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Sex and Violence: How much has really changed in Romance?

There have been a number of discussions recently in Romance around the question of whether the genre has become excessive in its portrayal of sex, violence, and sexual violence, especially in the work of authors like EL James, Kristen Ashley, and R. Lee Smith, among others.

Although I have not (yet) read all of the authors whose work is being used to exemplify this new perceived trend, I do think that among those I have read, there is definitely some envelope pushing. What I’m less convinced of is that they represent a more extreme representation of sex and violence than has previously been present in the genre.

As I’ve argued before, I think the genre tends to ebb and flow, and that when a book catches fire among readers, it does so because it is adapting well-used tropes and devices in a way that feels fresh or innovative or boundary breaking to those readers who enjoy it.

But these books can also be polarizing, especially when some readers don’t feel the love, or when they feel so overwhelmed by the love of other readers, they don’t even want to read the book. And when this happens, conversation about the book becomes as potent for some readers as discussion of the book. Consequently, fine differences can become diminished, and books may become lumped as “all the same.” Which can be somewhat ironic, when that “all the same” is perceived as a change from how the genre was previously.

So lately I’ve been revisiting the early In Death books, and I was kind of surprised at how intense some of the descriptions were.

From my current re-read, Holiday in Death (I so love watching Eve Christmas shop):

She watched a fistfight break out between two women. Street LCs, Eve mused. Licensed companions had to guard their turf here as fiercely as the vendors of food and drink. She considered getting out and breaking it up, but the little blonde decked the big redhead, then darted off into the crowd like a rabbit.

Good thinking, Eve thought approvingly, as the redhead was already on her feet, shaking her head clear and shouting inventive obscenities.

This, Eve thought with affection, was her New York.

Or this scene, where Eve becomes impatient because a clerk at the jewelry counter is not paying attention to her presence:

Because she was running out of patience, and being roundly ignored by the staff manning the counter, she simply leaned over and snagged a clerk by the collar.

Then there’s Roarke, and his protectiveness over Eve, starting with Naked in Death, where he hauls her out of a club, pulls her down the street, takes over her car, and drives her to his house:

“If you want to get drunk, Eve, at least do it with something that will leave you most of your stomach lining.” He scanned the menu, winced. “Which means nothing that can be purchased here.” He took her hand as he rose. “Come on.”

“I’m fine right here.”

All patience, he bent down until his face was close to hers. “What you are is hoping to get drunk enough so that you can take a few punches at someone without worrying about the consequences. With me, you don’t have to get drunk, you don’t have to worry. You can take all the punches you want.”

“Why?”

“Because you have something sad in your eyes. And it gets to me.” While she was dealing with the surprise of that statement, he hauled her to her feet and toward the door.

“I’m going home,” she decided.

“No, you’re not.” “Listen, pal—”

That was as far as she got before her back was shoved against the wall and his mouth crushed hard on hers. She didn’t fight. The wind had been knocked out of her by the suddenness, and the rage under it, and the shock of need that slammed into her like a fist.

Once Roarke maneuvers Eve to the bedroom (with shooting old-fashioned guns in his basement acting as foreplay), he basically forces her to submit to his sexual manipulation of her body – for her own pleasure:

It wasn’t what she was used to. Sex, when she chose to have it, was quick, simple, and satisfied a basic need. But this was tangling emotions, a war on the system, a battering of the senses.

She struggled to get a hand between them, to reach him where he lay hard and heavy against her. Pure panic set in when he braceleted her wrists and levered her hands over her head.

“Don’t.”

He’d nearly released her in reflex before he saw her eyes. Panic yes, even fear, but desire, too. “You can’t always be in control, Eve.” As he spoke he ran his free hand over her thigh. She trembled, and her eyes unfocused when his fingers brushed the back of her knee.

“Don’t,” she said again, fighting for air.

“Don’t what? Find a weakness, exploit it?” Experimentally, he caressed that sensitive skin, tracing his fingers up toward the heat, then back again. Her breath was coming in pants now as she fought to roll away from him.

“Too late, it seems,” he murmured. “You want the kick without the intimacy?” He began a trail of slow, open-mouthed kisses at the base of her throat, working his way down while her body shivered like a plucked wire beneath his. “You don’t need a partner for that. And you have one tonight. I intend to give as much pleasure as I get.”

“I can’t.” She strained against him, bucked, but each frantic movement brought only a new and devastating sensation.

“Let go.” He was mad to have her. But her struggle to hold back both challenged and infuriated. “I can’t.”

“I’m going to make you let go, and I’m going to watch it happen.” He slid back up her, feeling every tremble and quake, until his face was close to hers again. He pressed his palm firmly on the mound between her thighs.

Her breath hissed out. “You bastard. I can’t.”

“Liar,” he said quietly, then slid a finger down, over her, into her. His groan melded with hers as he found her tight, hot, wet. Clinging to control, he focused on her face, the change from panic to shock, from shock to glazed helplessness.

In the second book, Glory in Death, Roarke is so angry that Eve refuses to fully commit to him, after a little more than a month together, that he walks out on her, and when Eve eventually gives in and agrees to move in with him, Roarke gets her to agree to marriage in the aftermath of a knife fight with the book’s villain. He has no compunction about tranquilizing her when he believes that she needs rest, and even to the hospital against her will. In Judgment in Death, Roarke physically brawls with Webster, the cop who is still hung up on Eve, even though Eve has absolutely no interest in the man. In fact, Roarke has a pattern of overt jealousy where Eve’s male colleagues are concerned. From Immortal in Death:

“You didn’t mention you had an admirer in Illegals.”

She ran a hand through her hair. “Didn’t I?”

“The kind of admirer who’d like to nibble his way up your extremities.”

“That’s an interesting way of putting it. Look, he and Peabody are an item at the moment.”

“That doesn’t stop him from licking his chops over you.”

She gave a quick snorting laugh, then catching the look in Roarke’s eye, she sobered and cleared her throat. “He’s harmless.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Come on, Roarke, it’s just one of those little testosterone games you guys play.” His eyes were still gleaming and caused something to jitter, not unpleasantly, in her stomach. “You’re not, like, jealous?”

“Yes.” It was demeaning to admit it, but he was a man who did what had to be done.

“Really?” The jittery feeling turned into a nice warm spread of pleasure. “Well, thanks.”

There was no point in sighing. Certainly no point in giving her a quick shake. Instead, he dipped his hands in his pockets and inclined his head. “You’re welcome. Eve, we’re going to be married in a few days.”

The jittering started again, big time. “Yeah.”

“If he keeps looking at you like that, I’m going to have to hurt him.”

She smiled, patted his cheek. “Down, boy.”

Before she could do more than chuckle, he’d snagged her wrist, leaned in close. “You belong to me.”

Her eyes fired, her teeth bared. The show of temper had him relaxing immediately. “It goes both ways, darling, but in case you haven’t noticed, it seems only fair to tell you, I’m very territorial over what’s mine.” He kissed her snarling mouth. “I do love you, Eve. Ridiculously.”

Another author I revisited recently is Shannon McKenna, whose 2001 novella, Something Wild, involves an architect who has been following a young woman from state to state, her in an old truck, him on a motorcycle. He is pursuing her because

The sight of her walking out of the ladies’ room had hit him like a fist.  . . .

She hadn’t seen him. In fact, she’d noticed barely anything. She’d walked like a woman in a dream. Something about the way she swept those heavy waves of honey-blonde hair out of her pale face was eloquent in its unspoken weariness. She looked tired, rumpled, her big gray eyes haunted and vulnerable. Like she needed someone to cheer her up, make her laugh. Chase those shadows away from her eyes.

Eventually he does approach her, and she thinks it’s pretty crazy that he’s been following her – stalking her, basically. And because Annie is running from an abusive boyfriend, she has good reason to be wary.

Still, she eventually lets him into her bed (actually, her tent). And then Jacob basically loses his mind, and decides that he is going to take care of Annie for the foreseeable future. Trouble is that Annie doesn’t believe herself to be in any emotional condition to take on a guy like Jacob, especially when he starts buying her new camping equipment and acting like they are a couple. At one point she decides to teach him a lesson when she realizes that he’s spying on her while she relaxes in a mineral bath, masturbating openly:

She displayed herself to him, feeling bold and reckless. “Did you like it, then, Jacob? Is the image burned into your memory?”

“Yeah, sweetheart,” he said in a harsh, grating voice. “When my time comes and my life flashes before my eyes, that scene is going to get extra play time. Does that make you happy? Driving me nuts, messing with my mind, you find that really entertaining?”

“No!” she yelled, frustrated beyond endurance. “Christ, Jacob, I’m sorry, already! I’m sorry for everything! I’m sorry for the hot spring, I’m sorry I was rude, I’m sorry I was ungracious when you tried to help me, I’m sorry six ways from Sunday! OK? Are you satisfied?”

“Not yet.” His eyes glittered dangerously. “A lame-ass apology is not going to cut it.”

When Annie refuses to let Jacob have angry sex with her, he picks up to leave, telling her to “have a nice life.” At which point she grovels and tell him that she will do whatever he wants her to, as long as he doesn’t leave her.

I’ve often talked about how Catherine Coulter’s 2000 Historical Romance, Rosehaven, frustrated me, not just because of the way Severin forces himself sexually on Hasting, but also by the way the women in the household then scold her for her “pride,” telling her that she basically got what she deserved for being so aloof. And at the end of the novel, the hero, newly returned to the heroine after a long absence, doesn’t force himself on her sexually, but he does insist that she breastfeed their son in front of him, a different kind of intimate violation. In fact, Publisher’s Weekly noted that

. . . Coulter’s (The Valentine Legacy) portrayal of an abusive husband as a romantic hero may leave some readers less than pleased. Although it is presented in the context of the era, her suggestion that a woman can, by changing her behavior, alter the pattern of abuse in a relationship is frightening. The notion that a physically brutal man can be tamed by an intelligent wife is difficult to accept.

These are just a few examples, but they stand out for me because they reflect some of the same complaints I see about some of today’s popular Romance authors.

Re-reading the McKenna, especially, I felt much more uncomfortable with the way Jacob ruthlessly acts out his anger over feeling vulnerable to his intense feelings about Annie than I did with almost anything in Ashley’s Motorcycle Man, which deals with some of the same things. While Jacob comes around in the end with Annie, there is not a lot of self-consciousness about the power differential between them. Yet in Motorcycle Man, the power relationships are overtly examined. For me, that feels more comfortable. As does the fact that Ashley tends to write strong, independent, successful heroines, while McKenna tends to write the somewhat fragile, vulnerable heroine (often with limited sexual experience, as well). It’s like the difference between Faith in Linda Howard’s After the Night and Roanna from Shades of Twilight. Also, I find Jacob much more menacing than Tack, and much less comfortable with his own vulnerability than Tack. Also, Tack can express his feelings. When, for example, he finally pushes Tyra too far and she leaves him for a while, he surprises her by issuing a pretty straightforward, even sensitive, apology:

“You give it good, darlin’, that attitude. So good, I thought that was you. That isn’t you. Not all of you. I got on my hands the girl at the party
who looked at me like I was the only man on the planet even when she was in a sea of people, took my hand with all the trust in the world that I was gonna make things good for her and followed me to my bed. You fucked up making the wrong decision Friday night. But I fucked up forgetting about that girl.”

I closed my eyes. I liked that. I liked that he saw that. And I liked that he admitted he fucked up. I didn’t think he had it in him but I liked it that he did.

Oh hell.

“Please, let me go,” I pleaded.

“So much to you, never had a woman who has so much that makes her. Every day, more comes out and all of it is a surprise.”

I don’t know how much I’ve changed as a reader, or the ways in which I’ve changed; I only know that my experience of some of these older books is that they are at least as “extreme” in their presentation of sex, violence, and sexual force.

So now I’m going to put it to you: Do you think the genre has changed in its portrayal and popularity of controlling heroes, violence, and/or sexual force? And if so, how do you think it has changed? Also a question I’ve been thinking about for a long time but haven’t really explored very deeply myself: Do we tolerate violence in Romance more readily than sexual force?

isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

41 Comments

  1. Shannon Stacey
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 07:10:51

    Since today we have bestselling romances in which the hero pistol whips the heroine and is still swooned over, I’d have to say romance readers seem to be more accepting of violent, controlling heroes. I don’t think readers would have been quite as forgiving if Roarke cracked Eve upside the head with the butt of his gun.

    When you see readers who were outraged by Jamie spanking Claire in Outlander (and got all judgy-pants with readers who liked Jamie anyway) proclaiming Deuce’s sexiness across the social media land, it’s fairly obvious things have changed.

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  2. Robin/Janet
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 07:42:26

    @Shannon Stacey: Oh, Outlander is a great example of this controversy, I think, because my experience with readers around that book has been the exact opposite.

    I got into a LONG (and if I’m saying it was long, you can only imagine its epic length!) argument with a number of readers who were justifying that spanking up one side and down the other with the “but that’s the way things were back then” argument. Beyond the question of whether this was necessarily the case (using history to justify domestic violence is one of my hot buttons), I came across many, many readers who were perfectly fine with the spanking scene – some who even felt Claire deserved it, and at the very least, it was okay because it was a Romance, etc.

    How much of this, I wonder, is about the fact that some readers have *always* found force and sexual force abhorrent in Romance, while other readers have *always* been tolerant to it in one way or another. Look at Anne Stuart’s Ice books: doesn’t Bastien actually knock Chloe out at one point in Black Ice? And what about Ice Blue, where Takashi is hired to murder Summer. IIRC he attempts it at one point, or at least goes into some detail about how he would do it (drowning or breaking her neck?). And I still remember being kind of traumatized by the way Dillon taunts Jamie in Into the Fire. At one point he physically chases her around a table, basically telling her that her very existence is a sexual taunt to him and threatening her with payback for that.

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  3. Shannon Stacey
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 08:18:39

    @Robin/Janet: The spanking scene in Outlander didn’t bother me for a variety of reasons that would simply be tangential here, but at the core for me is the man himself. Jamie was a decent man who loved and respected the women in his life and tried to treat them all with honor. If a guy who’s disrespectful of women in general were to do the same, it’s a lot harder for me to accept.

    (I haven’t read the Ice books.)

    How much of this, I wonder, is about the fact that some readers have *always* found force and sexual force abhorrent in Romance, while other readers have *always* been tolerant to it in one way or another.

    That’s always going to be the case, I think. Everybody has a different line in the sand. Some of us found those Coulter books ever-so-swoony during our melodramatic youth and remember them with a rosy glow of nostalgia, while others who had different life experiences or perhaps read them later in life are horrified by them. But tolerance levels fluctuate with life experiences, too. As an adult woman, I’d kick a guy in the junk for some of the things I thought so romantic before I actually had relationships. I cut my reading teeth on forced/seduction romances with heroes swept up by their passion for the heroines, so maybe I’m more tolerant of those elements. But physical violence stemming from anger and/or disrespect doesn’t work for me at all. If it’s something I’d kill my younger sister’s boyfriend for, I don’t want it in my romance.

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  4. Tae
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 08:21:01

    I’ve become pretty blasé about sex and violence in romance books. Most of the time it doesn’t phase me because I understand it’s a fantasy and if anyone did that to me in real life i’d be running away and calling the police. However, I read one book recently and it was a BDSM series. The heroine goes to a BDSM club with her boyfriend who doesn’t know what he’s doing and ends up hurting her in a way that she doesn’t like. The hero saves her but also decides that she’s in so much pain that she deserves something good and rubs her clit until she gets off. She has fantasy dreams about this stranger who got her off. As I kept reading this book I kept thinking how wrong that scene was and how uncomfortable I was that she wasn’t even capable of giving consent and that I considered it an act of rape. I stopped reading the book and won’t touch the rest of the series.

    I am uncomfortable that this is is becoming normalized in romance books. This sends the wrong message to men and women about what is acceptable behavior.

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  5. Ros
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 08:24:16

    I don’t think I have a long enough history of romance reading to judge. What I am interested to know, though, is whether you are classifying the In Death series as romance or not? I know there is the long, drawn out Eve/Roarke thing over the whole series, but the individual books don’t fit in the genre, do they? I have the impression some people think of them as romances because they are by Nora and because there is a romantic element to them.

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  6. Shannon Stacey
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 08:27:00

    @Ros: I, personally, consider the first In Death to be a romance in the traditional sense, but all of the subsequent books a mystery series with very strong romantic elements.

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  7. Keishon
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 08:45:02

    I got into a LONG (and if I’m saying it was long, you can only imagine its epic length!) argument with a number of readers who were justifying that spanking up one side and down the other with the “but that’s the way things were back then” argument. Beyond the question of whether this was necessarily the case (using history to justify domestic violence is one of my hot buttons), I came across many, many readers who were perfectly fine with the spanking scene – some who even felt Claire deserved it, and at the very least, it was okay because it was a Romance, etc.

    The spanking scene didn’t bother me in the least either. I’m not going to justify why I’m not bothered by it. Think of me and other readers what you want. Our choices and likes and dislikes are our own to make and not open for discussion. There’s a whole lot of things about romance I don’t like but I’m not going to berate or judge anyone for liking it. I may point and laugh but usually that’s offline. Also as someone who reads mysteries which can be pretty violent I guess it’s a no brainer on where I fall on the violence in romance. All of this is said in respect of we’ll have to agree to disagree.

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  8. Lynne Connolly
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 09:26:09

    What a great essay!
    ”Strong man brought to his knees by waif” is a powerful trope that has endured through centuries, and it’s unlikely that its current dominance will be its last outing. However, some of the brutalisation in recent books is too much for me. But then I look back to the romance books I cut my teeth on.
    I’ve never stopped reading Georgette Heyer, and in her mature work, almost without exception the heroines give as good as they get. Without breaking historical period, either!
    The Grand Sophy took no nonsense from Charles and that made her one of the most enduring heroines in romantic literature. However, Heyer had her waif heroines, and in almost all cases, her heroes are described in brutal terms. Nell in “April Lady” is a waif, for instance.
    In one of Heyer’s most beloved books, “Devil’s Cub,” the hero begins the book by killing a highwayman and ordering his servants to clear the body from the road, but apart from that he shows no remorse. He threatens to rape the heroine when she thwarts him. Then she shoots him. Heyer’s heroes tend to kiss “ruthlessly” and “savagely,” there is often violence associated with the way they kiss, and that’s as far as Heyer allows them to go.
    However, this is a commercial market. We can never forget that and the writers in it have various degrees of skill. Most writers are doing it for a living, as well as for the love, so they will, to a certain extent, write what they think the market wants, or adapt their natural voice as much as they can.
    And I think you’re right. It’s the context too, the way power shifts, or doesn’t, in the course of the story. If it’s unbalanced, as in many recent romances, then to many readers, including me, it’s too much. But there are a large group of readers who love it. They love the fantasy of the man taking complete control. As we know, fantasy and reality are distinct in most readers’ minds, but eventually that fantasy is fulfilled and the reader looks around for something new.
    From a personal point of view – violence and non-consensual sex are problematic areas and while I won’t say never, they need very careful handling by the author.
    I’ve written three books where the heroine or hero has been raped, and in no book have I ever shown the rape. And in no book has the rapist ever become heroic because for me, that’s crossing the line. No coming back. No point in putting the scene on the page, because I want to discuss the consequences, not the act, and I am terrified that some reader will find a scene I wanted to be horrific, a turn-on. I’ve also always insisted it’s mentioned in the blurb, so people who want to avoid such issues are forewarned. Even if that loses me a sale, even if the Thought Police pick up on it and consider it unsuitable, I will still do that.

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  9. library addict
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 10:39:10

    I started reading romance in the 70s when the heroine’s were often raped by the “hero” or forced seduction was more the norm. I was glad when the genre moved away from that.

    The spanking scene in Outlander wasn’t a deal breaker for me, but I had many other issues with the book.

    I have The Last Hour of Gann in my TBR pile but am hesitant to start it in part due to how much I’ve heard about the level of violence in the book.

    While the murder scenes/descriptions can make me squeamish, the level of violence in the In Death books doesn’t bother me. Roarke tranquing Eve in the early books doesn’t bother me either as Eve and Roarke are equals in their relationship. But to be honest I can’t remember if it bothered me when I first read it as I have reread the books so many times. (And just FYI, more than a month has passed when Roarke walks out on Eve. It’s mid-February when they meet in Naked in Death and the first murder in Glory occurs in May. Still a rushed timeline, but not quite as hurried.)

    I read a lot of romantic suspense so I do tolerate a lot more violence than sexual force. For me the line is more about how the h/h interact than what happens with other characters or murder victims.

    And there was a lot of stuff I put up with in older romances that I read that I wouldn’t if I were reading those books for the first time today. So the newer books with the same type of controlling heroes don’t get the “nostalgia” pass from me. But that doesn’t mean I won’t read/enjoy books with that type of hero.

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  10. Robin/Janet
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 10:41:57

    @Keishon: I actually don’t have any opinion on the spanking (I tend to place it in the same category as much forced seduction in the genre — that it’s got a symbolic role that some readers appreciate and others don’t). My judgment is about using history *incorrectly* to justify a behavior. My position then — and now — is that if the spanking is okay with you, just let it be okay on its own terms. I also have this gripe with the whole “virginity is the historical norm” and “women routinely married as young teens back then” mantras. Oh, and the “droit du seigneur” story, which, despite being proven myth, some still assert as historical fact. IMO Romance can and does do many things that are controversial, and I wish we’d get away from the idea that they’re historically accurate, when in many cases they’re just common genre tropes/devices/motifs. In fact, I think it weakens their defense to give them bogus historical origins.

    @Ros: I definitely think it can be classes as Romantic Suspense. The first five, maybe even ten books are much more traditionally romance centric, with the more recent books being skewed more toward procedural, but yes, I think they are at the very least a genre hybrid, with one of those genres being core Romance, because they focus first on the meeting, courtship, and marriage of the protagonists, and then follow the romantic trajectory of their relationship (with a number of secondary romances getting focus, as well).

    @Tae: Your example reminds me of a Lisa Kleypas historical called Suddenly You. At one point the heroine has a miscarriage, and to make her feel better, the hero performs a certain sexual act on her. Sarah Wendell did a great job of articulating her own objections to the scene, which mirror your comments about the book you read: http://smartbitchestrashybooks.com/blog/suddenly_you_by_lisa_kleypas

    I am uncomfortable that this is is becoming normalized in romance books.

    What is the “this” to which you are referring? What I’m really trying to dig out here is how specifically the genre and/or its readers have changed, and how that’s different from there always being books that contain elements that some readers feel push too far (and whether those limits are really farther these days or not).

    @Shannon Stacey: I definitely think readers have different lines. I also think readers have different ways of reading and interpreting different character traits and interactions. What I sometimes think is that a lot of books get a reputation, some of it based on discussion about the book by those who haven’t read it (a signal boost, so to speak), and that we’re not really having the specific conversations about specific books that would help to clarify why some readers are okay with some things and why others aren’t — and how readers on both sides of that divide often feel defensive and judged for their positions.

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  11. dick
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 10:58:41

    I’ve never been able to see “forced seduction” as anything but a euphemism for rape, so I think romance is no more violent now than it was when Dodd published “A Well-Pleasured Lady.” That title alone, when the book contains an oft-cited example of forced seduction suggests violence and sexual gratification went together in past romances as well as in those being published more recently. Probably Lynn Connolly is correct with the implication that the violence is less competently glossed over by the authors than it was in the past, less well integrated into the romance, so that we “see” the violence in a more isolated way than we saw the “forced seductions” of earlier romance. Indeed, romance authors seem to have great skill in getting themselves out of moral morasses. For example, Jo Beverley manages in “Lord of Midnight” to make both the heroine and the reader accept that the hero has killed the heroine’s father; or Mary Jo Putney writes her way out of opening a book with a rape. After all, that love conquers all is fundamental to romance, isn’t it?

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  12. Sunny
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 11:15:04

    I only started reading Romance a few years ago, so that may color how I feel about a lot of books — there’s no nostalgia involved. Every quote you had up there had me squirming with discomfort save the last, and even then I’d be ready to toss the book down if her “let me go” wasn’t listened to. I specifically haven’t read the Motorcycle Man books because I’m pretty sure they’re not something I’d enjoy, although I am tempted by the sheer number of recommendations they’ve gotten.

    And that’s okay, I don’t have to like something everyone else likes, and I’m not going to say people are bad for liking things I have no interest in. But I absolutely don’t do sexual violence in my romance books, or any kind of abusive behavior — between the protagonists or otherwise. I have trouble glossing over them, it deeply bothers me and I don’t enjoy the books, so I don’t keep reading.

    Sex is funny, I read plenty of erotic romance and erotica so I don’t have problems with open-door or closed-door sex, but I’ve read romances where it kept happening in completely bizarre, makes-no-sense, you-are-running-for-your-lives-but-stop-to-have-sex-against-a-wall sorts of things. I want stuff to make sense within the context of the story, not the “Whoops, we hit 50%, supposed to have a sex scene here” stuff, or “Crap we need 5 sex scenes in this book and only have 3, better cram more in”.

    Folks really do have different lines, and that’s fine. I want people to enjoy Twilight or FSOG without being told they’re stupid for liking them and also not be told they’re stupid for NOT enjoying them, but at the same time I really enjoy having conversations with folks about the problematic parts of both (as well as the parts that work and why). I also really think it’s important to have discussions about specific books and that’s why I value this site and SBTB so much (and a few others) — discussions can go broad or get specific and people always bring really good things to the table.

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  13. Robin/Janet
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 12:05:39

    @Lynne Connolly: I think your point about the different levels of skill in execution is important. It’s one of the things that’s always touched on when Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold is discussed, with some readers seeming to feel almost guilty that Gaffney was able to get them to go beyond their comfort zone.

    Also, I think readers really do have different approaches to a text, and I know for a fact (since I read this way) that not all readers read Romance with a need to find the protagonists romantically appealing to them. I’m definitely one of those readers who can find a book cathartic on an emotional level, precisely *because* I would never countenance the textual world in my own life.

    @Sunny: And that’s okay, I don’t have to like something everyone else likes, and I’m not going to say people are bad for liking things I have no interest in.

    I think this is key. It’s important for readers who just don’t want to read certain things to be able to do that and to declare their own limits without being judged. And it’s okay for those who do to feel they can talk about their preferences without being judged.

    In some ways I’m wondering if social media hasn’t created an environment in which readers feel really left out when a book takes off that they don’t “get.” And I think this can become a point of characterization about the genre that may or may not be accurate in the broader sense.

    Personally, I think most of the books that have been tagged as “groundbreaking” in some way (whether all readers feel that way about them or not) are books that are more overly and complexly problematic, because when you start pushing the envelope, it’s difficult, IMO, to do that without generating a lot of really difficult stuff. I know that with the Ashley books I like (and some of them I cannot abide) there are things that I just think are so great (strong, independent heroines with large social networks; diversity in the world building; overt examination of the power dynamics; sexually experienced heroines; older heroes and heroines who have had happy relationships in the past, etc.) there are also things I find really problematic (so-called “slut shaming” of women who are not the heroine; the evil ex-wife/husband; a certain Mary Sue quality to some of the heroines; no heroines of color, despite several heroes of color, etc.). I don’t believe that things *have* to be this way, but I do know that my experience has been that I have rarely — if ever — read a book that pushes a genre envelope without pushing in very different directions simultaneously.

    @library addict: I am not super far into Gann, and I consider myself a wimp when it comes to violence, but so far I am pretty deeply engaged in the book. At the very least I think it’s a very interesting genre hybrid, and one of the things that intrigues me about it is the way it doesn’t push an agenda of assimilation, which, as someone who has done a lot of work in cultural studies, always concerns me (this idea that there is one “good” cultural standard to which the protagonists must adapt). Of course, there’s a flip side to that, as well, which is where a lot of the issues around the rape come in. Still, I think it’s deeply unfortunate that the book has been lumped in with the so-called “dino porn” movement, since I don’t think it bears any meaningful resemblance to that particular genre (sub genre?).

    Re. the timeline in In Death, I just went back and checked, and you’re right that it seems to be at least two months. I was thinking it was about six weeks, but it seems more like 8. Still, too quick for me. Although I really found Roarke to be kind of a pushing, controlling SOB in those early books, so I wasn’t cutting him much slack, lol.

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  14. Sheryl Nantus
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 13:02:25

    I tend to look at Roarke’s actions as a way of taking care of Eve, not overpowering or dominating her. When he tranqs her it’s because she’s injured and won’t rest, or too overworked to realize she’s reached the point of not being able to do her job. In one of the later books she notes that she’s a better cop because of Roarke’s influence because he knows when to rein her in and she’s learned how and when to step back and catch her breath.

    During their first sexual encounter he’s determined to not just be a one-night stand where she satisfies herself and then goes home – he’s in it to win it and devotes himself to drawing her out of her self-imposed shell where no man may go. At least that’s how I read it.

    In the scene mentioned above IIRC later on Roarke does get into a brawl with the would-be suitor and Eve breaks it up with the threat of tasering Roarke. This results in a hell of a fight and rough sex but I see it as her affirming her independence within the relationship. Dr. Mira, the police psych, helps along with that analysis afterwards.

    Just me widdle thoughts…

    :)

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  15. Jen
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 13:27:33

    I’m another reader who doesn’t have a super long history with romance, so I don’t have any historical perspective on the issue. I can say, though, that I am pretty sensitive to sexual and partner violence in books and I feel like I’ve been seeing it a lot lately. (Not necessarily “more”, since I only have a few years for comparison.) I haven’t tried any Kristen Ashley because the quotes I’ve seen just don’t make me feel comfortable! Even the scene with Eve and Roarke that is posted above makes me feel a little icky. Obviously that moment where Roarke almost lets go of her wrists is supposed to show he’s not abusing her because he would have stopped, but the fact that he doesn’t get verbal consent is a little problematic to me. Not because I think he’s doing anything wrong necessarily but because I prefer sexual relationships where both parties are expressing what they want. That kind of thing doesn’t necessarily make me stop reading a book, but it does sometimes leave a nasty taste in my mouth that can color my perception of the book.

    But as for violence, that I do have a little more history with as I used to read more mysteries. Again I can’t say about romances specifically, but I remember even in high school reading mysteries with romantic elements and having them be just as gory and violent as they are today. I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of gory violence, but it doesn’t turn me off a book like most sexual violence does. I’ve actually thought some about why that is, and I think it really has to do with my own fears. Sexual/partner violence seems more like a realistic possibility to me–I know plenty of women who’ve been victims of both. Violent crime, especially the crazy, gory kind, seems much more fictional and remote to me as I don’t know anyone who’s been a victim of such violence, so I think it isn’t as scary and therefore off-putting.

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  16. Erin Satie
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 14:13:15

    You’ve touched on something which I’ve felt for a long while–cutting out the most extreme examples, a simple mis-match can become abusive.

    A really demanding, needy protagonist matched with a really accommodating, giving protagonist. A rude, cynical protagonist matched with a sweet, sensitive one. Over time, the mismatch will leave the more vulnerable protagonist drained & miserable.

    I think a big part of a satisfying romance is watching the protagonists draw boundaries. That often takes place through negotiation, trespass, and renegotiation.

    I don’t mind seeing a protagonist cross a line; but if the partner can’t re-draw the line, or hold it, I will start to think the relationship is doomed.

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  17. Robin/Janet
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 14:20:39

    @Sheryl Nantus: I have to admit that it took me a while to warm up to Roarke; I think Vengeance might have been the first turning point for me. Because I read the first 20 or so books in one straight shot, I didn’t have the sense that much time was passing between them, so I wasn’t impatient with the pace of Eve’s recovery, for example. I adored Eve from the beginning, and I used to get really frustrated by reader complaints that she should be accommodating Roarke more, in part because I really liked the way, as the series moved forward, the gender roles seemed somewhat reversed between them.

    Still, I don’t disagree with your interpretation of those particular series elements; it’s just that some of them didn’t (and still don’t) work for me. I realize that Roarke tranqs Eve out of love, but it still feels presumptuous and controlling to me. Ditto with his forcing the pace of their commitment. Which is kind of my point — that we all have different triggers and issues, and will read different books with varying degrees of appreciation and annoyance. I love that we can do that so readily with the In Death books, and just wish there were more of that with other books that push reader buttons in various ways.

    @Jen:
    I wouldn’t say I’m a fan of gory violence, but it doesn’t turn me off a book like most sexual violence does. I’ve actually thought some about why that is, and I think it really has to do with my own fears. Sexual/partner violence seems more like a realistic possibility to me–I know plenty of women who’ve been victims of both. Violent crime, especially the crazy, gory kind, seems much more fictional and remote to me as I don’t know anyone who’s been a victim of such violence, so I think it isn’t as scary and therefore off-putting.

    I think this is the case for a lot of readers, and it’s certainly a valid perspective. It’s an enormous problem that women are facing so many threats of violence in intimate circumstances and relationships. And I think we have a tendency to place the responsibility for being in these relationships on women, even though there is no standard profile for those who have experienced domestic violence, and statistics show that women do, on average, ultimately leave these relationships. Still, I think society has been slow to catch on to the way in which batterers show much more consistent patterning, in terms of “type,” than those who are battered.

    For me, *because* sexual violence is such a real life threat for women, it seems logical to have a genre largely written and read by women that rewrites something so threatening and awful in a way that perhaps makes it safe in a variety of ways. Not that I think all forms of sexual violence in the genre are the same and should be treated the same. And maybe the fact that I’m actually not a reader for whom the rape fantasy is exciting makes me even more interested in how it’s used in the genre (that is, I don’t really have a personal attachment to it, negatively or positively). And it’s odd, because I get more worked up in a frustrated way by a book like Dodd’s A Well-Pleasured Lady (as dick references) than with a book like Joanna Wylde’s Reaper’s Property — because in Dodd’s book, the rape/forced seduction is treated as quick means to marry off the hero and heroine (and pages later she becomes the sexual dominatrix, which felt very diminishing to me), whereas in Reaper’s Property, I felt that the power issues were taken very seriously between the protags. Which isn’t to say that other readers interpret them in the opposite way. Either way, I think it’s really important for us to create some safe spaces in which to have these discussions.

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  18. Robin/Janet
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 14:26:21

    @Erin Satie: Can you give some examples on both sides? I think you’re hitting on something really important in regard to how power is distributed in romantic relationships, and how that is interpreted by readers. For example, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Captive Prince, with which I’ve had some serious issues, didn’t seem to get the same pushback as Gann (which is also problematic, but perhaps in different ways). Does it matter, for example, if both protags are male? Does that change the way readers perceive power? I don’t know, but it’s one of the things I’ve been pondering for a while.

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  19. farmwifetwo
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 15:35:29

    I think for me it comes down to whether or not emotionally/physically are they equals??

    Had Roarke pushed it too far Eve would have killed him or at the very least maimed him.

    In Motorcycle Man, Tyra may have tolerated his “cave man” behaviour but when he pushed it too far in her opinion, she made certain he knew it and they worked it through (when his daughter was injured). Whereas I don’t like a lot of her other series’ because the balance is off.

    I find in m/f books the balance of power is off. Author’s keep writing more TSTL, childish heroines than they do mature, independent ones. Which is why of late I’ve been reading a lot of m/m. I tolerate more physical behaviour/sex in m/m because in a lot of books the balance is equal. The Unlocked Heart by Well’s I had issues with. The author glossed over too much and the BDSM didn’t work at all for me. How does an overtly shy kid become a “let’s have sex in a public club, in public” submissive junkie without some form of personal growth which didn’t happen. Whereas Lou Harper’s Last Stop has “vanilla” BDSM in it and it fit the story perfectly. But, they were equals emotionally. Lauren Dane’s Drawn Together (m/f) initially had me concerned but our hero mellowed quickly and although I never think whipping of any kind is appropriate ever… the rest of the bedroom scenes didn’t feel forced.

    I have no use for gratuitous rape scenes. One of Cherry Adair’s TFLAC’s had it… one with the wizard that could go invisible. At the beginning of the book he goes into her room, and fits into her dreams and IMO… rapes her. It’s in the first 50pgs or so. There’s no consent there at all. There are others over the years – I started reading regencies as a teen in the 80′s both shorts and full lengths – but that one I thought of first.

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  20. Kate Sherwood
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 17:22:11

    I’m another fairly new romance reader (I didn’t start reading it until after I found myself writing it!) and another who is turned off by sexual violence or controlling behaviour between the leads, at least when it’s treated as a sign of desire or affection.

    For me, it ruins the Happily Ever After. I just can’t believe that the heroine can be truly happy with an abusive asshole. I think that at some point she’s going to wake up and realize she’s completely lost her freedom, and… that’s not happy!

    I’m not widely read enough to speak to trends, but I will say that abusive, controlling “heros” are a serious obstacle to my exploration and enjoyment of the genre. They’re so widespread that it’s notable to me when I find a book that DOESN’T have an over-the-top controlling hero.

    (And, no, the violence isn’t as widespread as the control, but to me they’re just different degrees of the same problem.)

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  21. Tae
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 17:22:33

    @Robin/Janet: By “this” I mean normalizing and making it seem alright for a man/woman to engage in any kind of sexual activity with another person when the other person cannot even give consent. ” It’s okay because hey, he’s the hero of the novel. And she got off. And he’s handsome. And she has fantasies about what happened, though she doesn’t know what he looks like.

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  22. cleo
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 18:41:05

    I’ve been reading romance for a long time (29 years to be exact) and I think sexual violence has been present in romance for longer than I’ve been reading it. My perception is that it’s less prevalent than it was 20 years ago, but it may just be a little less mainstream. Or maybe I’ve just gotten better at avoiding romances like that.

    I started in the 80s, so I missed the rapetastic 70s historicals, but boy howdy did I read books by Catherine Coulter, Kat Martin, Judith McNaught (cough Whitney My Love cough) and Jude Devereaux in the late 80s and early 90s that had the heroes raping, beating, slut-shaming, and generally abusing the heroines.

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  23. Janine
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 18:43:10

    @Shannon Stacey:

    The spanking scene in Outlander didn’t bother me for a variety of reasons that would simply be tangential here, but at the core for me is the man himself. Jamie was a decent man who loved and respected the women in his life and tried to treat them all with honor. If a guy who’s disrespectful of women in general were to do the same, it’s a lot harder for me to accept.

    It’s interesting because I had the opposite reaction — the spanking scene in Outlander bothered me all the more because so many of the characters viewed Jamie as a wonderful man. That under the “good guy” surface he was still a wife beater, but this was not acknowledged in the text, made it less palatable to me — rather like the fact that Claire, under her competent surface, was constantly ending up in jeopardy and needing to be rescued, and yet the text insisted on portraying her as independent and capable. So basically, it was the cognitive dissonance inherent in the characterizations that turned me off of the book.

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  24. Janine
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 19:30:05

    I started reading romances in November of 1983 (I remember because November is when my birthday is) so I’m coming up on 30 years of reading in the genre. Because I was too young to buy books the library was the source of a lot of my reading. Not only did I read the 1970s blockbusters by Woodiwiss and Rogers, I also recall that in the 1980s, just about every Johanna Lindsey novel (she was one of my favorite authors) included a scene or two in which the hero raped the heroine. And Lindsey’s Paradise Wild, published by Avon in 1981, had the hero hitting the heroine as well.

    IIRC, he’d raped her and gotten her to marry him (she was pregnant but he didn’t know that), and then seduced her on their wedding nights and dumped her in revenge for something her father did. To get back at him, she tracks him down to Hawaii after she gives birth, and gets other men to brag about having slept with her– something that didn’t actually happen. She also passes off the baby as the son of another man. The hero doesn’t realize she’s lying, and when she, if memory serves, says she doesn’t regret her affairs and won’t apologize for them, he slaps her across the face.

    This is just one example of many but there are worse examples. Rosemary Rogers 1976 blockbuster Wicked Loving Lies had the hero leading a gang rape of the heroine (who was still in her late teens) because he believed she betrayed him (I think this was also based on a lie but I can’t be sure). For good measure, when it’s over he literally brands her, leaving her with a rose shaped scar on her thigh. If I’m not mistaken she also miscarries his child as a result of his actions.

    And this was the hero!!!

    So IMO the romance genre has had plenty of violence and sexual force in it ever since I’ve been reading it, but I also think there have, as you suggest, been ebbs and flows. Beginning around the late 1990s books that contained rapes got thinner on the ground, although there were still some rare exceptions to that rule, such as the Christina Dodd or Anna Campbell’s Claiming the Courtesan. Another example is Kinsale’s Shadowheart.

    That pretty much stayed the case until self-publishing took off, but in the interim, I think there has been an escalation of other forms of violence, and we have seen the rise of heroes who are SEALs, snipers, assassins, vigilantes, and I could go on. At least in some parts of the genre, it’s as if, if the hero can’t be violent, he’s not heroic.

    I’ve said before that I would love to read a romantic suspense in which the hero was not a cop, not military, not a killer or any kind of professionally violent person, but a normal guy who isn’t violent and has to somehow grapple with an attack on his and the heroine’s life. But so far, I haven’t found this kind of book in the genre.

    With the rise of self-publishing, sexual violence is becoming more commonplace in romances once again. I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, I agree with you that a side effect of pushing the envelope is that it results in some reader discomfort. And in that sense I think that cultivating a greater tolerance for discomfort can be a benefit to readers. In addition, making fewer types of stories taboo has the beneficial effect that a greater variety of stories can then be told — and if they’re told thoughtfully, I’m all for that.

    But on the other hand. I worry about readers becoming desensitized to violence, both sexual and otherwise and that desensitization will lead to an escalation in the violence we see in books. I think there’s a good argument to be made that that’s already been happening.

    I haven’t made up my mind, but I’m also relatively tolerant of sexual force in books, so I may not be the right person to put this question to.

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  25. Erin Satie
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 20:18:21

    Not a TON of examples from my recent reading, where I can call up details without too much effort, but I can think of at least a couple…

    I absolutely inhaled the whole ‘Administration’ series by Manna Francis. Starts with ‘Mind Fuck’. It’s about a straight up evil dude, Toreth, who falls in love with a really thoughtful, smart, deeply moral man, Warrick. Their relationship works because from the very start, Warrick is REALLY firm about setting boundaries. He’s able to hold the line partly because he’s so clear-eyed about it, but partly because he has a lot more social status/capital than Toreth. So even though he’s the softer & more giving character, he has leverage.

    But that’s an ‘extreme’ read & Toreth is an ‘extreme’ character, totally amoral. I was really thinking about the fact that more or less normal people can end up in relationships (in real life, in romances) where they do a lot of harm, when poorly matched.

    Maybe Lord of Scoundrels would be another example? When Jessica shoots Dain, she’s insisting on a boundary. She forces an equilibrium from a position of weakness, at great cost to herself, but it pays off. If she hadn’t done something dramatic–if she hadn’t defended her boundaries–then Dain would just be another overbearing goon.

    If any more pop to mind I’ll add a new comment. I don’t think it’s necessarily to do with gender; I’ve read romances where I turn the last page with a sinking feeling in my stomach, hoping the characters will get a divorce soon, with both m/f & m/m couples.

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  26. Jane
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 20:38:55

    @janine

    With the rise of self-publishing, sexual violence is becoming more commonplace in romances once again. I have mixed feelings about it.

    I guess I don’t understand this assertion. What are the numbers here? Where are all the self published books with sexual violence? If you look at the top selling self published books of 2012, for example:

    Slammed/Point of Retreat by colleen hoover – no sexual violence.
    SC Stephens trilogy – no sexual violence.
    Beautiful Disaster – no sexual violence.
    Tina Reber’s series – no sexual violence.
    Cora Carmack’s series – no sexual violence.
    Katy Evan’s REAL – no sexual violence.

    **

    Easy by Tammara Webber – attempted rape.
    One Week Boyfriend by Monica Murphy – past trauma for the male (not unlike nearly all of Robin Schone and many of Mary Jo Putney’s books)

    I just see a lot of these statements tossed around and very little evidence to back them up. If we add in authors like Courtney Milan, Marie Force, and Bella Andre (all top tier self published authors), there is very little support this statement.

    Even Kristen Ashley’s books rarely have sexual violence in them. Out of the 20 some books I’ve read of hers, maybe two or three had characters who suffered sexual violence?

    Sure, that’s an easy ploy but it’s not like it hasn’t been used in traditional publishing often and repeatedly.

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  27. Janine
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 21:10:28

    @Jane: I spoke thoughtlessly since I certainly haven’t done a scientific study (and I wasn’t thinking of bestselling books, just of the common-ness of the rape trope in general). I haven’t read or tried to read as many self-pubbed books as you but the handful I have read have had a greater proportion of sexual violence than the last handful of trad pubbed books I’ve read. Here they are:

    Killing Sarai by J.A. Redmerski — references repetitive rapes of the heroine and her fellow captives by the villain, though these happen off stage (I only read the first third of the book)
    Falling Into You by Jasinda Wilder — Didn’t get far enough to say whether it contains rape
    Easy by Tammara Webber — has an unsuccessful rape attempt of the heroine by the villain
    Captive Prince by S.U. Pacat — contain h/h rape
    Petals and Thorns by Jeffe Kennedy — contains h/h rape

    I did know that about Petals and Thorns and Easy before I picked them up, but not the others. I enjoyed Captive Prince tremendously so it’s not like I’m necessarily knocking the books for this. I’m also aware that CP has been picked up for publication by Berkley, so it could be argued it is now a trad pubbed book. To my mind it’s a question of whether the authors (esp. those including h/h rapes) would have gone that route had they been under contract to a trad pub when they first wrote the books, though.

    Some of this may be a mis-perception on my part, but it seems to me that self-publishing has made it possible to write past all sort of taboos, whether it’s incest or dinosaur erotica. And I think a book like Spoil of War which was reviewed here a couple of years ago by Sunita and Dhympna would not have been likely to have found a home with a traditional publisher at that time.

    I’m not arguing that these are the majority of the books, just that as a percentage of the total number of books published, there may be more of them now.

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  28. Kaetrin
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 22:43:41

    The first romance books I read were:-

    Gypsy Lady – Shirlee Busbee – hero slaps the heroine late in the book and there is “forced seduction” by hero of heroine early in the story too.
    Sweet Savage Love – Rosemary Rogers – where Steve rapes Ginny repeatedly and IIRC (it’s been a long time since I read it) there is physical and sexual violence towards Ginny by other men in the story too.
    The Flame and the Flower – Kathleen E. Woodiwiss – hero rapes the heroine.

    And, they were, of course, all traditionally published.

    At the time, I enjoyed all the books and it is only the second one I haven’t re-read and which I don’t think I could enjoy at all now.

    I guess, I think that physical violence and sexual violence in romance novels has peaks and troughs – perhaps we are in a peak now, but, for what it’s worth, I don’t think it is particularly unique.

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  29. Keishon
    Oct 22, 2013 @ 23:15:36

    @Robin/Janet: Fair enough point and I will bow out of this discussion now.

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  30. Kate Sherwood
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 05:20:57

    @Janine:

    Oooh! I think the cognitive dissonance idea is key, for me.

    I read Erin Satie’s comment about the “straight up evil dude” and I was intrigued by the story and not at all disturbed by the idea of reading about him doing evil things… it’s when the supposed HERO does evil things that I get frustrated. Not even that, I guess… it’s when the supposed hero does evil things and the author doesn’t seem to think that they’re evil or need to be (seriously!) addressed.

    If the hero rapes the heroine and the entire book is about them exploring his issues and what led up to the violence and her deciding if she can ever forgive him and trust him, then, okay, I can accept that. (Possibly not much of a fun read, but at least I wouldn’t hate the premise). But if the hero rapes the heroine for her own good, because she was just being too stubborn to give in to his manly charms? Or if it was her fault because she’s just so beautiful and he loves her so much? But he’s still a good guy! Really! – Yeah. That’s what I don’t want to read.

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  31. Jamie Beck
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 08:01:33

    This is a powerful topic and discussion. My fairly strong opinions on the subject are borne of life experience with emotionally and physically abusive relationships (within my extended family, and through previous volunteer work at a women’s shelter).

    In my experience, when one partner so dominates and “possesses” the other, speaks in demeaning tones (even in humor), controls or even seeks to control, and physically overwhelms the other, the relationship is not very loving. Often the sexual attraction is what keeps them going, but the respect, dignity, and willingness to put the other’s needs first is missing. Without those elements, it can’t really be called love (in my opinion).

    Thus, when I read “romance” stories in which the hero constantly controls, antagonizes, and dominates the heroine’s life (both in and out of bed), I do not find it sexy or romantic. I deem it a “false” love story, and I worry about how reading many of those stories might affect the way a young woman views love (as if the “roughness” equates to passion).

    I’ve not read the Roarke/Eve books, but the one scene above, where he pins her against the wall to get her to submit, troubles me. The underlying “theme” of that scene (that he wants her to learn to “let go” of being in control of herself) isn’t bad, but using sexual dominance to force the issue is the less loving way to go about it. I would like Roarke better (and feel he loved her more) if he backed off and used words and other actions to bring about change. I think it would be more powerful that way, too, when they later got together.

    I’m not sure why so many stories today have to make sex so violent (slamming bodies, shoving against doors, etc.) as if THAT is what heightens the sexiness of the scene. To me, a couple that has proven their love for each other outside the bedroom and approaches the act with reverence and deep emotion is much more satisfying than the rough sex scenes so popular in today’s stories.

    I also don’t particularly like the way today’s heroes talk about their loves as if she were some kind of a possession or prize to be won/owned. “You belong to me” is different from “you belong with me,” and neither is as romantic as a hero proclaiming “I belong to you.”

    Maybe it’s simply that I’m more a fan of romantic women’s fiction than of today’s contemporary romance formula.

    All that said, certainly everyone is entitled to their own opinions and turn-ons in this area. I’m not trying to judge anyone’s taste or preferences.

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  32. cleo
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 10:36:26

    @Kate Sherwood @Janine: Yes! I’m not sure I’ve been able to articulate it before, but this idea of cognitive dissonance is key for me too. I think that’s one of the ways that the romance genre has improved / grown up since the 70s and 80s. Yes, we still have rape in romance and we still have heroes who are controlling or possessive or even abusive, but it seems like more of those stories explore the consequences or show the couple trying to negotiate them, instead of presenting it as normal and ok. There are still current books out there with that cognitive dissonance – where I’m shouting at one partner to DTMFA or get a restraining order, but everyone in the story thinks it’s a great relationship – but they don’t seem as all pervasive as they used to be (or again, maybe I’m just better at avoiding them).

    @Erin Satie – I think you’re on to something there with mismatched couples. I’ve thought of a few more examples.

    Dev Bentham’s Moving in Rhythm has a couple that I felt were mismatched. One of the heroes has severe social anxiety and the other hero is very supportive of him, drawing him out and figuring out how to work with / around his anxiety. But there were a couple times where I thought the hero with anxiety treated his partner badly and I kept waiting for the other hero to say something like “Having an anxiety disorder doesn’t give you a free pass to treat me like crap – how are we going to deal with this?” But no, he just kept being forgiving and understanding and that seemed like a recipe for disaster to me.

    Good Boy by Anne Tenino shows the couple from Frat Boy and Toppy figuring out how to draw boundaries and negotiate what each partner needs.

    I think JAK often shows her couples drawing and negotiating boundaries, although I’m having trouble thinking of specific examples.

    The Reasons for Marriage is an early Stephanie Laurens. The heroine feels like the hero gets too high handed with her once they’re engaged and calls him on it – he ordered her a new wardrobe without consulting her, so she doubles the order and gets both the dresses he wants and the ones she wants. And then they actually talk about it – that’s what I like about it.

    ETA – Glitterland by Alexis Hall is another one with a mismatched couple, where I really thought that Darian needed to be tougher with Ash before taking him back (or not take him back at all, honestly).

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  33. Arethusa
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 11:32:52

    I started reading romances in the mid 90s but my diet’s publication dates ranged from the 70s onwards. My first full length romance novel was Nan Ryan’s “The Sun God” (1990, according the Google). I was a huge Greek/Roman/Norse mythology buff at the time, so I pulled the book from my mother’s book shelves, thinking it was a nice fat book about Apollo…until I opened the cover and saw a full length illustration of a blonde, slinky green-dressed temptress being overpowered by a Native American man. Goggle-eyed, I took in every word, start to finish, and reread it several times. I still remember the scenes from that novel.

    One of the most memorable was when the heroine’s father (I think) flayed the back off her indigenous–of mixed ancestry but I’m not using the word Ryan used to describe him–teenage boyfriend. When as an adult he returned big, bad, and steaming mad, he proceeded to do the same to his blonde traitor. She was bedridden for days. And when they finally reconsumated their passion, I’m pretty sure her faithful woman servant had to give her a salve–some magical indigenous mixture no doubt– to soothe her whosawhatsit because golly, dind’t that passion scorch her pretty well. The salve thing was also a favourite of Johanna Lindsey, no?

    Don’t even get me started on those old timey Mills & Boons. It wasn’t love if it wasn’t rape.

    The only difference I see today is that various fetishes and kinks have a more mainstream shine. Those In Deaths were gorey for realsies, and the first “trilogy” would definitely count as romance for me. Eve’s flashbacks alone were the stuff of nightmares.

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  34. Kaetrin
    Oct 23, 2013 @ 18:24:52

    @Jamie Beck: I agree that everyone is entitled to their own feelings about what is a deal breaker for them in any form of entertainment – where one person’s line is will be different for others, and, as you say, I don’t think either party ought be shamed for liking or not liking a particular trope/idea/type of character/thing etc.

    But I think the point Robin was making in her OP and that I and others basically agree with, is that it isn’t just “today’s” heroes. Naked in Death was first published in 1995. Gypsy Lady was published in 1977, Sweet Savage Love in 1974. The Sheik was published in 1919 (I haven’t read it myself but the blurb describes the hero as kidnapping the heroine and “forcing her into submission”). Like it or not, sexual violence or violence in general in romance is nothing new.

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  35. Anonymous
    Oct 24, 2013 @ 08:45:34

    The Eve/Roarke passage quoted disturbs me more than I can say… and I speak as someone who not infrequently engages in consensual non-consensual sex. Nowhere in that scene do I get the sense that she has actually consented; it reads much more to me as though he’s using her body against her, and I have real problems with that. But I could see how it might work for someone else.

    What bothers me more than the existence of scenes like that, whether they work for me or not, is the fact that they so often go the same way: hero tells heroine she doesn’t always need to be in control and forces sexual submission on her; he’s rewarded for so doing in the text; she realises that he’s oh-so-super right. What about him? I don’t think I’ve ever seen a hero use the ‘you don’t always need to be in control’ line who couldn’t stand to hear it back — when the hero says ‘You don’t always need to be in control,’ part of me snaps, ‘Oh, but you do?’ — but the texts rarely go there. He’s the hero so he gets to be in control; she’s the heroine so she doesn’t.

    There’s nothing a priori wrong with that. It doesn’t always work for me, but clearly it works for a lot of readers, and that’s absolutely fine. But there are so few stories where the hero and heroine take turns dominating each other, or where she is allowed to be the dominant one (and stay there without deciding that no actually she doesn’t want to be), and that, the overall pattern, and the overall message that this pattern projects, bothers me. So does the fact that so many of the stories I’ve read that do have the heroine turning the tables for a bit often treat it as a lighthearted game, or have him reasserting control very quickly, and almost never allow her the same degree of psychological control he is allowed.

    I also agree with Janine, Kate Sherwood, and cleo that cognitive dissonance is a key element in whether or not something works for me. If the text treats something as problematic, and shows them working it through, it’s much more likely that I’ll be fine with it. This is basically why I’ve never forgiven Julia Quinn for Daphne’s actions in The Duke and I but wasn’t upset with Jo Beverley for Serena’s actions in Forbidden.

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  36. cleo
    Oct 24, 2013 @ 15:04:29

    @Anonymous: I’ve been trying to remember the JAK where the heroine turns the tables on the hero – she gets him to give up / loose control in bed. He does go along with it as a joke / indulgence thing, but then he actually gets the point she’s trying to make . I think it’s the one with hero who grows ferns, which is Wildest Hearts, but I’m not entirely sure.

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  37. Kaetrin
    Oct 24, 2013 @ 18:47:16

    @Anonymous: FWIW, there are times in the series where Eve very much takes charge of the sex. They are both alpha personalities so they kind of take it in turns to be the aggressor (although, they don’t always have aggressive sex – it’s a very long series so they have all kinds of sex!).

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  38. Maggie
    Oct 24, 2013 @ 18:49:37

    I really don’t know how I feel about this issue. On the one hand, it disturbs me to read about sexual non-consent (and I generally try to avoid it), but I can still read romances where this happens. For example one of my favorite romance novels ever is Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart. I love this book, but the first sex scene is really problematic for me because there’s a big question about whether it’s consensual or not. In the case of Untie My Heart, I just sort of forgive my problems away. It’s like–I still have the problem, but the rest of the book makes up for it so I forgive it. I’m not sure it’s a good thing to forgive, however.

    I absolutely cannot stand non-consensual spanking, though. It’s so paternalistic and kind of creepy. I feel like it was included in old-school 80s HR because the authors felt that they couldn’t have consensual spanking (it would’ve been too kinky for their heroines to enjoy that sort of thing back then) so they put in these weird spanking scenes when the heroes had to punish the heroines for wayward behavior (because of course, they’re men and they know what’s best). Just…ugh. And the spanking scene in Outlander is why I’ve always avoided reading it.

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  39. Kate Sherwood
    Oct 24, 2013 @ 19:28:27

    @Anonymous:

    I would LOVE to read a story where the hero and heroine take turns dominating each other!

    And your reaction to the hero who always needs to be in control totally resonates with me – if the hero saying that was someone who actually WAS in the habit of giving up his control… and I mean REALLY giving it up, not just humouring some cute little girl… then I’d be good with him urging the heroine to do so as well. Even then, of course, I’d want her to consent to it all before I could really enjoy the story.

    It’s honestly annoying for me to not be able to just let go of this and enjoy a story, but I don’t seem to be able to do so.

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  40. cleo
    Oct 24, 2013 @ 19:33:25

    @Maggie – I completely agree with you about non-consensual spanking. Ugh. I remember thinking that the spanking scene in Whitney My Love (original version) was kind of hot, but the politics of it and the assholey hero just made me hulk smash angry.

    That’s one way I think Romance is less abusive than it was 25 -30 years ago. A lot of that covert kinkyness has migrated to more overt erotic romance or erotica, where it can be consensual and open. And where even “punishment spankings” are consensual.

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  41. Serena
    Oct 24, 2013 @ 20:42:10

    I don’t think the portrayal of violence has changed in the Romance genre. The only thing that seems to have changed is the portrayal of the hero, to adapt to the more modern version of the Ideal Guy.

    The Alpha male hero is the most popular in the genre, and it seems like displaying violent behavior is seen as necessary to prove his ~virility~.

    I hate that.

    I’ve lost count of how many novels I put down simply because the hero’s behavior made me sick. Even some older novels that are extremely popular among romance readers! He doesn’t need to use physical violence… even verbal or psychological abuse is enough for me to check out.

    As a reader, I find myself increasingly sensitive regarding this. I’m less and less tolerant about any kind of violence on the novels I read.

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