Trigger Warning: This article discusses rape culture and sexual assault.
When I was younger, I used to love romance novels. I’d read 4-6 books a month. They shaped many of my ideas around romance, love and sex. So you can imagine my shame/disgust/horror when I realized these books were romanticizing rape.
Or maybe you can’t.
Rape is so normalized in society that many people don’t know what exactly constitutes as rape. Is it forced penetration? With what? Does it count if it’s just a tongue? Or a finger? What if she says yes, then says no? What if you’re naked when she says no? What if you’ve both been drinking? What if, what if, what if?
It sounds ridiculous, especially once you learn that the romance fiction industry is a billion-dollar business and 84% of its audience is women. One would think that women wouldn’t support books about raping women, right? But when discussions on rape happen in a society that’s centered on protecting men, we get rape culture packaged as romance novels—and sold to women.
I didn’t know what constituted as rape when I was younger. I mean, I’d been conditioned to think that rape was pretty straightforward. If a guy forced you to have sex when you didn’t want to, that was rape. But what counted as force? In my mind, a guy would have to pin me down and I would not be able to force him to stop. There would be a layer of violence against me that was a part of it. I was sure I’d have scars, or bruises, or something.
But my knowledge of rape didn’t cover coercion, drugs, or even marriage (where I was under the impression that a spouse can’t say no). Because that’s the issue, right? That in order for it to be considered rape, I have to explicitly and unequivocally say no when there are a crap-ton of nonverbal ways of saying yes. And as a woman, it is my responsibility to figure out how I am saying yes to every guy who shows me the tiniest amount of attention. It’s really not my responsibility, but that’s not what people will have me believe. It’s not something I’d learn by watching TV or movies or listening to people around me—and definitely not by reading the romance novels I loved.
I’ve read books where women are abducted, held captive, drugged and then raped by the “hero” with whom she later falls in love and marries, legitimizing everything he’d done to her.
I’ve read books where the woman was captured, tied up and sexually assaulted as a form of torture until she is overcome by her arousal and needs to be with the “hero,” who she later marries and lives happily ever after.
There are books where the woman is sold to a slave, raped and then marries her “master” because that’s the dream, apparently.
Then there are books where the male protagonist threatens physical, emotional and sexual violence against the female protagonist. They of course, get married and have kids, because logic.
It all comes back to women being treated as property, children and sex slaves all at the same damn time, a treatment that supports the perception that somehow women secretly “want it but don’t want to admit.”
Here’s a list of actions that are considered implicit sexual consent:
- Walking alone
- Getting abducted
- Wearing attractive clothing
- Wearing bright colors
- Wearing baggy clothing which creates mystery that must be explored
- Talking to a man
- Drinking alcohol
- Being alone with a man
- Smiling at a man
- Wearing a short skirt
- Kissing a man
- Making eye contact with a man
- Being attractive
- Agreeing to go on a date with a man at any time in your life
- Getting drunk
- Falling asleep in the company of a man
Ignorance of implicit consent is not considered to be an excuse. Somehow being sexually assaulted is your fault because you did something that said yes even if you never uttered the word. And you can’t change your mind because you agreed at some point, and that consent is forever.
And that’s before we even get into reporting an assault, where all of the above “consent” questions are put on the table and the victim has to somehow prove that none of it was consent.
Did I mention that this is reinforced at every level in American society and is difficult to prove?
So now, when I read romance books, most of which are marketed and sold to women, I have to give it the side-eye, because what the fuck?
Why are we buying shit that markets the acceptability of rape?
Why are people writing shit that promotes rape?
Why are we promoting and defending rape?
In 2014, California passed the Affirmative Consent Sexual Assault Bill, also known as the “Yes Means Yes” law, getting rid of the vagueness around sexual consent. People had issues with the law, claiming that there was gender bias and that it treated all men like rapists. But that raises the question: What exactly makes a sexual encounter rape? And the answer is uncomfortable, even for me.
For most of my life, I considered sexual aggression from men to be normal. As I got older, I tried to mitigate this expectation by only dating men who I knew listened to me and cared what I thought. When I was younger, I didn’t think about this, and I found myself in situations where sexual attention was forced on me. At the time, I didn’t think it was wrong despite knowing that I didn’t want it. And, like many women, I felt it was my fault because at some point I indicated that I was interested, and then lost interest. Or I felt like I owed them something for leading them on. And while I didn’t want any sexual contact, the normalcy of submitting to something I didn’t want with a person I didn’t want to do it with was easier to reconcile than rejecting him. To this day, I can’t call what happened “rape,” because even though they never asked what I wanted, I never said no.
I also never said yes.
Although I didn’t want to do it, I submitted to the social expectation that I believed was a part of romantic relationships. I felt powerless in the situation and was ashamed of it. And even years later, I still wrestle with the pain of that time and ask myself if it was rape. I didn’t feel physically threatened. I wasn’t physically restrained or held captive by anything but my own social expectations. In the sea of what is consent, I don’t fit the profile of a rape victim. But I did something I did not want to do, with someone I did not want to do it with, and I still struggle with what that means.
The worst part is knowing I’m not alone. When I bring up issues of rape, so many women tell me stories of this one guy, or this one time where they found themselves submitting to an act that they didn’t want. Stories like mine, or stories of partying with someone and waking up unsure if they’d had sex. Or stories of trying to get out of situations where they were interested in getting to know a guy but felt the expectation of more and just … let it happen. Or stories of women who never indicated anything sexual, but he wanted it, and was stronger and forced it.
Stories of first dates, boyfriends, husbands, friends, acquaintances. Stories of pain. Stories of unreported rape.
Last year, some guy wrote an article about how he doesn’t need sexual consent lessons. He felt they were overkill and that he was smart enough to know what consent is. That same year, Jezebel wrote a story about a Reddit thread asking sexual assailants (i.e. rapists) for their stories. The takeaway? They didn’t know they committed rape. They didn’t realize they were violating another person, mainly because they didn’t see the victim as an individual whose opinion mattered.
Rape is a lot subtler than what they show on TV. It is a form of abuse that can be emotional and physical, gentle and violent, dehumanizing and powerful, coercive and indecisive, subtle and savage. And most of all, shameful. Rape, like everything, is not just one thing, and neither are its victims.
When you grow up reading stories about how commonplace it is for men to talk women into sex, pressure them to have sex, force them to have sex, you think, Well, I guess this is normal. But why don’t I enjoy it like they do in books, movies and TV?
Now when I read a romance book with a romantic lead who enacts this type of behavior, he’s not a hero. He’s a rapist. The author is someone who supports rape culture and the abuse of women, and the publisher is reinforcing a system that keeps women in danger of sexual violence.
Romance novels have taught me that rape can be packaged and marketed as romance — a billion dollar lie.
Data and Statistics
Romance Industry Statistics, Romance Writers of America, accessed January 18, 2016
Why I don’t need consent lessons, The Tab, accessed January 18, 2016
Rapists Explain Themselves on Reddit, and We Should Listen, Jezebel Magazine, accessed January 18, 2016
After the Twitter Comments Author’s Note:
I started reading romance novels in the 90s. I bought them at the used book store, where I could get 10 for $1.50 and trade in credit. I was a voracious reader, and would get through multiple books a week. As they were used, many of the books were written in the late 70s and the 80s. I also read a lot of Harlequin romances where there were mostly alpha male characters.
One of the most prolific authors of that time was Johanna Lindsey. She wrote so many books where the woman was a basically a sex toy for the male romantic lead. Then there was Julie Garwood with her forced marriage stories. And while the forced relationships and sex in these stories became less overt, there was still this theme of women submitting to the will of a man. Especially in the historical romances.
Over time, my taste in books changed. I wanted more action. I wanted women going out and doing shit. I wanted romance, but I didn’t want it at the expense of a woman’s independence and autonomy, which was not something I was finding in the romance section. Granted, the decisions of what we see on the bookshelves are made by people who don’t care about what I want. I’m not the demographic they serve. And with the explosion of e-books, I have a lot more access to books that wouldn’t make it into a bookstore.
This is a changing industry, but I was buying books before the shift, when only certain types of books written by certain kinds of authors were being published. So when I talk about the romance books that truly turned me away, I’m talking about the books you see on the shelves in Barnes and Noble. I’m talking about the “popular” romance. I’m talking about the Christine Feehnans, Karen Marie Moenings, Sherrilyn Kenyons, and JR Wards. I’m talking about the books written with alpha males who try to make coercive sex seem sexy. I’m talking about the books that are easily available to the masses.
And now, thanks to e-books, many of these books are published without ANY editing. And I am not saying that they shouldn’t be, but I stumble upon books describing coercive sex in the romance lists all the time. As I read a lot of paranormal and apocalyptic fiction, I encounter a lot of shapeshifter and paranormal romance and these books seem to promote the alpha male. If I search for any shifter romance, I immediately encounter titles like Sacrificed to the Dragon, Shared By The Dragon Clan, and The Werebear Hero’s Nurse.
Interestingly, one of my favorite authors would be on this shifter romance list. Ilona Andrews is a married writing team who writes awesome relationships. Their Kate Daniels series about a post-apocalyptic Atlanta where magic exists is one of my favorite series ever. While I wouldn’t call this series a romance, there is a strong relationship element to it that evolves over the course of the series. What I love most about it is that the romance is just one aspect of the protagonist’s life, not the center of it. This author is on my auto-recommend list.
Anne Bishop is another author who is in the middle of a shapeshifter series that has a romantic arc, but isn’t quite romance. I love how she handles the romantic part, though. I always have to issue disclaimers with these authors though. There is a LOT of violence and Anne Bishop utilizes rape in her stories the way it is intended, as an act of terrible violence. There is nothing romantic about it, and I appreciate that but be warned. It’s not pretty.
We live in a time where the formula for what will be seen and by whom has changed. It has opened the door for a lot of options; the challenge is finding where those options reside. Does this mean that I’m going to fully check back into romance? Probably not. But considering that the door never completely closed, maybe I can find some better options.
If Twitter has taught me anything today, there are better options available and people want to share them.
Editor’s Note: On BGN we work to include op-ed pieces from a myriad of perspectives. We don’t always get it right and today was indicative of that. Publishing an article that painted a broad brush towards romance writers everywhere can be damaging. As someone who has read romance novels such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Twilight, there are aspects of this article I agree with, which is why I elected to publish it. However, there are a plethora of romance articles I have not read that in fact do not promote rape culture and to say so would be disingenuous to the entire genre. I take ownership over the fact that this article should have presented examples to prove the author’s point. This site has a history of articles written by romance authors and contains favorable romance reviews. I appreciate everyone’s candid comments and feedback and I’m always open to criticism as long as it’s constructive. Thanks again for your support of this online community – Jamie