Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rape and the Romance Reader

Janet/Robin at Dear Author has put up a post in which she explores the role of the reader, and in particular the reader's consent, in relation to rape/forced seduction scenarios in the romance genre. Given that, as Janet notes, "Traditional literary criticism of Romance [...] has not been particularly kind to the genre nor considerate of the idea that sexual violence has uses beyond mere escapism or sexual oppression," I think it's perhaps worth contextualising this discussion a little.

As Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan have written,
If there's a legacy that has lasted much longer in the popular conception of romance than its actual continued presence, it'd be the existence of rapist heroes in romance. [...] The truth of the matter is, although rape scenes have largely disappeared from romance novels published from the early 1990s onward, they were ubiquitous in romance novels from the early '70s to the mid-'80s. (136-37)
However, as was noted by Lynne Connolly,
For some reason, the “rape into love” types of stories have never been popular in the UK, never sold. So we missed the swathe of books in the early 1990's that depicted such scenes.
The romances Janet discusses in detail, "Christina Dodd’s 1997 A Well-Pleasured Lady," "Sara Craven’s 2009 The Innocent’s Surrender" (a Dear Author review, written by Jane, can be found here), and "Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan, published in 2007" (Janet's review of it can be found here) are relatively recent romances. Some readers may feel they contain rapes, but other readers may disagree; a discussion of rape in the romance genre is still pertinent because of the continued existence of "forced seductions," which for many readers are indistinguishable from rape. Janet acknowledges that
There is an ongoing debate in Romance-reading communities over whether a rape fantasy is the same thing as a “forced seduction,” but for the purposes of this analysis I am collapsing any potential differences because the very label of “forced seduction” echoes at least two, and perhaps all three of the clinical elements of the rape fantasy. [which Janet has previously listed as being "force, sex, and nonconsent” (“Women’s Erotic Rape Fantasies: An Evaluation of Theory and Research,” Joseph W. Critelli and Jenny M. Bivona, 2008)]
So, having got those details out of the way, I'll get back to Janet's argument. She explains in a comment that she was interested in
the way in which Romance seems to dance on the boundary between rape as a criminal violation against the heroine and the rape fantasy, which is purely a *sexual* fantasy.

In the first case, the power is firmly in the hands of the rapist, and we don’t speak of criminal rape as a sexual crime, but rather as a crime of violence and control. In the case of the rape fantasy, the power lies with the woman who undertakes the fantasy, and even when she appears to subjugate her will to the ravisher, she is cooperating and enjoying the encounter.

That there continues to be so much polarized discussion of which is which in what books ultimately forced me to shift focus away from the hero and heroine to the reader. What is is, in the reader, that makes a scene okay or not? What makes a scene criminal violence or sexual fantasy?
In the post itself, Janet suggests that:
the rape fantasy, as a romanticized erotic interlude between the hero and heroine, will function as romantically successful, empowering, or liberating to the extent that the heroine and/or the reader responds to the incident and interprets/values its consequences within the context of the relationship and the story itself. For me, the key element in valuing these rape fantasies (sometimes referred to as forced seductions) is the extent to which the reader consents on behalf of the heroine, not only to the hero’s forceful taking, but also to the happy romantic ending that the couple share. Whether these incidents of sexual force are politically liberating or limiting in regard to female sexuality and patriarchal dominance is a distinct if related question, and one to which I will posit the answer as both.
You can read Janet's post in full here.

  • Wendell, Sarah, and Candy Tan. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Fireside, 2009.

The image is of a section of Sandro Botticelli's Primavera. It came from Wikimedia Commons. The section shown here depicts a scene at the far right of the painting in which
the west wind Zephyrus tries to seize the nymph Chloris. Ovid's Fasti relates that Zephyrus raped Chloris, married her, and then transformed her into Flora, whom Botticelli depicts to the left of Chloris. Typical of "heroic" rape imagery, it depicts neither overt violence nor sexual intercourse. Indeed, Chloris seems to suffer no great harm.... (quote from this page of quotations from Diane Wolfthal's Images of Rape: The "Heroic" Tradition and its Alternatives (2000).)


  1. I grew up reading the "forceful seduction" romances of the 80s and it was bothersome to me even then, in my non-feminist proto-womanhood. However, there is at least one book, Prisoner of My Desire (Joanna Lindsey) that had the heroine be the 'rapist'. Women's sexual autonomy has almost entirely removed rape as a plot device, since women can now have sex without being 'bad'. Thank God! But it still bothers me that the romance genre is associated with the 'rape fantasy'. It denigrates the whole field as anti-feminist when it clearly is not. Great post!

  2. there is at least one book, Prisoner of My Desire (Joanna Lindsey) that had the heroine be the 'rapist'.

    I've gathered from reading reviews that the heroine of Susan Elizabeth Phillip's This Heart of Mine rapes the hero.

    it still bothers me that the romance genre is associated with the 'rape fantasy'. It denigrates the whole field as anti-feminist when it clearly is not.

    As I mentioned in my post, Janet writes that

    "Whether these incidents of sexual force are politically liberating or limiting in regard to female sexuality and patriarchal dominance is a distinct if related question, and one to which I will posit the answer as both."

    I have a feeling that Janet thinks "forced seduction" scenes aren't necessarily non-feminist, because readers can consent. In addition, feminists have argued that women shouldn't be shamed for being sexual and I think Janet's implicitly extending that argument to women who're shamed for having "rape fantasies."

    On the other hand, there's the question (not discussed in Janet's post, because it has a different focus) of the extent to which such scenes perpetuate many of the assumptions which underpin "rape culture" outside fiction. That's something that's explored in more detail in

    Puren, Nina, 1995.
    'Hymeneal Acts: Interrogating the Hegemony of Rape and Romance', Australian Feminist Law Journal 5: 15-26.

    Another thing which I think is not mentioned in any detail in Janet's post is the effect of such scenes on non-consenting readers: these scenes can do serious harm to readers who are likely to be depressed/upset/triggered by them.

    The differing needs of these two groups of readers (i.e. those who have "rape fantasies" and those who are triggered by such scenes) could easily be accommodated if there were trigger warnings/content warnings on books, but although you can find them on some ebooks, I've never come across any on the paperbacks I've read.

  3. I have to disagree with Lynne. Rape was a key feature of many older Mills and Boon novels. You won't be surprised that I mention Charlotte Lamb here.

  4. No, I'm not surprised. I haven't come across any rapes in the romances I've read by her, but some of the heroes behave abusively, so I can easily imagine that in other novels she might have decided to push things even further. You probably won't be surprised to learn that Charlotte Lamb is the romance author Nina Puren quotes in her essay.

    I've come across a few (I think 3) rapes of heroines by heroes in M&Bs which were probably from the 1980s. I'm not sure about that, though, since the only one for which I remember the title and author is Sandra Field's Love in a Mist. It's from 1988. I'm wary of M&Bs from that decade, because of the relationship dynamics I've come across.

  5. Does anyone else think that romance fiction is not particularly "feminist"--at least in most connotations of the ism?
    I've read a lot of romances, and, although the heroine may be described in the events of the plot as a liberted, independent, successful woman, by the HEA, she succumbs in most ways to the care-giver, willing-to-abandon-independence, seeking-a-traditional existence woman. In nearly all romances, the heroine is Beatrice to the hero's Dante by the time the HEA is reached, leading the hero to grace. I've just never been able to reconcile these features of a very great number of romances with "feminism."


  6. dick, first of you, you must be reading different romances than I am. And second, even if everything you say is true about the heroine, it's not just about the heroine, it's also about how the hero is depicted. If he is depicted similarly, then maybe the construction of gender and gender roles in romance fiction is a little more complicated than you make it out to be.

  7. Does anyone else think that romance fiction is not particularly "feminist"--at least in most connotations of the ism?

    I suppose a lot of it comes down to (a) how one defines "feminism" (b) as Sarah suggests, which romances one selects and (c), as Sarah also suggests, how one interprets the novels.

    Have you read Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women (ed. Jayne Ann Krentz)? There's quite a bit of discussion in it of the "leading the hero to grace," but many of the authors think of it in terms of "taming" the hero, and therefore a victory for the heroine, and therefore feminist. On the other hand, romances in which the heroine "tames" the hero do tend to conform to certain gender norms even if the heroines are "liberated, independent, successful women."

    Kyra and I wrote about the "taming" of heroes in our essay for JPRS. We called it the "alchemical" model of relationships, and I do think it's common in the genre. However, as we suggested there, it certainly isn't the only model of romantic relationships that exists in the genre.

  8. The only books I have chosen never to finish were the ones that included a 'she may have said 'no,' but her body said 'yes'' theme.
    Girls grow up understanding that no means no, but many men seem to think no means maybe -- and the rape/seduction in romance perpetuates that misconception. The only reason I can think for a woman to enjoy the rape/seduction is because the heroine retains a sense of virtue and is not accountable for the decision, but still experiences pleasure. Of course, that part is the fantasy. What woman who really means 'no' falls in love with her rapist.

    Great study. I'm glad to have found your blog.

  9. I'm glad you found us, Erin.

    "a 'she may have said 'no,' but her body said 'yes'' theme"

    Rape Crisis Scotland had a campaign recently based around the idea of "asking for it." There's a bit of a discussion about it, and the embedded video by Rape Crisis Scotland, here. It's an interesting video, I think, because it shows how things would have to play out in real life in order for men to be able to say, truthfully, that a woman's body (or her body via her clothes) was giving consent for her. As the video strongly suggests, it could only happen in a fantasy/fiction.

  10. I have just finished reading Christina Dodd's first love scene in "A Lady Well Pleasured" and I had to find out what others thought about it, see my past could be skewing my view. I have thought about the differences referenced here and elsewhere about "forced seduction" and rape and this book depicted rape. She said no, she cried and pleaded but it seems women still want to believe that someone knows your feelings and emotions better than you do, thus he will force himself on you until you realise that it is good for you. What you say and why does not matter, you will be forced into having sex with this person because they know better. I have been sexually attracted to other men, turned on, even went on first base, but for reasons other than sexual gratification I held back and said no. If for any one of these men who turned me on turned around and forced me to sleep with them, it would have been rape.

    These sort of books almost give rapist an excuse. I was raped by someone I knew, that my family knew, am I now supposed to start believing that maybe he thought it was good for me too? Are women supposed to believe that maybe their abuser saw something in them? Where is the female strength in saying yes ? For I believe in these days, it was the stronger woman who said yes I want to make love because I want to. Not to have this “Stop it but I like it “ ninny who is raped as retaliation by a man who then turns around and says, “I was… not right” (that she wasn’t a virgin), and now that she was, he will marry her even when she say no.

    Is this romance in other people’s eyes? Is my own experience making me read too much into this? Regardless, I’ll think twice, thrice… or never read another Christina Dodd.

  11. Is my own experience making me read too much into this?

    I don't think so. For one thing, every reader is entitled to have her or his own emotional response to a text. For another, rapes and "forced seductions" in romances are extremely controversial and many romance readers share your concerns about them.