She gasped as he plunged his fingers beneath her heavy skirts. He grinned like a pirate when he found her honeyed folds.

No, wait.

... when he found the honeyed core of her desire. She reached out, tentatively, until her trembling fingers brushed the soft suede of his breeches. She felt enormous heat and hardness there, and knew she touched the pulsating evidence of his manhood.

Pulsating evidence? Hmm ...

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... the throbbing shaft of his manhood. "Oh," she gasped, her swollen, tortured lips sheened with the dew of her desire. "In truth, you may prove to be far too much man for me, Aelred."

"There is only one way to find out, my lady," Aelred growled. In one move he bared himself to her, the enormous beast of his need rearing up from its black cave.

Not cave ...

... from its black nest ...

No. How about ...

... from its inky thatch. He tossed her frothy gown up to her neck in the next, and plunged his heated battle axe into the dripping pool of her womanhood as she cried out in pain and wonder ...

If I tell you I write romance novels, odds are you will think I sit around all day in my pink satin robe, popping bonbons while dreaming up passages like the one above. For anyone who has never read one, the idea of a romance novel instantly conjures an image of Fabio clutching some nameless, frilly female on the cover of a book filled with references to his throbbing shaft, her velvety sheath, the glistening dew of her passion, the devastating extent of his arousal, the quivering mound of her femininity.

No wonder the romance genre still exists in so many minds as a ridiculous and easily dismissed form of fiction.

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Little-known fact for the uninitiated: Those flowery, gooey allusions to penis and vagina are generally found only in historical romance novels, not contemporaries. Another little-known fact: Even historicals have updated themselves, often beyond recognition as "just" a romance novel. Read Patricia Gaffney's fabulous Wild at Heart (Signet, 2002) if you don't believe me.

Take the term "bodice ripper." Coined by the media and still used — by the media — to describe any and all romance novels, the phrase has been both outmoded and out of favor for decades. Originally invented to describe historical romantic fiction of the 1970s and '80s, in which rape was a common initial phase of the courting process between hero and heroine, the term "bodice ripper" is now, thanks to the efforts of feminism, frowned upon by the romance writing community.

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The popular and uninitiated view might hold that it is an oxymoron to juxtapose feminism with romantic fiction. Of course, any romance reader or writer could tell you there is nothing more feminist than creating a story in which a woman finds everything she is looking for in a mate.

Think about it: A romance writer creates for her heroine a man the likes of whom would be difficult to find in real life. This man possesses not only incredible sex appeal but also the qualities essential to making that sex appeal last a lifetime: kindness; ready affection; the ability to listen, to provide comfort and support, and most importantly, to allow the heroine the space she needs to follow her dreams outside of her romantic relationship.

The rape-leads-to-love scenes that inspired the term "bodice ripper" 20 years ago were certainly not feminist. The first romance novel I ever read, Sea Jewel by Penelope Neri (Zebra Books, 1986), featured just such a scenario. The novel's hero, Alaric of Kent, a mighty Saxon lord, takes Viking princess Freya prisoner during a raid. Their first physical encounter occurs when Alaric brutally rapes Freya. By the end of the novel, Alaric has tamed Freya and taken her as his wife, and she has sworn to love him forever.

I must admit that Sea Jewel is still one of my favorite romance novels. Deep within some unreconstructed part of my soul, I respond to the idea of the frightening spear of his masculinity conquering the dew-slicked folds of her feminine desire (my gooey allusions, not Neri's).

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Incidentally, this type of scene didn't occur only in romance novels. Most people who watch daytime television will remember the infamous rape scene between General Hospital's Luke and Laura. Luke Spencer raped Laura Baldwin on an episode of GH aired October 5, 1979. Later, of course, Luke and Laura fell in love, had a kid, and became one of daytime TV's most popular and stable couples. Obviously, I am not the only one susceptible to decidedly unsavory, wildly unrealistic fantasies.

Thank goodness for feminist politics, which enabled romance writers and readers to recognize that rape as seduction is a concept both offensive and inaccurate. Rape victims rarely grow to love or desire their rapists; those who do likely suffer from the condition called Stockholm Syndrome.

My romances of choice are Harlequin Temptation novels, which I have been reading for over a decade, ever since Harlequin launched the line. I originally sought them out because Temptation novels were Harlequin's "spiciest" books (read: most erotically explicit). These short contemporary novels featured sexual encounters between hero and heroine that were deliciously long and as erotic as my then-teenage libido could wish — without the hero "conquering" the heroine and "taming" her into submission.

Better yet, Temptation novels didn't rely on such turns of phrase as "passion-tightened loins" or "swollen buds of desire" to describe what went on in the bedroom. Temptation authors even incorporated safe sex into the mix: Heroines would hear the crinkling sound of a foil package being ripped open. Sometime in the mid-to-late '90s, they actually started calling those little foil packages "condoms." Things seemed to be looking up.

Still, even through the late '90s, direct references to sexual organs remained a big no-no, even for Temptation novelists. They still had to refer to our favorite body parts indirectly: He feasted on her ... He filled his hands, his mouth with her ... He pushed deep, deep into her ... (all from Donna Sterling's The Daddy Decision, Harlequin Temptation, 1999). We can tell he is probably not "feasting" on her nose or her kneecaps, and we know what it is that he is pushing so "deep, deep" into her.

Contemporary romance novels have always been more down-to-earth and plainly written than their historical counterparts. Through the '90s, contemporary romance authors circumvented the problem of what to call the equipment between their heroes' and heroines' thighs largely by not calling it anything at all — by writing around the body parts, so to speak, focusing instead on action and sensation, texture and scent and so on.

Who knows why the romance genre insists on these goopy, oblique references to body parts that already have perfectly good names. Why did Jennifer Blake write about the moist and tender rose of her mouth (in Arrow to the Heart, Ballentine Books, 1993) rather than, simply, the heroine's mouth? In the same book, Blake referred to her heroine's vulva and vagina as, respectively, the tenderly folded, lavender-flavored juncture of her thighs, and the warm, velvet-lined iron band of her.

Pretty and imaginative language, yes. The idea behind it must be that more clinical terms would sap the romance right out of it. Some people shudder when confronted with "penis" or "vagina," and a shockingly high number of people don't even know what a vulva is.

But I am not one of those people, and I am thankful for the further improvements to romance writing ushered in with the new millennium. While "erection," "orgasm," "nipples," and "buttocks" are now common in contemporaries, Harlequin Temptation author Janelle Denison also uses both "penis" and "clitoris" in her 2002 novel, A Shameless Seduction. And those clinically correct terms do nothing to detract from the eroticism and romance of the scene.

And that is another thing: Why are so many love scenes in romance novels described in battle terms? Battle metaphors, like baseball ones, are more typically used in traditionally masculine arenas: "slaughtering the competition" in sports or "touching base" with a coworker at the office. But in both historical and contemporary romance novels, written largely by and for women, body parts are routinely "conquered," "captured," and "claimed," as if a person is actually a small, vulnerable country open to attack.

Again in Arrow to the Heart, Blake's hero didn't just kiss the heroine, he plundered her sweetness — as if he were stealing something from her, violently and without conscience. And in Shirl Henke's Broken Vows (Leisure Books, 1998), the hero didn't simply have sex with the heroine; he impaled her with the hard length of his phallus.

Sex, like war, is a messy, sweaty, sometimes bloody business, full of advances and retreats, explosions, and, as a result, limp, wasted bodies. Thank goodness for romance novels, which bring both humor and love into the mix. Then it is no longer just sex; it is making love, and it is a transcendent experience for characters and readers alike.

And while I am a proponent of calling body parts by their correct names, I could do without the word "phallus" in my fantasy life. I'll take "the throbbing shaft of his manhood" any day.

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