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The Vigilante Fantasy (or why sex is more wrong than violence)

Notice: the comments below discuss rape and rape fantasies.

In Lisa Kleypas’ “Blue Eyed Devil”, Haven is brutalized by her husband.  He rapes her, beats her, and throws her out of the home.  When Haven confesses of her past to her new love, Hardy, he responds that he’d go after her ex and “when I finish, there won’t be enough left of him to fill a fucking matchbox.”  Haven responds that her ex isn’t worth going to jail for and Hardy replies:

“I don’t know about that.” Hardy stared at me for a moment, registering my uneasiness. His expression deliberately softened. “The way I was brought up, ‘he needed killing’ is an airtight legal defense.”

I love this contemporary trilogy of Kleypas.  Her tender macho men really do it for me and whenever I’m feeling in a reading rut, I pull out the trilogy for a re-read (I start with Sugar Daddy but at the point where Carrington is riding the zip line across the backyard which leads to a confrontation between Gage and Liberty because the Liberty + Hardy stuff always adversely affects my enjoyment of Blue Eyed Devil).  So I don’t mean to point out her books as being alone or iconic of this statement, it’s just that it is a line that has stuck with me.

In Creation in Death by J.D. Robb, Eve Dallas engaged in an action of vigilante justice. This bothered me because I always felt that Eve was the conscience of the books and her stance had always been to catch criminals and deliver justice within the confines of the law.  It may be that I overlayed my own personal fantasy (that the system always works) onto the books.  What I hadn’t worked out in my mind at the time was this concept of vigilante justice and how easily it is accepted by us readers.

In fiction, everyone is sure; everyone is certain. It’s how we can read the vigilante fantasy story over and over again without any twinge of remorse or discomfort.

When I was a young lawyer, the ABA Journal profiled Ronald Cotton (the entire article can be read here), a man who was convicted of raping a woman. It was the victim’s own eye witness testimony that put the rapist away. Only the man didn’t rape the woman. Indeed, after the OJ Simpson trial, the imprisoned man learned of DNA evidence and contacted a lawyer claiming that DNA evidence would prove the man innocent. Another inmate in the same prison had bragged about doing the crime as well. The evidence in the nine year old case had been preserved and the DNA testing came back and showed him to be innocent. He was released.

The rape victim felt horribly guilty about this. She was so sure that the man had been this rapist, sure enough to pick him out of a line up. Sure enough to testify against him under oath.  “Studies show that 75 percent of all wrongful convictions that are later cleared by DNA evidence are based on eyewitness mistakes.” (Source: Innocence Project).

There is no surety of guilt in real life.  But, isn’t that the glory of fiction?  The bad guys get caught and justice is served; whether it is at the hands of the criminal justice system or at the hands of someone in the book.  Indeed, if there is a villain and his wrongs do not get redressed, who doesn’t feel let down?  I felt that way in a recent Harlequin Superromance I read.

But the vigilante fantasy is embraced with unashamed verve.  Is there any among us who would really be reluctant to admit to a good vigilante fantasy?  That we don’t inwardly clap with glee with the bad guy gets his?  Killing is often treated with a certain blitheness.  The heroes enact the mantra “he needed killing” without any psychological remorse. *

Why am I bringing this up?  Because I’ve seen more than one person pass judgment on another for enjoying the rape fantasy stories or for enjoying the forced seduction stories.  How many of us who would be unashamed of our love for the vigilante justice stories be just as open and embracing of rape fantasy stories?  How many of those around us would be non judgmental of those readers who enjoy the rape fantasy book?  Women who enjoy the rape fantasy books are sick, right? or glorifying something terrible.  Yet would those people judgmental of the women who enjoy the rape fantasy story be as critical of a woman who enjoyed reading a story about a villain getting killed or the hero or heroine getting revenge?

Why is the rape fantasy judged by a different metric than the vigilante fantasy?  After all, neither exist in real life and both are true fantasies.  On the page, the rape is not real and the person doing the killing knows without a doubt that the bad man “needed killing.”

*This isn’t always true.   In one historical romance (the name of which I cannot recall) the hero is set on a course of revenge and it is slowly eroding his soul.  He truly cannot kill another man and still live with himself; yet, his thirst for revenge is so great that he feels guilty for even a moment of happiness.  Obviously, he is really effed up.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Julia Broadbooks
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 05:32:19

    This is a slight spoiler, but at the end of the book, Hardy doesn’t kill Haven’s ex. He might talk about it, he might fantasies about it, but he doesn’t. That’s a big difference to me.

  2. Kate Sherwood
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 05:49:34

    Really interesting comparison — I wonder if one of the differences is that rape fantasies tend to be sexually exciting, while vigilante and violence fantasies probably aren’t. And women are pretty well-programmed to feel guilty about our sexuality.

    Violent revenge, on the other hand, appeals at least as much to men as it does to women, and therefore it must be okay, right?

  3. Mandi
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 06:41:33

    This is a good point…I always feel the need to explain or defend myself when I talk about a rape fantasy book I have read. But I also just finished a book where the hero kills the heroine’s kidnappers because they were “bad people” and I cheered him on.

    I think it is because “rape” is just a strong word. People see it and immediately come to a screeching halt. And in a way I don’t blame them.

  4. Eliza Evans
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 06:58:39

    This is something that always bothers me, how in some books the climax involves killing the villain. (For obvious reasons this seems to happen more in historicals.) And yet, it doesn’t mar the HEA at all. The villain “deserved” killing, which, okay, in the universe of that book I can go with that, I guess. That’s where the vigilante fantasy comes in. Maybe there’s no room in the fantasy for the after-effects. I just always think, “You KILLED A HUMAN BEING.”

    So, no, the vigilante fantasy doesn’t work for me. Or maybe I’ve had too much therapy. Either one, really.

  5. Lynne Connolly
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 07:17:18

    Kate – loved your comment.

    This is exactly why I started writing the Richard and Rose series. Yes, I know, I know, self promo and all that, but that isn’t the point of this comment. But once I started reading about 18th century law, I couldn’t resist.

    In the eighteenth century, there were no police. The Bow Street Runners were set up in the late 1740’s, and there were either twelve or twelve pairs (ie 24 – the wording of the document is obscure). They were specifically set up to deal with major crime, not individual murders or burglaries. Defined specifically as smuggling, poaching and counterfeiting gangs, the crimes that were nationwide and threatened the peace of the realm. Constables were appointed by the parish, and weren’t like today’s police constables.
    If your house was burgled, you had to bring the prosecution, and in many cases, you had to do a lot of the detecting. In our eyes, that could involve some vigilante practices.
    The populace was worried that a police force would lead to a police state, and it was only when the industrial revolution led to a concentration of people in a small space and modern cities began that a recognisable police force was begun.

    So what we today call vigilante justice was almost inevitable, right up to the prosecution level. That was when the courts took over. Even then, much more was at the court’s discretion than is usual these days. They had the power to put a value on the goods stolen in theft cases, which made a huge difference to the punishment imposed, for instance.
    the BBC series “Garrow’s Law” was set in this period, and many of the cases are taken from real life. Fascinating.

    How could I not write about that?

  6. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 07:24:30

    @Eliza Evans I think it is the blitheness with which life is extinguished that bothers me in all these books containing death. In certain settings, I do think that death was much more common such as in medieval time period or perhaps in the more lawless societies but in settings where killings are infrequent, I really do wonder why the taking of human life is done almost cavalierly.

  7. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 07:34:52

    @Lynne Connolly But this really doesn’t address the point. I can’t recall in your Rose/Richard series whether Richard kills someone but in your books, as in many others, there is a sense of certainty. Richard and Rose always know the villain and given how difficult that would truly be back in the 18th century, that certainty is fantasy. It’s a nice fantasy, of course, and one that others write about as well. But why is it more acceptable for Rose and Richard to engage in a vengeance fantasy than it would be for Rose to enjoy the forced seduction scenario?

  8. Rebecca (Another One)
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 07:57:18

    That reminds me of some of the older Amanda Quick novels. Often the hero was out for revenge, but it was so all encompassing that he was in danger of losing all perspective. Then the heroine comes along and shows him there is more to live for and the revenge would hurt the innocent as well.

    In one book, the guilty confesses and apologizes. In another the evil-doer is killed off by someone else.

    I liked these because there was justice without the hero committing murder.

    I still remember a short story from high school, “The Catbird Seat” by James Thurber. It had the perfect revenge without anyone being killed.

  9. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 07:59:50

    @Rebecca (Another One) I thought of Scandal myself when I began writing this article. I dearly love Scandal, but toward the end of the book, the heroine is determined to kill the bad guy for her husband. She doesn’t go through with it.

  10. Pat
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:01:22

    You seem to be leaving out the element of justice here. It would be nice if the system always worked, but we all know that it doesn’t, and functioned with far less attention to justice in the past. Whether it is Robin Hood, a knight errant, Shane, or even Don Quixote, justice is often served by extra-legal means. When have we ever objected to our fictional vigilantes? The have always been a consolation.

    PS I think perhaps the historical in your footnote is Elizabeth Hoyt’s The Serpent Prince.

  11. Sunita
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:05:41

    Great post, Jane. I don’t have a direct answer for you, unless it’s that vigilante fantasies are more acceptable across the spectrum, i.e., we have lots of fiction, film, and theater which explores them, whereas rape fantasies of the type we’re talking about are generally limited to romance novels, which are overwhelmingly read by women. We don’t talk about whether normal men have rape fantasies.

    The other difference I find interesting is that the rape or forced seduction by the hero can be an authorial choice in how the hero’s redemption has to be constructed (as in Gaffney’s THATH). But as you say, vigilante justice isn’t really seen as related to character development but more often as a cathartic act, which lets the protagonists “get on with their lives” or provides closure. As if killing someone has no effect on a person who isn’t a sociopath.

    I don’t know which historical romance you’re talking about, but it sounds like a riff on The Count of Monte Cristo.

  12. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:06:53

    @Pat Those are fictional vigilantes, right? Because in real life, vigilante justice is far less than optimum. Think mobs, Salem witch trials. “Taking justice into one’s own hands” is a great fantasy, but in real life, how is justice served? In Cotton’s case, what if the victim’s father or husband went on an ax murdering rampage (like this S. African rugby player) and killed Cotton only to find out 9 years later that Cotton wasn’t even guilty? In fantasy, you can always be right about who the bad guy is, but in real life, that certainty isn’t always available.

    But we enjoy the concept of justice being served by extra legal means in fiction and celebrate that. Whereas rape doesn’t actually occur in rape fantasies, yet women are routinely judged for enjoying this fiction and there are some (I saw one fantasy author rail on this on Twitter) who believe that it explicitly encourages or fosters a harmful rape culture.

  13. Pat
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:30:39

    Of course they are fictional vigilantes. The good are rewarded and the bad punished and we heave a sigh of contentment.

    In real life vigilante justice can indeed be far less than optimal. But legal justice can be far less than optimal as well, and therein lies the appeal of fiction.

  14. Tina
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:33:30

    Looking at this just at the level of the fiction involved, I have to say that I enjoy — not vigilante justice, exactly, but the idea that the bad guy got what is coming to him. It is a very satisfying thing to see justice done. As long as the justice fit the level of the crime. And eye for an eye and all that.

    With forced seduction stories they can be a bit iffy because the woman who is being forcefully seduced hasn’t actually done anything to deserve it. She is very often a victim of circumstances, powerless, with the hero being the guy who is forcing himself on her. The distaste here is when she falls in love with him he is in a real sense being rewarded for his crime, not punished. That doesn’t sit right with my sense of justice in that scenario.

    Now, that isn’t to say I don’t still enjoy some of those early novels. You will have to pry The Wolf and the Dove out of my cold, dead hands. But I can feel squirmy and bad about enjoying them.

    And some of those novels should be rightfully condemned. Some of them are incredibly distasteful because really as you read them they ‘heroes’ in them are just a step up from Haven’s abusing husband.

    Of course there is a much larger issue with violence vs. sex and how both of these are judged. Sex, imo, even consensual sex always seems to be more morally condemnable than violence. I will never understand how a movie sex or nudity needs to be rated R or NC-17 while a movie with a major body count can still be shown in matinees with a PG-13 rating.

  15. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:41:42

    @Pat I get the appeal of the vigilante fantasy. I do. I am asking why the vigilante fantasy, why fantasies involving violence, involving taking the life of someone else, is more acceptable than a rape fantasy. They are both fantasies that have little resemblance to what happens in real life.

    Let me add that the legal justice system works most of the time, in my opinion.

  16. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:46:15

    Apologies in advance if this is unclear: early morning, impending head cold, fun times.

    To my mind, it’s that the fantasy elements of the vigilante fantasy are clearer: the hero or heroine *does* know that the bad guy did it–they saw him, he usually gives some sort of confession, etc. The Joker never claims to be innocent.

    In “forced seduction”, on the other hand, everything seems murkier. The heroine is often saying no and fighting back, at least at first, but the hero somehow knows that she doesn’t really mean it. *How* he knows is usually far less clear than how anyone knows that the villain is actually the villain.

    I myself don’t object to rape fantasy per se, if it’s pretty clearly labeled as such; YKIOK and all that. I do have a problem with presenting it as normal, and with the “good girls have to be shown they want it” attitude and Madonna/whore binaries that often–though not always–go along with the trope.

    Also, what Tina said about sex and violence generally. I do find that troubling.

  17. Brie
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:54:27

    Vigilantism in fiction is normally portrayed as a good thing -just think of all the superheroes, they are all glorified vigilantes- even to the point in which the character who wants to take the legal road (whether is arresting the bad guy, calling the police, etc.) always ends up looking like a fool, dead, or even ends up being the bad guy. Normally when you have a hero who is a vigilante the villain tends to be a policeman or a judge or involved in some type of law enforcement job that’s corrupted, hence the need of a vigilante.

    In romance novels the vigilante situation is a similar one, the Hero or Heroine needs to take justice on their hands because the regular channels are either corrupted or just plain useless. Just think of all those romantic suspense novels where the hero is a detective or a policeman and is investigating the case, by the end of the novel there are always two options: he either saves her by killing the bad guy (never arresting him), or is the heroine who has to kill the villain (and this is almost always a TSTL moment IMO).

    And as Isabel C. says, in novels the bad guy is always the bad guy, no questions about it.

  18. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 08:55:20

    I’m sure this says really effed up things about me, but I don’t see the two fantasies as having any common ground. Rape fantasies glorify violence against women. Vigilante fantasies glorify justice. Just because both involve violence, doesn’t make them coequal or related. Hence my inability to enjoy rape fantasy has nothing to do with my ability to easily embrace vigilante justice. I quote Raylan Givens: It was justified. The same can never be said about a rape.

  19. DS
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 09:33:25

    I really have to remind myself not to be judgmental about women who enjoy rape fantasies. I’m just totally blind to the sexual appeal and I avoid books where the author wants to make me complicit in the rape by writing it as arousing. (See, there I start to get all judgmental again because obviously no rape really occurs and the author isn’t thinking about me at all.)

    I think being blind to the sexual appeal means all I see is the distasteful part. I have read and enjoyed books where there is outright rape or even dubious consent but it is ones where the implications are dealt with– and not just because the hero realized that the woman wasn’t a slut after all.

    However, I also find as I get older that I have less patience with vigilante actions.

    Terry Pratchett in Thud! dealt with a character who was unknowingly infected with an ancient entity that kept propelling him town taking vengeance. But the other side, his real nature, was a staunch belief in the rule of law. That’s a hero I can get behind.

  20. Lynne Connolly
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 09:36:32

    @Jane: Great question. It really made me think.
    Because I didn’t want to write that kind of book, probably. My background and experiences all play into the kind of book I write, and forced seduction or rape has never appealed to me as a trope. Don’t get me wrong, I suspect that if I was older, and writing in the 1980’s in the USA, I might well have done forced seduction books, maybe because of my personal background. But I’m not, and I didn’t come across those books until the late 1990’s, when they simply appalled me. The time had passed.
    But I’ve seen injustice perpetrated time and time again. People with the money to get away with murder sometimes do. People who bully and defraud people get away with it and the little people they con never get their money back. So I’m more driven to write about themes like that, and at least in fiction to ensure such people get their just desserts.
    You have to make it definite, to make it palatable to the reader. If Richard hadn’t known for sure the perpetrator, his rough justice wouldn’t have been acceptable. As it was, I had editors question my decision to let him do what he did. I think the cold blooded aspect concerned some of them. Not, I hasten to add, my current publishers Samhain, which is only one reason I’m delighted to put the books in their hands.
    I loved Isobel Carr’s post, and what she said that goes for me, too. I don’t see the link between the two, other than they are sensitive issues that need careful treatment.

  21. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 09:41:40

    @Isobel Carr why do rape fantasies glorify violence against women? After all, isn’t the rape fantasy the idea that you can be taken against your will and enjoy it? Vigilante fantasies are about killing another human being to satisfy an emotional sense of imbalance. How is one better than the other?

  22. hapax
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 09:56:03

    Huge honkin’ spoilers for Suzanne Brockman’s latest Troubleshooters book below:
    The end of the book features a major shootout between the good guys and the bad guys, during which the heros kill maybe a dozen human beings. Don’t get me wrong, the baddies were about as bad as you can get, and the stakes were literally life and death; but it still bothered the heck out of me.

    The FBI were literally five minutes behind the two rogue vigilantes. Yes, it was *implied* that the authorities didn’t place as high a value on rescuing the innocent hostages as apprehending the criminals, but nonetheless they certainly had a better chance of pulling things off than the our two heros, armed only with kitchen knives and a cell phone!

    Mostly because the author seemed to be aware of the problem herself, and performed backflips to justify the killing. She repeatedly set up implausible coincidences to demonstrate that even the mown-down minions were fully aware and complicit in the Bad Bad Doings, and had her villains do stupid things like pause to gloat (darn near twirl their mustachios) just so this impossible rescue could be pulled off with no harm to the hostages.

    Yes, the two heros were Navy SEALs, highly trained professional killers. But it still sat wrong with me.

    EDITED to add spoiler space which was accidentally stripped out.

  23. Courtney Milan
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 09:59:48

    I have serious problems with vigilantes myself.

    That being said, as a writer, I understand why it happens. There are times when “take him to court and lock him away forever” is not a compelling solution. Doubly true for me–the time period when I’m writing is one where the judicial system doesn’t have a great deal of fine-grained control. Maybe someone will be transported. Maybe someone will be put in jail for a few years of hard labor. Most likely, though, we’re talking about behavior where the dude is going to hang.

    So what do I do about people who are jerks and deserve to have something worse than a few years of labor, but aren’t so bad as to deserve death? The legal system at the time is vastly unsatisfying, and sometimes, someone just needs to get beaten up.

    But that does make me personally uncomfortable. Deeply so.

    But for vigilante violence that ends in death: If this ever happened in a book of mine, it would not be at the end. It would be in the middle, or in the beginning, and it would be something that the character would have to recover from. Because killing someone–even someone really, really bad–scars you. I have serious problems with books where the hero shoots the bad guy and then before the blood even dries he’s pledging his undying love to the hero and they’re going on to their happily ever after without any chance to mourn what has happened.

    If you kill someone and you can turn it off like that, you’re a sociopath. Plain and simple. Death marks you. It doesn’t matter how bad the person is–if someone dies because of you, you feel it.

    It’s why Elizabeth Hoyt’s THE SERPENT PRINCE is one of my favorite books. The hero does kill people, people who he believes are truly bad and deserve to die.

    After the first one, he vomits.

  24. dick
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:00:17

    All fiction is essentially fantastic, beyond the mundane, subject only to the imagination of the author. Since both these tropes occur in fiction, I can’t see willingness to accept either as a problem.

  25. Julia Broadbooks
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:03:44

    @Courtney Milan: The forced seduction trope doesn’t appeal to me at all. I wonder if that’s connected to my feelings on vigilantism? I don’t want my hero and heroine to feel unconflicted about taking a life, even if the death was merited. Even if it was unavoidable. Killing someone should never be an easy thing.

  26. Christine M.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:06:04

    After all, isn’t the rape fantasy the idea that you can be taken against your will and enjoy it?

    Hell yeah. I don’t know for anyone else, but that sure is my take on it that (that and the voyeurism that goes with reading about that — maybe this is uncomfortable for some people?). I even remember a couple of erotic short stories solely based on that idea and wow. Hot stuff. But then, it’s easy for me to really make a difference fiction (in any form, e.g. books, videogames, films, etc.) from reality.

  27. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:08:11


    Why do rape fantasies glorify violence against women? After all, isn’t the rape fantasy the idea that you can be taken against your will and enjoy it?

    Perhaps this is the interpretation of those who enjoy the fantasy (and explains why it works for some people), but it’s certainly not mine. Rape her till she likes it smacks of Stockholm syndrome to me. It’s demeaning and implies that women are so stunted that they can’t recognize, accept, or acknowledge their own desires. It says that men know best, and that they are justified in using violence against someone they supposedly love.

    Vigilante fantasies are about killing another human being to satisfy an emotional sense of imbalance.

    No, vigilante fantasies are about protecting loved ones, society, and the next potential victim from someone the justice system has failed to deal with, or is unable to deal with.

    How is one better than the other?

    I think the answer is obvious, but we’re clearly coming at both issues from VERY different perspectives.

  28. Inez Kelley
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:11:03

    Interesting topic and I find myself agreeing with many points. But in the reading world, I find that most people who “just need killed” often admit to the deeds they are accused of and blamed for. I can’t recall on where the villain proclaimed innocence and was still killed.

    There may be some I simply don’t know about however.

  29. hapax
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:13:28

    I think that perspective is exactly the point.

    Generally speaking, in the rape fantasy trope, the reader is experiencing from the viewpoint of the woman being forcibly seduced / rape. We *know* that she wants it, because we enjoy it along with her.

    In the vigilante trope, the reader is usually experiencing it from the viewpoint of the character inflicting the “rough justice.” We feel the satisfaction of dealing out the righteous punishment, AND (as Courney Milan points out), the internal justification, regret, and remorse (if any) for his (usually “his”) actions.

    So in either case we know the behavior is “okay.”

  30. Courtney Milan
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:14:38

    @Julia Broadbooks: I don’t know, honestly. I’m fairly certain that my issues with vigilante violence differ from my issues with forced seduction–but this is a personal thing, and I don’t know how it stacks up for any one person.

    But I also know that if I was writing a book and I felt like the story and characters demanded a vigilante solution, I would write one.

    (In fact, I already have, and more than once! I’d name it, but I don’t want to spoil my own books. That being said, the impact was a couple of bruises and not death.)

  31. Courtney Milan
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:19:35

    @Isobel Carr:

    No, vigilante fantasies are about protecting loved ones, society, and the next potential victim from someone the justice system has failed to deal with, or is unable to deal with.

    But they’re not always that, either. And I think you can see it most easily in cases not involving death. There are times when someone gets beaten up when there is not even a whiff of a potential argument that there will be a next victim, or that society needs protecting.

    The person gets beaten up simply because he deserves it, and it would be a crappy story if nothing ever happened to him. And I know this, because I’ve had this happen (hero beats up dude because he did something in the past to the heroine), and some readers have commented that they’re disappointed that this person didn’t “get what he deserved.”

    There is definitely an element of rough justice at play. This is not to say that there isn’t sometimes a measure of protection–but don’t tell me that there isn’t some bloodthirstiness going on here.

  32. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:20:14

    @hapax: Right, they are both fantasies. But one fantasy is judged differently than the other as witnessed by the comments.

    @Isobel Carr: I’m still not sure how the publication of one fantasy (rape) glorifies it whereas the other does not glorify violence. After all, in real life, (where I guess the glorification happens) there is no certainty like there is in fiction so you have the ax murdering rugby player killing random guys he thinks might have raped his daughter. In a romance book, said guy is heroic and killing all the right men. In real life, who knows. Why aren’t vigilante fantasies glorifying acts like the ax murdering rugby player who may or may not be killing innocent people? Don’t stories like Suzanne Brockmann’s, as identified by hapax, reduce the care that we have whether innocent people die so long as the bad guys die? In what way does vigilantism in stories not glorify personal violence?

  33. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:20:29

    @Courtney Milan:

    Because killing someone–even someone really, really bad–scars you.

    To me this seems like a very modern response, and one that doesn’t reflect the mentality of people who know that they may have to kill someone in the line of duty (which is pretty much how I think a man of the pre-Modern era would view this). When I think of how my characters would deal with killing someone who was threatening them, I think of how my friends who are LEOs view it. It’s a necessary evil. “Necessary” being the operative word. They don’t question that necessity, and they don’t dwell on it.

  34. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:24:19

    @Isobel Carr: They don’t dwell on it? So human life means so little that taking someone’s life, killing them, is easily accomplished it is of no more import than having breakfast?

  35. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:35:13


    I’m still not sure how the publication of one fantasy (rape) glorifies it whereas the other does not glorify violence.

    I don’t think that’s really the issue. For me, rape (including “forced seduction”) = unnecessary violence against an innocent victim. Justice (including the vigilante kind) = necessary violence. We may not ever agree on this, so I don’t know what else to say.

    @Courtney Milan: Hero beating up a guy because said guy was a douche has nothing to do with “justice” and isn’t really what I thought we were talking about.

  36. Courtney Milan
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:36:36

    @Isobel Carr:

    To me this seems like a very modern response, and one that doesn’t reflect the mentality of people who know that they may have to kill someone in the line of duty (which is pretty much how I think a man of the pre-Modern era would view this).

    Really? You think that your every day lord or blacksmith in Regency times is prepared to kill someone? A soldier, yes–but take someone who wasn’t a soldier, since soldiers have to be prepared to kill.

    How many people do you think that your average man killed in 1818? Or 1840?

    I don’t find a greater disdain for human life in Dickens’s work than I do in that of modern writers. I don’t get the impression that Austen thinks Darcy could just as easily kill Wickham as pay him off, and that would be all in a day’s work. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles, when Tess stabs Alec, it only happens because she’s gone mad.

    It’s really weird, but I don’t get the impression that most people felt that Regency or Victorian England was a basically lawless society and they’d better be prepared to kill at the drop of a hat.

  37. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:38:56

    @Isobel Carr: I don’t mean to pick on you but your comments go to the heart of the issue. Aren’t you conflating real life and fantasy in your scenarios.

    In rape fantasies = sexual force against a willing victim. In real life = sexual force against unwilling victim.

    In vigilante fantasies = necessary violence. In real life = violence against a presumed wrongdoer.

    There is a huge difference between real life and fantasy in BOTH scenarios. Yet “real life” consequences are superimposed on the rape fantasy but NOT the vigilante fantasy. Why?

  38. CK
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:40:51

    Awesome topic Jane. I’m agreeing with Isobel Carr here. Vigilante justice (in books) is always about violence against the guilty. So The Punisher always works for me. But, to me, rape is always about violence against women because it’s their POV. They are fighting the ‘hero’, being scarred by the act only to later reward his violence with love. *hurl btw*. Just because the body reacts doesn’t mean that the brain is reacting the same way.

    I recently read a book that had all my hot kink buttons but when ‘the’ scene came to fruition instead of being kinky it was horrid. The heroine’s was basically screaming in her head how terrified she was, how she equated the act to being raped but it was ok since she was ‘physically ready’ for him. Talk about a wallbanger.

    I don’t see a hero/heroine walking away from the killing a villain w/o scarring as sociopathic. I’d rather see that then have to deal with them whining and moaning about how horrible they feel about taking a life. Now that would be totally different if it turned out that the villain was actually innocent.

    And just to show that it’s early and I haven’t had my coffee yet, I’m totally ok when it’s dubious consent. LOL.

  39. Courtney Milan
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:41:43

    @Isobel Carr:

    @Courtney Milan: Hero beating up a guy because said guy was a douche has nothing to do with “justice” and isn’t really what I thought we were talking about.

    You think that vigilante violence extends only to killing people? And you think that beating someone up for wrongdoing isn’t about justice? What the heck is it about then?

  40. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:44:12

    Again, Jane, I simply think we come at this issue from VERY different perspectives/backgrounds. Not dwelling on something /= taking it casually. It simply means that knowing you did what you had to do is enough for some people (esp those who’ve been prepared and trained for just such a situation). And just because shock and horror at their own actions isn’t their response doesn’t’ mean they’re a psycho.

  41. Marguerite Kaye
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:44:47

    I don’t like vigilante or rape fantasies as either a reader or a writer, but I’m finding the debate fascinating.

    Why is one okay and the other not? Is it because one is about righting a wrong, and the other implies being wronged (even if we know that the rape will turn out to have an element of consent to it in order to make the romance work)? I think that has to be part of it.

    I think another part has to be with the fact that vigilantism has been portrayed as heroic and romantic forever – it’s central to practically every John Ford Western ever made – and if it’s okay for John Wayne then it’s got a kind of baseline of acceptability, even if it isn’t founded in reality.

    Rape is different, it’s primarily negative even in its ‘fantasy’ form, with the female playing a submissive role, and the man by implication losing some of his heroicness. (Is this making sense?) Also, in fiction, it’s tainted with the very traditional male view of what women want from romance – way back to Barbara Cartland – so fantasies based on it are innately demeaning – I mean that’s maybe how we think about them, not that that’s what they are.

    What I’m saying is, rape fantasies come with too much baggage for us to openly admit we enjoy, and for a lot of us actually to enjoy, whereas vigilante fantasies have got society’s stamp of approval.

    Sort of. I think.

  42. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:51:36

    @ Courtney: In an era where most men carried swords or guns and were ready to duel at the drop of a hat, I do very much believe that many (if not most) of them were prepared to kill someone.

    @Jane: No worries. Not taking it personally. Find discussion really interesting (it’s the philosophy major in me, LOL!). It’s the “willing victim” aspect that is being assumed in the fictional rape that I’m not assuming. I guess I just don’t grant the automatic absolution of “she really wanted it”, whereas since we know the villain is guilty in fiction, I do grant the automatic absolution in the vigilante fantasy (I sort of grant it in real life too though, like when that teen shot his molester; which, like I said in my first post, probably says something really effed up about me).

  43. hapax
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:53:05

    “But one fantasy is judged differently than the other as witnessed by the comments.”

    Well, yes, because (as I think you yourself pointed out in another fascinating discussion), the victim of the rape implicitly gives “consent” through the reader, who inhabits her viewpoint.

    We don’t usually experience the villains thinking “Yep, I deserved that” as the hero blows their heads off.

    Off the top of my head, the only victim of vigilante justice who gives similar “consent” via the reader is Roly Otton in the last volume of Veryan’s GOLDEN CHRONICLES, one of the things that makes that book such an interesting read.

  44. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 10:54:42

    @ Courtney Milan: Beating someone up because they’re a douche is about revenge. And yes, I can see the appeal, esp in fiction, but I don’t equate revenge with justice, even of the vigilante kind. Vigilante violence /= vigilante justice. So perhaps were not really talking about the same thing?

  45. Polly
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 11:09:23

    I’m not going to express this well at all, but it seems to me that part of the issue may be the terms people use. “Vigilante” can cover so much, up to, but not necessarily including, death. Violence is a part of it, but not the only end. People who are ok with, or even actively enjoy reading, vigilante actions may not be okay with all types of vigilante actions–there’s a difference between beating someone up, engineering their social downfall, and killing them. If you called it “murder fantasy,” I think people would be a lot less forgiving of it (which is the problem with the term “rape fantasy”–“forced seduction” is better in that sense, but not if it continues to be used interchangeably with “rape fantasy”). Not saying that people still wouldn’t read and like it, but it’s a lot harder to say “I love a good murder fantasy.”

    That said, I don’t like reading about vigilante action if it means death. And while forced seduction may not be my cup of tea, everyone’s entitled to whatever turns them on.

  46. M
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 11:14:43

    Most readers and maybe even all readers understand the vigilante fantasy. Far more than understand the rape fantasy.

    It’s easier to accept what you understand.

  47. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 11:23:00

    @Polly: Such a good point. Murder fantasy does indeed change the dynamic, doesn’t it?

  48. Gretchen Galway
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 11:36:26

    Fascinating discussion.

    I would argue it’s a function of our post-feminist era: domination is better than submission.

    I haven’t read many m/m romances–are forced submission plotlines popular and less (pardon the expression) loaded?

  49. dm
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 11:39:04

    @Isobel Carr

    In an era where most men carried swords or guns and were ready to duel at the drop of a hat, I do very much believe that many (if not most) of them were prepared to kill someone.

    What era are you referring to here? And what part of the world? There isn’t a period in English history when most men went about armed, unless the “most” we are talking about here is the aristocracy, and even then, we’re talking about a very limited segment of that population.

    Even if you confine yourself to that part of the English aristocracy that chose the profession of arms, officer diaries and letters home from the American Revolution reveal the very real anguish these men felt over even government sanctioned killing.

    @Marguerite Kaye

    I think another part has to be with the fact that vigilantism has been portrayed as heroic and romantic forever…Rape is different, it’s primarily negative even in its ‘fantasy’ form, with the female playing a submissive role, and the man by implication losing some of his heroicness.

    Rape has an equally long tradition of being romanticized. The Rape of the Sabines is a bit before John Wayne’s time. And forced seduction as we know it in modern romances goes back to Hellenistic novels and Roman comedy.

  50. Kathleen O'Reilly
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 12:04:05

    Great discussion. IMHO, incomplete justice in either real life or fiction is very unsatisfying. The idea that a wrong has no consequences, or the bad guy escapes consequences unsettles me. It is at that point, when it appears that the wrong has no consequences, that I don’t care what manner the justice takes, as long as it seems “just”.

    Vigilante justice, when used in a revenge trope, is more unsettling me, because as a reader, I need to play through the act of the incomplete justice. I need to see the pain/suffering of the victim, and then after that, I’m emotionally on board.

    The opening of the Godfather plays out as incomplete justice and makes the Godfather seem heroic, even though he’s really a thug.

    The best sorts of vigilante scenarios are when the bad guys escape justice over and over again, and it seems that no one will ever bring them to justice, when the good guys sweep in and take care of things (whatever manner that takes).

    I agree with Marguerite that a rape fantasy (i.e Flame and the Flower) creates a wrong, perpetrated by the hero, and that is hard for me as a reader to overcome. I think the reason the Flame and the Flower worked for me (besides the fact that I was very young), was that Heather was in really bad circumstances, and although the hero did bad by her, he also lifted her out of those bad circumstances into a better place. If Heather’s aunt and uncle had been merely poor, instead of mis-treating her, I think I would have hated Brandon. Brandon was ‘above’ Heather’s relatives on the badness scale and it worked.

  51. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 12:16:24

    @dm: Sorry, to be clear, I’m talking about Georgian (and pre-Georgian) England, and since almost all heroes are part of the aristocracy, my comments are directed there. So yes, a limited segment of the population to be sure, but the one most likely to be under discussion on a romance forum in context between Courtney and I, since we both write historicals and the example she used is from an 18th century-set historical.

    I’m simply not convinced that men raised in this kind of culture would have necessarily been distraught about killing someone they believed to be a dangerous villain, and I know I wouldn’t portray my hero that way.

  52. Tina
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 12:18:39


    There is a huge difference between real life and fantasy in BOTH scenarios. Yet “real life” consequences are superimposed on the rape fantasy but NOT the vigilante fantasy. Why?

    I can only speak for myself here, but I think there is a level of distance one has to have in order to enjoy something as a true fantasy.

    In my mind, I can enjoy a vigilante element in a story because it is so far outside my own personal realm of what can be true. I can’t possibly see a real life situation where vigilante justice would be necessary. Sure, it does happen in real life, but for the average person taking a gun and hunting down someone who has hurt you and shooting them til they are dead (after a full confession, naturally) just, well, it isn’t real. Instead you hope the police catch them and they get arrested and go to trial and then go to jail.

    But rape, imo, is very much a real life possibility. It is very difficult to get distance from that. Given the likelihood that you may know, know of or have been a rape victim. It very hard to put that in the realm of fantasy.

    I know romance novels pretty the forced seduction up a bit but there is still that element that makes it uncomfortably closes especially given how you are supposed to identify with the heroine.

  53. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 12:25:18

    For the commenters here who believe that the rape fantasy book glorifies rape culture do you have a) any research that supports this and b) bothered by the way in which this suggests that those women who buy and write these stories contribute to their own rape or the rape of other women?

  54. Ridley
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 12:27:35

    I think you’ve nailed it, Jane, with “sex is worse than violence.”

    In the Amazon romance forum (my favorite internet dive bar) any thread dealing with rape, rape fantasy or forced seduction brings out the most abusive trolls, bar none. One time, as a response to my defense of reading rape fantasies, another poster hoped that I’d be brutally raped one day, and that I deserved to be since I find it so thrilling.

    I mean, really.

    Yet, everyone loves the vigilante. Indulging a sexual control fantasy means you are human garbage, but cheering on a murderer is perfectly healthy behavior.

    Both are completely rooted in fantasy. Romance novel rape, and rape fantasy in general, are about sex and pleasure. Real rape is about power, dominance and humiliation. Romance novel revenge or extrajudicial killing doesn’t allow for doubt or shades of gray and rarely admits the killer might feel remorse, shame or guilt from his actions. Real life “justified” murder is a fuckton messier. Cops have staggeringly high rates of depression and stress disorders. Courts wrongly convict people all the damn time.

    People just lose their shit when it comes to sex. It’s not a rational response, I don’t think.

  55. Lynn S.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 12:32:32

    I’m seeing a lively comments section on this post.

    I don’t find the vigilante fantasy compelling. But then I’m the type person who has that small moment of worry every time I pull out of the driveway that there might be some wandering toddler behind my vehicle that I won’t see until it is too late. I have a problem with injury in general and with violence of any kind. A well-deserved slap or an agreed upon bout of fisticuffs I can handle; but torture, actual rape, severe beating, or killing/murder isn’t my idea of fantasy material. I have no problem with a character wishing the villain dead but the actual taking of a life has serious consequences and if it is the hero or heroine committing the act, I have a hard time believing in the well-being of that person in the long term. The relationship between the two enduring I can see, but the destructive nature of violence adds a layer of melancholy that would take some very skilled characterization by the writer to bring off. Not a fan of the type villain who seems to require a pine box; I prefer a complex villain doing rather despicable things but not beyond redemption.

    Different people have different levels of tolerance for violence and varying ideas about justice. I can see the vigilante fantasy feeding the desire for justice but I find the concept of justice to be one of those rather persistent illusions in life and I’m not one to cast the first stone.

    Rape fantasy/forced seduction, although the line between this and actual rape can be tenuous, is a different issue and I think it has more to do with the desire of some women to cede decision making to another and there is more involved than mere titillation in this fantasy. The violence of an actual rape of the heroine makes for extreme discomfort in my reading experience; and if the hero is the rapist, I can’t turn off the reality button that tells me how messed up a supposed HEA would be under this scenario. Would we ever forgive or accept redemption for a hero who beat the heroine?

    On the question of sex being more wrong than violence. I thing this is more an issue in American society with our steadfast streak of Puritanism at play along with the private and individual nature of sexuality. What happens between two consenting adults should stay between them; probably part of what makes romance fiction so beloved, that peek into the private thoughts and moments of others without any of the taboo of actual voyeurism. Not so much that it is wrong as that we are often prudish about it; you know your parents, children, friends are having sex or are thinking about sex, but you don’t want the details. Too bad the Quaker philosphy isn’t the one that runs wide and deep.

    On another topic, I wish you still had all of the comment thread on one page instead of having to shuffle back and forth when the thread becomes lengthy.

  56. Booklover1335
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 13:12:53

    I think your comparison within romance novels is justified. I recently read a historical romance, Invitation to Ruin by Bronwen Evans in which the hero has sex with the heroine while she is asleep, she wakes to find herself ruined and asks him to stop….and he doesn’t right away. There is a whole set of circumstances to the story which led me to think it wasn’t necessarily rape even though it wasn’t actually consensual, but many others vilified the book because of this one scene.

    As I said, many called this scene rape, and I think it was deliberately written to be somewhat ambiguous by the author because of the hero’s past, but I had a hard time agreeing with the rape assessment. The heroine wasn’t exactly consenting, but she was dreaming of him, the hero, while it was taking place, and I think what really made it ok for me was the intent of the hero and how it fit into the story. Because the scene did have a purpose to the overall story.

    I certainly don’t condone rape whether it be iin fiction, or reality, but I also try to separate reality to a certain degree from the romances that I read, and have to believe that the author has a reason for presenting a sex scene in this way, therefore I usually prefer not to judge forced seductions, or rape fantasies. I go with it. Sometimes it is disturbing, or you want the hero to really grovel to get his HEA, but as long as it is written with purpose I don’t see why it would be harshly judged. That being said, I am sure there are romances that are written that may actually glorify rape in all it’s ugliness, I’ve just not read one.

    And yes, I am for vigilante justice in romance too. I love to see the villain get what is there due in the end…but then again I like to see real villains get what is coming to them too…just within the law :)

    Elizabeth Hoyt’s Serpent Prince remains one of my all time favorite historical romances because the hero actually hates himself for being a killer despite the fact that he feels he is honor bound to exact the revenge. I love him as a hero, even though he is a killer, and I think it made it ok for me because of his intent and his remorse.

    Nothing is black or white.
    Great topic!

  57. Isobel Carr
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 13:17:23


    For the commenters here who believe that the rape fantasy book glorifies rape culture do you have a) any research that supports this

    Why would we need “research” to verify our opinion? This is an opinion based question/issue, isn’t it? And as there are clearly many of us who feel this way, if we did a poll (aka “research”), all we’d uncover is that yes, many women believe that rape fantasy glorifies rape (and many don’t).

    b) bothered by the way in which this suggests that those women who buy and write these stories contribute to their own rape or the rape of other women?

    WHOA! This is another topic entirely. I don’t think that my saying that rape fantasy bothers me equates to my saying that people who have this fantasy are contributing to the actual rape of themselves or others.

  58. Julia Broadbooks
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 13:22:05

    @Isobel Carr: I don’t think that reading forced seduction contributes to a woman’s culpability at all. For starters, rape fantasy in romance leads to a lasting love. I don’t think that that is the goal with any real world rape. As has been pointed out by other commenters, real rape is a crime of violence not love.

  59. Fia
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 13:32:35

    Vigilante fantasies don’t do anything for me. Vigilantism is heavily tied to a time setting and culture. What was right then is wrong today and what’s right today will be deemed wrong in a century’s time.

    Only 100 years ago, it was “just” to hang Chinese people in Texas to “protect” local employment, families and communities. It was fine one time for a handful of people to judge, sentence and hang the prime suspect – often, a mentally ill, physically deformed or disabled person – without a proper trial within a couple of hours. What is just isn’t always just. Like I say, vigilantism has an ugly history.

    I think everyone is aware of this, though. In fiction and cinema, it’s a fantasy that most enjoy, but wouldn’t approve in real life. Which seems the case with rape fantasies as well.

  60. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 13:47:43

    @Isobel Carr When you say that a book containing rape fantasy glorifies rape what do you mean by that if not to say that it encourages and or fosters rape in real life?

  61. Angela
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:08:46

    For me, like everything else in writing (or movies really), I need to be made to believe it.

    For rape fantasies/forced seductions/etc, I have to feel that the heroine is there with the hero. I don’t want her being afraid/worried/upset saying ‘No, No, No!’ throughout the whole scene for example. That doesn’t work for me. That’s not a rape fantasy – that’s rape. I’ll admit I tend to be a bit more harsh on this criteria being met for me. If you asked me I’d say I don’t like to read forced seduction/rape fantasies, but it’s because so often I feel like there’s not enough there to make me believe. That being said, some of my favorite books ever feature this.

    For vigilante justice, same thing. The author needs to make me believe that the villian really did this thing, and that there is no other recourse that would result in a just punishment for them.

    It all lies in the skill of the author, for me.

  62. Robin
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:17:25

    One of the reasons I think the two fantasies are treated differently is that vigilantism is often seen as okay in real life, whereas rape isn’t. Consequently, there may be situations in which people would accept vigilantism as a social good, but not, obviously, rape.

    Also, I think there is perhaps a more universal element to the vigilante fantasy — that is, all of us have felt the sting of injustice, even if it’s on a small scale, whereas the rape fantasy may not have that universal appeal.

    Also, the rape fantasy primarily involves women and is — like most sexual things experienced by women — the subject/object of intense scrutiny, suspicion, and judgment.

    @Isobel Carr:

    I’m sure this says really effed up things about me, but I don’t see the two fantasies as having any common ground. Rape fantasies glorify violence against women. Vigilante fantasies glorify justice.

    Whoa. Just whoa.

    I completely understand the position of not enjoying the rape fantasy — statistically speaking more than half of women do, but that’s not all (and I am not someone who is into it, myself, so I totally get that). And I think when it comes to fictional representations of sexual force that there is value is discussing when and how any of those representations crosses a line for individual readers. Because IMO not all representations of force are created equal and neither will they trigger a fantasy scenario for the reader. And maybe that’s what you mean here.

    But I worry about blanket statements about female sexual fantasies, as well as the shame that women who do enjoy this very common sexual fantasy already feel without pronouncements by other women that they are somehow participating in their own victimization. Not to mention the men who enjoy submission fantasies (are they also glorifying violence toward women or are we supposed to see them as more feminine because they fantasize about being taken over sexually?).

    Beyond the fact that there is no statistical correlation between the rape fantasy and desire or propensity for rape in real life (this is a good discussion of the major scientific studies on rape fantasy:, the whole concept of the sexual fantasy is that it’s often comprised of a taboo element, which makes sense, of course, when you think about it from a psychological perspective. It may just be me, but I completely understand how something women have so little control over in real life would be converted to something over which we have ultimate control in our fantasies. Frankly, that seems pretty healthy to me.

    Without question we live in a deeply entrenched rape culture, and we should be conscious of the ways in which violence toward women is not being challenged. But there are also many ways in which women engage in victim blaming and other sorts of patriarchal empowerment when it comes to how other women conduct themselves sexually. And I think women have done ourselves a disservice by constructing feminist principles in a way that continues to empower the idea that women cannot fantasize about sexual submission without authorizing rape. That idea makes me a little sick to my stomach, in fact, because it seems a double victimization of women and a double empowerment of rape culture.

    One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman in their IMO wonderful book Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and A World Without Rape:

    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, and therefore how fostering genuine female sexual autonomy is necessary in fighting back against it. We wanted to talk about how to make the world safer for women to say no and yes to sex as we please.

    I love this idea of reconceptualizing the whole paradigm in which we think about and discuss female sexuality. I think about all the women who feel shame in reading Romance because they feel society judges them as (insert derogatory adjective here). IMO it’s no different for women who enjoy the rape fantasy. Beyond the whole question of whether we should be policing fantasies, I think it’s important to distinguish between a real life act in which women have no control and a sexual fantasy in which women are, in fact, exercising their personal agency in creating said fantasy — its boundaries and details and limits. If the world itself is often an unsafe place for women, can’t we make other women’s fantasies safe, at least among ourselves?

  63. Wahoo Suze
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:19:00

    For the last several decades, in North America:

    – Women who enjoy sex are bad
    – Men must be strong and manly, and not be bothered by weaknesses like emotions.

    Therefore, rape fantasies mean a woman can enjoy sex without being responsible for it.

    Violence fantasies mean we (men and women) can enjoy bringing justice to the bad guys without being consumed by doubt, and without facing consequences.

    Things are changing to a small degree so that some women actually do, in real life, get to enjoy sex without being shamed for it.

    However, the more libertarian society gets, the more vigilantism is glorified and even normalized. We don’t need no stinkin’ police force, we gots gunz. We can handle our own stinkin’ security, so don’t you be charging taxes to provide a service we don’t need.

    The message that I’ve been able to percieve is: the justice system is corrupt and inefficient, and a decent human being should take care of things on his/her own.

    For example:
    – every Western ever written/made
    – every Sylvester Stallone movie ever made (and Arnold, and Bruce Willis, and, and, and)
    – every Superhero movie ever made
    – every stinkin’ video game my nephew owns

    People nowadays are generally aware that rape is a bad thing. I think most people haven’t given a lot of thought to vigilantism, and it hasn’t even occurred to them that enjoying vicarious violence is something to be ashamed of.

  64. dm
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:21:24

    @Isobel Carr

    it’s that the fantasy elements of the vigilante fantasy are clearer: the hero or heroine *does* know that the bad guy did it–they saw him, he usually gives some sort of confession, etc. The Joker never claims to be innocent.

    How does this differ from the fantasy construction of the handsome, aristocratic rapist who provides orgasms during forced sex and will offer marriage (justice) in the end?

  65. Annabel
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:28:47

    *It all lies in the skill of the author, for me.*

    For me too. With a good author and a good story, I’ll go just about anywhere and suspend my disbelief and real life dislikes as needed. I’ve just always been that way.

    As for the rape fantasy issue vs. real-life rape…I have been raped in real life, and I still write dubious consent and forced seduction scenes in my books. I still harbor the same rape fantasies I had before I was raped. The reason is because there is no comparison between romance-fantasy rape and the actual reality of rape. To me, they are 100% different things.

  66. jmc
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:34:18

    Side note:

    @hapax, thank you! In #22 you clarified for me one of the things in Brockmann’s most recent books that has niggled as I read. I hadn’t framed it as vigilante justice, but the Troubleshooters tendency to take justice into their own hands is exactly that. When the violence/comeuppances dealt out was through the FBI and/or armed forces, I read it as being within the context of law enforcement and/or military action. But now the same people are doing the same thing…but not with the imprimatur of any law enforcement authority or war zone. And I’m not sure I trust their judgment, despite Brockmann’s contortions and use of Uber Evil Villains.

  67. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:50:25


    Actually different from Isobel Carr–I should figure out a less similar screen name.

    The difference is, for me, the moral character of the hero based on what he knows and how.

    In vigilante fantasy, the hero has clear external evidence that the villain is a bad guy. Maybe it’s not evidence that will stand up in court–or maybe the courts are corrupt, or the villain is doing something that the law doesn’t recognize as bad, or the villain is actually a mutant who can get out of any jail cell–but it’s evidence that would make me fairly certain if I was there. I could point and say “See, he did Y because of X.”

    In rape fantasy, the hero doesn’t have clear external evidence that the heroine really wants him. In fact, he may have exactly the opposite–she may say no or even try to fight him off.* In the context of the story, he knows she doesn’t mean it, but *how* he knows is less clear. In his situation, I would have no reason to think the heroine was anything but sincere. There’s nothing that I can point to and say “She really wanted it because of X.”

    Therefore, to me, the hero in Scenario A is a good guy with potential issues based on the setting; the hero in Scenario B is a scumwad, because I don’t do the giving-permission-with-the-heroine thing when I read. (No judgment on those who do. I just don’t.) And that’s one of those things I don’t forgive.

    It comes down to what I can reasonably expect the hero to know, and why.

    Not sure what aristocracy or looks have to do with anything, honestly.

    *It’s worth noting that there are a lot of shades of what the fanfic world calls “dubious consent”, and different sorts may trouble different people in fiction.

  68. LauraB
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 14:57:14

    Maybe it’s the “squick” factor? We don’t like it b/c in real life, rape is yucky so imagining ourselves being raped and enjoying it means we’re yucky? It’s not my kink, but I don’t see a reason to lambaste someone for a preference (just like I wouldn’t attack someone who’s gay or in a consensual D/s relationship). Again, not my thing…*shrugs*

    Now, if you want me to get up in arms and on my moral high-horse, let’s talk about bigamy. ;)

    I think the fear is (and a real one too) is that such scenes can be read as condoning rape; however, it would likely only be read as such by only someone seeking to justify such violence. Just like we can find justifications in the Bible for all sorts of crimes and hateful behavior. It really is a matter of interpretation.

    The irrational response as reported in one of the comments where a poster wished rape on her for voicing a lack of disgust with “rape fantasies” is sick and seems motivated by the same kind of fears that generate homophobia.

    I enjoy the “vigilante” fantasy on a number of levels. I like it because it gives me a sense of agency: that I can affect change and bring about justice; that I am not dependent upon an alienating and detached government. Also, it makes justice personal. :)

  69. P. Kirby
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 15:07:25

    I think rape fantasy is much more controversial than vigilante fantasy, because the definition of rape as a crime has historically been more controversial. Let’s see if I can make myself clear (not terribly coherent today.)

    Even today, in many countries, rape is not a crime. Worse yet, in some cases, it is the victim, not the perpetrator, who is punished. This kind of skewed or non-existent justice is typical of many highly religious, patriarchal societies, where women are second-class citizens at best, and more often, glorified property.

    Acknowledging that rape is a crime requires the acknowledgment that women are human beings, with equal rights to self determination and bodily autonomy as men. And often, achieving this acknowledgment has been a long, hard-fought battle, inextricably bound to feminism itself.

    Today, even in modern countries where rape is illegal, it isn’t hard to find rape apologists, those who’ll argue that the victim deserved it, that she provoked the “unfortunate” perpetrator.

    Victims of sexual assault and their advocates have worked hard to overcome inherent sexism and victim-blaming to ensure that rape is always a crime. Consequently, for many people, rape is crime and never a fantasy.

    OTOH, most societies allow for some kinds of lethal violence. There’s murder and there’s homicide. Some states still have the death penalty. Soldiers and law enforcement may kill under certain circumstances.

    In short, I think our society is used to treating non-sexual violence on a kind of case-by-case approach. But we are less at ease, in part because of underlying gender issues, with a “shades of gray” approach to rape, even in fiction.

  70. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 15:08:07


    At least for me, there are two additional elements. First of all, the vigilante thing is far easier for me to identify with, particularly in cases like “Blue Devil”. If a friend told me that their SO was abusive…well, I’m a law-abiding girl and I’m actually not physically tough. But I’d definitely *want* the other person dead.

    Second, it’s very difficult for me to separate rape fantasies as pure kink from the fictional attitudes they’ve traditionally been associated with re: female sexuality. I see them in romance and immediately start expecting overly naive heroines, Evil Women Who Put Out, and similar Good Girls Do, Bad Girls Die tropes. I don’t know if the same is true for other people who dislike forced-seduction stuff, but I suspect it might be.

  71. Niveau
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 15:23:57

    I think how you feel about rape fantasies depends in large part on one thing that several other people have mentioned throughout this thread: who you believe is the one giving consent. Whenever the rape fantasy is discussed, people often bring up that, despite what the heroine says, the reader knows that the heroine is consenting, because the reader has consented.

    The fact that people state that as fact pisses me off to no end. It’s not fact, it’s not universal, and it’s most certinaly not what I experience when I read a rape/rape fantasy scene. I think it piggybacks heavily on the whole “placeholder heroine” thing, which, again, is not how everyone experiences a book.

    For me to enjoy a scene of rape fantasy, I have to know that it is the heroine’s fantasy as well. If I’m reading and the heroine is saying/thinking “no” – even if she eventually changes this to a “yes” because it feels so good – it is rape, not a rape fantasy. Full stop. And that is the reason that I see it as much worse than when a character takes vigilante actions, not that I like those either: to me, the hero is raping the heroine. Period. And unless it’s dealt with in a very specific way, like in Gaffney’s To Have and To Hold, it makes me see the hero as a horrible person who doesn’t deserve an HEA.

    Vigilante actions, on the other hand, annoy me to no end – especially when, as has been mentioned before, a character kills someone else and then immediately rides off into the sunset with their true love, no harm, no foul – but, because the violence is merited, doesn’t necessarily make me hate that character. (Though I find that I’m slightly less critical of such actions when the hero/heroine is getting back at the person who hurt them, instead of getting revenge for their SO.) Which is why, to me, it makes absolutely no sense to compare the two fantasies. One is the action of a bad person who hurts an innocent; the other is the action of a well-intentioned person who punishes the guilty.

    I don’t think the rape fantasy itself is a problem, especially since, to me, you can divide them into two categories: scenes in which the rape/not-rape-by-way-of-reader-consent is occuring because it’s not okay for the heroine to want sex, and scenes in which it is occuring because it’s exactly how the heroine wants to have sex. Which of these two storylines you prefer/can handle depends largely, imo, on your view of acceptable female sexuality, and I don’t think it’s fair to blame anyone for internalising what society has spent their entire life teaching them about women and sex. (That being said, if you enjoy a rape scene because that makes the pleasure okay, then turn around and slut-shame in real life, you’re being a total jerk.)

    But I do think it’s important to think about why we enjoy rape fantasies, and to look at them in the broader context of our culture, because how we feel about them is so entwined with the screwed-up way female sexuality is generally framed. And I do think they play a role in rape culture in that, depending on their execution, they can diminish the seriousness of rape by making it seem like it’s not a big deal and something that can be gotten over easily, by making it seem like it’s okay to shift the blame onto the victim, and by reinforcing the virgin/whore dichotomy. I’ve seen this played out so many times: rape apologists bring up rape fantasies as proof that a woman was lying/rape isn’t really that bad anyway/as long as there’s physical pleasure, consent doesn’t matter. People really do believe these things, and people really do believe that rape fantasies prove that they’re true.

    Analyzing why women enjoy a certain fantasy, though, is not the same as slut-shaming women for enjoying it. Adding to rape culture is a no-no.

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to re-read Maya Banks’ story from Four Play, because all this discussion has got me wanting to read a rape fantasy I do enjoy.

  72. Praxidike
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 16:21:12

    @Isobel Carr:

    You attempt to distinguish vigilante justice from rape because in some circumstances vigilante justice is “justified.” While I agree with the premise that rape is never justified, your argument is, essentially, that YOU feel vigilante justice is appropriate under certain circumstances. That is, you’re using your own social and ethical mores to judge whether the vigilante justice is appropriate, and therefore justified. And because you’re using your own social and ethical backdrop to make that determination, your argument has some flaws.

    Although vigilante justice in a book may be cut-and-dried, it is rarely so clear in real life. And the question that Jane is asking here is why one form of violence is acceptable, whereas the other is not.

    I would submit, in response to Jane’s question, that neither form of violence is acceptable. Accepting and glorifying vigilante justice requires that we all suspend our disbelief that the person being “punished” is actually guilty of the crime. It also requires that everyone in the community believe that certain actions are morally and ethically reprehensible and that they therefore deserve punishment.

    As to the first issue, without proper evidence, there’s no way to be certain that the person actually committed the crime. Without such certainty, vigilante justice is no justice at all. In my mind it is much preferable to let a guilty man go free than it is to allow an innocent man to remain be killed due to mob violence.

    As to the second issue, putting someone else’s ethical beliefs onto an entire community creates yet more problems. For example, and I realize this is inflammatory, some people believe that abortion is murder. Some people also believe that OB/GYNs who perform abortions should be murdered because they, themselves, are committing murder when they perform abortion. That is a form of vigilante justice that clearly relies on someone’s ethical and moral compass, and certainly not everyone agrees with that formulation.

    To the people that believe that abortion equals murder, then perhaps such a killing would be considered “justified” (as Ms. Carr has argued above). But to those people who believe that abortion is NOT murder, the murder of an OB/GYN who performs abortions is nothing more an irrational, senseless murder. Thus, I think that you can see how vigilante justice is truly in the eye of the beholder. While some people may find it appropriate because they believe that the guilty party is in need of punishment, others may categorically disagree.

  73. M
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 16:58:33

    Lots of great discussion – although I think the topic is awfully broad for one little comment thread. There seems to be confusion as to what a rape fantasy actually is – same with what constitutes a vigilante fantasy.

    Robin’s comment shed a lot of light on the rape fantasy issue (thank you), but I think I’m still confused about the vigilante fantasy. So questions:

    I’m not fond of mysteries or the epic adventures where a vigilante storyline might be found, so I really don’t know how violent those types of novels are. (I’m a Harlequin Presents kind of gal) I’m also wondering how the revenge/justice theme adds to the romance. In what ways (typically)do romance writers use this storyline?

  74. Jill Sorenson
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 17:21:51

    Great discussion! I don’t have much to add but have found a lot of food for thought in the post and comments, especially those from @Niveau.

    I usually shy away from forced seduction discussions, though I’ve defended a Catherine Coulter rape-scenario before. It saddens me to see fans of this trope chastized, but I also understand that some women feel strongly compelled to speak out against it. Both sides have good motives, I think.

    I’m of the mind that ‘any fantasy is okay’ but find some themes distasteful. I’m not a fan of interracial romance as titillation, for example.

    Many readers are saying that it’s a matter of story and characterization. I’m sure that’s true. If the author portays the hero as cruel and sadistic, and the heroine as helpless and passive, most women aren’t going to feel satisfied at the end, whether they like rape fantasy or not. We have to be able to relate to the heroine who wants forced sex, or find redeeming qualities in the hero that uses force.

    I’m trying to tie this in to my discomfort over racial stereotypes and failing. Oh, wait. Here it is: Flat characterizations and objectification aren’t going to work for readers who have felt objectified. So…female readers aren’t going to enjoy the heroine as a passive vessel. It’s a mistake, I think, to assume that all rape fantasy features a weak-willed or downtrodden heroine.

  75. dm
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 17:27:42

    @Isobel C

    In rape fantasy, the hero doesn’t have clear external evidence that the heroine really wants him. In fact, he may have exactly the opposite–she may say no or even try to fight him off.* In the context of the story, he knows she doesn’t mean it, but *how* he knows is less clear. In his situation, I would have no reason to think the heroine was anything but sincere. There’s nothing that I can point to and say “She really wanted it because of X.”

    I’m sure there are badly written books exactly as you describe, where the motives of characters are inscrutable, particularly old skool books without any hero POV. But more books today are like Anne Stuart’s Breathless, in which the hero tells us exactly how he knows the heroine wants him.

    From Lucien, who has abducted Miranda, we learn that:

    p. 141

    She had rubbed against him, instinctively, helplessly, as he kissed her, and she was wet with longing.

    p. 220

    He could read her mind so easily.

    p. 221

    He knew Miranda too well…

    And on page 231 he tells us that

    She didn’t want him to know anything about her reactions, and he knew she would say nothing more. It was up to him to read her body. Fortunately he was an expert at just that.

  76. Jane
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 17:29:06

    @dm Oh lord. I laughed my head off at this comment.

  77. pamelia
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 17:42:11

    Wow! Great discussion. I always wonder myself getting back to Jane’s example in “Blue Eyed Devil”: DOES her husband deserve killing for abusing and raping his wife? Is death the proscribed punishment in our minds for rape/abuse? If so, I’m a little worried; not because I feel that rape is a mild crime (it is not). I often read comments (on blogs/in reviews) wherein people wish death on the rapist and it gets me a little worried.
    I have been doing a lot of thinking about this (but my thoughtfulness will most likely fall victim to attempts to keep my 2 year old from breaking the CD player so excuse me if I get a little less eloquent than I want to be!) One of the most interesting books I ever read was by Dorothy Bryant “The Kin of Ata are Waiting for You” (also published as “The Comforter”) In which our anti-hero finds himself in a hippie-peace-natural-soulsearching community and he rapes a woman there; when he is done, she calmly gets up, dusts herself off and informs him that what he has done is not good for his spiritual development. Talk about the ultimate fantasy! Imagine if we were in a place culturally or socially in which it truly was seen that rape is the fault/burden/responsibility of the perpetrator and not the victim. Of course we aren’t and of course that is a fantasy of ultimate proportions, but it has stuck with me (I only read the book once when I was 18 and I am now erm… older). Unfortunately, I think where we are is best represented by this article: Schroedinger’s Rapist

  78. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:01:18

    I personally do feel that death is an appropriate punishment, in the abstract, for rape or abuse. The difficulty of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has actually committed a crime informs my view on it in actuality. But we’re getting into more general philosophy here.

    @dm: Sure, but what goes through my mind there is a) How does he know he can read her mind? Unless he’s actually psychic, in which case…cool, psychic kink. And b) a lot of women experience lubrication and even orgasm during rape, and–from what I hear–this doesn’t actually make it pleasant for them.

    Depending on context–if it’s a long term relationship where they do know each other’s reactions that well, or a historical where the hero is unaware of point b–I can maaaaybe see the hero as not a total asshat in a novel like you describe. Otherwise, he doesn’t know, he just assumes, and I kind of want him to die.

    Again, though, that’s a matter of personal taste.

  79. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:06:05

    @dm: Also, the quotes there don’t have the heroine saying no. She doesn’t say *yes*, and that’s a thing, but the quotes, at least, don’t have her protesting. RL, that’s still a problem; fictionally, that takes it into a different area, at least for me.

  80. dm
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:09:23

    @Isobel C

    Sure, but what goes through my mind there is a) How does he know he can read her mind? Unless he’s actually psychic, in which case…cool, psychic kink. And b) a lot of women experience lubrication and even orgasm during rape, and–from what I hear–this doesn’t actually make it pleasant for them.

    Lovers in romance are often under the impression that they have a special understanding of the thoughts and desires of the love object. In this case, Lucien is right because Miranda confirms that:

    p. 226

    She didn’t even like sex, but she wanted his body on top of hers, pushing inside her. She wanted to put her harms around him and hold him close while he sweated and strained and found his completion. She wanted to give everything she could to him, when she should have wanted to cut his throat.

  81. dm
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:19:49

    @ Isobel C

    Also, the quotes there don’t have the heroine saying no. She doesn’t say *yes*, and that’s a thing, but the quotes, at least, don’t have her protesting. RL, that’s still a problem; fictionally, that takes it into a different area, at least for me.

    p. 140

    Miranda: “I won’t lie down for you, and I won’t let you rape me.”

  82. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:21:46

    @dm: Sure. But acting on that assumed knowledge when something like consent is at issue…doesn’t give the guy a pass, where I’m concerned. Especially because there are plenty of heroes in romance who don’t pull that. And while *we* know Miranda’s into it, we don’t–and again, just going from the quotes here–see her telling him, or otherwise making it clear in ways other than in highly misinterpretable body language.

    Again, I’m *not* saying that there’s anything wrong with enjoying rape fantasies. I like the occasional bit of dubious consent myself, find “Music of the Night” hot, and so forth. But there’s a point where a hero becomes irredeemable to me, and “your mouth says no but your eyes say yes” is pretty well across it.

  83. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:25:16

    Well, okay. I find the hero all kinds of creepy bastard, in that case, and I want him to die in a fire.

    Other people like him, and that’s cool. Other people like all kinds of characters I hate–ask me about Dawn Summers sometime. ;)

  84. dm
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:47:14

    @Isobel C

    But acting on that assumed knowledge when something like consent is at issue…doesn’t give the guy a pass, where I’m concerned.

    I’m not giving the guy a pass or arguing that the hero is redeemable. I’m responding to your assertion that:

    In rape fantasy, the hero doesn’t have clear external evidence that the heroine really wants him. In fact, he may have exactly the opposite–she may say no or even try to fight him off.* In the context of the story, he knows she doesn’t mean it, but *how* he knows is less clear.”

    In the passages I’m quoting, “how” he knows is clear. He tells us exactly how he knows. It may not be, as you yourself say about vigilante justice evidence that will stand up in court.

    But that is exactly my point. The hero has no more evidence of the villain’s wrongdoing than he does of the heroine’s consent. If he did, he would allow the law to take its course.

  85. Isabel C.
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 18:53:31

    @dm: Except that I don’t have any reason to believe him. “I know she wants me because I know her body better than she does…” is less convincing, to me, than “Someone I trust has told me that he’s beating her up and threatening to kill her.” There’s an external, third-party element there that I find more convincing.

    That said, there’s a spectrum in both cases: it’s not a strict binary of “your mouth says no, your eyes say yes” versus Antioch College, nor of mob violence versus Superman. I’m most comfortable in the middle of both areas–with vigilante justice, I want a reason why the law can’t or won’t deal with the problem.

  86. Janine
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 19:56:06

    Great post and a fascinating discussion. I think there’s more than one reason for the difference in attitude toward these fantasies.

    I’m going to posit a theory that may be controversial. I think one of the reasons that enjoying the vigilante justice fantasy is viewed as more acceptable than enjoying the rape fantasy is that the impulse toward violence exists in most human beings.

    IMO our ancestors would not have made the transition to hunting as well as gathering were it not for the existence of such impulses. Another piece of evidence of their existence is that as children, most of us act on these impulses. There are very few young children, I think, who have never, ever hit or otherwise hurt another child.

    But as adults we have to find other ways to channel these impulses. Participation in or viewing of sports is one way, and vigilante fantasies are another.

    As Robin points out, most of us have been wronged at some point in our lives, so we can understand the emotion behind vigilante justice.

    But on top of that, IMO it also provides a safe outlet for an impulse that resides in most of us. And that outlet is necessary, I believe, otherwise violent films and cop shows wouldn’t be so popular.

    As for the rape fantasy, well, I think the impulse to rape another human being is a far more rare one. We don’t see rape fantasies on television and in movies to the same degree that we see fantasies about other forms of violence.

    And rape is certainly not a common part of everyday interactions between children the way one child hitting the child who took her toy is.

    So even those of us who do have rape fantasies (and I’m one) can feel very conflicted about having them and can sometimes wonder if there’s something wrong with us.

  87. KAT
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 21:05:18

    I’m really, really enjoying this discussion—tons of interesting points. I do think that violence fantasies are found more acceptable than sexual fantasies for all sorts of cultural reasons. After reading over what’s been posted so far I wanted to raise another couple of possible reasons about why this might be so.

    Perhaps another reason many people find rape fantasy/forced seductions tropes more problematic than vigilante justice is because of how they are used to build a story’s plot/narrative structure. Often the justice meted out to the villain is part of the story’s climax. Much of the narrative drive and tension is thus built around the conflict between the H/H (protagonist) and the villain (antagonist)—so that revenge fantasy is cathartic and (emotional) satisfying. But usually the rape/forced seduction scene(s) occurs earlier in the story and is at best a turning point both in the narrative and H/H’s relationship. Turning points aren’t supposed to be cathartic—they should ratcheted up the tension, make things more problematic for the protagonists, and move the story forward to the climax. And since forced seduction fantasies already occupy an uneasy place in modern western culture this difference in narrative placement might amplify people’s uneasiness with rape fantasies/forced seductions.

    I also think that vigilante fantasies are also more acceptable for all sorts of other reasons that are embedded deeply in the foundations of the modern liberal state, especially the U.S.A.—look at the foundations of liberal thought (e.g., Hobbes, Locke). Their arguments about the pre-political state of nature implicitly (and explicitly) value vigilante justice to protect one’s life and property from the others’ predations. And once humans have formed a commonwealth (political state), humans must remain ever vigilant to ensure that the state doesn’t become tyrannical or fail to enforce a rule of law that maximizes communal happiness. If a government breaks the social contract—then according to Locke (and the Declaration of Independence), citizens have a right to take justice into their own hands and protect themselves and their property and even to revolt and overthrow the government.

  88. Andrea K Host
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 22:08:52

    I think the inherent difference to me is the motivation of the person committing the act.

    In the vigilante fantasy, the vigilante is (usually) seeking justice for crimes committed/attempting to prevent further crimes by the person they are killing.

    In the rape fantasies I’ve read (long ago when I was a teen, so they’re probably a bit outdated), the rapist has (variously) been: indifferent to the woman’s feelings; believes that no woman could possibly not desire him and so doesn’t quite understand why she’s being ‘missish’; understands the woman’s mind and desires better than she does herself and knows that she really wants to have sex even if she thinks and says she doesn’t; is so overwhelmed by lust that he thinks the sex is mutual; is of a culture/social status where the idea of women saying ‘no’ is foreign; thinks the woman is a prostitute/slut and thus has ceded any right to say no whether she wants sex or not. It is very difficult for me to enjoy romances involving a person like that.

    The motive of the person acting is vastly different in vigilante fantasies and rape fantasies and the fact that the woman turns out to like it after all doesn’t change the intial action of the rapist.

    As for whether rape fantasies can at all possibly contribute to real-life rapes, I think it’s very difficult to quantify the connection. A rapist might use that as a reason, but how would we know that rapist wouldn’t have carried out the rape if rape fantasies didn’t exist?

    So I’m relatively indifferent to other people reading rape fantasies, but I haven’t been able to read them myself since I was a teen. Vigilante fantasies, it depends too much on the social context, but my suspension of disbelief does threaten to snap if people get away with murder without consequences in modern society.

  89. Nightwriter
    Apr 19, 2011 @ 23:23:58

    A lot of comments and opinions here. So many, some of it makes my eyes glaze over to try and follow the logic. To me, it boils down to human nature and the fact that we aren’t so far above the animal kingdom as we would like to think. Men have been raping anything and everything they could stick it into since the beginning of time. It was proof of their dominance and virility. You have to remember that rape being a no-no is a relatively new concept. Not so many years ago, what self-respecting historical romance DIDN’T have the hero raping the heroine at some point? Personally, I don’t want rape in my romances, nor do I care for the forced seduction. Nothing at all sexy about it, imo.

    As far as the vigilante thing–I’ve often wondered why we are so tolerant of the endless and bloody killing we see on tv. It’s not just the movies anymore. Prime time is now about as bloody as it gets. I think it’s because death/killing is the ultimate act someone can commit and people are easily bored. I mean, where do we go from here? I’ve read some things in some recent romances that disturbed me a great deal, pertaining to torture and killing. No hero does this, not in my opinion. A hero only kills if it’s the last resort, in self-defense, or if it comes down to a life or death situation.

    To answer the topic about why killing is tolerated and rape is not–I think it comes down to the fact that romance consumers are mostly female. If males were the biggest consumers of romance novels, I guarantee you rape would not be taboo. Women as a whole don’t take all the killing as personally (we can’t relate as closely) as we do someone invading the privacy of our bodies. That’s my opinion.

  90. Wahoo Suze
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 00:04:05

    I kind of want him to die.

    I don’t know if this is a new thing, or if it’s always been done, but people seem to have no problem wishing or threatening death upon people they disagree with. Just a couple of days ago, a blogger I follow got a death threat from a commenter who, um, disagreed with him.

    Uttering threats is a crime.

    But more, this casual reference to death shows a huge lack of compassion.

    I’ve been writing and deleting and writing and deleting, and I’m not conveying things at all clearly. Hopefully summarizing without offending:

    Vigilante justice is about imposing your will on others. It’s about “I’m right and you’re wrong.” The vigilante has taken it upon himself to be, literally, judge, jury and executioner. He’s saying that his sense of righteousness is worth more than somebody else’s life.

    As I get older, and hopefully wiser, I have less and less faith in people’s righteousness. I’m against the death penalty because the justice system is fallible, and there have been too many cases like David Milgaard’s. I’m against vigilantism because individuals and mobs are even more fallible than a system that has checks and balances built in.

    But vigilantism in FANTASY. Yumm. I loves me some Louis L’Amour heroes. I loves me SEAL heroes.

    Isn’t it okay to sublimate socially unacceptable or dangerous impulses in art? Should we ever have to be ashamed of fantasizing about things that we would absolutely not enjoy in real life?

    Feh. I have to stop now and go to bed. FASCINATING discussion, though.

  91. MaryK
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 00:06:05

    Why is the rape fantasy judged by a different metric than the vigilante fantasy? After all, neither exist in real life and both are true fantasies. On the page, the rape is not real and the person doing the killing knows without a doubt that the bad man “needed killing.”

    I probably shouldn’t be commenting on this right now because I haven’t read the other comments and my brain isn’t in deep thinking mode at the moment. I had a couple of thoughts though and want to throw them out before I forget them.

    IMO: “Dispensing justice” gets a pass because, well, it’s justice and the vigilante has good intentions, i.e. punishing evil. It’s also less personal to the reader. The vigilante act is perpetrated toward a non-hero character, and the reader identifies with the perpetrator’s point of view.

    Rape fantasy is personal and closer to home. It happens to a main character, and the reader probably identifies with the victim. IRL, victims are the aftermath of something bad. People are supposed to be strong and not let the bad thing overwhelm them. Victimhood is something to be overcome. So, rape fantasy is in direct opposition to the “don’t be a victim” message.

    [ETA – There’s nothing good about rape; no one can argue for it without be considered a possible sex offender. Whereas respectable people can debate the appropriateness of vigilanteism. To some people, fantasizing about rape is equivalent to condoning it, and its perpetrators, IRL.]

    I disagree with vigilanteism on principle, but I remembered a Romance where the author made it work for me. Lisa Marie Rice’s Midnight Man.

  92. SAO
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 01:53:04

    In vigilante fantasies, the recipient of the action (ie victim) is never “us”. In forced seductions, the recipient is often the character the reader identifies with. The author has to convince the reader that she would have enjoyed/wanted the forced seduction and readers are much more likely to bring their own baggage to the scene and often the baggage is ‘no way, no how.’

    The other issue is that the forced seduction trope runs a huge range from allowing a woman to have her cake and eat it too (preserve her good girl status by saying ‘no’ yet still getting the sexual pleasure she wanted) to the Marquis de Sade, whose victims, I gather (the one or two pages I read made me nauseous) had some level of enjoyment from/consent to his acts.

    Most vigilante fantasies have villains who have clearly and unambiguously grossly violated society’s norms. They are proven, repetitive murderers, violent rapists, and pedophiles. We rarely see victim of vigilantism who say, likes to hug toddlers and whom others find creepy, but is never observed to do anything more (although these characters are often killed off by the bad guys, rampaging dinosaurs or vampires, etc).

  93. MaryK
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 02:08:56

    @Isobel Carr:

    I’m sure this says really effed up things about me, but I don’t see the two fantasies as having any common ground. Rape fantasies glorify violence against women. Vigilante fantasies glorify justice. Just because both involve violence, doesn’t make them coequal or related. Hence my inability to enjoy rape fantasy has nothing to do with my ability to easily embrace vigilante justice. I quote Raylan Givens: It was justified. The same can never be said about a rape.

    Violence isn’t the point or the equating factor. The situations aren’t equal in all ways. The common ground is that they’re fiction and that readers enjoy either act vicariously. In one situation, the satisfaction is in seeing justice done. In the other, it’s about sexual fantasy. Either fantasy fails if the reader doesn’t like the action or isn’t convinced of its acceptability within the confines of the fictional world. There can be poorly written rape fantasies just as there can be poorly written vigilante fantasies. The presumption is that the writer knows. Knows the world, knows what she’s doing and knows what’s acceptable to the characters.

    It’s unfair, IMO, to strictly apply the rules of real life in sexual situations while letting them slide in areas of justice. If crime thrillers and caper plots are exempt from RL rules of law, why are Romance and sex scenes held to non-fiction standards?

    Since it’s really late and my brain is even more scrambled than it was (I really hope this comment makes sense), I’ll out myself as a reader who enjoys rape fantasy books. The ones that pass my internal guidelines, anyway. And no, I don’t know what those are because they’re visceral and unknowable. :) In RL, I don’t even want to be looked at funny, and I’d have zero qualms about defending, violently, myself or someone else. So, Exhibit A, a female reader whose enjoyment of rape fantasy plots has not made RL violence glorious or desireable.

  94. MaryK
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 03:14:42

    @Isobel Carr:

    Beating someone up because they’re a douche is about revenge. And yes, I can see the appeal, esp in fiction, but I don’t equate revenge with justice, even of the vigilante kind. Vigilante violence /= vigilante justice. So perhaps were not really talking about the same thing?

    Aaah. You see a range of acceptability in the vigilante fantasy. It covers violence, justice, revenge. Some things are acceptable, some are not. Motivation is an important factor. You know what’s acceptable when you experience it in the story and would object if they were lumped together and rejected out of hand.

    Some readers see a similar broad range in rape fantasy and object when everything is called rape and condemned.

  95. JMcQ
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 04:37:19

    Ack, this is cutting into my early morning writing time, but this thread is too interesting not to jump into.

    @ Janine posted: “I’m going to posit a theory that may be controversial. I think one of the reasons that enjoying the vigilante justice fantasy is viewed as more acceptable than enjoying the rape fantasy is that the impulse toward violence exists in most human beings.”

    I think Janine makes a good point. As a scientist, I would also, however, argue that rape, in all its varied nuances, has likely been a part of human society for as long as violence, and that an impulse toward rape may be biologically programmed in some. Why is it hard to accept that women may have fantasies about an act that probably has underpinnings in our natural biological drives? I am not saying that men who rape do so to procreate, but that the drive to reproduce and the hormones and urges that define human sexuality can be subverted in ways we don’t expect or want. I believe that rape is unacceptable because our Society defines it as unacceptable, not because humans are somehow “better” than the urge. Luckily, Society has not yet figured out how to re-program human fantasies (thank God, if for no other reason that it means I can still enjoy a mental image of myself and Gerard Butler).

    Last comment: In non-human primate Society, (chimpanzees, bonobos), rape and violence (including vigilantism) exist, side by side. This does not make apes sociopaths – that seems to be an all-too-human trait. Nor does the odd human bent on rape or violence (or the woman who fantasizes about it) define us as apes. But it sure is interesting to speculate.

  96. Janine
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 09:08:53


    I think Janine makes a good point. As a scientist, I would also, however, argue that rape, in all its varied nuances, has likely been a part of human society for as long as violence

    That’s true, but I don’t think rape is anywhere near as common.

  97. pamelia
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 09:50:33

    @ Janine: I think rape may be a lot more common than you realize. I found the following link by googling rape statistics:

    If only 16% of women who are raped report them, I think we can assume they are far more common than police reports indicate.

  98. pamelia
    Apr 20, 2011 @ 10:20:16

    I’m not saying violence isn’t more common, because there are so many forms of it and most statistics on violence include (appropriately) rape. Just that the phrase “anywhere near as common” sounds a little more like “way way less common” or a little dismissive to my ears and I know that isn’t your intent.
    As to the rape fantasy issue, I think the control issue hits it right on the head. No one being raped is ever in control and no one fantasizing is ever NOT in control.

  99. Janine
    Apr 21, 2011 @ 16:19:42

    @pamelia: Yeah, I hear you. I didn’t phrase my statement well but what I meant that the impulse to rape isn’t as common as the impulse to get back at people with violence. The latter is virtually universal among children.

    I am aware of the tragic stats on rape being a lot more common than most people think, and I personally have known nine women who have been sexually assaulted, and whose stories have been shared with me.

    But I think it’s quite possible and perhaps even likely for one attacker to have targeted more than one victim. Therefore I don’t think the stats on how many victims there are tell us precisely how common the impulse to commit rape is. It was the latter impulse that I was referring to.

    I think that the “You took my toy, I’ll hit you to punish you” impulse is a natural one in children, something that most of us outgrow but still sometimes have to struggle with when we are hurt by others, even as adults. Typically in adults it’s more likely to manifest in harsh words than in physical violence, but the impulse itself is there, dormant, in almost all of us.

    I believe that vigilante fantasy books and movies can serve as an outlet for those feelings. Rape fantasies also serve as an outlet for something, that’s clear, but that something isn’t so universal, and that’s all I was trying to say.

  100. Anon76
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 00:11:13

    Hmm, it’s late and I’ve had a long day at work so I hope this comes out coherent.

    I’m wondering if the “rape” fantasy appeals because it is more about a latent Dom/Sub fantasy. When written well, of course. And I have no aversion to them whatsoever when written well. (wow, alliteration, anyone?)

    I can enjoy it in the fiction world because it’s something I would never do in real life. I could never give up that much control, too hyper. If hubster would have tried such a thing with me, well, we wouldn’t have been married, nor still together after thirty years. But I can enjoy the dom/sub aspects of such books.

    For those of you in the US and old enough, do you remember the soap General Hospital and the Luke and Laura saga? The ratings exploded out the roof after the forced seduction and later hook-up of the characters.

    As far as vigilante justice? I do want to see those who are truly wicked and unrepentant get their due. It has to be set up well and not just a gloss over. John Grisham’s A Time To Kill comes to mind. I had no problem with the protag feeling remorse for many things, but not the cold blooded killing he committed.

    And wow, I just realized that has both violent rape and vigilante justice.

    While this is not a romance, the treatment of the subject worked for me.

  101. Links of Great Interest: 4/22/11
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 09:01:05

    […] genre, was published 40 years ago. I thought we had moved on. Until I came across this article at Dear Author, one of if not the most popular romance blogs around. Jane Litte argues […]

  102. dm
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 19:07:31

    I clicked over to read the comments on The Hathor Legacy, a website with content I often enjoy, and found them surprisingly thoughtless.

    Jane Litte argues that a fictional rape should be judged by the same metric as fictional vigilantism. Reading the comments defending this position, as if women losing control and being victimized was on the same level as someone taking control and becoming a victimizer, made me feel physically sick and worse, unsafe, in a community of romance readers, reviewers and authors I thought valued women…You can read whatever you want. But claiming that stories that glorify the victimization of women should be accepted and respected, else you’re close-minded and intolerant? That is contributing to rape culture.

    First of all, I call bull*#$% on anyone who feels unsafe sitting at their computer reading a discussion of romance novels. Please, get a grip. And second, shame on this poster for trying to shut down this conversation by throwing out an accusation that anyone who argues the merits of these books is contributing to rape culture. And third, it is truly disingenuous to talk of rape in romance as a monolithic entity, as though there is one definitive form it takes in all books in the genre. If that were the case, we’d have stopped talking about this topic a long time ago.

    Jane, your posts are thought provoking and important and I hope you never stop.

  103. Jane
    Apr 22, 2011 @ 20:21:08

    @dm I would not want to be known as someone who contributes to the rape culture so would appreciate it if someone would articulate how I am doing this. I am open to being educated.

  104. Niveau
    Apr 26, 2011 @ 00:46:49

    @Jane: Super-late comment here, and you may not actually read it, but since people will probably continue to find their way to this post in the future… I think it’d be really great of you to put a trigger warning at the top. (Something like “Trigger Warning: discussion of rape and rape fantasies” would be perfect.) I know I was really surprised when I first read it, because after reading the title, I didn’t expect it to be about rape fantasies. I wholeheartedly disagree with dm about the person who was quoted needing to get a grip; if I’d been raped and, not expecting it, I stumbled into a conversation like this one in a place where I’d always felt safe and comfortable, I’d probably feel the same way. It’s called being triggered and happens to a lot of people who’ve been raped. A trigger warning would help such people decide if they’re up to reading the post.

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