“They Are Like Printing Money”: Sex, Rape, and Power in Romance Novels
By Ema Klugman (2017)
In 1978, an anonymous publishing executive made this comment about the popularity of romances containing explicit sex in the New York Times (Faircloth). This industry report will examine the rise in popularity of the rape and forgive trope beginning in the 1970s, contemporaneous with the second wave of feminism. Its popularity began to wane in the 1990s, and now the sub-genres in which it is most common are BDSM and historical romances. Women felt liberated by reading about the tabooed topic of sex, and felt even more scandalous and subversive in reading about forced seduction. This very act of liberation—and the enthusiasm of female readers whom it seduced—in some ways enchained women further in the stronghold of patriarchy, but in other ways carved a path to freedom for them. This paper will explore why the rape and forgive trope became popular and how romance novels both reflect and contribute to—due to their widespread popularity—the gender norms in the minds of their majority female readers.
Romance novels that espouse—and successfully sell—the rape and forgive trope normalize violence against women, which has serious psychological effects for women and girls, whose subordination becomes systemic and expected, and men and boys, whose prescribed roles of dominance and hyper-masculinity harm them as well. But these novels also set in motion a whole dialogue about sex—and, in fact, power—that has today become a progressive debate about consent and equality. The books and the discussions they initiate—online and elsewhere—help readers reconsider what consent means and how our society is shifting the way we view rape. To illustrate these claims, I turn to a variety of scholarly articles, opinion pieces, blogs, philosophy, and law theory. First I will demonstrate how scholars, readers, and authors have explained the blossoming demand for explicit sex romances in the 1970s. Next, I will draw on scholars that show how the novels align with cultural attitudes about rape. Then I will look at how readers—mostly through the medium of blogging and online commenting—react to the rape and forgive trope. Finally, I will consider a juxtaposition of romance novels and a specific rape case.
I. Supply and Demand
To give context, I will highlight the most famous, the most studied, and the most popular rape and forgive novels both historically and contemporarily. Among the historical, the most famous ones are Charlotte Lamb’s Stranger in the Night, Daphne Clair’s The Loving Trap, Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, C. S. Pacat’s Captive Prince, Judith McNaught’s Whitney, My Love, Catherine Anderson’s Annie’s Song, Maya Banks’s Highlander Most Wanted, Rosemary Rogers’s Sweet Savage Love, and of course Kathleen Woodiwiss’s The Flame and the Flower and The Wolf and the Dove (Romance.io). Contemporary romances that include the rape and forgive trope, which have become less common recently, include Kristen Ashley’s Rock Chick Regret, J. R. Ward’s Lover Mine, Elle Kennedy’s The Deal, C. J. Roberts’ Seduced in the Dark, and T. M. Frazier’s King (Romance.io).
Figure 1. The first big hit of the rape and forgive trope of the 1970s.
In a blog post on the website Romance Novels for Feminists, writer Jackie Horne examines the changing trend of the popularity of romances with the rape and forgive trope. In particular, she argues that Charlotte Lamb’s Stranger in the Night and Daphne Clair’s The Loving Trap “demonstrate the limited discourses about rape available to women in the early 1980s, [and] even to novelists” (Horne). Category romances—like these, which Harlequin published—have moved away from the trope as third- and fourth-wave feminism has created space for women to confront rape in society and in literature. Horne describes the malleability of genre romance as reflective of “social issues in the midst of a paradigm shift” (Horne).
Scholar Kelly Faircloth describes the movement set rolling by bestsellers like Sweet Savage Love and The Flame and The Flower as a “revolution” in the way sex was portrayed in romance novels. Accompanying the rise in explicit material was enormous industry growth. Indeed, “in 1981, romance sales were estimated at upwards of $200 million, representing as much as 40 percent of the domestic paperback business” (Davis qtd. in Faircloth). People—mostly women—loved reading about sex because they had rarely been able to do so before. Before Woodiwiss’s breakout novel, romance had been chaste. Faircloth posits that the burgeoning popularity underscored the “notion that yes, women do deserve pleasure.”
That pleasure, though, entered the romance genre within the confines of patriarchy because it involved rape. The heroines in the novels gave up their agency in order to feel ‘pleasure’ by getting raped. Readers look to romance for pleasure and satisfaction, but scholar Susan L. Blake argues that within the confines of patriarchy women cannot be satisfied. She writes, “patriarchal culture fails to satisfy because it requires women to choose between autonomy and intimacy” (84). The rape and forgive trope, then, seems to represent a tradeoff of autonomy for intimacy.
Figure 2: a women’s liberation march in Detroit, Michigan, 1970.
II. Perspectives on Power: Rape on the Way to ‘Happily Ever After’
If rape is so disempowering, why do women enjoy consuming stories about it? Many cultural and historical factors are at play here. Proscribing women’s enjoyment of sex was, for centuries, central to enforcing patriarchy. Until the 1970s, women could not talk about, read about, or take ownership of sex. Bestselling romance novelist Sabrina Jeffreys explains that reading romance with explicit sex was, for those first enthusiastic readers, liberating. It was an act of rebellion not only against the domineering norms in their lives but also against history.
Scholars Lyons and Selinger present a nuanced view of the rape fantasy within a patriarchal framework. In the book Against Our Will, they point out, feminist author “Brownmiller declares, in categorical italics, that “the rape fantasy exists in women as a man-made iceberg,” and “it can be destroyed—by feminism”” (Lyons and Selinger 152). Brownmiller posits that rape fantasies are the product of women’s imprisonment—their lack of “free rein” “to explore, discover” their sexual lives. Lyons and Selinger comment on the “provocative” notion that women can arrive at sexual fantasies “by passing through the oppressive dynamics imposed by patriarchy, rather than by proving oneself the “rare woman who successfully fight the culture”” (Lyons and Selinger 152). And the rape and forgive trope appears to be exactly that—fantasy worlds in which women work within the frameworks prescribed for them by relinquishing their agency for intimacy.
But how does one reconcile the common trope of rape with the essence of romance itself—that the hero and heroine are both the leads in the story, and that their mutual love arrives, at the end, at a notion of equality rather than subordination? A central aspect of rape and forgive is that the woman reforms the man. Initially he is inclined to be violent and dominant, but she shows him how to love respectfully, and they land on common ground at the end. Writer Stephanie Wardrop offers another view of why so many female readers enjoy romance novels and more specifically, the rape and forgive trope. Her main argument is that though the texts often appear “masochistic,” they are in fact “empowering” (Wardrop 3). She fails to articulate exactly how women attain, in the end, “a view of love as based on mutual respect, power, and regard,” but she does suggest that the explicitness of rape in novels gets a proverbial foot in the door for women to explore what love and consent mean. Though it is tempting to “castigate legions of female readers” who read rape in romance “as victims of false consciousness, so hopelessly coopted by patriarchy their very fantasies are oppressive,” Wardrop reveals that such a widespread phenomenon has the potential to give women agency. This perspective is encouraging because it shows that exposing rape spawns conversations about how to turn disempowering histories into empowering futures.
In contrast, Catherine MacKinnon, prominent lawyer, feminist, and founder of nonsubordination legal theory, would argue that these readers are, in fact, “victims of false consciousness.” The central tenet of her nonsubordination theory is that women are, and always have been, defined according to the standards of men. She writes,
Men’s physiology defines most sports, their needs define auto and health insurance coverage, their socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, their perspectives and concerns define quality in scholarship, their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art, their military service defines citizenship, their presence defines family, their…wars define history, their image defines god, and their genitals define sex (MacKinnon 34).
Romance novels, to MacKinnon, would be both reflections of and contributors to social norms concerning gender roles and equality. Much of MacKinnon’s theory rests on recognizing the historically differential treatment of women and men and reforming the system to promote equality. Men’s voices have always been louder—in history textbooks, in politics, in relationships, and even in Hollywood movies. Women have always been measured according to a male standard. Women, she argues, should define themselves.
Furthermore, MacKinnon censures the powerful effects that gender policing has on not only women but also men. Lyons and Selinger also illustrate this point in one of the biggest hits of the seventies. They illuminate that “rape in Sweet Savage Love…turns out to be, at least sometimes, a measure not of love but precisely of “fear and hatred” both of women and of effeminacy in men; it is, in fact, a defining feature of patriarchal power over both sexes” (155). Thus, the rape and forgive trope can both corner women as victims and corner men as perennial aggressors.
One might counter applying MacKinnon’s theory to romance novels by arguing that romance readers should be able to decide for themselves how they interpret the trope. Bestselling author Jenny Crusie does just that when she tries to dispel the myth that “rape romances are a bad influence on romance readers.” To say that readers are so impressionable is to effectively call them “dumb,” and to try to protect them from misogynistic tropes is “paternalistic.” In fact, she thinks that disallowing rape romances is “anti-feminist” because it treats readers as “child-like,” as if they do not have their own autonomy to discern right from wrong (Crusie).
III. Liberation or Imprisonment? The Reader as a Receptor of Rape Narratives
For some readers and writers, rape fantasies are anything but cornering; in fact, they are emboldening. In an article entitled “My Hot, Consensual Introduction to the Rape Fantasy Romance Novel,” Natasha Vargas-Cooper examines several rape fantasy novels.
In Cara McKenna’s Willing Victim, for instance, the woman invites her friend to come watch her and a part-time boxer she has met engage in “rape-play.” The friend stands in the corner of the room as the violence ensues and the man commands the woman to “choke” on him as she gives him oral sex. The friend watches, “finding the visual powerful and horrifying but undeniably arousing.” Like this character, Vargas-Cooper feels like an empowered observer:
I, too, find many “rape” scenes in movies arousing! Mostly because I regard sex as something primal, aggressive, and a little ugly, and watching two SAG-card-carrying actors groan, grab, and hump each other in a semi-transgressive manner is sexy to me. I’m also pretty compelled by men and women being at the height of their prescribed sex roles. Watching an aggressive male defile a supine female reminds me I essentially have the erotic psyche of a Victorian.
To her, it is compelling for the characters to be “at the height of their prescribed sex roles,” even though the female’s role is to choke while the man gets off. Her—and possibly many other readers’—arousal derives from her explicit gender subordination. Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden—which sold over a million copies in print—presents similar themes of violence and rape, and the protagonist enjoys their powerlessness. Rape fantasies were women’s liberation statements by intention, but in effect they simply allowed women to claim their roles as “naughty” and deserving of rape, which only made their subordination more explicit. In my view, these books did not change power structures; they enforced them.
On the other hand, rape was out of bounds in public discourse and literature. Sex, especially explicit sex, was taboo. Perhaps women’s claims of liking rape fantasies were simply all the autonomy they could get. They knew the power dynamic would continue, so at least if they said they enjoyed being victims they would seem less like victims. Taking on the “naughty” role—both as characters in romance novels and also as readers consuming those taboo novels—was the first subversive step they felt able to take. In a strange sense, the fact of being forbidden made these books sexy and their readers subversive.
In a modern adaptation of these same fantasies—and a desire for some subversive power—Lilah Pace’s Asking For It has the woman instigate the rape. She has rape fantasies and goes so far as to seek out and make arrangements with a man to take her by “surprise” to “force” and rape her. But this sexy, and perhaps to some even liberating, narrative has the same flaws in reasoning as the original desire for reading taboo romance. The heroine appears powerful because she wants to be raped. But her very act of power—asking a man to rape her—is her complete surrender to male dominance. Her expression of agency and leadership is to submit herself to her rapist. This paradox was perhaps going too far for most romance readers; Pace’s novel did not sell well. Though the subject of this report is not BDSM or forced seduction romance, that subgenre obviously draws some connections to the rape and forgive trope. Many bloggers and critics argue that BDSM and rape fantasy novels are just that: fantasies (El, “Of Rape and Rape Fantasies” ). It is almost as though BDSM novels are so clearly romanticized that they have less impact on reality. For more on BDSM and Commentary on the forced marriage trope follows a similar line of analysis. For more on that subgenre, see the industry report by Grace Li linked on this blog.
The narrative described above is neither surprising nor original; in fact, these kinds of violent desires show up in other aspects of society. Take, for instance, Catherine MacKinnon’s feminist critique of pornography. Porn, she argues, “makes hierarchy sexy” and “eroticizes…dominance and submission.” In the content, women actually “desire dispossession and cruelty,” they “want to be bound, battered, tortured, humiliated.” Women in pornography appear to covet subordination. And in many ways, pornography is just an extension of the everyday enforcement of patriarchy. Pornography mirrors rape fantasies of romance novels. “Inequality,” MacKinnon posits, “is its central dynamic; the illusion of freedom coming together with the reality of force” (MacKinnon 171). In fact, by law, one factor which defines pornography is that “women are presented as sexual objects who experience sexual pleasure in being raped” (Bartlett, Grossman, and Rhode 497). Pornography bears striking similarities to rape fantasies in which, as Vargas-Cooper describes, people are “at the height of their prescribed sex roles.”
Part of the appeal of reading about sex—and enjoying sex personally—for women beginning in the 1970s was challenging these gender roles. Women began to enjoy—or admit that they enjoyed—an act defined and controlled by men. Even more, in these rape and forgive stories, they could surrender to coercive sex, miraculously begin to enjoy it, reform the man, and then pursue a healthy relationship of mutual respect. But however liberatingly women did perceive these romances about rape, there is a sense in which the effects of these narratives just cornered them further.
IV. Readers’ Reactions to the Rape and Forgive Trope
Given that romance readers tend to be middle-class American women, studying the romance novel in the vacuum of academia may seem rather unsuitable. In order to include the voices of the readers actually purchasing these books, rather than the academics debating their merits, I turned to the blogging world. On the website Smart Bitches, Trashy Books readers contemplated the topic of redeeming the villain, and in some cases the villain is also the heroine’s rapist. In discussing the nearly 20-year series of multiple authors, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Meljean Brook’s The Iron Duke (novels which include rape or attempted rape) readers had vastly different views on the gender roles the characters played.
In discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one commenter trumpeted “an unapologetic bastard is the best,” and applauded stories in which the heroine worked to get to the heart of the hero. Another lamented about how romance is unrealistic about relationships and places too much onus on the woman to fix things:
one of my least favourite tropes… “healed by the love of a good woman”, which is so dangerous, because in a lot of instances it implies that no matter how violent, hateful, mean, and cruel a man might be to you, if you love him hard enough, he’ll “get better”.
Another reader also wanted to draw the line on what should be forgivable behaviour. She said that when the hero in The Iron Duke “crossed the line so much, there was no possible going back for me. Okay, he apologised for pushing her too far, and so what?”.
In another blog post on the same site, entitled “Talking about the R Word,” commenters had different views on what kind of rape was acceptable in novels. One noted, “I’ve seen a lot of alpha males portrayed who didn’t resort to violent sex with the heroine. They may be gruff, rude, even crude – but not violent.” Notice here that this person does not align with the current definition of consent. Her definition of rape is basically violent sex, while it is understood by most now to be nonconsensual—not necessarily violent—activity. Other readers thought rape was more defined by power.
The balance of power in relationships surfaces as a recurring element that either draws readers in or pushes them away. On the blog “Heroes and Heartbreakers,” Elizabeth Vail argues that the strength and resolve of the heroine marks the difference between readers perceiving the hero as an “alpha” man or a “cave man” (Vail). When the heroine is too soft and gets raped, she argues that the woman is “a punching bag taking a fist.” She believes romance novels are only good when the heroine stands up for herself. The onus is on the heroine to reform her awful hero. To her, it is “just physics” that they both have to be strong (Vail).
In response to her blog post, readers debated the titular question “How Alpha is Too Alpha” as they used Loretta Chase’s Lord of Scoundrels as a case study. In general, on these blogging sites, when one commenter begins to deride the rape and forgive trope, many more join in. Reading the comments is like watching a wave roll through—if one person calls out the misogyny in the trope, a host of others follow suit. It is almost as if many readers want to express their discomfort or frustration with the trope, but they do no want to be alone in doing so. Another facet of this wave of censorious comments is that perhaps readers feel as though they have to agree. For instance, when the discussion on “Heroes and Heartbreakers” turned to the heroine reforming her rapist, the commenters first agreed with Vail and then became impassioned about the absurdity and unfairness “forgive” element of the rape trope. Excerpts from the chain of comments include:
Well said. I don’t always like Alphas, but I think it’s the ones that walk all over the heroines. When the heroine can give as good as she gets and they’re equals, I’m totally on board.
They are so well matched in their dominating strengths.
Then the comments begin to question the trope and the onus put on the heroine:
I would have shanked them had I been the heroine. The worst part? The heroine falls in love with them. WHAT?? Savage Surrender by Natasha Peters is another book where the hero needed a brain overhaul and castration.
Even a strong partner doesn’t negate caveman behavior… If he kisses her when she tells him no, it is disrespectful (and assault)… No amount of a woman standing up for herself changes the fact that the man, the character in question, is behaving badly.
Notice here that readers’ different notions of consent affect how they read the novels, and whether or not they approve of the hero’s alpha behaviour. In addition, many commenters made references to what MacKinnon would call policing the gender line. Responding to the article “Talking about the R Word,” one person noted:
The archetypes are firmly rooted in sexuality, and the consequence of this is that sexual violence is used in some books to reinforce these roles. What disturbs me about such cases beyond the deed itself is that the sexual violence is often cast as punishment, particularly when the heroine transgresses the boundaries by taking on some of the “male” values like arrogance, aggression or sexual choice.
Male values are independence and power, but many readers want to see heroines be strong and autonomous. One commented, annoyed, that she hated
if when the hero begins to show self awareness and an ability to own his faults, the heroine immediately begins rationalizing why whatever the hero is apologizing for isn’t really a big deal. It makes the heroine seem weak and/or desperate. I think it may come from the author being worried that the reader will think the heroine is a bitch (with bitch being code for ‘full human being with autonomy’).”
In effect, the heroine has to tame or reform the hero, but she cannot take credit for it, or complain about how abusive and disrespectful he was before. Another reader thought the rape and forgive trope conveyed the message that
power is conferred on the woman when a man loves her. And if she has to fight hard for that, it’s even more powerful. If she has to tame him from virtual savagery, it’s even more powerful. And yet, it’s still conferred by the male.
This idea is intriguing because it confirms the notion that rape is far more about power than it is about sex. The heroine has to be violated—overpowered—in order to overcome her aggressor and reach some equilibrium in which they reach a happy ending.
In terms of readers feeling comfortable reading about the rape and forgive trope, many felt safe within the pages and few expressed qualms about the triggering nature of the material. Others were fed up that women could still not win—in the sense of being equal—in romances involving rape. In response to the article “Say My Name by J. Kenner,” one wrote:
Today, it isn’t socially acceptable to tell women they want and deserve rape (at least that’s the working theory), but it is (somehow) socially acceptable to sell an archetype that represents womanhood as being successful in business, successful in motherhood and family management, but entirely lacking in agency in the bedroom. It’s like this is the final frontier. ‘You conniving women have managed to wedge your competence and your intelligence into all facets of the man’s world, but you still lose because you can’t say NO to men in the bedroom.’
The message this reader receives is that women will never be equal. Rebecca Rogers Maher, author of Fault Lines, argues in her blog post “Why I Wrote a Romance Novel About Rape” that sexual assault affects so many women that it needs to be documented in stories, but in a way that is realistic. Contrary to the “forgive” part of the traditional trope, Maher’s narrative focuses on the complicated brokenness of survivors. She writes, “I believe romance writers have a responsibility – to ourselves and to other women – to portray rape and its aftermath realistically. It’s not going to be male writers who do this. We are the ones who have to do it” (Maher). This kind of prudence—or, really, simply writing the truth about the trauma of recovering from rape—seems to be rare in the romance genre. Instead, survivors recover fully enough to not only resume living their lives but also love and forgive their rapists.
Figure 3. Some bloggers commented on the absurdity of the rape and forgive trope, as the above graphic succinctly highlights.
Considering everyday readers’ reactions to the rape and forgive trope underscores the wide spectrum of views—both approving and disapproving—people have on these particular romance novels. If virtuous for nothing else, the books spawn intense discussions about what consent means and how our society is shifting the way we view sexual assault and power-based violence in relationships. The narratives of rape and forgive may have lasting impressions on readers, however, as they normalize imbalances of power and violence, as the forthcoming section will argue.
V. Romance Novels as Reflectors and Enforcers of Cultural Norms
Because romance has far-reaching effects, it can help define narratives about gender roles and strengthen existing social norms. One commenter on the “Say My Name by J. Kenner” post said sadly, “I sometimes wish these books could come with some type of warning label: “Do not take seriously” or something like that.” Australian academic Nina Philadelphoff-Puren argues that the way genre romance portrays sex can shape discourse and attitudes about consent. She even boldly claims that “literature, in the context of rape, is able to function as a form of legal reasoning which has the power to disqualify a woman’s testimony” (Philadelphoff-Puren 31). This section explores how the rape and forgive trope normalizes violence in ways that match the rhetoric of a rape case.
Philadelphoff-Puren develops this theory through examining romance novels’ portrayal of rape and forgive in conjunction with a rape case in Australia. The thesis of her paper is that:
the non-legal text of romance can provide the literary and affective justification required for some legal defences against sexual assault, including the enduring belief that women say ‘no’ when they mean ‘yes’, a story which continues to be effective during rape trials, despite legislative reforms which have aimed to eliminate it (Philadelphoff-Puren 32).
Romance, she suggests, contributes to the confusion and blurriness of defining consent, a subject of current debate. Academic Kathryn Gravdal similarly argues that romance “blurs the distinction between seduction and aggression” (Gravdal qtd. in Philadelphoff-Puren 32). To me, each partner’s ability to choose whether to give consent—their acting and being listened to as autonomous beings—is what makes a partnership equal. When consent is such a central aspect of defining balance in relationships, its haziness in popular narratives can contribute to the scripted roles women and men should (and do) play.
Philadelphoff-Puren considers Charlotte Lamb as a case study. The romance novelist has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide of more than 100 novels with Harlequin and Mills and Boone. Sexual violence is central to her stories. Typically, “her heroines can be expected to resist all sexual advances very strongly, while her heroes doggedly ignore all refusals on the part of the heroines, even those refusals which include expressions of pain” (Philadelphoff-Puren 30). In The Boss’s Virgin—a novel whose title establishes the heroine as property of the hero before the reader even opens it—Lamb portrays the hero as animalistically pursuant and the heroine as helpless:
He will continue this failure to take her statements seriously whenever he initiates a sexual exchange with her. For example, when he finally releases Pippa from the hotel room, he insists on returning with her to her cottage, where she vigorously refuses to let him in: ‘I just want you to go away! a plea he ignores. Once inside, she flees to her bedroom after he tries to touch her, but he pursues her anyway. ‘Go away!’ she says twice, but he ignores her. ‘Don’t’ she begs, but he picks her up and takes her to her bed (Philadelphoff-Puren 32).
Philadelphoff-Puren argues that “this commentary plays directly into rape culture—that underneath the ‘superficial’ or ‘showy’ protests, women have sensual desires which inhere to their actual state of mind. But such a train of thought ignores that her ‘real’ sensual desires derive precisely from the man’s conception of her” (Philadelphoff-Puren 33). This argument aligns precisely with MacKinnon’s nonsubordination theory: that women are defined in relation to, and by, men. Worse, this appropriation of a woman’s thoughts and body—i.e. “let me tell you what you really want”—filters into the woman’s conscience as well, thus potentially polluting the readers’ conception of consent and ultimately normalizing rape. When the heroine internalizes misogyny, the reader internalizes it as well.
Like MacKinnon, Philadelphoff-Puren hints that the inequality of the sexes appears most fervently in sexual relations: the woman “is subject to a constraint not suffered by the (male) individual in the civil sphere, whose ability to enter or terminate agreements is determined by his own autonomy” (Philadelphoff-Puren 34). The heroine has no such autonomy. In an Australian sexual assault trial, R v. Hughes, the perpetrator takes on a justification frighteningly similar to that of the hero in The Boss’s Virgin.
Well, she told me she was a virgin and I’ve taken that as consent. She said, ‘I have never been with a man before’. I saw that as consent, notwithstanding that she was whimpering nervously then until I undressed her … I believed, okay, that she was interested in sex in spite of what she said (qtd. in Philadelphoff-Puren 33).
Consent theory appears in early literature as a fiercely one-sided concept. In fact, a woman’s verbal non-consent was perceived as more reason to discover—and fabricate in the male’s mind—nonverbal forms of ‘real’ consent that reflect the woman’s ‘real’ desires. Rousseau writes,
To win this silent consent is to make use of all the violence permitted in love. To read it in the eyes, to see it in the ways in spite of the mouth’s denial … If he then completes his happiness, he is not brutal, he is decent. He does not insult chasteness; he respects it; he serves it. He leaves it the honour of still defending what it would have perhaps abandoned” (Rousseau qtd. in Philadelphoff-Puren 35).
Notice the similarity here between his description of “the mouth’s denial” and the Australian rapist’s concession that his victim was “whimpering nervously.” Just as Rousseau thinks it is a man’s duty to show a woman ‘what she really wants,’ so too does the hero feel a primal urge to violently expose to the heroine—despite, no, because of her incessant protests—her inherent desire to submit to him. Philadelphoff-Puren points out that “Rousseau describes rape in terms that almost make it an act of reason. Not only is it ‘not brutal’, it is moral” (Philadelphoff-Puren 33). This entire thesis relies on the notion that women do not know what they want. Men have to explain to them—through rape—what they really long for. As Philadelphoff-Puren postulates, the legitimatization of Charlotte Lamb’s heroes’ actions stems exactly from the notion that the heroine’s “‘real’ desires…dwelled beneath her frightened resistance” (Philadelphoff-Puren 32).
Figures 4-8 demonstrate the titles of Lamb’s novels. Sleeping Desire, in particular, suggests a narrative in which the hero teaches the heroine what she really wants.
It is clear that these notions of justified inequality and violence are not new. Troublingly, though, their reemergence and reaffirmation in the rape and forgive novels influence readers’ views about consent. Indeed, author Catherine Wells uses market signals—the popularity of romance—to validate nonconsensual sex to which the woman doesn’t verbally object:
Certainly, the woman who ‘succumbs’ in such circumstances does not have a self-empowering view of her own sexuality. And perhaps there are many women who would find the hero neither sexy nor ethical. However, if millions of women buy such novels and describe these scenes as ‘sexy’, can we really convict a man of rape when he interprets his partner’s conduct in the context of this story? Is it so unreasonable for a man in this society to construe such silence as consent? Under such circumstances, shouldn’t we at least require that the woman say ‘No!’” (Wells qtd. in Philadelphoff-Puren 34).
But in such reasoning there is clearly already the presence of the type of sentiment that nonsubordination theory works to reverse. Indeed, the ruler against which Wells measures the woman’s pleasure is the inherent dominance of the man. Herein lies the invisible issue of hyper masculinity. These gender roles disempower women but they also prescribe dominant roles for men.
To conclude, Philadelphoff-Puren claims that “consent is simultaneously political, legal and literary, with these contexts cross-pollinating in a way that continues to present real challenges to women who come before the courts” (39). Philadelphoff-Puren’s point holds—our legal, social, and literary systems are all interconnected, which means that gender roles depicted in romance filter through to everyday life. How readers conceptualize the ideas at play in romance is, in the end, up to them.
Encouragingly, best-selling romance novelist Eloisa James observes a changing trend in the portrayal of consent in more recent romances. Before the last decade, she claims, verbal consent or even discussion of condoms was rare in the texts. Now they are expected. Yet for all the legal and social discourse around the necessity of consent now, sexual harassment and assault remain commonplace on university campuses and in other places. Faircloth, too, believes that the dialogue around consent has increased dramatically in recent years. She describes the works of Woodiwiss and Rogers as “building blocks” for “an updated set of ideas about sex, pleasure, and consent.” Even today there are romances revolving around “submission and force,” but now readers are debating online about what they believe to be “acceptable,” which has spurred an important discussion about consent.
In many ways, the conversation about the popularity of rape fantasies in romance novels mirrors the conversation people have with different approaches to feminism. To some, the trope is so blatantly misogynistic that it should seem to have to be repulsive to all women. To others, the narratives make sense and can even be empowering. Finally, even though the books themselves perpetuate unequal gender roles, they are provocative enough to spark further conversations. Just like realistic feminism must take into account the powerful role of history in societal structures, realistic study of rape fantasies in romance novels must address why readers read them, and how the literature might affect their social and personal lives.
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