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In the era of #MeToo, Harlequin's new, explicit romance line focuses on strong heroines and female desire. Zosia Bielski reports that the effort is laudable, if a little late to the game

Pink fluorescent tubing, the kind you might imagine buzzing in a red-light district, spells out the logo for Dare, a new line of Harlequin romance novels branded as the publisher's most sexually explicit books to date. On the covers, no beefcake Fabios or ripped bodices. Instead, toned women straddle men and push them up against brick walls, staring them straight in the eye.

The forward heroines are a new look for Harlequin, which has been peddling women's fantasies for nearly 70 years. Launching this month, Dare has been marketed as a modernization of the way Harlequin treats sex.

Female agency and pleasure are at the forefront, euphemisms have been ditched for graphic terms and rose petals and candlelight have been replaced by blow jobs in moving cars.

"With Dare, we've taken it to the sexiest place we've ever been," said Joanne Grant, editorial director of Harlequin Series.

She heard from women who wanted more direct depictions of sex, and listened: "It doesn't hurt to call it what it is."

For Harlequin, which is based in Toronto, the shift to more explicit sex is long overdue: The literary blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey came and went half a decade ago, blasting past sales of 125 million copies in 2015. With Dare, Harlequin is following a raunchy (and highly lucrative) indie romance market.

The publisher hopes to attract new readers, younger readers and existing Harlequin fans who might want a saccharine romance on Monday and something racier by Friday.

Limited to 50,000 words and printed in digital format only in North America, the Dare e-books are quick reads women can whip through in relative privacy on their commutes. Harlequin will churn out four new titles for them every month.

Anne Marsh wrote one of the first Dare titles, Ruled, about an unlikely liaison between a children's-party planner and a biker-gang member. Marsh said the new line allowed her to deepen her characters' relationships with more intense sex scenes.

"You have really big, tough alpha guys who don't hold back in bed but who also end up having these marshmallow insides and hearts for their heroine," Marsh said from the San Francisco Bay Area, where she works as a professional technical writer by day and pumps out romance novels by night.

Limited to 50,000 words and printed in digital format only in North America, the Dare e-books are quick reads women can whip through in relative privacy on their commutes. Harlequin will publish four new titles for them every month.

Since the Dare books are shorter than other Harlequin titles, the characters need to fall into bed faster. Sex acts that were once verboten are no longer off-limits. "You can have people role-playing in the bedroom," Marsh said. "You can have butt sex. You can have toys. The hero and the heroine can do what feels right for them."

Not everyone is excited about Harlequin's dirty turn. Sisters Bea and Leah Koch, who own the Ripped Bodice, a romance-only bookstore in Culver City, Calif., say Harlequin is sorely late to the game with its explicit romance line. "The independent market has been putting out these books for a long time," Bea Koch said. "The publishers are catching up and wanting to get some of that money."

The Koch sisters see another trend emerging in the romance genre: feminism. "Our customer base is interested in stories about empowered women and men who find that sexy and not threatening," Leah Koch said.

Late as Harlequin may be to modern sexual mores, the publisher appears to have gotten a whiff of feminism with Dare. Damsels in distress have been traded in for careerist heroines, "fearless women who choose to make [men] part of their lives," according to the publisher. Says Marsh, "Women don't want to read about weak women."

Lisa Childs, a retired Grand Rapids, Mich., insurance agent who has written a mind-boggling 70 Harlequin romances, sees Dare's female characters as evolved, sexually and otherwise. Childs wrote the Dare title Legal Seduction, which centres on a torrid affair at a law firm involving espionage and the protagonists shagging on every surface of a well-appointed corporate office. Heroine Bette Monroe is a "challenging" executive assistant with a "deep and husky" laugh who likes to toy with her boss.

"It's not your grandma's romance with the timid virgin," Childs said. "She's an equal partner in the sexual relationship." In other words, Bette Monroe has a lot of orgasms.

In the era of # MeToo, Dare's promise to focus on strong heroines and female desire is laudable. So it's doubly disappointing, then, that some retrograde tropes emerge on the page.

In several of Dare's inaugural titles, heroines are saddled with strikingly feminized careers. One protagonist is a matchmaker, another designs bow-festooned lingerie and another plans pink and frilly "princess parties." Hard pass.

Then there's Harlequin's female orgasm to contend with. Often, climaxes are instant, with heroines screaming in ecstasy at the slightest touch of a man, much like they do in mainstream, male-directed porn. The romance genre is fantastical, but these female writers should know better.

More problematic is that two of the initial Dare titles feature scenarios that could be read as workplace sexual harassment – a turnoff if ever there was one, but especially in the wake of # MeToo. Bette Monroe's affair with her boss starts when he gets grabby with her in his office (granted, she doesn't seem to mind). In another Dare offering, Off Limits by Clare Connelly, billionaire investor Jack Grant lolls around naked in bed in front of Gemma Picton, his in-house counsel, while she tries to read him his itinerary for the day. "In the two years since I started working for Jack I've probably seen him naked on average once per week," Picton says.

The scene sharply calls to mind the behaviour of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and former PBS host Charlie Rose, who are both facing accusations of workplace sexual harassment, including getting naked in front of horrified female staff.

The key difference, we are told, is that Dare heroines are very into their bosses, often initiating the sex. Harlequin's Grant has this to say about the boss-assistant relationships: "This has been a popular romance trope for many years … tapping into the 'forbidden' relationship fantasy. We did give careful consideration at the time of acquiring these Dare titles – long before the Weinstein story hit, due to our publishing lead-in times – as to whether the dynamic was portrayed appropriately, in a way that is empowering for the heroine."

Grant said conversations about sexual consent have been ratcheting up at Harlequin, where staff consider the issue as they review, acquire and edit manuscripts. "Our copy editors will and do flag anything that may be interpreted as a little grey on the issue of consent, for further consideration by the editor and author," Grant said.

Some evidence of these editorial discussions is sprinkled throughout the new novels. As lecherous protagonist Simon Kramer eyes Bette Monroe, his executive assistant in Legal Seduction, his inner monologue reads, "He didn't want to take advantage if she'd had too much to drink."

Marsh stresses that consent is non-negotiable in the romance genre. "These are fantasies written by women for women. We want our heroes to be 100-per-cent invested in the heroine and focused on her pleasure and what she needs. If he's ignoring a 'no,' he's not a hero at that point. He's an asshole."

There is a fine tightrope to be walked here. Harlequin doesn't want to thought-police women's fantasies, fantasies that aren't always politically correct. At the same time, it wants to give them a "safe read" in which heroines call the shots and endings are happy. "It's consenting, it's positive and the women are in control," Grant said. "It's a positive experience of sex."

Beyond consent, the editorial director allows that Harlequin should take responsibility for the intimacy it depicts because some young readers treat their romance novels as de facto sex manuals. "If you snuck your book from your mum growing up," Grant says with a laugh, "you learned about sex."

In a New York Times op-ed published last month and headlined We Need Bodice-Ripper Sex Ed, bestselling author Jennifer Weiner wrote, "[Romance novels] taught readers that sexual pleasure was something women could not just hope for but insist upon. They shaped my interactions with boys and men. They helped make me a feminist."

Marsh, who devours four romance novels a week, remembers drawing up a "wish list" when she read the books at 18. "It was a safe space to try on what I might find appealing and what I might not."

Even as literary critics dismiss the romance genre, these books can serve as potent window shopping for women. "Romance has always been the literature that allows women to explore their sexuality and desires in a very unencumbered way," the Ripped Bodice's Bea Koch said. "Women's emotions and sexuality are centred. That's important when a lot of pornography centres on the male gaze."

The Ripped Bodice doesn't carry Harlequin, focusing instead on diverse titles from the indie romance genre. Big stars in this world include Kit Rocha and the sci-fi romance series Beyond Shame; historical romance writer Courtney Milan and her contemporary novel Trade Me and Rebekah Weatherspoon and her bondage fantasy Haven, which features a rugged mountain-man hero.

"Women read romance because it makes them happy," Leah Koch said.

The genre's appeal is escapist: It's inherently idealistic, a world of women writing for women about the men (and the lives) they want.

"It's a very powerful escape from their lives and so many women need that," said Angela Miles, a professor of global feminist movements at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who has researched the romance genre.

"Women read them when they're under pressure. They read them when they've just had a baby, which is why they give them out free at hospitals," Miles said. "If you have no time to yourself, if you can't go out, if you're totally stuck, you can read them."

Staggering romance sales make clear that women need an escape hatch: 25 per cent of Canadian women age 18 to 64 are romance readers, according to Harlequin market research. Since launching in 1949, Harlequin has sold approximately 6.7 billion books.

Like many other romance fans, Sarah Phalen tears through three books a week. "They're my favourite thing to read," said the 38-year-old Toronto customer-service rep.

Phalen got into Harlequin one summer when she was 13. Her aunt worked for the Toronto Public Library and had romance novels lying around the cottage. "It was very scandalous," Phalen said.

She preordered the first Dare books ahead of the line's launch. Amid the deadening news cycle of #MeToo, Phalen said she found solace in the heroines who get to own their sexuality. Her only complaint is that Harlequin's foray into raw female desire came so late.

"This is overdue," she said. "We can handle it."