ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

March 3, 2010

Rape is Not Romance: ‘The Innocent’s Surrender’ by Sara Craven

I have read some truly, truly bad category fiction in my life. I mean, come on, I’ve read three books by Trish Morey, all of which were absolutely repellent (see my earlier article Sexual Violence is Manly! Glamorised Sexual Violence in Romance Fiction). But I’m currently reading one at the moment which might just take the cake.

The book is The Innocent’s Surrender by Sara Craven. To bring you up to speed to where I am – all of p. 33 – here’s a quick synopsis. Natasha, our heroine, was brought up by some Greek shipping magnate family for some reason, despite the fact that she is British. (Oh, and a virgin. Gee, I wonder how this is going to go). This family has an enemy Greek shipping magnate family, who are about to buy out their fleet. Natasha’s evil stepbrothers have somehow coerced her into signing a letter to the son of the enemy family (our hero, Alex) saying that she’ll marry him. I’m not quite sure what this is supposed to achieve, but whatevs.

Anyway, the evil stepbrothers, for whatever reason, have sent a different letter to Alex. They’ve forged Natasha’s signature and written a letter full of lewd sexytalk. The implication of which is that Natasha (who is, we must remember, a blushing virgin) is going to be Alex’s mistress. And he’s agreed to this. And has power over her. Or something. It’s weird. I don’t quite get the legality of it. But Natasha has been whisked off to Alex’s mansion. She’s standing there, expecting to explain that, no, she won’t marry him, when he springs the whole mistress thing on her – something about which she had no idea.

I’ll just let the following quotes speak for themselves.

‘”You may well regret your candour in writing to me, agapi mou,” he added, the firm mouth twisting. “But I do not. And, while I may never have believed in you as a future wife, I look forward with eagerness to enjoying your versatility as my mistress. Which is why you are here with me tonight, as you must know by now. To begin your new career in my bed.”

Her voice seemed to come from a great distance.

“I’d rather die!”

His brows lifted cynically. “When it was your own idea?” he challenged. “I hardly think so.”

“But I keep trying to tell you… There was never any second letter. Oh, why won’t you believe me?”

“Because I have the evidence which makes a liar of you… They [her evil stepbrothers] will have to endure the shame of knowing you belong to me as my eromeni - my pillow friend – and that when I tire of you they will have you returned to them – used, and discarded.” He paused. “Maybe… even pregnant. A final blow to their family honour from which they can never recover,” he added harshly as Natasha caught her breath.

“You can’t do such a thing.” Her voice was ragged. “No one could. It’s barbaric – vile. And do you imagine that I’ll let you get away with it? That I won’t have you arrested for kidnap and – and rape, no matter how powerful you may think you are?”

“Kidnap?” Alex Mandrakis repeated musingly, and shook his head. “When you responded willingly to my invitation, and allowed my driver to bring you here? He reported no scene at the airport. No screams or struggles. As for rape, I doubt whether such an accusation could possibly succeed. Not when your letter is made public, as it would have t be. No court would convict me for taking advantage of the services you volunteered of your own free will.”‘

Whoa. WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA WHOA.

For every woman in the world, I would like to say this. RAPE IS NOT ROMANCE.

There’s no ‘I will not rape you’. No, ‘I will not force you to sleep with me’. No, there’s just ‘you could never make a rape conviction stick’.

What a huge motherfucking hero.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this book when I’m further on than p.33, but this is something which makes me see absolutely red. Sexual violence, and the threats of sexual violence, are not foreplay. Threats of sexual violence are not about desire and a growing romance. Sexual violence is about power and exploitation and is not sexy.

You fail, Sara Craven. If a romantic union is the happily ever after in your story, then your characters need to deserve it. And men who threaten sexual violence against women? They belong in a place called JAIL, not in a coma of domestic bliss. This is completely and utterly and in every way ENTIRELY UNACCEPTABLE.

ETA: This book just gets worse and worse. Check out this excerpt from p.35.

‘She said, “I am not your Natasha.”

“But you will be,” he said. “And your life will belong to me – until I decide otherwise. Did I not make that clear to you?” He smiled at her. “However, you plead with passion, agapi mou. I hope you will bring the same intensity to the pleasure we shall soon share, when I prove beyond any doubt that I do indeed want you, and not just for revenge.” He paused. “My attentions may even console you for the English lover you have lost.”

He took two of the pillows from behind him, and placed them beside him on the bed. “But now we have talked enough. Now, my lovely one, it is time you came to me. So, take off your clothes.”

She took a step backward. “No,” she said fiercely. “I won’t do it.”

His brows lifted. “Would you prefer my men to help you?”‘

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. Fail on EVERY SINGLE FUCKING LEVEL. Coercion is not sexy. Rape is not romance. This is absolutely, totally, unequivocally DISGUSTING.

February 19, 2010

Virginity as Shorthand: the virgin and the playboy strike again

I read this article yesterday – An Insider’s Guide to Writing for Mills & Boon. In it, three authors of category romance are interviewed – Penny Jordan, Sharon Kendrick and Maisie Yates.

Now, there were a ton of interesting issues raised in this article that I could write about for ages and ages and ages – one of which being that Sharon Kendrick apparently doesn’t like writing career women as heroines because she wants them to be able to spend time with the hero. Even though a lot of her heroes are sheikhs and mediterranean millionaires. With, you know, careers. Hello, Captain Double Standard.

But that wasn’t what I really wanted to talk about today. What I found most interesting in terms of what will hopefully one day be my PhD thesis – tentatively titled Defloration and Declaration: virgin heroines and the playboy heroes that love them in category romance fiction – was this comment from Penny Jordan on why she makes a lot of her heroines virgins:

“I think of it as a shorthand for me. It’s always by choice. When my heroine meets the hero, she wants to go to bed with him. For the reader, that’s the mark of the effect he has on her. Because you’ve only got so many pages, it would be very difficult for me to create a heroine who’s had lots of partners and immediately knew there was something different about this one.”

Now this is something that I found very, very interesting – and something that I hadn’t really considered, to tell the truth. Virginity as shorthand. The heroine chooses to sleep with the hero because he is different from all those other men – and by sleeping with him, this difference becomes tangible, because he is the only man to have slept with her. (That sounds a lot more convoluted when you write it down. Whoa.)

I think this is compatible with the theory I had about sex as moral currency, wherein the virgin heroine is rewarded for sexual morality by sexual pleasure when she meets the right man. By sleeping with him, she marks him as the right man, and she knows he is the right one for sure because she has a damn good time. However, there are troubling assertions underlying this theory – the first being that virginity and sexual morality are equated, which ties into the notion of the madonna vs the whore. Sure, the heroine gets to experience extreme sexual pleasure outside the traditional institution of marriage, which is a pretty subversive concept when talking in patriarchal terms, but the fact that this sexual pleasure is a reward for her sexual good behaviour is still intensely troubling. Through sex, the heroine and the hero are inextricably tied together. They might not have exchanged vows, but they might as well be married.

And the concept of virginity as shorthand exacerbates this even further. I don’t think Jordan is making any conscious assertions to equate virginity with sexual morality or anything, but I think the underlying assumptions are still very disconcerting when you consider the types of heroes that these heroines are paired with. The virgin heroine and the playboy hero. A study in double standards.

Let’s expound. I’ve pretty much covered this ground before but I’ll go over it again. The virgin heroine is untouched. As Jordan says, her virginity is a choice – it’s rarely because she just can’t get any. She’s nearly always made a conscious decision to remain a virgin because she hasn’t found that right guy yet. Which is totally fine.

However, the playboy hero is doing anything that moves. He’s had a thousand billion paramours and usually hasn’t cared a jot about any of them. Actually, I read a sheikh novel on the weekend where the hero was extolling the virtues of what he called ‘empty sex’. This is a literalisation of what a lot of heroes go through. Even if the hero isn’t a playboy, it’s a pretty rare category novel where is less sexually experienced than the heroine. And I can’t say I’ve ever read a virgin hero, even paired with a virgin heroine.

So why does Penny Jordan get to use virginity as a shorthand to express the effect the hero has on the heroine – she wants to lose it to him – whereas there is no such shorthand for the hero?

I quoted way back at the beginning of this blog a line from Talbot, who said:

“Eroticisation in Mills & Boon depends on the maximisation of gender difference.”

I think what disturbs me most about the notion of the virgin heroine and the playboy hero is that this gender difference is often coded in terms of sexual morality. The woman is virginal, the man is virile. And this is a perfect match.

I think this is made pretty clear in Jordan’s shorthand – she says that the heroine knows the hero is different because she wants to go to bed with him. Does this mean she has never experienced any kind of sexual desire before in her life? The hero, on the other hand, clearly has experienced sexual desire – I mean, hello, he’s had sex. Usually a lot of it – even if it is this so-called ‘empty sex’.

The hero knows the heroine is different because, as I have harped on and on and on about before, she inspires him to replace his free-wheeling do-anything ‘wild’ sexuality with her model of monogamy, usually leading to marriage and domestic bliss. However, the heroine knows the hero is different because he is the only man she has ever experienced sexual desire for, ever. This goes back to that crazy stereotype of men as sex-crazed beasts and women as the gatekeepers of sexual morality. A woman only has power and standing while she is untouched – once she has had sex she is effectively claimed, and her power is ceded to her seducer. And if her seducer is not in the picture, well…

This is the underlying basis of the stereotype and not what literally plays out in romance fiction. However, I find it very, very interesting in terms of power. The heroine desires – for the first time – to sleep with a man, the hero. When she does, he – cue Foucault – ideologically completes her and she cedes her selfhood to him. The man, of course, is already ideologically complete, but the heroine sort of modifies him, turning them into a unit. But what happens sexually seems to indicate something else, power-wise – the hero can function without the heroine. He’s had sex, and though he might not be emotionally fulfilled, he’s whole. The heroine, however, becomes dependent on the hero, because he is the agent of her completion.

This leads to an interesting debate on how sex and emotion are equated for the heroine but separate for the hero – but I’ll write about that another day. The crux of my point and the issue I take with the playboy/virgin dynamic is this – why can virginity function as a shorthand for true love for the heroine but not the hero?

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