It's no secret that romance novels have appealed to women for decades. According to research conducted by the Romance Writers of America, 91 percent of the genre's readers are female.
Since the release of Fifty Shades of Grey, the romantic subgenre erotic romance (or romantica) is thriving. Publishers have taken notice of the fact that the E.L James trilogy has become a pop culture sensation. Berkley books, for instance, re-packaged the self-published Bared to You, by Sylvia Day to better appeal to the Fifty Shades fanbase. The book, which follows the raunchy encounters of an emotionally damaged pair of lovers, recently reached number 10 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Romantic and erotic fiction remains the top-selling sector of the book market. Last year, the genre brought in a whopping $1.5 billion in the U.S. alone.
So what is the appeal of these fantastical stories? It might have something to do with women feeling underappreciated in their own lives. The heroines of romance novels often enjoy the lavish attention of male suitors, who cater to their every whim, and who often represent a stark contrast to the prototypical 'emotionally unavailable' man. Not only do the men and women in these books connect on a sexual level, they become immersed in each other's emotional yearnings.
In an age where staying 'connected' means following someone on Twitter or communicating via text message, these stories of deep physical and emotional intimacy offer a welcomed retreat from reality.
Much of the thrill of a romance novel is the care and devotion the hero lavishes on his beloved, maintains New York-based sex therapist Stephen Snyder.
Snyder, who has written extensively on the mystique of female sexuality, believes these novels capture the thrill of completely engrossing a man -- without having to compete with the television, the iPhone or any of the myriad distractions that exist in the real world.
Foreplay often represents the one time when a woman can get a man's full and undivided attention, says Snyder. One might interpret much of the text of a good romance novel as foreplay.
Mistina Picciano, President of Market It Write, concurs. As an avid reader of so-called 'bodice rippers,' she understands why these stories of male persistence appeal to readers.
Who doesn't want to feel as if she's the only woman in the world? That sense of power that comes from holding a man in thrall? said Picciano.
And for women with a demanding schedule and countless obligations, the genre offers an escape.
Most of us go through our daily lives on autopilot. We're assailed from every direction with so much garbage (telemarketers, family demands, tedious chores, etc.) that we become numb out of self-defense, said Picciano. Reading romance and erotica gives us a chance to feel, to remind us that we're human and that there is a beautiful, exciting world out there, waiting to be discovered under the piles of clean laundry that command our attention.
Popular romance author Sylvain Reynard believes that expanding fan base reflects a more optimistic, hopeful outlook. The fact that readers still read love stories shows me that the world is far less cynical than one might think, Reynard said. Cynics don't cheer for a pair of lovers to overcome obstacles in order to find their happy ending.
Others believe the romance novels offer women what they can't get in the real world. Couples therapist Niloo Darashti feels that male emotional neglect, a chronic problem in relationships, contributes to the appeal of the romance genre. In the real world, women often struggle for the kind of emotional support offered by romance novel heroes.
There's typically a lack of presence and attention from men when it comes to women's emotional needs, says Dardashti.
It's exciting to experience that sort of breathtaking romance vicariously, whether you're a sixteen-year-old who's dying to experience it firsthand or a forty-year-old who dreams of seducing her husband away from the television set, adds Picciano.
Freelance writer and stay-at-home mom Emily Guy Birken believes the genre offers a reprieve from the daily tension of trying to 'have it all' -- maintaining a successful relationship while holding down a steady career, with the added pressure of staying on top of domestic responsibilities.
I find that romance novels offer a great deal of emotional release when you are stressed or overwhelmed, as well as provide you with great platforms for thinking about what makes for good relationships, Birken said.
Sara Wendell, who runs the romance review blog Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, offers another perspective. She doesn't believe that romance novels are necessarily filling a void for women.
The stereotype that we're all desperately lonely and unsatisfied is completely untrue: we like reading romances simply because the books can be amazing reads, Wendell said. It's one of the few genres that reflect the varying experiences of being a woman, and it does so in a positive manner. No romance novel features a plot wherein the characters are told, If you're thinner, more elegant, better dressed and smarter, you'll find happiness,' she continued.
The driving message of most romances is, 'Everyone deserves to find happiness exactly for who they are.'