ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse

December 18, 2009

Sexual Violence is Manly! Glamorised Sexual Violence in Romance Fiction

Originally posted at Feministing Community.

Romance fiction is unusual in that it is a genre written largely by women, for women. In their excellent book Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Fiction, Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan create Mavis, a caricature of what is imagined to be a stereotypical romance reader: she’s undereducated, oversexed, rather dim, a bit chubby and wears cardigans with appliquéd kittens. However, apparently one in five women read romance fiction in the USA, and in Australia (where I’m from), it’s much the same. And there just aren’t that many Mavises in the world.  

I remember walking past the racks of Mills and Boon category romances in department stores as a child and a teenager and watching people pretend they weren’t looking at them. These books were bad and forbidden on account of they contained OMGSEX!!!1!!! and moreover, were books about OMGSEX!!!1!!! by women, for women. There’s a reason people think that only Mavis reads romance fiction, and it’s because no one admits to it. Female titillation is synonymous with shame. Mavis, the woman who reads romance, is someone to be made fun of.

When I picked up my first romance novel, it was not with the notion of busting stereotypes or proving that Real Women Read Romance or anything like that – or even titillation. It was to laugh at, pure and simple. 

This was not especially big of me, I confess, but oh, I laughed at it. My first romance was called A Love Beyond Forever and featured a Fabio-type cover model wearing exceptionally high-waisted jeans as he carried a dazed woman in a floaty white nightgown. I cackled madly through the whole dreadful thing – the ditzy New York girl getting transported back through time to Cromwell’s England, falling in with (and losing her virginity to, in a fit of gushing orgasms) a Handsome Royalist Hero, being pursued by evil witches who would pop up occasionally to screech maniacally and who eventually tried to burn her at the stake for no apparent reason, before Handsome Royalist Hero rescued her helpless arse so they could have more multi-orgasmic sex after he came back with her to modern-day New York. It was, in short, awful, and hilarious in its awfulness. A wolfskin rug was involved. Comedy gold.

However, my interest was piqued, and the genre still continued to intrigue me. I was doing a degree in literature and had begun to identify very strongly as a feminist by this time, and so the idea of a genre that was almost, if not entirely, targeted towards women was fascinating. Why, thought I, were one in five women so into something so very dreadful?

I picked up a few more romance novels. And I read them. Sometimes, yes, I laughed myself stupid. Other times, I found myself genuinely going ‘awwwwwwww’. And other times, ‘ewwwwwwwww’.

However, speaking generally, several things began to disturb me.

Why, in a genre written largely by women for women, was Confession of Twoo Wuv, Marriage and (usually) Pregnancy considered pretty much the sole path to happily ever after?

Why was there such a strong focus on the heroine’s previous sexual experience (or lack thereof)? This isn’t true of all romance novels, but the amount of virgin!heroines getting together with ihavehadvastamountsofsexandwillinitiateyouintoitsways!heroes was completely ridiculous.

Why were heroines always getting themselves into stupid situations from whence they had to be rescued by their Big Strong Hero, or getting themselves into trouble from which their Big Strong Hero would protect them? Again, not true of every novel, but a common theme. Helpless damsel in distress saved/protected by Big Tough Guy. Because she can’t do shit like that by herself.

Why wasn’t anyone allowed to have had good, meaningful sex in the past? Occasionally, the hero might have an ex-wife with whom he slept, but no one arouses him like the intrepid heroine! The heroine is almost never allowed to have had good sex – or any sex – before. Occasionally, she might have had mundane sex, or have suffered some sexual abuse (which she is able to brush off once she has been cured by the lovin’ power of the hero’s mighty cock), but good sex? It might happen, but I’ve never read it. Only the hero’s mighty cock can give her the orgasms of Twoo Wuv.

If I haven’t disclaimed it enough, these things are not true of all romance novels. Not by a long shot. Like any genre, there are varying degrees of quality, execution and inversion of standard tropes within romance fiction. Some books are execrable, but some are actually quite lovely – I read one a little while back about a harried single dad falling in love with his next door neighbour and while it wasn’t disturbing-trope-free by any means, it was a shy, sweet romance that left me with warm fuzzies.

But then I encountered a trope within romance fiction that made me so angry I started throwing books at walls. I would – and still do – walk around in a red haze of anger for days after encountering a book that included it. In a genre that is largely by women for women, how did we ever start to glamorise sexual violence?

Sometimes it’s so insidious it almost flies under the radar. I remember raising my eyebrows at the first few ‘punishing’ and ‘ravaging’ kisses I read, but then, as I read more, it became so par for the course that I stopped noticing.

But then as I read heroes grabbing their heroines, forcing them into kisses, throwing them against walls, onto tables, the ground, any other available horizontal surface, tearing their clothes, pushing them into what is often described as ‘forced seduction’… my ire began to be raised. This seemed to be a shorthand form for denoting a hero as alpha – by physically dominating their heroines, they convey their power and their Ultimate Manliness. And the heroines? They like it. LIKE IT. They’re participants in their own sexual subjugation.

May I mention once more that this is a genre written by women, for women, and that an estimated one in five women is a reader? This isn’t just Mavis. There are a whole lot of women reading this.

This casual glamorisation of what is basically indecent assault got me mad, sure. But then I read this shitful piece of dreck and I exploded.

This book, The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge by Trish Morey, is a category romance telling the story of Dante Carazzo, an Italian businessman who seems to be some kind of a property developer, and Mackenzi Keogh, the manager of a hotel which Dante has just purchased. Dante, for some deep, dark vengeful reason of his own, wants to tear the hotel down. Mackenzi begs him not to. He says he’ll think about not pulling it down… if she becomes his mistress.

Oh yes. Sexual blackmail is so hot right now.

I won’t ruin the whole repulsive story, save to say that it is completely nauseating. But one of the worst bits (and oh, there are so many) is at the very beginning. In the second chapter of the book, Dante stumbles on Mackenzi asleep and naked in the bed in his hotel room. (He wasn’t due till the next day; as the hotel manager, she’s taken what she assumes to be a vacant bed). He assumes she is a prostitute and intends to wake her up and send her on her way, on the grounds that ‘no-one decided who Dante Carazzo slept with’. However, after looking more closely at her naked body:

‘What had been before no more than a general but suppressible interest in the fairer sex, had combusted into something much more carnal. Much more necessary. What would it take to wake her up? If she could sleep through a storm like this, it might take a while to wake her by conventional methods.

Which left him with the unconventional.’

Personally, I was unaware that indecent assault was a legitimate, albeit unconventional, way of waking someone up. But he is a Hawt Alpha Male Romance Hero, so he is above the law.

Dante makes the conscious decision to ‘bury himself deep inside this woman’, even though she is a) asleep and b) has never met him, because lo! she is in his bed and that obviously means she consents to fuck his brains out: ‘her perfect breasts exposed for the taking. His taking.’ He then goes on to remark:

‘He was glad she hadn’t awakened when that clap of thunder had rent the skies. This way would be much more entertaining. “And much more satisfying,” he murmured as he gently knelt down on the bed alongside her.’

 That’s right. Sex with sleeping women is so much hotter than consensual sex. Choice is for wusses.

 Dante proceeds to commit indecent assault upon Mackenzi by touching her and kissing her even though she is asleep and unable to consent.

 ‘It was different, he realised, pleasuring a woman asleep, different and more arousing. There was something more evocative, more empowering.’

Empowering? Oh no, you did not just go there. Empowering for who, exactly? Certainly not Mackenzi, that’s for sure.

But wait! There’s more!

‘He wanted her awake. He wanted her to realise just who it was making love to her… there would be time enough to explore later. His fingers scooped down her chest. Right now her breasts were at the top of his agenda.

“Time you woke up, Goldilocks,” he said, before his mouth descended on one perfect nipple.’

 Mackenzi – at long last – wakes up. She finds a strange man sucking her nipple and… consents to screw him. As one does.

Well, actually, it’s a little more complicated. She wakes up, says that she should be going (putting it mildly there, Mackenzi) to which Dante responds by putting on a condom. Awesome logic, Dante! They then proceed to have earth-shattering, shake-the-walls sex, with orgasms and punishing kisses aplenty. And, in effect, her consent is a shorthand to negating any crime Dante might have committed – because he was OMG sexually assaulting her but she OMG loved it!!!!111! which makes all that stuff he did while she was asleep so hot right now because he is oh so very manly and alpha.

I don’t know what reaction I was supposed to have. I was nauseated. I was furious. There is nothing sexy about sexual assault. And this book sets up a man who ought to be imprisoned as a romantic hero.

This opening scene is definitely not the only objectionable one in the book – in fact, it goes from bad to worse. This is before Dante blackmails Mackenzi into becoming his sex slave – sorry, mistress, before he knocks her up and tells her that she ‘will not’ have an abortion and that no child of his will be adopted out, before he decrees they’re getting married to everyone he knows before actually asking her, before his Epic Childhood Trauma Oh Noes!!!!1! is revealed (thus abdicating him of any responsibility for any shitful thing he might have done at any point in his life) and his tragic inner pain is healed by the mystical power of Twoo Wuv.

And, guess what? This insulting piece of shit excuse for a book won the Australian Romance Book of the Year Award in the ‘Short and Sexy’ category.

I don’t understand how a book that calls itself a ‘romance’ and a ‘love story’ can open with such an unromantic hate crime.

I hoped that The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge was some kind of aberration, that a line had been crossed that usually wasn’t. But no. A little research revealed that the rapist hero is not uncommon. In fact, in romances of the early ’80s, it seems like it was practically impossible to write a romance wherein the hero did not rape the heroine. Instances of the rapist hero are lessening, it seems, but he’s still hanging around, and people still love him – for example, Whitney, My Love; The Flame and the Flower and Devil’s Embrace all purportedly contain rapist heroes, and all remain popular. And Mr Punishing Kisses Sexual Assault Is So Hot Right Now, Captain Rapist’s younger brother, is alive and well. Dante Carazzo is not unusual.

If men were writing this, fiction where women were sexually subjugated to men and sexual assault was glossed over by having women enjoy it, I don’t think we’d be able to hear ourselves think for the uproar. But it’s not men writing it. It’s women. Women are writing for women, and they’re glamorising sexual crime.

I’ve read a whole heap of justifications for this – that it’s to do with moral panic (the virginal heroine cannot express sexual desire on her own, but if forced into it, well, it’s not really her fault); that it’s the other side of the coin to the sexualisation of violence (the violentisation of sex?); that it’s an effort to ‘reclaim the rape’ (WTF?!) But you know what?

I don’t care.

I would like to state again that this is not true of all romance fiction. It is definitely possible to write a romance novel without glorifying sexual violence. But this is a trope within the genre that cannot be ignored. I don’t care how you justify it, I don’t care that it’s women writing for women and that somehow makes it ‘safe’. In fact, it makes it worse – it makes us complicit in a dialogue of our own sexual oppression.

There is nothing romantic about sexual violence. And it is completely unacceptable to attempt to glamorise it. Even in fiction.



  1. I’m very glad I haven’t come across The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge because I’m sure I’d find that scene extremely disturbing to read.

    In my research on romances I’ve tended to avoid the topic of rape for that reason. If you were thinking of working on it, though, you might be interested in Helen Hazen’s Endless Rapture; Rape, Romance, and the Female Imagination (New York: Scribner’s, 1983). I haven’t read it, but apparently Chapter 1 deals with romance novels. A much more recent book on the topic of rape and romance (which I also haven’t read) is Wendy Larcombe’s Compelling Engagements: Feminism, Rape Law and Romance Fiction, (Annandale, N.S.W.: Federation Press, 2005).

    A couple of articles by Nina Philadelphoff-Puren also deal with this: “Contextualising Consent: The Problem of Rape and Romance.” Australian Feminist Studies 20.46 (2005): 31-42.

    and “The Mark of Refusal: Sexual Violence and the Politics of Recontextualization.” Feminist Theory 5.3 (2004): 243–256.

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — December 22, 2009 @ 10:13 pm | Reply

    • I definitely will check these out – thank you.

      Rape in romance is something I definitely want to look at – probably in terms of models of ‘ideal’ femininity and masculinity and the way this is borne out, particularly in category romance. However, I’m really still finding my feet and working out what direction I want to head in.

      And The Italian Boss’s Mistress of Revenge is definitely one to avoid!

      Comment by Jodi — December 22, 2009 @ 11:26 pm | Reply

  2. It makes me really happy to see anyone showing an interest in researching the genre, so I perhaps get a little bit over-enthusiastic in my bibliographic suggestions but since you’re thinking of concentrating on category romances, I suppose I might as well be a bit brazen and mention my own forthcoming article on “Feminism and Early Twenty-First Century Harlequin Mills & Boon Romances.” It won’t be appearing in the Journal of Popular Culture for a couple of years, but it’s in their queue. I found, as you seem to have too, that there’s quite a bit of variety in category romances. I was focusing on what in Australia are the “Sweet” and “Sexy” lines, and within those on just a few examples from the beginning of the decade which seemed to deal with feminist issues in feminist ways, which meant that their take on sexuality was often quite different from the ones you’ve been discussing on the blog.

    A good book on M&B romance and its changing themes is jay Dixon’s The Romance Fiction of Mills & Boon 1909-1990s (London: UCL Press, 1999).

    Comment by Laura Vivanco — December 23, 2009 @ 12:30 am | Reply

    • Your article sounds fascinating! I will certainly keep my eye out for it. Thank you for all your bibliographic recs – they’re really useful for me.

      Comment by Jodi — December 23, 2009 @ 1:26 am | Reply

  3. […] 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 […]

    Pingback by Rape is Not Romance: ‘The Innocent’s Surrender’ by Sara Craven « ClitLit – Women, Romance Fiction and Patriarchal Discourse — March 3, 2010 @ 10:39 am | Reply

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