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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!


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