme worked: word of mouth took it from there and, as Kenneth C. Davis writes in Two-Bit Culture: The Paperbacking of America: “The book touched a hidden nerve—or slumbering erogenous zone—in the American heartland. It eventually sold millions of copies.”

The Flame and the Flower might have been a bestselling fluke if it hadn’t been for the manuscript that arrived not long after, addressed (again, famously) to “the editor of The Flame and the Flower.” Submitted by a California typist by the name of Rosemary Rogers, Sweet Savage Love follows the fortunes of hot-tempered, endlessly brutalized Ginny Brandon and cold, cruel, oddly magnetic Steve Morgan, whose “courtship” takes them all over mid-19th century Mexico and could be one of the angriest in the annals of popular culture.

The Flame and the Flower was a hit; Sweet Savage Love was an even bigger one. Soon bodices were busting all over town, first at Avon, and then at its competitors as they caught on, bringing a parade of titles like The Wolf and the Dove, The Kadin, Wicked Loving Lies, Dark Fires, Lady Vixen, Love’s Tender Fury, Devil’s Desire, Dawn of Desire, and This Loving Torment. The books were wild, continent-crossing affairs, full of stern-eyed men and fiery women. “Fat paperback romances, set in centuries past, bursting with sex and adventure, are selling like no other books,” reported the New York Times in 1978. “They are like printing money,” said one unnamed publishing exec. “By the end of the seventies, the romance was the most significant single category within paperback publishing. In 1981, romance sales were estimated at upwards of $200 million, representing as much as 40 percent of the domestic paperback business,” Davis reported.

The works of Woodiwiss, Rogers, and the women who followed weren’t a total bolt from the blue. They were descended from sexy epics like Gone With the Wind, Forever Amber, which was famously banned in Boston, and The Sheik. (This lineage helps explain explain the uncomfortably high incidence of plantation owners and other “exotic” setups in historical romance that persisted in the genre well into the 1990s.) But for all the controversy those earlier books caused, and despite the fact that sex was clearly happening in them—and a frankly crucial part of the plot—they mostly shut the bedroom door on the action itself. Woodiwiss at least left the bedroom door open. But the action in Rogers’ books happened not so much in a bedroom as an open-air gazebo for all that she shielded from her readers. These scenes were seared onto the brains of those who read them; at the Romance Writers of America conference this July, author Sherry Thomas joked that it’s been decades since she read Sweet Savage Love, but she still remembers “the good stuff” started on page 144. This first wave established not just sex—however euphemistically described—but also the female orgasm as an essential trope of the genre.

Listing for Woodiwiss in Kathryn Falk’s 1982 guide to the “Leading Ladies of Romance.”

Sex laid so bare was unprecedented in the romance genre. Harlequin, despite its status as the most famous name in the business, tended toward mysterious men and clueless virgins either not doing it, or doing it in the dark in a curtained bed in a different wing of his mansion from the reader. The gothics—you know, the ones with panting, panicked girls fleeing from ominous houses—were erotically charged, but never crossed the line into actual sex. And the reigning queen of the historical romance was Barbara Cartland, perhaps the most enthusiastically campy woman to ever draw a breath, who specialized in thoroughly sheltered virgins and would carve out a spot for herself in the broader culture by assailing “permissive” sexual mores at every turn. (In a 1987 TV appearance alongside Jackie Collins, she suggested that showbiz had shown little attention in adapting her works as miniseries because, “I was too pure, you see, and they all wanted something dirty, people rolling about naked on beds, and that isn’t me.”)

“In other words, sex, like Eden’s serpent, has slithered into the heretofore virginal world of the romantic novel,” gasped New York.

Rosemary Rogers and Nancy Coffey. Photo courtesy RT Book Reviews (formerly Romantic Times).

Raunch had long been primarily the province of men—girlie mags, stag films, dirty books, even literary books that ventured into explicit territory. The Best of Everything, The Group, Valley of the Dolls weren’t exactly upbeat about women’s chances of sexual fulfillment and eternal happiness. Perhaps the most important forerunner was Peyton Place—which thrilled and scandalized a nation with the phrase “nipples as hard as diamonds”—but Grace Metalious mostly wanted to rip the lid off the hypocrisies of small-town life. But nothing compared to Avon’s books until 1972. Anais Nin’s Delta of Venus, while originally written in the 1940s, wasn’t published until 1977, after her death. Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying wasn’t published until 1973, the year after The Flame and the Flower. Moments like this, from The Flame and the Flower, were therefore pioneering in flipping the traditional male subject/female object order of the sexual universe, carving out a female gaze—and a horny one, at that:

It didn’t take long for him to kick the covers away completely, making her blush profusely.

His body lay bare to her gaze now, but she did not turn away though her face flamed with her own temerity. Instead she let her eyes roam over him slowly and with much interest, satisfying her curiosity. There was no need of others to tell her what she could see herself—that he was magnificently made, like some wild, grand beast of the forests. Long, flexible muscles were superbly conditioned, his belly flat and hard, his hips narrow. Her hand, slim and white, appeared out of place on his brown and hairy chest.

Disturbed by the strange stirring within her, she eased from him and moved toward her side of the bed. She turned away, trying not to think how her eyes had lingered on his body, and she saw a leaf fall to the floor of the balcony.

What’s unsettling for the modern reader who revisits these unquestionably landmark sexual texts—maybe as much and even more so for romance readers, including this writer, who got her start as a tween on an early Woodiwiss—is the frequency with which the heroine is somehow sexually coerced by the “hero,” whom she’ll eventually come to love.

In The Flame and the Flower, Brandon disregards Heather’s protests as some sort of sophisticated sex game and takes her anyway. Woodiwiss isn’t trafficking in what would come to be known as the “forced seduction” trope; she’s pretty clear that this is rape. Heather escapes, but when she turns up pregnant, he’s forced to marry her—something he sulks about, because of course he doesn’t like his choices being taken away. The next couple hundred pages go by without sex, as Woodiwiss maneuvers the couple into a love relationship and Brandon comes to respect Heather’s bodily autonomy. Only then do they find sexual fulfillment together, equally enthusiastic participants in a much more satisfying attempt at the act.

Rogers’ Sweet Savage Love is perhaps even more shocking from four decades’ remove. Prolific and prolifically explicit, Rogers did even more than Woodiwiss did to expand the genre’s libidinal horizons, proving that women would enthusiastically purchase novels soaked in sex, and thereby laying the groundwork for today’s wildly sex positive romance novels. And yet her overall style is more violent, and Steve treats Ginny like absolute shit for much of the book. Their first sex scene is consensual. She says, ”I don’t want to be a virgin any longer. I want to know, Steve—” To which he responds, “All right honey, all right—let’s put an end to your damn virginity then.” The next several hundred pages are an endurance test. The main difference between Steve and every other man who menaces Ginny is that her body responds to Steve, even involuntarily.

Woodiwiss’s second novel, published 1974.

Contemporary press coverage often calls attention to this fact; in 1980 the New York Times reported with a faint air of bewilderment that this particular type of romance was sometimes known “in the trade” as a “rape saga.” Second-wave feminists in particular did not approve. Even sociologist Janice Radway, a fairly sympathetic observer willing to delve deeper into the community of romance readers and writers in her landmark 1984 academic study Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, concludes that while “romance reading originates in a very real dissatisfaction and embodies a valid, if limited, protest,” it’s essentially a popular literature for women who still haven’t been fully awoken to their subordinate status and hopes they’ll open their eyes to the struggle.

In an August 30, 1980 piece for The New Republic, provocatively titled “Soft-Porn Culture: Punishing the Liberated Woman,” cultural critic Ann Douglas went after the novels of Harlequin, which were far more conservative than what Avon and other erotic historical romance publishers were putting out, in terms of both sexual content and gender dynamics. (When Douglas was writing, Harlequin’s heroines were generally still domestic and downright meek, whereas Avon’s heroines specialized in globe trotting and stubborn hair-tossing.) She argued:

“Popular culture is out to get the so-called liberated woman. Mass culture increasingly specializes in dominance games, fantasies in which women lose and men win. It is important that such fantasies are such fantasies are popular among women as well as men, and that they are fantasies.”

Douglas drew a straight line between the hardcore pornography available in Times Square at its seediest—publications with names like Obedience and Dominance and Slave to Anal Pain—and Harlequins.

It can be tempting, reading these earliest works from the comparatively comfortable position of having benefitted of four and a half decades of feminist activism and thought, to accept Douglas’s framework and to suggest that the now unpalatable aspects of these early works by the first “Avon Ladies” are an even better illustration of her argument. But that misses vital context and fails to take advantage of the benefit of hindsight.

Sarah Lyons, an academic turned editorial director at Riptide Publishing, which specializes in LGBTQ romance argues that, if you look at the timing, several of the big books that followed in the wake of The Flame and the Flower—not just Sweet Savage Love but also Bertrice Small’s The Kadin and others—must’ve already been written when Woodiwiss’s novel first hit like an atom bomb, making Avon the place to send anything you’d written that looked remotely like it. “It just looks like they’re in response because of the vagaries of publishing,” said Lyons. “That’s a really interesting thing to me—you had enough women out there writing these books separate from each other, but the books were similar enough to each other that it’s obviously to my mind, at that point, a response to the social context of the time.” That is, they’re a response to the same conditions the organized feminist movement was responding to.

Ad for Sweet Savage Love from the back of The Flame and the Flower.

You can also look at the works of Woodiwiss and Rogers and their generation as a means of threading the needle between two impossible paradigms. Women were still living with conservative messages like those promulgated by Barbara Cartland and the Harlequins of the era; the sexual revolution was a process, not a coup, and the attitude that good girls kept their legs crossed tight didn’t disappear overnight. And yet, the cultural changes of the era swept into suburban cul-de-sacs just as surely as it did college campuses and city bars, and before the full flowering of women’s liberation. That came with a new pressure to put out, to give it up, to be cool about Deep Throat, before a language that would help women push back on their assigned role as sexual objects had really been developed and gone mainstream across the nation. The erotic universe still revolved around straight men; the concept of “rape culture” did not exist until Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will in 1975, a full three years after The Flame and the Flower.

“They were talking about sex, women’s sexuality,” said current-day Avon author Sarah Maclean, who often talks about how the history of romance intertwines with the history of feminism. “Kathleen Woodiwiss and Rosemary Rogers and many of their contemporaries, many of whom have names that have been lost to history, they were not shying away from women as sexual beings.”

“It had to have been a constant battle for women to understand who they were in this new world,” she added.

Published 1977.

It would be incorrect to cast every one of these writers and readers as placard-carrying second wavers. “I don’t agree with the ERA and the women’s movement,” Woodiwiss told a reporter in a January 1979 sitdown with Twin Cities magazine on the occasion of the release of Shanna. “I enjoy being a woman, and it seems like some of the liberated women want to take over the positions of men, and I don’t have any desire to. I guess I’m liberated in the fact that I’m willful and I have a mind of my own and I’m not really put down by what men think.” But we don’t need evidence of Woodiwiss and her fans and fellow writers marching with NOW to recognize the ways in which they were responding to the same conditions and to acknowledge what was revolutionary about these books.

Some number of the fans did consider themselves feminists, and did not see enjoying these books and their feminism as at odds. For instance, Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who’d go on to write contemporary romance for Avon, reminisced in her contribution to the 1992 essay collection Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, of skipping Updike for Woodiwiss with a friend and fellow reader. She acknowledged that the term “bodice ripper” didn’t come out of nowhere but insisted, “We loved these books.”

We loved them despite the fact that we were the two most outspoken feminists in our neighborhood. College educated, opinionated, and aggressive, we sniffed out male chauvinism in everyday life like bloodhounds…. We saw no conflict between our feminist views and the content of the books we were reading.

As the old rules crumbled and an entire generation was suddenly expected to be sexually available, one popular fantasy may have involved degradation—but ultimately, it revolved around triumph. On the last page of The Flame and the Flower, Heather is sexually satisfied, fulfilled, and respected. Even Ginny has Steve’s rougher-hewn devotion.

And besides, to properly assess the impact of the original Avon Ladies, you have to take into consideration what the women who’ve followed in their footsteps have chosen to do with the form.

After the publication of her most popular three books—The Flame and the Flower, The Wolf and the Dove, and Shanna—Woodiwiss disappeared from publishing for five years. When she returned in 1989, Cox News Service checked in with her fans at a signing at a suburban Atlanta grocery store, providing the perfect snapshot of Woodiwiss as a transitional figure. Said one: “Kathleen [Woodiwiss]’s books are sweet, but they have sex.” Said another: “What I like about her books is their wit. And the romance, always between a husband and wife. It’s one man, one woman. She’s not immoral like some romance writers.” That second woman probably wouldn’t like where the genre has gone since, but the rest of us certainly do.

A 1982 guide to romance authors by Romantic Times founder Kathryn Falk, including a white-haired Barbara Cartland.

Many blockbuster-driven publishing fads bloom like algae then just as quickly fade away. But while sales did eventually slow for the erotic historical romance, an entire category would come to flourish in the space the boom had carved out, especially once the sexual revolution hit contemporary-set stories. Over the course of the 1980s, romance would coalesce as a genre, defining its rules and tropes and trends, a process helped along by the creation of institutions like fan magazine Romantic Times and the professional organization Romance Writers of America. These books became a fixture of pop culture, as evidenced by Romancing the Stone (its main character an Avon author). Fabio became a household name posing for “clinch” covers of Avon titles. So dubbed for their famously torrid embraces, those illustrations have helped enormously to shape public perception of what’s inside these book, serving as a go-to source of parody and ridicule for decades. They also deserve credit as the distinctive, clever, instantly recognizable branding that they were—and could there be a less give-a-fuck instance of the female gaze?

Even as public perception was calcifying into stereotypes that still frustrate fans and writers, the content between those covers was shifting. While Woodiwiss and Rogers both get the nod today as founding mothers of the genre, the two had very different styles (as Lyons is quick to point out). Rogers deserves credit for her sheer willingness to go there, which opened important doors, but it was Woodiwiss’s gentler approach, with its emphasis on a developing love relationship and ending in a place of mutual respect, that won out. And over the course of the late 70s, writes Carol Thurston in her 1987 study The Romance Revolution, “readers flexed purses and pens in increasing numbers to let publishers know that they did not like rapist heroes or ‘unrealistic’ virgin heroines whose sexual participation was often physically forced or in some other way beyond the control.” By the inaugural Romance Writers of America conference in 1981, editors “were passing the word to the authors that ‘heroines are older and more mature, the hero no longer gets his ultimate thrill from being first, and no more rape!’” The battle of the sexes transformed into something less literal, more playful.

Covers from 1984 and 1990 releases; note Fabio on the right.

It’s not like some switch flipped, but the transformation did accelerate over the course of the 1990s. The heroines got stronger and demonstrated ever-greater agency. You can see it in the novels Avon has chosen to highlight for its anniversary: Then Came You, written by Lisa Kleypas and published in 1993, featured a heroine who wasn’t simply not a virgin, but the devoted mother of a child born out of wedlock. 1994 brought Night Song, the publisher’s first romance by an African American author, the great Beverly Jenkins. The decade closed out with the 2000 publication of Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I, her first Bridgerton novel, whose comparatively approachable, Darcy-like heroes don’t even seem to exist in the same universe as Brandon Birmingham, much less Steve Morgan.

The cultural shift is maybe most vividly illustrated with a scene from 1995’s Lord of Scoundrels where, in retaliation for his carelessly ruining her reputation—which the novel understands as a real and important currency in Regency England—the heroine blows a hole in the hero’s arm. (He’s fine.) Whether or not author Loretta Chase was thinking about the excessively domineering male protagonists of the 1970s and 80s, it’s been read by many fans as a sign their era was over.

A 1990 issue of Romantic Times; note Fabio again.

“A lot of the people who grew up reading these books from the ’70s and ’80s, then they came of age in the ’90s, but they put their own spin on it,” suggests current Avon executive editor Carrie Feron, who’s been with the company since 1994. “Romance had always existed for them in a certain way, with sex in it, with sweeping descriptions, but then they brought their more modern sensibility to it.”

Over the last forty years, the romance genre gradually has taken the building blocks provided by Woodiwiss, Rogers, and other pioneers and combined them with an updated set of ideas about sex, pleasure, and consent. Especially in the wake of Fifty Shades of Grey, there is still a thriving corner of the market dedicated to fantasies of submission and force, but they’re clearly packaged and generally at least engaged with our current understanding of the importance of consent. What’s more, the exact contours of what can be considered acceptable are a matter hotly debated within the online community of romance readers and writers—a constant negotiation. Romance generally and the current Avon line-up specifically are packed with self-described feminists who spend a fair bit of time talking publicly about their feminism and how it’s connected to their writing.

Right: The 2014 opener to Tessa Dare’s series about young women who inherit castles and therefore the resources to take charge of their own fates. Left: Preview of the cover for contemporary author Alisha Rai’s July 2017 Avon debut.

The line you often hear in romance circles is that these are books “by women, about women, for women,” and there is probably no single place in popular culture that has embraced female sexual subjectivity and agency quite as enthusiastically as the romance genre. Whatever turns your crank, there’s an author exploring it, whether it’s kink or good old-fashioned missionary executed to perfection. Cunnilingus has been performed with enthusiasm in more romance novels than bedrooms in Brooklyn. A woman’s right to sexual satisfaction is a shared assumption solid as bedrock. That might seem obvious in 2016, until you remember how easily an angry ex can turn a sexy selfie into a weapon for public humiliation and that America just elected a man president despite a flurry of late-campaign sexual assault allegations.

Published 2016.

The struggle at the moment is inculcating a more intersectional culture and opening the genre to a more diverse array of voices. The lineups at major houses are still dominated by straight, white women. Buoyed by successes in self and indie publishing, gay romance with male leads has flourished in recent years; Avon, for instance, gave The Soldier’s Scoundrel the traditional smoldering-embrace cover treatment. But it’s still no cakewalk to get a big traditional deal, and same-sex stories featuring women are comparatively rare. Authors of color have historically faced an impossibly rocky road all over the industry.

All the way back to those first so-called “bodice rippers,” romance novels have been a quietly powerful stronghold of the notion that yes, women do deserve pleasure, and a series of thought experiments for individuals and communities attempting to determine what that pleasure looks like and how we can achieve it. Even today, the fight for our rights to our bodies, to our sexual subjectivity, is far from over. As long as readers and writers continue to insist on this core principle, and as long as Avon and other publishers continue to advance and offer a platform for a wider and wider array of voices, romance will remain an imaginative resource for women looking to carve out their sexual identity in this world that does everything it can to stop them—a bastion waiting for a new generation browsing Amazon or their local grocery store or suburban Walmart.

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