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.”
“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.
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.
“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?