Barbara James pointed to one specific meaning when she noted in a comment, "But the sex [in my books] is closed door, because I don't think graphic sex scenes are necessary—these are sweet romances!" By this definition, a "sweet romance" refers to any romance novel in which sex scenes are not depicted on the page.
[A brief digression here into bibliographic historiography; feel free to skip if you want to get directly into the whys & wherefores...
Who first began calling romances without sex "sweet"? I ran a Google Books phrase search for "sweet romance" between the dates 1970 and 1980, expecting to find the phrase turning up in this period, in reaction to the more graphic sensual historicals that poured out of New York publishing houses in the wake of Avon's 1972 publication of Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower. How could you have a "sweet" romance until you had a "sexy" romance with which to contrast it? Before Woodiwiss, all romances were what we today would term "sweet," so there would be no need to create such a label or category.
The broad, bold sweep of history and the quiet times of sweet romance—powerful, sinister lords doing evil deeds, and great ladies in gem-studded silks brushing against ragged beggars and homeless waifs (193)
The search noted the phrase appears in the Library of Congress's 1978 Catalog of Copyright Entries Third Series, although whether it appears as a descriptive phrase, the name of a line of books, or as the title of an individual book or books, one can't tell, as the search doesn't show an inside view of the book.
Google also cites the 1979 Australian Parliamentary Papers, and shows a tiny snippet from the book:
But this looks more like a book title than a descriptive phrase to me.
Moving on to 1981-1985 turns up a single citation, in the 1985 New York Times obituary of bestselling author Taylor Caldwell: "Not sweet romance but melodrama was her stock in trade, laced increasingly with her own conservative political opinions."
In fact, the term as used to refer to romances without sex only starts to show up on Google Books' radar in the 1990s, in guides to writers interested in writing romances, and in the works of librarians and scholars:
Wayne Barton and Kristen Ramsdell's What Do I Read Next? (1993)
A Poetics of Criticism (1994)
Eve Paludan's The Writers' Pink Pages (1995)
David H. Bourcherding's Romance Writer's Sourcebook: Where to Sell Your Manuscripts (1996)
Kristen Ramsdell's Romance Fiction: A Guide to the Genre (1999)
Kay Mussell and Johanna Tuñón's North American Romance Writers (1999)
That the term doesn't appear very often before 1990 may be due to the fact that Google's Book search includes fewer books from before the Internet age. I'd be curious to know if anyone has pre-1990 romance novels that refer to themselves as "sweet romances," or which include the phrase "sweet romance" in their sell copy.
End of bibliographic/historiographic digression :-)]
Why do some authors get annoyed by the phrase "sweet romance"? The ones on the listservs I read had two main objections.
First, those who write romantic mysteries, or gothic romances, or other darker books with romance plotlines but which also did not include sex scenes, object that the term misrepresents what they are writing. Their novels may not include sex on the page, but books with haunted mansions, gruesome murders, and psychopath villains should by no means be termed sweet. To label them as such is to misrepresent their contents to potential readers.
Why, then, do we not simply call romances that do not include sex scenes "no-sex romances" or "romances without sex"? I think in part because the term "sweet romance" carries some additional connotations, connotations that are about more than just sex.
I hear hints of these connotation when Barbara James brings up the phrase again, this time in a comment in response to an RNFF blog post about how to define "feminist romance":
I write sweet romances. So my characters might be seen as anti-feminist. They are in college, but they want to graduate with their Mrs. Degree, work, and have their first children by their mid-twenties. They would rather become stay at home moms, work from home, or work part time while their children are small.
"Sweet" here does not just refer, then, to the presence or absence of sex. "Sweet" is a political position packaged as a personal choice. It links not having sex (or not showing it on the page) with other personal choices: for a young woman to want to marry (a man); for her to want to have children by a certain age; for her to be the parent who remains at home with young children, rather than her husband. It never questions why certain women should want such things, or what role public policies and institutions might have played in shaping private, "personal" decisions.
Why can't a sweet romance feature a 40 year old heroine? A heroine who falls for another woman? A heroine who never wants to have children? Any of these storylines could be written without explicit sex scenes, couldn't they?
I'm guessing it is because "sweet" carries with it a whole lot of other meanings than just the sexual one.
What would you say to retiring the term "sweet romance" and replacing it with "romance without sex"? Or, in the case of the sweet romance in which "sweet" means just a little bit more, how about "traditional values romance"? Or "socially conservative romance"?
Binary opposition: Slide Share