Saturday, May 06, 2006

"Romance," circa 1983

Hint, dear publishers: “no” means “no.”

Be forewarned: this is not the pleasant, light reading you usually find on this blog. No, this is a rant inspired by my recent perusal of How to Write Romance Novels That Sell, a writing guide from 1983. If you've ever read any romance in your life, please do the scribbling women a favor... read this post, read the comments, and join this important discussion.

I was glowing with excitement when the vintage writing book fell into my possession—after all, I love gendered advice books from bygone eras. Sadly, though, some of the writing advice was so distasteful that I couldn’t even label it as “quaint.” Instead, it angered me. For instance:

The most innocent of romances implies that the hero, if he so desires, can rape the heroine. The reader must be aware that the hero is free to do with the heroine as he likes. His size in comparison to hers helps to remind us that he is in control. That he doesn’t take advantage of her characterizes him and shows how truly he loves her.

Um… excuse me?! So, the hero should somehow score nice guy points because he doesn’t commit a degrading and illegal assault on the heroine? I don’t think so! Picture me vomiting. Then picture me reading onward with increasing horror as I was advised:

The reader must not feel disgusted by the actual rape scene. Early in the “bodice-ripper” romance plot, the heroine is usually raped by the hero; and we must remain sympathetic with both characters…These rapes are more acts of passion than of violence, and we mustn’t feel as we would while reading about an actual rape.

Newsflash, people: rape is rape. It’s never okay, and I can pretty much guarantee that if your novel contains a forced sex scene, I’m going to spend the rest of the book waiting for the heroine to press charges and slap the "hero’s" ass in jail.

How’s that for disgust?

To be fair, I think the genre has come a long way in the twenty-plus years since this writing book was published. But reading this dated, appalling “advice” only serves to remind me that we still have work to do. I’m still reading too many stories about sissy heroines who find their hero’s domineering ways appropriate, attractive, and manly. I’m still reading about supposedly hot “anger sex” that treads a fine line between consensual and… well, something quite icky.

Alpha males are one thing, folks, but reinforcing dangerous stereotypes and behavior—that’s something else, entirely.

* * * * *

[1] Marilyn M. Lowery, How to Write Romance Novels that Sell (Macmillan Publishing Company, New York) 1983, p.75.

* My definition of supposedly hot anger sex: Usually occurs in a historical when the hero comes home from some sort of physical altercation. His blood lust is up, he basically ravages his wife, then goes into a total shame spiral only to discover that the little woman “likes it rough.” She, of course, would never think to ask for a tempestuous quickie… she merely participate when her husband initiates. Is it just me, or is there a squick factor here?


Holly said...

I can't say how much I agree with you on this. I'll even be specific for a minute. In the book Once and Always by Judith McNaught, there's a scene where the hero is angry and forces the heroine to sleep with him. Though her body says yes, she continually says no to him and pleads with him to stop. I say this is rape. The rest of the girls at SF (or most of them) say it's not rape, because she was aroused. She said NO!

I find scenes like this one, where the hero uses sex as a weapon when he's angry very, very unsettling. It doesn't turn me on and it doesn't endear the hero to me. It just makes me want to see the heroine to press charges and slap the "hero’s" ass in jail.

Kate D. said...


Good point. In no way, shape, or form did I mean to imply that there's no rape in romance novels anymore. I just think it might be less common that it used to be... or maybe I just have a skewed vision because I mainly read contemporaries.

That said, just because it may be less common doesn't mean it's "okay." This genre is written primarily by women, for women, and I think both readers and writers have an obligation to encourage positive, healthy portrayals of relationships.

Pop culture encourages us to have sex before we're ready and to endure a lot of "alpha male" behavior that isn't alpha at all, but actually emotional abuse. In a culture with gangsta rap, extreme makeover shows, and Britney Spears I think women deserve one form of cultural expression that is "purely" positive. ("Purely" in quotes because I realize that we'll never agree on what exactly a healthy relationship or an empowered woman looks like... and I think there should be different interpretations out there to continue our dialogue and self-education.)

As for the issue of ye olde not-so-consensual-sex, the historicals I've read these past five years don't contain rape. They do, however, contain scenarios where the hero comes home from battle etc., basically ravages his wife, and goes into a total shame spiral only to discover that "she likes it rough." This is what I was referring to when I was talking about the squick-me-out "hot" anger sex.

I think your example from Once and Always is definitely rape. If she says no... it means no.

When was that book published, if you don't mind me asking?

Kate D. said...

P.S. Thank you! You inspired me to add an addendum to my post regarding the definition of "supposedly hot anger sex."

I didn't define alpha male in the post. But when I said that I meant AM = "John-Wayne-er-ific," not AM = "destroy your soul with oppressive behavior."

Holly said...

I completely agree with you. Just because it's not as common now as it was even ten years ago doesn't mean there aren't still questionable scenes in books now.

I also think romance novels should be a good escape. I can't tell you how much I hate it when there's too much drama or "angry" sex scenes in books that are suppposed to be an escape. I understand that the world isn't perfect and that some romance novels are based on "reality". But I'd rather be fooled into thinking the world is a rose colored place than forced to deal with intense situations (by this I refer to "almost" rape scenes) in a book I'm reading for pure escapism value. Unless, of course, I want something a little different (like when I read horror novels). But that's another story all together. ;)

As for O&A, it was published in 1987, which I realize was a time when scenes like that were still considered *gag* acceptable. It's also a historical, so I suppose it was even more expected that things like that happened. I'm not excusing it, just saying that society is a lot more willing to forgive a historical hero than a contemp hero for scenes like that one. I'm guilty of this myself. Not of accepting it, per se, but of being a little more..understanding? about it. I guess I just don't have the same expectations of historical heroes as I do of contemp ones.

This is a great topic. I'm glad you decided to post it.

theflitgirl said...

I'm with Kate in that the historicals I've read since I got really into romance (about 5 years ago, as well) have not contained rape. And I'm incredibly off-put when I do read a borderline-rape scene (as in McNaught's Whitney, My Love, when the heroine thinks the hero's finally sleeping with her because he loves her and that sex is just painful, while he's purposefully trying to hurt her because he thinks she's a lying slut... for no real reason, of coure).

But... and of course there's a but... just because I don't have fantasies of rape (extreme domination?) doesn't mean they don't exist as fantasies in other women's minds. I remember reading a fair amount of debate in film criticism back when I was an undergrad (Molly Haskell, perhaps) about the existence of the rape fantasy and the fact that just because an individual woman may have private fantasies along those lines does not mean she a) thinks rape is acceptable or b) wants to actually be raped in her real life (or even c) isn't also still a feminist).

And of course, much has been written about the way the rape scenes in early romance allowed the heroines to have sex without taking responsibility for initiating or choosing it, something that was still not quite acceptable in that not-yet-third wave feminist period.

So, what does this all boil down to for me? I'm not really sure. I think I'm trying to say something like: We can't censor other women's fantasies, as distasteful as we find them. We can't conflate a fantasy for a true desire. As women gain more agency in and comfort with their control over their sexual lives, this sort of thing diminishes (as it has). If we don't like it, we don't read it, we tell the author and the publisher how we feel, and the trope passes out of common usage.

Holly said...

Glad to have inspired you. ha ha

I'm with you on the alpha-male thing. Things such as overt jealousy and treating a wife/lover like a whore because he "suspects" she's being unfaithful is something sure to send me into a rage. Not that that has much to do with this topic in particular, but that seems to be a common trait with the more "alpha" chacaters.

In any case, I think we seem to agree for the most part (I say that because I'm sure we have some differences of opinion, we just haven't gotten there yet ;)) on what's acceptable and what's not.

Simone said...

I hear you on this one. Kate D., thanks for this post.

Kate D. said...

Ah! I love the e-discussion we're having here. From the looks of things, I may be posting musings like these more often. Pop culture portrayals + the way our society treats women = so fascinating for Kate D.

I will be posting another comment later today to respond to all the comments people have left... but I need to let them tumble around in my head a little longer.

emdee said...

I began readiing romance novels in the 70's, and such scenes were commonplace in the early Rogers and Woodiwiss books. The whole idea was that the alpha hero acted out of anger/lust in the beginning, which turned to love. The writing guide would have been a product of those times, so I am not surprised at its advice. Women have come a long way since that time. As far as rape, it was always the woman's fault back then. It makes sense that romace novels of that era would reflect that, no matter how distasteful it is to modern readers.

tagideon said...

Kate D,
The whole subject smacks of '80s double standards - boys could but girls MUST NOT!!! However,if it wasn't her choice - she was still a "good girl" and the author tries to convince us it's romantic. No wonder many women won't press charges! You're so right "No means no."

alex f said...

I've read a few romance novel passages that were a little too close to the line between angry sex or domination and rape. Words are an imperfect form of communication, so an author can draft a passage with each of the characters' thought & feeling in her head but put only some of the thoughts but all of the action on the page. That leaves the reader to interpret based on her feelings & experiences which can be really disturbing at times. It's tough for me to finish a novel if I've come across a passage I feel crosses over into rape territory.

There are authors out there now who address this problem. I recently finished reading "Crazy Cool" by Tara Janzen. Two of the characters are kissing and the man, who is emotionally distraught, starts to get too aggressive for the woman's comfort so she starts to push away. Much of this scene is told from the man's POV, and there's some almost-stream-of-consciousness passages detailing his thought process. At one point he thinks that if he just keeps at her she'll just relax and give in. Right then, he stops and lets her go, horrified by that thought. I was surprised that a romance author would even touch on that, but she does & shows that it's wrong. Any time force is used to compell a woman to have sex, it's no longer sex, it's rape. Some romance authors just haven't completely figured that out yet.

Sigrid said...

What a great conversation! The power/domination dynamics in romance novels are fascinating--I can't remember the title, but I read one book (period, written in the late 80/early 90s) where the hero and the villian acted in almost identical manners--forcing the heroine to be intimate (on some level) with them, planning to kidnap her and hold her hostage until she loved them (i.e. until Stockholm Syndrome kicks in)--the difference was that THE HERO WAS SEXY--so she kind of liked it...

I recently read two period romances from the late 70s--both of which had the "he raped her but thought it wasn't rape because of mistaken identity--HE THOUGHT SHE WAS A PROSTITUTE PLAYING A GAME--and then love blossoms...

so creepy. I understand it's a bastardization of wanting to be wanted--but it totally squicks me out.