Spoiler: They Make Babies

A little bit rapey.

Posted in General Talk by spoilerbaby on January 7, 2010

As the title might imply, this post discusses subjects that might be difficult or triggery for some readers.  Please read with caution, and don’t be afraid to ask questions (either in the comments or via email to spoilerbaby@gmail.com) if you’re not sure if it’s safe for you to read.  As for links, I’ve put alt-text describing each source; hover your cursor over the link to see a short description.

Similarly, this post may be inappropriate for young children.  If you catch your young child reading this post, close the internet window, block this website on the parental controls, unplug the modem, cancel your internet service, set fire to the computer, and put them in a very small doorless room, because once they know how to type there’s no other way of keeping them off of inappropriate websites.  At least it wasn’t Big Sausage Pizza?  (Don’t google that.)

There’s been a lot of discussion about rape in romance novels.  This is in part because, in the early decades of the genre’s popularity, there was a lot of raping going on.  Typically, the hero would swoop in, take the lady against her will, and then convince her to love him.  (Or even better: she had to convince him to love her.)  In her post on this subject, Candy at Smart Bitches, Trashy Reads terms these jerks “rapist heroes.”  As she observes:

Between 1972 and about 1988, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a rapist hero in the face. Starting in about the mid-80s, though, the tides started turning, and by the mid-90s, rapist heroes were mostly a thing of the past, although forced seductions still popped their heads up here and there. (There are readers who maintain there’s no difference between forced seduction and rape, of course.) Despite the recent dearth of rapes in romance, some romances with rapist heroes are still considered classics of the genre, and seem to be experiencing healthy sales.

Candy goes on to detail a lot of very excellent reasons for the appeal of the rapist hero, including: the raped woman retains her moral purity while still engaging in sex; the fictional rape implies that the woman is irresistible; in fiction, the rapist can be tamed and therefore contained by the woman’s love; and that the rape event also taps into fantasies of martyrdom.  She concludes by pointing out that the rapist-hero romance novel shows a deplorable view of gender roles, excessively traditional.  If the man apologized for the rape, or showed any remorse, he would be a wimp.  Modern romance novel heroes are sometimes criticized for exactly this: they’re wimpy.

Candy’s post is an excellent one, and I encourage you to go read it.  As a reader, however, I’ve run into very little of the rapist-hero genre.  I started reading romances when I was about twelve, which meant that I was hitting the library shelves at 1992, just as rape was really going out of fashion in romance.  Thus, for me, the space between a novel being ‘politically correct’ and being based on rape is pretty clearly a huge one.  I know that romance novels are not going to be perfect; I do expect them, however, to be full of consensual sex.  This makes me a type of fairly young romance novel reader.

For me, then, the question is not whether or not I’ll read a rapist hero novel.  I won’t.  I’ll roll with a certain amount of “We shouldn’t, oh, it’s just too naughty!” from the heroine, with persistence from the hero, but I can’t roll with a hero (or a heroine!) who won’t take “no” or lack of interest for an answer.  At the very, very least, it has to be clear to me that they’re both in the mood.

This brings me to the main subject of this post (six hundred words after I started): what do you do when it starts getting a little bit rapey?  By “a little bit rapey,” I mean where there’s consent — it’s consensual! look how consensual! — but one party (I have yet to see it not be the woman) doesn’t enjoy it. There’s no rape, sure, but as a reader I’m left with the same sort of sour taste in my mouth.

This is a phenomenon I first noticed in Mary Balogh’s novels, so I’ll be using those books as my primary examples.  Please note, however, that I have seen plenty of examples elsewhere; unfortunately, the other examples were by authors I was not a huge fan of, and so it didn’t bother me as much to hurl their book across the room.

In Balogh’s A Summer to Remember, the hero, Kit, pours out his feelings to the heroine.  To give him due credit, Kit has been through way too much trauma.  While he and his brother Sydnam were on a military expedition to the Americas, Kit had to order Sydnam to stay behind with a bunch of evil Native Americans* who then removed one of his eyes, destroyed one of his arms, and tortured him with hot pokers.**  Kit obviously has a LOT of guilt with regards to that, especially since Sydnam is all, “But you didn’t even order me to stay behind! You made me make the decision for myself! You’re such a dick.”  The heroine, Lauren, is attempting to get Kit and his brother to reconcile, and obviously has to overcome Kit’s reticence to confess his feelings.  This scene basically marks her triumph; Kit tells her everything while their in a secluded wing of the house, and it marks the beginning of a new relationship with his brother.  Upon telling her everything, however, Kit then loses control of his libido and does the nasty with her on a dusty velvet bench.

And then he turned and caught her to him, crushing her against him with arms that felt like iron bands.  She felt all the breath rush out of her, but it did not occur to her to feel alarm or to struggle to be free.  He needed her.

Plainly and simply stated, he needed her.

She goes on to feel herself in two parts, one admonishing herself that this is improper, and the other recognizing “that she was a woman,  that he had need of her, that she had warmth and femininity and humanity to offer him in his need.  And the freedom to give all if she chose.”  She goes on to refuse his plea to stop him: “No… This is what I choose, Kit.  What I freely choose.  Don’t stop.  Please don’t stop.”

They they have sex upon the aforementioned velvet bench.  At the end of it, she thinks, “Did women ever finish? Did they ever begin?  Was there only the delight and the reaching for something beyond one’s grasp?  But the delight was enough.  She was not sorry.”

The sex between these two is repeatedly, emphatically consensual.  They both really want to have sex, and the woman in particular is quite forthright about her consent.  And yet the scene still managed to gross me out in the way that romance-rape does.  It creates that feeling of martyrdom that the rape scene often creates for the heroine, minus the validity of that feeling.  This heroine, who is a strong and likable one, with a backbone of steel, suddenly becomes someone who sees her vagina as a sacrificial lamb.

In Simply Love, there’s an eerily similar scene between Anne and Sydnam (Kit’s brother).  I was terribly excited about this novel, because Sydnam, as mentioned above, is missing an arm, an eye, and has terrible facial scarring.  Anne is a rape survivor who has a little boy out of wedlock.  I have a serious affection for romance novels based on the “scarred hero” premise, and I was excited to see what Balogh did with a rape survivor heroine.  What she did, though, was essentially leave no hope for the recovery from rape.

The first time that they have sex, Anne is totally, completely interested:

Body and mind waged a war– and both won, both lost. She knew he was Sydnam, she recognized the beauty of what he did with her, she still desperately wanted it, she relaxed and opened to him.

And yet physically, sexually, she felt nothing.  Not horror.  Not pleasure.  Only the mental satsifaction that this was happening to her again and that perhaps the memory of it would replace the memory of the other time.

This is before Sydnam finds out about Anne’s sexual history.  He notices her disinterest, but ascribes it to her response to his scars.  He offers to marry her, and she refuses; however, when she later finds out that she is with child (spoiler! they have babies!), she is forced to take him up on his offer.  Their first time having sex, Sydnam knows about her previous experience, but he again assumes that her unwillingness has to do with his appearance.  She reassures him:

“Sydnam,” she said.  She was almost whispering.  “It is not you.  Please, please believe me that it is not you.  It is me.”

And the truth of what she said crashed in on him like a tidal wave.  But, of course, of course!

In other books I’ve read that have had scenes I could describe as “a little bit rapey,” the consent is not nearly as explicit as it is in Balogh’s writing.  One of the things I like most about Balogh is that her heroines desire, and speak of their desire.  What bothered me in these books, however, was that the heroines consented to sex as a means of fixing things, particularly for the hero.   He goes through deep trauma, which leaves him (emotionally and/or physically) scarred, and she accesses his emotions by offering herself up as a sexual object.

The only rapist in this situation, if there is one, is the woman who rapes herself.  She makes a choice (the word emphasized in these two novels, since both heroines learn much about their ability to make a choice) and chooses to offer sex not as an enjoyable, communicative experience, but as a one-sided, power-based act.  She gives the man the power to take her body, and gives up the power to participate fully in the act.  But what does she gain?  A kind of physical intimacy, certainly.  And a strange, awful sort of power, one that is based entirely on her ability to place herself at risk, at weakness, at detachment.

I can’t say I enjoyed these novels.  I did, however, finish them.  Despite how bitterly disappointed I was by Simply Love (spoiler! no, they do not have mutually pleasurable sex by the end!), I still kept the novel around.  Why?

One part of it is certainly Balogh, who is an excellent writer.  The other, though, is what appeals about these novels, and these sex scenes.  It replicates the romance-rape dynamics, a sort of fantasy land where the raped heroine is able to make her rapist love her, and where rape is something she undergoes in order to prove her mettle and her martyrdom.  In the stories where it gets just a little bit rapey, there’s no politically correct rape discussion to have; the heroine does it to herself.

What do you think?  Have you read anything a little bit rapey lately?  Did you like it?

* – This would be a good example of why romance novels are not on my list of “anti-racist actions I took today!”
** – Because that is what those Native people did back then.***
*** – SARCASM.

Some other links about rape and romance:

Thanks for reading!
— First Mate Jess


2 Responses

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  1. The Other Jess said, on January 10, 2010 at 2:23 am

    This was an EXCELLENT POST. As we’ve discussed, I feel the same way about a lot of Mary Balogh’s books, and I found Simply Love to be so disappointing in this respect that I was actually angry by the time I finished the book!

    It’s interesting because I actually tend to like it when authors include non-mind-blowing sex in novels, but it only works for me if it’s being used as a way to explore the evolving relationship between the characters. Balogh sometimes does a decent job with that, but other times she seems to imply that it’s okay for the heroine to treat sex as some kind of gift she gives the guy, and that finding enjoyment/pleasure for herself is secondary or even unnecessary. It drives me crazy! And does, as you said, feel a little bit rapey.

    • spoilerbaby said, on January 10, 2010 at 1:58 pm

      Simply Love made me LIVID, as we’ve discussed. I love me some disabled heroes (especially when their disability is clearly painted as disabling only in the context of what society expects of them) and I love me some Mary Balogh, so Sydnam was a huge disappointment. I was really hoping that the initial sort-of-crap sex would be followed by her discovering inner desires, or the two of them figuring out a way to have fun in the bedroom, but it all just ended up feeling sad and pointless. BLEGGHGHG, that’s what I say to that. I want to write a thoroughly unrealistic novel (also known as a ROMANCE NOVEL) about a dude with one eye and one arm and wicked scars who gives his lady ~~~~pleaaaaaasurrrrrre.

      Or maybe I’ll just write creepy fanfiction for Simply Love where that happens.

      Thank you for replying, Fellow Jess! I was feeling a little embarrassed about this post!

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