Yeah, that’s right. Rape. I can’t believe this blog has existed so long without us taking a long, hard (huh huh, long and hard) look at the presence of rape in romance.
First of all, I’d like to state
three things up front:
1. Rapist heroes are a big part of the reason why I disliked romance novels as long as I did. Heroes were rewarded for being assholes of the first order, and oftentimes their behavior to the heroine was completely indistinguishable from a villain’s, except romance novel villains tend to be jaw-droppingly ugly. From bad teeth to ugly noses to hunched backs, romance novel villains are dead easy to spot, which is in keeping with many fairy tale tropes that equate outer with inner beautyâ€”but that’s an entirely different topic.
2. I still think romances with rapist heroes have a place in the genre. They’re not romantic to me, but legions of women found them romantic, and legions of women still do.
3. Rapist heroes are not nearly as common as they used to be. Between 1972 and about 1988, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rapist hero in the face. Starting in about the mid-80s, though, the tides started turning, and by the mid-90s, rapist heroes were mostly a thing of the past, although forced seductions still popped their heads up here and there. (There are readers who maintain there’s no difference between forced seduction and rape, of course.) Despite the recent dearth of rapes in romance, some romances with rapist heroes are still considered classics of the genre, and seem to be experiencing healthy sales. For example, Whitney, My Love and The Flame and the Flower have been continuously in print since their first release (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, though) and are generally reviewed positively by genre romance critics.
Why is rape, one of the most profound and traumatic violations anyone can experience, so prevalent for the first several years in romance novels? And why was it presented as something heroes were allowed to do and get away with, oftentimes without so much as an apology?
Assorted explanations have been floated around. One of them deals with sexual mores. The Flame and the Flower, which kick-started the historical romance genre as we know it, was published in 1972, which in terms of sexual mores had more in common with 1952 than 1992. Several people have suggested that the fictional rape scenario allowed the heroines to enjoy sexual pleasure while still maintaining their moral purity. Nice girls don’t seek sexual pleasure. But if the sexual pleasure was forced on them…well, that’s a different matter, isn’t it?
There’s a kernel of truth in that, but I think there’s more to it.
There’s the fact that domination fantasies in general, and rape fantasies in particular, can be very potent, and these books seem to tap into something primal for a lot of women. Check out this post, for example. But keep in mind that not all women are as conflicted about their domination fantasies as this woman appears to be, and not all women with domination fantasies came from repressive or abusive households. The seeds of turn-ons, kinks and fetishes are oftentimes buried deeply, and the roots can be tangled.
So, OK, so this explanation could be classified as an instance of “This turns them on for whatever reason. More power to them. Fantasize away, just make sure to play safe.”
I still think there’s more to it than that. In my opinion, there are at least three other powerful fantasies at work here other than those of domination:
The first is the fantasy of taming the brutal man. On one hand, EWWWWW HE RAPED HER, how can she want him if she’s even close to being sane?
Darlings, this is fiction. In the fiction, the impossible happens. The classic heroic rapist, unlike a real-life rapist, is tamed by the love of a good woman, and is ecstatic at the very idea of spending forever with the heroine in happily-wedded bliss by the end of the book. He’s completely reformed, and even if most of the classic heroes don’t grovel, their asshole behavior is at least held in abeyance for the last five pages of the book as they explain in tiresome detail to the heroines what was really going through their minds at assorted points in the book and the exact moment they fell in love with them.
(By the way, it’s really important, the Exact Moment. If you don’t get to hear about it from the horse’s mouth, then you get to watch the Dawning of the Realization of Lurve. It’s one of those ridiculous romance novel things that you go along with.)
The temporary cessation of cockheaded behavior holds the promise of future behavior that, while not completely bereft of shitmonkey moments, is at least a reasonable approximation of what a decent human being should act like.
The heroic rapist also rapes for reasons entirely different from the usual real-life rapist, which brings me to the second fantasy: The heroine represents the ideal of the irresistible woman. Many of the rapist heroes in romance novels do what they do because they simply can’t help themselves, I mean, look, the heroine is sooooo beautiful and radiant and desirable and WHOOPS, impaled her unwilling body on his chubby pickle once again. Poor hero. His mind was addled by her blazing beauty.
OK, you can see that I’m less than enamored with this particular fantasy. Frankly, it’s far too similar to the “but she was asking for it, she was wearing a short skirt!” defense for my comfort. But regardless, I can see how this fantasy can hold powerful appeal. This woman, her love sauce is something powerful. Men want her, and women want to be herâ€”that is, unless she’s the sexually-liberated former mistress of the hero, in which case it’s a good bet that she’ll give Courtney Love a run for the money in the “insane, homicidal crack whore” department.
In keeping with the irresistible woman fantasy, the rapist hero is often an obsessed hero. He can’t function with his formerly delicious mistress. No whore can do. He can slake his lust on one, and only one model of female pulchritude. And the most embarrassing thing is, she often makes him spooge prematurely, even though all she does is move her body with shy, clumsy inexperience in a dance as old as time. If she runs away, he will hunt her down to the ends of the earth. He becomes insanely and irrationally jealous when other men pay attention to her.
OK, I’ve just described just about every romance novel hero in existence. What makes the rapist hero different is how the very fact that she makes him lose control, he, a man who has bedded women without count, makes him lose control even more. He desires her, and hates her for desiring her, and he punishes her accordingly. By the end of the book, though, he has submitted to the fact that he doesn’t just want her, he needs her, the way Ozzy Osborne needs Vicodin and red wine.
The more unkind critic would note that his dick has made judgment, and his dick apparently knows better than any other organ of his when he’s found his soulmate.
The less unkind critic would point out that many women secretly want to drive a handsome man crazy for love of their irresistible little selves, even though such behavior in real life would probably result in panicked calls to the police and restraining orders.
The heroine being mistreated also taps into our martyr fantasies. You know: “Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m going to the garden to eat wormmmmms.” Self-pity feels good, y’all, and so is the knowledge that HA HA THEY’LL BE SO SORRY WHEN THEY FIND OUT HOW WRONGFULLY MISTREATED I’VE BEEN. The heroine is misunderstood and treated unjustly, sometimes to brutal extremes, but we, the readers, know that she’s pure and angelic and all that is wonderful about womanhood. She martyrs herself and either refuses to defend herself because dammit, her innocence and inherent goodness is evident to all, or she cocks up the explanation so badly that she creates another big old mess, which is good for at least another 150 pages of conflict in the book.
(That sort of heroine, more often than not, makes me want to hit somebody. Preferably the heroine. Or the hero. Or tie the both of them, dump ‘em in a sack and drown them like unwanted kittensâ€”except I’d never drown kittens, but I feel no such restraint with annoying heroines.)
What gets to me is when the heroine is martyred over and over and over again, mistreated and abused by the hero, but there’s no pay-off. No grovel, no apology, no nothing. For many people, though, the hero finally sorting out the assorted misunderstandings is reward enough, even if he doesn’t fall down on his knees, sobbing out apologies incoherently while offering to castrate himself. At least he now realizes how totally awesome the heroine is and how many worms she’s had to eat: long slim slimy ones, short fat fuzzy ones, and yes, even the dreaded ooey gooey ooey ones.
And moving away from fantasy-land, there’s the fact that many women hold on to relatively rigid views of what should constitute ideal male and female behavior. I’ve read lamentations on assorted romance reading boards about how heroines nowadays are far too mannish, and how heroes are impotent weaklings. These readers invariably long for old-fashioned romances, when the men were men. This attitude was summed up by a reader on some board somewhere who pointed out that there’s no point to the rapist hero apologizing or groveling for his behaviorâ€”doing so would make him a pussy.
To be honest, this worldview is so different from mine that it irks me, because I think it takes a real pair of balls to look over bad behavior unflinchingly, apologize sincerely and hold fast to the resolution to not repeat the mistake. The assumption that the ability to apologize for mistakes = pussywhipped drives me nuts, as do assorted stereotypical views of what’s gender-appropriate. But I can definitely see how someone who takes the opposite view would eat rapist heroes up with a spoon.
Hey, want to know something scary? Despite how long this article already is (1,589 words and counting!), I’ve only covered rapist heroes. I haven’t even begun to dissect the implications of other types of rape in romance novels. As Robin said in an e-mail to me:
(…) [W]hat does it mean when the heroine is vulnerable to rape by someone other than the hero? What about a book like Brenda Joyce’s The Conqueror, where the hero (if he must be called that) marries the heroine off to another man and then comes and rapes her on her wedding night, after having sent the groom away? Or what about rapes that are really meant to be angry expressions of power, like what Geoffrey did to Anne in To Love and To Cherish (or even what Sebastien did to Rachel in [To Have and to Hold], although I think it was more complicated there). Like I said, I have NEVER seen so much rape as there is in Romance.
Yup. Damn straight. For a genre that’s supposedly escapist fiction by women for womenâ€”how often have you heard the refrain “If I wanted realism/blood/death/unhappiness, I’ll turn on the news, not read a romance novel”?â€”rape is writ large on the genre’s landscape.
What does that say about the books, and about us? Hell if I know. Feel free to hash it out in the comments.