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Why foreplay for women is a novel concept

'Again he pulled her closer yet, then knelt before the bed, catching her by her hips and bringing her toward him. Warm hot breath assailed her thighs, sent tremulous waves through her ... You don't deserve this, he said, a wicked grin on his lips ... Not deserve this? Oh, she did. She'd be as wicked as he wanted her, over and over."

Joan, a 64-year-old granny, shows me this racy extract from His Mistress by Morning. As I read on, the content gets shockingly X-rated, my eyes enlarge and Joan giggles.

"You can borrow it when I'm finished," she says.

The truth is revealed. Women actively seek out books with raunchy sex scenes. That granny on the bus, that accountant on her lunch break, that stay-at-home mom, they're all devouring pages of highly suggestive, sometimes erotic and even hard-core sex.

Researchers have discovered that what most women really want in a book is sex. More than 2,000 women aged between 45 and 60 were asked what books they liked and why. The overwhelming majority said they were "keen" on raunchy scenes. Half said they found sex in books "titillating", and many admitted to actively choosing books which promised lots of sex.

Call them what you will -- romantic novels, erotica, or chick-lit -- but don't write them off yet. Books that suggest a rollercoaster ride culminating in the bedroom may be more important to women than we realise. According to research, books containing gratifying sex scenes may well be the new female Viagra. Experts agree that readers of romance novels find it easier to "get in the mood" and, on average, have sex with their partners more often.

Psychology Today states that women who read romance novels make love with their partners 74 per cent more often than women who don't. Why? Because, when women fantasise frequently (as they do when they read romance novels), they have sex more often, have more fun in bed, and engage in a wider variety of erotic activities.

"I eat trashy books," says teacher Karen, 30, "especially if I'm on holiday.

"Me and the girls would be reading the sex scenes to each other for a laugh. I suppose it does get you in the mood -- even the likes of Bridget Jones, you'd be putting yourself in that situation."

Many therapists now recommend reading steamy romances to boost women's sex drive. These activities can help women shift into their "sex self" from their role of mother, wife, employer, or employee, says Carol Rinkleib Ellison PhD, author of Women's Sexualities.

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It seems that men have not quite cottoned on to the notion that seeing their loved ones indulging in a book of this genre may well be the green light for sex.

"My wife reads all those girly books in bed. I swear she has a different one nearly every night," says Eamon, 38. Asked what he thinks they may contain, he says, "I don't know -- girly stuff, shopping, friends, relationships. Sometimes she would be crying or laughing away to herself."

I take the liberty of reading him a passage from His mistress by Morning, and his jaw drops to the floor. He comments, "God, that's like a porno." He may well have a point, but bodice-rippers aren't the only books that "work" for women. Women are turned on by "emotional stimulation" the way men are aroused visually.

According to Maria Veloso, author of Midwinter Turns to Spring, "Contrary to popular belief, the ability of romance novels to fuel a woman's sexual desire doesn't lie in the stereotypical bodice-ripping, sexually explicit scenes so inherent in romance novels, but rather in the realm of emotions. In most cases, a woman's libido is directly linked to emotions that revolve around romance and love.

"These emotions are a connected set of processes that involve physiological changes -- such as heart rate, blood pressure and hormones circulating throughout the body -- and these comprise the cornerstones of a woman's sexual drive. Therefore, when a woman's emotions are stirred by a romance novel, that's a recipe for an emotional aphrodisiac. It's like giving a woman emotional foreplay. And that's a prelude to sex."

Never before has there been such an appetite for "romance" -- from Cecelia Ahern to Marian Keyes and Amanda Brunker to Amy Huberman, authors are responding to a voracious desire among female readers. The added spice of a celebrity author enhances the experience, as though somehow we are sharing a smidgen of their desirable lifestyles.

It's no surprise, then, that X Factor judge Cheryl Cole is set to write five "chick-lit" novels. Publishers are so confident her romantic fiction will fly off the shelves, they offered her a stg£5m book deal.

Cheryl's agreement with HarperCollins will see her chronicling the ups and downs of her heroines' love lives with a succession of men who don't always play by the rules. Her brief is to write in the same vein as Marian Keyes, who has sold 22 million copies of her books in 30 languages.

Romantic literature promising escape and excitement is in great demand. Mills and Boon has certainly seen it all before. Marketing director Clare Somerville says the publisher is well positioned to survive the downturn.

"The historical precedents are good. In the First World War there was a paper shortage, but the Ministry of Information made an exception for Mills & Boon because the women working for the war effort needed the books to keep them going. Similarly, in the Depression, production was ramped up. In difficult times, people look for a happy ending. We guarantee them a happy ending."

In the Thirties the company moved solidly into women's light fiction, and by the Fifties its florid historical romances had become controversial -- with one writer being told to edit out an illegitimate character because the Irish market was too important to upset.

The first sex scenes appeared in the Sixties, and the content has steadily become saucier ever since, embracing oral sex, masturbation, lesbianism and bondage. But up to the Seventies, unmarried couples were not permitted to have sex between the covers of its books.

Today Mills & Boon, better known as "Mills and Boom", is reaping the rewards of a world in desperate need of escape once more. It sells three books every second and 35 million titles around the world, bucking the trend in general fiction sales as the recession deepens. On-line sales have exploded, with affordable ebooks -- available from just £1 -- becoming very popular.

A company spokesperson recently stated, "Our heavy buyers tend to be older. But we do have young mums, the same people who read Grazia and OK! Once they get hooked on the brand, they stay with it. We ought to be prescribed on the health service. We're better than Valium."

Despite the enormity of their success, chick-lit and romance novels are often sniggered at as being low-brow and predictable, with Mills & Boon being the most sneered at of them all. A Wall Street Journal article in 1980 referred to these "bodice rippers" as "publishing's answer to the Big Mac: They are juicy, cheap, predictable, and devoured in stupefying quantities by legions of loyal fans".

However, there is an undeniable skill to writing credible romance. London mayor Boris Johnson's novelist sister Rachel Johnson knows this all too well, having received the Bad Sex in Fiction Award for her novel Shire Hell.

She was singled out for her novel's slew of animal metaphors, including comparing her male protagonist's "light fingers" to "a moth caught inside a lampshade", and his tongue to "a cat lapping up a dish of cream so as not to miss a single drop".

Literary Review deputy editor Tom Fleming was also disturbed by the heroine's "grab, to put him, now angrily slapping against both our bellies, inside". "You think it might be a typo, but she is actually referring to his penis as him. All the entries were equally awful this year, but Rachel Johnson had the worst metaphors, and the worst animal metaphors."

It's remarkable that women's romantic fiction is generating the most revenue but also the most derision. One woman who I spoke to admitted that she felt embarrassed about her weakness for what she fondly calls "shit-lit": "All my colleagues are reading Obama's book or the Financial Times, and here I am reading another girly novel. I suppose I don't want them to be judging."

The saying, "If you haven't tried it, don't knock it," has never seemed so fitting. Here is something so powerful, it's playing a role in boosting the economy -- and maybe your sex life too.

Now where did my granny keep all those Mills &Boons?

'His Mistress by Morning', by Elizabeth Boyle

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