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Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance

Note: I know this is a bit long, but it’s already a drastically shortened version of this argument. Consent at your own risk.

When I first started reading Romance, I was stunned by the genre's apparent comfort with sexual force against female characters and uncomfortable with both the contention that it's pure fantasy and therefore completely resistant to analysis and that it's pure patriarchy and therefore part of a reactionary agenda in the genre. Having worked extensively with captivity narratives and 19th century sentimental and sensational fictions, I could recognize the influence of Romance's literary ancestry, but still, why would a genre so overtly concerned with offering its heroines the True Love ideal make such liberal use of sexual violence toward women?

This piece emerges from an inquiry that I believe requires and is worthy of substantial, long-term critical attention. I am starting and ending with the assertion that not all rape is created equal in the genre, as well as the assertion that the uses of sexual force in Romance are contextualized by both the individual book and the individual reader. The villain's threat of violence against the heroine is not substantively the same as the hero's use of sexual force against the heroine, for example. While both instances may constitute fantasy on the most generalized and superficial level, potential rape by a villain is generally not a rape fantasy in the sense that the heroine's imposed sexual submission to the hero is likely to be.

Further, the rape fantasy, as a romanticized erotic interlude between the hero and heroine, will function as romantically successful, empowering, or liberating to the extent that the heroine and/or the reader responds to the incident and interprets/values its consequences within the context of the relationship and the story itself. For me, the key element in valuing these rape fantasies (sometimes referred to as forced seductions) is the extent to which the reader consents on behalf of the heroine, not only to the hero's forceful taking, but also to the happy romantic ending that the couple share. Whether these incidents of sexual force are politically liberating or limiting in regard to female sexuality and patriarchal dominance is a distinct if related question, and one to which I will posit the answer as both.

Authors like Mary Jo Putney and Jayne Ann Krentz have argued that "the male protagonist of a romance is often both hero and villain, and the heroine's task and triumph is to civilize him, to turn him from a marauder into a worthy mate," a protector ("Welcome to the Dark Side," from Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women, 1992). Sara Davis explains the compulsive popularity of Romances by pointing out that, "wherever they turn in the popular culture, girls and women are reaffirmed in the idea that romance is the dominant and most crucial quest in their lives" ("Values and the Romance: Journeys of the Reader"), echoing Cathy Davidson's analysis of 18th and 19th century women's writing and reading patterns – namely that whether and whom to marry have been among the most important choices a woman makes in her life, and our romantic anxieties, hopes, fears, and ideals are projected and mirrored back to us ubiquitously throughout our lives (Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America, 1986). That women often read and talk about what they're reading communally becomes significant as a means of engaging these issues critically.

Traditional literary criticism of Romance, however, has not been particularly kind to the genre nor considerate of the idea that sexual violence has uses beyond mere escapism or sexual oppression. Similarly, clinical investigation of rape fantasies has not yielded many definitive conclusions. Nancy Friday has remained loyal to the idea that fantasies requiring submission relate back to our early stages of development in which we were powerless, contrasted with an overabundance of responsibility as adults that results in "a chance to relieve ourselves of all responsibility for the delicious, forbidden sex we crave" (Beyond My Control: Forbidden Fantasies in an Uncensored Age, 2009). The notion that these fantasies are taboo, that they exist at a nexus of desire, shame, and even guilt, is reflected in Stacy May Fowles insight that "[p]aradoxically, sexual submission and rape fantasy can only be acceptable in a culture that doesn't condone them… Many fantasies are taboo for precisely that reason – it's close to impossible to step beyond the notion that a man interested in domination is akin to a rapist or that if a woman submits, she is a helpless victim of rape culture" ("The Fantasy of Acceptable "Non-Consent': Why the Female Sexual Submissive Scares Us (and Why She Shouldn't)," from Yes means Yes! Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape, eds. Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti, 2008). At the very least, the issue is emotionally fraught and intellectually polarizing.

Connected to this notion of taboo is the paradigm of "rape culture," where cultural representations of rape are extensive and women are held to a double standard of the innate temptress who must conform to particular benchmarks of chastity (i.e. modest dress and demeanor) to be deemed worthy of defense against sexual violation. (Jill Filipovic, "Offensive Feminism: The Conservative Gender Norms That Perpetuate Rape Culture, and How Feminists Can Fight Back," from Yes means Yes!). As Jaclyn Friedman and Jessica Valenti note, "So often it seems as if the discourse is focused solely on the "no means no' model – which, while of course useful, stops short of truly envisioning how suppressing female sexual agency is a key element of rape culture. . . . [W]omen are rarely taught how to say yes to sex," they argue, in part because the male subject stubbornly remains the central point of reference and power in regard to female sexuality. Consent is figured relative to the dominant male subject, not as an independent value that is self-affirming to female subjectivity and sexuality.

Even some Romance critics and readers have accepted this phallocentric model. Nina Philadelphoff-Puren insists that in Romance "a woman's capacity to make or refuse romantic agreements is contingent upon the way her actions are read by the master-reader of the story: the romance hero" ("Contextualising Consent: the Problem of Rape and Romance," 2005). Here, it is not the author or reader outside the book, most often a woman, who is the "master," but the male protagonist within the story who controls, even "legitimates" the heroine's choices/decisions.

Given the fact that recent research indicates upwards of 62% of women have had rape fantasies ("The Nature of Women's Rape Fantasies: An Analysis of Prevalence, Frequency, and Contents," Jenny Bivona and Joseph Critelli, 2009), it is depressing, to say the least, to think that we are simply acting out patriarchy's domination over our psychological and physical selves. The three "key elements" of the rape fantasy have been identified as "force, sex, and nonconsent" ("Women's Erotic Rape Fantasies: An Evaluation of Theory and Research," Joseph W. Critelli and Jenny M. Bivona, 2008). There is an ongoing debate in Romance-reading communities over whether a rape fantasy is the same thing as a "forced seduction," but for the purposes of this analysis I am collapsing any potential differences because the very label of "forced seduction" echoes at least two, and perhaps all three of the clinical elements of the rape fantasy.

Further, in both a personal rape fantasy and a forced seduction scene in a Romance novel, two levels of consent remain operable – that of the character playing out the role and the reader or fantasizer who lends a sort of meta-consent to the encounter. While the reader may or may not participate in such a direct way as someone actively creating a rape fantasy within their own imagination, she participates by giving or withholding consent to the rape scenarios and the overall success of the romantic pairing, which sometimes hinges on the acceptability of the forced sex.

This second level of consent (and enjoyment) muddies the question of whether other types of sexual violence in a book are rape fantasies, per se, but for the moment I am distinguishing between, say, a villainous character who attempts to rape the heroine in the absence of any desire or romantic possibility between them, and the hero's use of sexual force or coercion against the heroine. On the level of the narrative, these representations of force (and usually the villain's force is stopped by the hero, often at the very last minute) may both be forwarding the romantic bond between hero and heroine, but there is often a clear indication that it is only the hero who has a legitimate claim on the heroine's body, distinguishing the classic erotic rape fantasy from the aversive rape fantasy scenario that is not generally (or clinically) associated with erotic arousal ("Guided Imagery of Rape: Fantasy, Reality, and the Willing Victim Myth," Bond and Mosher, 1986).

The classic rape fantasy in Romance is that which many people still associate with the misnomer "bodice ripping." Take Christina Dodd's 1997 A Well-Pleasured Lady, in which Sebastian takes Mary's virginity against a wall, despite her repeated protests, which include hammering him over the head with a silver domed cover and boxing his ears. Despite her pleas of "Please. . . Don't. Don't do this. You hurt me more than I can possibly express," Sebastian insists that he is not hurting Mary, even declaring her tears to be "worth more than [her] maidenhead," as "gold to [him]." He tells her that he cares not what she feels, just that she reveals those feelings to him. Despite Mary's resistance, however, we are given numerous cues that we should not necessarily object on her behalf. Extensive descriptions of Mary's sexual arousal, erotic and emotional intimacy between them that has developed through the first part of the novel, and the reality that what Mary fears is not physical pain or force, but that Sebastian "forced her to feel too much." Her pleasure frightens her, echoing the idea that a woman like Mary must have the choice taken away from her, to be perfectly powerless, for her to be able to experience pleasure fully and recognize her own growing love for Sebastian.

Another common trope is the hero who cannot control his attraction to the heroine. This character is often larger than life, notorious for his sexual conquests and far beyond the heroine's expectations for a husband or sexual partner. In Sarah Craven's 2009 The Innocent's Surrender, hero Alex has been led to believe that heroine Natasha is sexually experienced and forward, making her coerced offer of marriage in exchange for cooperation on a business deal (her foster brothers basically sell her to business rival Alex) an excuse to take her harshly and against her "passive resistance." In a hasty apology he acknowledges "I hurt you, Natasha mou, but by the time I realized the truth, it was too late, and I regret that…My only excuse is that I wanted you very badly." Unbeknownst to the reader and the heroine, Alex saw Natasha several years ago at a party and decided then and there that she was the woman for him: "I was yours since that first night, Natasha, and you have always been mine. My woman, my wife, and the only love of my heart. Now, and for all time." Like Sebastian, Alex's sexual force is a byproduct of a deep emotional attraction to the heroine that he cannot control and must literally force on her, coercing her accept him sexually as a means of engaging her emotional loyalty and love.

Anna Campbell's Claiming the Courtesan, published in 2007, offers another version of this dynamic, when Justin, the dark, brooding, borderline over the edge hero, vows revenge on the courtesan who disappears at the very moment that Justin decides he will propose to her. Verity, of course, became a courtesan out of financial necessity, and her dream has been to live quietly and virtuously away from society and her alter ego Soroya. When he captures her and disregards Verity's admonition that "[a]nything you take, you take as a thief," he is determined that he will get her back any way he can, even if he has to use sexual force to remind her of their sexual bond.

Although it is often argued that Romance rape fantasies seek the comprehensive submission of the heroine to the hero's will and sexual appeal, that is not what Justin insists he wants from Verity; instead his "claim" on her is for an integrated woman, part Soroya and part Verity: "Soroya is you. Soroya's innate sensuality and sense of adventure are also yours. Verity is sweet and virtuous and Soroya is a woman who goes after what she wants without regret or fear. Those two women unite in you. Until you recognize that, you're no use to me or yourself." It is a perfectly ironic scenario: the hero forces himself on the heroine, violates her bodily privacy and autonomy, in order to catalyze her acceptance of her own powerful and passionate nature.

At a basic level, the myriad variations on these scenarios act as a relationship catalyst for the two protagonists. Whether the hero seeks revenge on the heroine for some imagined wrong, whether he seeks to bond her to him emotionally, whether he seeks her emotional submission, the ultimate happiness of the couple is never in question. Which, of course, is the basis for critique of this plot device as idealizing the sexual and social submission of women to men. That the heroine falls in love with the man who forces himself on her sexually violates the "rape" aspect of the rape fantasy, romanticizing sexual violence in a way that perpetuates the rape culture and female desire as passive and dependent (and research demonstrates that fantasies of sexual domination among men — but not women — are linked to real life sexual aggression ("Power, Desire, and Pleasure in Sexual Fantasies," Eileen L. Zurbriggen and Megan R. Yost, 2004).

Sharon Stockton has argued extensively and persuasively that the rape motif in 20th century literature functions to reaffirm the "mastery" of masculinity as an affirmative subjectivity (as opposed to the feminine as object, or in Lacanian terms, as lack). But the project fails, she argues, because "it is the "sadist'" himself who is in the position of the object-instrument. . . . Agency resides outside the duo of violator and victim, and the rapist himself subject to an external gaze and preexistent script" (The Economics of Fantasy: Rape in Twentieth-Century Literature2006,). In the case of the Romance rapist, that external gaze is that of the reader, most often the female reader, and it is ultimately her judgment to which the hero must submit. Whatever choice the heroine may have in regard to the hero (and as I said initially, this is a book by book analysis), the reader has the ultimate choice to accept or reject the hero's actions and the heroine's response.

Now if we accept the model of the female reader as passively accepting patriarchal standards of female submissiveness, the argument would flow in much the same direction as it does for critics like Radway. If, however, we posit the reader as active and engaged, as having the capacity to evaluate the repercussions of what she is reading, the dynamic shifts. It shifts more if we make the critical distinction between Romance heroine and Romance reader – namely that for the reader the rape scenario is a rape fantasy in which she may or may not choose to participate. The right to consent, to say yes instead of no, is ultimately hers. I should point out, as well, that in historical Romance, where these rape scenarios seem most common, the hero and heroine's relationship often represents a substantial social subversion (marriage for love as opposed to arranged unions, for example), giving the heroine much more freedom and authority than she might otherwise secure based on her economic or social standing.

Women are very aware of the unsafety of our physical selves – our persistent vulnerability to violence and violation. In Romance, though, sexual force more often than not rehabilitates the hero for respectful, loving, monogamy. The reader has the choice to vicariously experience that subversion of real life rape, to participate in the fantasy of the hero's ultimate suitability by consenting to what the heroine does not. Of course that also means that the reader can choose not to give her consent, to find the violation unacceptable, but in either case, the choice is hers. And it is a choice she is not afforded in real life rape or even in the context of the fictional narrative (in the position of the heroine).

One of the reasons this idea of reader consent appeals to me is that it preserves the ambiguity of the text itself while allowing the reader to solve the dilemma for herself through her own personal agency. Note that I am not suggesting that the reader is subjecting another woman, in the form of the heroine, to rape. Rather, I am proposing the idea that the sexual rape fantasy and the emotional fantasy of a sound, emotionally safe romantic relationship, can be subversive and empowering for the consenting reader.

If the key to sexually and politically liberating women from patriarchal double standards is teaching women to say yes when she means yes, then perhaps these Romance rapes can offer more than what the novel itself promises (which often conforms to a socially traditional domestic model). And even if some Romance novels participate in a regressive sexual agenda, the reader's critical engagement as the agent of consent (or withholder of consent) to a rape fantasy introduces yet another level of potential subversion and a potential shift from the perverse ideal of female sexuality as passive and reactive to that of affirmation and sexual satisfaction without shame.

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!


  1. Ros
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 04:07:58

    [W]omen are rarely taught how to say yes to sex,

    I think that’s a really fascinating point. I’ve read a couple of romances recently in which the hero, while openly acknowledging his desire to sleep with the heroine, has refused to compel her, instead waiting until she is sufficiently sure of her own desire to be able to ask him. In both cases, I thought the authors showed this dilemma really well – how hard it can be for women who have been taught all their lives to say no to men to finally find a way to say yes. And in both cases, if the man had forced her, I know that as a reader I would certainly have consented, because it was so clear that the woman needed to find a way to say yes.

  2. blodeuedd
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 04:46:06

    I am sure I cringe sometimes, and doesn’t like settings. But once, I did throw a book across the room cos that was to me a real rape, cos she didn’t want it, and then she fell in love with him. I swore so much. And god damn I still hate that book. I kind of wanted to burn it

  3. dri
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 05:40:00

    Wow. Okay, this has only just whetted my appetite for the whole argument and discussion. Can’t wait to see more!

  4. Allison
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 05:54:47

    I found the last paragraph interesting because it reminds me of a “forced seduction” bodiceripper I read a few years ago that frustrated the living hell out of me. For most of the book, there was chemistry between the hero and heroine, but because the hero decided that the heroine was leading him on, he treated her like a whore at times and she had to become a knowledgeable temptress while holding onto her virginity to have any kind of power.

    It pissed me off because even though they had so many misunderstandings, their sex scenes were just that compelling.

    I ultimately got rid of the book and I think the final straw (besides breaking the hero down and leaving him an empty shell that unconvincingly woke up and realised he was married to his heroine) was her failure to ever attempt to correct his misconception that she slept with his cousin. He decided she did, so she must have, which she accepted.

  5. Merrian
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 06:49:26

    I also don’t think you can discuss this without reflecting on the explicit experience of rape in stories that some authors put their heroines through, apparently in order for her to have a growth arc. There have been several discussions about this on other blogs in recent times.

    I am in my fifties and wonder if we also read differently according to the generational culture in which we grew up. Saying yes to sex or even orgasm is something that I think women of my generation may have struggled with as young women.

    Thanks for this thought provoking blog post janet. I look forward to reading more responses.

  6. farmwifetwo
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 07:10:17

    I have the old JAK’s, attempted to re-read them and decide if I was keeping or tossing and I can’t stand them. That’s not consent of any kind.. the women are bullied into a relationship where they are dominated… Most of us if that happened to someone we know, we’d be trying to get them out of that relationship before they are harmed.

    That is not the same that is written in a lot of today’s stories… except a few I’ve found along the way… Most, make a point of making it consentual. Even the most “energetic” of the bedroom scenes.

    I’m not going to get into the “is it rape or not” conversation… clothing, leading him on etc… I find that to be very subjective and personal.

  7. Lynne Connolly
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 07:23:13

    The romance tropes tend to conform to the secret fantasies of many women. The external world, that of feminism, sexual abuse and fighting for the rights of women in backward parts of the world tend to war against those desires. Articulating them is seen as a way of putting women down in some circles, and in others, as a kind of liberation.
    Me? I dunno.
    Except that I get offended when I read a book where the female isn’t given a chance to consent. Maybe she’s drunk, or shocked by a different event, maybe she’s tired, or drugged. Or it’s a violent attack.
    I wrote a rape once. Or rather, I didn’t. I was more interested in how the woman responded to the attack, not the attack itself and I saw no reason to describe it in detail. I know the current trend is against that, but I don’t want to give a perverted pleasure to anyone by even describing the scene. So I did a fade-out before the rape, and a fade-in afterward. I don’t want anyone confusing what happened in that scene with the loving sex that happens later in the book (with someone else, of course).
    For some reason, the “rape into love” types of stories have never been popular in the UK, never sold. So we missed the swathe of books in the early 1990’s that depicted such scenes. When I read one or two, in the late 1990’s, they shocked me profoundly. I couldn’t see why any “hero” who said “It wasn’t rape because I used cream” should be anything but a vile man who should be locked up.
    So is this a cultural phenomenon?

  8. Janet P.
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 07:26:57

    Whenever I discuss this topic with women I do detect a generational gap. There is a set of readers who are uncomfortable with the concept that a “good” woman desires sex and will even ask for or initiate sexual activity. They seem to prefer a storyline a heroine must be nudged to the point where sex is an uncontrollable urge and then she is allowed her enjoyment because she simply can’t help herself.

    By no means do I equate those stories to rape.

    Rape leading to love is a topic that I personally despise in romantic literature and I do my best to avoid it. I was recently reading Ione’s Demonica series and liking it well enough up until the point where a Male inserted himself into the female’s dreams without her knowledge or consent for some mental sex. I called a friend and made the point that I felt that invading somebody’s mind without their consent isn’t all that different than invading somebody’s vagina without their consent. We’d had discussions before that orgasm doesn’t negate the rape experience and the fact that he gave her a hot dream in order to facilitate making her love him in the conscious world was nonredeemable in my viewpoint.

    I haven’t been able to finish either the novel or the series because of that scene.

  9. GrowlyCub
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 07:30:29

    After the warning at the beginning, I can’t help but wonder, is there something missing from this article? Seems kinda shortish to me! :)

  10. Jane
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 07:36:22

    @GrowlyCub This is the entire paper, GrowlyCub.

  11. Jane Lovering
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 07:47:45

    Because I have a huge problem with the ‘sex=love’ equation, it means that I can only come up with ‘forced sex=forced love’. Any man capable of forcing a woman who expressely does not give consent to have sex with him is capable of other damaging overriding of the heroine’s opinions. If he thinks he knows best regarding her body and sexual inclinations, then he’s going to think he knows best about all aspects of her life. This is not a hero, this is a bully. And just because he has sex with her, she thinks he’s in love…?

  12. joanne
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 07:48:12

    @Merrian: I’m a little surprised at your comment since you would have come into the ‘age of consent’ in the early 70’s? Sex and saying yes to it seemed to be -at that time- a theme song for many of that generation. Of course country of origin or family/religious values or just personal preferences come into play but still, I’m surprised.

    @Janet: It is a conundrum that those books with forced sex are the ones that we talk about more and longer then the ones where the strength is equal between the protagonists.

    It’s lazy writing and even lazier reading if we don’t have to look to the female to have the power or at least an equal share of the power in a relationship.

  13. Darlene Marshall
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 08:00:01

    Thanks for another thought provoking article. The issue of consent and what it means in our writing, our reading and the reality of our lives is fascinating to me. Keep up the good work. These issues are important and deserve further discussion.

  14. Isabel C.
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 08:07:01

    I tend to agree with Joanne about female power: not only do I not consent, as a reader, to rape or “forced seduction”, I don’t have a lot of patience with the rom-com you-don’t-like-me-so-I’m-gonna-hang-around-until-you-do deal. “No” doesn’t just mean “not right now”.

    I don’t have a problem with rape fantasies when they’re explicitly labeled as such, as sometimes happens in erotica or fanfic, but having rape=love be part of an otherwise mainstream romance squicks me out hardcore. Especially *because* it seems to tie into the “good girls don’t want it” idea, which I find kind of offensive.

    On the other hand, wanting something that you shouldn’t and acting on those desires, trying not to enjoy yourself and ending up doing so anyhow, and similar fantasies *are* pretty powerful: boundary transgression in all its forms can be pretty hot. Trying to make it happen in a way that’s non-sexist, and that doesn’t make one of the characters into a horrible person, is an interesting challenge.

  15. cead
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 08:13:57

    I started reading romance in the late 90’s, but it didn’t last for long. More or less by accident (it was what I found), most of what I was reading was Catherine Coulter. The frequency of the rapes in her books actually put me off romance entirely until about two years ago when a friend of mine persuaded me to give the genre another chance. I’ve managed to avoid reading anything with blatant rape this time around, but a lot of the forced seduction scenarios get far too close for my piece of mind. Mediaevals in particular tend to tread too close to my mental line.

    What bothers me almost as much, though, and this ties into what Janet says about rape culture, is the prevalence of the attitudes @Janet P.: mentions: that the heroine shouldn’t feel any desire for sex unless the hero has driven her to it; that she should never have felt sexual desire for anyone before him and should never desire anyone else; that her sexuality is entirely contingent upon him. It seems to serve the purpose of assuring the reader that the heroine is a Good Girl deserving of our sympathy and not a Dirty Slutty Whore, and it bothers me more than I can say, because it shares with the rape scenarios this concept that the man has complete control over the woman’s sexuality, for good or ill. It hasn’t put me off romance entirely, but it’s something I struggle with when reading the genre. I want to read about women who may or may not have sexual experience, may or may not have sexual confidence or assurance, but are at least aware that they have desires independent of the hero, and that their sexuality, even if it makes them uncomfortable initially, is something that belongs to them, not to him.

    I also get furious when it’s the heroine coercing the hero, particularly when the author and characters pretend it’s no big deal.

  16. cead
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 08:18:21

    @Jane Lovering: Yes yes yes! Seconded.

  17. Ann
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 08:26:04

    I am neither an author nor a writer, simply a reader. I cannot offer intelligent discourse on this topic. As a reader in her 40’s, however, I can promise you that I will never, never accept rape as anything but a violent crime towards a woman. It is an act depriving her of a choice and will leave some sort of lasting effect. Exactly how does one overcome the physical pain of losing her virginity slammed up against a wall? How can the heroine find the rapist to be a loving, caring man when all he cared about was himself regardless of the cost to his “loved one.”

    I get the whole role-playing/BDSM thing, but that is done with explicit consent. I won’t read this either (it is simply not to my taste), but I can intellectually understand and accept it because there is consent.

    Why romanticize a violent crime? A rapist cannot be a hero.

  18. LVLMLeah
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 08:42:05

    Whenever I discuss this topic with women I do detect a generational gap. There is a set of readers who are uncomfortable with the concept that a “good” woman desires sex and will even ask for or initiate sexual activity. They seem to prefer a storyline a heroine must be nudged to the point where sex is an uncontrollable urge and then she is allowed her enjoyment because she simply can't help herself.

    I came of age during the 70’s and where I was from there were no issues about not saying yes to sex. It was perfectly normal for women to desire it and go for it. But there was still that need to be selective in who you went with of course. There was a fine line in meaning between sexually liberated and whore.

    I can’t speak for women of an older generation, but I think some of that holding off by a woman to the point where the man has to push it is more about wanting to know that the man really wants her, is in love with her and is not just looking for a fuck or another notch to his belt. It’s not necessarily about the female needing permission to have sex to begin with inside herself. I think.

    Take Lisa Marie Rice’s heroines and heroes. Her heroes practically rape the heroines but it’s not about the heroine not wanting it or needing permission inside themselves to let go, it’s about the hero having such intense need to be with HER and HER alone that he can’t help himself. Of course, what woman doesn’t want to know that a man is so into her that he can’t help himself?

  19. Maryann Miller
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 08:51:51

    Interesting article. Takes some time to really absorb it all, but it is worth the time. When I was writing my romance, Play It Again, Sam, I did not consciously realize I was dealing with this issue of whether a woman knows how to say yes to sex, but that is an important aspect of the book. The central character does not want to simply give in to a physical urge or a request for sex, and she struggles with that until she is ready.

  20. Carolyn Jewel
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 09:03:03

    I need at least a week of hard thinking to even being to respond to this post. Thank you very much for all the issues you raise.

    I do have a couple of thoughts, though. The first is that culture, the role of women in it and how we perceive ourselves is constantly evolving. To some extent, the relationships depicted in literature (and romance) are a reflection of the then current culture and all the anxieties that go along with the culture.

    I’m always a bit dissatisfied when someone talks about Romance as if the genre and its readers have never evolved and a study of books from, say, the 80’s, gets used to comment on the lives and concerns of people now.

    There is as well the issue of authorship and how that affects the relationships depicted. At the moment, among writers, there’s the advice to find one’s “core story” — meaning an author is thought to have a certain story type that plays out over and over across multiple books.

    As I said, there’s a great deal to think about here.

  21. Jennifer M
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 09:33:25

    For me, I’ve found that as I get older I have less and less patience with forced seductions or even sexually passive heroines. When I first started reading romance, I loved Anne Stuart. Her dark heroes were on the shocking side, but somehow her writing swept me along so I accepted many questionable scenarios. Now that I’m older, and unfortunately have first hand (and second hand from close friends) knowledge of how it feels to be pressured into sexual situations you’re not quite sure you want to be in, I find I can’t give that reader’s consent. Last week I picked up Anne Stuart’s newest book and was horrified. Even though the heroine kept saying it wasn’t rape, in my head I was yelling, “It was rape!”.

    Hope this doesn’t sound too harsh against Anne Stuart, I still think she’s a fantastic writer, her books just aren’t for me anymore. On a positive note, I highly recommend Meljean Brook’s novella in the Burning Up Anthology. She sets up a scenario that could be all kinds of ugly and handles it gracefully and sensitively. When the hero and heroine finally have sex, the heroine is an active participant who clearly consents. (Disclaimer- I am a Meljean Brook fangirl who is drooling in anticipation for the Iron Duke)

  22. dick
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 09:43:10

    If a reader refuses to complete a book in which a “rape” or “forced seduction” occurs, is a different question, I think, from “consent” to the occurrence by a reader who does complete the reading of the book.
    If the reading is completed, then it seems to me the giving or denying of consent is heavily colored by the assurance of the HEA. If one completes a book in which the hero “rapes” or “forcefully seduces” the heroine, that reader is assured that through manipulations by the author the hero and heroine will find a way to happiness, despite the rape or forced seduction. Isn’t the question, then, whether the reader consents to those manipulations, whether the author is successful in mitigating?

  23. Isabel C.
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 09:51:18

    Of course, what woman doesn't want to know that a man is so into her that he can't help himself?

    With respect, I don’t. A guy losing control is ultra-hot in a lot of ways–but when “can’t help himself” means disregarding my wishes for my personal and sexual life or generally treating people badly, I find that repulsive rather than romantic. So do a number of women I know.

    Fantasies are different, of course, and I don’t want to denigrate anyone’s fantasy as long as they know that’s what’s going on. Your Kink Is OK. But I thought it was worth pointing out that not everyone finds that particular fantasy appealing.

  24. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 09:53:03

    Thanks for writing such a though provoking blog post. Also, the comments here have been very insightful.

    I agree with Ros in comment #1. A few years ago this would have described me as a reader, but in the time since I’m no longer reading rape fantasy at all. I’m no longer interested *at all* in heroes who force a heroine in any way because she’s unable to say yes.

    This is why I’ve mostly stopped reading historical Romance as this seems to be a major theme in many (but not all, I do enjoy the ones I find that don’t read this way).

    I do think the inability to say yes to pleasure is still a problem for some women and is a valid concept to examine in a Romance novel. The notion, though, that the hero is somehow the agent who forces the heroine to embrace pleasure to me now seems twistedly paternalistic.

    Lynne Connolly said:

    I wrote a rape once. Or rather, I didn't. I was more interested in how the woman responded to the attack, not the attack itself and I saw no reason to describe it in detail. I know the current trend is against that, but I don't want to give a perverted pleasure to anyone by even describing the scene.

    I feel the same way about a WIP of mine and made the same deliberate decision. The story is about the heroine’s reclaiming of her sexuality — not the man who violated her.

    And, oh yeah, what Jane Lovering said. I’m tired of bully a$$hole heroes and refuse to read them anymore.

  25. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 09:54:42

    @GrowlyCub: Growly, when I first looked at this post it seemed short to me, too: I’m sure it had fewer than half of the 20 paragraphs it currently has. If the version you read was shorter than 20 paragraphs, you might want to try refreshing the page and re-reading the post.

  26. Lisa Paitz Spindler»Blog Archive » SF Signal Podcast: Role of Sex in Science Fiction
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 10:01:50

    […] SF Signal Podcast: Role of Sex in Science Fiction Published in SFR Brigade,SFSignal,Science Fiction,Science Fiction Romance | 0 comments UPDATE: Be sure to check out The Galaxy Express post and discussion on this topic. Also, it seems like there’s sex on the brain in genre fiction land this week. Dear Author has a post up called Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance. […]

  27. Jane
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 10:21:09

    @Laura Vivanco I think our “next page” feature wasn’t working for everyone so I took it out. Sorry! @Growlycub

  28. Robin/Janet
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 10:42:22

    @dick: That the sexual force and the HEA are so intrinsically connected is the issue, IMO. So for me, at least, a reader who does not consent to what she reads as rape (i.e. does not say “yes” for the heroine and therefore does not want to participate, either because she does not see it as fantasy, does not enjoy such fantasies, or for some other reason) is inherently rejecting the very possibility that the couple could have a romantic happy ending. So I don’t think the idea of not reading beyond a sexual force scene and not consenting within the context of reading the whole book are really different in the way you are suggesting. I’ve finished lots of books where my disgust at the hero’s actions toward the heroine (and my withholding) of consent may or may not nix the whole HEA for me. In other words, those scenes function at multiple levels for me and in different ways, depending on the individual book.

  29. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 10:48:37


    …inherently rejecting the very possibility that the couple could have a romantic happy ending.

    Yes, exactly. There’s a line that gets crossed beyond which the HEA seems impossible and contrived to me. That line is rape. If he doesn’t care about her consent in this area, he won’t care about her consent in any other area of their lives either. That’s not an HEA, IMO.

  30. Robin/Janet
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 11:01:11

    @Ann: One of the reasons this topic has interested me for so long is the way in which Romance seems to dance on the boundary between rape as a criminal violation against the heroine and the rape fantasy, which is purely a *sexual* fantasy.

    In the first case, the power is firmly in the hands of the rapist, and we don’t speak of criminal rape as a sexual crime, but rather as a crime of violence and control. In the case of the rape fantasy, the power lies with the woman who undertakes the fantasy, and even when she appears to subjugate her will to the ravisher, she is cooperating and enjoying the encounter.

    That there continues to be so much polarized discussion of which is which in what books ultimately forced me to shift focus away from the hero and heroine to the reader. What is is, in the reader, that makes a scene okay or not? What makes a scene criminal violence or sexual fantasy?

    For example, I can rail for hours upon hours about the Catherine Coulter and Brenda Joyce books I’ve read — NOTHING romantic or sexually appealing there for me. And yet I adore the infamous chair scene from Judith Ivory’s Untie My Heart, a scene many readers see as outright rape. I believe the heroine consents tacitly and participates eagerly, while other readers don’t. As someone who does not regularly enjoy the rape fantasy (in Romance or otherwise), this is an especially interesting difference to me.

    For some readers, these scenes will never read as anything but rape — they will not consent, not want to consent, and not see why anyone would consent. And IMO that’s okay — that’s the role of the reader in action. And that’s her power. A power that also allows readers to see certain scenes as sexual fantasy and to participate actively and enthusiastically, the heroine’s resistance symbolic of the fantasy aspect in which part of herself resists while another part cooperates and derives sexual satisfaction from the fantasy scenario.

    To me, the key is that the reader — particularly the female reader — has the power and the agency to choose. She is in charge and she decides whether to consent to what is going on or to withhold her consent. IMO no reader should ever feel the pressure to consent, because that is antithetical to the whole notion of female sexual freedom and agency. But by the same token, I would argue that those readers who do consent are not in any way consenting to violent criminal rape. I don’t know any other way to resolve the difference among readers for these scenarios without condemning either readers or the genre as a whole.

  31. Robin/Janet
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 11:08:52

    @Lisa Paitz Spindler: I will say, though, that some books have managed to rehabilitate the relationship after a scenario I would characterize as rape. Patricia Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold is probably the most famous example, and certainly the examples of that are — for me — few and far between.

    But at the point of that violation, my lack of consent absolutely amounts to a rejection of a romantic HEA for the couple. For the story to rehabilitate the relationship, a great deal of subtlety and recognition of/making up for the wrongness of the actions must be present for me to buy back in to the HEA. IMO it takes a hell of a lot of skill and sensitivity for an author to convince the non-consenting reader to overcome that initial no.

  32. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 11:26:43


    I see what you’re saying, but I’m not sure any amount of subtlety could make me reinvest in the HEA if I’ve thrown the book at the wall.

    The only book I’ve ever picked up again after throwing it at the wall was Gabaldon’s Outlander. The scene in question is where Jamie beats Claire with his sword belt. I was able to continue reading because I didn’t consider the book a Romance that promised an HEA, the rest of the story was so compelling, and, to be honest, I pretended that scene didn’t exist.

    So, it’s not only about rape specifically for me as a reader. It’s more generally how poorly the hero treats the heroine. Domestic abuse and rape are just unacceptable to me.

  33. Monica Burns
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:03:37

    I hesitate to post this, but I feel so strongly about it, that I do so despite my gut churning. As a survivor of rape, whenever I see readers stating they would enjoy reading a forced seduction scene, my stomach starts to churn. Since my opinion is so heavily influenced by personal experience, I ardently disagree that there could be any justifiable reason for a hero to force a heroine into having sex.

    The idea that the hero can be excused his behavior for a reason such as he must have HER and ONLY her still puts the onerous weight on the shoulders of the heroine. After all, it’s her fault that she drives him mad with love and lust, that he just couldn’t help (control) himself.

    Even the argument that he forces her to have sex because its the only way she’ll open up to her sexuality is rendered obsolete in my mind because what he’s really saying is he’s doing what HE believes is for her own good. In both of these scenarios, the hero is excusing his behavior and suggests to a reader that he should be excused for his actions.

    Even if an author were to do an exceptional job leading up to and providing sufficient “justification” for the ultimate act, I still could not buy into the HEA for the couple simply because I cannot be objective about this particular type of romance read. And role playing with a force seduction scene is completely different than a hero rendering the heroine essentially powerless.

    As a survivor, and an author, consent and how far I’m willing to go is something I face every time I sit down to write certain scenes between the hero and the heroine, particularly a sex scene.

    I’ve had people ask me how can you write graphic sex after what happened to you? My response is that it’s a cathartic form of writing that gives me the choice to draw a line in the sand. A line that says I’m not going into that dark place because it is too emotionally painful. However at different times I actually find myself stepping across those lines because the scene or the character development calls for it. I struggle with it. I hesitate to step over the line, but in most instances, I realize that crossing that line in the sand helps me take back some of the power I lost during the violent act I survived. And rape is all about power. The assailant’s control over their victim. So taking back some of the power I lost, my right to choose is vitally important to healing.

    The bottom line for me is this. The author must consent to write the scene. The reader must consent to read it. But it’s this consent/choice to write/read that separates the work(s)/read(s) from an act that is so violent and abhorrent.

    This I think is a critical piece of the discussion, because one must consider that for some readers separating the two is not possible. I know I cannot separate a romance with forced seduction in it from the violent act of my personal experience. Therefore, I’m quite naturally going to reject any possibility of an HEA in that book.

    Do I view books with the theme of forced seduction in as books with rape in them? Yes. How can I not given my experience? However, I will defend the right of authors and readers to write/read those works.

    As for me, as an author, reader and survivor, I can CHOOSE not to write or read something that makes me incredibly uncomfortable both emotionally and physically. I CHOOSE where I didn’t have a choice years ago. And given this is Banned Books Week, I think choice is what matters.

  34. DS
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:12:04

    @Janet P.:

    Whenever I discuss this topic with women I do detect a generational gap. There is a set of readers who are uncomfortable with the concept that a “good” woman desires sex and will even ask for or initiate sexual activity. They seem to prefer a storyline a heroine must be nudged to the point where sex is an uncontrollable urge and then she is allowed her enjoyment because she simply can't help herself.

    Is it generational or is it something else? I’m in my mid 50’s and I remember with pleasure (and I don’t think nostalgia) the sexual freedom of my high school/college years. Not only did we know how to say yes, but we did it with frequency and pleasure. We also weren’t worried about fatal STDs.

    Masturbation was a topic that was read about and discussed as was how to achieve orgasm and pleasurable types of foreplay.

    I know I wasn’t living in some type of sexual utopia. What you described is what we would have thought (probably wrongly) that our mothers and grandmothers would have done. I’m very puzzled. What happened?

  35. Isobel Carr
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:24:43

    Her pleasure frightens her, echoing the idea that a woman like Mary must have the choice taken away from her, to be perfectly powerless, for her to be able to experience pleasure fully and recognize her own growing love for Sebastian.

    I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. THIS shit is why I didn't read romance for years (scarred for life by Johanna Lindsey's Fires of Winter; took me a full decade to even pick up another romance novel).

    Of course, what woman doesn't want to know that a man is so into her that he can't help himself?

    First, Isabel C and I are not the same person, name similarity aside . . . but I'm with her 100% in her response to the above comment. There's nothing heroic about a lack of self control, especially when said lack of control results in what amounts to date rape at the very least, and often flat out RAPE. Save the “I can't control myself” stuff for the second or third go-round, when we have already established that the sexual relationship is consensual and the “I gotta have you NOW” shit is HOT HOT HOT!

    Heroes do not commit rape. Period. Ever. Rape = no HEA possible. Period. Ever. Once we know the man has violated and forced a woman against her will, it is impossible to ever again trust that he won't do it again (and that he won't act similarly about other issues which she should also have the right to make an autonomous decision about).

  36. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:34:46

    @Isobel Carr:

    I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. THIS shit is why I didn't read romance for years (scarred for life by Johanna Lindsey's Fires of Winter; took me a full decade to even pick up another romance novel).

    Yes! The book that did it for me was Lindsey’s Prisoner of My Desire.

    Heroes do not commit rape. Period. Ever. Rape = no HEA possible. Period. Ever. Once we know the man has violated and forced a woman against her will, it is impossible to ever again trust that he won't do it again…

    Absolutely. I know that many regard the idea that everyone deserves redemption/HEA as central to Romance, but there also has to be some kernel of heroism in the characters despite all the horrible things that happen to them that make them worthy of that redemption. Rape is not heroic and I think points to a irrevocable flaw in a hero.

    However, I do wonder if my aversion to this whole thing is that I view characters as real as is possible when reading their stories. I really dig in and even enjoy first person POV, something I know if a deal-breaker for some readers.

    Other readers might have more distance and view characters as merely vehicles toward fulfilling a fantasy.

  37. GrowlyCub
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:46:59


    Yup, I only saw about 1/3 of the post originally.

    @Lisa Paitz Spindler:

    I think your comment elucidates the difficulty with this topic; you at the same time make an absolute statement and then qualify it and I think what we are discussing is exactly why sometimes we make exceptions and why sometimes we just can*not*.

    In your example, you pretend the scene doesn’t happen, but what allows a reader to pretend something that is part of the printed book is not there for her and when does the book become a wallbanger never to be picked up again?

    Why were you able to do it for Outlander but maybe not for a different book with a similar setup?

    My total deal-breaker is infidelity between the h/h after they get together (again). For example, as much as I want to love Balogh’s Dancing with Clara, because it has all the elements for a story I most enjoy, I just cannot because of the blatant infidelity of the hero. It literally makes me physically ill to read about it. For me that’s non-negotiable and so far I have not read a book I have made an exception for.

    A book I loved by Gellis was totally destroyed for me by a throw-away line in the next book in the series that shows that Adam ‘uses whores’ while away on campaign and even though the author makes it crystal clear that this kind of sexual release is okay with the heroine, that one throw-away line ruined the HEA for me to the point where I had not re-read that book in almost 15 years. (Was surprised btw that that particular book actually makes the point that he won’t do it, so it makes even less sense that that throw-away line is inserted in the next book).

    Anyway, I think forced seduction (and I do think it’s significant that some of us make a distinction between forced seduction and rape) is an important discussion topic and there are no rights or wrongs, only personal lines in the sand which depending on our personal histories may or may not move for different books depending on plot and author skill.

  38. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:55:35


    Why were you able to do it for Outlander but maybe not for a different book with a similar setup?

    Two things — (1) I was completely obsessed with all things Scottish at the time, and (2) I didn’t consider it a Romance with a capital “R.” They don’t really get a true HEA at the end of the first book. That worked for me because I wasn’t sure either of them deserved one at that point.

  39. Isabel Cooper
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:56:47

    Isobel Carr: Oh, hey, yeah. So strange to see someone with a name similar to my own! Shall write out my whole last name now, to hopefully avoid confusion. :)

    (Also, man, Fires of Winter . I think that was one of my first romances, and I still remember the blurb.)

    I’m very, very bristly about autonomy issues in general. Rape’s the biggest, but I remember a book where the heroine time-travels through a device–chess piece? Maybe?–and the hero, in a fit of jealous rage, destroys it so she can never get home and leave him and…man, I spent the rest of the book wanting him to *die*. On a more-acceptable-but-still-makes-me-twitch level, I don’t often read shifter romances because territoriality and possessiveness often gets a lot of emphasis there.

    I also don’t really subscribe to, or get, the view that romance means everyone deserves redemption. A redemptive arc can be all kinds of cool–trying to write one right now, in fact–but, for me, there are certain acts you don’t come back from.

  40. joanne
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 12:57:23

    @DS: Yes to everything you said! Especially:

    Is it generational or is it something else?

    Most definitely the something else. It’s often what we bring to the story more than what the story brings to us.

    For every reader who is offended or hurt or angered by one of these forced seductions there is one who will think the scene/s are perfectly acceptable or great writing.

    Those differences with consent will probably remain and will probably be argued over for as long as the romance genre exists but the alternative is for all of us to become part of a hive mind. I’d rather see a few stupid/insensitive plots then everyone writing the same storyline.

  41. Robin/Janet
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 13:07:56

    @Monica Burns:

    The bottom line for me is this. The author must consent to write the scene. The reader must consent to read it. But it's this consent/choice to write/read that separates the work(s)/read(s) from an act that is so violent and abhorrent.

    Exactly! Because rape is NOT about sex, but about power and control, when the reader consents to what she perceives as a fantasy situation, she’s not consenting to rape – she’s consenting to a sexual fantasy in which she CHOOSES to submit, a paradox that captures one of the critical differences between rape and rape fantasy.

    I actually have quite a low tolerance for sexual force in Romance, but I don’t believe that any reader believes she is consenting to rape in the genre. Rather, IMO she is consenting — from her perspective — to a sexual and romantic fantasy acted out by the fictional characters in a book.

    For some readers, any force will be rape, while for others, the heroine may refuse consent while the reader consents for her, perceiving a rape fantasy *for the reader*.

    Although I am not a rape survivor, what you said about pushing yourself and overcoming your own loss of power resonates with me, because I think these fictional scenarios can help us as women come to terms with and change the character of something we have absolutely no control over in real life. That at the very least it can be a way to control in fiction what we cannot in RL, whether that be as reader or author.

  42. SonomaLass
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 13:08:46

    Wow, a lot of great ideas in this post and in the comments.

  43. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 13:12:50


    Because rape is NOT about sex, but about power and control, when the reader consents to what she perceives as a fantasy situation, she’s not consenting to rape – she’s consenting to a sexual fantasy in which she CHOOSES to submit, a paradox that captures one of the critical differences between rape and rape fantasy.

    This has got to be one of the best explanations of this topic I’ve read so far. While this story element doesn’t work for me, I definitely understand and respect the ability of grown women to tell the difference between fantasy and reality.

  44. hapax
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 13:21:13

    Interesting discussion!

    I’m no fan of forced-seduction / rape in romances (or any literature), although I have read romances where it works. It pretty much has to be presented as a “grave violation which the hero has to realize, repent, and atone for” to make it work in the slightest, for me, with a huge side order of “she wanted to consent but didn’t know how.”

    What surprises me is that there hasn’t been any discussion (except Isobel Cooper [waves] above) of the much more squick-inducing related trope, the “fated mate.”

    I handle pretty much ALL paranormal romance with asbestos gloves, now, because of the prevalence of this trope. It’s so omnipresent that far too many authors* seem to substitute “Hey it’s destiny” / “Boy, you smell good” / “Look at that birthmark on your butt!” scene for “Hello, what’s your name?”, let alone any sort of nuanced character development.

    Honestly, as ghastly as rape is, it’s still only a physical violation. I can’t comprehend the gushing romanticization of what is essentially a rape of the emotions, of the will, of the very soul, in the furtherance of the plot.

    Or am I the only one to feel this way?

    *Kudos to Wendy Pini, in whose ELFQUEST books I first encountered the concept, who quite emphatically displayed “recognition” as a biological phenomenon to create talented offspring, not a “romantic” emotional connection (although it could end up that way.) She had several “recognized” couples who would simply have one-night stands to procreate, or even explicitly hated each other.

    Also (modified) points to C.L. Wilson, here. Yeah, her books are cramming with “fated mates”, but she gets real points with me for having at least one of the pair realize that that’s not *enough*, and for having some of the pairs end up miserable and unhappy (or dead).

  45. Monica Burns
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 14:01:25

    Honestly, as ghastly as rape is, it's still only a physical violation. I can't comprehend the gushing romanticization of what is essentially a rape of the emotions, of the will, of the very soul, in the furtherance of the plot.

    I respectfully disagree that rape is only a physical violation. The emotional devastation is far more debilitating than the physical act itself.

  46. hapax
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 14:17:36

    @Monica Burns — while I would be the last to belittle the emotional devastation and trauma that can be the effects of a rape, my point was that they are not always and necessarily inherent in the physical act itself.

    (This is not an attempt to “blame the victims”, or in any way excuse those rapists who intend to cause such psychological suffering. But to say otherwise is to call those rape victims who have said that they did NOT find the crime “emotionally devastating” deluded and/or liars, and trivialize their determination NOT to be “victims twice over”, which I am also not prepared to do.)

    My point was to say that while forced sex without consent is almost always considered at best problematical in romance fiction, forced “love” without consent (which is usually depicted as something that goes on both constantly and eternally)is frequently idealized and romanticized, which I find an appalling double standard.

  47. Jane Lovering
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 14:26:53


    I’m with you down this sideline. I’m married to a man I consider my soulmate, but I like to think I had an element of choice in the matter! Any hero (or heroine) who behaves as though their needs/wants MUST over-ride the other’s, WHATEVER justification they give this – fated mate, I want him/her so much I can’t be denied etc – is not a romance hero. It’s someone with issues of control.

  48. Angela
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 14:52:12

    First, Robin, awesome post. And great discussion.

    I read a romance back in the late 80s/early 90s that I remember turned me off of the romance genre until almost 2000 because of this issue. I couldn’t consent. I can’t for the life of me recall what it was, and probably don’t want to. Catherine Coulter comes to mind because I know I’ve read something of hers but it certainly hasn’t been recently.

    I find this such a fascinating topic because it’s making me think about my favorite books, my reading choices, and what I do consent to in my books.

    I have to say that there are authors/books out there that have made me consent to things that I never expected. I know I’ve been ‘Hell-No!’ to a scene in a book and continued reading because I had to see how it would end. Some of those books have ended up being favorites of mine. Robin said:

    IMO it takes a hell of a lot of skill and sensitivity for an author to convince the non-consenting reader to overcome that initial no.

    And I completely agree with that.

    I prefer books where the heroine is strong, self-assured sexually, and the hero gets consent (whether this be verbal or otherwise). But I can appreciate a well-written alternative too.

    Someone (sorry, lost the comment) mentioned rape as a character growth arc for the heroine. I see this more in UF than romance – and close to never believe in the heroine getting over it in the course of one book. Which is why I think it’s something that works better in UF. There are often several books for it to be worked out in. That being said, I’m not a fan of rape in books and if it is there I expect it to be handled really well. There are a couple of authors that have impressed me with how it’s been handled and I respect them more for going there and coming back from it.


    My point was to say that while forced sex without consent is almost always considered at best problematical in romance fiction, forced “love” without consent (which is usually depicted as something that goes on both constantly and eternally)is frequently idealized and romanticized, which I find an appalling double standard.

    I think I read a lot of ‘fated mates’ books, but I think, for me, it’s been pretty rare that I’ve seen it handled the way you’re saying. In fact if it were handled the way you’re describing it wouldn’t really be romance for me. Being fated doesn’t equate romance for me. It doesn’t replace getting to know one another, or building a relationship. The fated part is the beginning for me, I still need everything else – and at the end I want it to be both h/h’s choice as well. I think I’ve encountered more like that than I have the other way around. Perhaps it’s just what I’m reading though.

    Or maybe it’s that I do believe in fate – with the caveat of free will. Is that an oxymoron? LOL

  49. Monica Burns
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:04:12


    My point was to say that while forced sex without consent is almost always considered at best problematical in romance fiction, forced “love” without consent (which is usually depicted as something that goes on both constantly and eternally)is frequently idealized and romanticized, which I find an appalling double standard.

    I think I understand the point you’re making, but I don’t think I’m reading the same books. Are you referring to romance books where the hero finds the heroine out of the blue and through whatever means decides she’s his mate, and thereby coerces her into loving him by holding her captive and telling her it’s meant to be?

    If I’m understanding you correctly, then I can’t remember reading any books with such characterizations. Not disagreeing/ agreeing that they’re out there, just don’t recall reading one that’s a romance.
    An emotional rape of one character by another would turn me off just as quickly as a forced seduction scene. And then again, there is a fine line between what borders on emotional rape. It once again comes down to the consent of the reader. An an author I’ve had a couple of scenes in my books that make me hesitate to even tread this topic.

    I should also point out that I am not a victim (not that you stated or insinuated it). I am a survivor. I choose to speak openly about what happened to me, which for an author of sexy/erotic romance is difficult to do without people questioning my validity as a person or a writer. And yes, people do question one or both.

    And I’ll be honest and state that in my interactions with other survivors, I’ve yet to meet a rape victim/survivor who’s stated the crime didn’t devastate them emotionally. However I do know and believe that there are many women & men who’ve choosen to overcome that emotional devastation and move on with their lives. It’s called surviving. *said gently and without judgment*

  50. MaryK
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:11:12

    I kind of speed-read through this and won’t have time to read the comments until later tonight (amatwork!) but I want to mention a related idea I’ve had in thinking about my own reading habits.

    It’s basically that readers have an overall view of the story that affects what they find permissable.

    IMO, as readers we accept things in books that we wouldn’t accept in real life because we know where the story’s going. We know what the hero and heroine feel for each other and that the other is “the one.” Whereas, in real life, we know only our own feelings and have to quest for “the one.” I think the Romance reader’s need to know as soon as possible who the hero and heroine are is a manifestation of this.

    If you add to that a belief that an established couple has some proprietary hold over each other, anticipating a proprietorship the reader knows will exist might not be such a big deal. That’s not something you can do in real life without knowing the future.

    Of course, all this assumes that the author has effectively communicated character motivation, etc. so the reader has the tools to work with. And sometimes the reader just won’t agree.

  51. ciar cullen
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:16:19

    I don’t get it. You can’t force someone to love you. You can force them to stay in the mansion, marry you, whatever… and in historicals of (hopefully) a bygone era, that was a common theme. The heroine would ultimately realize she loved the laird. Blah blah blah.
    However, you can rape someone. I’m not getting the comparison.
    “Survey says! 60% of women…” The psychological stuff aside (who said because it’s common, it’s healthy psychologically?–that’s junk science anyway), I simply can’t handle the premise that “forced seduction” and “rape” are different. That smacks of date-rape talk. It’s yes or it’s no. If it’s no, for me, it’s an offensive, heinous act, unredeemable in fiction and in the real world. It’s so close to saying “she asked for it”… It makes my stomach churn…

  52. MaryK
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:19:06


    I can't comprehend the gushing romanticization of what is essentially a rape of the emotions, of the will, of the very soul, in the furtherance of the plot.

    Or am I the only one to feel this way?

    Hmm. I’ve always just viewed “fated mates” as a sort of law of nature, not a forced thing. Like gravity, something that just is. :)

    [Now I really do have to get some work done. Will try to read all comments later.]

  53. hapax
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:30:26

    @Monica Burns:
    Are you referring to romance books where the hero finds the heroine out of the blue and through whatever means decides she's his mate, and thereby coerces her into loving him by holding her captive and telling her it's meant to be?

    I’ve in fact read SEVERAL of these (excluding the “hold her captive”, although yep, some of those, too) until I gave up pretty much on paranormal romance.

    See, oh, every Carpathian novel, every JR Ward novel, darn near every “shifter” novel…

    Sometimes it’s “just” the hero who is struck by the Magic Destined Love Whammy, sometimes both. I don’t see why it’s more acceptable to magically “force” the hero into “love” than it is to “force” the heroine into sex.

    And I'll be honest and state that in my interactions with other survivors, I've yet to meet a rape victim/survivor who's stated the crime didn't devastate them emotionally.

    With an equal degree of due respect, you have now (virtually) met me.

  54. Janet/Robin
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:33:23

    @ciar cullen: Wait, so are you suggesting that women should feel bad or guilty about having rape fantasies?

  55. Janet/Robin
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:40:17

    @hapax: I agree with you that the fated mate scenario presents a number of issues worthy of discussion, but I’m not convinced it’s the same thing as the rape fantasy scenario.

    First, I think there’s an element of “meant to be” in Romance that, frankly, has always struck me as both interesting and problematic in certain ways. And the way that fated mate thing is folded into the paranormal context introduces other elements, like the non-human lover, the immortality question, the bestial nature/nurture discussion, love as healer and savior, etc.

    Also, the rape fantasy scenario has a RL counterpart that makes it unique in certain respects, I think. Which is not to say the fated mate device isn’t vexed, just that I think it’s vexed in different ways. I see the overlap of consent, but I think it’s more of a fate/free will debate, as well as a meditation on the nature of love as physical v. spiritual, as well as the autonomy v. community thing. For me, at least.

  56. Monica Burns
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:49:15


    With an equal degree of due respect, you have now (virtually) met me.

    Then I hope we meet face-to-face in the future, as I think you are someone I would like talking with.

    As for the books you cite, I was wondering if the Carpathian and Ward books might be some of the books you were referencing. I have a couple of Feehan’s Carpathian books that I enjoyed, but I don’t recall them being a “love me or else” type of story. The hero was definitely alpha, but I don’t recall him holding the heroine hostage.

    I’ve only read a couple of Ward’s BBD series. I don’t recall the heroines being kidnapped by the heroes. But then maybe the author convinced me that they were being protected vs. being forced as mates? I’d have to reread to see the comparisons and the points you’ve made.

  57. LVLMLeah
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 15:56:40

    @Isabel C.:

    I guess my wording on that is not clear. And I think it has to do with a lack of clear definitions.

    To me rape= non consent. Period. The woman says no, that’s it, she means NO. Any sexual contact after that is rape.

    I’m talking about when two people are dancing around a lot of sexual energy, they clearly want each other, but the female holds off to make sure the guy really, really wants her. Some women like to know that a man really wants her and she’s not just any body stand in for his having sex. So she’ll hold off and wish that a guy will pursue her. Kind of like John Wayne in The Quiet Man did. This is not rape.

    I wasn’t talking about a guy pushing himself on a woman when she clearly is saying NO.

  58. Janet/Robin
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 16:09:23


    Someone (sorry, lost the comment) mentioned rape as a character growth arc for the heroine. I see this more in UF than romance – and close to never believe in the heroine getting over it in the course of one book. Which is why I think it's something that works better in UF. There are often several books for it to be worked out in.

    For me, at least, this use of rape is not of the same character as the sexual rape fantasy we talk about in Romance. It does, IMO, have a clearly symbolic function, but I’d say the use of sexual violence in this context is different.

    If I had been trotting out more of my argument on this topic, I would have talked about how IMO there are different uses of sexual force/violence in fiction that require different critical approaches. I still believe there’s an element of reader consent that’s important in those other instances, but I’m not sure it’s the same.

  59. Isabel Cooper
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 16:15:16

    LVLMLeah: Ah, I see what you mean now. (And it might be less your wording than my impending head cold, honestly.)

    If it’s reasonably clear that both parties are interested, then that’s cool. And hot. :) I’ve done it myself–sort of a “I have sent a signal, and now the ball is in your court” deal, if I’m reading you right.

    @hapax: Hey there!

    I’m sort of okay with recognition/lifebonding/whathaveyou when it’s something the universe does to both people rather than an excuse for one party to be all stalky, but I like to see the recognition that this is an unsettling and not-too-normal thing. I react with stronger negativity to scenarios where I stop liking the hero or heroine than to those where the universe is just screwing with them both.

    But it’s never been a plot device I really love.

  60. Estara
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 16:26:40

    I’ll really have to think about this and am only posting to say what an amazing piece of analysis I think this is.

  61. Tweets that mention Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance | Dear Author --
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 16:34:25

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peter Brantley, Jane L, Carolyn Jewel, Keira, Robin L. and others. Robin L. said: Fascinating discussion on reader consent going on at Dear Author today: […]

  62. gwen hayes
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 16:55:21

    I actually like forced seduction books. Not all, of course, but many. I don’t think it diminishes my feminist self any more than I think reading HUNGER GAMES with all the dystopian violence diminished my love of children.

    I thought Anna Campbell’s book was phenomenal–the way they worked through all that trauma was so gripping and such a complex psychological and emotional ride. Was he right to do what he did? No. He was a messed up man who hurt someone he loved and crossed a line in a big way. Watching him disintegrate and put himself back together was what kept me turning pages. It was fascinating to me.

    In real life–no means no. But romance novels are not real life. Fiction is fantasy and while everyone might not like the same fantasy–bodice rippers, forced seductions etc have been staple tropes for a long, long time.

  63. SonomaLass
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 17:32:17

    Forced seduction is not a plot element I seek out, nor is rape, but I can’t say “never.” As in Gwen’s comment above, if you don’t ever have those things, then there are some wonderful stories of redemption and forgiveness that wouldn’t get written, and that would be unfortunate, IMO.

    I’m in the “if you don’t like it, don’t read it” camp, and also the “never say never” camp. But of course I respect that some people have hard lines they can’t or won’t cross.

  64. lilitu93
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 17:36:37

    @Isabel Cooper: That’s the first Highland romance by Karen Marie Moning. She though the chess piece was what made her go back in time, though it ends up that it was just a coincidence that she was holding it at the time she went back.

    I also wanted that hero to die after he put it in the fire, and I probably wouldn’t have finished the book except I’d already read all of her Fever series that had been published to date, and I was reading the Highland books for clues to what was going on in the Fever books, since they’re the same universe. I’d also bought the other books in the series, so I wanted to make sure I knew the back story for the rest of the series.

    As for the main subject of this post, this is an issue that I struggle with when reading romance – there are lots of situations in fiction which I would find completely unacceptable in real life but can enjoy in fiction (even while being made uncomfortable by them at the same time). What makes it worse is that my favourite subgenre is paranormal, which is one of the worst offenders in terms of forced seduction and asshole Alpha men. I can accept a bit more in paranormal if both the couple aren’t human, but I’d love to read a paranormal romance that didn’t have such dodgy consent issues.

    For instance, I love Kresley Cole, partially due to her heroines often saving the day – sometimes even saving the hero – but her books have some serious consent issues. I mean, the first one in the series is basically Stockholm Syndrome (fated mate kidnapping the heroine). I think I like that series despite the consent issues, not because of them.

  65. Tumperkin
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 18:34:33

    Excellent post Robin. I’m not surprised to see the level of engagement in the comments with the general notion of rape in romance because this is such a emotional issue. However, what I find interesting – and persuasive – about your post is really the mechanics of the reader experience you describe, probably because reader experience is a particular fascination of mine. The idea of reader consent, or non-consent, in relation to a particular aspect of the story informing the overall reader experience and how the HEA is received by the particular reader resonates strongly with me and it’s a notion that I suspect could be extended to other issues that come up.

    For example, I have an issue with violence in novels and have blogged about how I receive and react to such content. This varies not in accordance with the degree of the violence or the explicitness of the expression of it, but with the degree to which I feel the characters are accepting responsibility for their actions. It’s perhaps not precisely the same as what you’re describing here, but it *feels* similar in that I have to be able to get comfortable with the characters’ actions in order to accept the rightness of their chosen path and their eventual HEA.

    I, as a reader, have to struggle with whether I can accept that within the parameters the author has set – and that is partially a creative endeavour. One of the commenters above mentioned mentally deleting the scene from Outlander when Jamie beats Clare – I’ve used a similar technique (perhaps a negative form of creativity?) and I’ve also filled gaps in the text with my own interpretation of what is going on with characters internally. It’s like the ‘gutters’ in a cartoon strip (the gaps between the pictures). If we see Charlie Brown playing baseball in the first box and then talking to Snoopy about the game in the second box, we know as readers that he has in between the two boxes returned home. The degree of detail in between (did he finish the game, how did it go, how much time has passed) is up to the individual reader based on the various clues at their disposal.

  66. Isobel Carr
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 18:55:35

    @Isabel Cooper: I feel like I’ve stolen your name! My new pen name had just been finalized the first time I saw you post here, and my stomach tied itself into a knot. *sigh*

    Maybe we can start and Izzy club?

  67. Isabel C. Kunkle
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 19:03:22

    @Isobel Carr: Really? Mine too, actually: talk about fate! ;)

    But no worries, and I’m happy to start the Izzy Club! It’s surprising and awesome after twenty-eight years of having the name nobody else ever has. (Or can spell. I used to get stationary for Christmas–from relatives, mind–with extra L’s and an E on there.)

    I was an imperious-grandmother phone call away from being named Bathsheba, though, so. ;)

  68. CupK8
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 19:32:19

    @Lynne Connolly: I find it fascinating that the UK didn’t have the swathe of rape fantasy novels that we had here. Perhaps it may have been, as others have said, a generational teaching that a woman could not say yes? Is the UK more open about female sexuality, even today, than the US or other countries?

    @Janet: I love the term ‘reader’s consent’. Active readers, yay! I feel like a lot of the rape-in-lit conversations that I’ve read (through literature and theatre courses) completely remove the audience/reader from the equation. Each book is different, each situation is different, each reader is different.. heck, each day is different! SonomaLass had a span of time where she couldn’t read ‘ruined heroine’ stories because she was not in a place emotionally to do so after seeing the play Ruined by Lynn Nottage. For myself as well, I know there are some days where I can handle something a bit darker – sometimes forced seduction – and other days where I pick up Julia Quinn because I need a good guide through Happyland.

    I’m glad you wrote this, because I honestly hadn’t thought about my part in the equation. I don’t think I’ve ever read literary criticism about female sexuality in literature that made my part in the equation seem valuable to the discussion. This is only in my experience, YMMV.

  69. hapax
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 19:51:44

    @Monica Burns: I hope we meet face-to-face in the future, as I think you are someone I would like talking with.

    Agreed. :-)

    You and others have made some interesting points about the distinction between rape / forced seduction and the “fated mate” trope — I guess that it seems more palatable to the reader when it is an impersonal Force removing consent, rather than an individual person?

    Perhaps that is why I have such difficulties with it; I live in a very Personal cosmos as it is, and I am always acutely conscious (even when fully immersed in the story) that as either author or reader, I am fully morally implicated in whatever happens to the characters.

    Suffer, plot monkeys! SUFFER FOR MY AMUSEMENT! Mwah-hah-ha!!!

    Another aspect of “reader consent”, I suppose.

  70. hapax
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 19:53:12

    Arrgh! Apologies for the HTML Fail.

    When did this site lose the “edit” option?

  71. Ella D.
    Sep 28, 2010 @ 21:20:58

    I am seriously uncomfortable with the term “rape fantasy”. Can we find another phrase for this?

  72. Ciar Cullen
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 08:45:58

    No, Janet, I’m not saying that. I’m saying that it’s not clear that just because something is common, that it’s healthy. I think people use fantasy statistics to “legitimize” many things in real life, and that’s a dangerous thing. I don’t think most women who have rape fantasies would actually choose to be raped by a stranger at gunpoint, etc.

  73. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 09:52:34

    The reader has the choice to vicariously experience that subversion of real life rape, to participate in the fantasy of the hero's ultimate suitability by consenting to what the heroine does not. Of course that also means that the reader can choose not to give her consent, to find the violation unacceptable, but in either case, the choice is hers. And it is a choice she is not afforded in real life rape or even in the context of the fictional narrative (in the position of the heroine).

    How is the choice to “find the violation unacceptable” a “choice she is not afforded in real life rape”? I wonder if you mean that the reader has the choice to close the book and thus stop the rape part-way through, and that’s a “choice she is not afforded in real life rape.”

    Unfortunately, this still means that the non-consenting reader has been exposed to the beginnings of the rape scene. That may not be a problem for many non-consenting readers, even those who immediately close the book because they don’t give their consent to the scene. However, there’s a reason why some people need/want “trigger” warnings.

  74. dick
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 10:04:05


    Aren’t we agreeing? When you write that your acceptance of the HEA in books where violent acts by the hero against the heroine occur, aren’t you indicating that what the author chooses to write AFTER that violent event has mitigated your non-consent of the act itself?

    I don’t see how it’s possible to consider events in romance fiction without taking the very stringent form it requires into account, just as it isn’t possible to consider a sonnet without taking it’s stringencies into account. The basic requirement of romance is that the hero and heroine shall find happiness together. Thus, I think that any event, even rape, can be accepted if the author is clever enough in manipulating the plot. Rejection of the book before reading those mitigations, whether they are successful or not, surely is not the same as non-consent once the book is read. In the first instance, the reader gives the author no opportunity; in the second, the reader has given the opportunity but refuses to agree that the manipulations are successful.

  75. Lisa Paitz Spindler
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 10:13:38

    @Laura Vivanco:

    Until I read Laura Vivanco’s comment I thought I finally understood the preference for this fantasy even if it’s not my own preference. In re-reading that part, though, one sentence still really makes me uncomfortable:

    …to vicariously experience that subversion of real life rape…

    I respectfully ask that if a reader really wants to experience rape that she ask herself why. I just don’t understand, I guess.

    Moreover, this doesn’t seem consistent with what Robin/Janet said in the comments:

    …when the reader consents to what she perceives as a fantasy situation, she's not consenting to rape – she's consenting to a sexual fantasy…

    So, is it consenting to a sexual fantasy or consenting to vicariously experience what rape might be like? Those two things seem very different to me since one is about sex and the other about violence.

  76. Maili
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 11:36:55

    @Lisa Paitz Spindler: So, is it consenting to a sexual fantasy or consenting to vicariously experience what rape might be like? Those two things seem very different to me since one is about sex and the other about violence.
    Excuse me for jumping in, but yes and no. IMO, it’s similar to the ongoing issue over violent or “amoral” games, like Hit Man (you play the role of an assassin, who’s hired to kill specific targets through various means), films and comics. It doesn’t mean the majority of these gamers, readers and viewers would be violent in real life, nor would they condone real-life acts of violence.

    In this case, rape is a complicated little thing with a very fine line between reality (rape as act of violence) and fantasy (rape as an act of sex). It’s just like there is a fine line between legit combat and murder in case of a military or gun game.

    Many don’t and won’t cross that line in real life, but they can through reading, viewing or gaming. Why, though? It varies, but I think all are related to the ages-old concept of playing with fire. It’s forbidden, amoral, and something most wouldn’t want to try in real life.

    The core of many disputes, though, is where does one draw that line? Whose responsibility is it to ensure no one would cross the line too far? I think it’s rather impossible to answer because the limits of fantasy/imagination don’t quite exist, do they?

    IMO, it’s all down to how much – and what – each person could tolerate. I can’t tolerate a scene of a character torturing an animal or child in fiction, but some can because it’s fiction. Sorry if this doesn’t make sense. It’s not my best English day, I’m afraid.

  77. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 11:52:09

    @Tumperkin: I have always been frustrated by the societal acceptance of violence and the concurrent stigmatization of sexuality in fiction. I wish more people were looking at that, frankly.

    I've also filled gaps in the text with my own interpretation of what is going on with characters internally. It's like the ‘gutters' in a cartoon strip (the gaps between the pictures). If we see Charlie Brown playing baseball in the first box and then talking to Snoopy about the game in the second box, we know as readers that he has in between the two boxes returned home. The degree of detail in between (did he finish the game, how did it go, how much time has passed) is up to the individual reader based on the various clues at their disposal.

    As book lengths in Romance have continued to decrease, I wonder how much readers are taking on the burden of filling in gaps and what the impact of that is. As you say, there are always gaps in a text where the reader can insert a connection or an explanation that makes things coherent and acceptable for the reader.

    But I also wonder how much Romance readers, in particular, are being forced to fill in bigger and bigger textual gaps in the face of shorter and shorter books, and how that is/will impact the evolution of the genre.

  78. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:00:30

    @CupK8: Unfortunately, I think academics like Radway have used a specious strain of reader response criticism against Romance readers. I’m actually not a huge fan of reader response criticism, but I do think that the reader plays an essential role in certain fantasy elements of Romance, rape being one of the most prominent. I’ve honestly found no other way to reconcile the incredible differences among readers in responses to the same books. Of course at some level we say it’s all about interpretation, but in a more specific way, the structure of the rape fantasy IMO demonstrates the active role the reader must play in reading Romance.

  79. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:01:58

    @Ella D.: I think that’s why some people use the term “forced seduction,” although that seems more a term related to Romance, since the fantasy is often structured around a growing romantic attachment between hero and heroine.

  80. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:22:20

    @Ciar Cullen: I confess to a certain level of confusion regarding both your comments, since neither I nor anyone here who enjoys the rape fantasy has suggested or believes that there is a connection between the rape fantasy and RL rape — that someone who enjoys that fantasy would want to be raped in RL. Rather, the entire point of my piece (well, one of them) is that the difference between rape and sexual fantasies involving force is both crucial and active in the reading experience of anyone who enjoys these forced scenes in Romance as sexual fantasies.

    In fact, one of the reasons that people like Nancy Friday or the editors of “Yes Means Yes” undertook work on (especially women’s) sexual fantasies is because of the terrible shame women have suffered because they enjoy fantasies that have a level of taboo connected to them. Much clinical research has been done on the rape fantasy, as well, and outside of men who already have a propensity for aggressive actions against women, responsible clinical research has shown *over and over and over* that there is NO connection between the enjoyment of rape fantasies and criminal rape. Both women who have been raped and women who haven’t experience the fantasy, as well. Even inquiries around how much violence is imagined and how that relates to the personal experience of subjects has not yielded expected results. In fact, one of the reasons the rape fantasy is a consistent object of study is that it’s one of the oldest fantasies around and has stubbornly resisted a single, simple “why” analysis.

    But still women suffer for this fantasy, and when someone comes along and declares it “dangerous,” I can guarantee you that such a declaration pushes many women right back into the corner of shame.

    The central point I’m trying to make in my post is that the power here lies with the reader. Fiction is symbolic speech and therefore it can be powerful. But the reader is not some passive victim of what she reads — she can enjoy these scenes of sexual force in Romance as rape fantasies or she can say ‘no, this is not what I want,’ Again, a HUGE difference from the choice women have in RL regarding criminal rape.

    To suggest that it’s not “healthy” that women have these fantasies seems, well, dangerous in itself, because IMO it robs women of the very autonomy over their sexuality that I think you actually support.

  81. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:28:10

    @Laura Vivanco: I think the reader has several options, including closing the book, saying no on behalf of the heroine, refusing to accept the relationship beyond that scene, refusing to see the hero as heroic, etc. But you are right — the one option the reader does not have is to avoid the scene altogether.

    As you know, I’m not a fan of labels, but you are right that the non-consenting reader who finds these scenes traumatizing cannot necessarily avoid them. I’d still argue, though, and am sure you’d agree, that encountering such a scene within a fictional context is still quite different from experiencing rape in RL. Not that there’s zero emotional effect for the sensitive reader, just that it’s of a different character.

  82. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:34:36

    @dick: For you, I think, the rape scene is merely one of the formalistic “manipulations” in the genre that, as you have argued previously, gives the heroine power in the relationship and the text.

    My position is that the rape scenario is of a particular character in Romance in that its RL counterpart, which is both invoked and rejected in those scenes, adds a level of import that makes it more than a formalistic element of the story or the genre.

    So I don’t think we’re in agreement except in the superficial sense of believing that the rape scenario can be part of the romantic fantasy for the reader. But I think we’ve got very different arguments for that.

    As for the issue of non-consent and acceptance of the HEA, my non-consent is never revoked as to that act. You may see that as an insignificant resistance, since I accept the ultimate HEA. But I don’t view it as insignificant, because for me the use of sexual force is always more than a mere formalistic device.

  83. Janet P.
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:42:19

    I’m not any type of expert on “rape fantasies” but whenever it is explained to me it seems to be a little like those who enjoy roller coasters or sky diving.
    A person might enjoy the fear, the perceived danger, the helplessness, maybe even the pain … but they want it with a safety net or even just to live it vicariously through a book.

    I also don’t like the term “Rape Fantasy” mostly because I find it to be an oxymoron. If you are consenting and desiring the action, it isn’t rape. I feel that those who have experienced rape deserve to keep their noun free of any sort of qualifier that lessens the atrocity.

    I’m guessing there are probably many people who at least privately might admit to a “Rape Fantasy” as we talk about them but in no manner actually desire a real life experience of rape.

    There should be a better term though. I don’t like Forced Seduction either.

  84. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 12:58:38

    @Lisa Paitz Spindler:

    So, is it consenting to a sexual fantasy or consenting to vicariously experience what rape might be like? Those two things seem very different to me since one is about sex and the other about violence.

    Bear with me, Lisa, because I have a couple of steps to cover here, and I don’t know how logically I can articulate them.

    First, the phrase you quoted of mine: “to vicariously experience that subversion of real life rape.” The key word there is “subversion,” meaning the rape fantasy is a subversion of real life rape.” A subversion is not the same thing as a simulation — it is something that inverts or alters the meaning of the original thing.

    So the person who experiences the rape fantasy is NOT wanting to be raped. However, one of the elements of the fantasy that makes it so powerful is the imaginary sense of danger the woman has. For some women it’s titillating to feel that danger, knowing she’s ultimately safe but still feeling the echo of helplessness that reverberates through the *idea* of rape, even though it’s role play, totally fictional, and a sexual fantasy NOT a violent act carried out without the woman’s consent. Rather, she consents to playact a scenario in which she appears to have no control. Does that make sense? I understand that it’s a paradox, but that’s what makes it so powerful. As @Maili said, the taboo element is critical. If RL rape did not exist, would there be a sexual fantasy of rape? A big question.

    As to how or why women enjoy this particular fantasy, I can’t speak for myself since I don’t. But I think we all, as human beings, experience fantasies that thrive on their taboo status, and I think there are myriad reasons for that — many of which may not even be discernible in a coherent way. It may be about coping with a RL trauma, or pushing one’s own boundaries, or wondering what something would be like even though you don’t want to experience it in RL, or wanting to feel the danger, etc. In terms of the rape fantasy, Nancy Friday insists it’s about needing to give up the control and responsibility so many of us women have in RL. In fact, if you haven’t read any of her books on the topic, I’d suggest they’re a great place to start. I don’t always agree with her conclusions (or rather I don’t think they’re a complete explanation), but she’s very sex positive and woman positive, which IMO is critical in these discussions.

    So as for what women want to experience in these scenarios, I don’t think there’s a single answer beyond the fact that they are not inviting RL rape. That the fantasy has a danger element that comes from the echo of RL rape (even though it’s not the same) is part of its titillating character. But it’s not the same thing by a long shot.

    By way of analogy, let’s say you could step into a room where you could live out a fantasy of either killing someone or being killed. In neither case would you actually kill another person or die, but you could have the simulated experience of doing so. How many people do you think would sign up for that? Is your number as high as mine?

    In the case of the rape fantasy, finding it appealing isn’t always a choice for women (how many things that turn any of us on are fully conscious and consciously chosen?), thus much of the shame women have suffered over the years for having this fantasy.

    For readers, there are two levels operating, which makes it even more complicated. You have the text itself, which may, to some, read as straight out sexual force, not sexually titillating to them. But for other readers, that same scene will operate as a sexual fantasy. Both levels are fiction and therefore not the same as RL rape. And for the reader who consents to what is happening between the characters, the meaning of that is certainly not the same as it would be for RL rape. Which brings me back to that issue of “subversion” — for many readers, the fictional representation of sexual force in Romance is a fantasy scenario that empowers the romance rather than shattering it. Because they are not reading it as rape. In fact, I’d argue that they are reading it as a challenge to RL rape — a scenario in which the heroine ends up safe and happy, sexually fulfilled and loved, because the (female) reader has the power to consent to that. So everywhere in RL that rape robs a woman of choice and power and consent, etc., in the case of the rape fantasy, all of those things are restored, subverting everything that RL rape signifies.

  85. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 13:06:00

    @Janet P.: I actually think the term “rape” is critical, precisely because of what you say in your comment:

    A person might enjoy the fear, the perceived danger, the helplessness, maybe even the pain … but they want it with a safety net or even just to live it vicariously through a book.

    Instead of rape fantasy, imagine the term “murder fantasy.” Would the fantasy of killing someone else be as powerful if you called it “the fantasy of fictionally depriving someone else of life”?

    IMO the echo of the terrorizing act is what gives the fantasy life — the sense of danger that is experienced in safety. The titillation is partially in the taboo, in other words.

  86. cead
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 13:27:56

    @Robin/Janet: What you’ve written here has suddenly made sense of something that never made sense to me before, which is that I’m much more open to sexual encounters involving force in erotica than I am in romance. I read erotica as pure sexual fantasy; while there are certainly elements of that in my reading of romance, when I read romance I’m looking for a romantic fantasy, and that’s subject to very different criteria for me. I can accept whatever happens in erotica as the product of sexual fantasy, mine or someone else’s and give it my consent (well, most of the time, anyway), but I can’t do that in romance, or at least, I can’t to the same extent. For romance I have to believe in the relationship, and rape between the leads destroys that for me.

    Thank you.

  87. Charlotte
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 14:24:23

    I have rape fantasies. I have wondered what that says about me and whether I should be ashamed or not, but I can’t really be bothered. It is what it is.
    Indulging in a rape fantasy has nothing to do with wanting rape (as previously stated). When I fantasize, I am in complete and utter control. Who the power belongs to is never in question. It is me and only me. The issue of consent is never in play concerning the integral part of myself.
    For example, I find that I cannot tolerate the idea of being forced to kiss someone when I am in fantasy-mode. This is probably because the only time I have ever encountered anything, that was done without my consent, has been being kissed by someone I didn’t really fancy. So this would shift the fantasy from merely playing in my head to the actual reality of being deprived of my consent.

    A rape deprives the victim of her power and control, a rape fantasy does not.

    Oddly, I often dislike reading about rape in romance. This is due to the whole ‘she really wants it, even if she says no’ deal. AROUSAL IS NOT CONSENT!
    Female sexuality has a duality that male sexuality does not, in my view (and I have read studies that cooperate this). Women can be aroused physically yet not *feel* aroused. We need to be turned on both physically and mentally to be ready to go. So when the hero reads her arousal as consent, this is wrong. Wrongwrongwrong. Just no.
    Some victims of rape have orgasms. This does not make it any less of a violation. It is still a rape.
    This really squicks me out, because suddenly I am confronted with an author who condones the rape just because the heroine is aroused, and once I feel myself having an opinion about the authors views like this, it is a sign that I no longer trust this author. And then we have a wallbanger.

    I am just going to repeat this, because this is important:

  88. Robin/Janet
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 14:47:21

    @cead: I’m sure your comment is resonating with a lot of readers, because the romantic fantasy thing is much of what bothers a lot of people about forced sex in Romance.

    Even though I don’t connect at the level of the sexual fantasy, on a meta level I wonder if the rape scenario can actually be seen to symbolize the inversion of everything rape represents in real life, i.e. the substitution of violence for sex, the need to overpower, control, and inflict pain and humiliation in the most intimate way.

    I believe that at some level there is, in the Rom genre, an attempt to unplug all that and convert it into something different, something that does not disempower and silence the heroine, nor leave her unsafe. The extent to which that works is highly debatable, IMO, precisely because of the “romance” aspect. But I really do believe that something important is being worked on through the inclusion of the forced sex scenario in Romance, beyond, that is, the sexual fantasy to which the reader may connect. That at some level women are reflecting on and trying to alter the character of something that leaves us so vulnerable and fearful in RL.

  89. Jane
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 14:48:14

    @Charlotte I think that is the crux of Robin’s post – that the reader is always in control and either gives or withholds consent. Did you read Willing Victim by Cara McKenna. I think she handles this “rape fantasy” trope really well in that story.

  90. Ella D.
    Sep 29, 2010 @ 15:18:33

    I’ve read somewhere that “rape fantasy” may be more accurately called a “forced orgasm fantasy” instead, because sexuality in women has often been stigmatized. A “forced orgasm” doesn’t hold the woman accountable for it, so she can’t be “evil” or “wrong” for having one.

    I may have even read that on this blog. :D

  91. dick
    Sep 30, 2010 @ 11:00:12

    In some ways, you are correct–I do see the rape/forced seduction scenario as a part of the romance fiction fantasy. Still, I reject some romances–such as Dodd’s WPL–because the author did not make much effort to make the “forced seduction” understandable by the end of the book. I did not reject Putney’s “Dearly Beloved” because she does manage to make it understandable by the end of the book. By “understandable” here, I mean the hea has a rational degree of probability under the circumstances the author presents, despite the rape/forced seduction.

    In a way, too, I think that the “rape fantasy” business in romance fiction is just as empowering as their ability to give or withhold consent, for the heroine’s forgiving the hero’s rape/forced seduction to achieve the HEA is akin to Christ’s words on the cross, isn’t it?

  92. Ciar Cullen
    Sep 30, 2010 @ 12:10:42

    Nope, didn’t call anyone wrong. Just said that using “common” to mean “healthy” is junk science. It really is. Because I cannot tolerate rape in a romance does not push anyone into a corner of shame. Legitimizing rape in a romance could be said to help put RL survivors into a corner of shame. I’m not going to share my personal experience, but I think you might want to be sensitive to the fact (and you WERE in your well written article but perhaps less so in your comments) that some of the readers here are rape survivors, will never consent, and perhaps will be less happy to find rape in their mainstream romance. It’s a damned difficult topic, and I applaud your attempt to break it down, but it defintely has a slant that I don’t “consent” to. I’m allowed that as a reader of anything. That’s all.

  93. GrowlyCub
    Sep 30, 2010 @ 12:30:25

    I always think that when we require others to respect our sensibilities we ought extend them the same courtesy.

    Ciar, I got a very negative vibe from your comment. Your use of the word ‘junk science’ for decades of research into this topic was extremely derogatory and dismissive and I took away a very strong message that you consider women who enjoy rape fantasies not ‘normal’ or ‘healthy’.

  94. Lynn S.
    Sep 30, 2010 @ 16:46:59


    Thank you for sharing this well-thought-out and researched analysis of a complex issue. As Carolyn Jewel said above “at least a week of hard thinking” is needed to respond. There is also much more to be said than is appropriate to a comment section. I hope my two days worth of thought doesn’t run too far afield.

    The happily-ever-after requirement of romance fiction is what makes rape fantasies pose such a problem for the genre. Also, to anyone who doesn’t see the difference between rape fantasy and actual rape I would suggest reading Shakespeare’s Landlord by Charlaine Harris or any other cathartic fiction written by survivors of sexual assault. There is a difference.

    I do see your point regarding consent/nonconsent and the active participation of readers. To my way of thinking more at issue is an active desire on the part of some readers for these fantasies and how books feed that desire. The human mind is full of dark corners, the propensity for violence lurks in all of us, and authors have dark corners the same as their readers. I see violence itself as the main issue with that violence being viewed as a necessary tool to maintain power and dominance. I would also ask is there a feminine view of violence versus a masculine one with women viewing the sexual assault and its personal nature as the most violent act.

    The reading of any type of dark subject matter in fiction can take the edge off the anxious beast within. I don’t see anything inherently wrong with that but some readers do self-medicate by the application of specific reading material and self-medication can be problematic. Do you know when to stop or step away? Do you know when it’s altering your view of yourself, your sexuality, or an entire gender?

    I found your comment regarding Nancy Friday’s insistence that it is about a need to give up control and responsibility interesting. I see it as being about a woman’s feeling of powerlessness with the character of Laurel in Cara McKenna’s Willing Victim being illustrative of this. Women are the ones who can become pregnant as a result of sex, they are the ones who give birth and are usually the caregivers, they generally earn less money, and the very fact of their feminine nature is seen as weaker. When you feel powerless you take your power where you can, even through the act of submission or the perceived forcing of that submission.

  95. willaful
    Oct 09, 2010 @ 16:39:33

    “One of the reasons this idea of reader consent appeals to me is that it preserves the ambiguity of the text itself while allowing the reader to solve the dilemma for herself through her own personal agency. ”

    This resonates very strongly with me. I would love to see more exploration of why we do consent, when we do. Because I’m not at all fond of rape scenarios in romance novels, but I will sometimes “consent” to it. In other words, I’m not consenting because something or other inherently appeals to me about the rape scenario, I’m consenting in spite of it.

  96. » Blog Archive » Rape and the Romance Reader
    Nov 09, 2010 @ 23:19:50

    […] at Dear Author has put up a post in which she explores the role of the reader, and in particular the reader’s consent, in relation to rape/forced seduction scenarios in […]

  97. Dead Until Dark: A little ultraviolence « DigiTrash
    Jan 26, 2011 @ 18:58:34

    […] something super sexy about a man who is unable to control himself in the throes of passion.  In a particularly illuminating post on rape and female submission in romance novels, Janet uses an example to illustrate why readers of […]

  98. The Rape of Sookie Stackhouse (Redux) | Orange the Brave
    Sep 03, 2011 @ 16:34:51

    […] amount of research and speculation as to why we’re okay with rape in genre fiction (here is one that I like in particular, and here’s […]

  99. The Rape of Sookie Stackhouse (Redux) « Brass Tacks
    Sep 05, 2011 @ 08:30:47

    […] considerable amount of research and speculation as to why we’re okay with rape in genre fiction (here is one that I like in particular, and here’s […]

  100. avril
    Dec 08, 2011 @ 03:53:32

    This discussion is interesting to me, because I come from a conservative background, where romance novels itself are questionable. To go even further and contemplate the nuances of fantasies and sexual encounters is completely outside any conversation I would be having in person with anyone I know. I wish it was otherwise, because I think sex is much more than a physical act. It has especially deep roots to our spiritual nature (which is one of the reasons why rape is an act of violence that is so devastating), and I wish conservative communities would be able to get beyond the “rules” of it to discuss how our sexuality engages in every aspect of ourselves. Open and intelligent discussions like this help me understand myself better, not only for how I behave with my husband, but also who I am to everyone, how I think of myself and those around me, and how I interact with them. For instance, rape, real rape, terrifies me. And a book like Tess of the D’Ubervilles is intensely disturbing to me. However, these romance novels that depict a sexual interlude where the author is describing the woman’s feelings of enjoyment and pleasure while saying “no” come across very differently to me. “Why?” I asked myself. To me they do not seem dangerous or repugnant at all. For one thing, the emotional response of the heroine is completely different in these scenes from what it is in a real rape. Furthermore, at the heart of these scenes, they are not about the man at all, as in a real rape, or a literary description of a real rape. These scenes are all about magnifying the woman. Tell me if I’m alone here, but I think a woman’s sense of her own attractiveness can inhibit or enhance her sexual enjoyment. An insecure woman may have trouble letting go and being passionate, not because she doesn’t have the capacity or desire for it, but because of her sense of self. I think these “forceful” yet “I’m-enjoying-it” scenes in novels (not ones truly writing of rape, with all the soul-crushing trauma of it) are a fantasy about who the woman is, of a siren that has the power to make the man aroused, many times in spite of himself. These scenes always seem to me to have sort-of an equal balance of power in that way. He has the physical power, she has the sexual power, and they grapple and find ultimate satisfaction in the result. Hey, if they’re both happy in the end, so am I. :) Not that way with real rape or literary depictions of real rape and the trauma it causes, both during and after.

    So, to summarize, they seem to be two different things entirely to me. There is real, horrifying rape, which is all about the man, driven by his need for power, and this can be depicted in literature. And then, different from that, is this literary construct out there that is all about the woman and her power of attractiveness where the man is simply the means of taking her to a place of being uninhibited (because she is always swept away in this scene, isn’t she, despite herself?). In this scenario, the reader is enticed by the woman’s siren capabilities, not the man’s. It’s a little unsettling to me that a woman can be captivated by her own potential sense of self, but I think that’s what’s going on here.

    Thinking these things through helps us discover more about ourselves with applications for all areas of life, not just in the bedroom. This was a great discussion. Thank you.

  101. Feminism in romance – annotated notes
    Apr 09, 2012 @ 16:52:30

    […] an excellent essay on the differing opinions around this issue, see Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance by Robin Reader, including comments to the post. Robin argues that consent to the rape fantasy is […]

  102. Wryter
    Apr 18, 2012 @ 01:40:44

    After reading this piece I wonder why the person even bothered to write it at all. Such a twisting tale that some how tries to justify or expunge what for years has been a natural thought for women since day one. Not sure what world the writer inhabits but it must be a very clinical one devoid of really feeling, understanding, compassion and dare say it,” love.”

  103. Is There A Right Way to Read Rape?
    May 01, 2012 @ 04:02:35

    […] because it cannot anticipate every interaction between itself and its readers. Moreover, the reader not only has the ultimate power to consent (or not) for the heroine, but she also has the ability to analyze and respond to the textual representation, creating yet […]

  104. ‘For women, by women’: Is romance writing inherently feminist? II « Australian Women Writers Challenge
    Aug 26, 2012 @ 02:55:52

    […] discussions, and in most cases the comments are just as thought-provoking as the original posts: Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance by Robin Reader argues that consent to the rape fantasy is in the hands of the reader. Rape and […]

  105. Gratuitous Rape in Fantasy novels - Page 6 - Science Fiction Fantasy Chronicles: forums
    Jan 21, 2013 @ 13:30:38

    […] Seems more a complaint about lack of female presence in "classic" fantasy. Apparently, the romance genre has far more problems:…nt-in-romance/ […]

  106. Remittance Girl
    Nov 22, 2013 @ 07:15:54

    Actually, the writer is taking on board the fact that there is very strong research that women do have and erotically enjoy ‘force-fantasy’ and fiction that depicts it. She’s attempting to understand and explain the dichotomy instead of condemning the women who do which, I would argu,e is a much more compassionate and feminist response than your stance.

  107. Wryter
    Nov 22, 2013 @ 07:41:25

    Women do enjoy ” force fantasy ” scene as much as men do and perhaps I was wrong in my statement, am not perfect and do err.

    One just has to look into many chat rooms and other type websites and talk to some of them that they enjoy the role play aspect of that, I think its a freedom for many. In talking to some of them on a personal level they have said that their partners would never understand their feelings and wants this way. One woman I talked to told me that she went to her partner and told him of her fantasies and he rejected her flatly for 6 months. Where I ask you is there compassi0n in that??

    I think in all honesty that in relationships there should be an honesty that is open, but understands that not everyone can or will be such. A line comes to mind and it is this, ” Each of us has within a dark chamber where the real desires flower, and the horror of it is the one never sees the light of another’s understanding. It is lonely as it is dark that chamber of the heart.” I forget where I read this but it has stayed with me and is in my estimation a truism for many. Thank you for your response it was interesting and insightful………..have a pleasant day now………..Wryter

  108. Feminist romance
    Apr 23, 2014 @ 13:21:32

    […] fixity of biologically-determined gender. The review website, Dear Author, can argue that “not all rape is created equal in the genre” and then play host to a public debate about how rape or “forced consent” […]

  109. Wryter
    May 15, 2014 @ 15:48:15

    I agree. One has to just look at some of the websites that cater to sexual stories and images to see how many depictions of rape there are and also to see how the increase in females who write and produce 3D art depicting ” rape of both males and females along with sexual torture.” The female is not as pure as many are led to see and believe, they enjoy depraved sexual acts as well as the next person. Pure sweet sex is not the domain of any one’s sex any more.

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