By Victoria Johnson (2018)
A new sub-genre is on the rise in popular romance fiction: the reverse harem. In the five years since its beginning, the themes of these novels rose from obscurity to a buzzword thrown across book titles and descriptions. The reverse harem novel stands apart from other romance novels due to many of its basic characteristics, the most obvious of which is the makeup of the main characters. Just as a harem is made up of one man with multiple women, a reverse harem consists of one female protagonist and three or more male love interests. However, this is not a situation where the woman must pick her one true love by the end of the novel; instead, the woman simply does not choose. She gets them all, and they all live out their happily ever after as one united family. The HEA of a traditional romance still exists, though it is a happily ever after for the entire family unit, not between just one of the men and the woman. The reverse harem genre recently arose from its roots in the Japanese Otome games and anime to gain popularity in Western romance fiction. Fitting into the romance genre through its focus on a happily ever after and relationship building, the world of a reverse harem transcends that of the heroine’s origins, bringing the heroine into an atmosphere where a polyandrous relationship is not stigmatized. While sharing a name with the traditional harem, the reverse harem has many different core themes from the harem novels from the 1970s to the present day.
Introduction to Reverse Harems
Reverse harem character and plot archetypes follow many of the same themes as seen in other romance novels. Just as in a typical romance where the two protagonists meet and feel a strong connection, so does the heroine meet her men and all experience these feelings. Entering into this atypical relationship is completely voluntary and something all members of the harem agree upon. The men’s love toward the heroine is enough to get them all to agree; sometimes they know ahead of time they will share a woman, and in other novels they simply all want the girl. If this is not an already accepted dynamic within the community, often the group is forced together due to outside circumstances. They must spend time together, and during this time the heroine falls for her men and they fall for her. The men may have a moment where they question the relationship and sharing the heroine. However, tearing the heroine away from the others would hurt not just the other men but also the heroine herself. Forcing her to choose would cause a lot of harm to the heroine, for in these novels she cannot choose one. She feels deeply for them all. To keep her, each hero is willing to share. As for the heroine, why should she choose? She is loved by all of the heroes, and choosing would cause her unending pain. These men are not all cookie-cutter depictions of one other. The heroine often remarks on how different the heroes are, each representing varied character tropes that come together and let her experience all types of personalities and love. The men may be gods, ghosts, shifters, bodyguards, spies, thieves, princes, soldiers, or just about anything else seen in contemporary romance and fantasy. Put together, they establish a balance within their family.
Plots within the subgenre often have paranormal or fantasy elements that place the characters in a world where this kind of dynamic is easier for a reader to accept. They can have elements of mystery, action and adventure, and court intrigue. Often there is some kind of crisis that only the heroine and her heroes can solve. Also, the sub-genre includes many novels both in a sweeter young adult form and the more sensual, sexier adult romances. Unlike a ménage romance with a HEA between a woman and two men, which has already been mainstream for the past few decades, there do not have to be very erotic elements to the novels and the relationship includes more than three individuals. In addition, some sensual reverse harem novels do include sex between the male love interests, but this is not a requirement for them.
The roots of the reverse harem novel can be found in Japanese Otome games and anime. In Japan, romance between a woman and multiple men is found in many popular books, shows, and video games, such as Ouran High School Host Club. While this main feature is shared, there exist many differences between the Westernized reverse harem and the Japanese gyaku hāremu. Similar to Otome games, an “array of boys all vie for the attention of the female lead,”but often these games only let the player pick one love interest to play out the storyline at a time, or do not let the main character stick with them all at the end (Faerudo). C.L. Stone describes this by commenting that “in Western fiction, the tone has a slight change, where instead of a main character choosing one partner, they could end up with all… with characters admitting their love to the central character directly” (Stone, “Reverse Harem in Western Fiction.”). In gyaku hāremu, “the series has two choices in the end; the protagonist ends up with one or none of the men” (Alexander). The Japanese gyaku hāremu has existed for over 30 years and started with titles such as ‘Soredemo Chikyuu wa Mawatteru’ (1984), ‘Fusuma Land 4.5’ (1984), and ‘Akogare Boukensha’ (1985) (“Intro to Reverse Harem”). The Wikipedia page on Harems only includes harem examples in anime and manga, with not a single reference to Western novels, as they are less mainstream. (“Harem (genre)”).
The shift from Japanese anime to western romance fiction can clearly be traced to C.L. Stone’s Ghost Bird series with the release of Introductions in 2012. I must note, however, that probably because of the newness of this trope, scholars haven’t yet published commentary on it. To explain the history of the subgenre, I draw here on a selection of blogs, author and publisher websites, social media, and author descriptions to form a picture of how this subgenre came about.
This is an extremely new area of fiction. Goodreads mentions and lists of reverse harem novels do not include any true reverse harems dating back before 2012 (“The reverse harem”). Only C.L. Stone can be found on these early lists, with a few more novels coming out in 2015 then a vast explosion from 2017 on. More than half the novels listed are from 2017. One popular twitter hashtag connected to the promotion of these books is #whychoose, used primarily by authors for promoting their books and highlighting one of the key characteristics of the reverse harem. The first time this hashtag was used to describe reverse harem romance was August 6th, 2016 in a fan’s tweet. By early 2018, the hashtag was full of reverse harem novels – there were around seven tweets per day relating to the subgenre in March 2018 (“#whychoose hashtag on Twitter”). Another common hashtag is #reverseharem, which dates back quite a bit further than #whychoose to June 6th, 2010 (“#reverseharem hashtag on Twitter”). This post by an American fan mentioned reverse harems in anime, and it is not until 2015 that there is mention of western romance novels. The tweet referred to C.L. Stone’s Introductions. While the hashtag still mentions anime at the time of this writing in early 2018, it is dominated by western fiction.
Bloggers and authors alike mention C. L. Stone as their introduction to the subgenre, saying that “I had a little bit of experience from reading C.L. Stones ‘ghost bird’ series,” (Bailey) and “I didn’t even know RH was a thing until CL’s books,” (Jen2137) and “my obsessions with reverse harems started, of course, with C. L. Stone and the Ghost Bird series.” (“Lily – R. M. Walker.”). One blog even directly asserts that “The first international reverse harem is The Ghost Bird Series in 2012” (“Intro to reverse harem”). Fitting with this transition from Japanese anime to western novel, C. L. Stone first learned about the reverse harem style from Japanese culture and Otome games, giving her ideas that sparked her own transformative novel (Stone, “Reverse Harem in Western Fiction.”). Introductions is a young adult “sweet” novel, with no sex on the page and less sensuality than its adult counterpart. While her book introduced reverse harems into this category— and there are still many sweet young adult novels within the category, including more from C.L Stone— sensual reverse harem romances soon followed.
From this beginning, the reverse harem genre branched out slowly over the next four years, steadily gaining in momentum. Some early fan favorites include Jane Washington’s Charcoal Tears and Lane Whitt’s Finding my Pack. The year 2017 was a big year for reverse harem romance. In a list of popular reverse harem romances from 2017, 78% of the novels were published from September to December (“Reverse Harem Books released in 2017”). Authors who primarily write one-on-one heterosexual pairings began to partner with well-known reverse harem authors in order to co-write books. One example of this is the widely popular Curse of the Godsseries, co-written by the established reverse harem author Jane Washington and popular YA paranormal author Jaymin Eve. As C. L. Stone comments, “There are many books coming out now simply because using the keyword Reverse Harem can lead to sales whether or not that author is known” (Stone, ‘A Reader Turned Investigator’). Multiple authors talked about the large popularity of the subgenre, though Jaymin Eve also noted that “the genre has really taken off now, and that’s not always the best thing because a lot of badly written books are being thrown in there just to make money” (Eve, ‘A Reader Turned Investigator’). The subgenre is only growing and shows no sign of slowing down.
Distinctions from the Traditional Harem
While reverse harems share a name with traditional harems, their composition stands distinct from the Oriental harem novels that were popular from the 1970s onwards due to their differing origins. One example comes from the settings of these novels. Harem novels are extremely Orientalist in nature, with a plot set in the Middle East (Bach). This Oriental setting is completely absent from the reverse harem novels of the 2010s. There has yet to be a popular reverse harem novel set in the Middle East; in fact, most novels in this subgenre do not even exist on an Earth as we know it. The historical sheik harem novels stand in contrast with the mainly paranormal fantasy lands of reverse harems. A few novels such as C. L. Stone’s Introductionsare in a contemporary reality, but not one exists in historical romance.
Other prominent tropes in earlier harem romances are the themes of slavery and abduction. There are women “stripped naked in slave markets and sold as concubines into the oppressive harems of Oriental potentates where they tasted the erotic delights of sex and the indulgence of the senses” (Teo, 21) and the novels emulate themes that are “essentially oriental: sensuality and violence” (Taylor, 1033). These women do rise to power, but the bonds of slavery and sex are always upon them. As one line from Beatrice Small’s The Kadinillustrates, “If we must be slaves… let us be powerful ones… [so that] we may someday rule not only the harem but the sultan as well.” (54) The novels often center around how “women in the harem acquired or exerted power,” (Teo, 26) mostly through the use of sex. The heroines in reverse harem romances are not slaves, and neither are their love interests. This incredibly large power differential does not exist in the reverse harem novels. While the women of traditional harems may indeed rise to power over their rulers and masters, reverse harem women are instead at the same level as their men. Her entrance into the harem and into this new world puts her on the same playing field as the men she falls in love with. The men in Yumoyori Wilson’s Dark Wishmay be princes, but the heroine, Makoto, turns out to be a hidden princess. C. M. Stunich’s Zara in Pack Ebon Redhas prepared for her entire life to become the Queen and rule alongside her mates, the future kings of each of their lands. The heroine does not rise to exist above her men, but rather with them and within their role in society. She loves them, they love her, and the reverse harem dynamic is simply accepted as fact. All are equal and active participants. Notes blogger Lauren of Lauren’s Boookshelf, “the focus on RH in literature and art is not the same as taking a traditional harem and gender-swapping everything. The men are not owned and the woman does not control them” (Lauren).
Rape and other coercions are also not tropes seen in reverse harems – the heroine would not allow it. In addition, sexuality is not as heavily foregrounded in reverse harem novels as it is in traditional harem novels, C. L. Stone’s Ghost Bird series is an extremely slow burn – in the first book, the main character never kisses her men. As C. L. Stone explains, “I feel as though reverse harem itself has successfully been presented in all kinds of works of fiction. I and a couple of others work with it in a Young Adult setting, some in sweet romances as well. It isn’t taboo in itself as some assumed at the start. It can be as innocent as a girl’s first experience with love” (Stone, “A Reader Turned Investigator”). Stone explains this further in a blog on her website by commenting that “reverse harem is strongly connected to the romance part of the story, not the sex. While sex may be included in the story, how the relationship turns out and the attention the heroine gets throughout determines if the story is a reverse harem” (Stone, “Reverse Harem in Western Fiction.”). That is not to say that the novels never explore women’s sexuality. However, as one author puts it, “Men have had their harem fantasies forever. I think women have finally given themselves permission to entertain such fantasies, too. But unlike the male fantasy, a woman’s fantasy isn’t so much about sex as it is about romance. It’s the idea of being loved and cherished by more than one man, and protected and supported, too. The steamier end of the market covers the hot sex that’s possible, but it’s not necessary. There are a lot of YA reverse-harem books that contain no sex” (Scott). The reverse harem subgenre transcends the “western fantasies of opulence, barbarism and sensuality” (Bach) of harem novels into a more open, relationship-focused novel.
While many differences exist between reverse harem and traditional harem novels, both do include a strong emphasis on family dynamics within the harem. As Orientalist romance scholar Hsu-Ming notes, the “crucial relationship in the harem is not simply between sultan and slave, but that a woman’s power is forged through her relationships with family… love is indeed possible in the harem: not merely between sultan and slave, but among women who support and are loyal to each other” (Teo, 26). This family loyalty and love is a central theme of reverse harem novels. Many times, the men already know each other and consider themselves as a family unit by the time they meet the leading female, as in Kristy Cunning’s Four Psychosand Jane Washington’s Charcoal Tears. Sometimes the men may all be brothers, or at least some are related, like in Tate James’ The Vixen’s Leadand Jaymin Eve and Jane Washington’s Trickery. The woman joins this established family dynamic. Even if the men do not start out as a family unit, their close relationship with the heroine brings them all closer together. The sense of connection between the male protagonists is also what keeps the harem from breaking up or resorting to fighting or extreme jealousy.
The popular Twitter hashtag #whychoose reveals the reason many authors say they love this subgenre: the idea of giving the female protagonist power to do what she wants, taking away the necessary choices placed on her by society. When asked about the popularity of reverse harems, G. Bailey comments that “I let my [main character] choose her own fate without any limits. The beauty of the Reverse harem sub-genre is that it is so free and empowering for women… Reverse harem shows that the main character can be a woman, and have several men love her, and she is strong enough to love them all.”. Though the subgenre is only five years old, it is already making an impact on the western romance reader. These strong women and their devoted and equally powerful mates are redefining what romance means and how love can be expressed.
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