you give love a bad name (or: sexual politics in romance novels)

note: credit for the title goes to ali the wonder room-mate

so yeah, i read romance novels. YOU KNOW THAT ALREADY. and the more i read, the more this one particular trope makes me nervous. i’m not a finger pointer by nature, so i’m just going to paraphrase/reinterpret for you. the trope i am referring to comes in several guises, such as:

  • punishing kisses (which gave rise to this short-lived project)
  • he would pleasure her ruthlessly
  • he loomed over her, trapping her between his powerful thighs

and you guys, THOSE ARE REAL WORDS FROM REAL NOVELS, but the point is that there’s this weird unacknowledged dominance/violence trope. unacknowledged being the operative word — it’s never actually addressed, and we are otherwise to believe that this is a potentially loving and entirely consensual relationship. and yes, these are current novels! not some crazy written in the ’80s women-can-only-be-submissive bodice-rippers! sure, some of them are set in historical time periods, but now that i’m looking for it i’m finding it across the board — paranormal, contemporary, regency, you name it.

why does this bother me? because i can’t help but hear “she was asking for it” in the subtext every time i read these kinds of scenes. acknowledged and consensual dominance/violence is one thing (for this done right, see also: Coin Operated and that episode of Buffy where she and Spike have sex for the first time, you know the one i am talking about). but the kind of dominance/violence apparent in the examples above is a vague, “manly”, she-is-so-beatiful-that-she-is-driving-me-to-this impulse that is, i guess, supposed to be sexy but ends up just feeling creepy. if you are punishing a woman with kisses (however laughable that might seem), you are saying that she needs punishing for … being desirable? if you want a woman “helpless with desire, begging for mercy” in your bed, you’re saying that she needs to be … controlled until she submits? are you creeped out yet? because i sure am.

i don’t know. maybe i am unreasonably obsessed with sexual politics of late. what i’m trying to figure out is why an author would use such a loaded, misogynist trope. is it just careless writing? or is it a deliberate choice? and if it is a deliberate choice, why not have your characters acknowledge and/or examine the inherent violence in their feelings? as it is, the second i hit one of these i stop reading the book. because if i’m going to be a smart bitch reading trashy books, to borrow a phrase, then the books sure as shit better be smart too.

nota bene: any romance novel i have reviewed on this site is guaranteed to be “punishing kisses” free, btw. i don’t blurb the ones i throw at walls.

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you give love a bad name (or: sexual politics in romance novels)

4 thoughts on “you give love a bad name (or: sexual politics in romance novels)

  1. I don’t read many romance novels but I’m with you on this. It isn’t just romance novels that have it. Like you say it’s also in TV, and also in other novels (especially young adult). The man forces himself on the woman and she ends up loving it – soooo if a guy forces enough we end up loving them? *shudder* scary scary unacknowledged hidden messages!

  2. This is one of the smartest book blog posts I’ve read, seriously! That is definitely scary and something that still goes unacknowledged today for sure. I’ve seen the “you were asking for it” mentality and it is crazy that people still think this way. Thanks for bringing this to light, it is a really important issue that doesn’t get enough discussion. Thanks!

  3. Jenn,

    I read this post a while ago, and was initially moved to respond. That I didn’t at the time was due to a concern that being male disqualified me from expressing an opinion on the subject, and I’m still in that camp. I know what I think, I believe that what I think is pro-female if not also pro-feminist, but voicing my opinion as a male strikes me as presumptuous. I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman or to navigate the issues that women face in life, including the questions of fantasy and objectification that you raise.

    Having said all that, I’m back to say what I should have said a long time ago. This is an important issue, and you’re to be commended for addressing it. This is not a benign issue.

    I understand that most things in life are transactional. I’m not questioning the choices anyone makes, or even the right of a woman to write things as fantasy that she would object to in reality — or even that she might object to if a man wrote them. But in psychological terms the idea that such fantasies can be cathartic has faded, replaced by the modern view that engaging things in our mind creates a memory — and perhaps a desensitizing memory — whether those things are real or not. (Athletes practice visualization for exactly this reason. A free throw in the mind is still a free throw to the mind.)

    I urge you to follow your convictions. I don’t know that there will ever be clear answer to the questions you raise, but they are clearly questions that should be raised.

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