Over at the Word Wenches blog Rev Melinda issued me something of a challenge:
I'd love to see Laura Vivanco write about why we seem to love heroes who are so Out of Control that they can't keep their boy toy in their pants or their hands off the heroine. Why is that so fascinating to us? (And isn't that the total stereotype of the Lustful Animal Male?--aren't we skating pretty darn close to that Rape Fantasy in all this?)Naturally I was very flattered that Melinda would think I'd have something interesting to say about this but because those heroes aren't ones I find fascinating, I can't draw on my own personal experience. However, I have a few thoughts on the matter and I'm hoping that we can discuss this further in the comments.
First of all, the stereotype of the "Lustful Animal Male" seems to be pretty much identical to what's referred to in academic circles as the "'male sexual drive' discourse" and it is, I think, what underpins the popularity of the rake in the romance genre (or "bad boy" in non-historical romance):
Foucault (1978), Tiefer (1995), and others have argued that sexuality is constructed within particular sociocultural contexts and discourses. The male sexual drive discourse was identified by Hollway (1984) as a principle discourse in the production of meanings concerning contemporary sexuality. This discourse has its origin in sociobiological views of men's role to pursue and procreate, and hence in the primacy and importance of the male sexual drive.So how do these themes relate to romance heroes:
Themes associated with the male sexual drive discourse are well documented in the social psychological literature. Zilbergeld (1978) identified the following themes: sex is a male performance; the man is responsible for orchestrating sex; a man always wants and is always ready to have sex; for a man, all physical contact must lead to sex; and birth control is the woman's responsibility. Similarly, Reinholtz et al. (1995) included the following in their list of common themes in communication about sexuality: male sexuality as uncontrollable, female responsibility for male sexuality, sex as a force of nature, and men as dominant and women as submissive. These researchers also identified a theme they labeled, "romance," the cultural notion that when two people "fall in love," sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. (Gilbert, Walker, McKinney, and Snell 755-56, emphasis added)1
- the man is responsible for orchestrating sex. Rakes almost always are. Heroines may be "responsible" for inciting the rake's interest, but it is the hero who (with a few exceptions) has the expertise required to "orchestrate" sexual encounters, particularly the first one.
- a man always wants and is always ready to have sex: note the prevalence of "lust thought".2
- male sexuality as uncontrollable. This is why so many heroes are "so Out of Control that they can't keep their boy toy in their pants or their hands off the heroine."
- sex automatically follows and cannot be controlled by rational consideration. And this is how many people define "passion." True passion over-rides reason and so, in order to demonstrate that the hero and heroine are experiencing true passion, they must have sex even if this is a rather illogical/dangerous thing for them to do. The discussion at the Word Wenches blog began with reference to condom use, and Susan Holloway Scott/Miranda Jarrett wrote that
a love scene that includes the ritual foil packet or questions about having been tested hits the “ick-factor” for many readers. Romances are fantasies, they protest, and fantasies feature great sex over the safe kind.I suspect that the reason "great sex" is being defined as unsafe sex may well be because of this cultural association between passion and lack of control. One can see that this also affects behaviour in the non-fictional world. Flood observes that
Common constructions of masculinity and heterosexuality inform some men’s resistance to condom use. Some men learn that male sexuality is uncontrollable, and stopping to put on a condom once you’re aroused is impossible. Some young men pursue sex in unsafe ways, and at a young age, to gain status with male peers.
Heroes tend to be bigger/better than other men in a variety of ways: often they're more handsome than other men, better at fighting than other men and usually have a reputation for having had more sex/being more skilled at it than other men.3 A high number of sexual conquests can be read as proof that the hero is more virile than other men. This may explain the way that heroes are often labelled "rakes" even when there isn't much evidence of their promiscuity within the novels themselves: it's often the label that counts, not a detailed and accurate exploration of the consequences of what, in some heroes, might otherwise be described as sexual addiction.
The rakish hero doesn't just tell us something about ideals concerning masculinity; his "taming" also tells us much about the heroine. Doreen Owens Malek wrote:
So what is the fantasy? Simply this: a strong, dominant, aggressive male brought to the point of surrender by a woman.And I don't think this is just the heroine's triumph over the hero, it's also the heroine's triumph over other women. All those other women seduced and abandoned by the rake couldn't hold or "tame" him. She can. So, as Owens Malek says, "the more obdurate the hero", the more women he's seduced in the past, the greater the heroine's triumph. And if she can get him to lose control, to be unable to keep his hands off her (when he is somewhat more able to keep his hands off other women) this demonstrates that she is more alluring than other women. Recent laboratory-based research into facial attractiveness has in fact found some scientific basis for this, though of course individuals vary, and whatever the general trend, there will be exceptions, and other factors will also influence preferences outwith the laboratory: "Masculine traits in men indicate long-term health [...], higher reproductive success [...], but reduced commitment to relationships and offspring [...]" (Feinberg et al. 215) , which, in romance terms, means that the hyper-masculine men who are most likely to be alpha romance heroes are also those most likely to be rakes. As for women,
Why does this particular fantasy hold so much appeal for us? Because it dramatizes, colorfully and dramatically, a battle of the sexes in which the woman always wins. [...] We may want a caring, sensitive modern man in our lives, but we want a swaggering, rough-hewn, mythic man in our books. He provides the best foil; the more obdurate the hero, the sweeter the triumph when the heroine brings him to his knees. (74-75)
Preferences for male facial masculinity are influenced by the attractiveness and femininity of the female judges [...] . While relatively unattractive and masculine women demonstrated stronger preferences for masculine males as short-term partners than as long-term partners, the effect of relationship context on masculinity preferences was weaker for attractive, feminine women [...]. This effect of own condition on women’s masculinity preferences is thought to occur because more attractive, feminine women may be better able to obtain investment from masculine men during long-term relationships (Feinberg et al. 215-16)So, in romance terms, while other women may find the rake attractive, it's really only the most "attractive, feminine women" who can "tame" the rake.
We can look also look at this dynamic of competition between women to attract the best male in economic terms, as Baumeister and Vohs do:
A heterosexual community can be analyzed as a marketplace in which men seek to acquire sex from women by offering other resources in exchange. Societies will therefore define gender roles as if women are sellers and men buyers of sex. Societies will endow female sexuality, but not male sexuality, with value (as in virginity, fidelity, chastity). The sexual activities of different couples are loosely interrelated by a marketplace, instead of being fully separate or private, and each couple's decisions may be influenced by market conditions. (from the abstract)If we look at some of the key points in Baumeister and Vohs's analysis, we can easily see that it applies to the situations described in many romance novels:
- "cultural systems will tend to endow female sexuality with value, whereas male sexuality is treated by society as relatively worthless. As a result, sexual intercourse by itself is not an equal exchange, but rather an instance of the man getting something of value from the woman. To make the exchange equal, the man must give her something else in return and his own sexual participation does not have enough value to constitute this" (340). In romances the heroine is very often a virgin, whereas the hero is not. He is not diminished in any way by this lack of virginity or chastity, but for the heroine, it has been argued that her virginity is "a metaphor for the qualities of female power, honor, generosity, and courage with which [she] [...] is imbued" (Krentz 111). The hero's power, honor, generosity and courage are not symbolised in this way. We also often find economic exchanges of sex for objects of monetary value, as when the hero pays off his mistress.4
- "The laws of supply and demand can be substantiated in all sorts of marketplaces, and there is no reason that sex should be an exception" (Baumeister and Vohs 343) and "The economics of the sexual marketplace would suggest that [...] low-cost alternatives [...] to varying degrees will be welcomed by men. In contrast, women should generally oppose them as if they represent a threat to women generally" (343-44). Among the "low-cost alternatives" to sexual intercourse with a woman is masturbation, and it's interesting to note that romances generally do not include the hero masturbating (though there are some romances which feature masturbation listed here). His sexual appetite is demonstrated by the number of female partners he has had in the past, and he is only able to find relief from his current desire for the heroine with the heroine. Obviously this raises her value to him in the sexual marketplace.
- "Usually the price of sex will vary somewhat within a community. Some women can command higher prices than others for their sexual favors. [...] The more men desire any particular woman, the higher a price she can command. This is true in both senses of the word "more:" more men and stronger desire. Most obviously, her sex appeal will influence how much and how many men want her" (Baumeister and Vohs 344). Sometimes the heroine's "price" is upped by her virginity (which gives her an edge over the sexually attractive but promiscuous "other woman"), sometimes the heroine is depicted as having an incredible beauty which makes her the envy of other women and the target of the villain's sexual desire. Sometimes the heroine's high "price" is demonstrated predominantly through how much a particular man (himself of high value in the sexual market-place) wants her.
- "if low-cost sex represents a loss for the woman, it may be regarded as a gain for the man, and so the man who can boast of multiple lovers without incurring substantial costs (such as having had to marry each sex partner) may lay claim to high respect from other men" (Baumeister and Vohs 345). The romance rake also gains a high value to women, in part because he is a desirable commodity (because of his sexual expertise, good looks etc) and because demand for him is high in the sexual marketplace (he is desired by many women). Gaining the desired rake thus enhances the heroine's status vis-a-vis other women.
The economic aspect of the sexual marketplace may also help to explain the rake's progress to the heights of desirability within the romance genre. The term used to be a derrogatory one meaning "An immoral or dissolute person" (American Heritage Dictionary) and in William Hogarth's series of paintings which depict the life of a rake we see "the decline and fall of Tom Rakewell, the spendthrift son and heir of a rich merchant, who comes to London, wastes all his money on luxurious living, whoring and gambling, and as a consequence is imprisoned in the Fleet Prison and ultimately Bedlam" (Wikipedia). For the romance rake, however, there are generally no lingering physical or financial repercussions of his previous sexual activities and in gaining "multiple lovers without incurring substantial costs", his "value" has actually been enhanced.5
- Baumeister, Roy F. and Kathleen D. Vohs. "Sexual Economics: Sex as Female Resource for Social Exchange in Heterosexual Interactions." Personality and Social Psychology Review 8.4 (2004): 339-63.
- Feinberg, D. R., B. C. Jones, M. J. Law Smith, F. R. Moore, L. M. DeBruine, R. E. Cornwell, S. G. Hillier, and D. I. Perrett. "Menstrual Cycle, Trait Estrogen Level, and Masculinity Preferences in the Human Voice." Hormones and Behavior 49 (2006): 215-22. [PDF available from Feinberg's website]
- Flood, Michael. "Mobilising Condom Use Among Heterosexual Men." HIV Australia 5.4 (2007).
- Gilbert Abino, Lucia, Sarah J. Walker, Sherry McKinney, and Jessica L. Snell. "Challenging Discourse Themes Reproducing Gender in Heterosexual Dating: An Analog Study." Sex Roles 41.9-10 (1999): 753-74.
- Krentz, Jayne Ann. "Trying to Tame the Romance: Critics and Correctness." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 107-14.
- Mumford, Kevin J. "'Lost Manhood' Found: Male Sexual Impotence and Victorian Culture in the United States." Journal of the History of Sexuality 3.1 (1992): 33-57.
- Owens Malek, Doreen. "Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know: The Hero as Challenge." Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance. Ed. Jayne Ann Krentz. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1992. 73-80.
- Rotundo, E. Anthony. "Body and Soul: Changing Ideals of American Middle-Class Manhood, 1770-1920." Journal of Social History 16.4 (1983): 23-38.
1 "Sociocultural contexts and discourses" have shaped ideas about masculinity and manhood in general, not just male sexuality. For example
the comfortable classes of the late eighteenth-century North [of the USA] [...] defined their ideal of manhood in terms of social and spiritual qualities [...] The good man of this era [...] was not just a person who gave the utmost to his community. He was also a man of God. [...] Benevolent restraint, then, was the key to piety. A Massachusetts youth copied into his journal the gist of a sermon he heard: "Let your moderation be known to all men - moderate the desires, and keep the passions and affections within proper limits. . . preserving that happy mediocrity, which leads to no extreem." (Rotundo 24)but "The ideal of manhood changed dramatically at the turn of the nineteenth century. The key word now was 'self.' The good man was bent on 'self-improvement' in this, the era of the 'self-made man'" (Rotundo 25) and
the signs of a new, physical ideal of manliness were beginning to appear during the early nineteenth century. The concerns that men discussed in their letters and diaries suggest that a link was slowly forming between the male body and ideal manhood. For instance, the Christian moral code that many men tried to follow called for the control of sexual impulse and abstention from strong drink. (Rotundo 26)By the late nineteenth century "A true man was now a physical creature, full of animal qualities and primitive urges. Men took nicknames like 'Tornado' and 'Savage' that connected them to basic, natural forces. They feared that humans had 'put reason in place of instinct and are going to no good end'"(Rotundo 26-27) yet
The good man was not [...] a victim of his own physical impulses. He took pride in his powerful will which vanquished laziness and lust. Parents held up this standard of inner control to their sons, calling on them to practice "Spartan" self-discipline and to live "pure in heart." Young men responded with despair when they could not live up to the principles of self-control. (Rotundo 27)2 There is a marked contrast between this idea of the ever-ready male, whose health might be damaged by continence, and some of the beliefs that were prevalent in the nineteenth century:
between roughly 1810 and the 1850s, several prominent physicians and reformers had formulated a new scientific conception of impotence. The writings of Rush, Graham, and Lallemand contributed to the novel theory that licentiousness could diminish the individual's bodily energy. The resulting depletion, they reasoned, induced the state of debility, which in turn adversely affected male sexual performance. Rather than viewing impotence as a curse from heaven that impeded procreation, nineteenth-century authorities promoted the theory that it was predominantly a male disorder, caused by insufficient self-control, that resulted in the inability to perform sexually. (Mumford 39)According to current medical thinking,
While we may have heard horror stories about "blue balls" and "lover's nuts," they are not harmful conditions. There may be some discomfort if a man doesn't ejaculate, but it passes. He can still have a pleasurable sexual encounter without orgasm, especially once he gets past adolescence.and furthermore
Lack of interest in sex is actually very common among both men and women, and this may be related to the complexity and responsibilities of day-to-day living. In his work, Bernie Zilbergeld has found that 30% of men felt, at least at times, that sex was a burden. Yet while we have come to accept that women have a right to say "no" to sex, we sometimes deny men this same right by expecting them to be "sex machines." They're not.Both quotations from the University of Alberta's "It's Your Call - Making Sexual Decisions" website.
3 This can eventually make some series of linked novels feel rather silly: how many supermen can there be in one family/group of friends?
4 On some of the recent threads about historical accuracy it's been mentioned that it's anachronistic for a romance heroine to refuse to marry a man to whom she's deliberately lost her virginity. It may well be, but I wonder if this could be read as an indication that she refuses to endorse the cultural value society still places on female virginity and the way in which sex is still often considered to be something a man gets/takes/is given by a woman. This doesn't mean, however, that the novel as a whole will reject other aspects of the sexual marketplace.
5 There are, of course, many exceptions to this general "rake's progress" in romance. The rakishness of Mary Jo Putney's Reginald Davenport, for example, is clearly shown to be a consequence of his alcoholism and Reginald gradually comes to realise that if he doesn't reform he will undoubtedly end up dead as a direct consequence of his lifestyle. This brings him closer to Hogarth's rake than many other romance rakes.
The illustration is Plate 3, "The Tavern Scene" from William Hogarth's series titled "A Rake's Progress," and is from Wikipedia.